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One of the themes that has emerged in the debate is that, as far as Wolverhampton and the black country are concerned, the focus must be on business and growth.
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My right hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton South East (Mr McFadden) referred to the fact that his constituency is in the bottom 15 in the country as far as unemployment is concerned. That is a major threat to the prosperity and the attractiveness of the area, as it would be for any area of the country.

Of course, Wolverhampton has been well established for many years as a hugely important manufacturing city and as a city that has a huge amount to offer. As we have already heard, what needs to happen is that the attractions that made Wolverhampton successful in the past-entrepreneurial drive and individuals with ideas who were able to use those ideas to create manufacturing, jobs and prosperity-need to be developed once more. Those attractions have been developed before and they need to be developed again.

At the heart of that process is the skilled work force that we have just heard my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley North (Ian Austin) talk about. He referred to the fact that, at present, there are young people who are training and trying to get on in their lives, and they are being given support through the education maintenance allowance, but that support is being withdrawn. That is pulling a ladder away from those young people and it is a very damaging policy.

I know that the Government are introducing alternatives to the EMA. However, earlier this morning I was speaking to a group of young people from my constituency of Wrexham about the EMA. For the west midlands, that Government policy will lead to a competitive disadvantage, and that also applies to tuition fees. Therefore, that educational limb of development policy is putting Wolverhampton at a disadvantage.

What is very striking about the globalised world in which we live is that it is intensely competitive. Globalisation will not go backwards. It will continue and become more intense. Consequently, if we are to compete we must devise in our own country the right policies to deal with it. That means that we need to take advantage of the skills and the established industries that we have.

In the Wolverhampton area, aerospace is a hugely important industry. We are one of the leading aerospace manufacturers on the planet. In fact, we are the number two aerospace manufacturer, behind only the United States. To ensure that we continue in that position and continue to offer work of the highest quality, an area such as Wolverhampton needs to compete. It needs to compete internationally, so it needs to have the support of Government with provisions such as the grants for business that were referred to by my right hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton South East. The reality is that, if that Government support is not provided within the UK, it will be provided in France, Germany, Spain, China and other parts of the world. It is simply not the case that businesses and industries such as aerospace will not move. If we do not compete on a level playing field-to use that dreadful phrase-with those countries, in terms of the type of support that the Government offer, we will lose out.

Mr McFadden: Does my hon. Friend agree that the other important point about that state help is that it is not just the Government going around signing cheques for business, as it has sometimes been characterised, but
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their playing a, usually, small role in levering in significantly more private sector investment? One of the striking characteristics of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills figures on the grants for business investment scheme is that for every £1 spent by the Government £10 more was levered in from the private sector. This is not, therefore, just about propping up failing industries or holding back the future, it is about the Government playing a small role to get the private sector to play a far bigger one.

Ian Lucas: My right hon. Friend is of course absolutely right, and the examples are many, the most obvious recent one being Nissan in the north-east. Its Leaf vehicle manufacturing is supported by this Government, who decided that it was a sensible investment. With one exception, the Government have looked at the investments made by the previous Government and have supported them. They do lever in private finance, and that inward investment has to come.

We have heard that Wolverhampton has a strong Indian connection. As someone from outside of the region, I beg to suggest that that connection be used strongly by the community-I am sure it is-in relation to its competitiveness within the UK. The type of connection that culturally can exist between a city with Wolverhampton's background and the Indian community locally can create huge export opportunities, and I venture to suggest that the university of Wolverhampton will develop Indian contacts. Does the Minister believe that the student visa restrictions being considered by the Government are in the best long-term interests of UK industry? The granting of those visas brings so much inward investment and income to our universities, and I am receiving many representations about the visa restrictions, from universities both in my constituency and beyond.

Emma Reynolds: On that very point, I have had a representation from the vice-chancellor of the university of Wolverhampton, who is very concerned about the restriction on the number of student visas, especially when universities are seeing their teaching grant cut back significantly. The university of Wolverhampton grant is being cut by more than 80%, which is greater than the average, and the vice-chancellor is concerned that restricting student visa numbers will deprive the university of a significant income stream.

Ian Lucas: I thank my hon. Friend for her contribution. There is a significant diminution of the income stream at present, but the connections in the long term are also massively important. She and I visited China in the latter part of last year, and I was stunned to hear that 70% of Chinese graduates who go to university abroad take up employment abroad and do not return to China. What struck me about that was that huge cultural and business connections can be established with those students in the countries to which they have moved-it might be the United States; it might be the UK. For an export-driven economy, which I know the Minister wants to achieve, we need to have that type of connection, and that way of working with the hugely developing countries of the developing world will enable it to happen.

I would like to raise a point about local business structures and local government structures with the Minister, because I am confused about the position of the Government office for the west midlands. We all
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heard last year that it would be abolished as part of the restructuring of governmental agencies, and that to support localism the functions would be transferred to local government level and to centralised level-to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. I have read reports, including in the Financial Times, in the past week that the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills is talking about creating regional structures within certain UK geographical areas. Could the Minister indicate whether the Government office for the west midlands, among other Government offices, will have a role as far as BIS is concerned? It is important that in an area such as the west midlands there is a contribution, of some sort, at a regional level. The sense of that is far more important than the political face that might be lost by reversing the decision. Provided that the structure was right, such a body could support the type of redevelopment and regeneration that we all want to see in Wolverhampton and the black country, across the west midlands and, of course, across the rest of the UK.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Wolverhampton South West on his contribution today. He has initiated and engendered a very worthwhile debate, which I am sure will continue.

12.16 pm

The Minister of State, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (Mr Mark Prisk): This is the first time that I have served under your chairmanship, Mrs Brooke, and I am happy to be guided by you in ensuring that we maintain order.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton South West (Paul Uppal) on securing the debate. I had better get my geography right. I notice that north-west Wolverhampton is struggling here, but I am sure that the Wolverhampton Members have it all covered. This has been a really good debate, with an excellent and insightful contribution at the beginning by my hon. Friend who, like other right hon. and hon. Members, correctly pointed to the need for local collaboration, whether between Members-evidence of which we have seen today-or between different civic and business partners, looking at how the future of not just the Wolverhampton economy, but those economies that surround Wolverhampton, can flourish.

My private office will be appalled by yet another diary request, but the temptations of Dudley zoo are strong, so I shall have to see when a visit might be feasible. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Dudley North (Ian Austin) for his invitation, and I shall certainly be happy to receive a more formal one in due course.

Right hon. and hon. Members are absolutely right to start by looking back at the history of the area. I will not get into the local concerns about whether the spark was in Walsall, Dudley or Wolverhampton, because I do not think that my job is worth that. What is important is that-

Ian Lucas: It was in the north-east of the region.

Mr Prisk: No, I will not get into even that debate. What is important is that Wolverhampton and its surrounding areas-the black country-are a genuinely industrial heartland, and that context makes regeneration
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doubly difficult, as technology and industrial capabilities have moved on. I think that the point that the hon. Member for Dudley North made was that in more recent years, as technologies and capabilities have changed, it is difficult to regenerate an area that has a long history in contaminated land, or whatever. The renewal task, therefore, can be challenging, and highlights the importance of clear national economic policies and good local leadership. I shall come on to a number of the wide-ranging issues that have been raised today.

The Government and I feel that we need fiscal stability and clear policies to best promote future growth and jobs, which does mean supporting infrastructure, ensuring that we invest in things such as manufacturing, and setting free enterprise and that can-do spirit, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton South West referred. That is why we have set out our £200 billion 10-year national infrastructure plan, with £14 billion going into rail and £10 billion into roads, and why we want to press ahead with High Speed 2 so that London and the midlands are conjoined more effectively and dynamically. It is why we are supporting small businesses by reducing the corporation tax rate from 21p to 20p, reversing the previously planned increase in the employers' national insurance contributions, and increasing the limit for the 10% entrepreneurial relief rate on capital gains from £2 million to £5 million. It is important to send out a signal that taking the step of building a business will be rewarded by gains created, wealth generated and, of course, additional jobs.

That is why we seek to support sectors of the economy that have been largely ignored in recent years by what I call the commentariat. Advanced manufacturing is a strong example. Although we might have different road maps for getting there, I think that all Members share a belief that the role, importance and current capabilities of manufacturing in this country have too often been ignored, particularly by the media.

That is why we are cutting the main rate of corporation tax from 28p to 24p by 2014. To address an issue raised by various Members about skills and training, it is also why we are seeking to boost apprenticeships funding by up to £250 million by the end of this spending review, which will create up to 75,000 more places a year. To return to how apprenticeships are progressed, we are seeking to ensure that we consider higher qualification levels and strengthen the element of learning alongside experienced hands. Although the classroom has a role, my instinct is that, especially in engineering, the crucial gain for apprentices is working alongside someone whose skills they are trying to learn. That practical change will be important.

Paul Uppal: I am heartened to hear that. One thing that I hear increasingly in feedback from businesses and constituents is that sometimes apprentices come along who need to develop soft skills such as communication and social skills. The academic boxes might all be ticked and everything on the CV might look fine and dandy, but they need that final level of nuance in developing business contacts and sealing the deal. Sometimes the softer, fuzzier peripheral skills need developing as well.

Mr Prisk: I agree entirely. It is not just about the core elements in the curriculum; it is also about how individuals learn what I call employability skills. [Interruption.]
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Did I gather that the right hon. Member for Wolverhampton South East (Mr McFadden) wanted to intervene?

Mr McFadden: I am happy to wait.

Mr Prisk: Okay. I will canter on until the right hon. Gentleman wants to intervene further. Another important issue about skills that is relevant to the black country is the new generation of university technology colleges where students will be able to start training at age 14.

Mr McFadden rose-

Mr Prisk: Now the right hon. Gentleman would like to intervene.

Mr McFadden: I thank the Minister for giving way. I wanted to intervene before he moved on from apprenticeships, but I did not want to cut short his answer to the hon. Member for Wolverhampton South West.

When I was in the Minister's shoes and had some responsibility for these issues, we put more funds into what we called higher-level or technician-level apprenticeships, precisely in order to address the skills gaps that have been referred to. Will he acknowledge that a significant proportion of the funds that the Government are putting into apprenticeships is coming from the Train to Gain scheme? Therefore-this is a factual question; I do not want to enter into a debate about the whys and wherefores of Train to Gain-will he acknowledge that, given the cost of one apprenticeship, for which we trained three or four people under the Train to Gain scheme, if we fast-forward two years or so, the Government will actually be funding fewer learners at work than they are today?

Mr Prisk: The difficulty is that we are not comparing apples with apples. What is gained under Train to Gain is different from what is secured by apprenticeships. That is why we have sought to increase the number of apprenticeships over that period. I do not think that one can say that it is just about head count; it is also about quality, not least because engineering employers say to me that they need the right people with the right range of skills.

Mr McFadden: We could have a debate about the benefits, but my question concerns the number of people at work being helped by Government support. The Minister must know the answer. Will he acknowledge that in two years, there will be fewer learners at work funded by Government as a result of the decision to switch Government money from the Train to Gain budget, as he outlined?

Mr Prisk: The point that I am trying to make is that we are talking to businesses and asking them what they need. I am not the Minister with responsibility for skills, so before he tells me that I have said something incorrect, I will check with him and write back to hon. Members here. I am wary of making a statement that
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might prove incorrect. However, the right hon. Gentleman has made a sensible point. I will double-check before giving an incorrect answer.

University technology colleges are important because students will be able to start at age 14. One of the first UTCs will open at Bloxwich in the black country this September. It is an important element.

Ian Austin: I am excited by the idea of university technology colleges. I have written to the leader of Dudley council asking whether she is prepared to consider having one. I do not see why Walsall should have one and not Dudley. Perhaps when the Minister comes to Dudley he can meet the council leader and extol the policy's virtues to her.

I do not want to get into a debate about the rights and wrongs of abolishing the education maintenance allowance, but if student numbers in a place such as Dudley, where education skills must be our No. 1 priority, decline as a result of its abolition-although I know that the Minister hopes that they will not-will the Government think again and restore the funding that enables students to undertake studies? I am not trying to catch him out. It is a serious question.

Mr Prisk: I realise that. Our view is that by putting a strong emphasis on vocational education rather than on higher education alone, as has been the habit in recent years, we will help those numbers to grow. When the previous Government went from no tuition fees to £3,000, I suspect that we all thought that the number of participants would drop, but it rose. We must be careful when speculating, but I take the point.

A number of other issues were raised. I am aware that I have only four minutes left, so I will canter through them briefly. On the Moog deal, I say to the hon. Member for Wolverhampton North East (Emma Reynolds) and other Members that I was aware of it at the start and am pleased that regional, local and national officials were able to sort it out, because it was a concern early on. I agree with her on that point. On the broader issue of aerospace, we are strengthening our national focus on it, as we have tremendous national assets. However, we also recognise that local enterprise partnerships are best placed to lead. I know that several of them with a strong aerospace dimension are considering how they want to collaborate to work with us nationally. Getting the fusion right is important.

On the role of the local enterprise partnership, I was pleased that Wolverhampton became part of the black country LEP. Along with Dudley, Sandwell and Walsall and under the new chairmanship and board, it has drawn together strong civic and business leaders. The right hon. Member for Wolverhampton South East was right to say that the board now looks outward, and it hopes to play on its Indian connections globally.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton South West mentioned business rates. We want to help, which is why we are simplifying how small business tax relief operates, so that it is automated and need not be bid for. We are considering greater discretion for local councils to ensure that they can use the business rate system in a way that helps locally.

Other questions were asked about assets. We have received a full register of assets from the regional development agencies. We are mindful of the balance
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that we need to strike between local economic regeneration and public value for money, and we will set out shortly exactly how the process will operate. The hon. Member for Wolverhampton North East and others made several pitches. That is understandable, but as there are 450 applications, I will remain mute on the subject, for the obvious reason that we want to ensure that the process is open and fair.

We are investing an additional £50 million in the Manufacturing Advisory Service over the next three years. We want the service to be consistent. It has always been highly regarded, but it is of course an outreach service. I say to the hon. Member for Wolverhampton North East that no decisions have yet been taken about where the headquarters might be. My concern is to ensure that the small and medium-sized businesses get a good, consistent service and, importantly, an outreach service that comes to them.

I was asked how foreign direct investment will work. Our view is that UK Trade and Investment abroad should be the voice and face of the UK when we seek inward investment, but that there should be a strong national network within England that handles inquiries. That should and will include the west midlands and the area represented by the hon. Member for Wolverhampton North East.

A number of other questions relating to planning were asked, and I am sorry that I did not come to them. However, the long-term-

Annette Brooke (in the Chair): Order. I must call the next debate.

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National Defence Medal

12.30 pm

Mr Denis MacShane (Rotherham) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Brooke.

In essence, this debate is simple. The time has come to honour all the servicemen and women who serve our nation with a medal called the national defence medal. It would be given to the thousands upon thousands of former soldiers, sailors and air force personnel who have served their nation but have nothing to show for it. I am glad to say that some of them are present to listen to this debate. They place all their hope and confidence in the Minister that, by 1 o'clock, their wish will be granted.

The relationship of the British people to their armed forces has been transformed in recent years. Television and modern warfare have brought home the service and sacrifice that veterans have always understood, but that the public perhaps has not. Long gone are the days when Kipling could mock a nation that did not honour its soldiers when he wrote:

That scorn is over. In each year since 1945-save, I think, one-British armed forces personnel have been in action. Remembrance day in Rotherham and nationally is as crowded as ever, but we still have no recognition for that service. Of course, gallantry and leadership are recognised, and I urge a visit to the Imperial War museum across the river Thames to see Lord Ashcroft's Victoria Cross gallery.

There is no recognition, however, for the many soldiers who served, and saw comrades die or wounded, or who provided the long tail of logistics and support that is as vital to military endeavour and success as the teeth of those doing the shooting at the front. A national defence medal would put that right.

Dr Julian Lewis (New Forest East) (Con): In a spirit of non-partisanship, when the right hon. Gentleman's party was in government, they introduced the veterans badge, which is a form of recognition that can be worn all year round. Perhaps he ought to address that point.

Mr MacShane: My very next point was that a veterans badge-welcome as it is-is the most that can be aspired to. Only 10% of those eligible for the badge have taken it up. A medal that arrives at one's home and that can be shown to one's children, grandchildren and others is qualitatively different, and I believe that the House and the nation want something better.

To achieve that, we have to take on and defeat the enemy, by which I do not mean the actual foe out in the field, or even the traditional enemy of all our soldiers, the Treasury, but the most dangerous enemy that serving men and women can face-the gentlemen of the Ministry of Defence who always know best. I remember the wonderful song, "One staff officer jumped right over another staff officer's back", from "Oh! What a Lovely War", and I fear that our major generals are making Ministers jump over each other's backs as they find excuse after excuse not to award a national defence medal to those who have served our nation.

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This is not about the present Administration. More than two years ago, nearly 200 MPs signed a Commons motion calling for the establishment of a national defence medal. It was initiated by our former colleague, the right hon. and gallant Colonel Michael Mates, and supported by all Members of the House. Frankly, I wish that members of my party had dealt with the issue when in power, rather than leaving it to my colleague, the Minister, who is an occasional skiing companion of mine in the parliamentary ski race and in whom I have every confidence. The motion, however, is opposed by a committee of anonymous major generals in Whitehall who do not want to award such a medal. They are of the view that the award of a medal in recognition purely of service would somehow devalue the medal system.

We already award medals for long service and good conduct in the regular and reserve forces. In addition, medals in recognition of service have been awarded at particular times during our monarch's reign, such as the coronation and the silver and golden jubilees. Medals are therefore awarded to people just for the coincidence of having been in uniform when the Queen was crowned or when she had served a certain number of years on the throne.

Caroline Dinenage (Gosport) (Con): Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that although his is an extremely noble endeavour, there have been conflicts and incidents for which incredibly brave members of our armed forces have not received a medal? I am thinking in particular about the campaign to get a medal for the Arctic convoy veterans of the second world war. Those guys put up with unbelievable hardship, but they did not qualify for a medal because it was thought that they would qualify for the Atlantic star. However, they needed to have served for six months for that, and no one could manage that in the extreme conditions of keeping the supply chains open to Russia. It belittles their contribution to the war effort to say that-

Annette Brooke (in the Chair): Order. I remind the hon. Lady that interventions should be brief in a short Adjournment debate.

Mr MacShane: I agree with the hon. Member for Gosport (Caroline Dinenage); I feel strongly about the issue. My uncle, Neil MacShane, died when his ship was sunk while on Arctic convoy duties. I have also campaigned for Bomber Command veterans to be given a medal, but that too has been refused. I could not agree more with the hon. Lady. We are talking about one or two people who are now probably in their late 80s, or even in their 90s, and I do not think it would do any harm at all. My family would certainly appreciate the award of an Arctic medal, even though it would be extremely posthumous.

Patrick Mercer (Newark) (Con): The Peninsular general service medal was awarded from 1832 onwards. It was retrospectively awarded not for peacetime service, but for operational service. Therefore, following the logic of the right hon. Gentleman's sensible arguments, I could reclaim retrospectively for my great-great-grandfather, who served in the Irish militia during the Napoleonic wars but who saw not a stroke of action. We cannot
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have the proposed medal if we do not honour our fathers and forefathers who actually saw campaign service but received no recognition at all. As I understand it, this is simply a medal for service, rather than campaign service.

Mr MacShane: The medal is indeed for service. The Arctic convoy and Bomber Command medals are a separate case, but if people who served in those campaigns who are still alive were given a medal that they could wear on Remembrance day and pass on to their grandchildren and so on, it would at least be some recognition.

There are medals for given conflicts and campaigns, and I welcome the decision to award the Afghanistan service medal to medical personnel who fly in for a short time. However, thousands of veterans who are still with us are denied the chance to wear a medal. In the Cyprus campaign, for example, 371 men were killed-more than in Afghanistan-over a short period in the mid-1950s, yet they needed to serve for 120 days to qualify for a medal, which is more than three months longer than the time required for the Afghanistan medal.

We should also give recognition to the more than 2 million young men between the ages of 18 and 21 who were taken away from their homes by the Act of Parliament that introduced national service. They were obliged to serve in the armed forces, and without them this country and its interests around the world at the time would not have been protected. Many are now dead, and the remainder are in their 70s and 80s. How would it devalue the medal system to award them a national defence medal?

The cold war involved a formidable threat from the Soviet and Warsaw pact forces. Many service personnel died not while fighting, but while on duty in north-west Europe, and many more were discharged through injury. One of the most critical moments was the Berlin airlift. The RAF worked tirelessly to keep West Berlin alive and to stop Stalin's effort to take control of the city. Thirty-nine of our service personnel died in that operation. Would giving them a medal devalue the medal system? Of course not.

One of the most scandalous examples of ill treatment of our service personnel occurred in the 1950s in relation to nuclear weapon testing in Australia. Some 28,000 members of UK armed forces were used as guinea pigs in the nuclear tests conducted in Australia and the Pacific ocean area. None of those veterans had protective clothing, and they were subjected to high levels of radiation. Fewer than 3,000 of those veterans are still alive today, and it is estimated that 30% of those deceased died early in their 50s from different cancers. Many people in our communities across the country would fail to see how recognition of the award of a national defence medal to those cold war veterans would devalue the medal system.

Let us consider Northern Ireland, where IRA extremists posed a specific threat to British service personnel and their families not just in the Province, but outside Northern Ireland and, indeed, the United Kingdom. During that time, there was no normal way of life for those service personnel and certainly no safe haven. For example, nine soldiers were blown up in their barracks in Duisburg in far away Germany, and 10 Royal Marine bandsmen were killed and 20 more injured when the
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military school of music was blown up in Deal. A coach crowded with soldiers and their families was blown up on the M62 while they were returning to their barracks after a weekend away; there were 11 dead, including a corporal, his wife, and their two children aged 5 and 2. A staff sergeant was blown up in his car in Colchester; a colonel was shot in Bielefeld, Germany; and an RAF corporal and his four-month-old baby were shot and killed at a petrol station in Wildenrath. The list goes on.

Recognition of such service by creating a national defence medal cannot be deemed to devalue our medal system. I strongly urge the Minister to overrule his major generals and to recommend to Her Majesty that she award a UK national defence medal. On the recommendation of the Australian and New Zealand Governments, Her Majesty has already agreed to award a defence medal to their respective armed forces and veterans. If the Anzac forces and Governments can agree that with the approval of Buckingham palace, I really do not know why Britain has to trail behind.

I have been in correspondence with the Secretary of State for Defence on the matter and, in a reply sent to me last month, he got several facts wrong. For example, he wrote:

However, those of us who support the idea of a national defence medal have never made that argument. We believe that there should be a single medal for service. There is the precedent of medals for specific periods of service, including the long-service good conduct medal, which is awarded for 15 years regular service; the volunteer reserve service medal, awarded after 10 years in the Territorial Army; the jubilee medals, which mark service at a particular point in time; and the Rhodesia medal, which is awarded for just 14 days service between designated dates and is not a campaign medal.

In his letter to me, the Secretary of State made reference to the veterans badge and the Elizabeth cross. I welcome the veterans badge, but we want recognition from Her Majesty and the right to wear her medal because one has served her in the armed forces. Fewer than 10% of those eligible have taken up the offer of a veterans badge. Service personnel want a medal that they can wear with pride on Remembrance day and on other appropriate occasions. The Elizabeth cross is a marvellous new decoration, but it is not an award to servicemen and women, although, of course, it is a welcome gift to their families. For armed forces personnel past or present, there remains no award for those injured or killed during service, or those present when a terrorist or other attack takes place that is aimed at military personnel.

May I politely suggest that the Ministry of Defence is out of step with public opinion, with the 184 MPs who have signed the early-day motion and with what is happening in the Commonwealth? While our Whitehall warriors ponder and pontificate, the New Zealanders, with Her Majesty's approval, are getting ready to award their first medals in February this year.

As I said, I know from previous campaigns to get an award for Bomber Command veterans how hard the MOD combats those who want to reward our armed services personnel with a medal. My uncle was drowned when his ship was sunk on Arctic convoy duties. Those
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who survived have been denied a medal. Now they are in their 80s and 90s, can we not be generous and let them hand on to their grandchildren and great-grandchildren a medal that recalls the service of those sailors? I just do not understand why the Major General Blimps of the MOD are so mean and unwilling to honour service with a medal. We failed in our campaign to get a Bomber Command medal or an Arctic convoy medal, but I hope that this new Government can read the mood of the nation better, particularly as far more former serving officers are now MPs and Ministers. I urge the Minister to take command of the issue himself and tell the MOD to get on with bringing in a national defence medal.

12.45 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr Andrew Robathan): It is a pleasure to serve under you for the first time in Westminster Hall, Mrs Brooke. I am sure that there will be many more such occasions. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr MacShane) on securing this short debate on a proposal for a national defence medal. He speaks with some history on this long-running campaign, and I acknowledge that he has an interest in the recognition of former service personnel; indeed, I have with me the letter he sent to the Secretary of State in January. I am sorry to hear that today the right hon. Gentleman regards me as representing the enemy but, nevertheless, that appears to be my position.

First, I pay tribute to the courage and dedication of both current service personnel and those who have served in the past-those from the second world war who are still alive and those have served since then whether as part of national service or whatever. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister uses words such as "awesome" to describe our armed forces, but no words can describe the outstanding, courageous work they are doing today and, indeed, have done in the past. There can be no doubt that they have earned the nation's recognition of their service to our country and the nation's gratitude.

As a former serviceman, I know the hardships of service life and the pride of earning a medal. I got two after 15 years; I had to rejoin the Army to get the second one, but I do not know of anyone who joined the services in order to gain a medal. Heroic personnel who perform gallant acts do not perform such actions in hope of a medal; they do so out of instinct and because they feel it is the right thing to do. I question the value of a medal that is essentially given to anyone who has served in the armed forces. Medals should be earned not expected, and I would certainly be surprised if they were demanded.

There is a belief that the rules governing the award of medals have been applied inconsistently, so the coalition Government pledged to address that in their agreement. We have honoured that pledge and have undertaken to review the rules governing the awarding of medals. The review is considering the numerous campaigns by veterans to reconsider past cases and the justification for a national defence medal is again being re-considered as part of that. The review will report to me and work is now under way. Senior military officers-Major General Blimps, the right hon. Member for Rotherham might
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call them-are contributing to the review and the chiefs of staff have been consulted. Campaign representations have also been considered.

The review aims to report its conclusions in the near future and will address the following four issues: the principles underpinning the award of medals, operational medals currently awarded to the armed forces, the award of foreign medals and proposals, such as this one, for medals for past service. At present, the position remains that medals are not awarded solely for service. The only exceptions are coronation and jubilee medals, and even then strict qualifying criteria have to be satisfied before a medal is issued. As I am sure the right hon. Gentleman will appreciate, that position cannot change until the review has concluded.

As the right hon. Gentleman knows, there are already many forms of recognition that acknowledge many aspects of service in the British armed forces. I shall set out clearly what they are. First, service personnel are already recognised for their extra effort, for courageous, distinguished and gallant acts, and for the risk and rigour they face on operations, by the award of state decorations, meritorious medals, campaign medals and commendations. The integrity of the operational honours system is a matter of the utmost importance to the Ministry of Defence and, indeed, to all service personnel to whom I speak. Medals are generally introduced for particular operations when there is the presence of particular risk and rigour. However, many service personnel have served and continue to serve on commitments that are demanding in their own way but are not recognised by a medal.

There is no evidence that today's personnel have any particular desire for a universal defence medal. New medals are instituted primarily for serving personnel, not for veterans. Medals awarded to members of the British armed forces have a relative scarcity about them, which is not shared by many other nations; for example, the former Soviet Union, North Korea and, indeed, some of our allies. Such an approach leaves people in no doubt that medals have been truly earned. That ethos has stood us in good stead in the past and we should be cautious about changing it.

Secondly, as the right hon. Gentleman will be aware, long service and good conduct are also recognised. Thirdly, official recognition from the Government for service in the armed forces is awarded in the form of Her Majesty's armed forces veterans badge, to which my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) has already alluded. Although the national defence medal supporters claim that the badge is insufficient recognition for having served, almost 1 million veterans have claimed a badge and one is now issued to all personnel as they leave the armed forces.

I have taken the time to look at the national defence medal veterans recognition report, submitted to the Ministry of Defence in June 2009 under the previous Administration. I was interested to see that the campaigners for the medal agree with, and quote, the words of Winston Churchill:

That was written in 1944 when Winston Churchill was busy with the second world war, and it is extraordinarily prescient. Is it not true, therefore, that just to give a medal for service would challenge that comment?

Some argue that by serving in the armed forces and by performing the daily duties of service life, service personnel should automatically receive a medal irrespective of the duties they undertook. I am sure the right hon. Member for Rotherham agrees that duties undertaken in areas of heightened risk and rigour are not comparable to those undertaken by service personnel based in Chelsea, for example, or in Germany or Colchester. Should they qualify for the same level of recognition? A similar argument could be applied to many other professions. Doctors, nurses, police and firefighters, to name but a few, perform selfless acts on a daily basis, but they are not automatically awarded a medal in recognition of their efforts.

There needs to be a compelling argument as to why service in the armed forces should be so completely different. Some argue that being on call to deploy on operations should entitle personnel to a medal, but joining the armed forces does not guarantee operational service, even though it is highly likely in today's climate. Many have stood ready to go to war, but thankfully were never called on to do so.

Some argue that those who undertook national service should receive special recognition, such as a national defence medal, on the grounds that conscription was mandatory and disrupted lives. Many feel that the sacrifices that were made have largely gone unrecognised by the nation. However, although there is no medal specifically for those who performed a period of national service, those conscripted for military service could qualify for the same medals as their regular colleagues, and many did. Furthermore, since national service was terminated in 1960, it has been the personal choice of an individual to join the armed forces. It would be divisive, and I have to say curious, to offer national servicemen a medal simply for being conscripted, when those who volunteered for service would be excluded from receiving the same award.

Some argue that we should adopt the principles of other countries such as Australia and New Zealand, but they withdrew from the imperial honours system many years ago. It is for them and their Governments to decide which medals they wish to institute.

The right hon. Gentleman and the national defence medal campaigners claim that there is a significant amount of support for the institution of such a medal. Although I am sure that many people are concerned about the matter-indeed, some of them are here today-in reality the representation made to my Department is very low. Of the estimated 4 million former service personnel who would qualify for the medal, less than 200 have contacted the Ministry of Defence either directly or through their Member of Parliament. Frankly, those communications are likely to be the result of the national defence medal campaign targeting former service personnel to lobby as many MPs as possible on their
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behalf. It is notable that an e-mail was sent out yesterday. It said that "you might suggest"-

that the recipient-

I am sure that there are many active supporters in every constituency, but that would make a grand total of 650 people campaigning on behalf of the proposal, and I do not think that would be a great many.

I shall briefly touch on the issue of cost. The right hon. Gentleman may be interested to know that it is estimated that approximately 4 million people could apply, either for themselves or on behalf of a deceased relation, for a national defence medal, should the review conclude that one should be instituted. The estimated cost of a national defence medal could extend to as much as £300 million, or even more, because one would have to research each case where somebody claimed to qualify for a medal. Otherwise one would just be giving out medals to anybody who claimed that they were in the forces. The right hon. Gentleman grimaces, but not far from my constituency in Burbage there was a man who used to go to Remembrance day ceremonies wearing a Special Air Service beret, a full array of medals and a blazer. People thought that he was very smart until they started looking at the medals; indeed, I understand that he is currently being prosecuted. The medals he wore included medals for the Korean war, the Falklands war and, I think, the Afghan war. It is quite difficult to fit in all those wars in one period of service.

I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman would agree that the medal would cost a huge amount of taxpayers money, especially in the current financial climate. To justify such expense would be hard, particularly when the grounds for doing so appear to be somewhat thin. I
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must state that we would be unlikely to decline a proposal for a new medal on the grounds of cost alone, but such an expense must be warranted.

Campaigners for the medal have suggested that it could be paid for by individuals. Medals are awarded free of charge to individuals who meet or exceed the published qualifying criteria laid down for each one, from a grateful nation, expressed by the Queen. If a charge was placed on such a medal it would devalue the status of the award, and the UK honours and awards system more generally. I understand that one can buy commercially produced medals to commemorate having served under national service. However, I think that is not what people wish to have.

I have listened to the right hon. Gentleman and I assure him that we firmly believe that it is important to review the rules governing the award of medals, and that we are considering carefully the case for a national defence medal. In conclusion, I must say that those who are serving at present, or who have served in the past 50, 60, 70 or 80 years, have done their duty. The Government and I pay the highest tribute to them, but I am not sure that most of them would want that tribute recognised by the receipt of a material object such as a medal simply for having been there. The right hon. Gentleman said that the time has come. Well, it is noteworthy that this campaign started relatively recently, when personnel are earning many campaign medals-many more than I did when I was serving-but little demand for this was heard in the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s or even in the 1990s. Today, the right hon. Gentleman has urged me not to disappoint. I fear that I will disappoint him, but we will await the results of the review.

Annette Brooke (in the Chair): I thank all the participants in the debate. As everyone we need for the next debate is here, we can commence it. I call Charlie Elphicke. You have two extra minutes.

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Care for the Elderly (Kent)

12.58 pm

Charlie Elphicke (Dover) (Con): Thank you, Mrs Brooke. I am deeply obliged to you for giving me an extra two minutes for this debate. I am delighted and proud to have secured a debate on this important issue, which matters to all residents in Kent. I shall focus on my constituents and those of my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Gareth Johnson).

This matter is extremely dear to the hearts of my constituents. Securing a safe, loving home is of the utmost importance for any family member hoping to make the final years of their relation, normally their parents, nice and happy. It is not always easy, and once people find a good home, they want their family member to settle there for a long time, and not have the disruption of moving from one home to another.

That was the experience I had with my father, who was in residential care for some 10 years. For the last 10 years of his life, he suffered from Alzheimer's. He barely recognised me and could not communicate very effectively. I had to look after him and ensure that his needs were met. That experience coincided with the period between 1997 and 2002, when regulations were changed and care homes were closing all around Kent. I had to move him from home to home, trying to ensure that he had the love, care, support and, in particular, stability that older people need in residential care.

Hon. Members will recall that we lost some 2,000 care homes during that period. My father's experience, which was by no means unique, left me with a passion for ensuring that we look after older people who should have dignity in their final years, and the stability and care that they deserve.

Glyn Davies (Montgomeryshire) (Con): I thank my hon. Friend for allowing me to comment. I am clearly not from Kent, but I have a huge interest in the issue that he raises. Does he agree that providing a service for the elderly, particularly those who suffer from neurological illness, is one of the greatest challenges for the current Government over the next few years, and that over the past two decades the British Parliament simply has not met that challenge?

Charlie Elphicke: I strongly agree. The population is ageing, and we know that the need for care of the elderly will increase, not lessen, over time. With the triumph of longevity comes the downside that people may well require more care-respite and day care but also residential care-for longer, and that will have a cost. There will be an expense to society, but society can rise to the challenge by ensuring that services are of the standard that we would expect. My hon. Friend's comment is particularly relevant, given the announcement that Sampson Court, the much loved care home in my town of Deal, is to be closed by Kent county council.

Sampson Court provides a range of services-palliative care, day care and respite care-and specialises in dementia and separate elderly mentally infirm care. It is extremely important to the community and loved not only by residents but by their families, all of whom have been passionate in their support for keeping that important community facility open. Despite that, Sampson Court
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is no longer classed as meeting care standards-hon. Members will recall that the previous Government introduced the decent homes standard-and because it does not have en-suite bathrooms and the building is costly to maintain and in need of renovation, Kent county council says that it is too expensive to make those changes and that it cannot continue to run the home.

That decision was a challenge to the community, which started a consultation. The community has worked hard and, led by Councillor Julie Rook in Deal, has made a passionate case for not closing the home-a petition with 5,000 signatures was delivered to the council-and for finding an alternative way forward. A transfer of going concern has been raised as a possibility.

The parents of my constituent, Mr Hawker, receive care at Sampson Court. He wrote to me:

Kent county council has cited European Union procurement rules as a reason for not doing a transfer of going concern. It says that it is extraordinarily costly to do such a transfer under those rules, and that, because of the complexity, the only realistic possibility is simply to close the home and sell the site, despite the potential interest of other care home operators who might like to take it on.

My constituent Gareth Fowler, whose mother has been at Sampson Court for four years, asked the council representative at a public meeting during the consultation process where the 15 EMI residents would go. The council had no answer other than "the local area". Mr Fowler rang every EMI care home in the local area, but none had any space. If a decision is taken to close a home, there must be an alternative. There is great concern among my constituents that there is no alternative place for them to go.

My constituents point to the Kent county council consultation, which states:

There is no doubt that its decision has left less choice, not more. I would ask the Minister to review whether Kent county council has an effective alternative plan for elderly people. Mr Fowler's experience suggests that it does not. Sampson Court is a much-loved community resource that is fully workable. That begs the question, why can it not be retained, if not by Kent county council then by another body, to ensure that we have proper care for the elderly in Kent?

As well as criticising Kent county council, I want to be positive about it. I understand the challenge to its budget, the challenge in meeting the decent homes standard, and the challenge of the EU public procurement regime, which is expensive and, frankly, gold-plated-it ought to be minimised. Can anything be done about public procurement in this kind of case?

The other case I have been making to Kent county council is that it could transfer the home, not as a going concern in the market but to a community interest company. That is where my interest particularly lies. Allowing a community outside the regime of Government, the procurement rules and all the regulations to take it
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on would enable the expertise of local care home operators to be captured so that a home could continue to operate on that site in the future. I am asking for Government support and guidance on how Sampson Court might be transferred to a CIC in partnership with local care home operators.

Hon. Members will no doubt know that a CIC could provide the benefit and excellence of a care home in a local community. It would have flexibility and access to a range of financing options, and would be a solution to the decision that Kent county council has made. It would mean that local people can come together and work to secure a community takeover that would bring the community together, provide better value for money and ensure more freedom to offer extended services. We could turn a community resource that is fast disappearing into one that is expanding.

We should not lose community resources such as Sampson Court, but this debate is not just about Sampson Court or care for the elderly in Kent. I bring the matter to the Minister's attention because I suspect that this is a wider issue across counties and the country as a whole, and that there are many similar cases involving aged buildings, the decent homes standard and EU public procurement rules. Many communities are in the same boat, so the national picture needs to be examined to ensure that there is effective transition-and enough care for the elderly across the whole of Kent.

Local GP, John Sharvill, wrote to me. He said that, without a doubt, Sampson Court

Using the community right to challenge and the community right to buy under the Localism Bill, soon to become an Act, may provide a way forward. There is a right for voluntary and community groups, social enterprises, parish councils and local authority employees to challenge a local authority on delivery of a service by expressing an interest in running a service for which they are responsible. The local authority must consider and respond to such a challenge, which may trigger a procurement exercise for the service, in line with relevant procedure, in which the challenging organisation could bid, alongside others. Such rights are part of the Government's aim to create a big society. The Minister of State, Department for Communities and Local Government, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark), is sitting next to me. He has an interest in the Localism Bill, which is currently before the House.

When listed assets-either the freehold or a long leasehold-come up for disposal, communities will be given the chance to develop a bid and raise the capital to buy the asset when it comes on the open market. However, there are issues with that, which I would like to flag up. First, the local authority does not have to seek out possible community owners, and there is no compulsion for it to do so. That means that communities may struggle if they are up against the local authority, especially as there is no independent monitor to judge a community bid against a local authority's plans. Secondly, if a local authority wishes to proceed with a sell-off, there is no provision for a temporary stop, a break for
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consideration, or a certain designated time that would allow community groups time to put together and advance a bid.

John Porter of the "Bowles Lodge Stays!" campaign, run elsewhere in Kent, also flagged up those kind of problems. He pointed out the difficulties he had over the care of his mother, Vera Woylor, who is an 89-year-old resident of the care home and does not want to move. On her behalf, he has made a strong case to Kent county council, which does not think that the right process has been followed. The ideal would be to enable continuity of care. Such issues need to be addressed, and community interest companies should be encouraged.

Ministers may consider the matter to be simply a local issue, but given the terms of the Localism Bill it is a wider national issue of how we can encourage takeovers by community interest companies and what we can do to simplify EU public procurement regulations to ensure that homes, such as Sampson Court and others across Kent, give continuity of care and love under new ownership if they cannot remain under that of Kent county council.

1.11 pm

Gareth Johnson (Dartford) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Charlie Elphicke) on securing this debate on an issue that is clearly important not only for Dover and Dartford but for the whole of Kent.

I hope that I will be forgiven for speaking about the Manorbrooke and The Limes care homes, which are the two affected in my constituency, because the principles that affect them are similar to those that affect homes around the entire county. I have visited both care homes and have met the staff and residents. They are two types of care home and offer two distinct services to the residents of Dartford.

First, The Limes is a care and day centre that offers an almost unique service in Kent. Many of my constituents have benefited over a considerable number of years from the service it provides because it allows patients who would otherwise need to remain in hospital to be discharged into its care, thereby reliving pressure on the local hospital in Dartford, Darent Valley hospital. It had to deal recently with extra pressure after the A&E department at nearby Queen Mary's hospital closed its doors, and I fear that the closure of The Limes can only add to the pressure on it. Patients who might otherwise have been discharged to The Limes will either have to remain at Darent Valley hospital or find alternative care home provision. Clearly, that provision will be harder to find if care homes are closed around the county.

The "Save The Limes" campaign group has been passionate in standing up for the care home, and none more so than Laura Whitehead and Karen Baldwin, who I am pleased are engaged enough with the campaign to make the trip to Westminster for the debate my hon. Friend secured. They have made it clear that it would be a huge mistake to close The Limes. It has been claimed that it is very expensive to run, and the line that Kent county council has used time and time again is that it costs an inordinate amount of money, but in my experience the staff have not been given the opportunity to reduce the costs of care provision at the home. They certainly have not shown any reluctance or unwillingness to
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modernise or introduce efficiency savings. They simply have not had the chance to show that they can make savings.

The situation for Manorbrooke is similar. It is a residential care home earmarked for closure by Kent county council. The plan is for it to be demolished and a more modern facility built on the same site in the manner described by my hon. Friend. It would mean the residents having to leave their home at Manorbrooke, move elsewhere and then move back to Manorbrooke a couple of years later once the building work is complete. That would mean three different homes in two years. Surely, our elderly deserve better. Yes, the homes will be larger, with gymnasiums and even internet cafés, but we are talking about people's homes, and that goes to the heart of the debate. No one in this Chamber or Palace would want their home taken from them, and yet that is precisely what is happening in care homes across Kent. The residents in Manorbrooke and The Limes are happy where they are-they are very happy-and they want to stay there.

Yvette Knight, who is in Strangers Gallery, has worked extremely hard to keep the care home open, and has approached the issue with a dignified and commendable attitude; as has the local county councillor, Penny Cole, who has worked tirelessly on this issue. Those who support The Limes and Manorbrooke are enormously frustrated by the whole closure programme. Surely, land could be purchased to build a new care home before the closure of the existing home takes place. One home in Kent could have been closed for that to happen, and the money used to purchase land as part of a rolling programme. That would have prevented anyone from losing their home and having to go elsewhere while other homes were built. I hope that even at this late stage, the homes can be saved and an alternative solution found by the county council, if necessary with support from central Government. I understand what the county council is trying to achieve, but I feel that the planned process of closure is wrong-very wrong. A rethink is needed.

1.17 pm

The Minister of State, Department of Health (Paul Burstow): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Brooke. I congratulate the Member for Dover (Charlie Elphicke) on securing the debate. He, like the hon. Member for Dartford (Gareth Johnson), has used it to ensure that those responsible for making the decisions are properly held to account and the issues are fully aired and in the public domain. The summing up given by the hon. Member for Dartford underlines the important contribution that a debate in Parliament can make to illuminating an issue and ensuring that local decision makers account to their public for their decisions.

The hon. Member for Dover raised an issue that is causing a great deal of concern to his constituents, the hon. Member for Dartford and many other Kent residents. He talked specifically about Sampson Court and identified the commitment that he and his constituents feel towards that facility. It is a much loved, long-standing part of the community. Both hon. Gentlemen talked about the passion displayed by those campaigning on these issues.

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The county council has already taken decisions on this and other home closures of the sort about which the hon. Member for Dartford spoke. Parliament has given the responsibility for taking final decisions on care home closures to councils not to Ministers. I know from my constituency work just how upsetting care home closures can be. Clearly, in the event of any care home closure-I will not prejudge where a subsequent challenge to the decisions in Kent would get to-our first thoughts have to be about the welfare of those who live in the homes and use the services, as has been clearly described by the hon. Member for Dover who talked about his father and about the representations received from constituents. I realise that for residents and families associated with the care homes, this is an unsettling time. Moving home when a person is elderly or frail can be hugely distressing and potentially damaging to their health. If badly handled, it can actually foreshorten life-I make no bones about that.

I have asked Kent county council for reassurance about its plans to reduce the disruption and harm to residents who will be transferred as a result of the decisions that it has made. As I understand, the council is currently assessing the needs and preferences of all residents and services, and it is doing everything in its power to accommodate people's wishes. For example, it is ensuring that people are not moved to a place that is different from the place their friends from the home are moved to. If people want to stay together, they will have the opportunity to do so.

The council also told me that the families or advocates of those affected are being kept informed during the process. That is crucial, although some of what I have heard during the debate suggests that there are different opinions about that statement, and from some of the body language, I see that others share that feeling. The council hopes to support residents to move at a pace with which they are comfortable, and evidence from past closures demonstrates that that is crucial for minimising the effects of such a move. The sense that there is an arbitrary timetable can have a significant impact on the health and well-being of an individual.

I am told that all residents and service users will be found places in centres and homes of an equivalent or higher standard. I do note, however, the representation made by the hon. Member for Dover about the experiences of his constituents and the lack of assurance that they have received so far in their efforts to discover an appropriate home for their loved ones. The council has said that, within reason, service users will not lose out financially, and that an independent arbiter will deal with any disputes over costs associated with the move.

The hon. Gentleman was right to say that we must put this into a national context, and across the country all councils are having to grasp the nettle and take painful decisions to reshape social care around the changing needs of their population. We need a broad strategic shift towards preventing and postponing dependency, and promoting greater independence. That includes ensuring that the services available are the right services for a particular point in a person's journey with a degenerative neurological condition, such as dementia, for example, which he mentioned. Earlier diagnosis is key to sensible planning and it is important to ensure that we deliver the right care at each stage of the journey taken by an individual and their family carers.
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That means that over time, councils need to spend less on care services where there is overcapacity, and free-up resources to invest in more personalised support.

This Government have no ideological opposition to residential care, although there is a sense that that was the case in the past under previous Administrations. There will always be a need for good-quality residential and nursing care in our communities, and anyone who has had a long-term engagement with the sector-as I have, and I am sure other hon. Members have-will know how much it has changed over the past 20 years. The level of need and dependency of residents has risen significantly, and the length of stay has shortened.

Currently there are approximately 50,000 vacancies in care and nursing homes across the country. According to the recent "Care of Elderly People UK Market Survey" by the independent health care analysts, Laing and Buisson, the level of spare capacity in the care home sector is currently 10% nationally. That carries a significant opportunity cost and locks a public resource that could be released and spent more effectively on early intervention and more personalised forms of care.

We should be clear that these closures are not-or should not be-a question of budget pressures forcing the council's hands. The money for social care is there. The Government made a clear choice on decisions about funding critical services, and despite inheriting the largest peacetime deficit in our history and the largest structural deficit in Europe, and despite paying £120 million a day in interest repayments on the national debt, we have chosen to protect the care and dignity of older people. In the spending review, we made it clear that an extra £2 billion a year for adult social care would be available by the end of the spending review period. Furthermore, £1 billion of that would be added to the local government formula grant, which comes on top of the existing £1.3 billion social care grant. That means that total grant funding from the Department for social care will reach £2.4 billion by 2014-15. For those keeping up with the numbers, the other £1 billion will be transferred from the NHS and spent on social care measures that also support health.

That settlement is frontloaded, so that extra resources are put into the system at the beginning of the spending period. It means that considerable amounts of extra investment are available now. Kent county council has already received £1.4 million in

November to improve re-ablement services, and £4.1 million in January as part of a national investment of £162 million to cope with winter pressures facing social care services. From April, it will get an additional injection of £16.2 million, which is its share of the £648 million that we are allocating via primary care trusts to support social care. That is on top of the extra funding for social care that we are putting into the local government finance settlement-a share of the £530 million extra available nationally next year, rising to the £1 billion I have just mentioned.

My understanding from briefings I have received is that Kent county council's approach is not a sudden, hasty, knee-jerk response to tighter financial circumstances.
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The proposals are part of a long-term plan in Kent to improve care and meet the changing needs of the local population. The council published its "Later Life" plan in 2009, and it has been working over the last two years to restructure and transform services to put more emphasis on prevention and practical support.

Services need to be tailored to people's circumstances and population need, and I emphasise that residential care is part of that mix and must be carefully thought through when services are designed. We need services that deliver value for money in a climate where we expect higher demand as the population ages, and we want good quality services-whether provided in the public or independent sector-that are well equipped to give people the choice, comfort, compassion and independence they deserve.

The council argues that the facilities at Sampson Court no longer meet the standards we should expect. The hon. Gentleman has rehearsed that argument and stated his concerns. The council also argues that the building would require extensive refurbishment to bring it up to scratch, and that the money could be better used in other ways. The council's view-painful though it clearly is-is that closure is the right way forward. I understand that many people will disagree with that, and believe that alternatives have not been adequately considered-the hon. Gentleman referred to the petition collected by Councillor Julie Rook. The Government are keen to give communities the opportunity to run community facilities. That is what the Localism Bill currently making its way through the House attempts to put in place. That Bill also seeks to reduce the barriers that enable a variety of organisations, including community groups, to provide services.

The council's view is that it has been through an extensive consultation process and considered the alternative options. The 11 care home changes have been debated in the council's chambers, and the proposals have been the subject of the council's overview and scrutiny committee. I know that there are great concerns among those who have led the campaign against the closures, and I am told that lawyers have been instructed to look at pursuing the matter through a judicial review. In that way, the process that the council has gone through can be tested, and if it is flawed, the decisions will be reopened and further options considered. However, that is not a matter for me as a Minister; it is about deciding whether the process has been properly followed, and a matter for judicial review. Parliament has not given Ministers that power, and the Government have made it clear that in the past, far too much rested on the desks of Ministers in Whitehall and other officials.

During conversations with Kent council over the past few days, the director of adult social services said that the council would be pleased to continue discussions with the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues, to see whether further points of concern can be addressed. In conclusion, I hope that we have covered some of the issues raised, but in the end, this matter must be resolved locally.

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Housing Benefit (Scotland)

1.30 pm

Gregg McClymont (Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East) (Lab): I am sure that hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber would agree that the provision of decent homes is the mark of a civilised society. Parliament has a role in ensuring that that consensus is reflected in policy. That is why I asked for the debate. I am concerned about the consequences of the Government's choices on housing benefit and on local housing allowances for my constituents and for the whole of Scotland.

According to the Department's impact assessment, 55,000 households in Scotland will be worse off this year as a result of the Government's choices on housing benefit. I have been speaking to community groups, local government, housing associations and charities in my constituency. They are deeply concerned about the impact of the Government's choices on some of the most vulnerable members of our community. As a result of just some of the changes, £2.2 million will be taken out of the pockets of people claiming housing benefits in north Lanarkshire alone every year, and 75% of social tenants claiming housing benefit will lose out in north Lanarkshire.

Some Ministers have expressed concerns about the impact of the cuts. The Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr Davey), has said that they mean that

Therefore, I know that this Minister will treat these genuine concerns with the respect that they deserve.

I hope that the Minister will also accept that choices that the Government have made interact in a way that will make life harder for some people. I want to draw his attention to the problems posed by the interactions between some of the changes. For instance, consider a family in which working-age social tenants claiming housing benefit are living with grown-up children. There are many such families in all our constituencies. The Government have announced their intention substantially to increase non-dependant reductions in housing benefit for both social and private tenants.

Mr Tom Clarke (Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill) (Lab): My hon. Friend is speaking remarkably well in an excellently chosen debate. Is he aware that, in addition to the vulnerable people whom he has mentioned, many of the organisations of and for people with disabilities are particularly worried about the impact on them? Many of them might be affected out of proportion to their numbers, and they really are the least able to bear it.

Gregg McClymont: My right hon. Friend raises a very good point. He is well known in the House for his expertise in that area. He is right to raise the issue of the impact on disabled individuals and families in particular.

One issue that I want to press with the Minister is the Government's intention to extend the reduced shared-room rate of housing benefit to all single people under the age of 35. That will make it harder for young people on low
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incomes to move out of their family home, as the rate is frequently too low to cover the costs of accommodation. Outside major cities, there are very few licences for houses in multiple occupation in Scotland. Even in the major cities, those HMOs are likely to be fully occupied already. Also, some young people, particularly those with mental or physical health problems, would find it very difficult to live in shared accommodation, in many cases with strangers.

Even if young people do move out of the family home, another problem looms. If their parents are, like many people in my constituency, working-age social tenants, they will fall foul of the limit on payments for working-age tenants who are deemed to be "under-occupying".

Ian Murray (Edinburgh South) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this very important debate. One key issue in my constituency is that there is a major drive-quite rightly, in many instances-to restrict the number of HMO licences due to the concentration in small areas. Would my hon. Friend like to comment on what impact that might have on this policy?

Gregg McClymont: My hon. Friend raises a very good point. There clearly is, broadly speaking, a real pressure on HMOs. That is one area in which policies, as I am sure the Minister will agree, can have interactions and unintended consequences that lead to deleterious outcomes for vulnerable individuals.

I was saying that there are parents who are working-age social tenants who will fall foul of the limit on payments for working-age tenants who are deemed to be under-occupying. However, we know that no social landlord deliberately puts people into properties that are too large for them. The Government believe that a negative financial incentive will lead social landlords to manage their properties more efficiently. My concern is that that outcome is not guaranteed. It seems likely that that choice could harm existing tenants whose circumstances have changed: the bereaved, the divorced or those whose children have left home.

A similar negative financial incentive is being introduced for the long-term unemployed to move home to seek work. The Government will penalise the unemployed by cutting their housing benefit entitlement by 10% once they have been unemployed for a year. That cut will apply even to those who are actively seeking work. It could affect almost 300 jobseeker's allowance claimants in my constituency alone, and I am sure that it will affect many more in some of my hon. Friends' constituencies.

The problem-again, I am sure that the Minister will agree-is that it is not easy at the moment to find work anywhere in the country, and Scotland has a particular problem. It is a harsh reality that at the end of last year there were four people chasing every job vacancy in Scotland, and there are few signs, so far at least, of that ratio improving.

My local YMCA, which I have spoken with recently, deals every week with cases of young people who are out of work and out of a home. Those are the most vulnerable young people.

Margaret Curran (Glasgow East) (Lab): On the issue of young people leaving home and perhaps not having a home, I appreciate that my hon. Friend is not from the same city as I am, but is he aware of a report by
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Glasgow city council, which has assessed the impact of the housing benefit reforms and calculated that there could be a loss of £8.5 million to homelessness services? That would have an impact not only on homeless people themselves, but on the regeneration of the city of Glasgow, which we have done much work to improve. Does my hon. Friend agree that whatever the Government do to tackle housing benefit, that should not exacerbate the problem of homelessness, which we have made great strides to deal with?

Gregg McClymont: I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention. She raises a very good point about Glasgow in particular, although I should say that I do consider myself a Glaswegian. Cumbernauld is not very far away. However, although I may consider myself a Glaswegian, Glaswegians may have a different view.

Every week, my local YMCA deals with young people who are out of a home and out of a job. Those are the most vulnerable young people. Many are unable even to provide the right documentation to make an initial claim for housing benefit within the narrow window open to them. Those are often young people with psychological and dependency problems, coming from difficult family backgrounds. Things that we find easy are sometimes difficult for people in a vulnerable situation.

The YMCA and other local charities tell me that the cut to housing benefits for JSA claimants will leave the young unemployed at greater risk of falling into rent arrears if they do find a place to live. I know that Ministers say that they want to encourage the unemployed to move to different areas to find work, but the Government underestimate perhaps the social, cultural and psychological challenges that are sometimes involved in that process.

Dame Anne Begg (Aberdeen South) (Lab): Has my hon. Friend considered that the issue is not just that young people find it difficult to move? Very often, the areas where jobs are available are the areas where there is the biggest pressure on housing, so even if young people move and find a job, they might not be able to find somewhere to live.

Gregg McClymont: My hon. Friend makes a good point. I was just going to suggest that Ministers will also be aware that there is a relationship between the number of jobs available and the cost of accommodation in an area. That is an extra problem facing those dealing with this aspect of policy.

Cuts to local housing allowances will make the private rented sector less affordable in more prosperous areas where work might be found. As I observed, the extension of the shared-room rate will make it harder for young people to find affordable accommodation once they leave home. Existing claimants in Glasgow will lose £7 a week on average as a result of that single change. That £7 could render a tenancy unaffordable for somebody moving in search of work. Research conducted by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation shows that there is already a shortage of private rented accommodation that meets the shared-room rate criteria.

Meanwhile, restricting payments to the 30th percentile of market rents, rather than the median, as was previously the case, will put many properties in major cities further out of reach. In north Lanarkshire, that single change will reduce the support available for a single room by
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£5 a week and that available for a one-bedroom flat by £7 a week. Switching uprating to the consumer prices index will, over time, compound the problem.

Anas Sarwar (Glasgow Central) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. Many people, especially in charity organisations and in the city of Glasgow, are deeply concerned about changing the uprating to CPI. Between 1997 and 2007, CPI increased by 20%, but rents increased by 70%. If we carry on in that way, housing benefit will cover only 10% of available properties by 2020. That will have a massive and devastating impact on Glasgow and other cities across the country.

Gregg McClymont: I thank my hon. Friend for that important intervention. It is worth adding that CPI does not include housing costs as it stands.

The Government argue that reducing LHA will lead landlords to put rents down, but market pressure on rents in Scotland is moving them sharply upwards-it is supply and demand-and that is particularly true in the private rented sector. House building is falling. First-time buyers who are unable to secure mortgages are moving into the private rented sector. That is increasing the pressure on rents, and it would be an unusual landlord indeed who reduced his rents out of kindness.

Thanks to the Scottish National party Government slashing the budget for social housing in Scotland, waiting lists are rapidly increasing. In that context, social housing does not offer a credible alternative to the private rented sector. The vacancy rate for social homes in my constituency is less than 1%.

I am concerned that people in Scotland could face a triple whammy over the next few years. Conditions in the housing market are pushing rents upwards. At the same time, cuts to benefits are putting affordable homes out of reach. Meanwhile, the Scottish Government's cuts to social housing mean that the sector cannot provide a viable alternative.

I therefore ask the Minister for a number of assurances. What is he doing to ensure that the housing benefits system encourages and supports people into work? What is he doing to ensure that the most vulnerable, particularly people with mental and physical health problems, including disabilities, are given the financial support that they need to remain in suitable accommodation? How will his Department support housing associations through the proposed changes and the ultimate switch to universal credit? What is his response to calls from Crisis and other organisations for tenants to be given the right to choose to have housing benefit and local housing allowances paid directly to their landlord? What is he doing to encourage his colleague the Secretary of State for Scotland to meet the head of the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities? I am sure that the Minister will address those concerns, having watched him as he has seriously addressed other concerns raised by Opposition Members.

1.44 pm

The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions (Steve Webb): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for what I think is the first time, Mrs Brooke. I congratulate the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Gregg
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McClymont) on securing the debate; I was trained before we started in how to pronounce his constituency's name by the right hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Mr Clarke).

This is an important subject, and I know that the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East takes a close interest in it, not least because I seem constantly to be answering his written parliamentary questions on it. He has pursued the issue in an entirely thoughtful and measured manner, which is always helpful in such debates.

The hon. Gentleman raised a broad set of issues relating to the impact of the changes on his constituency and on Scotland. He also raised some more general points. He brought together changes that will come in during April, some that will be phased in with a nine-month lag for existing recipients, some for which the primary legislation has not yet been passed and some that will happen in 2013. He therefore raises quite a raft of things, and properly so, but it is worth saying that these things will not suddenly happen in April. There is, therefore, time for tenants, landlords and local authorities-but particularly tenants and landlords-to change their choices and behaviour. That is part of the point of the reforms.

The figures that the hon. Gentleman quoted at the start-the £2.2 million going out of his constituency as a result of housing benefit reductions-assume that nothing changes, but part of the point of the exercise is that things will be different in the new regime. As I am sure he knows, the context for these things is the sky-rocketing bill we face, although it is not necessarily his role to say where the £1 billion that will be added to that bill each year will come from. However, without the measures that we are taking, a large amount of extra money will go into the system without necessarily benefiting tenants.

Let me cite a slightly surprising source of evidence for that view. On 10 September, COSLA submitted to the Department its response to the consultation on the first version of the housing benefit amendments. I would not for a second suggest that it was supportive-quite the contrary; it is not-but its analysis was rather interesting. COSLA said:

here we go-

and that is what has happened. LHA has essentially driven up rents; it has not meant more poor people in nice houses. The response goes on:

Several hon. Members rose-

Steve Webb: Let me say for the benefit of hon. Members that although I should very much welcome their contributions, this debate was initiated by the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East, and I will give way to him at any point. It is only fair to him to respond to his points.

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The Scottish perspective from COSLA is that the convention expected LHA to drive up rents, and that is what seems to have happened. The question now is what will happen when we try to stop that escalation, which is where the CPI point comes in. In that respect, I should say that the CPI excludes only owner-occupiers' housing costs, not all housing costs. That, however, is where we are trying to put a cap on the process. As far as I am aware, the national cap does not affect Scotland at all.

The question is what landlords will do in response. The hon. Gentleman's hypothesis was that there is plenty of demand out there, so they will do nothing. However, a landlord with a potential tenant who is on LHA has a choice between not going with that tenant or telling the local authority, "What would clinch it for me would be direct payment." We have said that we will extend the scope of direct payment, which the hon. Gentleman asked about at the end of his speech, so that a local authority will be able to agree with a landlord and a tenant to make payments direct to the landlord in return for securing a tenancy that would not otherwise have happened and for getting rents down.

Plenty of landlords rent to people on housing benefit; it is not that landlords will not do so, although I accept that some will not. A large number of landlords will rent to people on housing benefit, who are the people we are talking about. It is not that these things do not happen. A landlord looking at a potential housing benefit or LHA tenant, or thinking about renewing a tenancy, can have uncertainty about whether the tenant will pay or they can have direct payments. Direct payments are like a triple A bond; they are like guaranteed money. That is worth something to the landlord. For an investor, certainty is worth something. If a landlord just shaves a bit off the rent in return for the direct payment, which is the deal we shall try to strike, the shortfalls that the hon. Gentleman mentioned, which look a bit scary when they are multiplied, will be reduced.

The debate is about the impact on Scotland, and the hon. Gentleman will know that the average shortfall in the United Kingdom is £12, while the average figure for Scotland, if I remember correctly, is £10. It does not take much, therefore: let us take the example of a rent of £200. A landlord who reduces that by 2.5%, which is £5, or by 5%, which is £10, has suddenly wiped out the shortfall. Clearly we must ensure that that happens. We cannot just sit back and hope that landlords will cut their rent. I fully accept that. That is why we have made the change. That is important.

The regulations have been improved by the consultation and by the changes that we have made, specifically with respect to transition. We said that from April new tenancies will go straight on to the new rules, because the whole philosophy of the reforms is that the choices made by people on housing benefit-who, I fully accept, may be in work-should mirror the choice that someone would make if they had no subsidy but were just doing a low-paid job. That is the parallel. We are not trying to take a penal approach or to be harsh towards people who happen to be on LHA; we are simply trying to level the playing field. The idea is that they will make the choices in a constrained way, just as people in a low-paid job would have to do. That would, again, mean that they focused on a reduced section of the market; but properties would still be affordable. To take the broad
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rental market area that serves the hon. Gentleman's constituency, which I assume is the North Lanarkshire BRMA, we estimate that after the reforms 37% of properties will be affordable. Clearly we are telling people on a relatively low income or benefit, "You have a more constrained choice than you did"; but 37% is still, by definition, more than a third of the market.

The hon. Gentleman asked questions on some more detailed points, including the single room rent. We will publish an impact assessment on that change. He also raised the important issue of people with mental health problems and what would happen if, through a reduction in subsidy, someone were to be coerced inappropriately into shared accommodation. There are already exemptions for vulnerable groups. For example, certain disabled people are not affected by the single room rent regulations; but, clearly, we will always consider the issue of vulnerable people and the impact of changes on them.

Mr Tom Clarke: Will the Minister give way?

Steve Webb: Because this is the debate of the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East it is only fair if I respond to him and the questions he has raised.

Mr Clarke: It is not the Minister's debate either.

Annette Brooke (in the Chair): Order.

Steve Webb: I think, technically, that right hon. and hon. Members who intervene are meant to tell me formally that they want to do so; I do not mind at all, but they have made their comments and I think it is fair that I respond to the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East.

There are several Scottish angles to the debate and I want to deal with some of them rather than make more general points. There is an issue about whether people who are covered by LHA are being driven into pockets-very localised areas. One aspect of the Scottish situation is that the 30th percentile tends to be closer to the 50th percentile than perhaps it is in other parts of Great Britain. The cash difference tends to be smaller, as I said earlier, so the impact is not as great as it might be in other areas where the rent distribution is more dispersed. I fully accept the point that the impact of the measures will be different in different places, but the 30th percentile has a smaller impact in Scotland because of the compressed rent distribution.

The hon. Gentleman quite properly raised the issue of unemployment. I would not for a moment suggest that it is ever easy or straightforward to find a job; but, again, headline unemployment is slightly lower in Scotland than for Great Britain as a whole. The majority of Scottish local authorities have lower unemployment rates than the Great Britain average. That is not to belittle the matter, but it is not a purely Scottish dimension. The issue is clearly one to be dealt with nationally.

As to the hon. Gentleman's constituency and the support that we are giving, an important feature of the new scheme is discretionary housing payments. We recognise that we cannot anticipate every hard case, so we give local authorities discretion. We give them funds so that if there is someone who just does not fit the rules
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terribly well or who is acutely affected by the changes-the hon. Gentleman gave examples of situations that might be difficult-local authorities have discretionary funding. In 2011-12, Scotland as a whole will be getting an increase of 15% over 2010-11. That is an increase of £360,000 in discretionary housing payments. The hon. Gentleman's local authority will be getting a 34% increase; more than double the Scottish average increase will be going to North Lanarkshire to provide additional assistance. The figure will go from £77,000 in support this year to £103,000. It is worth saying that the 2011 DHP increase is much smaller than the increases will be in succeeding years; the Great Britain-wide figure will go from £20 million this year to £30 million, and then £60 million a year. Most of the increase in DHP will be in later years, but we have already added 34% to it in the coming year for the broad rental market area of the hon. Gentleman's constituency. Although, inevitably, that money will have to do a lot of work, it is specifically designed for the sort of hard cases he spoke about.

Gregg McClymont: I have been listening closely to the Minister, because I wanted him to develop his argument before I intervened. Is he comfortable with a policy which, as he perfectly fairly described it, tries to put people who get housing benefit and may be working, on a level playing field with people who are, as he described it, low paid, but who do not get housing benefit, in the context of an economy in which there is not much evidence that people can move into better paid jobs? The structure of the economy in a place such as North Lanarkshire does not include many professional-middle-class, if you like-positions for people to move up to, if the Minister's broader argument is about social mobility. From our point of view there is a danger that instead of focusing on trying to increase opportunities for a broad range of people from near the bottom to the middle of the income distribution, the focus is on people who are already struggling. I think the Minister would agree that we must do something about what happens further up the scale, to open up opportunities for the people who are affected.

Steve Webb: I entirely agree with that point. We want to encourage people not simply to move into any job at the bottom of the scale; we also want to encourage career progression and additional hours and training-the things that make people employable and enable them to earn more. That is the philosophy behind the universal credit. One of the problems is that there is an issue about the incentive to take any job; once a person has a job the current system can withdraw 95% in the pound, in extreme cases. That cannot be right and it traps people. Even if jobs are available and there are opportunities to do more work or gain more skills, there is no point, because the money is simply clawed away. With a lower taper rate for most people the universal credit will give people more opportunity to do just the sort of things that the hon. Gentleman describes.

Gregg McClymont: We know that the hon. Gentleman is a thoughtful Minister. A larger question looms over the issue, and that is whether, in the economy as it stands-not just in this recession but structurally over the past 30 years-there are opportunities for people to move up the ladder in large enough numbers. Does the Minister agree that such macro-structural political economy
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issues are related? Unless we have that possibility, what is happening may be seen as an attack on people who are already not exactly living luxurious lives.

Steve Webb: I certainly agree that we are not talking about people leading luxurious lives. There are, as the hon. Gentleman says, bigger structural issues affecting the economy. In the past few years under a series of Governments the economy has created millions of new jobs, but some of them are part-time, and they vary in nature. One of the things that the Government are trying to do, whether through apprenticeships or a range of other initiatives, is to upskill the work force. In a global economy we shall not be able to compete with very low wages in the far east, for example.

In the final couple of moments available to me I stress that we are keen to engage with the Scottish perspective, as the hon. Gentleman suggested. COSLA is represented on the Department for Work and Pensions local authority associations steering group, which meets each month, and along with the local authority associations it was formally consulted on the draft regulations for 2011 that I mentioned earlier. Officials from the Scottish Government have attended events and meetings to discuss
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the impact of LHA reforms, and Members of the Scottish Government have been invited to attend a conference that we are holding in Glasgow on 3 March 2011. We have invited all Scottish benefit managers from local authorities to attend, and we are inviting officials from the Scottish Government to be involved in the LHA reform national implementation group and the evaluation of the reforms.

Gregg McClymont: Would the Minister consider publishing evidence that LHA is pushing up rents in Scotland? He referred to that earlier and it would be an interesting piece of information for us, if he would undertake to pass it on.

Steve Webb: I was quoting from COSLA's assertion, but we are happy to give the hon. Gentleman what evidence we have, although trying to prove cause and effect is a challenge.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on raising this important debate, and I am grateful to colleagues who contributed.

Question put and agreed to.

2 pm

Sitting adjourned.

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