Kerry McCarthy (Bristol East) (Lab): May I press the Minister on his rather opaque answer on the question of property ownership? As has been said, it is estimated that about 45% of London property valued at more than £2 million is owned by offshore companies. Does

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he not think that it is in the public interest that we should know who the beneficial owners of those properties are? The plan does not require that to be made public. He mentioned laws going through the other place and said that they will need time to bed down, but does he not think that the time for action is now?

Matthew Hancock: The time for action is indeed now. The clauses in the Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Bill, which have gone through this House and are now going through the other place, will put in place the central register for the first time. If we want to expand what is in the central register once it is set up, we should of course consider that.

Rehman Chishti (Gillingham and Rainham) (Con): On tackling corruption and working with our international partners, does the Minister agree that people in certain developing countries need to ensure that everyone at every level pays their taxes, including Members of Parliament and members of Governments around the world? Only when they start paying their taxes and leading from the front will we really be able to tackle corruption.

Matthew Hancock: I thought that my hon. Friend was about to mention the Mayor of London.

My hon. Friend makes an important point. As he knows, this Government have taken a huge amount of action to ensure that taxes are low but are paid. We have raised about £5 billion more a year by tackling tax avoidance in the UK. We have brought in new techniques to do that. I am sure that other Governments around the world under financial pressures could benefit in the same way.

Andrew Gwynne (Denton and Reddish) (Lab): The Minister mentioned that discussions are taking place with Britain’s overseas territories and his belief that progress is being made, but he did not explain to the House precisely what progress he believes is being made. Will he set out precisely what progress he thinks is being

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made with Britain’s overseas territories, and perhaps a timetable for each of the overseas territories to implement the beneficial ownership rules?

Matthew Hancock: There is progress in two areas: the first is fiscal and on tax, and the second is on transparency. The overseas territories are each in a slightly different position, so the answer is complicated, but I would be very happy to report in future on how that is progressing.

Julian Smith (Skipton and Ripon) (Con): DFID and other Departments are doing world-class work in this area. Does the Minister have a view on how the UK anti-corruption plan stacks up against those of our international partners?

Matthew Hancock: I would say that this plan is one of the most advanced anti-corruption plans, but I also pay tribute to the work of DFID. Corruption undermines prosperity and development as much as, if not more than, almost any other failing, so focusing DFID resources on measures to tackle corruption is a very powerful way to help development. We must make sure that we use the DFID budget in a way that promotes long-term prosperity, and tackling corruption is a very powerful way of doing so.

Mr David Nuttall (Bury North) (Con): Last month, a report published by the Financial Conduct Authority concluded that most small banks have significant problems with anti-money laundering. Given that finding, will my right hon. Friend explain what measures in the plan will deliver a more focused money laundering regulatory regime?

Matthew Hancock: Again, the question is how we can have strong money-laundering and anti-corruption rules that cause distress to those who try to break them, but do not place undue burdens on perfectly legitimate individuals and businesses. Getting the right balance between the two is very important and there is more work to do.

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Business of the House

11.40 am

Ms Angela Eagle (Wallasey) (Lab): Will the Leader of the House give us the business for next year?

The First Secretary of State and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr William Hague): The business for the week commencing 5 January 2015, and therefore next year, will be:

Monday 5 January—Second Reading of the Serious Crime Bill [Lords].

Tuesday 6 January—Remaining stages of the Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill (Day 1).

Wednesday 7 January—Conclusion of the remaining stages of the Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill.

Thursday 8 January—Debate on a motion relating to higher education funding, followed by debate on a motion relating to Gibraltar. The subjects for both debates were determined by the Backbench Business Committee.

Friday 9 January—Private Members’ Bills.

The provisional business for the week commencing 12 January 2015 will include:

Monday 12 January—Consideration in Committee and remaining stages of the Stamp Duty Land Tax Bill, followed by consideration of Lords amendments to the Consumer Rights Bill, followed by motion to approve a carryover extension on the Consumer Rights Bill.

I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for 8 January will be:

Thursday 8 January—Debate on the first report from the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee on winter floods 2013-14.

I would also like to inform the House that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer has announced the date of the Budget statement. It will be on Wednesday 18 March.

May I take this opportunity to wish you, Mr Speaker, and all right hon. and hon. Members a very merry Christmas? I am sure that the whole House will join me in recognising the outstanding work that goes on to support the House throughout the year. I thank all staff who work in the service of the House and wish them a restful and peaceful Christmas and a happy new year. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”]

Ms Eagle: I thank the Leader of the House for announcing the business for the first week back—a task that he will have just 10 more times before Dissolution in March and before he bows out after a quarter of a century as an MP. We will all be sad to see him go, even though he may be mightily relieved.

I welcome yesterday’s unanimously agreed report from the House of Commons Governance Committee, which was presented to the House ahead of the extremely challenging schedule that the House laid down in its motion of 10 September. I would like to take this early opportunity to congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw), all the members of the Committee and its hard-working staff on producing such practical recommendations.

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The report sets out a series of sensible reforms that have the potential to move the administration of this place into the 21st century. It is right to conclude that the role of Clerk and chief executive should be split; it is right that we should reform the House of Commons Commission and the Management Board; and it is right that we should explore quickly how we can share more services between the Commons and the Lords. Does the Leader of the House agree that it is important that the House debates and acts on the report swiftly? Will he therefore confirm that it is his intention to move with alacrity to call a debate on it? Perhaps he even has a date in mind.

Amid the festive flurry of written statements that have been published this week, I note that we still do not have the long overdue list of special advisers and their pay. After the Prime Minister promised to cap their numbers and cut the cost of politics, he authorised a massive increase in their numbers and their cost. He now seems to have stopped publishing any details whatever. Will the Leader of the House tell us what on earth is going on and when we can expect the list to be published, or is he hiding something?

I note that, yet again, the Government have failed to bring forward the money resolution for the Bill on the NHS that is promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Eltham (Clive Efford). Will the Leader of the House tell us when it will be forthcoming?

On Tuesday, the House voted overwhelmingly in favour of the Bill tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) requiring large companies to publish their gender pay gap. We know that women earn an average of £209,000 less than men over their lifetime, and the Government are clearly so concerned that they have done absolutely nothing about it for four years. Seven Conservative MPs even voted against the Bill. Will the Leader of the House confirm that the Government will now listen to the will of the House and implement section 78 of Labour’s Equality Act 2010? Will he also tell us whether his equivalent in the Lords, Baroness Stowell, is still being paid less than he is?

Given that this is our last sitting day before the Christmas recess, I want to take the opportunity, as the Leader of the House did, to wish all right hon. and hon. Members, all the House staff and you, Mr Speaker, a very merry Christmas and a happy new year. It seems that everyone is getting into the Christmas spirit in their own way. The Chancellor, who is Parliament’s very own incorrigible Scrooge, has been visited by the ghost of Christmas future, and he is the only person in the country who likes what he sees. The Prime Minister has been spotted pigeon shooting with a full police escort, because apparently he misses killing things, and the UK Independence party has been busy putting on its very own nativity play—it sent the wise men back to where they came from and told the Virgin Mary to stop breastfeeding in public.

The festive season is now in full swing, and I have been hearing all about the coalition Christmas party. There was a bit too much excitement at the start, and there are now lots of people regretting saying things that they did not mean. They have learned that if you end up in bed with somebody, you can regret it for years to come. We can just imagine the games they were playing—for the Home Secretary and the Chancellor it

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was less musical chairs and more “Game of Thrones”. For the Liberal Democrats it was “Twister” when they should have been playing “Pointless”, and the Tories rewrote “The Twelve Days of Christmas” to reflect their past year—four resignations, three Euro-fudges, two lost MPs and a Chief Whip who’s nowhere to be seen.

Mr Hague: It is always a pleasure to listen to the hon. Lady, and it was nice of her to say that she will be sad to see me go. If it is a plot to get me to stay, it will fail. I am determined about the going bit, but also determined to enjoy the 10 further business statements that she talked about. I reciprocate the respect; she is the most cheery Opposition Front Bencher—not that that is a high bar when we look at them in general, but she unfailingly manages to clear that bar.

I join the hon. Lady in her welcome for the report by the House of Commons Governance Committee, and I thank the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw), who chaired it, and all the right hon. and hon. Members of all parties who served on it. It is for the House to reach a view and take a decision—there is no fixed Government view, but I welcome the report and judge that it will be well received in the House and that there will be a great deal of support for its recommendations. We will indeed move with alacrity, as the hon. Lady put it, to have a debate. Although I have not been able to announce a specific debate in the first week back, I will certainly facilitate a debate on the report in January so that if its recommendations are supported by the House—as I said, I think they generally will be—they can be taken forward expeditiously.

The hon. Lady asked about the so-called festive flurry of written ministerial statements. Today and yesterday there have been 49 of them, although I notice that on the last two days before the final Christmas of the last Parliament, there were 50—even more. Only one more, but one is enough, as we politicians know. One is always enough to prove a point or win an election, so I consider my point fully made.

The hon. Lady asked about the publication of the list of special advisers. It will be published today. There are more special advisers now given the nature of coalition, although their average pay is actually lower than it was under the last Government, which is an interesting point.

Latest figures show that the gender pay gap has closed for people under 40; although there is more to do, it has closed a good deal and continues to do so under this Government, which we want to continue.

The hon. Lady talked about the festive season in general, including for UKIP, and part of the festive season for Government Members is reading the Labour party document on UKIP, which has already been referred to—I am not recommending that my hon. Friends spend all of Christmas reading it, but it is good for a laugh now and again so I recommend reading it before Christmas eve. Page 18 gives advice on getting into a discussion with voters, and for when people ask about Labour policies it states:

“It does not however follow that…emphasising our policies in our conversations with electors is always the correct response.”

Indeed, when one thinks about some of Labour’s policies, that is pretty good advice for Labour canvassers.

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The hon. Lady compared the coalition to a Christmas party and getting into bed with each other, but it is not often that someone signs an agreement to get into bed for five years specifically, knowing that at the end of those five years they will be happy to be on their own. That, however, is what we did in the coalition agreement, and at the end of this year of coalition Government, as we come up to Christmas, we can celebrate what in my view is the most important fact: unemployment is 455,000 lower than it was 12 months ago. There are 326,000 more businesses in this country than there were 12 months ago, and 440,000 people have started an apprenticeship in the past 12 months. Those things are happening because the parties in the coalition got into bed with each other.

Mr David Nuttall (Bury North) (Con): The whole House will be united in condemnation of the massacre of 132 children and nine adults at the school in Peshawar. Following that atrocity, the Government in Pakistan have announced the reintroduction of the death penalty. If—God forbid—a similar evil was to be committed in this country, there would be calls for the reintroduction of capital punishment. May we please have a debate about what steps will be required to reintroduce the death penalty in the United Kingdom?

Mr Hague: The whole House will join my hon. Friend in wanting to remark on the horror of what happened a couple of days ago, and the slaughter of children. Even for those of us used to hearing about terrorist events and attacks, this atrocity was heartrending, and the Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary have expressed the views of the Government and the whole country. The death penalty is a matter for Pakistan in Pakistan, but the United Kingdom’s position is to oppose the death penalty in all circumstances. It is open to my hon. Friend and others to try to secure a debate on that subject, but my judgment is that the House has passed the point at which it would be possible to reintroduce the death penalty.

Mr Jack Straw (Blackburn) (Lab): Around 15,000 British citizens in my constituency are of Pakistani heritage, and the atrocity earlier in the week has been profoundly shocking to them and the whole United Kingdom. I know that they will be grateful for what the right hon. Gentleman has said, and for the sympathy and condolences expressed.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle) and the Leader of the House for their approbation of the House of Commons Governance Committee report. I express my profound thanks to the Committee Clerks, who were drawn from all departments across the House service, as well as, formerly, the Clerks Department. Above all, I express my thanks to my seven colleagues on the Committee, who came to its work with different perspectives and worked fantastically hard. In some cases, we had three evidence sessions a week. Happily, we managed to produce an agreed and unanimous report. That was not just a negotiating fix; the report contains important and granular recommendations.

I thank the Leader of the House for his promise of an early debate. May I press him on one further matter? If the report gains the approval of the House, as I hope it will, there will be a need for minor, I think, consensual legislation to go through both Houses before the election.

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Mr Hague: I join the right hon. Gentleman in thanking all members of the Committee, and I thank him too. I recognise that there were a lot of evidence sessions. The Committee got through a lot of work and heard from a lot of people with expertise and experience. That has clearly benefited the report.

On legislation and the possible amendment of the House of Commons (Administration) Act 1978, we will of course have to listen to the views of the House in the debate. If, as I expect, there is a great deal of support for the Committee, it will be important to be able to get on with the legislation. The right hon. Gentleman will appreciate better than most how difficult it might be to ensure proper scrutiny at this stage of a Parliament. The House has a record of wanting to scrutinise legislation on House of Commons matters, as indeed on most other matters. I cannot guarantee that, but I am happy to discuss the matter further with him and the other members of the Committee.

Sir George Young (North West Hampshire) (Con): Further to the reply my right hon. Friend has just given, may I join the chorus of approval for the work of the Governance Committee, so ably led by the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw)? It has been a model for how a Select Committee should work. Can I take it from what my right hon. Friend has just said that he plans to table the draft motion in annex C when we have the debate on the report? Who has responsibility for implementing the recommendation in paragraph 186:

“that the ‘paused’ recruitment process be formally terminated. We believe that this action should be taken immediately.”?

Mr Hague: I will clarify the motion when we announce the debate. It is very helpful of the Committee to put forward a draft resolution, which must be the frontrunner candidate to be the motion for that debate. On the responsibility for implementing that recommendation, I think that rests with the appointment panel that worked on it. The matter can be considered even before we come to a debate.

Valerie Vaz (Walsall South) (Lab): I thank the Leader of the House for arranging an early debate on the report. I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) for his steering of the Committee, and for putting up with me in the private sessions as well as the public sessions. The report is important: it does not look backwards and it is not a slap in the face for anyone. We are making progressive recommendations, not least to ensure that Members understand that there is a split in the role and that they are both very important roles. I also appreciate the fact that the urgent debate will take place earlier, rather than later.

Mr Hague: I thank the hon. Lady very much for the part she has played on the Committee. It was clear that all members of the Committee were very engaged in its work. The recommendations are clear. As I said, I think they will be well received by the House. We will have the debate in January.

Sir Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) (Con): We had a very good debate on Russia and Ukraine last week, but events are moving fast. For example, evidence emerged over the weekend of discussions between President Hollande

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of France and Mr Putin. Various compromises may be in the air. This is an important issue. I am not asking for a debate immediately, but before Dissolution at the end of March will the Leader of the House have it in his mind, as issues relating to the Russian economy develop, to have another debate?

Mr Hague: One way or another, the House will need to be kept abreast of developments and to be able to comment on them, whether through statements from my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary or debates. My hon. Friend is quite right to draw attention to this international issue, which is fast moving and immensely important. I will certainly remind colleagues of the need to keep the House informed.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North) (Lab): A short time ago the Foreign Secretary announced the development of a new British base in Bahrain, and he accompanied that announcement with a statement suggesting that the human rights situation there was improving. It is the first British base to be developed outside Europe for a very long time, and that is a complete change from the Wilson Government’s east of Suez policy of the 1960s. Does not that deserve at least a full parliamentary debate, because it appears to be a complete change in foreign and defence policy that has not been reported to the House and that we have therefore not had an opportunity to question or debate?

Mr Hague: As a former Foreign Secretary, I do not see any change of policy in that; it will be a change in facilities for British ships based in Bahrain. The hon. Gentleman may know that Royal Navy minesweepers have been based in Bahrain for a long time—they are based there now—and play an important part in ensuring the safety of navigation in the strait of Hormuz. For them to have improved facilities in Bahrain can hardly be described as a complete change in defence and foreign policy.

Robert Halfon (Harlow) (Con): May we have a debate on the identity of political parties? Given that nearly 31 million people are now in work, the highest level on record, youth unemployment is at its lowest level since the 1970s and we have 2 million more apprentices, is it not the case that we on the Government Benches are now the party of labour and the workers and those on the Opposition Benches are the party of dependency, welfare and reactionary conservatism?

Mr Hague: Yes. That is a most perceptive question from my hon. Friend. Of course, we are going to have a debate on the identity of political parties in a few months—it is called a general election. I am sure that debate will take place fully across the country. He is right that for the millions of people lifted out of income tax altogether and the 2 million people who have been able to start an apprenticeship, this Government have stood up for working people, and we will do even more in the months ahead.

Jim Fitzpatrick (Poplar and Limehouse) (Lab): One of the surprise inclusions in the Smith commission’s report was the proposal to break up the British Transport police. It was surprising because commentators over

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many years have commended them for the safety and security they provide on our transport networks, especially our rail network. Will the detailed proposals for that break-up come forward as part of the Smith commission proposals, or will there be a separate statement from the sponsoring Department, the Department for Transport, because I know that many Members will be interested in looking at that very carefully?

Mr Hague: I will refer the hon. Gentleman’s specific point to my hon. Friends at the Department for Transport and the Scotland Office. The Smith commission put forward a package of proposals agreed across parties, and where legislation is needed it will be brought forward in draft form by 25 January. I think that the best time to discuss all the implications, including the one he raises, is at that time, as implementation of the recommendations is being prepared.

Tessa Munt (Wells) (LD): National and international corruption inhibits this country’s ability to collect taxes that are rightly due and hampers the ability of Governments in developing countries to help themselves stand on their own two feet. I welcome the publication of the UK’s anti-corruption plan today, but will the Leader of the House consider ensuring that an annual statement is presented to the House so that we can see what progress is being made in that area?

Mr Hague: We have just had an urgent question on the matter, during which the Minister for Business and Enterprise set out the Government’s position, so I refer the hon. Lady to all the answers he has given. He pointed out the importance of the plan in bringing together all the Government’s work and assured the House that he will keep it regularly informed. I am sure that she will find the answer to her question among those provided by my right hon. Friend.

Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): May we have a debate in Government time on unemployment? I fear we cannot rely on the Opposition to use one of their Opposition days for such a debate. In such a debate, we could highlight the fact that the unemployment rate in Shipley is 466 lower than it was this time last year, and we might find out why unemployment has dropped by another 29 over the last month in my constituency. I like to think it has something to do with the jobs fair I held in Shipley last month, which was very well attended.

Mr Hague: I congratulate my hon. Friend on the jobs fair in Shipley, which is a further example of the outstanding work he does for his constituents. He is right to draw attention to what has happened on unemployment. I referred earlier to the reduction of 455,000 in unemployment this year, but it is also important to note that long-term youth unemployment is down 53,000 this year. Such changes are greatly benefiting people in Shipley and across the country.

Simon Danczuk (Rochdale) (Lab): As stated already, we have all been shocked by the barbaric actions of the Taliban in Peshawar over the weekend. My constituency has many Pakistani residents, and on behalf of the Rochdale council of mosques I would like to express our deep sorrow for the people burying their dead and to offer our support in the continuing fight against

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extremism. Does the Leader of the House agree we should debate this issue in the new year?

Mr Hague: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. People in his constituency and across the country will be deeply moved by the sight of families burying their dead children in such huge numbers. It underlines the need to work together internationally to counter terrorism. The need to do that is one reason we have been debating the Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill several times over the past few weeks, and in the first week back we will be devoting two days to its remaining stages. These events underline the importance of that.

Sir Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): May I welcome the publication today of the Lords Spiritual (Women) Bill, which will provide the opportunity to fast-track into the House of Lords women consecrated as diocesan bishops? My right hon. Friend will know that there was widespread support and rejoicing in both Houses for the Measure to enable women to become bishops in the Church of England, but there was concern that if the rules of seniority prevailed, it might not have been possible for women bishops to be in the House of Lords for perhaps another Parliament. This is a simple measure in a one-clause Bill. Will he confirm that he intends the Bill to be taken in a single day, with a Second Reading in one half and the remaining stages in the other half of the same day?

Mr Hague: The Bill is minutes away from introduction and publication, and this whole issue has indeed been the cause of rejoicing in both Houses, as my right hon. Friend rightly says. I will confirm the arrangements for the handling of the Bill in due course, but he is right that it is a short and simple Bill that should enjoy widespread support. When I come to announce the handling of business, I will certainly hope it can be considered quickly, with these facts in mind.

Mrs Mary Glindon (North Tyneside) (Lab): NHS England has announced at a late stage that it is halting the assessment for the Duchenne muscular dystrophy treatment Translarna. This decision has caused significant anxiety for people affected by the condition, so will the Leader of the House set aside time to debate the emergency interim measures that the Department of Health and NHS England need to put in place to ensure that Translarna completes the approval and funding process and can be made available to the boys it could help from as early as next April?

Mr Hague: I know that Health Ministers are conscious of this matter. It is a priority to ensure that patients in England have access to new and effective treatments on terms that represent value for money for the NHS and the taxpayer. I believe the decision-making framework for adoption of new treatments and interventions was discussed yesterday at the NHS England board meeting, but there will be many further opportunities to put questions to Health Ministers in the early weeks of the new year.

Conor Burns (Bournemouth West) (Con): Could we find time before Dissolution for a debate on the impact— the positive impact—of the Government’s academies programme? In that connection, will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating Jackie Steel, the principal of Bourne academy in my constituency, who retires this

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week and who has transformed that school and the prospects for its young children?

Mr Hague: I absolutely join my hon. Friend in congratulating the principal of that academy. So often it is the principal or head teacher who sets the ethos and creates the performance of a school or academy. We should all be grateful to those who successfully transform educational institutions, and a great deal of that is happening among academies. My hon. Friend’s local example is a very strong one.

Mr Angus Brendan MacNeil (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (SNP): May we have a debate on the newspaper industry—local and daily, and perhaps with particular reference to the excellent new daily paper in Scotland from the Herald stable, called The National? After a few weeks, its circulation is almost up to that of The Herald itself and far higher than the established The Scotsman. Will the Leader of the House take this opportunity to join me in congratulating The National newspaper on that and on the jobs it has created? Finally, may I, on behalf of the SNP, wish you, Mr Speaker, and all hon. Members a merry Christmas—Nollaig Shona.

Mr Hague: I think that is not so much a question as an advertisement! I am sure readers in Scotland will be able to make up their own minds about what they want to read without our having to endorse it. There is always something a bit suspicious about newspapers being endorsed by politicians of any colour, and those politicians often live to regret it when the newspaper decides to change its editorial line. I caution the hon. Gentleman a little about that.

Mr Bernard Jenkin (Harwich and North Essex) (Con): May I say how happy I am to be able to join all those who have commended the House of Commons Governance Committee report, and urge my right hon. Friend to bring forward the debate as quickly as possible so that the findings can be implemented? I say that not least because I was the guy who came up with the idea of this Committee; I drafted the motion that was accepted by the House; and I was even the first to invite the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) to take on the role of Chairman—and he has done so most ably. Moreover, the report concurs with the evidence submitted by the Public Administration Select Committee.

Mr Speaker: Anybody would think that the matter was about the hon. Gentleman! If he wishes us to think that, it is Christmas time, and we are pleased for him.

Mr Hague: Indeed, Mr Speaker. I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for having an idea that was taken up by the whole House. We look forward to taking up more of his ideas in the future—provided they are just as good as that one. The support he has given and the ideas he has supplied are a further illustration of the widespread support in the House for the work of this Committee and indeed for its findings, as I have no doubt we will discover when we come to debate it.

Andrew Gwynne (Denton and Reddish) (Lab): The Leader of the House will be aware of the recent report

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of the Environmental Audit Committee on air quality, and particularly of the recommendations pertaining to the planning system. This is really important for my constituency, which forms part of the Greater Manchester air quality management area, and there is great concern about a new proposal for 200 homes in a very heavily air-polluted area alongside the M67 motorway. May we have a statement in the new year on that Select Committee report and particularly on the Government’s intentions on taking forward the planning recommendations?

Mr Hague: This is clearly an important issue for the hon. Gentleman’s constituency and he has already succeeded in raising it powerfully on the Floor of the House today. There are, of course, opportunities to debate Select Committee reports, which come up regularly. I announced one such debate in Westminster Hall in early January and there will be opportunities for further such reports to be debated. The hon. Gentleman has made a good case for that particular one.

Mark Pawsey (Rugby) (Con): The value of the all-party group was evident in the urgent question we have just heard. Is the Leader of the House aware that yesterday saw the launch of a new all-party group on e-cigarettes, bringing together representatives of the 2.1 million users of e-cigarettes, manufacturers and those with an interest in public health. May we have a debate on the use of e-cigarettes, including perhaps, Mr Speaker, their use on the parliamentary estate and how they can be a valuable tool for people wishing to reduce or cease their use of tobacco?

Mr Hague: I agree with my hon. Friend that e-cigarettes have the potential to support public health objectives and to support smokers who want to cut down or quit. It is important, too, for users to have confidence in the quality of the products, which must be licensed like other nicotine replacement therapies. I am not sure when we shall have the opportunity to debate this, but my hon. Friend can of course make the case for it in all the usual ways.

Ian Murray (Edinburgh South) (Lab): Pelamis Wave Power in Edinburgh has gone into administration with the potential loss of 50 jobs. It is tragic not only because those jobs are lost but because this company comprised the leading experts in wave technology in the world. May we have an urgent statement on what the Government might be able to do—in conjunction, of course, with the Scottish Government—to support Pelamis Wave Power so that we do not lose that wonderful research facility?

Mr Hague: Just a few moments ago, we had topical questions to the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, so the immediate opportunity to debate that subject in the House has just passed. The hon. Gentleman is quite right to express concern about the jobs in his constituency. There will be further opportunities to raise that matter with the Energy and Climate Change Secretary on the Floor of the House.

Dr Julian Lewis (New Forest East) (Con): May I welcome the Governance Committee’s recognition of the obvious fact that the qualities necessary to be a first-class manager are not the same as those necessary to be a first-class Clerk? Has the Leader of the House

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followed up his pledge to me in business questions on 27 November to speak to the Prime Minister about the possibility of making an award for the three women who acted so bravely to try to help Lee Rigby in very dangerous circumstances? Finally, will he speak to the Prime Minister on the question of a final settlement for those people infected with contaminated blood by the NHS—sometimes decades ago? One of my constituents in that situation pointed out that the Prime Minister said in June on the record in the press that this would be sorted out within six months. I do hope that this can be done before the end of this Parliament.

Mr Hague: On those three questions—[Interruption.] It is indeed Christmas, so it is right to have Christmas generosity on this. On the first question, my hon. Friend, in common with others, expresses his support for the report on the governance of the House. On the second, of course I followed up the question he raised on 27 November, although I cannot comment on any potential outcome. On the third, which is a health matter, I know that my hon. Friend has been assiduous in raising it for his constituents. I will inform my colleagues in the Department of Health of his anxiety about the timetable, and ask them to respond to him.

Kerry McCarthy (Bristol East) (Lab): This is my fifth contribution this morning, Mr Speaker, so thank you for being so generous. There is growing concern that the Conservatives are considering a rise in VAT after the next election—I very much doubt it will appear in the 18 March Budget statement. May we have a full debate in the new year on the consequences of a rise in VAT for people on low to moderate incomes and on businesses in my constituency, so that we can go into the election fully informed about what that policy would mean?

Mr Hague: I hope we will have many exchanges and debates on the economy. Of course, any concern about increases in taxation will be about those parties that want higher deficits and higher spending rather than those that control deficits and spending and therefore do not need to increase taxation. Since it is now clear from the last few days that the Labour party wants higher levels of Government spending than we have today, it is for Labour Members to explain how increased taxation will have an impact on the people of this country.

Christopher Pincher (Tamworth) (Con): I, too, welcome my right hon. Friend’s commitment to dealing with the recommendations of the excellent report from the House of Commons Governance Committee with alacrity, but may I join others in encouraging him to deal with them expeditiously as well? I am thinking particularly of the recommendations concerning the different roles of the Clerk and the subordinate director general. The past three months have been a period of great uncertainty for people both in the House and outside, and that uncertainty needs to be brought to an end so that we all know where we stand.

Mr Hague: I do not think there will be any contradiction in regard to the need for those matters to be dealt with both expeditiously and with alacrity, and I hope that they will be, although it will, of course, be important for them to be debated in the House so that it can be

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fully consulted. Everyone who works for the House has coped very well with the last few months—all services have been successfully provided and important developments have continued—but now that the report has been published, we shall need to discuss it as quickly as possible.

Dr Matthew Offord (Hendon) (Con): Because there had been no ministerial statements during the week, I attended this morning’s session of oral questions to the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change to try to establish the Government’s position on the United Nations climate change conference in Lima and the agreement that was reached on Sunday, as it has huge implications for the discussions that will be held in Paris next year. It worries me that the House has not discussed the United Kingdom’s position on the legal structure of the agreement. There has been no discussion about the deferred decisions on ensuring a flow of finance to developing countries, about where the burden for cutting greenhouse gas emissions should lie, or about the dropping of the requirement for countries to provide information about their “prospect reduction targets”. May we please have a debate in Government time, so that we can discuss those important issues?

Mr Speaker: I think we have already had it.

Mr Hague: They are globally important issues. This morning, as my hon. Friend may know, a written statement was issued to update the House on the outcomes of the conference, and my ministerial colleagues from the Department of Energy and Climate Change were here to answer questions from Members, including topical questions. I am sure that there will be further opportunities to debate the issue before the meeting in Paris next year. Indeed, my hon. Friend may wish to create such an opportunity with the help of the Backbench Business Committee.

Gregg McClymont (Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East) (Lab): Yesterday saw the publication of the long-awaited report of the independent inquiry into excessive pension charges and the selling of pension products, particularly in the 1980s and 1990s. The report gives the full details of the scandal of excessive charging. The Minister for Pensions has said that he is deeply shocked, which is surprising, given that the Leader of the Opposition gave some of the details of the scandal more than two years ago. When the Minister has recovered from his shock in the new year, may we have a debate in Government time to establish how the Government intend to stand up for the hard-working people all over the country who have been ripped off?

Mr Hague: As has already been said, the Government have a strong record on standing up for hard-working people. However, these pension issues are very important, and there will be opportunities to ask my colleagues at the Department for Work and Pensions about them. As the hon. Gentleman knows, it is also open to him to press for a debate through all the normal means.

Mr Speaker: I hope to accommodate the remaining questioners, but may we please have brief questions, without preamble?

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Rehman Chishti (Gillingham and Rainham) (Con) rose—

Mr Speaker: That is about to be exemplified by Mr Rehman Chishti.

Rehman Chishti: Thank you, Mr Speaker.

Local businesses in my constituency have contacted me expressing real concerns about the sale of illegal tobacco in Gillingham, which has previously been named as the capital of illicit cigarette sales. May we have an urgent debate on how the government are dealing with the problem around the country?

Mr Hague: The issue of illicit tobacco is taken very seriously. It often involves organised crime, and causes a large loss of revenue at the taxpayer’s expense. Medway is certainly an area of Government work on the problem, involving the police, trading standards authorities and HMRC, and a number of sanctions are available to the various enforcement agencies. However, I will let my ministerial colleagues know of my hon. Friend’s anxiety.

Robert Neill (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con): I am sure my right hon. Friend will be pleased to know that festive cheer in Mottingham has been increased by the Planning Inspectorate’s decision not to allow the demolition of the Porcupine public house, which has been mentioned in the House before. Will he make time for a debate so that we can consider what further financial incentives can be provided to enable community interest groups to take over the running of such valued local facilities?

Mr Hague: I am happy to join in that festive cheer in the knowledge that a public house has been preserved. Its preservation will be dear to many of us throughout the House and the country, and I congratulate my hon. Friend and his constituents on their work. The Government have, of course, greatly enhanced the ability of communities to preserve assets to which they attach great value, but, if my hon. Friend presses for them in all the normal ways, there will be chances for the House to debate the further development of that policy.

Gavin Williamson (South Staffordshire) (Con): Yesterday we heard the news that unemployment had fallen again in South Staffordshire and the west midlands. That has been largely due to the growth of apprenticeships and, in particular, the fact that Jaguar Land Rover has opened a new engine manufacturing facility in my constituency. Could time be made for a debate on the creation of more apprenticeships, especially in the automotive and aerospace sector, which plays such a key role in the economy of the west midlands?

Mr Hague: This is a matter of fundamental importance, particularly to the west midlands economy. During the most recent academic year, 850,000 people were in apprenticeships. Two million apprenticeships have been created during the current Parliament, and many of us would like to see 3 million created in the next Parliament as part of our aim to abolish youth unemployment altogether. I hope that, during all the debates on the Budget and the economy, the House will be able to discuss precisely those matters.

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Oliver Colvile (Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport) (Con): As my right hon. Friend knows, I am the chairman of the all-party parliamentary group for the private rented sector. We have conducted a couple of inquiries and produced a couple of reports over the past year or so. May we have a debate on the recommendations of those reports, and, in particular, a debate on the proposed review of shared accommodation rates?

Mr Hague: Those are important issues, and I know that my hon. Friend does very good work on them. We have no Government time to allocate to such debates, but, as I have said to other Members in connection with other subjects, it is open to my hon. Friend to press for them through all the normal channels, including the Backbench Business Committee.

Jeremy Lefroy (Stafford) (Con): May we have a debate on imaginative partnerships between the further education sector and private companies, such as the launch of the Risual academy by Stafford college and Risual, a fast-growing IT consultancy in my constituency?

Mr Hague: We may not be able to have a debate on that subject immediately, but it is exactly the sort of co-ordination that is bringing great benefits to the economy and to local people, and I know that my hon. Friend’s support for it will be greatly valued.

Julian Smith (Skipton and Ripon) (Con): Britain has an exceptional trading relationship with the United States, but more can be done to make trade easier for small business in particular. May we have a debate about the way in which the transatlantic trade and investment partnership, or TTIP—the current negotiations for a better deal between the European Union and United States—can bring only opportunities for Britain’s smallest businesses?

Mr Hague: I hope that TTIP will be discussed regularly, and, indeed that great progress will be made on it in the coming year. It constitutes an opportunity to boost world trade considerably, and to add further to the vital economic relationship that my hon. Friend has described. Our bilateral trade with the United States is the greatest that we have with any country, and we have 1 million people working on each side of the Atlantic in companies that are owned on the other side of the Atlantic. I hope that there will be strong progress on TTIP in the coming year.

Andrew Jones (Harrogate and Knaresborough) (Con): A few days ago, my constituency team and I became dementia friends following some very good training by our local branch of the Alzheimer’s Society. May we have a debate on how we can boost public understanding of all forms of dementia, making our communities more dementia-friendly and thus helping those who are suffering from this cruel disease, and, of course, their carers as well?

Mr Hague: As we are not currently having a debate about the issue, it is important for us all to get on with it, which is exactly what my hon. Friend is doing and encouraging in his constituency. We are creating dementia-friendly communities which will help to support those who live with dementia, and we are educating 1 million

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people so that they can become dementia friends. I welcome my hon. Friend’s support for that.

All of us in the Cabinet have been taught about the issue, and, to date, there are more than 600,000 dementia friends. This is another issue on which we should continue to work hard in the new year.

Mr Speaker: Order. In wishing all parliamentary colleagues, and everyone who works on the parliamentary estate, a merry Christmas and a happy 2015, I am minded to mention that there is one upcoming item on the agenda to which they can look forward with eager anticipation: on Tuesday 13 January in Speaker’s House we will be addressed, in the lecture series for 2015, on the subject of William Pitt by the Leader of the House. He is a very considerable authority on that matter.

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Local Government Finance

12.30 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Kris Hopkins): With permission, Mr Speaker, I should like to make a statement on funding for local authorities in England next year.

This Government inherited the largest deficit in post-war history. Thanks to this Government’s long-term economic plan, that deficit is falling, the economy is growing and employment is at a record high. This Government are putting our public finances back on track. Local government, like every part of the public sector, has made a significant contribution to this. However, the job is not done. As my right hon. friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer has indicated to the House, in coming years very substantial savings must be made in public spending. The Government continue to need to take difficult decisions to put the public finances on to a sustainable path.

In the context of this unprecedented challenge to public finance, we have yet again delivered a settlement that is fair to all parts of the country, whether north or south, urban or rural. English local government is expected to spend over £114 billion this year—around a quarter of all public spending. This settlement therefore recognises that local authorities continue to make a vital contribution to helping pay off the deficit. Once again, the settlement leaves councils with considerable total spending power. As planned, we have kept the overall reduction to 1.8%—lower than last year, and one of the lowest levels of reduction under this Government. If we include the funds the Government have provided to support local transformation, the overall reduction is even lower, at 1.6%.

Councils facing the highest demand for services continue to receive substantially more funding, and we are continuing to ensure that no council will face a loss of more than 6.4% in its spending power in 2015-16, the lowest level in this Parliament. I am also pleased to announce that all nine authorities eligible for efficiency support grant in 2014-15—Great Yarmouth, Burnley, Chesterfield, East Lindsey, Barrow-in-Furness, Bolsover, Hyndburn, Pendle and Hastings—will have these amounts incorporated into the settlement for 2015-16.

We also continue to recognise the challenges faced by rural communities. This Government have a clear commitment to rural areas, and consecutive settlements have helped to address the gap between urban and rural spending power. The gap is closing, and that has already benefited rural authorities to the tune of £208 million. We expect the gap to continue to close. In the meantime, the settlement confirms another year of additional resources for the most rural authorities, to recognise the challenges they may face in delivering services. In 2015-16, this grant has increased to £15.5 million.

But this is no longer just about the amount the Government provide to local authorities through grant. We have deliberately shifted the emphasis from keeping authorities dependent on grant to providing councils with the tools they need to grow and shape their local economies. We have given councils a real stake in stimulating local growth. For 2014-15, authorities’ own estimates show that 91% are expecting a growth in their business

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rates income—growth of £414 million in total. That includes authorities such as Barnsley, which is predicting growth in its business rates income of around £900,000, and which will gain additionally from almost £400,000 of growth that it is predicting within its enterprise zone.

Through the new homes bonus, councils benefit directly from increasing the number of homes in their area and bringing long-term empty homes back into use. On Tuesday, the Minister for planning and housing, my hon. Friend the Member for Great Yarmouth (Brandon Lewis), announced to the House that £1.2 billion of new homes bonus funding has been provisionally allocated to local authorities in England for 2015-16. This brings the total to almost £3.4 billion since the scheme began.

Many councils agree that these measures are having a positive impact on their ability to deliver better outcomes in their areas. National growth is the sum of local growth. For Britain to prosper, every part of the country needs to fulfil its potential. Local places know best how to support growth in their local economies. We know that many authorities recognise this. That is why we have devoted such effort to empowering our great cities and communities to drive local growth through a redistribution of power away from Westminster and Whitehall to councils, communities and individuals across the nation.

To this end, we have established 39 local enterprise partnerships—partnerships between local authorities and business—who decide what the priorities should be for investment in roads, buildings and facilities in their local areas. Through our growth deals, we devolved £12 billion of local growth funding to these partnerships, for them to spend on local priorities over the next five years.

We are committed to further devolution to increase local democracy, bring better services and deliver more homes and jobs. We hope that Greater Manchester and Sheffield will be the first of many to take advantage of greater devolution of powers, and the Government are open to having discussions with other areas.

As well as growing their economies, the best authorities are transforming the way they do business. The Government are supporting them as they do so, achieving real savings and, importantly, improving outcomes for the people who use local services. Last month, I announced the latest round of successful bids to the transformation challenge award. We will provide around £90 million in support for 73 projects that will improve services and ultimately save the public sector over £900 million. In total, the latest successful transformation challenge award bids involve 287 partners, including 122 local authorities and 165 other organisations across the public, private and voluntary sectors.

Increasingly, local authorities are recognising that transformation and further integration has the potential to deliver improved outcomes. Nowhere is this more evident than in relation to health and social care. We are supporting the integration of health and social care services through the better care fund: 97% of local plans have been approved and the £3.8 billion initial contribution from Government has been boosted by local areas to more than £5 billion. This will help achieve significant change in services that will benefit some of the most vulnerable in our society.

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Like all parts of government, councils need to prioritise spending so that it gets to those who need it most. Councils are rising to the challenge. Every council issued a balanced budget for 2014-15. The majority of residents remain satisfied with the way their council runs things. That bears testimony to the great skill that authorities have shown in prioritising and promoting efficiencies.

Local authorities up and down the country are demonstrating real innovation. I have seen for myself the work under way in Kirklees to support young people who need help in starting their young lives. Our transformation fund investment of £400,000 will bolster the Kirklees Cares project, where children in care are receiving peer support to prepare them for life after leaving care.

In Durham, a partnership of the police and fire services is using a £500,000 award to bring community volunteers and neighbourhood watch services together; and I was recently in Sunderland, which is one of five areas that had its better care fund plan approved early because it was making such good progress. I met staff from both the health and social care sectors working together in the same room, with the same patients, in a brilliant new community facility that is keeping elderly people out of hospital. Sunderland projects that it can start to cut local accident and emergency admissions by up to 15% in the years ahead as a consequence of this approach. That will save a huge amount of money and provide people with dignity and respect in retirement. 

Last winter, to help local authorities deal with the immediate costs of the severe weather, the Government activated the Bellwin scheme of emergency financial assistance to local authorities. In recognition of the unique scale of the flooding, the terms of the scheme were made more generous. The changes included a reduction in thresholds above which the Government would compensate, and reimbursement at a rate of 100%. This reduction was the first time in the scheme’s 30-year history that thresholds had been reduced in that way. Last month, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government announced a consultation on improvements to the scheme, including permanent lower thresholds and 100% grant rate. Although the consultation does not end until the start of the new year, we have today published illustrative Bellwin thresholds for 2015-16. This will give local authorities a greater degree of financial certainty in planning for emergencies in the case of severe weather.

With colleagues in the Treasury and the Department for Work and Pensions, we have been analysing responses to the Government consultation on how local welfare assistance should be funded in 2015-16. We have been looking at these alongside the Department for Work and Pensions review. Local authorities will continue to be able to offer local welfare assistance from within existing budgets, alongside a range of other services for 2015-16 if they judge it a priority in their area. It would be helpful to many areas to see how much of their existing funding relates to this, so today I can confirm that we have separately identified an amount relating to local welfare provision in each upper-tier authority’s general grant, totalling £129.6 million nationally.

The Government have always been clear that councils should choose how best to support local welfare needs, because what is right for Croydon will not be right for Cumbria. This allocation will therefore not be ring-fenced

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and we will not be placing any new duties, expectations or monitoring requirements on its use. The Government will carefully consider all responses to the consultation on this settlement, including those that relate to the provision for local welfare over and above existing budgets, and we will take these into consideration when announcing the final settlement in February. Over the last year, councils have increased their reserves by £2.2 billion, and they now stand at a total of £21.4 billion. Authorities should of course maintain a healthy cushion when balancing the books. However, local taxpayers would be right in asking whether such substantial reserves are necessary.

All councils should be freezing their council tax in 2015-16 and helping people with their cost of living. We are providing additional funding equivalent to a 1% council tax increase, to help councils to freeze. This is the fifth successive year of freeze-funding provided by the Government. This brings the total package to £5 billion, which will save up to £1,075 for an average household over the course of this Parliament. All councils should be taking advantage of this extra Government funding and freezing council tax for hard-working families. Councils choosing to increase should have the courage to put their case to local people. Any council proposing an increase of 2% or more will need to allow local people the opportunity to approve or veto the increase in a referendum. This threshold will apply to all local authorities, including the Greater London authority, fire authorities and police and crime commissioners.

Parishes are an important part of local government, delivering valuable and valued local services. However, that is not a reason for them to impose inflation-busting increases on their taxpayers. The average band D council tax in England has risen by 2% since 2011-12. The equivalent figure for the parish element is 14.7% over the same period. That is why I would welcome views on whether the highest-spending parishes should be subject to the same referendum principle as the rest of local government. There is also a question about whether town and parish councils whose failings have been highlighted in a public interest report should be included.

Today marks the start of a period of statutory consultation with local government on the settlement, and I welcome its responses. The consultation closes on 15 January 2015. We are publishing full supporting material online and I have placed copies of the consultation paper and other main documents in the Vote Office. This is a fair settlement that continues to recognise the responsibility of local government to find sensible savings and make better use of its resources. It supports business growth, adding to this country’s wealth, and helps to deliver our long-term economic plan. It also enables councils to offer another year of frozen council taxes. I commend this settlement to the House.

12.46 pm

Hilary Benn (Leeds Central) (Lab): I am grateful to the Minister for giving me advance sight of his statement, and at least Ministers have chosen to come to the House today rather than having to be summoned, as happened last year.

In its recent report “Financial sustainability of local authorities 2014”, the National Audit Office found that the Government

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“will reduce its funding to local authorities by 37% in real terms between 2010-11 and 2015-16”.

Will the Minister confirm that this is the case, and that the Government are going ahead with a 10% reduction in the main component of Government funding to local authorities in 2015-16, as also reported by the NAO? Councils have experienced the biggest spending reductions in the public sector, and they have done an extraordinary job in trying to deal with that, but they rightly resent the Secretary of State claiming, as he did, that the cuts are “modest” and that Local Government Association fears for the future are “utterly ludicrous”. Does the Minister still agree with those statements, given that in an open letter last month, a large number of council leaders, including 40 Conservatives, said bluntly:

“Services such as libraries, leisure centres and road maintenance continue to buckle under the strain of cuts and the ever-rising cost of caring for our growing elderly population”?

The Audit Commission has confirmed that

“Councils serving the most deprived areas have seen the largest reductions in funding relative to spending”.

That is still happening.

Why is it that the most disadvantaged communities are yet again being hit the hardest? Why is it that by 2017, the city of Liverpool, the most deprived local authority in the country, will have lost over half its Government grant compared with 2010? Why is it that Wokingham is on course to have a higher spending power per household than Leeds and Newcastle, despite those cities’ greater need? Why is it that, having claimed that those with the broadest shoulders should bear the biggest burden, Minsters have done the very opposite to local government? Given the complacency of the Department for Communities and Local Government, is it any wonder that the National Audit Office found that the Department had

“a limited understanding of the financial sustainability of local authorities”?

What is the Minister going to do about that? Councils are showing

“clear signs of financial stress”.

What contingency plans do Ministers have to deal with the potential failure of local councils? The truth is that the Government either do not want to know what is going on or do not care. Tough times do indeed require tough decisions, including on spending, but there is no justification whatever for taking the most from those who have the least.

I have a number of specific questions to put to the Minister. How many councils will face the maximum reduction in spending power of 6.4% in 2015-16? Will he accept the NAO’s advice and in the final settlement publish figures detailing the change in individual local authority income in real terms since 2010-11, so that the cumulative impact of funding reductions is made clear? How have the Government accounted for the better care fund when calculating 2015-16 funding reductions? Can he confirm that the new homes bonus actually takes money away from the most disadvantaged communities and gives it to areas where the new homes would probably have been built in any case? Does he not think that that funding could be more efficiently allocated to areas based on need?

Will the Minister confirm that the Secretary of State lost his battle with the Chancellor to save the local welfare assistance fund? It is clear that this year’s separate

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grant will now go and will not be replaced with any new money. That means that councils with the greatest need will face the greatest difficulty, because they are already facing the biggest cuts in funding. How much of the funding held back for the business rates safety net in 2013-14 is required for safety net payments, and what will be the total amount held back in 2015-16? The Minister talks about business growth incentives, so why will he not allow combined authorities to keep 100% of business rate income growth? Why has there been no economic devolution to counties? How will the business rates review affect the proposed revaluation in 2017?

On the impact on front-line services, 324 libraries have closed since 2011. What assessment has the Minister made of how many more will go as a result of this statement? How many more children’s centres will close, on top of the 578 that have gone since the Secretary of State took office? What effect will this statement have on women’s refuges, school crossing patrols and day centres for the elderly? We have just had an urgent question on the crisis in accident and emergency departments. Has it not occurred to Ministers that one reason why this is happening is the cuts that councils have had to make in social care? That is why the number of people over the age of 90 going to A and E in a blue-light ambulance has increased by nearly 50% in recent years.

In difficult times what councils need is fairer funding, help with longer-term funding settlements so they can plan ahead to protect services, and more devolution of power so they can work with other public services locally to get the most out of every pound of public funding. Nowhere is that needed more than in health and social care. If the loss of services we have seen already is only part of what the Chancellor and the Secretary of State have in mind for local government in the years ahead, let me tell the Minister that Labour Members will not be joining him in a headlong rush back to the 1930s. What hard-working councillors and communities wanted today was recognition of the increasingly stark choices they face and some practical help. Instead all they have got is Ministers who have no idea what is really going on.

Kris Hopkins: I am really disappointed with the right hon. Gentleman’s tone. There was no sense of guilt or shame about the situation we were left in when we came to power. Let me mention two speeches that were made last week. In one, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor talked about the requirement and need for us to live within our means and to grow our economy in order to be able to support public services. The other speech was about how the deficit was the big test for Labour, and we can see from the right hon. Gentleman’s response today that the Opposition have no chance of meeting that test. They have failed at the first attempt, wanting to borrow and spend more money.

The Government are confident that councils can respond to the challenging economic circumstances that we inherited, and they are responding. The NAO says that many councils are dealing with that; they have been able to fix and deliver a budget, and to respond to economic emergencies as they have come about. The reality is that all councils need to respond and transform

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their delivery, and despite the right hon. Gentleman’s words, the authorities are doing thaton the ground. The Labour authorities in Manchester, Sheffield and Sunderland have faced difficult choices but are transforming their services. They are more open-minded than the Labour team on the Front Bench, ensuring that they care about delivering good services where it is important to people and that they will deal with the circumstances they are left. In answer to his question, we are delivering a reduction of 1.8% this year—if we add the transformation challenge fund moneys in, the figure drops to 1.6%. Given the economic circumstances that this Government picked up four years ago, that represents considerable movement in the right direction.

The right hon. Gentleman talked about the most deprived authorities. The 10% most deprived authorities will continue to receive 40% more than the least deprived areas, and that is important. It is a standard that we have set and we will continue to do it. However, this is not just about grant; it has to be about promoting businesses. It is about increasing growth within a particular area. That is why this Government have set about, through city challenge, growth deals and the retention of business rates, giving councils the opportunities to grow the moneys in their community. There is no greater amount than that from house building, so the new homes bonus, worth £1.2 billion, is really important.

However, there are difficult challenges to address. The better care fund is there to address one of the fundamental challenges to public services which for generations councils and health authorities have failed to address—£5 billion to be used to work with local authorities, clinical commissioning groups and acute hospitals to deliver care for the most vulnerable people. Labour Members, the Labour Government and the House historically have failed to address that. We are facing up to this problem, and getting those social workers, doctors, health workers in the same place so that they can deliver services. That is the right thing to do.

We appreciate that welfare provision is important to people, so we are identifying the spending this year in next year’s money so that users of services and people who may want to call upon that money can understand how much money has been spent historically in this area. It will be up to the local council to set those priorities and make sure that that money is available.

The right hon. Gentleman talked about counties not being included in some of the devolution, but this Government are completely open-minded on devolution and look forward to all areas coming forward with ideas about how we can devolve powers.[Interruption.]

Finally, there was an ask about women’s refuges. The Prime Minister himself thinks that this is extremely important and intervened on the issue of women’s refuges and domestic violence and saw that an extra £10 million was put in.[Interruption.] Despite the fact that this country faced an economic disaster in 2010, we are delivering a fair budget for local authorities, making sure that they can set the priorities they believe are important to them. [Interruption.]

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Dawn Primarolo): Order. As we progress through this statement, it would be really helpful if the Secretary of State stopped shouting and gesticulating across the Chamber, and if Mr Sawford

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you stopped as well, so that we can hear the questions and the answers. Mr Docherty, I do not need you saying, “Shame”, as you chatter through just about everything. Perhaps we can make progress now.

Mark Pawsey (Rugby) (Con): Households across the country will be pleased that the Government are making funds available for an unprecedented fifth year to enable a freeze in council tax. The Minister will be aware that Conservative-controlled Rugby borough council has gone further in the current year, by giving council tax payers a rebate of 3%. However, given the increasing satisfaction with the services provided by local government as shown in surveys, does the Minister agree that councils have risen to the challenge and shown themselves to be very effective at doing more with less?

Kris Hopkins: I congratulate Rugby borough council on its excellent work. I have been there myself and seen the quality of the services it is delivering. It is also setting out wider plans to deliver more houses and to promote business growth. It has also frozen its council tax, which means that residents will benefit from the fact that they have not had to pay that £1,075 over the past five years.

Mr Clive Betts (Sheffield South East) (Lab): The Minister said in his statement that no council will face a loss of more than 6.4% in its spending power next year, the lowest level in this Parliament. Why does he think that that is a matter for self-congratulation? Will he confirm that the percentage cut that local councils will face in the next year will be bigger than the cut faced by all central Government Departments throughout the whole of this Parliament?

Kris Hopkins: It is the lowest level of this Parliament. We can achieve that because we are in a far better economic situation than we were when we came to power. More money may have been taken from this particular area of public service, but the fact is it represents a quarter of all public service, which is significant. I do not relish the idea of taking money off councils, especially as people are working extremely hard to deliver quality services. I say to the hon. Gentleman that he served in a Government who crashed the economy and we are picking up the pieces. We want to support local councils, and I would be proud to work with them to deliver quality services.

Mr David Nuttall (Bury North) (Con): Bury council constantly claims that it has not had a fair deal. Will the Minister please confirm for the record that neither he nor his officials have picked on Bury council for special treatment and that Bury council is funded on exactly the same basis as every other council regardless of whether it is in the north or the south and of which party controls the council?

Kris Hopkins: I thank my hon. Friend for his question. The economy in the north is thriving and local authorities are leading the way. What I said in the statement was that we offer a fair deal to all areas—whether north or south, rural or urban. If the local authority is not content with what it has been offered, it should come and speak to me. I will be speaking to local authorities

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in the new year, and I am more than willing to talk to Bury about its council settlement.

Meg Hillier (Hackney South and Shoreditch) (Lab/Co-op): Even a borough such as mine in Hackney, which is extremely well run by Mayor Jules Pipe, will face enormous cuts in the future. The poorest of my constituents who are already finding life very hard will be squeezed until the pips squeak when social services and other budgets have to face the brunt of these cuts. How can the Minister come to this House and say that this is a good settlement for the people of Britain?

Kris Hopkins: Even the most deprived areas have an opportunity to grow the moneys they receive by promoting business. Newham, which is struggling in many ways, has still managed to grow its business rate base by some £7 million. It is up to local councils to set as a priority supporting the most vulnerable people. We have talked about social services, and it is important that councils make some choices in that area. The opportunity to grow the amount of money they receive is there, and we have put those mechanisms in place.

Sir Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) (Con): Will the Minister continue to address the grotesque divide in central Government funding of poorer rural authorities and urban authorities? For instance, my own district of West Lindsey, which is only 45 minutes from Hull, receives a staggering £282 per head less every year than Hull. That is simply unfair. People are paying £120 more in council tax, and I have in south-west Gainsborough the poorest ward in the whole country. Something needs to be done, and we need to have a fair settlement for rural authorities with a sparsity factor.

Kris Hopkins: I recognise the problem. Despite the economic circumstances, we have sought to close that gap between rural and urban areas. The fact that we have increased the rural grant this year to £15.5 million goes some way to achieving that. I say again that the East Riding of Yorkshire, not far from my hon. Friend’s constituency, has managed to grow its business rate moneys by some £5 million. Both deprived and rural areas have the opportunity to grow the moneys that come to their local council.

Mr David Winnick (Walsall North) (Lab): May I remind the Minister that as far as Walsall is concerned there has been an overall reduction of nearly 40% since 2010-11? Further reductions will have an even more devastating effect on front-line services in my borough. It is war—there is no other way to describe it. It is outright war on the most deprived areas, and it is absolutely shameful that this Government continue with such policies.

Kris Hopkins: In the few years I have been in this House, I have always held the hon. Gentleman in high respect. But it is shameful to say that I or my colleagues would go out of our way to pursue the most vulnerable. We want to preserve and protect those most vulnerable people, which is why we have given local councils the opportunity to make choices about how they spend their money.

Annette Brooke (Mid Dorset and North Poole) (LD): On local welfare assistance schemes, will the Minister

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clarify whether any extra money is being given to councils to provide those services? In the event of no ring-fencing and no monitoring, will he confirm how a family in crisis through no fault of their own will cope on a Friday afternoon if their council says, “No, we are not providing anything”?

Kris Hopkins: There is no additional money in this. I said in the statement that if, during the consultation process, a local authority or interested party wants to write to us about additional moneys over and above those noted in the Budget, we will consider its contribution in our final consideration of the settlement. In devolving powers to local authorities and enabling them to make choices, local authorities need to be transparent and open about the choices they make. My right hon. Friend says that there are people who need support. We have identified the money so that people will know what money has gone into a local council historically and been used in that area. I challenge local people to make sure that those authorities make the right choice to protect those individuals in need.

Nic Dakin (Scunthorpe) (Lab): What this statement manages to combine is further savage cuts in spending to local authorities with further devolution of blame to local authorities. Will the Minister commit to publishing the financial cumulative impact of the cuts over the life of this Government on each local authority?

Kris Hopkins: The cuts have had to be made as a consequence of the Labour Government’s failure to manage the economy. They are what happened as a result of the mess that was left. We have had to make difficult choices. Local authorities are far more sensible and respectful in trying to address that matter than Opposition Members. I am more likely to have a trustworthy conversation about trying to deliver those services with someone from a local authority than with any Opposition Member.

Robert Neill (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con): I congratulate the Minister and his colleagues on the statement and urge them not to take any lessons from a party that produced record deficits and doubled the council tax. Does he accept that if we are to have genuine local accountability, it is critical that it must be in a climate in which we continue to move away from old-fashioned dependency on central Government grant and to break down the ring-fencing that has inhibited innovation, as we have seen demonstrated by the better care fund, which deals with one of the key pressures on upper-tier authorities?

Kris Hopkins: I respect the wise words of my hon. Friend. He is right: the council tax has dropped 11% as a consequence of the actions that we have taken. It doubled under the previous Government. There is a need to move away from grant and to grow local economies. The best councils are now stepping up to the mark and growing those economies. On the better care fund, it is a difficult issue, but we are facing up to it. Where

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previous Governments have failed to do this, we will deliver savings and ensure that those vulnerable people are getting a decent service and the dignity that they need.

Kate Green (Stretford and Urmston) (Lab): What assessment has the Minister made of the likely impact on some of the most vulnerable people—disabled people, low-income families with children and women fleeing domestic violence—of his plans not to put more money into local welfare assistance and not to protect that funding?

Kris Hopkins: As I have already said, the 10% of areas that are most deprived will receive 40% more than the least deprived. Issues of domestic violence are important to this Government and we have put additional moneys—some £10 million— into that. We will constantly monitor resources related to the issues the hon. Lady raises.

Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): On the Government Benches, we understand why spending reductions need to be made, even if the Labour party does not. Does the Minister agree that local councils should treat all parts of their local areas fairly? He will know, for example, that Bradford council has drastically cut children’s centre provision in his constituency and mine, while protecting its Labour heartlands at the centre of Bradford, even though they have children’s centres virtually around the corner from each other. What can he do to ensure that all parts of local authorities get a fair crack of the whip and that political games are not played by local councils to punish more Conservative parts of their area?

Kris Hopkins: I thank my hon. Friend for his comments and obviously I know the areas he is talking about. All the Labour children’s centres are being protected and all the Conservative ones are being closed. The fact that he has raised this in Parliament—[Interruption.] Centres in Labour wards are being protected and centres in Conservative wards are being closed. The public have heard that and will make a judgment on it.

Mr Jim Cunningham (Coventry South) (Lab): I was rather surprised that the Secretary of State did not make today’s statement, given that a quarter of the Government’s budget is spent by local government. He did the same thing the other day on the fire brigade.

This announcement will not help anybody in Coventry to participate. We need to find another £65 million for the libraries, for instance, and the welfare budget will affect a lot of people from among the worst-off. Equally, we have bed blocking because we cannot get social workers, which affects University hospital Coventry. The settlement is an utter disgrace and it is no good the Minister blaming the previous Labour Government when he and I know that it was the bankers he is apologising for.

Kris Hopkins: I wondered how long it would take for the bankers to come up in this conversation. The Minister responsible for local government makes the local government finance settlement announcement, and I am pleased to do so today. If the hon. Gentleman wants to grow his local economy, rather than coming here, not wanting to talk about his failures as part of the Labour

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Administration, he needs to go back to Coventry and think about ways in which to grow the business base and encourage more housing. That will create better outcomes for the people he alleges to represent.

Andrew George (St Ives) (LD): Cornwall, the poorest region in the country, is already doing more with less. Before the Conservative opposition in Cornwall runs another shameless campaign for a council tax freeze as the council faces a cut of a third of its budget over the next three years, causing carnage in the local authority, will the Minister reflect on his statement today that he is closing the gap between underfunded rural authorities, such as Cornwall, and urban authorities? At the rate he is going, he might close the gap by the next ice age. Will he please go back to the drawing board?

Kris Hopkins: An extra £4 million is definitely an increase—it was £11.5 million and is now £15.5 million. The Government are going a long way towards closing the gap. If the hon. Gentleman believes that more money is required, there is a mechanism by which that can be achieved, as the council can increase the council tax. He should trust the people of Cornwall and put it to the vote.

Jack Dromey (Birmingham, Erdington) (Lab): Yesterday, on top of 1,400 police officers already gone, West Midlands police service suffered a cut of £23 million, being treated less fairly than Surrey. Today, on top of nearly £500 million of cuts, Birmingham will see a further cut of £348 million over the next two years, being treated less fairly than Surrey. Is the National Audit Office right when it says that those with the greatest need, such as Birmingham, are suffering the biggest percentage cuts? Is it not absolutely wrong that everything that this Government do is characterised by rank unfairness?

Kris Hopkins: Birmingham is not being pursued in any greater way than anybody else, but it has its own challenges. There is a report out about the effectiveness of its leadership, and it needs to respond appropriately to it. I wonder what savings can be made in that authority, bearing in mind the poor leadership over recent years.

Jason McCartney (Colne Valley) (Con): Labour-run Kirklees council has recently managed to find £200,000 to lend to the struggling Castle and Minster credit union. There is no guarantee that it will get that money back. Does the Minister agreed that that is the kind of can-do attitude we need more of from our Labour-run councils?

Kris Hopkins: Being from west Yorkshire, I have seen some interesting responses from different leaders of Kirklees council over the years. I have also been able to see some excellent work there. Credit unions are an important part of the local economy and if the council is offering that service and can get the money returned, it is the right thing to do, but it is public money and the council must be accountable for it. I am sure that the public will be watching where that money has gone.

Heidi Alexander (Lewisham East) (Lab): In his statement, the Minister said that local authorities continue to make a vital contribution to helping pay off the deficit.

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The truth is that they are making a disproportionate contribution. Lewisham tells me that at some point in the year 2017-18, if it covers the costs of social care and waste collection, it will have £20 million left to spend on all other services. If the Minister was the leader of Lewisham council, what would he stop providing: leisure centres, libraries or parks?

Kris Hopkins: It is important that local government makes a contribution, as £114 billion is a huge amount of money. Today's announcement involves £49 billion on its own. If I were leader of Lewisham council, I would build its business base. Even the most deprived areas can do it. Newham has managed to grow its economy by some £7 million, and if Newham can do it, I am sure Lewisham can as well.

Nigel Mills (Amber Valley) (Con): I welcome the extra year's funding for council tax freezes. Will the Minister join me in urging Amber Valley borough council, in its one year under Labour rule, to extend the five-year council tax freeze that operated when the Conservatives were in control?

Kris Hopkins: The public of Amber Valley will be watching what the Labour council does. We have given a significant amount of money, £5 billion, to enable councils to freeze their council tax for the past five years. I am sure that the public will make their decision in early May as a consequence of the choices that councils make.

Helen Goodman (Bishop Auckland) (Lab): When the Government abolished the social fund and transferred responsibility to local authorities, they said it was an administrative change. Now the Minister has come to the House and said that there is no additional money and that this is discretionary spend on the part of local authorities. Is that not truly the return of local poor boards and to the 1930s?

Kris Hopkins: I have said already that it is important that local communities can understand what has been spent and can see in their councils’ budget lines what choices local authorities have made. I trust local authorities to make those choices to protect those individuals. That is the whole point of localism, and being accountable for those choices at the ballot box is the right approach. We have clearly indicated how much money there is, and the most vulnerable individuals can be protected if councils make the right choices.

Mr Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con): Will my hon. Friend agree to meet the leaders of Christchurch and East Dorset councils to discuss the work they have done to improve the quality of services for taxpayers by having shared services? Would he also be willing to discuss why he rejected their bid for funding under the transformation challenge award when it seemed to satisfy all the criteria for part A of the scheme?

Kris Hopkins: I would be absolutely delighted to meet my hon. Friend’s councils. They have done some exemplary work in sharing services and we want to ensure that we share that excellent work with other authorities through the transformation network so that they can do it, too. There were some exceptional bids for the award scheme

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and we have had to make difficult choices. His councils were unlucky this time, but perhaps in future bidding rounds they might be successful.

Stephen Timms (East Ham) (Lab): The Minister is right repeatedly to commend Newham council. The social fund, which my hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) mentioned, was the ultimate safety net against destitution. On the basis of the Minister’s statement, can he give any assurance that the replacement local welfare assistance will continue to be available where it is needed?

Kris Hopkins: I was very complimentary earlier about Newham and the fact that it has managed to grow its base. When making choices about how to ensure that those vulnerable people are looked after, which both the right hon. Gentleman and I also want to ensure, the council will no doubt consider the fact that it has increased its reserves by some £46 million in the past year, a significant amount of money that could be used to look after those vulnerable individuals.

Dr Matthew Offord (Hendon) (Con): It has been reported that the Local Government Association said that public services would buckle under the cuts, but does the Minister agree that that does not appear to be happening on the ground? In my local authority, the London borough of Barnet, over £70 million has been taken out of the annual budget since 2010, 77% of those savings through efficiency in the back office. At the same time public satisfaction with services has increased from 53% to 75%. Does the Minister now feel vindicated?

Kris Hopkins: Members of the House can feel vindicated that they made the right choices. Labour said that it would be an economic disaster if we took the money away from regional development agencies, but we now lead the G8 in growth. A million jobs were going to go, according to Labour, but 1.7 million jobs have been delivered. Local authorities are also stepping up to the plate. They are making the choices to deliver good-quality services with a reduced amount of money and they can be very proud of what they have done.

Mike Gapes (Ilford South) (Lab/Co-op): Labour-led Redbridge council has re-introduced weekly refuse collections, brought in free bulk waste collections and, to help local businesses, introduced 30 minutes’ free parking. All those proposals were in the manifesto on which the council was elected. Despite the legacy of the previous Con-Dem council and the problems emanating from the Con-Dem Government, we are supposed to pay £70 million in the next three years. What figure will be taken out in addition, and does that mean that the improved local services will be put at risk?

Kris Hopkins: I was beginning to wonder which party was in if the council had introduced weekly bin collections and free parking. Perhaps we can look at what reserves the council has. Councils across the country have increased their reserves by some £2.2 billion, taking the grand total to £21.4 billion, a huge amount of money. Some of those councils can make some choices that would make the whole system work better.

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Andrew Gwynne (Denton and Reddish) (Lab): Has the Minister had time to digest the findings of the survey of local government finance directors conducted by the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy, which shows that their confidence in their ability to continue funding services has plummeted? Will he consider the findings, including a desire for councils to be funded in a long-term and sustainable way, rather than by “stop-gap” measures such as the new homes bonus and the council tax freeze grant?

Kris Hopkins: No, I have not read the CIPFA report, but I have listened to the public, who have said that they continue to have confidence in the quality of services offered by local authorities.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North) (Lab): Is the Minister aware of the damage he is doing to local government all over the country with massive cuts year on year, while demand increases among the poorest people in our community? By the end of the next financial year my borough council will have had its income cut by 50%. That is a massive cut for an inner-city borough with a very large number of poor children, and a very large number of needs in the social care and many other areas. Will the Minister think for a moment of what the cumulative effect of all this destruction of local government is doing to local communities, to jobs and, in the long run, to the achievement of many people in schools and other places?

Kris Hopkins: I repeat that overall the budget will be reduced by 1.6%. Bearing in mind that the Government whom the hon. Gentleman supported prior to 2010 left a deficit of £163 billion, getting to the point where we have to reduce our budget by only 1.6% is testament to the work done to ensure that we get things back on track, rather than reckless spending, which the hon. Gentleman may suggest.

Mr Gareth Thomas (Harrow West) (Lab/Co-op): Harrow local authority faces some £25 million in funding cuts next year, including the possible closure of the popular North Harrow and Rayners Lane libraries and virtually all our children’s centres. Given that Harrow faces a further £50 million worth of cuts in future years, can the Minister say when Harrow might expect a fairer funding settlement?

Kris Hopkins: All local authorities across the country are facing difficult decisions. What efficiencies has the hon. Gentleman’s local authority put in place? What business growth has it stimulated to enable it to address the challenges that he talks about? If he believes that the council needs to raise more money, there is a mechanism for it to do so. He should suggest the amount and test that opinion among the public.

Point of Order

1.26 pm

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I notice that on today’s Order Paper there are 32 written statements by the Government, and Mr Speaker has kindly granted two urgent questions on one day. On the last day of the Session, is it on for the Government to put down

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32 statements, many of which could and should have been oral statements so that Members could hold the Government to account for their policies?

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Dawn Primarolo): I will take that as a rhetorical question, on the basis that it is not a point of order or a matter for the Chair, but when we have concluded the next business on the Select Committee statement, the Adjournment provides for a wide-ranging debate. It is up to the Government to decide how many oral or written statements they put before the House; it is not within the remit of the Chair.

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National Planning Policy Framework

communities and local government committee

Select Committee statement

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Dawn Primarolo): Mr Clive Betts will speak on his subject for up to 10 minutes, during which no interventions may be taken. At the conclusion of his statement, I will call Members to put questions on the subject of the statement, and call Mr Betts to respond to these in turn. Members can expect to be called only once. Interventions should be questions and should be brief, not statements. We do not need any background information. Members on the Front Bench may take part in the questioning. I call the Chair of the Communities and Local Government Committee, Mr Clive Betts.

1.27 pm

Mr Clive Betts (Sheffield South East) (Lab): I am delighted to present the Committee’s report and I thank in particular our Committee specialist, Kevin Maddison, and specialist adviser, Kelvin MacDonald, whose hard work and expertise have made a major contribution to the report. As has been customary with reports from the Committee, this report was agreed unanimously.

Three years ago this week we published our report on the draft national planning policy framework which, at the request of the Government, we had closely scrutinised. We were encouraged that the Government paid close attention to our findings at that time and accepted 30 of our 35 recommendations. By listening to and acting upon the concerns that we raised, the Government were able to make big improvements so that when the final version of the NPPF was published in March 2012, it was well received for the simplification that it brought to the planning system. The NPPF, in the words of the then Minister, now the Minister for Universities, Science and Cities, the right hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark), reduced

“over a thousand pages of often impenetrable jargon into around 50 pages of clearly written guidance”.

The NPPF was a bold, radical and much needed change. Given that it was such a big change, it was inevitable that there would be unforeseen problems and that a couple of years down the line some changes would be needed to it. No Government could have carried out such a wide-ranging reform and expected it to work perfectly from the off. This was the motivation for our inquiry, which led to our report. Our aim was to take a comprehensive look at the NPPF as it was operating in practice, to identify any sticking points or unintended consequences and to make recommendations on how they should be addressed. Our approach was thorough: 300 submissions were made to the Committee, we called 45 witnesses, we had discussions with 60 representatives from parish and town councils and community groups, and we made visits to the Planning Inspectorate and to councils in Gloucestershire. We based our recommendations on the evidence we found.

We found overall that there is still strong support for the principles of the NPPF and the simplification that it has brought. We do not need to tear it up and start again. There are, however, a number of emerging concerns

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that people have raised with us about inappropriate development in their communities. Much of this arises as a result of speculative planning applications by developers. Although the NPPF is clear about the importance of sustainable development, for many people, sadly, the absence of a local plan has created an easy route to unsustainable development. In our report, we set out a number of steps that should be taken to address these concerns.

The key to preventing undesirable development is for councils to get their local plans in place. Local plans were first introduced in 2004, but two fifths of authorities have still not adopted one. This is not a problem with the NPPF, but the NPPF envisages and is based on a plan-led system. The NPPF has a presumption in favour of sustainable development, but that golden thread running through the framework is linked to the development of local plans. One cannot have a plan-led system without plans. Councils that fail to adopt a plan surrender their ability to influence the future development of their local area and leave their communities exposed to speculative development. We therefore call for a statutory requirement for every council to put a local plan in place within three years.

Some councils may not have shown the political will or made available the necessary resources to develop local plans, but we received evidence of a number of other issues that have delayed their production. The planning inspector’s approach can be a barrier to councils getting plans in place. The process of producing a plan has been likened to a game of snakes and ladders: councils can spend years drawing up a plan only for the inspector, on examination, to find it unsound and send the council right back to square one. This is frustrating and wasteful, especially if the plan comes unstuck on just one particular issue.

We call for the Government to allow plans to be partially adopted when the bulk of the work has been done. When an inspector is happy with the bulk of a plan, he should consider finding it sound, subject to an early review. Such an approach was taken in Dacorum, to widespread acclaim. We could not understand why the Planning Inspectorate did not see that as a model for others to follow. Inspectors should also give more support to councils throughout the plan production process. The assessment of housing need has emerged as a particular bone of contention. There is a clear need for an agreed methodology against which inspectors can test strategic housing market assessments.

Another sticking point for local plans is a duty to co-operate. The Government should consult on appropriate incentives and penalties to encourage councils to co-operate better. Councils such as Cheltenham, Gloucester and Tewkesbury, which we visited, should be rewarded for choosing to group together. Where combined authorities exist, a duty should be placed on them to produce a joint core strategy for the area they cover.

Problems identifying a five-year supply of housing land have left many areas without an adopted local plan. Up and down the country, in places as diverse as Leeds and Forest of Dean, problems have been caused by developers claiming that sites are unviable in order to obtain planning permission on more lucrative sites, against the wishes of the council and its communities

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and also delaying the local plan process. To address this, the NPPF should be amended to make it clear that all sites with planning permission should be counted towards a five-year supply. Moreover, developers are taking a pessimistic view about the future viability of sites. They refuse to accept that brownfield sites that are unviable now may well be viable in five years’ time, and therefore look to add more greenfield sites to the five-year supply. We call for a much more transparent approach to the assessment of viability. Developers should be required to open their books and account must be taken of future projections of viability.

We must make better use of previously used land. The NPPF is clear that brownfield land should be developed first, but a lack of resources means that this often does not happen in practice. The Government have launched some eye-catching initiatives, but they do not address the costs of making the land fit for building. In order to deliver their own policy, we call on the Government to establish a brownfield remediation fund.

Next, we must update the NPPF to ensure that it gives greater protection to town centres. Planning policy must face up to the fact that changing shopping habits, particularly with online shopping, mean that town centre uses are also changing. The Welsh Government are producing a new 21st-century town centre planning policy, and we must do the same in England. Councils must look to reduce the size of their retail areas, which are often too large for modern needs. To do this effectively, we need to manage and plan the change. Our evidence was strongly opposed to the new permitted development rights that allow shops and banks to become homes without the need for planning permission. It is too random, and risks hollowing out the commercial heart of our town centres in an unplanned way. Councils have to be able to plan strategically for the future of their communities through their local plans. These permitted development rights must be revoked.

Finally, the Government must ensure that the NPPF delivers the sustainable development that it promised. Steps must be taken to ensure that equal weight is given to environmental and social factors as well as the economic ones. Development must be accompanied by the infrastructure necessary to support it.

Those are some of the steps that the Government should take. They should also carefully monitor the impact of the NPPF. Regrettably, it stopped collecting important data about what is being built, and so we no longer know how many homes are being built on brownfield land or what percentage of retail development is built on out-of-town sites. Ministers should not be making policy decisions in the dark. The Government need to establish a set of data to monitor the impact of the NPPF against a small number of key aims.

In summary, the NPPF has, overall, been a success. It has consolidated planning policy and made it more accessible to professionals and the public alike. The Government should be proud of their achievement, but they should not be defensive about the changes we say are needed. With a major reform, there will always be issues that have to be addressed. Three years ago, the Government and the then Minister embraced our report on the draft NPPF and acted on our recommendations. I very much hope that the current Minister will be equally positive in his response to this report. We must build on the success of the NPPF to give communities

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the protections they seek, to deliver development that is truly sustainable, and to ensure that the NPPF becomes a document in which everyone can have confidence.

Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (The Cotswolds) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his Committee’s work, not only in this excellent report but previously. The report contains a number of issues that I would like to raise, primarily local plans.

Of course, a plan-led system needs plans. I was disturbed to hear the hon. Gentleman say that only two fifths of local authorities have a plan in place. Two of the local authorities that I represent do not have a plan. That is causing them severe problems with speculative developers. It also means that parish and town councils are reluctant to embark on neighbourhood plans, which are really important. An example of these problems is in a bit of evidence that his Committee was given from Kingswood parish council in my constituency. It had plenty of sites available, but a speculative developer has emerged on the worst possible site, and it looks as though the district council will be unable to resist granting that permission.

The Government should cut the three-year requirement to have a plan in place to a year and a half. They should adopt a carrot-and-stick approach, forcing councils to introduce the plans but also providing resources to help to them to do it. Small local authorities in my constituency are very short of forward planning resources. The Government should also make it easier to adopt plans. A lot of developments cause problems when infrastructure is not in place, as in the case of the 2,500-house development proposed in Chesterton in my constituency.

Mr Betts: The hon. Gentleman is right that local plans are at the heart of this. We set out a number of ways in which the process could be improved and simplified. At the Planning Inspectorate, we were shown boxes of documents just for one local plan in one area. It has all got a bit too complicated. He is right about neighbourhood plans. They are a success where they have been put in place, but there is an issue about the relationship between neighbourhood plans and local plans, particularly when the neighbourhood plan comes first and then has to be related to the local plan. His point about infrastructure is well made, and it is mentioned in our recommendations.

Mark Reckless (Rochester and Strood) (UKIP): I had mistakenly thought that this Government were intending to localise planning decisions. Does the hon. Gentleman think it is possible to make an objective assessment, as the Government purport to do, with consultants or otherwise, on housing need in a particular area? Would it not be more sensible to allow local authorities to make these decisions as appropriate, perhaps with financial incentives through the new homes bonus or business rates?

Mr Betts: Assessment of housing need is problematic, and the evidence we received was that often local authorities would work for a long time on it, only for the Planning Inspectorate to arrive at the end of the process, decide that its methodology and conclusions were different and then send the local authorities back to the drawing board. We think that the Planning Inspectorate could work more closely with authorities during the process,

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but we also feel—I think local authorities generally agree with this—that if the Planning Inspectorate, right at the beginning of the process, laid down in guidance a consistent methodology, most councils would welcome that. Indeed, when Lord Matthew Taylor undertook his report on planning guidance, he suggested that that was an area on which further guidance would be welcome.

Sir William Cash (Stone) (Con): May I congratulate the hon. Gentleman and his Committee on an excellent report and on the balanced way in which they have gone about it, paying tribute where it needs to be paid and making constructive criticisms where they are deserved? On Tuesday I presented to the House the Local Planning and Housing Bill, which I hope the hon. Gentleman will have an opportunity to look at, if he has not already done so. It has been printed and deals with matters such as local plans, neighbourhood plans, housing supply, local development orders, affordable housing, land banking, duration of planning permission, development on greenfield, green belt and brownfield sites, and the definition of sustainable housing development. I hope the hon. Gentleman will find some of the Bill’s ideas helpful and I would be grateful if we could talk about it on a future occasion.

Mr Betts: I would certainly be more than happy to meet the hon. Gentleman when I have had a chance to read his Bill, which is on my Christmas reading list and seems to address exactly the sorts of issues the Committee considered. I emphasise that this is a Committee report. The whole of the Committee worked extremely hard and went on the visits, and we agreed the recommendations unanimously.

Sir Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): Will the hon. Gentleman comment on one unintended consequence and offer advice on it? One local authority in my part of Essex has decided to plonk several thousand houses on the extremities of its district, miles away from its major centres of population but right on the doorstep of urban Colchester. Is there not a flaw in the NPPF if that sort of situation is being allowed to happen?

Mr Betts: The hon. Gentleman will recognise that I cannot comment on or have knowledge of every particular planning development throughout the country. Clearly, there are issues of contention where housing need in one area has to be met by putting housing in another area. The duty to co-operate, which should resolve that, has not been working in all circumstances. We went to Gloucestershire and found three councils working very well together, but even they said that they did not always have terribly good relationships with the councils next door that were not part of their process. A look needs to be taken at the whole issue of co-operation and how it can be improved.

Robert Neill (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con): May I join in the congratulations to the hon. Gentleman and his Committee on this very good and useful report? I have a lot of sympathy for many of its recommendations. On partial adoption of plans and the statutory duty, has the Committee considered what might be done specifically to simplify the plan development process? Councils have sometimes had eight-plus years to develop local plans. If we are going to impose a duty, should we

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not also consider how we can reduce the amount of information that goes into the plans; how they can be made more strategic rather than needlessly complicated; and how in particular we can deal with the delays that are sometimes caused to planning authorities by statutory consultees? If there are going to be penalties for planning authorities, should there not also be penalties for statutory consultees when they delay the process?

Mr Betts: The hon. Gentleman’s last point is a very good one. We did not take particular evidence on it, but it does aggravate councils up and down the country. We made a recommendation that a look should be taken at how the process could be simplified. We did not go into the specifics, but boxes of documents at the Planning Inspectorate for one local plan for a relatively small district showed how complicated the process has become. At a time of spending and resource constraints, many councils are struggling to finish that complicated process. We think that the Government, the Planning Inspectorate and local government should sit down together and revise and simplify the process.

Nick Herbert (Arundel and South Downs) (Con): As a strong supporter of localism and neighbourhood planning in particular, may I echo the warm welcome for the hon. Gentleman’s Committee’s report, which correctly identifies a number of the issues confronting local communities? May I also join in his plea to the Minister to pay attention to the recommendations, to respond to them constructively and as soon as possible, and in particular to deal with the problem of the loophole that is allowing speculative development applications, with developers circling villages like hawks, waiting to pounce on greenfield sites that are not in identified local or neighbourhood plans, and as a result undermining faith in the localism we promised?

Mr Betts: That sentiment was expressed very strongly to us when we met the 60 representatives of community groups and parish groups. We consistently heard the message that people did not feel in control of what was happening in their own areas. If there was no local plan in place, they felt completely unprotected against individual applications for developments that they felt would be unsustainable. The right hon. Gentleman gave evidence to the Committee on precisely those points and we took that very much into account in our recommendations.

Mark Pawsey (Rugby) (Con): May I thank the Chair of the Committee for his accurate representation of our report and pay tribute to him for the way in which he brought people together—Members and witnesses—throughout our inquiry? I am sure he will have seen the recent report by the Home Builders Federation which shows that planning permissions for new homes are running at 200,000 a year for the first time in many years. That is evidence of a simpler and more easily understood system, but we heard concerns from individuals and groups about the operation of the NPPF. The evidence showed that the greatest challenges occurred in those areas where there was no local plan—this is a plan-led system—but that people have little to fear when the local authority has a plan in place. Therefore,

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the Committee was entirely right to call for a statutory requirement for local authorities to get their plan in place promptly.

We also identified one or two areas where the NPPF could be strengthened, one of which relates to housing land supply, whereby those authorities that have identified large sites that are not deliverable within the five years are vulnerable to speculative applications. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the Committee was entirely right in calling for that matter to be addressed?

Mr Betts: I thank the hon. Gentleman, who is also a member of the Committee, for his contribution to the report, particularly the way in which he focused on the problems with the five-year supply of housing and the definitions of viability. Indeed, sites where planning permission has actually been given are not necessarily automatically factored into the five-year supply, and our report calls for that to be addressed. The hon. Gentleman did not mention this, but he has also been a great champion of what more we can do to protect the high street and town and city centres.

Martin Horwood (Cheltenham) (LD): The hon. Gentleman praised the joint core strategy process in Cheltenham, Gloucester and Tewkesbury, but will he acknowledge that there are huge problems with local consent even there? For instance, Leckhampton parish council produced a well-thought-out and substantial application for local green space status under the NPPF, but it was told that it could not use it before the JCS process because it would pre-empt the plan-making process; that it could not use it during the JCS process because it was more appropriate at local plan level; and that it could not use it in the local plan afterwards if the land had already been allocated to a development in the JCS. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that those kinds of Kafka-esque techniques for defeating the wishes of local residents are not in the spirit of the NPPF or of localism?

Mr Betts: The hon. Gentleman’s comments show that even when authorities make genuine attempts to co-operate, it does not always result in sweetness and light. We also identified a problem with the relationship between neighbourhood plans and local plans. That needs to be clarified because there is a lot of concern—particularly when a neighbourhood plan comes before a local plan—that there can be misunderstandings about the relative status of the two.

Fiona Bruce (Congleton) (Con): May I congratulate the Committee on an excellent report? Suspension of the local plan for Cheshire East council, covering my constituency, is causing untold concern in areas such as Congleton, Sandbach and Alsager, despite a huge of volume of work by Cheshire East council. I therefore thank the Committee for highlighting many points, including the need for clarification of what sustainable development actually means, the need to facilitate partial adoption, and the inclusion of housing consents in planning numbers, which would go a long way to help my council in finalising its plan.

In the meantime, while the Minister considers those points, will the Chair of the Committee join me in asking Ministers to speed up the process for the formulation

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of neighbourhood plans? No fewer than 14 such plans are now in train in the Cheshire East area, but these are small communities. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there should be a clear, quick process, free of bureaucracy and with the appropriate resources and support, so that the plans can finalised in early course?

Mr Betts: There is widespread support for the concept of neighbourhood plans, but there is some concern that poorer communities may not be able to adopt the process as easily as more affluent ones. That goes back to the issue of the relative status of neighbourhood and local plans if, for example, 14 neighbourhood plans are being developed but there is no local plan.

We think that the definition of sustainable development in the NPPF is a good one—it draws on Brundtland and on the five principles—and we do not want to change it. The problem is that the definition goes on to say that sustainable development is defined by everything in the NPPF, and we thought that that rather circular argument was unnecessary.

Roberta Blackman-Woods (City of Durham) (Lab): I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend and his Select Committee on producing this excellent report. It raises several issues about the national planning policy framework and how it operates in practice, and the Government will need to address those issues. I am particularly pleased that it echoes much of the Lyons report, commissioned by Labour, which deals with critical issues such as how to get local authorities to produce local plans and the need for more land to be made available to support housing and infrastructure development.

I particularly want to stress that I agree with my hon. Friend’s findings on town centres. Did his Committee receive evidence from local authorities that are finding that allowing a change of use from office to residential, under permitted development rights and without planning permission, is hurting local businesses and leading to a shortage of much needed office space in some areas?

Mr Betts: The specific regulations on permitted development rights were not about offices, but about shops and banks. However, we did receive some evidence on that. Concerns have been identified, particularly in London, about the loss of business and office space to residential use.

I want to make two points about town centres. First, local authorities—I am a great localist—did not get the message that retailing was changing fundamentally with online shopping, and did not change their local plans quickly enough to respond to that, which is a big issue. Secondly, the Committee strongly made the point that the response to such rapid changes has to be properly planned for by making changes to local plans. If, on a pepper-potted basis, we allow a change of use from shops and banks to residential, we might well end up with less ability to reconfigure town centres or to change areas wholesale from retail to other uses. That was one of our big concerns. There should be a plan-led approach to changes in retailing, not pepper-potting by permitted development.

The Minister of State, Department for Communities and Local Government (Brandon Lewis): I want to add to what all Members have quite rightly said in congratulating

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the Select Committee and its Chairman on putting together a solid and sound report. They have my and the Government’s thanks for the efforts that they have clearly put into taking evidence and working on the report.

I particularly note the importance given to neighbourhood plans, which has been mentioned. I agree that they are hugely important, which is why we are speeding up the process and putting another £22 million into them. It is good that, as has been outlined, the general view is that the NPPF is working. It has now delivered 240,000 new planning permissions in the past year.

I assure the Committee that the Government and the Planning Inspectorate will look at the report’s 29 recommendations as part of our desire to improve the planning system—we can speed it up, while ensuring that we further enforce localism and local decision making, which is the key to positive development in future—but does the hon. Gentleman agree that local plans are hugely important, and that local authorities should be getting on with delivering local plans as well as neighbourhood plans to make sure that they have real local power over planning? Like me, he will be interested to see how local government reacts to and takes on board the eight recommendations specifically directed at local government. I again thank him for the report.

Mr Betts: Last time the Government agreed to 30 of our recommendations. It will be difficult to match that this time as we have given them only 29 recommendations, but I am sure that they will be grateful to receive one less.

It is absolutely right that the Government should take away the report and consider it. We are saying that the NPPF has been a success in general, but we hope that the Government will recognise that there are some problems, particularly about issues—the development of local plans, the five-year supply of housing land and the relationship between neighbourhood and local plans—that need to be addressed to improve the system that they set up. I hope that the Government will respond positively, and we look forward to discussing their response to our recommendations when it is made.