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Yvonne Fovargue (Makerfield) (Lab): I agree with my hon. Friend about prevention. Along with the local authority in the Wigan borough, the “Hidden Voices” project has worked with young homeless people to produce a prevention pack for schools, which perhaps dispels some of the myths about how easy it is to live on the streets. Young homeless people can explain why they went on the street and how that can be avoided. Such projects need to be supported.

Simon Danczuk: My hon. Friend makes an excellent point, not least because the voluntary sector is at the forefront of innovative solutions such as the one she described, which can dissuade people from becoming homeless or prevent homelessness from occurring. I, too, pay tribute to the organisation in Wigan that she mentioned.

Another key issue for Government action must be the housing crisis. It is no surprise that we have the lowest rate of house building since the 1920s and have seen a dramatic increase in the number of young homeless people —the two must surely be related. The lack of housing supply is causing house prices and rents to soar, often pricing young people out of the market completely. When combined with low pay and insecure work, that creates a lethal cocktail that leaves young people extremely vulnerable. When young people are left exposed in that way, a proper safety net to help them before they end up on the streets is vital.

Under the current Government, some of the structures to support and help young people have been dismantled, such as the local welfare assistance schemes. The money for those schemes was spent directly by local authorities to help the most vulnerable people in their areas, and it could come, for example, in the form of a crisis loan if there was an emergency situation such as a broken boiler or a leaking roof. The loans went to people who desperately needed help and were a real lifeline. Under those schemes, money was also given in community care grants and used to fund charities that work with vulnerable people, such as the Cripplegate Foundation in Islington, which works with marginalised people, including victims of domestic violence. Many of those young people are the most likely to become homeless, and the work done by such charities has been vital in preventing that.

The money for the welfare assistance schemes was clearly a lifeline for many people, but the Government have decided to cut it. At first, of course, they did not admit to cutting it. The Government tried to sneak out the news in the local government finance settlement in late December 2013. They did not get away with that and were challenged by local authorities and charities. Finally, the Government agreed to consult on their proposals for the welfare assistance fund, which I welcomed. The consultation found that if the funding were cut, 75% of local authorities would not be able to afford to fund the schemes from the core grant. Having heard that, and knowing how important the money is, we might have thought that the Government would continue to fund local welfare, but no; they have gone ahead and cut the money.

That is bad enough, but what makes it worse is that Ministers will still not admit that that is exactly what they are doing. Listening to the local government finance settlement in December, it sounded as though £130 million remained available, but that was only smoke and mirrors. The

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reality is that the money was cut. The £130 million mentioned was simply money that the Government have identified for local welfare, but they expect it to be found by local authorities from the core grant.

Annette Brooke (Mid Dorset and North Poole) (LD): I share the hon. Gentleman’s great concern about the cuts in the local welfare assistance schemes. I very much hope that there is time to achieve at least part of the budget for extra funds before the final announcement on the local government finance settlement. People should speak more about the fund and the excellent schemes that it is used on—it is the post of last resort, which is so important.

Simon Danczuk: I am glad that the hon. Lady agrees with me, but the Government and Ministers whom she supports do not. They have not increased the budget; they have simply identified an amount of money, but it is not additional and is expected to come from the core grant. That is not acceptable, not least because the Government’s own consultation showed that 75% of local authorities could not afford to find the money should it be needed, which it clearly is because we have a dramatic increase in homelessness.

When the Minister speaks, I hope that he will admit that the money has been cut and take responsibility for the results of that decision. We know what the results will be: struggling people will not be helped; more young people will be abandoned; and ultimately, more young people will be homeless on our streets.

To conclude, I make the following points. The figures about homeless people speak for themselves. Government policy has contributed to the situation and we need a concerted effort from the Government to combat it. In previous years, we have seen successful Government initiatives such as the rough sleepers initiative. We need to find the determination to do that again.

Mr Slaughter: My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. I am glad that he mentioned London, where there has been a 77% increase in street homelessness under this Government, which is exactly because we do not have such initiatives any more and because deliberate Government policy has been not to build affordable housing or to provide the type of accommodation that young homeless people can live in.

Simon Danczuk: I completely take on board that point. We cannot remove such support. The lender of last resort should be the Government, the state or local authorities. A raft of support is always needed at the 11th hour, at the worst point in a person’s life, but it is being taken away completely.

In the short term, steps can be taken. A simple one would be to reverse the cut in local welfare assistance and to allow councils to get support to vulnerable people before it is too late. Spending that small amount of money—£130 million is small in the scale of things—would help to prevent more money from having to be spent for a bigger cost further down the line. Most importantly, it would prevent thousands of young people from ending up on the streets, giving them a chance for a better life.

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3.6 pm

Sarah Newton (Truro and Falmouth) (Con): First, may I congratulate my constituency neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay (Stephen Gilbert), on securing the debate and on his excellent speech, which gave a comprehensive appraisal and thoroughly good analysis of the situation? I associate myself with the comments that he made about the wide range of organisations acting nationally to raise awareness about young homeless people and to provide a range of solutions and services to support them so ably.

I am, however, rather disappointed with the speech made by the hon. Member for Rochdale (Simon Danczuk), who preceded me and introduced party politics. The young people who are watching the debate deserve something rather better from us. We should be making a determined effort to use the data in the Crisis report and other reports to be released shortly, such as the one from the Children’s Society, to work together to do something—

Ian Lavery: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Sarah Newton: I will make some progress before I take an intervention.

Simon Danczuk: Will the hon. Lady give way, given that she made reference to me?

Sarah Newton: When I have made this particular point, I am happy to do so.

The Conservative party has a long tradition of campaigning on homelessness. In the 1970s, MPs Iain Macleod and William Shearman were in favour of the first legislation to be introduced to protect homeless people. My right hon. Friend the Member for North West Hampshire (Sir George Young) introduced the rough sleepers initiative, which cut dramatically the numbers of people sleeping on our streets. More recently, Boris Johnson has made tackling rough sleeping in London a central part of his mayoralty.

Ms Buck: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Sarah Newton: I will give way when I have finished making this point.

As a Cornish MP, I have seen first hand the coalition Government deliver real improvements in services for homeless people. Before I was a Member of Parliament—I came into the House in 2010—for a great deal of my life I volunteered in charities looking after and seeking to help homeless people, whether in New York, where I lived in my 20s and ran a shelter for homeless men, or in my home town of Truro, where I volunteer with Truro Homeless Action Group and help with the excellent work of St Petroc’s Society.

Before I was elected, I participated in the rough sleeper counts. However, the guidance given by the Government of the day made it so difficult to count the number of homeless people that Cornwall was deemed to have a rough-sleeping population of two. Since the coalition came in and properly opened up the rough sleepers count, we have been getting much better data on the scale of the problem. Sadly, although it is no surprise to any of us who live there, Cornwall is now deemed to have the

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second largest homeless population outside London. Without that honest collection of data, we will never be able to take the steps needed to tackle these issues.

Those reforms were brought in by this Government, which underlines the fact that the issue has all-party support. We all understand that nothing could be worse than being homeless. We may not always agree on every measure, or on how to tackle the issue, but turning it into a party political football does no service to the debate.

Simon Danczuk: Let me be clear: before entering Parliament, I carried out research into homelessness issues for 10 or 12 years while I was working for The Big Issue in the North, and I suspect I have met more homeless people and visited more homeless projects than the hon. Lady has had hot dinners, so I know what I am talking about. Let me make it clear that I am all in favour of consensus, but the Government need to be judged on their record on dealing with homelessness, and that record is very poor. I am in favour of consensus, but if the Government fail on this issue, it is right and important that young people see the Opposition challenging that failure and helping to come up with solutions.

Sarah Newton: I am not going to lower the tone of the debate and further let down the young people who are watching it by responding to that personal attack. As I have said before, I have volunteered throughout my life on the issue of homelessness—I still volunteer now, and I am well into my 50s. I do not know how many hot dinners the hon. Gentleman has had, but it is silly and demeaning to start personally attacking hon. Members’ motivations. I am in no doubt that hon. Members from all parts of the political spectrum care deeply about homelessness and have been personally committed to dealing with it as volunteers or in other appropriate ways. I really want to carry on with the debate.

I am proud to stand on my record and on the record of what the Government have delivered to help homeless people in Cornwall and prevent homelessness there. One person sleeping rough in my constituency, one person sofa-surfing or one person living in unacceptable accommodation is one too many, and I will continue day and night to do what I can, but there has been significant improvement. Once we had better data from the rough sleepers count, the money followed, and Cornwall council has received considerable sums, which have been fed into really good third sector organisations such as St Petroc’s and Glen Carne, voluntary organisations such as the Truro Homeless Action Group, the statutory sector and the NHS. I could speak for half an hour about the different activities that are going on to prevent homelessness and to help homeless people, so I will stand on my record.

Ms Buck: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Sarah Newton: I am going to make a little progress.

That is not to say that I am complacent or that much more does not need to be done. I very much welcome the Crisis report, and I support a lot of its recommendations. The ones I would like to discuss today build on the need for a better evidence base for local planners and those making housing decisions.

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Under the Government’s planning reforms, each local authority must do a local housing need assessment to make sure its local plan meets the unmet housing need of the people it represents. Having gone through that process in great detail locally, I know that some groups of people, such as young homeless people who are sofa- surfing, are difficult to pick up in the statistics used to form the local housing needs assessment. Assessments must be robust and data-driven, using data from the Office for National Statistics and others, but it would be useful—this is one of the recommendations from Crisis—to look at the guidance given to local authorities as they plan their local housing needs assessment to make sure that those young homeless people are picked up on and that their needs are met.

Following the success of the “No Second Night Out project”, which has done very well in Cornwall, we have much more information about young people and people of other ages who are homeless, but we now need, as part of the planning process, to work out how we can build more appropriate housing for their needs. People have all sorts of complex needs—they may have mental health issues or substance abuse issues, or they may be fleeing domestic violence—and they need supported accommodation, and the Glen Carne charity in my constituency provides it so well.

Ms Buck: On data, the hon. Lady made specific reference to London. Since Boris Johnson became Mayor of London, rough sleeping has increased every year. In the summer of 2014, it was 19% higher than in the six months over the summer of 2013. Is the hon. Lady honestly saying that that year-on-year increase in rough sleeping is a consequence of better data? If so, what is the point of having better data and failing to do anything about it?

Sarah Newton: Speaking from personal experience in my constituency, I can absolutely say yes. Now we have the tools to go out there and try to get as accurate a count as we can. We will then have a far better understanding of the underlying reasons why people—we are talking not just about numbers, but about people’s lives—are homeless so that we can put in place the appropriate services to help them into accommodation. The money follows the problem, and having those tools has brought extra resources into my constituency. It is vital that we carry on gathering data so that we can better plan to meet the needs of people who are currently homeless and prevent more people from becoming homeless.

The other recommendation from Crisis that I would like the Minister seriously to consider is that we go back to local authorities to see how well the legislation we created in this place is implemented. A key finding of the Crisis report was that the legislation was not implemented consistently. Contained within that was another recommendation—that we come up with an inspection regime. We have done that very well with the Care Quality Commission, which we have asked to inspect providers of health and social care services. Given that a decent home is essential for people’s health and well-being, it would be a good idea to think about how we can extend the CQC’s remit so that it can inspect providers of housing for vulnerable groups and the sorts of accommodation we have heard about today, which take people off the street, providing accommodation that is often supervised in some way, as well as a package of care for a couple of years. That would be really good.

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Associated with that, I would like it to become common practice for people in councils and organisations responsible for preventing homelessness and supporting homeless people to be part of health and wellbeing boards, because decent housing is important to health and well-being. Some local authorities have included such people on their health and wellbeing boards, but that is not common practice. Including people on those boards will really help those providing joined-up services locally to understand the complexity of the issues confronting people who face the prospect of homelessness or who are experiencing homelessness. It will also enable those providing services—whether social, housing or health services—to better meet the needs of the particularly vulnerable group we have been discussing.

I know that colleagues want to speak, so let me conclude by saying that the Government have made huge progress, and I have seen that in my constituency. However, I urge the Minister to take seriously the recommendations made by Crisis, which it presented in a non-party political way. We can then take them forward, review what is working, understand what is not working and bring in necessary reforms in the next Parliament.

3.19 pm

Paul Blomfield (Sheffield Central) (Lab): I shall speak fairly briefly, as I had not intended to speak in the debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for St Austell and Newquay (Stephen Gilbert) on securing it.

I want to focus on one factor that drives homelessness, based on my constituency experience. The hon. Member for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton) was in search of political consensus, and in our debate in December the two sides of the House did reach some consensus on the way in which an increasingly harsh benefit sanctions regime is driving people into homelessness.

In the September recess I conducted a community consultation in my constituency. We had something like 63 meetings over three weeks. Individuals and voluntary, community and faith sector organisations working on homelessness raised the issue of benefits sanctions as a significant factor in their work. For example, the cathedral project in Sheffield works with homeless people sleeping on the streets, to get them back into society. On the back of offering a breakfast service, it attracts them in and builds a relationship. It offers support and training and helps people to secure accommodation. It has been successful with such intervention for many years. People from the project reported to me that as a result of the increased pressure from the DWP and the harsher regime of benefit sanctioning, those whom they had helped into accommodation were getting letters whose significance they did not understand, or, in many cases, that they could not read. That would lead to their missing an appointment, and immediately, with no warning—no amber light or signals—their benefits would be cut and they would be unable to maintain their accommodation. When they presented themselves at the DWP the response was, “Go along to the cathedral Archer project. They’ll feed you.” That has transformed the project from a charity that could make a strategic intervention to tackle homelessness into a crisis centre.

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That approach to benefits sanctioning has been taken up by Sheffield Citizens Advice. Its social policy group conducted a survey over 12 months and produced a report in May on the experience of JSA sanctions. I want to make it clear that I do not oppose sanctions in principle. Used appropriately and benignly they play a constructive role in encouraging people into work and providing a disincentive to the behaviour of those who do not co-operate with the system. The problem is that they are not being used benignly. To be effective, a sanctions regime must be humane. The report from Sheffield Citizens Advice showed that the system is neither humane nor effective in its avowed purpose of getting people into work and enabling them to afford accommodation.

I was presented with examples from its survey. One person, called Alan, was given a four-week sanction for not actively seeking work. He had limited literacy and numeracy skills and thought it important, so that he could get into work, to enrol on the English and maths course that was offered. He was on it for eight weeks, and thought that because he was on the course provided he did not have to sign on. He failed; he was not given a warning. He was immediately sanctioned.

Tony was vulnerable because of learning challenges and dyslexia. He cannot read or write. Despite getting significant support in looking for work from a local job club, he was sanctioned for not doing enough about his jobseeking. How did the DWP tell Tony that he was not doing enough? It sent him a letter, knowing—because it was on his records—that he could not read. Because he could not read the letter he was sent, he was immediately sanctioned.

Sir Alan Beith: A similar example happened to a young person in my constituency. He did not have a mobile phone but was required to give a mobile phone number. He gave his girlfriend’s mobile phone number and was sanctioned because that was not considered adequate.

Paul Blomfield: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I am sure we could all cite similar examples from our constituency case load. The question is why we have such a punitive sanction regime. I was out fairly recently knocking on doors, as many hon. Members have been doing lately, and I talked to a constituent who is a jobcentre worker. We discussed her work, and she told me that she and her colleagues were under pressure to impose sanctions and hit targets. In a survey of Public and Commercial Services Union workers representing jobcentre workers, 23% said that they had been given explicit targets for referring claimants for sanctions; 36% said they had been placed on a performance improvement plan for not making enough sanctions; and 10% had gone through poor performance procedures for not making enough sanction referrals.

The Government have said that there is no pressure to sanction, but somehow a culture has been created in the DWP that suggests otherwise. The DWP acknowledges that statistics on sanctions are collated centrally and that managers can be contacted if their performance is out of line with that of other jobcentres. It says that that is a matter of good management and that no league tables are compiled, or targets set. In that case, why is a lower level of sanctions seen as an indication of poor performance, requiring managerial action? We need to

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recognise the impact of the DWP benefits sanction regime, which is driving up homelessness. I ask the Minister to commit to talk to DWP colleagues about that.

3.27 pm

Duncan Hames (Chippenham) (LD): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay (Stephen Gilbert) on securing this debate on a policy area in which he has developed extensive expertise, both while in Parliament and previously. I have great admiration for that.

I am not a housing policy expert, unlike other hon. Members who have spoken. I am a generalist, but like others I have the ability to do something that is at the heart of an MP’s job as a representative: to tell my constituents’ stories to people in power in Parliament, who can do something about them. I mentioned in an intervention a terrible case of housing need, affecting a woman and her family, which not only the council but Government policy refuse to address. I think that beneath that, ultimately, is the desire to create a hostile environment, so as to achieve other policy objectives. However, I want to bring to the debate the stories of three working men: family men in full-time permanent employment, whose families are under all sorts of pressures. Such situations are generally multi-factorial; there is not just one thing to be fixed, to make things right.

The families involved are at risk of being totally undermined by their housing need. That is an important point. House building is often not very popular with some of my constituents and there is great scepticism among them about whether house building will, of itself, serve the housing need in their communities. However, much of the housing need is not visible to them in the way it is to Members of Parliament, who have the privilege of coming to an appreciation of it in our constituency surgeries.

The housing need of the men whose situations I will discuss is well hidden; as I hope to explain through their cases, failure to address it could ultimately generate greater housing need. We are told that family breakdown is one of the causes of increased household formation, which is a major factor driving the need for housing. Although it might not be as easy to consider that issue when debating housing as it is to scapegoat groups of people or blame immigration policy, it is a very real factor in the housing need of our society, and so I hope to shine a light on it briefly this afternoon.

The first case I want to tell hon. Members about is that of a man with a family of seven, with an eighth child who is now at university and so no longer in the household but who is still being supported as well. He is a working man with a full-time permanent job who has been supporting his family. The man was in a private let, with no need for support from the Government, supporting his family and working hard to provide their standard of living. But when that private let came to an end, as the landlord exercised their right to put their investments elsewhere, the man found it impossible to find another for a family of his size.

For the first time, therefore, the man turned to the public sector for support through social housing; private landlords refused to take a family of that size because of concerns about wear and tear on their properties. He managed to get some social housing in Chippenham,

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but what he got for his family of seven was a two-bedroom flat. They are suffering from chronic overcrowding, and it is proving incredibly difficult to meet their housing need. We all know that if that family were not to stay together great priority would be given to meeting their new housing need, but as long as he keeps his job and they stay together, it is difficult for them to receive the housing that they need to live together as a family.

The next working man whose story I want to tell is a single father who is sharing an open-plan studio flat—although frankly I cannot quite tell what the difference is between that and a bedsit—with his 15-year-old daughter. Given the layout of the flat, he does his best to provide her with some privacy, but it is difficult for the pair of them to share it. It is a private let, and he has a good relationship with the landlord, who does what can be done to make the home affordable.

The truth of the matter is that that family need somewhere bigger, but because the father has to meet debt repayments—repayments that he has been keeping up, on a reasonable loan with a respectable lender—he is not able to afford the housing that they need; nor is he eligible for any help. It is incredibly important to him that his daughter should be able to live with him, but we know that if that family were to break up and she were to live with someone else or seek independent support for housing, she would be a greater priority than if the pair of them were to continue, as is their choice, to live together as a family. By failing to meet his need we not only risk the future of that family unit but could create greater demands for help with housing.

The final story I wish to share is altogether more complicated and illustrates how vulnerable people with housing needs can be refused help because of the complexity of their circumstances. A professional working man came to see me. He and his partner are going through child protection processes because he is a victim of domestic violence from her, and although, as I understand it, she has never caused any harm to the children in the household, she has been told that she cannot stay overnight in the family home in the interests of protecting the children. If the children are not to be taken into care, she can no longer use her home and so is homeless.

That woman grew up with learning difficulties and suffers serious mental illness. Of course the children in that family should be protected. However, she is a vulnerable person who needs help. Instead, the action of one department of the council has created a situation in which she has been forced out of her home. She has been forced to sleep on the sofas of friends and relatives. She has no entitlement to support with her housing need and has been denied any because technically she has a home, even though the council has made it impossible for her to live in it.

These are the difficult and hidden stories of my constituents and the housing needs they have in the otherwise delightful part of Wiltshire in which we have the privilege to live. Those stories illustrate the housing need that we, as a society, have to address. They also illustrate—I hope the Minister will grapple with this challenge—the need to take preventive action on homelessness, so that we do not find ourselves meeting the much greater costs of dealing with the crises and the further housing need that follow family breakdown. Unless we can face up to those difficult challenges, we will find an even greater task ahead of us.

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3.36 pm

Emma Reynolds (Wolverhampton North East) (Lab): It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I congratulate the hon. Member for St Austell and Newquay (Stephen Gilbert) on securing this debate and giving us all the chance to discuss this important issue.

Many hon. Members have spoken of their own personal experiences, including volunteering. The hon. Gentleman gave a good opening speech, in which he pointed out that he had been in a pretty desperate situation himself, doing what is called sofa-surfing, something that sounds better than it is—it is a stressful situation for anyone, as it is just one step away from becoming a rough sleeper.

Today’s debate is about Government support for young people who are homeless, but I want to start by putting on the record my tribute and thanks to the many charitable organisations that do such important work on this issue. Some have representatives here today. Since I became shadow Housing Minister, I have had a lot of help, support and advice from Crisis. Its No One Turned Away campaign is one that we have all read about and, I am sure, are all passionate about. I also pay tribute to Centrepoint, St Mungo’s Broadway, Depaul, YMCA, Shelter, Homeless Link and countless others.

In my constituency and home town of Wolverhampton there are small local charities such as P3, Home Group Stonham, the RMC—Refugee and Migrant Centre—TLC college and the Haven. Churches all round the country also help people, through soup kitchens and also, sometimes, by providing shelter. Only yesterday, in Bedford, I visited the YMCA Beds for All home, which provides housing and support for homeless people of a variety of ages who have just come out of hospital. It was tremendous to see the work that the YMCA is doing to help those people turn their lives around.

My hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale (Simon Danczuk) pointed out that we are one of the richest countries in the world. That is why it is so incredibly tragic and unacceptable that homelessness is with us. We talk about the numbers, but in my opinion one homeless person is one too many. I am sure that homelessness must be a terrifying experience for anybody, but it is particularly so for young people. The youth homelessness charity Centrepoint estimates that as many as 80,000 young people in the UK experience homelessness of some kind every year. As the hon. Member for St Austell and Newquay highlighted, according to research by Crisis, half of all homeless people first became homeless under the age of 21. The majority of those who, unfortunately, first experience homelessness at such a young age face that experience again and again because they cannot get the help they need.

When a person has a number of complex problems, it can take only one thing to tip them into homelessness. When I visited a Crisis at Christmas centre over the Christmas period, I was reminded of that. I asked one of the volunteer chefs, “Why do you give up 10 days of your time during the Christmas period, when there is family pressure on you to be at home, to do what you are doing here?” He said, “There but for the grace of God go I.” That was a stark reminder that it is all too easy for people to reach that tipping point and find themselves in such a situation.

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Many hon. Members have already pointed out that many young people are driven to homelessness by a dispute at home or by their families kicking them out. The dispute might be due to overcrowding in the family home, as the hon. Member for Chippenham (Duncan Hames) said, or because the young person or someone in their family has a new or existing mental health problem. All sorts of issues contribute to those tragic situations. If the young person does not have family support, which is vital, although many of us take it for granted, it is all too easy for them to enter a downward spiral.

As many hon. Members have said, young homeless people are much more vulnerable than the rest of the homeless population. Shockingly, two in five have experienced abuse at home and a third have been in care. There are also wider structural causes, such as a lack of affordable housing, the housing crisis, extreme poverty, unemployment and worklessness.

I am proud of the previous Labour Government’s record. We were determined to tackle rough sleeping and homelessness, and during our period in office there was a 70% drop in the numbers. We launched the flagship Supporting People programme, created the rough sleepers unit to reduce rough sleeping, and dramatically reduced the number of people and families in long-term bed-and-breakfast accommodation. When we left office there was still more to do, but I fear that since 2010, for a number of reasons, that progress has been rolled back.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale said, we have had a deep recession, but apparently we are in a recovery and the economy is growing. However, the number of people who are homeless and sleeping rough has continued to rise. Data from the Combined Homeless and Information Network, or CHAIN—a recording system for the homelessness charity St Mungo’s Broadway —show that 762 people found sleeping on the streets of London last year were under 25, which was a big increase on the 436 it found in 2009-10. For every person on the street, there are thousands without a decent, secure home.

I welcome the Government’s “No Second Night Out” initiative, which builds on some of the things we did in government, but I am afraid that some of their broader actions have made things much harder for young people who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless.

Ian Lavery: Does my hon. Friend share my concern that not one speaker from the Government parties has mentioned welfare reform, which is having an impact on homelessness? Not one of them has talked about the bedroom tax, sanctions or the other things that we have mentioned. We are entitled to disagree about whether this is a political issue, but the hon. Member for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton) suggested that we were lowering the tone of the debate by talking about politics. Politics is about choice, and politicians of all political persuasions are entitled to challenge other politicians. The political decisions that have been made are causing mayhem for young homeless people.

Emma Reynolds: And it is the responsibility of the official Opposition to hold the Government to account.

Although we welcome the Government’s “No Second Night Out” initiative, the overall framework within which we are working is worse than it was when we left

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office. We have had the bedroom tax and the housing crisis—the number of houses being built is the lowest in peacetime since the 1920s. Lower numbers of affordable homes are being built—in particular, homes for social rent, on which many people on low incomes rely. I am concerned about the worrying rise in the use of benefit sanctions, about which my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) spoke eloquently. The Government deny it, but it seems that jobcentres have unofficial targets for sanctions. In many cases, as has been highlighted, it is being done unfairly and is causing hardship.

Councils such as Wolverhampton, Newcastle, Rochdale and Sheffield are facing the biggest local government cuts in the country, especially compared with wealthier areas. My hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery) is right that political choices have been made. Unfortunately, the Government’s political choices have made the situation worse.

John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington) (Lab): I agree that we must situate this problem among a raft of policies. There is an association between homelessness and drug problems. We have discovered that last year, as a result of the cuts to the work being done with drug users, there was a 30% increase in deaths associated with drugs.

Emma Reynolds: That is truly worrying. Many of these problems are connected with substance misuse and mental health problems. Young people, in particular, must have much earlier access to help. That could be help with fighting an addiction or with mental health problems that sometimes become apparent only in people’s later teenage years, their 20s or further on in their lives.

It is important that the next Government—I hope they are a Labour Government—get the framework right. We have got to build more homes and, crucially, more affordable homes. We are going to abolish the bedroom tax and make renting in the private rental sector much more secure and stable, because at the moment tenants are not getting a good deal. We are one of the richest countries in the world, so it is unacceptable that we have such a high level of homelessness, especially among our vulnerable young people. The next Labour Government will tackle the tragic phenomenon of youth homelessness. We will take the concerted action across government that is desperately needed to get those people the help they need.

3.48 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Kris Hopkins): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay (Stephen Gilbert) for securing such an important debate.

I recognise many of the issues that hon. Members have raised, which is why tackling homelessness and rough sleeping is a key priority for the Government. I have no doubt that being homeless affects every aspect of a person’s life. I do not want to see anybody in the frightening, difficult and challenging situation that my hon. Friend described, particularly because many of the individuals affected are extremely vulnerable.

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I understand and share my hon. Friend’s ambition to eradicate homelessness altogether. However, a crisis in an individual’s life can happen at any time. The key things are preventing homelessness and helping individuals who find themselves in that situation. Whichever Government are in power, they can put significant resource into dealing with the issue, and I should put on record that we have put half a billion pounds into tackling homelessness and an additional £445 million into addressing some of the welfare reform issues involved. However, many of the key interventions are undertaken by charities such as Crisis and others, and the vast majority of the work is undertaken by local authorities, which do an enormous amount, and I want to pay tribute to the individuals involved. That half a billion pounds has prevented almost 700,000 households from becoming homeless since 2010, so a significant amount of prevention work is going on. I am sure that my hon. Friend will be interested to know that Cornwall has intervened for 5,000 households and supported those individuals, and I applaud its efforts to look after people who have found themselves in that difficult situation.

We should recognise that despite the tough set of economic circumstances, statutory homelessness is now lower than in 27 of the past 30 years, which is a significant change. However, the Government want to make sure that there is a strong safety net; it is particularly important that families and vulnerable individuals should have a house to live in. We have made sure that when particular authorities have been struggling to keep within the law as far as the six-week window on bed-and- breakfast accommodation is concerned, we have put additional money in to be able to intervene for those authorities. By working with them and with their peer councils, we reduced the number of such instances by 96% by December 2013. Those really high levels of reduction have continued in the years since.

The issue of housing supply was raised, and that could be a political matter—I recognise this is a political arena—but we should recognise that housing supply has not kept up with demand for many decades. Coming out of a recession, it is not just about pressing a button and getting housing going again. We need to have the skill set, the resource and the confidence in the market needed to build houses, and we have to make sure that councils have sufficient land to be able to do so.

However, I want to put on record the fact that 217,000 affordable homes have been built since April 2010, involving £19.5 billion of public and private moneys. The affordable homes programme will deliver 170,000 houses by March this year, and a further project to deliver 275,000 houses with £38 billion of public and private money is en route.

There are two interesting results: first, we have built more affordable homes than were built during any equivalent period in the past 20 years. Although I recognise that all Governments have struggled to deliver affordable homes, we are building a significant number. Secondly, more council homes have been built in the lifetime of this Government than in the 13 years of the previous Administration.

Emma Reynolds: Will the Minister recognise that the number of homes built for social rent fell last year to its lowest level in 20 years, and also that the Government have changed their definition of affordability to 80% of market rent?

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Kris Hopkins: Lots of houses are needed in lots of different formats. The reality is that the houses are being built, and as I said, the number of affordable houses being built is greater now than at any period in the past 20 years. I reiterate the point that I have just made: this Administration have delivered more council houses in their period in government than were delivered in the 13 years of the previous Government.

Stephen Gilbert: It is, of course, worth having a debate about what the coalition has achieved over the past five years, but more crucially, I ask the Minister to consider two questions. First, will he issue stronger guidance to local authorities about the use of bed-and- breakfast accommodation for younger homeless people? Secondly, will he commit to having a review of the differentiation between priority need and non-priority need, which sees so many people slip through the net, as my hon. Friend the Member for Chippenham (Duncan Hames) indicated earlier?

Kris Hopkins: I have already written to local authorities regarding B and B accommodation. I will continue to do so—not only about B and Bs, but about the standard of accommodation that is out there. When people use public moneys, particularly for private accommodation, I expect them to make sure that the standard of housing is appropriate.

I want to read out some of the points relating to the review, for the simple reason that I chair a joint ministerial group, and we will publish a report shortly and call for evidence from lots of different organisations. There is an opportunity for that review and report to be brought together, so the next Government—of whichever kind, and I hope they are a Conservative majority Government —have a powerful piece of evidence. As my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton) said, it is important to gather evidence to make determinations about how we spend our resource. The report will provide a substantial amount of evidence based on which a future Government can make choices.

We have recently announced the £8 million “Help for Single Homeless” fund. Thirty-four local authority partnerships have received that money, which will support some 22,000 people. The issue of complex needs was raised by several Members. We are working with Crisis and have provided it with some £14 million. With the support of its access to the private rented sector in particular, we hope to help some 10,000 single homeless people address and sustain private rented accommodation by 2016, and to help an impressive 90% of those sustain that accommodation for more than six months. It is important to ensure that people have a certain period of

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time in accommodation, not just a few weeks, so that it becomes a home. It is important that we put money into that.

The work of StreetLink has been recognised. It is an extremely powerful tool that every citizen can contribute to, and it has now helped more than 21,000 rough sleepers. My hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Jake Berry) mentioned the issue of people walking on the other side of the street and ignoring the individual concerned. My experience is that some people do not know what to do to help them, and now they have a tool to do so. If they see somebody and want to intervene, they can, and a local resource will be used to ensure that people do not spend a second night out there. That is a really important way for the citizen to participate.

I have lots more statistics here, but Members raised some really important points, and I want to go through them quickly. I would appreciate it if the hon. Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) dropped me a note about the guy who could not read, and I would like to challenge colleagues on that. I know that Ministers in the Department for Work and Pensions have made some changes in the rules relating to sanctions, but I meet Ministers from that Department frequently, and I would like to take those examples, challenge what is going on and make sure that we get the system right and appropriate.

On the point about local authorities’ work being variable, some excellent authorities are doing some great work, but some are placing individuals in accommodation that is not appropriate. There is a gold standard, and we have put £2.3 million into ensuring that there are decent homes. If a local authority is not placing people in appropriate accommodation, we will challenge it.

I want to challenge some of the figures that my friend the hon. Member for Rochdale (Simon Danczuk)—he is a friend—gave.

Ian Lavery: Why has the Minister not mentioned once—nor has any Government Member—the impact that welfare reform is having on homeless people? Listen to the homeless people in every—

Kris Hopkins: I would like to have time to respond. I did mention right at the beginning the amount of money we are putting in.

On what the hon. Member for Rochdale said, I did not sneak anything out—I am 6-foot-6 and 18 stone. If he looks through Hansard, he will find that I said that there is no more money and we are doing a consultation.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay for securing the debate, and I am more than willing to answer any other comments and questions that friends from around the House have raised.

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Mobile Phone Coverage (East Yorkshire and North Lincolnshire)

4 pm

Andrew Percy (Brigg and Goole) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson, and to have my hon. Friend the Minister here to respond to the debate. The fundamental reason for the debate is to ensure that the good people of the East Riding of Yorkshire and North Lincolnshire do, in simple terms, get what they are paying for from their mobile network operators. I have brought this debate to the House following a large number of complaints from my constituents about coverage across the East Riding of Yorkshire and North Lincolnshire. I myself suffer from this problem, not only in my own home in the constituency but while travelling around the 250 square miles of my constituency. They are 250 square miles of the finest parts of Yorkshire and Lincolnshire, as is broadly agreed. I struggle with my signal at home and with dropped calls and dropped signals when moving from one community to another in the constituency, as do many of my constituents.

I have taken the issues up with mobile network operators. I have written to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State a number of times, and the responses have been very welcome and very helpful. I have also met Ofcom. However, because of the large number of complaints that I received from constituents, I decided to ask residents across the constituency what their views were, so last month I began surveying thousands of residents. We have surveyed about 6,500 residents to get a better picture of what the problems are locally, because some of the information that Ofcom has provided does not necessarily match what my constituents are telling me. I will return to the survey results.

I am pleased that the Government have agreed a legally binding deal with the networks to improve call and text coverage to 90% of the United Kingdom’s landmass. I think that that represents about £5 billion-worth of investment. It is a more ambitious target than many countries in Europe have agreed and it is at least 5% more than I think the Secretary of State originally planned. The Government were right to use the stick of forcing roaming in order to get the networks to act. It is also good news that the new 4G licence auction commits the network—I think that in this case, it is O2—to 98% coverage for residents.

Sir Greg Knight (East Yorkshire) (Con): Is not the problem in the East Riding that only about 45% of households have access to 3G coverage at home and, on top of that, those are the very households that do not get superfast broadband, so we are dealing with people who are geographically isolated and also, currently, digitally isolated? Does not that need to be addressed urgently?

Andrew Percy: I could not agree more, and I thank my right hon. Friend for attending the debate. The problem in our area is compounded by the lack of good superfast broadband. The Government are dealing with that. Millions of pounds of investment are going into east Yorkshire and northern Lincolnshire, and broadband is being rolled out as we speak. Last week, I had some

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nice e-mails from constituents in Burton who have finally been able to sign up. However, people have the problem that they cannot get a phone signal and cannot get on broadband. I argue that that is basic infrastructure that people can expect to have. They expect electricity and gas—unfortunately, it is not always possible to get gas in my constituency—and power to be provided to their homes.

Mr Angus Brendan MacNeil (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (SNP): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Andrew Percy: I will give way to the hon. Gentleman. His constituency is some distance from the East Riding of Yorkshire and North Lincolnshire, but we are delighted to have him in the debate.

Mr MacNeil: I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman. As a member of the Scottish National party, I am concerned about the mobile phone signal that my good friends to the south are receiving. Does he agree that given the data speeds of 4G—this relates to what the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire (Sir Greg Knight) said—those who are not getting broadband by line might get the connections and the access to the outside world if they had proper 4G? There are places that have lost 2G and 3G, but with 4G coming in, they could leapfrog over that. They could get on to the internet on the wireless signal.

Andrew Percy: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. 4G is a potential solution. The figure of 98% of residents having to be covered will be matched, I suspect, by other networks. It is a potential solution, but I still think that we should be able to deliver a good mobile phone signal and also broadband to people.

Mr Graham Stuart (Beverley and Holderness) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. In my home in the centre of Beverley, I lose signal with EE; and I am told by constituents that in the Vodafone shop in the middle of Beverley, there is no signal. It is a woeful level of service, and this infrastructure is critical to business in the area. It sends a message to those outside that we are not open for business. We are open for business. We need the Government to go further and faster to ensure that areas such as the East Riding are well served, not only in towns such as Beverley, where the service is woeful, but in the hamlets, where it is even worse.

Andrew Percy: My hon. Friend demonstrates an important point. Often when people think about poor coverage, they think about the very small communities that we have in our area—people who are 2 or 3 miles at the end of a farm track. Although it is true that they are affected, our market towns also have terrible signal problems. In my constituency, Broughton suffers particularly badly. Epworth also does; and in Beverley, the biggest market town in the region, the signal can be pretty woeful. That is not acceptable.

Let me move on to the survey of my constituents. My team has spent an awful lot of time inputting the data, for which I am very grateful. The results of the survey are as follows. About 15% of residents tell me that they cannot send a text or make a call from their own home, and 51% report some form of issue. Often, the signal

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comes and goes. They get one bar, suddenly no service, then they might be up to two or three bars. When residents are asked whether they can make calls outside or near their home, about half say that they still experience issues. The number of people who report that they have no signal at all is quite significant.

When residents are asked about using internet services on their phone—3G services—34% report no coverage inside their home, 40% report some coverage but experience issues, and just 17% have no issue with their indoor 3G coverage. That is a service they are paying for. The remaining 9% left the option blank, which I assume is because they do not use data services. Outdoors, 3G data coverage improves only a little, with 19% saying that they have no issues. Well over half of respondents report issues or no coverage at all for 2G calls and texts in some areas, and more than 70% report issues with 3G.

Particular problem spots that I have identified in my constituency are Broughton, Burton, Winteringham, Epworth and Haxey, in North Lincolnshire and, over in the East Riding, parts of Snaith and of Rawcliffe. Coverage in the marshland villages can be particularly poor. One constituent, Liz Sargeantson, a parish councillor in Reedness, explained to me that she has to hang out of the window with one arm pointing in a particular direction to get a signal. It is almost a case of one finger in the ear and it might be a bit better. It is a ridiculous situation.

In Burton, 55% of residents said that they had some issues with 2G indoors, and that is not a small village; it is a reasonably sized village and not that far from Scunthorpe, so we are not talking about the back of beyond. It was the case that 13% had no coverage at all and just 31% reported no issues; 46% of residents reported no 3G signal—

Mr MacNeil: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Andrew Percy: I may do later; I would like to continue with my survey results. In Broughton, 11% of people had no 2G coverage indoors, only 22% reported that they had a good signal and 67% reported issues with 2G services. When it came to 3G, just 5% of people in Broughton—the second biggest town in my constituency—said that they had good coverage and 40% said that they had no connection. There are similar issues on the Isle of Axholme, in Haxey. Over in the East Riding part of my constituency, where I live, we have similar problems. In Rawcliffe, 75% of respondents said that they had issues with 2G or 3G coverage. More worryingly, many have reported that the situation seems to have become worse in recent weeks and months. There is a suspicion that masts have been moved, although the networks say that that is not the case.

I am sick of hearing stories about people having to go to the bottom of their back garden to get a signal, because that is not acceptable. Those people are paying a monthly bill as part of a contract for a service that they are simply not getting. The data I receive from constituents conflict with statements by Ofcom, which suggests that 95% of premises in north Lincolnshire are covered by 2G, and 92% in the East Riding. As my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Sir Greg

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Knight) has said, for 3G the figure drops to 45% in the East Riding and 69% in north Lincolnshire. I am concerned about the fact the coverage appears to be patchier than coverage maps would have us believe. I know that the Minister has secured agreements to improve the signal, but will he look at whether coverage is being correctly measured and provided to consumers? As good Conservatives—I do not include the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr MacNeil) in that; I speak of those of us who are more sensible of mind—we expect consumers to be provided with the right information so that they can make an informed choice.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr Stuart) has said, connectivity is incredibly important for the rural economy and small businesses. Sadly, several small rural business people have told me that because of the problems with getting a signal at home or in the local area, they miss out on business when they are away from their landline. When we are encouraging people, particularly those in rural areas, to start their own businesses, that is a big concern.

Mr MacNeil: The good people of Brigg and Goole are well served by the excellent survey that their MP has carried out for them. I have done similar work in the past. Is it not a failure of the UK mobile model that the hon. Gentleman and I face such a situation? Should there not be roaming, so that when networks are falling in and out, people can use one that is working? I know some people who have to carry two mobile phones. Do we need digital SIM cards so that we can easily switch on one handset? Should the model of 90% to 95% coverage apply to each rural local authority area? In the Faroe Islands, where the topography is worse than it is in my constituency or that of the hon. Gentleman, there are 50 3G masts for 50,000 people as a result of the mobile telephone model that they have adopted, which we have not adopted in the UK.

Andrew Percy: I thank the hon. Gentleman for the Scottish National party’s endorsement for May, which may resonate with some of my constituents. The examples that he uses are problems that we need to look at. I am a little concerned about the impact of forced roaming, and about whether it might lead to disinvestment in some areas. There are arguments in both directions, but I think that the Government have been right to look at the matter. The hon. Gentleman has reminded me of an e-mail I received this morning from a constituent in Epworth, who said that they had just returned from a cruise—how nice for them—around Spain and Portugal, and they had had better signal at sea on their cruise ship than they did when they returned to their home in Epworth.

What can be done? Improving coverage without masts is important. Some networks provide people with equipment that allows them to use an existing broadband connection in their home to make mobile calls. Some networks offer the necessary boxes for free in areas where coverage is particularly poor, but others charge a significant amount. If people are not receiving in their homes the service that they have been promised, perhaps the Government might push the networks to offer such equipment for free to allow people to get mobile access at home. We all know about the smartphone apps that allow calls and texts to be made over a wi-fi network.

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EE tells me that it is fully integrating those into the phone’s dialler, in the hope that it will be easy to switch between the mobile network and home internet. That is something on which residents can take action when they select a network or handset.

I would like to ask the Minister about masts. We know about the new technology, but much of the improved coverage will come from the traditional mast infrastructure. There is an issue, however, which is worthy of some consideration. Mobile networks have pushed for a change in the policy surrounding masts, because they believe that the regulation is out of date. The electronic communications code, which was last updated in 1984, is the main piece of relevant legislation—the Minister may be able to say something about that when he responds—and the networks believe that it is no longer fit for purpose.

I am aware of the amendment to the Infrastructure Bill, on which I believe there may have been some movement today; perhaps the Minister can tell us about that. I welcome that change on the whole, but I note that some mobile networks are concerned that it might disapply the terms of the code for third-party infrastructure providers such as the Wireless Infrastructure Group and Arqiva. Perhaps the Minister will have something to say on that, given that such providers account for 40% to 50% of mobile masts. The concern is that if the code does not apply to them, operators would not have enough time to seek alternative coverage arrangements on the ending of a lease, which might be detrimental.

Mobile operators have talked about wanting to make their masts taller. The position of the public on the matter has changed significantly. When I was a local councillor 10 or 15 years ago—

Mr MacNeil: The hon. Gentleman is too young for that.

Andrew Percy: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comment. I remember old ladies, who had never engaged in any such activity before, threatening—[Interruption.] I do not know what the Minister thinks that the old ladies were threatening to do. They were simply threatening to lie down in front of diggers; the protests went no further than that. People used to be particularly concerned about masts, but that has changed. In all the survey results that I have received, only two people mentioned that they do not want to see an expansion of masts or improved coverage. We must still leave such decisions to local people, however.

Mr MacNeil: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Andrew Percy: I am not going to give way, because I have quite a lot to get through and the Minister needs to respond. I am told by some of the operators that raising the height of masts from 50 feet to 80 feet might improve coverage by up to 150%. Mast heights can be controversial, however, so I will dip my toe in but say only that that may need to be looked at.

Another area of reform that I would like the Minister to consider is mobile switching. Under the current system, a customer has to contact their existing provider to switch. The consumer group Which? has led a campaign urging Ofcom to introduce “gaining provider led” switching, under which the company to which customers move

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would deal with the switchover. That would promote competition and allow customers to switch networks more easily.

I have outlined a fairly terrible picture of local mobile coverage, but I commend the Secretary of State, the Minister and the Government on achieving agreement with the networks to provide 90% coverage. The 98% requirement for 4G will, I suspect, be matched by other networks. The money that is coming into our broadband infrastructure is important. Although that deal is welcome, we need to know from the network operators what it will mean for local communities. I urge the Minister to put pressure on the networks to share as quickly as possible their improvement plans for each area.

Thinking about the broadband roll-out, some authorities have been pretty poor at giving people information, while others have been excellent. North Lincolnshire council has been excellent at sharing information on what is likely to happen. I envisage something similar where residents find out from operators—I understand that there are commercial issues as well, so it might not be quite this simple—what improvements are likely to happen in the future, which will allow them to make informed choices.

I am happy to have a Government who are finally trying to tackle the problem. Concerns have been raised about some of the potential changes to the code, but the people of Brigg and Goole are basically asking for the Government’s continued support to make sure that we get the service that we, as customers, are all paying for. Contracts are not always cheap, although compared with some countries, we are lucky when it comes to the level of competition in the market. However, we want the service that we are paying for. The deal that has been announced is excellent news, but residents want to know what it will mean over the next year or two.

Mr Graham Stuart: I am sorry to interrupt a fine peroration to a brilliant and powerful speech, but I want to reinforce the points that my hon. Friend is making. When the Minister is looking at how to ensure that rural areas, which might be seen as marginal, are properly looked after, he would do well to consider Hull and the East Riding as a pilot area. We do not have lots of tunnels or lots of hills, so it is an easy area topographically. It is absolutely absurd that residents do not receive the service that they pay for in an area in which it would, technically, be pretty easy to deliver, but it is simply not happening.

John Robertson (in the Chair): I say to the hon. Member for Brigg and Goole that there are about 10 minutes left.

Andrew Percy: I am aware of that, Mr Robertson. I will end by saying that my hon. Friend the Member for Beverley and Holderness makes an important point. He is a doughty campaigner for his constituents in the East Riding. He made one slight error when he said that the pilot area should be the East Riding and Hull; he meant the East Riding, Hull and northern Lincolnshire.

Mr Stuart: I did indeed.

Andrew Percy: I look forward to the Minister’s response.

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4.20 pm

The Minister for Culture and the Digital Economy (Mr Edward Vaizey): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I know you have a strong interest in the Government’s broadband programme. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy) for securing this important debate. We have enjoyed some trenchant contributions from my hon. Friend the Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr Stuart), my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Sir Greg Knight) and the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr MacNeil).

Mr MacNeil: Good on you.

Mr Vaizey: Perfect Gaelic there. We were expecting an intervention from my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers), but he is a brooding, silent presence, and one can only speculate as to what is going on in that fine mind.

What unites all those who have contributed to this debate is their incredible work for their constituents, but if I were to pick a winner it would have to be my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole, who has worked tirelessly with his constituency office over the past few months to engage with his constituents on this important issue, to hear their views—he said that 6,500 constituents have been contacted—and to bring the matter to the House for debate. His constituents will reflect on that hard work as we approach an important date some time in the spring.

One of two things tends to happen in such debates: either we start with the glass half empty perspective from hon. Members who are keen to press for improvements, followed by me putting the case for the glass being half full, or there is a case of violent agreement. My hon. Friends would have a legitimate concern if the case they were continually bringing to the House was that the Government were doing nothing, but my hon. Friends and other hon. Members know that the Government are doing a lot in this area, so my hon. Friends’ case is that the Government are doing a lot but should be doing more or should be doing it better. That is how I intend to respond.

I know this debate is about mobile coverage, but the Government have made great strides on two issues: fibre broadband, which my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole mentioned, and mobile phone coverage. I will be very brief on fibre broadband because it is not the main topic of debate. In the East Riding, £10.5 million has gone to extend superfast broadband coverage to some 42,000 homes. The Government have pledged £5 million for the next phase, phase 2, which will not get the East Riding the extensive coverage that exists elsewhere because of the area’s very rural nature. Some £30 million has gone to Lincolnshire as a whole, which is obviously a bigger area, achieving almost 90% coverage—almost 120,000 homes—and in phase 2 approximately £4.7 million will take Lincolnshire to 90%. There has been extensive progress on fibre broadband, and nationally the programme is fast approaching 2 million premises, which is a real achievement.

The second issue is mobile phone coverage, on which I want to put a couple of points in context. First, the mobile operators are, of course, private companies.

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They have built their networks without any Government subsidy and, indeed, the Government have benefited from the extraordinary auction of the 3G spectrum, which put £22 billion into the previous Government’s coffers, and the more recent 4G auction that put approximately £2 billion into this Government’s coffers. Those networks have been built with private money, and the operators face a number of obstacles, such as landlords who might be charging significant rent and the securing of planning permission. Indeed, my hon. Friend referred to militant constituents from 15 years ago. They have since calmed down a great deal, but unfortunately we are all old enough to remember a time when the arrival of a mobile phone mast was greeted with horror rather than glee.

Mr MacNeil: As well as landlords, the people who own the rights to the masts can be a choke or a bottleneck on other networks adding their kit to those masts. Anything the Government can do there would be welcomed.

Mr Vaizey: We recognise all the problems, and we have made great strides because we recognise that there are a vast number of not spots. We have the fastest 4G roll-out anywhere in the world, and all the operators are committing themselves to 98% coverage of premises. That roll-out should be complete by the end of 2015, but the concerns really relate to geographic coverage, because when people leave their home with a mobile phone, they naturally expect their phone, by definition, to work outside the home. We are talking about areas where there is no coverage at all from any operator, a not spot, or partial not spots where there is coverage from only one operator.

We have started the mobile infrastructure programme, under which there is £150 million to build masts in not spot areas. That has proved challenging because we are talking about remote areas, and one has to remember that we cannot just stick up a mast and plug it in; we have to take power and fibre to the mast. We cannot just arrive and build it; we still have to negotiate with landlords and local authorities. Appropriately, the first site went live in North Yorkshire, close to the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole, in 2013. We are considering 600 potential sites across the programme, and we are currently negotiating on 120 sites. That was stage 1.

Stage 2 was brought forward by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, when he raised the issue of national roaming with mobile operators. National roaming is problematic. To a certain extent, the operators compete on their networks, but there are potential unintended consequences with national roaming, and it will take some time to introduce legislation. We always said that a voluntary agreement would be our preferred solution, which is exactly what he secured at the end of last year. Stage 2 will put a legally binding coverage obligation on mobile network operators to cover 90% of the UK landmass by 2017, which is a massive change in the way that MNOs relate to coverage in this country. It will guarantee £5 billion of investment in mobile infrastructure and get rid of two thirds of partial not spots and half of complete not spots.

My hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole raised a number of other points. One was the measurement

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of coverage which, again, we addressed through the mobile infrastructure programme, because where Ofcom says there is coverage and where there is coverage in reality can be problematic. As a result of the programme we have massively improved the way that Ofcom measures coverage. We found that around a fifth of East Yorkshire and about 7% of North Lincolnshire have partial not spots, with a small part of both having complete not spots. We expect that, as a result of the agreement negotiated by the Secretary of State, 99% of East Yorkshire and very nearly 100% of North Lincolnshire will have coverage from all four operators by the end of 2017, which is resolutely good news for his constituents.

After this debate, I hope my hon. Friends will troop down to the Terrace Pavilion, where Vodafone is hosting a reception to promote its rural “open sure” signal. I repeatedly say to Vodafone and the other operators that they should offer that signal as a retail offer to parish councils, which might front up some of the money—it could be several thousand pounds—to establish a local mobile network made up of small cells that people can put in their home.

With Ofcom, we are carefully looking at allowing people to switch between mobile operators more easily, and it is still something that we would consider. On the electronic communications code and the issue of tall masts, we are continuing active discussions with the operators to ensure that we get the code absolutely right in order to reduce their switching costs. We have some of the cheapest mobile phone contracts anywhere in the world, but I point out to constituents that a lot of the contract is spent on buying the very expensive smartphones that are now all the rage—the retail price can be £500 or £600, which is spread across the contract. The actual cost of calls and data is relatively cheap and continues to fall, and it compares very well with our competitors in Europe and elsewhere.

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Adult Social Care

4.30 pm

Mr George Mudie (Leeds East) (Lab): It is a pleasure to see the Minister here for this debate as well as you, Mr Robertson. I thank the Speaker for this opportunity to discuss the present and future state of the adult social care sector. This area of local government covers a vital service for the most vulnerable people in the country, with the elderly, the disabled and those with mental health difficulties being among its most prominent users. In the past four years, its future has become more of a concern.

We are weeks away from a general election and the Government are anxious that their fiscal plans are seen to be successful. Central to those plans is the fact that cuts to public services are unavoidable and necessary and that they must continue for the next four years. Before we blindly accept that doctrine, the debate gives me an opportunity to spell out briefly the extent of the damage those cuts are having on the lives of hundreds of thousands of vulnerable people who use the adult care service.

The Government have ring-fenced the health and education budgets, so, with those two huge Departments free from cuts, money has to be found from other Departments. In local government, adult social care services is the next largest budget. The Government have claimed to understand the sensitivity of that work, but nevertheless the 40% cuts in local government spending have made it impossible for the service to escape unscathed.

Age UK, the leading charity in this sphere, states that the sector has lost more than £1 billion since 2010—and that is at a time when, because of demographic changes, with people living longer, the services requires more money, not less. It is good that people are living longer, but when they eventually ask for help, because they are older, their needs are more complex and expensive.

Mr David Ward (Bradford East) (LD): Does the hon. Gentleman accept that cutting that spending is a false economy? If quality care is not provided at the right time—in particular in the home environment—more expensive care will often need to be provided later in hospitals and other care support centres.

Mr Mudie: The hon. Gentleman is quite right. I will touch on the sheer lack of connected thinking in the Treasury—I do not think that the Department of Health has much to do with that.

The National Audit Office, which is usually pragmatic and non-political and accepted as objective, pointed out in its review of the service that total spending on adult social care—covering the whole gamut of, I suppose, 18 to death—fell 8% in real terms between 2010-11 and 2012-13. Older adults experienced the greatest spending reduction at 12% in real terms. Interestingly, the NAO stated:

“Rising needs, reducing local authority spending, and reductions in benefits may be putting unsustainable pressure on informal carers and acute health services.”

Chillingly, it went on to say:

“National and local government do not know whether the care and health systems can continue to absorb these cumulative pressures, and how long they can carry on doing so.”

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That is from its review last year, yet the cuts have continued.

Mr Jim Cunningham (Coventry South) (Lab): To substantiate the point that my hon. Friend has just made, I can tell him that about a fortnight before Christmas we met local GPs who were voicing concerns about bed blocking in particular, caused by cuts in local government expenditure for social care. That is reminiscent of what happened under the previous Conservative Government.

The other affected area is meals on wheels. When a visitor goes to an old person’s house, they see what condition they are in and often they are able to help but get only 15 minutes to do so.

Mr Mudie: My hon. Friend is quite right. When I was a trade union official, I looked after what were termed home helps and I always appreciated that point—as I did as a councillor, just like him. They were invaluable people who went into old people’s homes, met them and formed relationships, and if they were handled and trained properly, they would report back on any change in condition they saw. That was often valuable for the old people.

If the Minister read the excellent newspaper The Independent this morning, he will no doubt have seen the article reporting the comments of the chief executive of Age UK, Caroline Abrahams. The article states:

“Care of the elderly is in a state of ‘calamitous, quite rapid decline’…with…thousands fewer people receiving care than five years ago.”

She spelled out the fact that the number of people receiving home care has fallen by a third since 2010.

Places in day centres, where lonely, vulnerable adults could find warmth and companionship and escape cold, empty homes are down 66%. Incredibly, in the area that my hon. Friend just mentioned—equipment and adaptations such as rails and stair lifts—40% fewer people now receive help. I say that is incredible because everyone accepts that such adaptations and aids help old people stay in their homes. Often, they save their lives, but they are certainly a method of preventing them going prematurely into residential homes or hospital beds, yet the money has been cut and 40% fewer are being helped.

The article continues:

“Ms Abrahams said that hundreds of thousands of older people were being left ‘high and dry’.”

It goes on:

“‘The lucky ones have sufficient funds to buy in some support, or can rely on the good will of family, neighbours and friends. But there are many who are left to struggle on entirely alone,’ she said.”

I remind the House that that is the chief executive of Age UK, the leading charity for old people.

The Care and Support Alliance pointed out that population changes mean that more people need care, but, as we know, fewer people receive it. There have been further cuts to adult social care budgets in recent years, and a 26% reduction in the number of older people receiving state-funded services, despite the Personal

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Social Services Research Unit having predicted that demand would increase by 17% between 2000 and 2020.

The picture is the same among working-age disabled people, 90,000 of whom lost access to state support for their care needs between 2008 and 2013. The alliance says that there is a “chronic underfunding” of care. With local authorities having had to find significant savings owing to reductions in Government grants, there have been further cuts to social care budgets in recent years. The Association of Directors of Adult Social Services and the Local Government Association estimate that about £3.53 billion has been taken from adult social care budgets during the past four years. In the last year alone, 40% of the total savings made by local authorities were achieved through reducing adult social care services. That is quite an alarming figure, but perhaps understandable. That has resulted in a tightening of eligibility for care at local level and of the size of care packages for those who remain eligible. When discussing the Barker commission’s recommendations for more funds and the options that had been set out, the CSA commented:

“What is no longer an option is to continue the current chronic underfunding of care.”

I hope that in the short time available to me, I have allowed the voice of representatives to be heard and put on the record—not partisan politicians but those working in the service full time, who know the people, the finances and the difficulties. What it all adds up to is something that has been known in this place for some considerable time—the service is underfunded, at a time when it is recognised that there are additional pressures and that there is a need for more money, not less. We all know that. It has been known in this building for at least 10 years, covering two Governments. People told us until they were blue in the face that more money was needed, because there were more older people who were living longer and had greater needs. Yet because of elections, I presume, everybody dodges the column and no one has made the difficult decision about how we put money into the service. There should have been a public debate along those lines, to show people the quiet neglect of vulnerable people that is happening every day, in almost every street in our communities.

Mr Cunningham: The situation is a little worse than that. We are really going back to about 30 years ago, when local authorities were forced into doing deals with the private sector for old people’s care homes. Recently, we have witnessed some of those care homes going bankrupt, which means closure and a lack of places for people.

Mr Mudie: It is clear that my hon. Friend has read my speech; I was just coming on to the privatisation of adult care services.

I hope that I have highlighted in my remarks the important role of local authorities in the sector. As an ex-councillor, I instinctively have much sympathy with the difficulty they face in having to take some very difficult decisions about priorities in the face of the Government onslaught on their budgets. Leeds, my home authority, has faced a tremendous task in running a city when it has had to find £250 million in cuts during the period of the first spending review. Having achieved

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that, it is now dismayed to hear the Chancellor threaten—indeed, promise—further cuts until 2018, if he gets back in office. In fact, Leeds has been told that it will face a budget cut of £46 million in 2015-16. Other councils face similar problems, and I simply do not know how the Chancellor feels he can order those huge cuts and still have our major cities being run and our elderly and disadvantaged being properly cared for.

I was alarmed when I was informed that a dementia residential and daycare home in my constituency, The Green, was being closed, and that many hundreds of home care workers were also losing their jobs. When I looked into things, I discovered that, chiefly as a measure to keep the city intact financially, the council had had to act in line with other big cities and had taken two unfortunate steps.

The first, which has been mentioned in passing, was to raise the criteria level at which help should be given. This meant that new applicants would have to meet higher eligibility thresholds than before. Parkinson’s UK and the National Autistic Society are two organisations that have pointed out how the new criteria put their members at a disadvantage when it comes to receiving help. The Government have legislated on that point in the Care Act 2014, and although that meets the Government objective of ending postcode unfairness, it also legitimises local authorities, or rather strengthens them, when they have to turn people down because they have needs that are lower than the criteria require. Those organisations have given evidence on how the quality of life of individuals with either Parkinson’s or autism has been diminished. I hope that the Government’s decisions will be reviewed in happier times.

What is more difficult to review is the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham) touched upon—the decision to outsource adult care services. That has been done to help meet the shortfall in Government grant. Perhaps I am paranoiac—I probably am, because I think paranoia keeps us safe—but I wonder whether that is what the Government intended. Many people have been outraged by the Government’s propensity to privatise much of the NHS, but thanks to the love that the British public quite rightly have for that unique and wonderful organisation, the Government have backed off from adopting a full-frontal approach and are now taking a more subtle, if not devious, approach.

So quiet has the handing over of care homes and home care staff been that it has rarely been picked up by the general public, except by the clients of those homes and the ex-local government staff themselves. There is a growing awareness of 10-minute visits and the failure to provide elderly people with the same carer; providing the same carer is an important part of home care, so that people can build a relationship with them and trust can develop. The former staff are aware of the loss of local government wages, the use of zero-hours contracts and the loss of payment for travelling time, which accounts for those 10-minute visits.

I will just depart from my script to say that that situation is not surprising. If a council outsources contracts and there is a duty to save money, given that those contracts primarily involve labour, the only way in which money can be saved is to hand them over to a private company. That company would have no

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compunction in offering lower wages, no travelling time, worse holidays and worse sickness schemes. That is what has happened in the majority of cases.

Mr Ward: Does the hon. Gentleman accept that, in many cases, the private sector businesses are effectively offering wages that are below the national minimum wage, as a result of the commissioning process? In some cases, they are being given only enough money to offer no more than £12.50 or £13 an hour, which cannot cover all the costs of travel, transport, uniforms and training. That means that the private sector businesses are often almost being forced out of business.

Mr Mudie: I totally agree with that. Now that the local authorities have pocketed the money, it is clear that they are pressing down on the private firms, and we are a step away from the disaster of the private firms just going, “There—that’s it.” What happens when we have closed all our residential homes? There is a real problem building up.

I am sad that financial pressures have forced councils to do that. The care of the vulnerable elderly is a service that, just like hospitals, should remain in the public sector. The various scandals in care services have underlined the temptation—indeed, often the necessity—of people in business to do more than cut corners when looking after people who are helpless. I am less than convinced that the Care Quality Commission, with its proposed risk-based regulation, is any better than its predecessor, which turned out to be disastrous.

In Leeds, thanks to the protests by staff and unions, the public unhappiness over the closures and the sagacity of the council leader, Councillor Keith Wakefield, the decision on care is under review. I understand the pressures that the council faces, but I hope that it makes the right decision.

I will end my remarks by asking the Minister three questions, which, if past debates in this place are anything to go by, I will not receive answers to; I am referring not to this Minister but to his disreputable colleagues. I know that this Minister is a man of honour.

First, is any discussion taking place about putting adult social care, which is closely affected by and connected to hospital care, inside the ring fence? Secondly, are councils under any instruction about privatising or outsourcing adult services? Thirdly, is any Government legislation preventing councils, in commissioning work, from inserting provisions stating that wage and working conditions should be at a specific level?

I know I am crowding the Minister’s time, but I shall take just half a minute more. I was once in a group of people in sheltered housing discussing some problems, and I met an old lady of 90. She said, “I’m 90 and I haven’t had a bath for two years.” I started back. She said, “No, I do my best to wash myself standing up, but every time the door opened and the home care worker came in to bath me, I was getting a stranger. I may be 90, but I have my self-respect and my dignity, and I want to keep it.” That is happening to too many of our older people. They are vulnerable, they are being treated badly and they are neglected. It is about time that not the Minister, but the Chancellor woke up to this.

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4.51 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills (George Freeman): I thank the hon. Member for Leeds East (Mr Mudie) for raising the important issue of the reorganisation of care pathways in Leeds. I prepared a speech dealing with the reorganisation of health and care and their integration in the town, but I only have nine minutes left and I need to deal with the questions raised by the hon. Gentleman. Perhaps I can write to him with the detail of some important reforms going on in the city.

First, I want to take on the hon. Gentleman’s questions. I reassure him that the reforms in the city are absolutely not the result of any diktat by Ministers. They are in fact being led by hard-working and pioneering health, NHS and social care leaders in Leeds, to whom I pay tribute. My right hon. Friend the Minister of State, who is responsible for care, has publicly commended the work that they are doing locally. They are doing pioneering work in the important mission of integration.

In much the same way that NHS England is autonomous and responsible for delivering health services locally, local authorities are responsible for providing social care services for their communities. As autonomous public bodies, they are best placed to decide the needs of local people. I support the work done in so far as it encourages people locally to contribute to that democratic process.

The hon. Gentleman made some important points. First, he asked whether the proposed closure is due to cuts in Government funding. The answer is no. Public finances are in a precarious position. This year the deficit is still, despite the best efforts of this Government, projected to be over £100 billion. I remind him that when we came to office, debt interest alone was running at £70 billion a year. In Labour’s last year, one in every four pounds spent by the Government was borrowed. We had to get that under control.

It is true that priorities have to be set across the local authority system, but the vast majority of local authorities have prioritised social care. Indeed, in Leeds, work has been done to allocate priorities appropriately. The evidence is encouraging. Despite difficult public spending constraints, spending in Leeds on adult social care is up 3% in cash terms. Importantly, satisfaction with levels of care and support is up 10.8%. I do not recognise the picture of catastrophic collapse that the hon. Gentleman painted.

Secondly, the hon. Gentleman asked whether the Government are doing enough on accident and emergency and about the extent to which that is being driven by the problem in social care. The truth is that we ring-fenced a grant for £25 million to help councils with hard-pressed hospitals. An ageing population—there are 1 million more pensioners this year—is driving increased pressure on A and E. We have set up the Better Care Fund, which I will say a little bit about later.

I cannot let the allegation about privatisation go without a response. Labour’s scaremongering about privatisation has been discredited as a myth by just about every health commentator, including the King’s Fund. Our Health and Social Care Act 2012 made it illegal for any Government to drive the private sector into the NHS, as happened under the Labour Government. It was Labour, actually, that was prepared to pay private sector providers 11% more than NHS providers, and

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under this Government, led by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health, that has been made illegal. Under Labour, independent provision comprised 5% of the NHS, but under this Government it is now 6%, which is not an increase of the order that the hon. Gentleman described. Spending on private providers for general and acute secondary care increased by twice as much under Labour as it has under the coalition.

The health service has always been a mixture of private, public and voluntary providers. It ill behoves the Opposition, just before the election, to scaremonger on privatisation. That does not support patients and it is not what the people who work in the health service want to see.

In the few minutes I have left, I want to say something about the reforms to adult social care and the integration of care, and about the work that Leeds has been doing. I know how difficult it can be for elderly patients when health and care services are reformed and changed. That is why it is important that it is done locally, with consultation and led by local professionals.

This morning, I spoke to the interim director of adult social services for Leeds, who assured me that no decision has been made on these proposals. They are still being consulted on and they are part of the council’s wider six-year programme to move more services into the community. I understand that there is plenty of alternative capacity in the area: 123 independent sector care homes in the Leeds area alone would be able to accommodate anybody moving. Furthermore, he tells me that the council has successfully closed a number of its care homes, so if a decision is made to close other care homes, it will use that previous experience to handle those closures sensitively and appropriately.

I want to say something about the context of and pressure on social care and how it is changing. Above all, I emphasise the importance of all services, not just social care, adapting and working together to meet the needs of an elderly population in the 21st century. We are living longer, healthier lives and that is something to be celebrated. The fact that many of us can look forward to reaching 85 and over and many of us—perhaps not me, but perhaps the hon. Gentleman—will live to be 100 is a fantastic achievement. However, it puts pressure on the system. Historically, health and care costs have risen by about 4% every year in real terms. The number of people living with three or more long-term conditions is set to increase from 1.9 million in 2008 to 2.9 million in 2018. One of my former ministerial colleagues, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Burstow), has talked about how care homes need to be made

“fit for the rock and roll generation”.

That is why we have been pushing the integration of health and care and the changes set out in the Care Act 2014.

It would be remiss of me not to admit that in recent decades we have allowed ourselves to tolerate a care system that too often steps in too late and picks up when there is a crisis, rather than acting to prevent one; a system in which there are still too many barriers stopping people getting the integrated care they need; and a society, for which we all take responsibility, that, despite the best efforts of those working in the care sector—professional and voluntary—increasingly has tolerated too much loneliness and isolation.

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The case for reform and integration of the care system is not just serious, it is overwhelming. That is why this Government have put such emphasis on integration. People worry that care services will not help them regain their independence and maintain a decent quality of life. It is in all our interests to integrate health and care better. That is why we created the Better Care Fund, the biggest ever financial incentive for the integration of health and social care, providing £5.4 billion of investment in better integrated care from 1 April 2015. Never before has there been a clear legal duty to focus on prevention. The Care Act fills that gap.

I pay tribute to the leaders in social care and health in Leeds, because they are doing great work as a pathfinder area and the Government have supported them. It is a Labour-run council, but it is doing good work in the integration process. I understand that Leeds is opening 37 open access neighbourhood networks. Those schemes are helping around 22,000 older people every year with a range of activities; they have prevented 1,400 older people from going into hospital; and they have supported over 600 older people when discharged from hospital.

Time is against me. I want to close by highlighting the fact that these are not easy issues. The integration of

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NHS and care services is a challenge across the country, in my constituency as well as the hon. Gentleman’s. The Government have inherited a legacy of neglect in recent decades: I do not just blame the Opposition. We have not integrated properly and we have allowed this problem to go on too long. I believe this Government have attempted to tackle the deficit responsibly. Of course, we all have to tighten our belts.

We have ring-fenced health expenditure. In an integrated system, putting more money into health and driving integration means that there is more money indirectly for social care. The statistics in Leeds simply do not represent this catastrophic picture of privatisation, which has been discredited, or of crisis in the system. I do not pretend for a minute that everything is perfect, but I do believe that we, working with local authorities, are putting the right solution in place for the longer term.

Question put and agreed to.

4.59 pm

Sitting adjourned.