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House of Commons

Monday 2 February 2015

The House met at half-past Two o’clock


[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Communities and Local Government

The Secretary of State was asked—

Council Tax

1. Stephen Metcalfe (South Basildon and East Thurrock) (Con): What steps his Department has taken to freeze council tax charges since 2010-11. [907327]

The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr Eric Pickles): Under the previous Administration, household budgets were severely squeezed as council tax more than doubled. By contrast, this Government have worked to freeze council tax. Across England, bills have fallen by 11% in real terms since 2010 thanks to our freeze.

Stephen Metcalfe: I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. Will he reassure the House that he will do everything he can to help councils keep taxes low, and will he confirm that he will reject Labour’s call for a tax on family homes in England that would fill Scotland’s coffers?

Mr Pickles: I am very happy to confirm that we have no plans to introduce a family homes tax. The principal problem with the proposal is that, were it to be introduced, the amount raised from those in the top band would be inadequate, so people living in an ordinary home would wake up the day after the election and find themselves in a mansion.

Mr Andy Slaughter (Hammersmith) (Lab): Will the Secretary of State congratulate Hammersmith and Fulham council on cutting council tax while at the same time abolishing home care charges, cutting the price of meals on wheels by a third and employing more neighbourhood police officers? Does that not make it his favourite council—perhaps even the apple of his eye?

Mr Pickles: I am pleased that the new administration in Hammersmith and Fulham is building on the fine work of the previous Conservative administration, which did more than just freeze council tax; it cut it by 3% each year, from appalling record levels. The new Labour administration has been able to take full advantage of those efficiencies.

Mr Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con): Will the Secretary of State congratulate Ribble Valley council, which has frozen its council tax for the past five years without reducing the level of services? If Ribble Valley council can do it, anybody can. The only thing missing in some councils is the political will.

Mr Pickles: I congratulate Ribble Valley council, which is clearly the apple of my eye. I know it to be very efficient. Income levels in the Ribble valley are better because local councillors are dedicated to keeping council tax down.

Ms Gisela Stuart (Birmingham, Edgbaston) (Lab): Council tax rates and council tax bands are closely linked. I try not to believe everything I read in the newspapers, but a few years ago The Daily Telegraph reported:

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“Eric Pickles, the Communities Secretary, who oversees local government, has also opposed any move to change council tax bands. He has ordered officials to destroy data collected by previous governments that could allow a widespread rebanding of properties.”

Is that so? If not, what data are available?

Mr Pickles: There was an attempt by the previous Administration to operate a spy system whereby people would be taxed if they had a good view, or if they did not have a good view; if they were close to a bus station, or if they were further away. Frankly, I do not think that it is right for councils to go into people’s homes to measure their bathrooms and look at their views. I regard that as a fundamental intrusion into the British way of life.

Local Authority Spending

2. Mike Kane (Wythenshawe and Sale East) (Lab): What assessment he has made of the effect of real-terms cumulative changes in local authority spending power on services in communities with the greatest needs since 2010-11. [907328]

16. Toby Perkins (Chesterfield) (Lab): What assessment he has made of the effect of real-terms cumulative changes in local authority spending power on services in communities with the greatest needs since 2010-11. [907344]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Kris Hopkins): Since 2010, we have delivered fair local government finance settlements to every part of the country. All councils have balanced their budgets, and most have reduced council tax in real terms and maintained public satisfaction with services. Councils facing the highest demand for services continue to receive more funding and have higher spending than less deprived authorities.

Mike Kane: According to the BBC, Greater Manchester councils are preparing for another cut of £250 million this year, which is in addition to the £1.2 billion taken out of their budgets since 2010. Given the Public Accounts Committee’s conclusion that the Department for Communities and Local Government had limited understanding of the impact of the cuts on services, are Ministers not out of touch?

Kris Hopkins: Every part of Government has had to respond to the challenges left by the previous Administration. It should be noted that now each authority does not have to rely just on its grant; it has the ability to raise money itself. Manchester has been very successful at that, securing many millions of pounds through its business tax retention and the new homes bonus. Manchester has also been very successful in securing a multi-million-pound growth deal.

Toby Perkins: The PAC report made it clear that councils with the greatest spending needs—the most deprived authorities—receive the largest reductions. The Minister talks about the challenges facing them. He will know that the challenges facing the local authority in Chesterfield are twice those facing the local authority that the Secretary of State is responsible for.

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Is it not true that the reason why the areas with the greatest deprivation are facing the biggest cuts is that Tory Governments always redistribute money from the poorest people to the richest? If the disabled, the elderly and the vulnerable in my constituency want to do something about the situation, they should not complain to this Government—they should chuck them out in May.

Kris Hopkins: The most deprived authorities receive 40% more than the least deprived. The PAC and the NAO recognised that, on the whole, local authorities have responded well to the cuts and that every single authority has managed to balance its budgets. It should be noted that local authorities have significantly increased their reserves during this period. The reason why each part of Government is having to respond to these financial challenges is the economic incompetence of the previous Government. I am sure that the public out there will not want to give the Labour party the reins of power again.

Andrew Bridgen (North West Leicestershire) (Con): For decades, my local authority in Leicestershire has been one of the lowest-funded county councils. Will my hon. Friend assure the House that in reaching a figure in the local government settlement, account will be taken of how efficient a council already is?

Kris Hopkins: I have received representations from my hon. Friend’s council, and I do recognise the enormous amount of work that is going on. Given the economic circumstances, we try to show a direction of travel regarding councils with significant rural coverage, and we have increased the moneys by some £15.5 million this time.

Stephen Mosley (City of Chester) (Con): I represent a constituency in the north of England, where we see huge variations in the spending power of local councils, but also huge variations in how councils are dealing with the situation. My own Conservative Cheshire West and Chester council has redesigned services, sharing them and making them more efficient to protect the taxpayer, whereas neighbouring councils are looking at cutting services, closing libraries and making the taxpayer pay for their mistakes. Does my hon. Friend agree?

Kris Hopkins: The track record shows that Conservative-led administrations are facing up to the issues that we all face. I have seen everything that my hon. Friend’s council has done, including the excellent homeless support services that it offers. Even the most difficult and vulnerable people out there are being protected by well-thought-out responses to the economic challenges we face.

Andy Sawford (Corby) (Lab/Co-op): The National Audit Office says that local government has faced 37% cuts on average, and hon. Members have highlighted just how unfair those cuts are. Why is the Department refusing to publish figures that show the real-terms, year-on-year changes by local authority, as the NAO and now the Public Accounts Committee have urged? Are the Government frightened to lay bare just how grotesquely unfair their policies are to the poorest communities?

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Kris Hopkins: Every year we have published all our figures. We go out there and consult councils on the figures that we offer. This time we gave indicative figures for not only last year but this year, and there have been plenty of opportunities for people to scrutinise those figures. I should point out that the NAO figures do not include the better care fund or the public health grant.

Council Tax

3. Henry Smith (Crawley) (Con): What estimate he has made of the number of local authorities who are planning to raise council tax by more than 1.99% in the next financial year; and if he will make a statement. [907329]

The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr Eric Pickles): Councils have yet to set their budgets. I encourage every local council to take up this year’s offer of additional funding to freeze council tax. If they want to hike up council tax, they should put that to the people in a referendum.

Henry Smith: A recent TaxPayers Alliance study identified that the chief executive of Pembrokeshire council had a Porsche funded at a cost of some £90,000 and that, in Camden, £3.25 million had been spent on so-called gagging orders for employees who were leaving. What more can be done to bear down on these unnecessary costs that burden the taxpayer?

Mr Pickles: Transparency is the order of the day. It is sad that the kind of information available to English taxpayers is not available to their Welsh counterparts. With regard to Mr Bryn Parry Jones’s Porsche, if any chief executive puts in a Porsche as part of their terms of contract, I think that is a cry for help. The chap is obviously suffering from a mid-life crisis, and the council would have been better spending money on getting him some professional help.

Mr Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): Kettering borough council, of which I am privileged to be a member, has frozen its council tax throughout the lifetime of this Parliament and now proposes to cut car parking charges. Will those practical and popular policies help local people tackle the cost of living?

Mr Pickles: I do not know which I like best—my hon. Friend’s council or Ribble Valley council—but that is my kind of council. This is about bringing in jobs and work, making it easy for people to shop, and showing some respect to the electorate. My hon. Friend’s electorate are singularly fortunate in their council and in their representative.

Local Plans (Accessibility Standards)

4. Yasmin Qureshi (Bolton South East) (Lab): What steps the Government plan to take to ensure that high accessibility standards are incorporated into local plans. [907330]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Stephen Williams): Our planning policy is clear that authorities should plan for accessible communities, and guidance further

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promotes accessible and inclusive design. We are also reviewing housing standards so that they provide for more accessible homes, and all public bodies are bound by the requirements of the Equalities Act 2010, which promotes inclusion.

Yasmin Qureshi: The Government estimate that a three-bedroom home built to the proposed category 2 costs just £521 more than the less accessible equivalent—about one week’s bill for residential care. Do the Government accept that that shows an urgent need for higher access standards, and for more homes to be built to those standards?

Stephen Williams: I think the hon. Lady is referring to part M of the building regulations, which has a baseline requirement for accessibility. The housing standards review proposes to allow local authorities to adopt higher standards where they judge that to be applicable. Demography obviously varies between authorities, and Bolton will be quite different from Christchurch. I am a localist and believe that that is the right way forward.

Martin Vickers (Cleethorpes) (Con): Residents in North East Lincolnshire would welcome a local plan with high accessibility standards—indeed, they would welcome any local plan, but the Labour-controlled council will not produce one until 2017. In the meantime, villages are having many unnecessary planning applications. What advice can the Minister offer my local residents?

Stephen Williams: The Government strongly exhort all local authorities to have an up-to-date local plan in place, and 80% of authorities now have a published plan and 62% an adopted plan. I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman’s authority in Lincolnshire is not following suit.

Roberta Blackman-Woods (City of Durham) (Lab): Habinteg, Age UK, Aspire, Care and Repair, Disability Rights UK, Leonard Cheshire Disability and Mencap all supported Labour’s push to amend the Infrastructure Bill to ensure high standards of accessibility in new housing. Why did the Government oppose those efforts?

Stephen Williams: I refer the hon. Lady to the answer I gave to the hon. Member for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi). Every local authority is different and demography varies from area to area. Part M of the building regulations has a baseline requirement for accessibility to be built into new homes, and the housing standards review provides two upper tiers—equivalent to the lifetime homes standard—for local authorities to adopt. On top of that there is also a wheelchair housing standard for accommodation that caters for particular specialist needs.

Translation Costs

5. Mr Dominic Raab (Esher and Walton) (Con): What steps he is taking to reduce translation costs in the delivery of local services. [907332]

The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr Eric Pickles): My Department has issued crystal clear guidance to councils that they should cease translating into foreign languages. Translation is a

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waste of taxpayers’ money and encourages segregation and division. Promoting English is the best way to ensure integration.

Mr Raab: I thank the Secretary of State for that answer, and welcome the progress made by his Department. Does he agree that the enormous translation costs for public services that grew up under the previous Government were not just a huge waste of taxpayers’ money, but sent a message that if someone moves here from abroad, they do not need to speak English or to integrate, and that has proved a major policy mistake?

Mr Pickles: Yes; the cost worked out at something like £140 million a year. It is not good enough to say, “Don’t translate”; we must make a real effort to ensure that people can speak English. That is why my Department has invested £6 million in six programmes to deliver courses for more than 24,000 adults with the lowest levels of English. Those people are the most isolated because they are unable to speak English. The courses have been targeted principally towards Bangladeshi, Pakistani and Somali women.

Chi Onwurah (Newcastle upon Tyne Central) (Lab): I recently met the profoundly deaf communities in my constituency through Deaflink, and they highlighted how isolated they felt because of the lack of British sign language translation services available when accessing services. What will the Secretary of State do to support them?

Mr Pickles: The hon. Lady makes a reasonable point: sign languages in English should be available. I shall look into the matter very carefully and, because she has made a reasonable point, respond to her.

Private Rented Sector

6. Mr Steve Reed (Croydon North) (Lab): What progress his Department has made in promoting longer-term tenancies in the private rented sector. [907333]

8. Mike Gapes (Ilford South) (Lab/Co-op): What progress his Department has made in promoting longer-term tenancies in the private rented sector. [907335]

19. Karl Turner (Kingston upon Hull East) (Lab): What progress his Department has made in promoting longer-term tenancies in the private rented sector. [907347]

The Minister of State, Department for Communities and Local Government (Brandon Lewis): We are progressing longer tenancies by promoting a model tenancy agreement with bodies representing landlords, tenants, letting agents, mortgage lenders and local authorities. Recent figures show that tenancy lengths have increased to an average of just under four years.

Mr Reed: A survey conducted in Croydon North showed some letting agents charging registration fees as high as £500, and hundreds more in finder’s fees and for simply handling the deposit. Of course, short tenancies

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make this rip-off even worse. Why are the Government not standing up for hard-pressed renters against rip-off letting agents?

Brandon Lewis: Actually, we are. The new provisions in the Consumer Rights Bill will require all letting agents to publish their full tariff of fees, both on their websites and prominently in their offices, regardless of whether they are a member of a protection scheme and of which redress scheme they have signed. This will protect tenants from the small minority of agents who charge unreasonable hidden fees and will raise awareness of safe agents and the right of redress.

Mike Gapes: Nine million people, including 1 million families with children, are in private rented accommodation, which, as thousands in my constituency know, leads to uncertainty and fear about people’s long-term future and stability. When will this Conservative Government and their Lib Dem accomplices take the issue seriously? Will they do something now, rather than engage in spurious consultations that take months and years?

Brandon Lewis: I am not sure exactly what the hon. Gentleman is asking us to do. As I said, we have published a model tenancy agreement to encourage longer tenancies. It is worth noting that, according to Savills, a majority of people, particularly younger people, do not want longer tenancies and that 81% of private renters who have moved in the last three years ended their last tenancy because they wished to move, predominantly for work reasons.

Karl Turner: Thousands of families in Hull are subjected to unfair, unsecured tenancies. Why can the Government not accept Labour’s plan for three-year secure tenancy agreements? What is wrong with it?

Brandon Lewis: Given that average tenancies have increased to almost four years, I think that we have already achieved what we needed to achieve and that the hon. Gentleman should be saying, “Well done!”

Mr Mark Prisk (Hertford and Stortford) (Con): I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.

Despite what we have just heard, the evidence from abroad is that the best way to create a more professional private rented sector is actively to encourage pension funds and the long-term institutions to invest for the long term. Given that, may I strongly encourage the Minister to ensure that all our policies—taxation and otherwise—now encourage that long-term investment, not short-term capital gains?

Brandon Lewis: As the House will know, my hon. Friend has a wealth of experience in this matter, and he is absolutely right. We have worked hard to expand the private rented sector, and we want it to grow further and not be threatened by the risk of Labour’s rent control. That is why we have £10 billion of housing guarantee schemes and have allowed the industry to unlock borrowing at the lowest rate in its history. We also recently announced a further £3.5 billion package to promote long-term institutional investment, which holds prices well and brings better and well-managed properties into the market.

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Duncan Hames (Chippenham) (LD): I was delighted that the Minister supported the private Member’s Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Brent Central (Sarah Teather) on preventing retaliatory evictions. Given that the Bill can no longer proceed, will he support the amendments tabled in the House of Lords by my colleague Baroness Bakewell and others to introduce these measures into the Deregulation Bill?

Brandon Lewis: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. It is in fact a Government amendment that is being taken through the Lords. The principle of ensuring that retaliatory evictions cannot happen is one that we would all wholeheartedly support.

Robert Neill (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that evidence from abroad also shows that the last way to get the long-term investment that the private sector needs is through the distorting effect of rent controls, which damaged the quality of the private rental sector in places such as New York when they were tried there?

Brandon Lewis: Absolutely. My hon. Friend makes a very good point. History—both in this country and in a number of countries overseas—has shown us that all rent controls do is put prices up for tenants and reduce supply, which is the opposite of what we want in this country. We want a good, thriving and growing rental sector.

John Healey (Wentworth and Dearne) (Lab): In relation to the private rented sector and all other housing, the English housing survey

“is used extensively across government and beyond and is a public good of national importance.”

Those are not my words but those of the national statistician in reaction to the Minister’s plans to stop the survey next year and then do it only every other year subsequently. In the light of the national statistician’s concerns in urging a rethink, will the Minister confirm that he will take that advice and not scrap next year’s survey?

Brandon Lewis: I am sure the right hon. Gentleman will appreciate that we still have to deal with the record deficit and debt left by the last Labour Government, so we have to be sensible with public sector money, and look to see how we can do things more efficiently and more effectively. We are in consultation at the moment, and I shall make my response to the House when the consultation ends.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Thirsk and Malton) (Con): May I congratulate my hon. Friend on what the Government have achieved through the model agreement? There will be appeals, so will he say a little more about how the approved redress scheme is coping with those appeals?

Brandon Lewis: No issues have been reported at this time, but if my hon. Friend has any particular concerns, I would be happy to meet her and any concerned residents.

Emma Reynolds (Wolverhampton North East) (Lab): The Minister keeps peddling the myth, but we are not proposing rent controls. The Government have taken

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no meaningful action to promote longer-term tenancies. Both the Under-Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Keighley (Kris Hopkins), and the current housing Minister told us last year that rent levels were falling, with the Under-Secretary saying that rents were falling even in London. But now the Office for National Statistics has confirmed what everybody else knew all along—that rents are rising faster than wages and rising in real terms. Will the Minister now admit that he was wrong and that millions of private renters are facing insecurity and rising rents?

Brandon Lewis: I am afraid to say to the hon. Lady that real-term rents have been lower than the changes in inflation, so rent costs have fallen in real terms. We need to continue to see supply come through and get that institutional investment that was mentioned a few minutes ago so that we continue to see good-quality housing available at good prices.

Green-belt Land

7. Chris Skidmore (Kingswood) (Con): What steps his Department has taken to protect green-belt land from inappropriate development. [907334]

The Minister of State, Department for Communities and Local Government (Brandon Lewis): The Government have safeguarded national green-belt protection in contrast to Labour’s top-down strategies of the past that wanted to concrete over it. In October last year, we published new planning guidance, which reaffirmed green-belt protection, and we have been consulting on changes to Traveller policy which, if taken forward, will further strengthen green-belt protection.

Chris Skidmore: Over the past five years, the Kingswood green belt has been protected. Now, hundreds of local people have signed a petition against a proposed right to grow set out in the Opposition’s Lyons review that would allow Bristol to expand at the expense of our local green belt and local communities. Does the Minister agree that we need to continue to protect the Kingswood green belt against this dangerous right-to-grow policy?

Brandon Lewis: My hon. Friend makes a very good point. When I visited him not too long ago, he showed me Labour plans for places to have the ability to grow outwards. The review says that some places illustrate these issues to a greater or lesser extent, and that

“not all green belt land is of high environmental or amenity value”.

I suspect my hon. Friend’s residents would disagree with that. I know he has campaigned hard on this issue. It is vital to ensure that we continue these strong green-belt protections. Ultimately, these matters must be locally decided by local people for their local area.

Mr Clive Betts (Sheffield South East) (Lab): The Minister will be aware that paragraphs 17 and 111 of the national planning policy framework contain a commitment to “brownfield first”. When the Select Committee did its recent inquiry into the operation of the NPPF, it received more complaints about one issue than any other—concerns about inappropriate speculative applications, not just in the green belt but in green fields in general. Will he agree to look very carefully at the

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Select Committee’s recommendations to speed up the process of local plan adoption and to ensure that those local plans have a higher percentage of brownfield within them? There is real concern about this issue on both sides of the Chamber.

Brandon Lewis: The short answer is yes. The hon. Gentleman has made a good point: it is important to protect both green-belt and greenfield land. Some interesting cases have arisen, particularly one in the last couple of weeks, in which green-wedge land was protected by inspectors. However, it is also important for local authorities to deliver local plans, and it would be even better to see some more neighbourhood plans.

Jacob Rees-Mogg (North East Somerset) (Con): Following the question from my hon. Friend and neighbour the Member for Kingswood (Chris Skidmore), may I ask whether my hon. Friend the Minister is aware that 70% of Bath and North East Somerset is green belt? It is some of the most beautiful countryside in the world, and allowing Bristol to spill over into it would essentially mean the recreation of that most unloved county of Avon. The Government’s commitment to preserving the green belt is therefore of crucial importance.

Brandon Lewis: My hon. Friend has lobbied me on this issue, along with colleagues in the area. There is indeed some beautiful scenery there, and the green belt is indeed important. The local authority, working with local people, has the right to make decisions that will protect its green belt, as is specified in the national planning policy framework.

Mr Ronnie Campbell (Blyth Valley) (Lab): In Cramlington, in my constituency, an urban sprawl of housing has developed over the years since it became a new town. There is a small green patch there, but it is currently the subject of an application for planning permission to build more housing. Should not the townships that were built during the 1960s have a bit of green space in the middle?

Brandon Lewis: We all like to keep our green spaces, and the NPPF is very clear about the need to protect green belt, but, ultimately, the decision should be made locally. It is for the local authority to outline its local plan, but I urge the community in the area to consider proceeding with a local neighbourhood plan, in order to give themselves absolute local control and, if they want it, local protection.

Mike Thornton (Eastleigh) (LD): In my constituency, Eastleigh borough council is working hard to meet the desperate need for more housing while also protecting the precious green gaps between our towns and villages. Are the Secretary of State and the Minister aware that the inspectorate has overruled the borough council’s local plan, which was based on all the evidence available, while refusing to give an adequate explanation of its reasons for insisting on the building of thousands more houses than the evidence has shown to be necessary?

Brandon Lewis: Obviously I cannot comment on a particular local plan, but I urge the hon. Gentleman to contact me and provide some of the details. The inspectors would generally look at the evidence, and I think it

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unlikely that they would make a specific comment about numbers. It is more probable that they challenged the local authority’s evidence. It is important for the authority to put together a strong evidence base to back up what it wants to do.

Refuse Collections

9. Jenny Willott (Cardiff Central) (LD): What discussions he has had with local authorities on the frequency of the collection of black bins. [907336]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Kris Hopkins): DCLG Ministers often discuss the frequency of waste collection with local authorities, and our £250 million weekly collection support scheme has helped more than 80 councils to provide weekly collections. About 40 innovative recycling reward schemes are making life easier for 6 million households.

Jenny Willott: I am sure the Minister is aware that Labour-run Cardiff council is currently consulting on the possibility of collecting black bins and bags just once a month. Of all people, Jeremy Clarkson has said:

“There will be so much litter in the streets that rats and plague are sure to follow.”

Notwithstanding the hyperbole, does the Minister share my concern that monthly collections will cause Cardiff to become dirty and full of rubbish, with a growing problem of fly-tipping, rats and seagulls?

Kris Hopkins: Those sound like more wise words from Jeremy Clarkson.

Last year the council was presented with a significant petition against the proposal. Only 27% of residents believe that they can manage with a monthly rubbish collection. The hon. Lady is right: we have poor Labour leadership in Wales nationally, and we clearly have very poor Labour leadership locally in Cardiff.

Mr David Nuttall (Bury North) (Con): What advice would my hon. Friend give residents in Bury, where, without any consultation and despite overwhelming opposition, the Labour-run council has already reduced the frequency of the black bin collection not from weekly to fortnightly, but from fortnightly to three-weekly?

Kris Hopkins: My clear advice would be to vote Conservative in the forthcoming elections.

First-time Buyers

10. Jeremy Lefroy (Stafford) (Con): What steps his Department has taken to help first-time buyers. [907337]

The Minister of State, Department for Communities and Local Government (Brandon Lewis): We have already helped over 58,000 first-time buyers to purchase a home with as little as 5% deposit through Help to Buy. We are also consulting on the starter homes scheme. Starter homes will be available for 100,000 first-time buyers under 40 years of age, at a minimum of 20% below open market value.

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Jeremy Lefroy: I thank the Minister for that important answer. Stafford and Rural Homes in my constituency is investing in many high-quality, well-designed new homes for social rent. What steps is he taking to ensure that the proposed new starter homes are of equally high quality and good design?

Brandon Lewis: My hon. Friend makes a good point. I have said at a number of points that it is important that, in building the quantity of homes we want, we ensure that the quality of build and design is there, too, so that communities can be proud of the homes that are being built. That is why I brought together a design panel of various organisations, which is looking at that work to ensure that we are using the best-quality design and build.

Meg Hillier (Hackney South and Shoreditch) (Lab/Co-op): One way that the Minister can help first-time buyers in my constituency is to tackle high rents and insecurity in the private rented sector. Increasingly, there are reports of people who are not couples being forced to share a bedroom because they cannot afford the high rents in London, yet the Minister is being complacent. Is it not time that the Government acted?

Brandon Lewis: I think that, in asking for rent controls again, the hon. Lady may have just contradicted her colleague, the hon. Member for Wolverhampton North East (Emma Reynolds). We have introduced the rent to buy scheme, which was announced towards the end of last year, to enable people who are renting and want to own a home to have another option to do that. I also encourage the hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier) to support our starter homes programme, which will make 100,000 extra homes available at a 20% discount.

Mr Speaker: I was going to call Mr Love, but he is not standing, so I won’t. But if he does, I might.

Mr Andrew Love (Edmonton) (Lab/Co-op): I did not think that you would call two Opposition Members in a row, Mr Speaker.

The level of home ownership has fallen to its lowest level for 30 years. Will the Government now admit that their failure to build homes is pricing home ownership out of the reach of ordinary families?

Brandon Lewis: I gently point out to the hon. Gentleman that in 2010 we inherited the lowest level of building since 1923. We have been rebuilding that market, which is now back at the 2007 level. We have started building affordable homes at the fastest rate in 20 years. The latest figures we have show that, in 2013, we had the highest level of first-time buyers in the market—almost 230,000—for many years.

Housing Completions and Demand

11. Heidi Alexander (Lewisham East) (Lab): What comparative assessment he has made of the number of housing completions and demand for housing since 2010. [907338]

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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Stephen Williams): Since autumn 2009, 700,000 more homes have been created across England. The Government’s action to get Britain building again has played a vital role in supporting the growth of housing across the country, which has led to a sustained economic recovery.

Heidi Alexander: I am grateful to the Minister for his reply, but he will be aware that demand for genuinely affordable homes massively outstrips supply. In the light of that, how does he justify the Government’s latest policy wheeze, which allows developers to offset vacant buildings on a site against the requirement to provide affordable housing? Is that not another example of his Government watering down the rules for private developers, at the expense of those on the housing waiting list?

Stephen Williams: I am actually quite proud of the Government’s record on affordable homes. In the 2011-15 spending review period, we will have put £19.5 billion of public and private money into the affordable homes programme, delivering 170,000 new affordable homes by March this year, the biggest programme of house building for about 20 years. As for the policy that the hon. Lady referred to, it has been in place for a month. We will have to review its effect and no doubt we will respond accordingly.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North) (Lab): The policy of permitted development has been in operation for much longer. Will the Minister kindly look into that? Developers are able to convert office or industrial premises into residential housing with no social obligation whatsoever. In constituencies such as mine in central London, where there is a massive housing waiting list, that is not helping the situation; it is making it worse and forcing more families to leave the borough.

Stephen Williams: Introducing flexibilities into the planning system has played an important part in getting new homes in some places where there have been redundant office blocks. I know that there is a particular issue in London, to which the hon. Gentleman referred. We have just consulted on those proposals and we will respond shortly.


13. Mr Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): What steps he is taking to encourage local communities to use crowdfunding for social and community enterprises. [907341]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Stephen Williams): The Government see great potential in the use of crowdfunding as a means of engaging communities and providing alternative access to finance for community-led enterprises. My Department established the community shares unit in October 2012, with £640,000 of funding. Since then, communities have raised over £50 million from 141 share offer launches.

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Mr Sheerman: Is the Minister aware that, because there is such an unfair funding formula, councils such as Kirklees have been cut to the bone and many of the services we have grown to expect to be provided by the council will now have to be provided in other ways? Will he do even more to help the social enterprise sector to provide those services that many of us think should still be delivered by local councils?

Stephen Williams: The hon. Gentleman and I have agreed on many things over the years, and I share his enthusiasm for social enterprise. I think it should be a growing part of the economy. I also share his enthusiasm for crowdfunding. I held a round-table in the Department to look at how we can encourage more communities to use crowdfunding, and I think it has enormous potential, in particular to replace the system whereby the Department or local authorities give grants for community groups but do not require them to raise money for themselves. That is something I am trying to alter, and I think it will lead to real community empowerment.

Brownfield Sites (Pendle)

14. Andrew Stephenson (Pendle) (Con): What steps he has taken to encourage the development of brownfield sites in Pendle. [907342]

The Minister of State, Department for Communities and Local Government (Brandon Lewis): We are working with the Lancashire local enterprise partnership and Pendle council to support development of the iconic Brierfield mill site. We have provided £2.5 million to help bring over 600 empty properties back into use in Pendle. Brownfield sites in the Burnley-Pendle corridor have also been shortlisted for housing zone status.

Andrew Stephenson: I welcome the news that east Lancashire has been shortlisted as a possible housing brownfield zone. However, more needs to be done to unlock previously developed sites and take pressure off greenfield areas like the Rough and the Meadows in Colne, which are currently subject to planning applications. What more reassurance can the Minister give me that the Government will support councils like Pendle to prioritise brownfield?

Brandon Lewis: My hon. Friend is absolutely right and he has spoken to me extensively about the excellent work going on in Pendle to make sure that brownfield sites are being developed, and I am pleased that that is part of the housing zone programme. We are in the process of encouraging further development on brownfield land. We want to develop 200,000 new homes by 2020 on brownfield land, and just last week we launched a £4.4 million incentive fund to support the preparation of local development orders on brownfield sites.

Andrew Gwynne (Denton and Reddish) (Lab) rose—

Mr Speaker: In the absence of a milometer I cannot say with any accuracy how close the hon. Gentleman’s constituency is to Pendle, but his question needs to be.

Andrew Gwynne: Absolutely, Mr Speaker. Last year the planning Minister told me that green-belt protection throughout the ancient county of Lancashire, which

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incorporates my constituency as well as Pendle, meant that development would not be permitted unless there was extensive consultation with the local population through an amendment to the development plan, and only then in exceptional circumstances. What would the Minister’s view be of a local authority that did not consult extensively with the local community and then approved a development in the green belt, as Liberal Democrat-controlled Stockport council has now done?

Brandon Lewis: I am sure, Mr Speaker, that you will excuse me for saying “Nicely done” to the hon. Gentleman for keeping that question in order.

The hon. Gentleman is right: rearranging, reorganising or relooking at green belt within a local plan needs to be done in full consultation with people. The local authority needs to go through that, and it has to go through an independent examination with an inspector, but, obviously, with regard to individual planning applications, ultimately we believe in localism. I believe it is right for local people, through their local authorities, to have that power, through democracy, to make local decisions. It is very much a matter for the local authority.

Neighbourhood Planning and Community Rights

17. Stuart Andrew (Pudsey) (Con): What steps his Department is taking to support local communities with neighbourhood planning and community rights. [907345]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Stephen Williams): Since April 2012, we have provided £48.5 million to help communities understand and access community rights and associated initiatives. This has funded a helpline, online tools and resources, and specialist support and grants. From next year we are investing a further £32 million to help communities take up the rights.

Stuart Andrew: Neighbourhood forums in my constituency are engaging with the planning process and developing considered and well-researched neighbourhood plans, but their complaint is that they are not statutory consultees on planning applications that affect their area. Will the Department look at this?

Stephen Williams: Our guidance is clear. Where there is an emerging neighbourhood plan and the local authority—Leeds in the hon. Gentleman’s case—does not have a local plan, it should take account of the emerging issues in the neighbourhood plan in designated areas, such as Aireborough in his constituency.

Phil Wilson (Sedgefield) (Lab): Developers Gladman have won, on appeal, the right to build 250 houses on a greenfield site at Middleton St George in my constituency, at a time when the local residents are developing a neighbourhood plan. The development is against the wishes of local people and Darlington borough council. Local people feel that their views are being ignored and have called into question the Department’s commitment to localism. Will the Minister meet me to discuss the consequences of the housing development and Middleton St George’s neighbourhood plan?

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Stephen Williams: I obviously will not comment on the individual application, but both the planning Minister and I often meet neighbourhood planning groups that are frustrated by the behaviour of some housing companies where there is an emerging neighbourhood plan. I would be delighted to meet him to discuss his issues too.

Mr David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): Does my hon. Friend recognise that one of the difficulties in persuading local communities to engage with neighbourhood planning is the huge amount of effort invested in the past in producing parish plans and village design statements that were then completely ignored by both local planners and the planning inspectorate? Will he reassure me that neighbourhood planning now really means something?

Stephen Williams: I visit many of the neighbourhood plans around the country, and I actually think that they have been an excellent innovation by the Government. They get people involved in planning at a neighbourhood plan level, and they now have weight within the planning system, which is the difference from before. The plans are also endorsed by a referendum of the public, which shows real enthusiasm for involvement in shaping their communities.

Firefighters’ Pensions

18. Grahame M. Morris (Easington) (Lab): What progress his Department has made on resolving the dispute over firefighters’ pensions. [907346]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Penny Mordaunt): Firefighter pension regulations were fully debated in the House, and come into force on 1 April. Firefighters will continue to receive one of the best pensions in the public sector and we have added statutory fitness protections. These matters are now settled, and the current dispute should end.

Grahame M. Morris: On 15 December, the fire Minister gave hon. Members assurances that firefighters who failed a fitness test would receive unreduced pensions, and that was confirmed by the Secretary of State the following day. Subsequently, fire authorities, in response to a survey by the Fire Brigades Union, have said that they cannot provide a guarantee of an unreduced pension. Can the Minister confirm that the guarantee is 100%, or is it not a guarantee when it is given by a Tory Minister?

Penny Mordaunt: The national service framework has been changed and it came into effect on 12 January—that was the fitness protections. Fire and rescue authorities have to follow the national service framework: it is not an option. We have been very clear that if a firefighter loses fitness through no fault of their own, they should get an alternative role or a full unreduced pension. These are new protections, despite the fact that firefighters have been required to work to 60 since 2006.

John Hemming (Birmingham, Yardley) (LD): I was one of the Members who backed the Government given the assurances from the Minister, but the documentation

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from the employers indicates something else. What clarification can she give about what the employers are saying?

Penny Mordaunt: Clearly, we can change the law. If fire and rescue authorities decide that they will not follow the law, we will spot that because we have also undertaken to audit this process and their adoption of new fitness principles. The Secretary of State also has powers to intervene. I have no indication that fire and rescue authorities will not adhere to the national service framework. If hon. Members know differently, they should let me know.

Lyn Brown (West Ham) (Lab): On 15 December, the Minister said that if someone fails a fitness test

“through no fault of their own”—

and they do not qualify for an ill-health retirement, they will get

“an alternative role or an unreduced pension.”—[Official Report, 15 December 2014; Vol. 589, c. 1153.]

The Minister further confirmed that that would be put on a statutory footing in the national framework. Will she confirm that the national framework does not guarantee a full pension or redeployed role? It merely requests fire authorities to consider options for redeployment or a full pension. It is a sham guarantee—it is no guarantee. How does the Minister square what she told the House with the ministerial code?

Penny Mordaunt: This is about protecting the firefighters whom the hon. Lady—who was in the Department when the changes were made in 2006—is asking to work until the age of 60. This is an improvement on the previous situation. There are two reasons why we have introduced the new measures: first, those older workers should have those protections; secondly, we recognise that the fear of being in that situation may have an impact on recruitment and retention. This scaremongering by the Opposition is shameful, and I would ask them to put the well-being of firefighters ahead of pandering to the militant wing of the Fire Brigades Union.

Topical Questions

T2. [907318] Barry Gardiner (Brent North) (Lab): If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities. Will the Minister confirm that—

Mr Speaker: Order. It will not be long before we hear the hon. Gentleman’s dulcet tones. We can hold on just a moment. Let us hear Secretary Pickles, adorned in his waistcoat, first.

The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr Eric Pickles): I can hardly wait, Mr Speaker. Last week, the Prime Minister’s Holocaust Commission published its recommendations to ensure that the memory of the holocaust is preserved. The Government will commit £50 million to the creation of the national memorial, the learning centre and the endowment fund. My Department will sponsor the new Holocaust Memorial Foundation, which will take forward those recommendations. Its first task will be to undertake an urgent programme to record and preserve the testimony of British holocaust survivors and liberators. It is our

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collective responsibility to educate future generations about the horrors of the holocaust and never to forget why we need to challenge and combat the forces of hate.

Barry Gardiner: May I associate myself with the Secretary of State’s remarks on the holocaust memorial, which is fundamentally important? Will he confirm that, in 2015-16, Brent’s core funding will be cut by 14% and its revenue support grant by 28%? Will he also confirm that the reason why his Department curiously refers to Brent’s spending power is that it includes £23 million of money that Brent council does not receive and has no power over, and that doing so gives him the singular advantage of allowing him falsely to claim that Brent is being cut by only 1.8%?

Mr Pickles: We moved over to looking at the spending power of authorities at the urging of the Local Government Association, the Labour party and the local government unit. They considered it to be a fairer way of measuring, and I think that they were right. It is fairer, because it is frankly pointless just to measure the amount of money coming from the Government. It is better to get a rounded position. That is why we have been able to ensure that services have been protected, that the level of satisfaction with local government has never been higher, and that reserves have never been higher.

T3. [907319] Andrew Stephenson (Pendle) (Con): My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Kris Hopkins) have both kindly visited the largest redundant mill complex in Lancashire, Brierfield mill in my constituency. Following the fantastic news of Government funding for the project in last week’s growth deal, will Ministers commit themselves to continuing to work with Pendle borough council and myself to move forward this massive regeneration project?

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Penny Mordaunt): I can certainly give my hon. Friend that assurance, and I congratulate him on all he has done to be champion for his local area. I will be up there next week talking to his local enterprise partnership about how we can take things forward.

Hilary Benn (Leeds Central) (Lab): I want to return to the very serious matter of what the House was told in December about firefighters’ pensions. As we have just heard, firefighters are clear that the Minister gave them a guarantee that if they could not meet the fitness standard and could not be found another job, they would go on an unreduced pension. The Secretary of State—my question is to him—told the Communities and Local Government Select Committee the following day that if firefighters

“cannot be redeployed, the effect of yesterday’s decision is that they will get a full pension.”

However, the statutory instrument makes it clear that the fire and rescue authorities only have to “have regard” to the guidance in carrying out their duties. If that is the case, can the Secretary of State please explain how on earth that constitutes a guarantee?

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Penny Mordaunt: The national service framework is something that is within our gift. We have changed it and put the principles within it on a statutory footing. They are not optional. There is no wriggle room for fire and rescue authorities. Clearly, fire and rescue authorities are responsible for their own policies locally, but I have no indication that they will deviate from the national service framework. If they do so, and we find that they are doing so, we will act. The Secretary of State has powers in the Fire and Rescue Services Act 2004 to do that. I say to Opposition Members that this is a vast improvement on what they gave firefighters. It is a step in the right direction to protect older workers. If, as the work of the fitness group progresses, there are further things that we can do once good practice is agreed upon, we will of course consider them. This is doing firefighters a grave disservice and it is undermining confidence in the fact that all firefighters—men and women—can enjoy a full career in the service.

Hilary Benn: I note that the Secretary of State did not want to respond in respect of his own words. But I say to the hon. Lady that the reason there is no confidence is that she and the Secretary of State have failed to give effect to the promise that they made. If she is looking for proof of that, may I quote to her what the London Fire Brigade said in correspondence to the Fire Brigades Union? She says that she has seen no evidence so she should really keep up. The FBU had written to the London Fire Brigade after the debate in December and asked whether there would be a guarantee. The London Fire Brigade said that it had taken legal advice, which

“confirms the position previously notified to DCLG by the Authority, most recently on 9 December 2014, that if DCLG wished to offer such a guarantee then it would need to change the regulations to enable that to happen.”

It then went on to say that

“the Authority is unable to give any guarantee.”

Firefighters are understandably angry because it turns out that the guarantee that they were promised in December on the basis of that was not a guarantee. Will the Minister do what she promised and apologise?

Penny Mordaunt: I will not apologise for improving the situation of firefighters. Firefighters had been asked to work until 60 without any protections. We have introduced those protections. I also have to say that I have no trouble keeping up with what the FBU wishes to tell us. Not only do I have its letters, but I have letters also from the Secretary of State. Those letters are not only in the FBU’s font but have even managed to get his job description wrong.

T5. [907321] Duncan Hames (Chippenham) (LD): One fire authority responding to queries from firefighters about how it was going to honour the Minister’s commitment wrote to them and said:

“We are advised that the addendum to the National Framework…continues to provide discretion over the award of an unreduced pension…We are further advised that such discretion cannot be fettered, and that to provide the ‘guarantee’ you are seeking would be unlawful.”

Will the Minister begin the audit to which she has committed and ensure that fire authorities honour the commitment that she has made?

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Penny Mordaunt: Of course, if a firefighter loses fitness through their own fault—by neglecting to go to the gym, to train and to keep up to date with the requirements placed on them—fire authorities have the discretion not to award a pension, which is quite right. Where that is not the case, the authorities must award a pension. The audit will take place. There is work going on at the moment with the fitness group that was set up, and I am pleased to update the House that women in the fire service now have a permanent seat on that fitness group. The group will come up with good practice that I hope all fire authorities will follow.

T8. [907324] Pat Glass (North West Durham) (Lab): Durham is ranked the fifth most deprived area in the country on the Government’s own index and is recognised as having much higher need than other wealthier areas. If we are all in this together, will the Minister explain why Durham unitary authority has lost £180 spending power for every man, woman and child in Durham, while Wokingham authority, one of the wealthiest areas in the country, has seen a gain in its spending power for every man, woman and child?

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Kris Hopkins): As I said earlier, the most deprived areas receive 40% more money than the least deprived areas. It is important for local authorities and local leaders to understand that the grant is not the only course for delivering services. They should also consider building their local economy, building houses and receiving the new homes bonus, which I understand that the Labour party will scrap. That is the route that delivers quality services. It should be noted that, despite all the challenges that local authorities have faced, every authority has managed to balance its books and public perception of local authorities has remained positive.

T7. [907323] Andrew Bridgen (North West Leicestershire) (Con): What steps is the Department taking to support independent local newspapers such as the Coalville Times in my constituency?

Kris Hopkins: We have given clear guidance on our expectations regarding council-sponsored newspapers. At a time when every authority faces serious challenges in delivering core services to vulnerable people, we should not be wasting money on propaganda sheets, and our guidance makes sure that local authorities are aware of that. I note that my hon. Friend’s local council has taken significant measures to reduce the amount of money it spends on council newspapers.

T9. [907325] Yasmin Qureshi (Bolton South East) (Lab): Why does the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Portsmouth North (Penny Mordaunt) think that the fire authorities are saying that this is not a guarantee?

Penny Mordaunt: The fire authorities cannot deviate from the national service framework unless they choose to break the law. The measure will not come into effect until 2022 and we have undertaken to carry out a full audit in three years’ time of how they are adopting the fitness principles. If we find that fire authorities are not

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following and honouring those principles, we have powers to intervene. I do not understand why the issue is causing difficulty for the hon. Lady.

Robert Halfon (Harlow) (Con): Harlow has had more than 100 illegal Traveller encampments over the past 15 months, yet the chief constable of Essex says that he does not have the power to remove them and cites human rights legislation. Will my hon. Friend the Minister please have urgent discussions with the chief constable, set out what the powers are and tell them to stop hiding behind Association of Chief Police Officers guidelines?

The Minister of State, Department for Communities and Local Government (Brandon Lewis): I know that my hon. Friend has fought hard for his residents in Harlow and I have met him, the police and crime commissioner and Harlow council. The council and the local police should be using their powers to make sure that policy, the green belt and the good residents of Harlow are protected in the way my hon. Friend has fought so hard to do.

T10. [907326] Mr Nick Raynsford (Greenwich and Woolwich) (Lab): May I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests? This time last year, the Department published a consultation paper on the private rented sector that, among other items, proposed that the installation of working smoke alarms be mandatory. Since then, Ministers have repeatedly failed to meet their own—frequently deferred—deadlines for saying when the consultation will be published. Why are they dragging their feet on such a simple and popular measure that will save lives?

Brandon Lewis: The right hon. Gentleman makes a fair point about how important working smoke alarms and CO2 detectors can be in saving lives. We will respond to the consultation in due course.

Dame Angela Watkinson (Hornchurch and Upminster) (Con): Will my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State discuss with his Cabinet colleague the Secretary of State for Health the rules of ordinary residence for people in care homes? The London borough of Havering picks up financial responsibility for a large number of self-funding residents who come from out-borough. Would it not be fairer if the rule of ordinary residence relied on the address where that person last lived?

Mr Pickles: I am aware of that problem, which I think is most acute in my hon. Friend’s constituency. As we move into April, the better care fund—which is a mechanism not just for funding, but for better co-ordination—should help. Residence should be taken into consideration as a whole and a proper care package should be worked out individually for each person. I hope that that helps my hon. Friend.

Andy McDonald (Middlesbrough) (Lab): Does the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Portsmouth North (Penny Mordaunt) not accept that for a promise and guarantee made to this House in December to be in tatters by January does nothing to help good industrial

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relations? Is not the general secretary of the FBU entirely right to say that firefighters have been utterly cheated?

Penny Mordaunt: The fitness principles came into effect on 12 January, and no amount of spin from Opposition Members can undo that. Firefighters will have a guarantee: if they are working beyond the age of 55 and lose fitness through no fault of their own they will get an alternative role or, if none is available, an unreduced pension. If fire authorities do not do that, the Secretary of State has powers to intervene.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr Speaker: I think we will finish with a dose of Davies. I call Mr Philip Davies.

Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): I have asked Bradford council to supply details of the amount of money it raises in council tax from each ward across the Bradford

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district. I would have thought that would have been readily available information for any local authority, but Bradford council keeps refusing to publish it, claiming that it does not even have it. We all know why: the council does not want to show how much is contributed in council tax from the Shipley constituency and how little goes back to that constituency. May I therefore ask the Secretary of State whether he will make it a statutory duty for local authorities to publish details of how much council tax they receive from each ward in their area?

Kris Hopkins: As a former leader on the front benches of Bradford council, I asked the same question and I was given that information. But of course that was under a Conservative-led administration, which wanted to be transparent and open about the amount of money that was raised. Bradford council has nothing to hide from publishing these figures and letting people who make a significant contribution to the economy of the district know where their money is raised and spent.

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Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services

3.36 pm

Luciana Berger (Liverpool, Wavertree) (Lab/Co-op) (Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Health if he will make a statement on the availability of child and adolescent mental health in-patient beds, and on child and adolescent mental health services more generally.

The Minister of State, Department of Health (Norman Lamb): Since April 2013, NHS England has been responsible for commissioning in-patient child and adolescent mental health services—CAMHS—often referred to as tier 4 CAMHS. In 2014, NHS England reviewed in-patient tier 4 CAMHS and found that the number of NHS-funded beds had increased from 844 in 1999 to 1,128 in 2006. That has now risen to more than 1,400 beds, the highest this has ever been. These data are now being collected nationally for the first time, but despite the overall increase, NHS England also found relative shortages in the south-west and areas such as Yorkshire and Humber.

In response, the Government provided £7 million of additional funding, allowing NHS England to provide 50 additional CAMHS specialised tier 4 beds for young patients in the areas with the least provision—46 of these beds have now opened. NHS England has also introduced new processes for referring to and discharging from services, to make better use of existing capacity. A key objective of these actions is to help prevent children and young people from being referred for treatment long distances from home, except in the most specialised cases.

National availability of in-patient CAMHS beds is reviewed each week by NHS England specialised area commissioning teams and the national lead for commissioning, identifying any issues and taking proactive steps to address them. On 30 January, it emerged that the number of general CAMHS beds available was lower than in recent weeks. In response, NHS England implemented contingency plans, including contacting existing CAMHS providers to seek additional capacity and increasing the use of intensive home support packages to allow children and young people to be treated at home or on a non-specialised ward. NHS England has also contacted mental health providers to alert them to the immediate capacity issues in CAMHS and establish what capacity existed in adult in-patient and community services to take cases on a temporary basis, should that option be required.

The Government are committed to improving CAMHS as part of our commitment to achieving parity of esteem between mental and physical health—this is not just for in-patient services, but for services in the community, and for services that seek to intervene early and prevent problems arising. That, ultimately, is where the focus must be to ensure that, as far as possible, we spot issues early and prevent them from worsening, reducing the need for in-patient treatment.

In August 2014, the Department of Health set up the child and adolescent mental health and well-being taskforce. The taskforce brings together a range of experts from across health, social care and education. It will consider how we can provide more joined-up and accessible

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services built around the needs of children, young people and their families. A Government report on the taskforce’s findings will be published in the spring.

The Government have also invested £54 million in the children and young people’s improving access to psychological therapies programme and will invest £150 million over the next five years in improving services for those with eating disorders.

Luciana Berger: All over England, our child and adolescent mental health services are increasingly under pressure. Despite the best efforts of NHS staff, the system is now in crisis. Children are being sent hundreds of miles for treatment or detained in police cells because there is nowhere else for them to go. We are also hearing of young people getting no treatment at all. I was appalled to see the copy of the e-mail that NHS England commissioners sent on Friday night, warning mental health trusts of a national shortage of in-patient beds for children. It was almost one year ago that the chief executive of YoungMinds said that the increase in the number of children placed on adult wards was entirely predictable following cuts to mental health services. Why did the Minister not act on that warning and do something to prevent it from happening?

The e-mail from NHS England said that the shortage would make it likely that 16 to 18-year-olds would need to be admitted to adult wards. Senior inspectors at the Care Quality Commission say that under-18s should not be put on adult wards, so why is NHS England issuing guidance that contravenes that advice? Adult mental health wards are no place for young people, but how can the Minister be sure that even in emergencies adult wards can accommodate children and teenagers? Adult mental health wards are operating at well over their recommended capacity, and today the Royal College of Psychiatrists has warned that the lack of acute beds available to mental health patients has left the system at breaking point. If adult mental health wards are full, where will these children go? What assessment was used to determine how many beds were needed? Clearly, it is not working. Does the Minister now plan to reassess the situation?

Why are so many of our children and young people needing in-patient mental health care in the first place? Could it have anything to do with the £50 million of cuts to child and adolescent mental health services? The Minister talked about early intervention, but we have seen cuts to early intervention in psychosis services, cuts to crisis services in the community, and the decimation of the early intervention grant, putting a lot of pressure on in-patient services. Could the problem be the fragmentation of commissioning we have seen across the health service since the Government’s reorganisation of the NHS?

The Government have paid lip service to parity of esteem and brought cuts and crisis in reality. Our children deserve better, and that is why Labour is committed to working to reverse the damage done to child and adolescent mental health services by this Government and why we have pledged to end the scandal of the neglect of child mental health.

Norman Lamb: First, let me caution against sanctimony. This is not a new issue: under the previous Labour Government, children did at times end up in adult wards. That is highly undesirable—everyone recognises

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that—and we must do everything we can to prevent it, but please do not try to claim that this is an entirely new problem. It is not. The Government have significantly increased the number of beds available, so significantly more are available now than there were in the last decade. The hon. Lady says that she sees increasing numbers of children held in police cells, but let us have some honesty and accuracy in this debate. The number of children who end up in police cells is falling, not increasing. The crisis care concordat, published last February, set a commitment to end the practice of children going into police cells. Indeed, we intend to legislate to ban it, but the numbers are lower than they were so she should not suggest that it is a growing problem—




She did suggest that.

The hon. Lady asked about my acting on the warning. That is exactly what we did. NHS England carried out a review of clinical judgment on the capacity required to meet children’s needs. As a result, there was a proposal for an increase of 50 beds nationally, focusing on the areas of the country where there was a significant problem, and the Government provided £7 million of additional funding to ensure that those beds were opened. Forty-six beds have opened. There is a temporary problem in Woking, where beds that were available are no longer accepting new admissions. That is a CQC issue. One thing that we have been absolutely steadfast on is that if standards are not being met, we should not continue to admit children to those wards.

The hon. Lady mentioned psychosis services, but this Government, for the first time ever, introduced a waiting time standard for early intervention in psychosis, which was widely welcomed by everyone in the mental health world. From this April, we start the process of introducing a standard. To start with, 50% of all youngsters who suffer a first episode of psychosis will be seen within two weeks and start their treatment within two weeks. That is an incredibly important advance.

The hon. Lady lectures the Government on mental health services, but perhaps she will consider why the Labour Government left out mental health when they introduced access and waiting time standards for all other health services. That dictates where the money goes and means that mental health loses out. This Government are correcting that mistake.

Dr Sarah Wollaston (Totnes) (Con): I welcome the extra beds committed to south Devon. The Minister will know that one of the most frequent points raised with the Health Committee in our recent CAMHS inquiry was the complete absence of accurate prevalence data on children and adolescents’ mental health needs and the services required to meet them. He will know that the prevalence data collection that used to happen every five years was cancelled in 2004. The Committee warmly welcomed the commitment to restart that survey. Will he update the House on exactly when that survey will start, whether the funds have been identified, and whether the scope of the prevalence data collection has been identified?

Norman Lamb: The hon. Lady is absolutely right. Unless we understand the prevalence of the problem, it is impossible to plan services effectively. I am delighted

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that we have secured the funding for an updated prevalence survey in 2015-16. It will be an expanded survey compared with the previous one. We want to cover as wide an age range as possible, to cover early years. That will give us the data, information and evidence we need, but I would then want us to do regular repeats to ensure that we maintain an understanding of prevalence.

Alan Johnson (Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle) (Lab): The excellent in-patient facility in Hull and East Yorkshire closed under this Government in 2013 with no consultation whatever. Despite an excellent report by the Health Committee, despite criticism by the CQC and despite NHS England identifying a problem, we have waited two years. Does the Minister believe that the Health and Social Care Act 2012 has made him powerless to act in such cases? If not, why does he not do something?

Norman Lamb: Ultimately, it has to be down to clinical decisions. Indeed, the whole thrust of policy, which was very much started under the right hon. Gentleman’s Government and during the period that he was Secretary of State for Health, is to devolve decision making about the make-up of services to local areas. That approach has been maintained. Ultimately, he would probably agree that such issues cannot all be determined in a Whitehall office.

None the less, the right hon. Gentleman raises serious concerns. I have tried to engage with him on them and am happy to talk to him and meet him further. I share his concerns about the lack of sufficient response to the concerns he raises, but I will repeat one other point I have made: the emphasis of policy should be on building up crisis response services and better and stronger community support services to reduce the need for in-patient care as much as possible. It is not therapeutic to put children and young people on in-patient wards, and particularly not away from home.

Paul Burstow (Sutton and Cheam) (LD): I can recall many Labour Health Ministers telling us from the Dispatch Box that local decisions were made by primary care trusts and were not a matter for them. Will the Minister consider what he has told us about the CAMHS review? He has been frank about the fact that CAMHS are dysfunctional and broken. Surely the review is the opportunity to lay down a route map and set out how we can deliver the preventive early intervention services that prevent the crisis from occurring in the first place and the need for the admission. Do we not need that so that when there is a spending review after the general election, there is clarity about the investment needs for children’s mental health?

Norman Lamb: I think my right hon. Friend is referring to the children and young people’s taskforce that I established last summer. He is right that this provides us with an incredibly valuable opportunity to modernise the way in which we organise and commission children’s mental health services. There are many fantastic professionals working in children’s mental health services, but in my view they are let down by a dysfunctional system with horribly fragmented commissioning, which is a long-standing problem. Because we are involving experts and campaigners from outside and, critically,

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children and young people, we have a great opportunity to get services modernised and effective and focusing particularly on prevention.

Glenda Jackson (Hampstead and Kilburn) (Lab): The Minister seems to be arguing that the solution to the problem is further evidence. For all the years that I have been in this House—almost 23 now—the issue of underfunding for mental health has been constant. The underfunding of services for children and adults who are suffering from mental health problems is an issue I raised in this House less than six weeks ago. It is unacceptable to claim that if there had been more information, measures would have been put in place to prevent children being sent hundreds of miles from their homes or being placed in adult wards. The Minister’s contribution has clarified the total lack of co-ordinated services for these young people. What kind of care would be afforded to someone in their home when, as in my constituency, their home may well be bed and breakfast, a hostel or some form of temporary accommodation? This is an urgent question; it requires urgent action. [Interruption.]

Mr Speaker: Somebody said that was very wrong. It was a Shakespearian performance. In fact, somebody once said to me, “That person could have been on the stage”!

Norman Lamb: I am delighted that the hon. Lady made the point not made by her Front-Bench spokesperson, which is that this is a long-standing problem. The disadvantage suffered by mental health has been there for a long time. Indeed, it was exacerbated, if I may say so, by the fact that access and waiting time standards were introduced for physical health, but the previous Government left out mental health. If that happens, it dictates where the money goes. That, combined with a funding system that sucks money into acute hospitals but which in mental health relies on a block contract, means that mental health always loses out. It is this Government who are determined to change that to ensure that mental health is finally treated equally.

Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham) (Con): The Government can take credit for great progress in eliminating mixed-sex wards. The Home Secretary had some very encouraging things to say about children with mental health problems in police custody, and in the Department for Education great strides have been made in respect of kids in residential care homes not being placed well away from home. Many of us fought very hard during the passage of the Mental Health Act 2007 to get rid of the practice of children being placed in adult wards far from home. Will the Minister now, with the same urgency that led to those other successes, ensure that that is eliminated at last? In many cases it is not in the best interests of deeply troubled children.

Norman Lamb: I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for the work he did in his campaigning on the Mental Health Act and more recently as a Children’s Minister in the Department for Education. I know his passion for the subject and I share his view that it is intolerable that children and young people should go to adult wards. It has been a long-standing issue—it is not new—but it should not happen, just as it should not be

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the case that children are still placed in police cells. That is why I take the view that we need to ban it in law so that it cannot happen, and there are consequences if it ever does happen.

Mr Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab): I do not question the Minister’s commitment to mental health. He is a great champion of parity of esteem, but he is part of a Government who are cutting money for mental health services. For young people in 2015 to be put in police cells is totally unacceptable. To pick up the point made by the right hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Burstow) about CAMHS, is it not time not only for a fundamental review but for a new system, including the abolition of the present CAMHS system?

Norman Lamb: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his generous remarks—perhaps he ought to talk to his Front-Bench colleagues about my commitment. He is absolutely right to highlight the fact that although there is quite a mixed picture across the country, in many areas there has been disinvestment in children’s mental health services. They are local decisions, and they are not decisions that I accept. That is why I made the serious point about the absolute importance of introducing waiting time and access standards, including in children’s mental health services. We need data so that we can monitor performance against those standards, and we need a payments system that does not disadvantage mental health. I also share his view that we need to change the way services are organised and commissioned so that we focus much more on prevention.

Dr Julian Lewis (New Forest East) (Con): Does the Minister accept that this is a matter not only of funding but of philosophy? Does he agree that part of the problem is that certain primary care trusts have adopted a philosophy of cutting in-patient beds generally? For example, adult beds have been cut by 35% in areas as far apart as my constituency and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Burton (Andrew Griffiths). Does he detect any rowing back from that rather extreme philosophy in the near future?

Norman Lamb: We want to try to ensure that when there is a crisis, a bed is available locally. With regard to the philosophy of seeking to reduce the tendency to have long periods of in-patient care—institutionalising people—it is absolutely right that we move away from that and focus far more on early intervention, community support and recovery. That is the general trend in progressive views within mental health. However, there must be a bed available when a crisis occurs.

Mrs Madeleine Moon (Bridgend) (Lab): The Minister generously attended the launch of the report by the all-party group on suicide and self-harm prevention, which showed that one third of local authorities have no suicide prevention plan. Has he found any correlation between the lack of such a plan, poor CAMHS provision and a high incidence of suicide, particularly among young men?

Norman Lamb: May I first pay tribute to the hon. Lady for her inspiring work on suicide? Not many people in the House focus on issues that are talked about so seldom, so I pay tribute to her for the brilliant

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leadership she has shown. The all-party group’s report provides some really interesting and important questions of the sort that she has put to me today. These are questions that we need to ask. We have not yet established that link, but I think that it enables us to start asking local areas those questions. The Deputy Prime Minister has talked about the ambition of avoiding every suicide. We can improve services across the board by focusing much more on preventing conditions deteriorating to the point where someone becomes so desperate that they choose to take their own life.

Mr Adrian Sanders (Torbay) (LD): I welcome the Government’s announcement of an extra £7 million, although I do not know whether it will be enough. I am very pleased, on behalf of constituents in Devon and Cornwall, that we have a new facility opening in Torquay—it is not yet fully open—and hope that the Minister can visit it. I also welcome the fact that he is reviewing the place of safety designation, although I question whether that actually requires legislation. The case that occurred in my constituency raised something that he has not yet mentioned: the problem that a person trying to find an appropriate place has no central register to look at. If we want a hotel room, we can go online and find a vacancy, but finding a vacancy in an appropriate setting seems to take an enormous amount of time.

Norman Lamb: The case in my hon. Friend’s constituency highlighted an incredibly important issue. The lessons that are being learned as a result of that incident will result in improved co-ordination and reducing the risk of that sort of thing happening. It was completely intolerable that that young girl ended up in a police cell for that length of time, and we should all be completely clear about that. The crisis care concordat makes the objective clear. We asked every area to sign up—and every area did so by December—to committing to implement the standards in the concordat, one of which is to end the practice of under-18s going into police cells. I think we need to go further and ban it in law.

Mark Reckless (Rochester and Strood) (UKIP): It is just over a year since 35 mental health beds at Medway Maritime hospital were closed. As those closures and the associated changes in Kent were referred to the Health Secretary, will the Minister review whether the changes promised to community care, particularly for some degree of residential provision in Medway, have taken place? Is he satisfied with current provision?

Norman Lamb: I am happy to look into that for the hon. Gentleman. Indeed, he can come along to one of my Monday evening advice sessions and we can discuss it further. It is clearly important that the right provision is available in his area.

Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): I welcome the new funding announced by the Minister. Surely one way of reducing pressure on in-patient beds is to expand mental health assessments within youth custody facilities and expand treatment within those facilities. What co-ordination is there between his Department and the Ministry of Justice on that issue?

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Norman Lamb: My hon. Friend raises an incredibly important point. There is a lot of co-ordination between the two Departments. Indeed, he may be aware of a new taskforce set up by the Deputy Prime Minister to co-ordinate Departments’ work on mental health. There is a plan to roll out the liaison and diversion service nationally by 2017. No other country in the world is doing this on such an industrial scale, in order to ensure that someone who turns up at a police station or a court with an identifiable mental health problem gets referred for treatment. That is really exciting.

Mr Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): The Minister is right about this. In the 10 years for which I chaired the Education Committee, I knew that child mental health services were not as good as they could have been. We now have a crisis. In the past, we patched things together with a partnership among children’s services, the local authority, mental health services in hospitals, and GPs. That partnership has been broken, mainly by the reforms that the coalition Government have introduced in commissioning and the fragmentation of so much else. The earlier a child is diagnosed and treated with therapeutic help, the better. At the moment, that is not happening. This is not just about beds; it is also about early intervention.

Norman Lamb: I totally agree. However, I caution the Opposition about going around declaring a crisis every second day, because the picture is very varied around the country. I agree with the hon. Gentleman about any unacceptable things that are happening. He makes a very good point about co-ordinating services much better. Indeed, a central focus of the children’s mental health taskforce is to try to ensure that we get much better, co-ordinated commissioning of care.

James Morris (Halesowen and Rowley Regis) (Con): In my capacity as chair of the all-party group on mental health, I recently visited the Elms centre in Dudley, which is providing an excellent CAMHS service for the people of the borough. It is important to recognise that there are very high-quality CAMHS services in certain areas of the country, although we accept that there is variability. Does the Minister agree that the challenge is not just about the order of magnitude of resources but about ensuring that commissioners are prioritising CAMHS at a local level so that they make the right decisions about the sort of provision that is required in their area?

Norman Lamb: I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the work that he does on mental health. He is another champion of mental health in this House. I also pay tribute to the people in the service in Dudley that he mentioned. I have visited a fantastic children and young people’s mental health service in Accrington in Lancashire—one of the six pilots on using psychological therapies for people with severe and enduring mental ill-health. He makes a very good point. We need to celebrate great care where we find it, and also ensure that commissioners, in local authorities and in clinical commissioning groups, take this seriously. The trouble is that when there are no standards at all in mental health, it is very easy for people quietly to cut back,

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thinking that they can get away with it. That is why I want to ensure that people suffering mental ill-health have exactly the same right to access treatment as anyone else.

Alison Seabeck (Plymouth, Moor View) (Lab): It was interesting to hear the Minister say that he has learned lessons from the incident in Torbay, because there was exactly the same incident over a year ago in my constituency. A young person who had committed a violent offence found themselves in a police cell for 36 hours. I spent the best part of the day working with officers involved with mental health from the local authority and the health service, desperately trying to find an appropriate place for that person’s particular behavioural issue. They had not got a list. We looked at a place in Somerset that had closed, probably thanks to the 6% cuts. Will the Minister help Members of the House by placing in the Library a list of where the beds are and what the specialisms are? It would be enormously helpful to us, and certainly to those working in that field.

Norman Lamb: I would be happy to provide as much information as possible—I have no need to keep anything secret and I would like to assist as much as I can. Again, I caution that children and young people turning up in police cells has been happening, quietly and unnoticed, for a very long time, but the truth is that the numbers are coming down. That is good, but I want it to stop altogether.

Sarah Newton (Truro and Falmouth) (Con): The Minister has been supportive of my work to secure specialist adolescent mental health services in Cornwall. When he next comes to Cornwall, will he meet me and local commissioners to see how we can benefit from new money and plans that have been communicated today?

Norman Lamb: If the diary allows I am certainly up for that, and I pay tribute to the hon. Lady for the work she has done in her county in trying to improve children’s mental health services. We must do that across the country, and there are many examples of real and significant improvements.

Diana Johnson (Kingston upon Hull North) (Lab): We are discussing young people, and Natalie Carmichael has e-mailed me. She is 17, lives in Hull and suffers from anorexia nervosa, yet she had to go to Manchester—more than two and a half hours away—to access 24-hour care. She states:

“The illness itself is distressing enough…but I feel it made it ten times more traumatic the fact that I was hundreds of miles away from home and I couldn’t reach to my family for comfort and support in the tough experience I was battling.”

What does the Minister say to Natalie?

Norman Lamb: I find it as intolerable as she does, and that is why we are investing to improve access to beds in the locality. Indeed, we identified the hon. Lady’s region as an area where there were shortages of beds for children and young people’s mental health, and we have taken action to increase that number.

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Mr Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): Which is the best CAMHS service in the country, why can it do it when others cannot, and what is stopping its best practice from being copied?

Norman Lamb: My hon. Friend makes an important point, and there are many excellent mental health services, as the hon. Member for somewhere in Birmingham—[Interruption.]—forHalesowen and Rowley Regis (James Morris), said earlier. If some areas can do things well with the available resources, then other areas can too. It is also true that some areas have chosen to cut funding for children’s mental health, in my view inappropriately.

Ms Gisela Stuart (Birmingham, Edgbaston) (Lab): Birmingham is one of the fastest growing younger cities in Europe—40% of its population is under 25, and 30% under 15. Combined with local authority cuts of £281 per head in the next financial year, and a totally dysfunctional commissioning system, does the Minister seriously think that even the good intentions of the children and young person’s taskforce will address the problems we already have, as well as those that we can see coming but have no means of remedying?

Norman Lamb: Again, I gently make the point that we all, on both sides of the House, have to recognise the need over the next five years to make better use of the resources available. The hon. Lady’s own party does not propose ring-fencing local authority funding for the provision of mental health services at the lower tier level. We all have to work on making more effective use of the money, and I genuinely think that the taskforce is an opportunity to modernise how we organise services, particularly commissioning—having four different commissioners does not create the best chance of co-ordinating services.

David Rutley (Macclesfield) (Con): Like many in the House, I recognise the Minister’s commitment to this important issue. I speak to young people and teachers, and there is a growing recognition of the importance of mental health services for adolescent children. What research has the Minister undertaken to better understand the root courses of the mental health challenges facing young people today, particularly the impact of social media?

Norman Lamb: My hon. Friend is right to highlight an emerging and growing phenomenon causing increased distress for some young people. The prevalence survey, for which we now have the funding for 2015-16, is a massive opportunity to understand much better the scale of the problem we are seeking to deal with.

Pat Glass (North West Durham) (Lab): In 2012, the Education Select Committee called CAMHS in this country a “national disgrace” and urged that the Department for Education and the Department of Health urgently get together to avoid the crisis we are seeing today. In the meantime, we have seen cuts in services, provision and funding, leading to the chaos today. I am incredibly unhappy with the complacency of the Minister’s answers. It is almost as if he is a spectator. He is the Minister with responsibility, and the answer is not a taskforce two years down the line or a prevalence survey five years down the line; it is to take action now.

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Norman Lamb: I am left totally confused. The hon. Lady has just referred to my complacency, whereas the person who was just sitting next to her, the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones), paid tribute to my passion in fighting for mental health services. So which is it?

If there was any substance to the hon. Lady’s question, it concerned the importance of mental health services and education working more effectively together and, as was said earlier, the role of schools. As a result of the taskforce, I think we can achieve much better collaboration among schools and mental health services. I also point out, as have hon. Members on her own side, that this is a long-standing problem that goes back far beyond 2010.

Andy Sawford (Corby) (Lab/Co-op): The Minister might remember that I wrote to him about a local family who went through a living hell when a young girl was sent from East Northamptonshire to a hospital in Bury, where she was left for weeks; where there was conflicting advice about whether she should be there at all; and where the family felt she was getting worse not better. Will he look specifically at provision in Northamptonshire, particularly the provision of beds for teenagers, and reflect that, to be fair to CAMHS in Northamptonshire, ours is one of the worst-funded areas for health care in the whole country—way off the NHS England target?

Norman Lamb: I know that the hon. Gentleman is campaigning on this matter—he is right to do so—and I would be very happy to talk to him further about this case. The circumstances he describes are intolerable. As my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) said, the frustration is that, if some services and commissioners can avoid that, why does it happen in other areas of the country? However, I would be happy to discuss the matter with him.

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Points of Order

4.14 pm

Diana Johnson (Kingston upon Hull North) (Lab): On a point of order, Mr Speaker. In written parliamentary question 221790, I sought information from the Home Office about funding allocated to the child abuse inquiry for the 2014-15 financial year and for future years. I received the answer:

“We will ensure appropriate funding”.

Given that we are nearly three quarters of the way through this financial year, I would expect the Home Office to have that information readily available. I also feel it is disrespectful to Parliament not to provide the detailed information requested in a parliamentary question. Can you offer me any guidance, Mr Speaker, on how to take the matter further?

Mr Speaker: Responses from Ministers to questions should be timely, and it is also widely expected that answers will be as forthcoming and copious as the circumstances require. As the hon. Lady will know, the content of answers is not a matter for the Chair. In my experience, the hon. Lady is both an extremely assiduous Chamber attender and a very dextrous parliamentarian. I rather imagine that she will be troubling—in the perfectly proper sense of the term—the Table Office on a regular basis with further inquiries. I have never been a Minister, but if I were one, and on the receiving end of a regular spate of inquiries from the hon. Lady, there would be a point at which I would think, “Well, it is probably better to give a full answer if such exists; otherwise, I shall just be chased to the end of the earth.” We will leave it there for now.

Michael Fabricant (Lichfield) (Con): On a point of order, Mr Speaker. You may recall that, back on 22 June 2009, you spoke before Parliament about Speaker Onslow, who was in office for more than 30 years. You said that if elected, you had given your commitment to serve no longer than nine years in total. I just wondered—

Mr Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman will resume his seat. As has just been pointed out to me by the acting Clerk, whom I know the hon. Gentleman rightly respects, that is not a point of order. I have nothing to add and we will leave it there.

Lisa Nandy (Wigan) (Lab): On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I would be grateful for your advice. As a result of delays and confusion among Government Departments, my question, which would have addressed Government proposals to deny the people of Greater Manchester a vote on their mayor until 2019, was denied entry to the correct Department—the Department for Communities and Local Government—whose Question Time took place earlier today. Given that the people of Greater Manchester have not been given any opportunity to challenge these proposals, is there anything within your powers that you can do, Mr Speaker, to ensure that the Government cannot show the same sort of contempt that they have shown to the people to those who sit in this Parliament?

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Mr Speaker: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for the point of order. My understanding, from advice, is that an error was made by the Table Office, for which an apology has been made. I hope in the circumstances that that meets the needs of the case, but if the hon. Lady thinks otherwise, I dare say she will return to it.

Lisa Nandy rose—

Mr Speaker: If I have not got the point to which she wants a response, I will do my best to do so.

Lisa Nandy: My understanding from the Table Office is that there has been considerable confusion within Government about which Government Department is going to take responsibility for the proposals that are currently being rushed through the parliamentary process. Today’s Question Time was one of the very few opportunities before the general election for anybody to be able to shine a spotlight on what is happening. I understand that because of the delays and confusion, the question was incorrectly taken out of the shuffle by the Table Office.

Mr Speaker: My immediate response to the hon. Lady is that Ministers must take responsibility for the content of answers and, collectively, the Government have a judgment to make about which Minister will answer a particular question. I am happy further to reflect on the matter; and if, having done so, I have anything new that I can vouchsafe either to the hon. Lady or the House, I shall be happy to oblige.

Jake Berry (Rossendale and Darwen) (Con): On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Earlier today, during questions to the Department for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne) made reference to the ancient county of Lancashire. As a patron and friend of the Real Lancashire society, I want to ensure that it is put on record that between 1168 and 1351, it would have been correct to refer to Lancashire. However, following an Act of 1351, the status of county palatine was granted to Lancashire because of its strategic importance in defending England from the Scots. This position was restated in correspondence by the Duchy of Lancaster in 1992 and 1996. It confirmed that the newly constituted councils such as Manchester and Merseyside did not affect the duchy and the county palatine of Lancashire or its boundaries, which remain the same as they were in the pre-1888 geographical county. Given that,

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Mr Speaker, I am sure that the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish and I will rejoice that both of our constituencies remain enclosed within the ancient county palatine of Lancashire.

Mr Speaker: I am immensely grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I think that I will carry the House with me when I say that that was not a point of order, but a point of political geography. It was certainly learned, and we are deeply obliged to the hon. Gentleman for what he has said.

Andrew Gwynne (Denton and Reddish) (Lab): Further to the point of order, Mr Speaker—

Mr Speaker: I am not sure that there is much of a “further”, but having indulged the political-geography enthusiasm of the hon. Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Jake Berry), it would seem churlish to deny a similar prerogative to the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish.

Andrew Gwynne: I am very grateful to you, Mr Speaker. Of course, I bow to the hon. Gentleman’s knowledge of the history of the county palatine of Lancashire. However, I wish to place on record that not all my constituency is in the county palatine; in fact, Dukinfield is on the Cheshire side of the River Tame.

Mr Speaker: We are also obliged to the hon. Gentleman for that.

James Morris (Halesowen and Rowley Regis) (Con): On a point of order, Mr Speaker.

Mr Speaker: I hope that it is. It would be a remarkable state of affairs if we could now have a point of order.

James Morris: During the urgent question, Mr Speaker, the Care Minister—inadvertently, I think—referred to me as “the Member for somewhere in Birmingham”. I think it important to place on record that, as the Member for Halesowen and Rowley Regis, I represent a black-country constituency in the west midlands.

Mr Speaker: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for clarifying that point, and I am sure that people in his constituency will be as well. I remember visiting the area, and the distinction that the hon. Gentleman has made is extremely important.

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Armed Forces (Service Complaints and Financial Assistance) Bill

[Relevant documents: Fifth Report from the Defence Committee on the Armed Forces (Service Complaints and Financial Assistance) Bill, HC 508, and the Government response, HC 900.]

Second Reading

4.22 pm

The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Anna Soubry): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Our armed forces risk their lives to safeguard our peace and prosperity, and their welfare must therefore be a priority for any Government. This Government have shown their determination to meet their obligations to our servicemen and women and their families by enshrining the armed forces covenant in law and taking real action to improve the support available to our brave soldiers, sailors, airmen and women and, of course, marines.

We have given members of the armed forces priority in relation to health care, on the basis of clinical need, and we have supported their needs in relation to housing and school admissions. We have improved primary health care by integrating our single-service medical and dental centres. We have improved opportunities for service personnel to buy their own homes through our very successful Forces Help To Buy scheme. We have helped service children to find stability in schools by increasing funding for education to approximately £6 million a year, and we are helping service personnel to gain access to selected credit unions by providing payroll deduction.

We recognise, however, that the obligation to support our armed forces goes far beyond central Government, and I have been impressed by the willingness of others to play their part. Every local authority in Great Britain has now signed a community covenant pledging support for the armed forces communities in its area, and more than 360 companies—from big banks and supermarkets to small businesses—have signed the corporate covenant pledging their support. Together, they are providing employment assistance, guaranteed interview schemes, and backing for our reserves campaign.

Let me take this opportunity to thank all our local authorities. I wrote to each and every one, topping and tailing each letter. That seems to have paid off, because I have been inundated with responses from local authorities throughout Great Britain, of all political persuasions, describing in detail how seriously they take their commitment to the community covenant. I hope that all Members will now seize the opportunity to ensure that the covenant is delivered locally.

There is, however, no room for complacency. The Bill is intended to ensure that we continue to do the right thing by our armed forces personnel. It improves the system for the handling of complaints in the armed forces, and it ensures that we can provide funds for organisations that support the armed forces community, wherever they are based.

Mr Jim Cunningham (Coventry South) (Lab): I am sure that the Minister will know that the people of Coventry and Warwickshire take particular pride in the

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welfare of their armed forces. Can she confirm the level of support she is getting from Coventry and Warwickshire?

Anna Soubry: I can. I cannot off the top of my head remember whether one of the many letters I received was from the two authorities, but I would not be surprised, if I can put it that way. I have genuinely been seriously impressed by the work that is happening in local authorities. I do not care what political party is running those authorities. I hope they sing this out, particularly if they are looking forward to elections.

Mr John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): Will the Minister ensure that other Government Departments fully participate in enforcing the covenant? I have a case of a couple who have had to move twice recently to meet the husband’s requirements in the armed services. The wife is a nurse. She was on maternity leave. There was a delay in getting a job at a new hospital in the new place they were going to. The Government are now demanding all the maternity pay back because she was a few days out of time. That is not helpful and does not seem to be in the spirit of the covenant.

Anna Soubry: On the basis of what my right hon. Friend has just said, I would agree. I urge him, and any other hon. Member, to come to see me. I would have no difficulty in taking up whatever case it may be on behalf of a constituent or an hon. Member. I would be happy to do that. He makes a good point. It is imperative that we work across government. I am pleased that that includes working with local authorities.

Our armed forces do not have the same opportunities for redress on employment issues as civilians—they do not, for example, routinely have access to employment tribunals. We must therefore ensure that there is a robust system in place to deal with any complaints they may have in connection with their service. Such a system needs to be able to deal with grievances quickly and fairly. When it comes to speed, we know that there are some serious failings in the existing system.

That is not just right in principle but is essential for operational effectiveness. If a group of men and women are happy and content in their work, it goes without saying that they will work well, whatever the circumstances of their work may be. Having unresolved complaints breeds discontent, which can undermine morale and diminish our fighting capability.

I turn now to the specific proposals in the Bill. The existing complaints system was set up by the Armed Forces Act 2006 and covers all three services. Many complaints are dealt with promptly and successfully, but we accept that performance is still not good enough and that it can be significantly improved.

It is good to remind the House at this stage of some of the statistics. Fewer than 1% of our service personnel feel that they have any need to raise a grievance and use the complaints system. Of the complaints that are made, it is interesting to note that the majority are not about bullying, harassment and discrimination. It is fair and right to say that those are the most serious complaints, but I note that in the Navy, for example, 10%—I am not going to say only 10%, because 10% is too many

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—of complaints are about bullying, harassment and discrimination; the overwhelming majority relate to pay, conditions and allowances.

Mrs Madeleine Moon (Bridgend) (Lab): Has the Minister seen the briefing from the Equality and Human Rights Commission? It says that

“there are compelling legal and practical arguments for removing the requirement in section 121 of the Equality Act 2010 for a service complaint to be raised before a discrimination claim is made to the employment tribunal.”

Does she agree that members of the armed forces facing discrimination should have greater rights to go to an employment tribunal?

Anna Soubry: I do not think it is as simple and as straightforward as that. As evidence emerges, one of the things we are finding is that more members of the armed forces—notably women—rightly feel more able to make clear allegations, which doubtless are well founded, of bullying, harassment and so on, and that often such grievances are settled privately. What I mean by that is not that they are settled in some cosy way, in a corridor, but that people do not necessarily have formally to go through the grievance system. I am open to making sure we get the right result, and I certainly want to make sure nobody in our armed forces suffers from any form of discrimination, bullying or harassment, but the way in which we achieve that is perhaps the debate to be had—we are all agreed absolutely on the aim.

The hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon) will, I know, have noticed that 10% of Royal Navy cases were for bullying, harassment or discrimination, and that the figure is 43% for our Army and 38% for the RAF. The figures show that, as we know, we have considerably more to do to make sure that it does not matter what anyone’s sex or sexual orientation is, and that they should be free within our armed forces, and indeed anywhere else, from any form of bullying, harassment or discrimination. I wanted to put on record the fact that the majority of cases are about pay, pensions and allowances.

In her annual report, published on 27 March last year, former Service Complaints Commissioner Dr Susan Atkins could not provide an assurance that the current system was operating efficiently, effectively or fairly. That is of concern not only to everyone in this House but, I assure Members, to all Ministers in the MOD, and rightly so.

It is only right and fair that at this stage I pay tribute to the great work that Dr Susan Atkins did in her time as commissioner. I found it a great pleasure to work with her. I think she started her job in a different place from where she ended it, and I think she made huge strides. I have no doubt that she faced many difficulties in her appointment, but she seized them robustly, she took no prisoners, and she undoubtedly improved the system. I hope that the members of the House of Commons Defence Committee, who I know took a keen interest in her work, will agree with my assessment of the great work she did, and that we will sorely miss her.

I also think I speak on behalf of everybody—and if I do not, I will be intervened on, no doubt—when I say that we have an excellent replacement in Nicola Williams,

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who will be our first service complaints ombudsman. She, too, is an outstanding individual and, if I may say so, an outstanding woman.

Dr Julian Lewis (New Forest East) (Con): As a member of the Committee when Nicola was interviewed, may I say that I was deeply impressed by the way she stood up, with good humour and resilience, to some tough questioning? Does my hon. Friend agree that what is particularly important about this Bill, given some people’s fears that the chain of command system could be subverted or clogged up, is that proposed new section 340I(1) to the Armed Forces Act 2006 states that the ombudsman has complete discretion

“to determine whether to begin, continue or discontinue an investigation”?

Does she agree that that is an important safeguard?

Anna Soubry: I absolutely do, and I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for his sensible, common-sense words. I join him in paying tribute—again—to Nicola Williams, and I think he will agree with me about Dr Atkins, too.

What my hon. Friend says is absolutely right. I think—and hope—that there will be some debate and argument, and I was going to pay tribute to the Defence Committee for the great work it has done over a number of years in wanting to make huge changes to the role of the Service Complaints Commissioner.

I anticipate that we in this House will not necessarily agree on everything, although I would like to think we will be able to find a way of agreeing. The most important point, however, is that we agree on the principles of the Bill. We agree on what we are all seeking to achieve—apart from the thematic, which I know will separate us. We are all absolutely agreed in wanting to make sure we have an ombudsman who acts and works without fear or favour, who is rigorous in their investigation, and who puts the person—the individual—at the heart of all the work they do.

One of the great joys of the Bill is that it is not overly prescriptive, and that is very much right. We want our ombudsman to have free rein. I am told that Susan Atkins would visit units and, if she was concerned about incidents or that people felt they could not raise a grievance or a complaint, she did not hesitate in taking that up, not just with Ministers but with the chiefs of staff. She certainly had the sort of determination and brave, rigorous approach that we are all agreed on, and which we will see—I do not doubt—in Nicola Williams.

Richard Drax (South Dorset) (Con): I am delighted by what the Government are doing in the Bill—it is excellent news. How can we be sure that the ombudsman will act swiftly? May I also agree with the Minister entirely on employment tribunals? Thank goodness the Government have not gone down that road. As a former soldier, I think that would be a disaster and would seriously undermine the discipline of a unit and the Army as a whole.

Anna Soubry: It is always difficult when, on one side of the argument, some people are not quite convinced by the Bill and, on the other side, other people are also not convinced by it. We are in the middle, and I am convinced that we have got the balance right. The chain of command need not think that they have anything to

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fear or that they will be undermined by the creation of the ombudsman and the new system. Equally, we have satisfied those who want a more rigorous approach to ensure that genuine grievances, which cannot be raised in the normal way by virtue of service, will be properly dealt with, and that if they are not—when maladministration is alleged—they will be properly investigated.

Mr Mike Hancock (Portsmouth South) (Ind): I am sure I speak for all hon. Members when I say that the Bill is long overdue and most welcome. How wide is the remit of the ombudsman? Does it stick at maladministration, or can it go further? The Minister said she wanted people to have every opportunity to raise their concerns. How far is she prepared to see that go?

Anna Soubry: I could be rude to the hon. Gentleman and suggest that he read the Bill. It is clear that it provides for an ombudsman in the traditional sense of someone who investigates when a complaint of maladministration has made. The definition of maladministration is broad, but we are clear that we are putting in place a new complaints system. As a result, we now have an ombudsman. That is not another level of appeal: it means that someone whose grievance has been flawed through maladministration and not been dealt with properly can take their complaint to the ombudsman, who will see whether there has been maladministration. The ombudsman will have the breadth of remit to go into the detail of the allegation of administration, and then to report without fear or favour and with rigour. At any stage and at any time, the ombudsman can go to any of the chiefs of staff or any Minister—most importantly, of course, the Secretary of State—and has complete freedom, should he or she so wish, to go to any member of the press and say, “Something is happening here that I am not happy about”, or to the Chair of the Select Committee and say, “This is something that I have found out and I am concerned about.”

In many ways, those are the great freedoms, but it is clear in the Bill that the ombudsman is appointed to look at maladministration—never forgetting that it is the individual who has raised a grievance, sought redress, felt that they have not got it through the system and have exhausted their appeals who will go to the ombudsman on the basis of maladministration, like many of those who go to an ombudsman.

We have drafted regulations that deal with the new system of complaints. Hon. Members have rightly raised the criticism—Dr Susan Atkins also complained about it—that too often there is too much delay. That is wrong, and that is why it is imperative that we reform the system. When we have the ombudsman in place, he or she must be in a position to conclude that delay is part of maladministration. He or she will be able to look specifically at that and take their recommendations to the Defence Council if need be. I have confidence that action will be taken accordingly.

Mr Redwood: Given that so many complaints are about pay, allowances and other financial matters, is there more that Ministers can do to ensure that more

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armed service personnel can buy a property of their own before they leave the armed forces, so that they do not become homeless when they leave their contract?

Anna Soubry: We have set up the Help to Buy scheme. I hope that my right hon. Friend will forgive me if I cannot remember the exact figures, but I think that the scheme has now received nearly 3,000 successful applications. It has been hugely successful. In my limited experience, if members of our armed forces think that something is good, it will spread like wildfire, and that seems to be happening. The attitude that the Government take is that people should have a choice. Not everyone wants to buy their own home—it does not suit everybody—but we must give every opportunity to those who want to do so, because we believe in a property-owning democracy.

I have mentioned the House of Commons Defence Committee, and I want to pay tribute to its work over many years in advancing the cause of putting in place a proper complaints system and a service complaints ombudsman. I look forward to the ensuing debate with members of the Committee. I am sure that we will agree on many things, and that we can work together on them.

Clause 1 creates a new service complaints ombudsman to replace the existing Service Complaints Commissioner. Clause 2 replaces the existing service complaints system with a new and improved framework. I believe that it should be the armed forces that are responsible for dealing with any complaints from service personnel. That is the right way to do it. It is for the services to ensure that complaints are dealt with fairly and that the appropriate redress is given when complaints are upheld. When something has gone wrong, it is for the services to put it right. It is their responsibility and no one else’s.

The role of the ombudsman should therefore be to ensure that the systems are working effectively and that complaints are properly dealt with. The ombudsman’s oversight of the system will also put them in a unique position to identify lessons for further improvement, which will benefit individuals and the services more widely. The service chiefs are content that the proposals set out in the Bill strike the right balance between creating strong and independent oversight and maintaining the authority of the chain of command. The former Service Complaints Commissioner was also fully involved in developing the reforms.

A central feature of the new system is that the service complaints ombudsman, unlike the current commissioner, will have a power to consider whether a service complaint has been handled properly. If the ombudsman considers that there has been maladministration, and potentially injustice, in the handling of a complaint, he or she will make recommendations to the Defence Council to put things right. This could include, for example, reconsidering the complaint or rerunning a particular part of the process. The Defence Council will remain responsible for any decisions arising from the ombudsman’s recommendations, but it would need to give rational reasons for rejecting any recommendation.