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Lord Livsey of Talgarth: My Lords, can the Minister indicate how many job losses will occur in Defra? Where will the axe fallor will there be job redeployment into the regions? Indeed, the integrated agency can surely work only with good, efficient and effective IT. My understanding is that the IT systems are not yet in place. When does the Minister expect them to be?
Lord Whitty: My Lords, the noble Lord is perhaps confusing a number of different things. As regards the reduction in the total number of the Defra family, there will be two different movements. There will be a movement away from the core Defra into the delivery agencies, some of which will also be geographical as a result of the relocation.
There will also be an absolute reduction in jobs over the coming few years, the vast majority of which are related to the improved IT system in the Rural Payments Agency, which is not of course covered by the Haskins report or the proposals today. The upgrading of IT is well on stream and should begin to deliver efficiency advantages, but it will also reduce the need for some employees. The other area of reduction of employment will be efficiency gains in various parts of the department. As I said in response to my noble friend Lord Carter, we will not be losing staff who have expertise in delivering the areas with which we are concerned today.
Viscount Ullswater: My Lords, in thanking the Minister for repeating the Statement, perhaps I may say that there are things within it with which I entirely concur. I support the sentiment that rural England's natural beauty is an asset to be cherished and enhanced. The countryside provides us with the essentials of life. Will the Minister therefore impress on his colleagues in other departments that producing 20 per cent of our energy needs by the year 2020, mostly with wind power, will despoil whole areas of landscape? How can the Minister reconcile the claim that changes to the CAP,
Is it an oversight that renewable energywind turbines in particularis not mentioned in the Statement on the Rural Strategy 2004? I have not had time to examine it in detail, but can the Minister point to where that important new development in the countryside is dealt with?
Lord Whitty: My Lords, the noble Viscount is correct that it is not referred to in this Statement. But
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it has been referred to in a number of different contexts in this House regarding various policies where the main opposition party has seemed obsessed with stopping wind farm development. Wind farm development will be a significant contribution towards meeting our renewable energy requirements. That will improve the environment for all of us and, provided they are properly sited and go through the proper planning processes, they can also enhance rural areas. The utter opposition of those on the Benches opposite to wind farms seems to be hugely disingenuous, the worst form of Nimbyism and not doing a service to our countryside.
Lord Haskins: My Lords, I declare an interest as the author of a recent report on rural delivery and as a director of the Yorkshire Regional Development Agency. I was very impressed by the comments of the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, about jargon. I sympathise with him entirely. However, I recommend that he reads the report in detail. Having fought a lifetime against Whitehall jargon, I was surprised at how concise and clear that is.
Obviously, one is pleased when 32 of one's recommendations are acceptedI shall come back to that pointbut one hopes that the forces of darkness in Whitehall who do not want to let go will be persuaded to let go. Indeed, because the Government have accepted so many of my recommendations, I feel that perhaps I was not radical enough and that if I am getting too close to government there is something going wrong with me. However, if the aspirations that are in this Statement and the report are brought into reality, the Government will have done an excellent job in starting the process towards devolving power away from Whitehall to where the people are in this country.
Lord Whitty: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for his support and endorsement of much of the phraseology of the Statement, albeit that no doubt the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, has identified one or two infelicities in part of it. Most of it is fairly clear. Above all, I thank my noble friend for his original report. I certainly would not concur with anyone who said that my noble friend Lord Haskins had failed to be radical enough orin some sense is sorry to saythat he was too close to government. But I think that he has given the Government a very clear and positive steer on this issue.
Ultimately, the result will be better delivery, a better outcome for our rural areas, a better relationship between the various agencies of government and those who live in our countryside, and, above all, a better, more prosperous and sustainable countryside for all who live in it and visit it.
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The noble Lord said: I think that I can be brief with this group of amendments. Amendment No. 28 is a minor drafting amendment and Amendment No. 33 relates to the latest print of the Bill. Apparently, Clauses 14 and 15 are the wrong way round, as can be seen from comparing the provisions relating to prohibition orders and the headings for paragraphs 19 and 20 of Schedule 1 to the Bill. I hope that helps anyone who did not spot it. I cannot explain how that occurred but, clearly, your Lordships' House will expect us to put it right.
Schedules 2 sets out the procedures for the service of copies of prohibition orders, for the service of notices relating to revocation or variation orders and for appeals against orders. They are technical amendments intended to ensure that the categories of person on whom copies of orders must be served and who may appeal against orders do not overlap.
Baroness Hanham: Can the Minister explain what is the legal difference between the words "listed" and "mentioned"? I do not want to be pedantic, but there appear to be quite clear lists set out in Clauses 5(2) and 7(2), so I cannot understand why the word "listed" is to be replaced with the word "mentioned". That word suggests something that comes and goes while "listing" is more permanent.
Lord Bassam of Brighton: It will be a very quiet explanation because I do not have one. I am intrigued by the desire of the noble Baroness to focus on Amendment No. 28. As I have said, it is a minor drafting amendment. In essence I think it has been
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tabled because we prefer the word "mentioned". I take the point that the word "listed" may sound crisp, but "mentioned" sounds more friendly to me.
The noble Baroness said: The purpose of this amendment is to reduce the rate of VAT on construction work undertaken after an improvement notice. I gave notice to the Minister that I could have tabled this amendment to a number of other clauses in the Bill, but I want principally to raise the importance of this issue if we are concerned with improving the poor condition of many of our homes.
VAT on domestic repairs affects many of the poorest in our society. This has been shown by figures gathered by the English House Condition Survey. In the European context, this amendment would be consistent with Annex H of the Sixth VAT Directive because a reduced rate of VAT would then be available for housing as part of a housing policy, which is the important point. The Government did agree to an extension of the reduced rate experiment under Annex K of the Sixth VAT Directive, and therefore they seem to be in favour of a reduced rate of VAT for domestic building workat least in principle.
The renovation of non-decent homes could greatly benefit from a reduction in VAT. The average cost of renovating a non-decent property is estimated at something over £7,000 excluding VAT. If VAT is charged at the standard rate, it adds something in the order of £1,200 to the total repair bill. If the rate of VAT were reduced to 5 per cent, the tax bill would fall by approximately £360 per property, considerably reducing the total cost of the repair. The difference suggests that for the renovation of every eight non-decent properties, one more property could be brought up to an adequate standard if we had a reduced rate of VAT.
VAT falls disproportionately on the poor. For a poor household with a monthly disposable income of only a few hundred pounds, adding £140 of VAT on to an £800 home repair job makes a significant difference. In some cases it will probably decide whether the repair is carried out. In complete contrast to the argument presented in the Barker review, it is often VAT that keeps the poor from being able to afford to carry out essential repairs. The findings of the English House Condition Survey show that substandard housing is concentrated in deprived areas, which strongly supports my view.
Present VAT policy on housing repair work, coupled with recent changes to local authority grant funding for poor and vulnerable households, is likely to prevent essential housing repairs being carried out.
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This is likely further to undermine the condition of the existing housing stock. It also does nothing for social inclusion by widening the gap between economically well-to-do and deprived localities.
I am grateful to the National Home Improvement Council, of which I am a vice-president, and the Federation of Master Builders, which I should say is putting together quite a campaign on this issue, for their briefing. Indeed, I could talk about this for a considerable time. However, as I mentioned in our debate yesterday, some three-quarters of all properties in the private sector do not meet decent home standards, and it would cost something like £40 billion for them to do so.
If the Government are serious about decent home targets and serious about the condition of many of our private sector properties, we need to do something about VAT. That must make sense. While it is not easy, I think that it is possible. I should be interested to find out where the Government stand on this matter. Although they understand the problem, it is clear that they are concerned about the knock-on effects. However, given the important issues being addressed in this Bill, such as disrepair and the effort to improve housing standards, this amendment would go a long way to help. I beg to move.
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