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Points of Order
Alison Seabeck (Plymouth, Moor View) (Lab): On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I am very concerned that the Minister for defence equipment, support and technology, the hon. Member for Mid Worcestershire (Peter Luff), appears to have forgotten to follow up on the specific commitment he made on two occasions in this House—first, to my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley East (Michael Dugher) on 4 July, column 1212, and, secondly, to my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson) on 14 November, column 570—that he would bring forward a White Paper on defence procurement previously promised in the spring. Given the economic downturn, that paper is vital for the defence industrial base, which accounts for 10% of GDP. Will you, Mr Speaker, therefore assist the Minister with his memory lapse by asking him to come to the House before the year ends and he fails to fulfil his promise?
Mr Speaker: That is not directly a matter for the Chair, but what I can do to assist is look meaningfully, but in a typically friendly fashion, at the Leader of the House and the Deputy Leader of the House, both of whom will have heard the hon. Lady’s point of order.
Mr Heath: Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. The hon. Lady mentioned a memory lapse, but I think she may have suffered a memory lapse since yesterday, when we had Defence questions and the Minister with responsibility for defence procurement talked about the specific matter she raises.
Tom Blenkinsop (Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland) (Lab): On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Is it in order for the hon. Member for South Northamptonshire (Andrea Leadsom) to imply that the shadow Chief Secretary was improperly influenced by trade union donations, when she has no declarations in the register yet has 10 donations amounting to just short of £50,000?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his point of order, and I know to what he is referring. I did not intervene at the time because the Chair judges whether an intervention is warranted at a specific moment, and I did not think it was. However, the hon. Gentleman’s point of order does give me the opportunity to underline the point that no Member should attribute an unworthy motive to another Member. I took the view at the time—for which I make no apology and which I have explained—that the question was a collective criticism of another political party, rather than it being directed
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at an individual. If, however, it was directed at an individual, it should not have been, and I think the following advice is a useful guide to all Members: concentrate on the big picture and the policy, but do not attribute unworthy motives to another Member of the House. I hope that is clear and that we can now move on.
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National Health Service (Right to Treatment)
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make provision to ensure that medical treatment prescribed as necessary by a doctor or other medical professional must be provided unless the type of treatment is not approved by the Secretary of State or the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence; to establish a national register of cases where such prescribed treatment is refused; to introduce a mechanism for appeal against decisions about provision of medical treatments; and for connected purposes.
The NHS is becoming a lottery. Decisions about the treatment people receive depend not on their medical needs, but on where they live. These decisions are unfair to patients, inefficient because inconsistent resource allocation decisions are not cost-effective, and unaccountable because responsibility for the decisions is not taken by Ministers who are accountable to Parliament for how the NHS spends its money and because patients have no right of appeal if NHS treatment is denied.
This Bill seeks to restore equity by giving patients a legal right to treatment, when it is recommended by their doctor, so that all patients have access to the same range of NHS services. The Bill also seeks to strengthen accountability by requiring the Secretary of State—whom I am pleased to see on the Treasury Bench—to come to Parliament to seek approval for explicit rationing decisions. The Bill seeks to improve transparency by creating a national register of all treatments for which NHS funding has been withdrawn. Finally, it seeks to empower patients by giving them a right of appeal if they believe they have been denied a clinically necessary treatment.
There cannot be a single Member who has not been approached by a constituent who has been denied treatment. The following cases are just some of the problems I have encountered this year. A constituent with cystic fibrosis needs antibiotics to prevent lung infections. Nine out of 10 people with cystic fibrosis die from respiratory problems. She cannot use the two most commonly prescribed antibiotics because she is intolerant to them, so her consultant prescribed a different drug, but the North Yorkshire and York primary care trust decided not to pay for it. Haxby health centre in York recently told patients that eight common procedures would no longer be available to them on the NHS. Patients were referred to a private clinic charging, for example, £146 for treating in-growing toenails and £243 for removing benign lesions such as moles. Obese people can generally have bariatric surgery—the fitting of a gastric band—if their body-mass index exceeds 40. In York, however, treatment is limited to much more extreme cases where the patients have a BMI greater than 50. In vitro fertilisation—test-tube baby treatments—are available to infertile couples in Hull and Leeds, but not in North Yorkshire and York. Yesterday, the hon. Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy) and I went to see our local PCT about its decision to stop paying for facet joint injections prescribed by NHS pain consultants to people in our area with chronic back pain. Patients forced to go private as a result of this decision expect to spend between £800 and £1,000 a year for the treatment.
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This problem of postcode rationing is likely to get worse, because responsibility for health commissioning will soon be transferred from 150 PCTs to about 300 GP-led care commissioning groups and greater fragmentation will lead to greater variation in treatment decisions made locally, and also because of the tight squeeze on NHS funding. This year, PCT recurrent revenue funding increased by 2.2% while the retail prices index in the year to date is running at 5.2%, so there is a real-terms cut of some 3%.
The NHS has a cash-limited budget of course, and I therefore accept that there will be limits to the services it can provide. Indeed, in the 1992-97 Parliament, I was a member of the Select Committee on Health, which produced two reports on NHS rationing, or “priority setting” as it rather coyly called it. I contend, however, that if there has to be rationing, it is essential to ensure that those with the greatest needs always get treated. The rationing decisions must be rational, in that they must be based on clinical evidence—
As I was saying, if rationing decisions have to be made, they must be both rational—based on clinical evidence—and fair, so that all patients are treated on an equal basis. If we are forced for cost reasons to say that, for example, tattoo removal or breast augmentation or in vitro fertilisation will no longer be provided, that should be a national decision made by a Minister and approved by Parliament, and applied on an equitable basis to all patients. It is patently unfair that in vitro fertilisation is available to patients in Hull and Leeds but not to patients in York.
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Piecemeal local decisions undermine public confidence in the national health service. When a man in pain is told he must pay hundreds of pounds a year for the injections his NHS pain consultant prescribes, or when a woman is told she must pay to have her in-growing toenails attended to or an unsightly mole on her face removed, they naturally ask what will be struck off the NHS treatment list next. Every time the NHS says no to a patient, a little piece of public trust leaks away—a crack appears through which doubt and fear seep into the public consciousness about the reliability of the NHS in our time of need.
Nye Bevan chose the title of his political testament, “In Place of Fear”, with a purpose. Before the creation of the national health service, people lived in fear of the catastrophic consequences of illness or incapacity, and we do not want to return to those pre-NHS times. It is fortunate that all parties in this House are committed to the future of the NHS, so the Government, I believe, should act decisively to stem the leakage in public trust and to prevent it from turning into a torrent.
That Hugh Bayley, Frank Dobson, Mr Kevin Barron, Ms Gisela Stuart, Andrew George, Malcolm Wicks, Barbara Keeley, Mr Virendra Sharma, Valerie Vaz, Bob Russell, Grahame M. Morris and John Healey present the Bill.
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Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Nigel Evans): We now move on to the main business. As hon. Members know, it has been divided into several sections. It is all very complicated, but we have fingertip control in the Chair. [ Interruption. ] None of you believe it. I call John Hemming to move the motion in the name of the Backbench Business Committee.
That this House has considered matters to be raised before the forthcoming Adjournment.
In addition to moving the motion, I have been requested to speak briefly on what I was going to say later in the proceedings. Chapter 23 and the United Nations convention against corruption both enable the review of judicial procedures to ensure they maintain the rule of law. Chapter 23 was brought in for the accession of Croatia to the EU. Reviewing this, it seems that the EU does now pass Groucho Marx’s test, in that it is a club that would not allow us to join. One area of concern is the inaccessibility of many judgments. Ignoring secret judgments, even public judgments are not always published. If they are not handed down by the judge, then copyright rests with the shorthand writers and they are not published by the British and Irish Legal Information Institute. This would need resolving to satisfy chapter 23.
The underlying question for both the UNCAC and chapter 23 is that of the accountability of the judicial system. The courts are accountable through the appellate structure, article 3.7 of the Act of Settlement 1701 and public scrutiny. The latter is the area, perhaps, where England and Wales fall down most severely. I have come to the conclusion that secrecy undermines the rule of law. This has been recognised by many learned judges, but it remains the case that our courts have a considerable tendency to go into secret.
The case of CTB v. NGN highlights a number of problems with this. An ex parte injunction was obtained indicating that the second defendant had been blackmailing CTB. However, last week CTB accepted that this was not true. This was more than six months after the original injunction was obtained. What was particularly interesting was that the original injunction acted to prevent the second defendant from writing to eBay and BlackBerry to obtain evidence to disprove the allegations made in the ex parte hearing, relating to a shirt and text messages. Potentially, even laughter from a public gallery could have alerted the judge to the falsity of some of the claims. It appears that only when CTB was named in proceedings of the House did it become easier to obtain the evidence to prove that the injunction was not properly obtained.
That injunction was clearly a gift that keeps giving. It is like an ace serve that cannot be returned, because the serve itself prevents it bring proved that there was a foot fault. The injunction was even effective at the weekend,
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when it acted to prevent three Sunday newspapers from writing articles reviewing allegations that there were unlawful elements to the statement of claim and original witness statement. It also acts to prevent the Attorney-General from investigating whether any regulatory action is required.
Sir David Eady kindly referred to me as a “national treasure”. I was pleased that my cutting of the Gordian knot assisted in resolving a case in his court. We will never know whether it would have been possible to obtain the evidence as to the truth of the matter of CTB v. NGN without me fulfilling my duty of protecting ordinary citizens from secretive, wrongful and oppressive applications for committal. The case is now ended and no further action is required. However, it does raise serious questions about how injunctions undermine the rule of law and whether there should be statutory limitations on injunctions to prevent this from happening in future.
My concern about secret court hearings and their unreliability stems mainly from the miscarriages of justice seen in the family division. Here we have a further problem of accountability, again relating to evidence. The difficulty, again, is that a secret court operates in a pool of reality that is not linked directly to the public domain. Much of the decision making in care proceedings rests on reports from experts such as Dr George Hibbert. He is someone about whom a number of people have complained, and I am told that at least one person has refused to work for him because of what she saw as his unethical provision of reports to suit the demands of local authorities.
The difficulty is a question of how to ensure that this issue is properly investigated. The courts refuse to accept that an expert may be the hired gun of the local authority; at the same time, there is no right to a second opinion. Indeed, the court often refuses to accept additional evidence on behalf of parents and against the state. It is this procedural problem that in my view gives rise to thousands of miscarriages of justice in care proceedings. This may not involve models and footballers, and therefore may not get the same attention from the media; however, to me and many other hon. Members it is at least as important, if not much more so. We do not have the proper checks and balances that can ensure a truly independent investigation of miscarriages of justice in secret courts.
There are two recent privacy cases—CTB and Clarkson—where it is accepted that the original claims of blackmail are not strong enough for the claimant to wish to press them in a trial. It is alleged that in the DFT case this is also true. ZAM and OPQ have not seen any attempt at a criminal prosecution. However, two recent criminal prosecutions for blackmail—the Rooney and Ecclestone cases—were not subject to anonymity orders. This is actually a high proportion of those cases where a claim of blackmail has been made. Many involve the same legal advisers, who, when giving evidence to the Joint Committee on Privacy and Injunctions, made no reference to the fact that some of the allegations of blackmail are false.
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imprisonments. The Hammerton case was corrected by the Court of Appeal. However, there are others, such as that of Yvonne Goder, where it is difficult to find out what has been happening.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Nigel Evans): Order. Everybody in these debates is going to be on the six-minute limit, and I am afraid, Mr Hemming, that you have just reached your limit. So, I am now reminding everybody that they are on a six-minute limit.
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Business, Innovation and Skills
Ann Coffey (Stockport) (Lab): Christmas focuses the mind on shopping. At this time of year, we become more aware of the importance of retail to our economy and the recovery. Retail is Britain’s largest private sector employer, providing 2.9 million jobs and representing more than 10% of total UK employment. In my constituency, more than 5,700 people are employed in retail. The retail sector generated £292 billion of sales in 2010, equivalent to one fifth of UK GDP.
The exceptional flexibility of retail work, with a higher proportion of part-time hours than other sectors, gives employees greater freedom to fit their work in with wider family responsibilities. It gives an opportunity for that first start in life—indeed, 42% of all working 16 to 17-year-olds are employed by retailers. Youth unemployment is at a record high and has broken through the 1 million mark, so any loss of retail jobs will have a direct impact on young people.
A lot of concern has been expressed by the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers—USDAW—about changes to working tax credits, which mean that the total weekly hours that a couple with children need to work to qualify will increase from 16 to 24 hours. For some families, 16 hours of part-time work will not pay, and employers will lose valuable staff and the flexibility of shorter working patterns. I ask the Government to look again at the possible implications of this policy change.
Many challenges lie ahead for retail, including the worldwide economic downturn and uncertainty over the euro. In addition, the way we shop as a nation has changed dramatically. We have seen the massive growth of large, successful out-of-town superstores and the phenomenal rise of online shopping, which now accounts for nearly 10% of all retail sales. At the same time, we are seeing the decline of many town centres, with vacancy rates doubling over the past two years and total consumer spend away from our high streets now at more than 50%. The high street is changing, as was shown in the Mary Portas review, which was published last week.
Many town centres have always been a mixture of big-brand shops and independent retailers, but out-of-town shops have been able to offer larger stores combined with easy parking. The town centres that have done best in the face of these developments are those that have invested and developed a distinct shopping offer. Out-of-town shops do well because shoppers like them, so town centres have to become attractive to shoppers and, as Mary Portas says, there are as many different ways of doing that as there are towns.
As chair of the all-party group on markets, I strongly support the idea of placing markets at the heart of the plan to turn around ailing high streets and believe that vibrant markets are key to regenerating our town centres. At a time of high unemployment, market stalls are easy and cheap to set up, and they allow people to try out fresh ideas and flexible working. I also like the idea of national markets day. Indeed, our all-party group organised such a day in 2007, when dozens of MPs visited their local market.
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London, Marks & Spencer in Leeds and Morrisons in Bradford. Markets also provide a public place for people to meet. They give a sense of belonging and of place in the community. Good town centres and markets make an important and underrated contribution to public health. It is important that that partnership between the big retailers and independent small traders in shops and markets in town centres, which has worked so well in the past, continues to meet the challenges of the future. I see that working well in parts of Stockport. In Heaton Moor, for example, the district shopping centre is adapting to the changing demands of the local community. Its coffee shops, café bars, delicatessens, fish and meat shops, other specialist shops and first-class restaurants show how change and innovation can turn local shops into a vibrant and attractive place. Interestingly, the area also has a Tesco local and a Co-operative store, and about 2 miles away there is a Tesco Extra, which is a 24-hour store. That shows that out-of-town stores do not, in themselves, destroy town or district shopping centres; it is the ability to change and adapt that will determine their future.
We need shopping to be interesting if we are to be attracted into the town and district centres. My suggestion to attract shoppers to Stockport is that it should offer a cultural experience day ticket. Shoppers could buy a ticket that would include discounted entrance to major heritage sites, including Staircase house, the Stockport air raid shelters and the hat museum. A trip round the Robinsons brewery might be an added attraction, and the day could perhaps finish with tea and a film at the Plaza combined with some shopping in Merseyway or the market. That, combined with special discounts at the shops and in the market, might prove very attractive to everybody in the north-west.
Retail is an important industry, a major employer and a big contributor to the economy, and it is at the heart of our towns. The Government need to restore consumer confidence, because without that people will not spend money and there will be no growth. At a local level, councils must support innovative ideas, and big retailers need to work with town centre partnerships and independent retailers to develop a vibrant high street. Town centres should be places where we go to meet other people in our communities and where shopping is just one part of a rich mix of activities. If we can get this right, towns up and down the country will come alive again and retail will become an even bigger part of our national life, contributor to the national purse and provider of that all-too-important employment.
Mark Menzies (Fylde) (Con): Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to take part in the pre-Christmas recess debate. I also wish to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Mr Dunne) for taking the time to reply.
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losses, which will have an impact on my part of Lancashire as many of those fall on my constituents. It was then that my campaign for enterprise zones really took place, although I have long been campaigning for an enterprise zone to come to Fylde. I must put on the record the fact that following those job losses the Government were quick to act, announcing the zone to cover the sites at Warton and at Samlesbury in your constituency, Mr Deputy Speaker, during the Conservative party conference in October.
However, it is one thing announcing an enterprise zone and quite another turning it into something meaningful. The work force in our part of Lancashire truly are world-class. Many have backgrounds in engineering, in-flight systems design and advanced project management skills. As such, we need to aim high in the types of employers we seek to attract. In recent weeks, BAE Systems has come in for criticism for the way in which the aspects of job losses and restructuring have been handled. I believe that the Lancashire enterprise zones provide BAE Systems with an opportunity to show its commitment to the region and leadership in attracting world-leading companies to set up home on the Warton and Samlesbury sites, and I wish to take this opportunity to recognise all that the company is doing in this regard. It is also right to put on the record the work that you have done behind the scenes, Mr Deputy Speaker, to make Samlesbury a successful site for enterprise zones and potential inward investors. I know that you, too, have campaigned tirelessly, doing so behind the scenes because of the nature of your role, to do the right thing by the work force at BAE Systems, and it would be remiss of me not to recognise that.
Many in this House will be familiar with the advantages that an enterprise zone will bring to an area, and the purpose of this debate is not to go over old ground. Following the Chancellor’s announcement in the autumn statement that capital allowances will be given for some enterprise zones and not for others, may I use this opportunity to call on the Government to ensure that we do not create two classes of enterprise zones, as that will lead to distortions in investment decisions? Instead, we should do everything we can to ensure that all enterprise zones are given every opportunity to flourish in what is a very competitive and tough investment market. I ask the Chancellor to ensure that, within the EU investment rules, we are creative and we give companies every opportunity to use all the various investment and tax mechanisms in play.
With its high-tech and highly skilled design and manufacturing work force, Warton is a natural place for top-end capital intensive industries to invest. We have people there who have worked at the cutting-edge, and in some of the most challenging environments in this country, all their lives. Our people also have the ability to reskill, retrain and move into other sectors, so we must think about how we can use mechanisms in the Department to retrain and reskill them to meet the challenges ahead.
I also urge the Government to ensure that all enterprise zones in Lancashire and the north of England operate on a level playing field and that investment decisions do not simply go from one area to another as a result of the tax structure created in an enterprise zone—I have the zone in Liverpool very much at the forefront of my mind.
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Finally, I would like to take this opportunity to request that the Government be open to all types of small-scale investment, such as investment in capital infrastructure, that would help to facilitate enterprise zones and make them more attractive. I know that the Chancellor will be receptive to requests for investment in roads and so on—on a small and limited scale—and I urge the Government to continue to adopt that open-minded approach. To gain the high-quality companies that my constituents and your constituents deserve, Mr Deputy Speaker, we need to seek not just home-grown organisations, but, in particular, those from overseas. So I urge UK Trade & Investment to have dedicated people selling the potential of investing in Britain’s enterprise zones to global investors. If we play this right, enterprise zones will give some of the most challenging areas of our country a new lease of life and will ensure that some of the most highly skilled and highly motivated people, who are currently threatened with losing their jobs, have a bright and sustained future. I thank the Government for the opportunity to bring enterprise zones to Lancashire and urge them to ensure that enterprise zones are the success that we know they can be.
I also welcome the opportunity to raise a very timely issue: the collapse of the Farepak Christmas savings club. It has been raised in this Chamber on many occasions, because more than five years ago, on 13 October 2006, the company collapsed and as a result 120,000 people lost some £38 million. Very few of those people have received a penny back from Farepak as yet, although the administration has continued.
Hon. Members will remember that a response fund was set up at the time of the collapse, to which the people of this country gave very generously and as a result of which some Farepak victims got some money. The reality is, however, that Farepak has still not paid out in any way to the 120,000 individuals or to their families. The Government are well aware of the background. Last week, the Minister for Further Education, Skills and Lifelong Learning responded to the debate on the subject secured by my hon. Friend the Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden), and said that the current situation was completely unacceptable and that the whole matter had taken far too long to sort out. Members on both sides of the House would accept that the length of time it has taken to resolve the matter is not acceptable. We must see whether there are lessons to be learned.
I would argue that the 120,000 people who saved with the Farepak Christmas savings club did so responsibly, so I ask the Government to look again at what they can do to ensure that those affected receive full compensation for what they lost. In my constituency, hundreds of families were affected and for many of them Christmas that year was destroyed. In particular, I pay tribute to my constituents, Louise McDaid and Jean McLardy, who both live in West Kilbride and who, along with others, set up the Farepak victims committee, which has been campaigning for the past five years for justice for the Farepak victims. It has become clear over those years that the sector is poorly regulated and that individuals who pay for items in instalments do so with very little
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protection. The Farepak victims are unsecured creditors, which meant that when the company went bust they went to the bottom of the pile.
The reaction five years ago was the setting up of a voluntary organisation, the Christmas Prepayment Association, which provides should a company that is a member go bust. Many prepayment companies, however, are not members of the scheme and there is no requirement for them to belong to it. Indeed, some of the biggest players in the sector, such as Tesco and Asda, are not regulated by the voluntary scheme and the association covers only Christmas clubs, whereas many prepayment organisations are not geared towards Christmas.
Many Farepak customers are very upset about how the administrators, BDO, have handled the administration, about the lack of information available to them as creditors and about the deal that I believe was done with some of the ex-directors of Farepak to pay a total of only £4 million in compensation of the £32 million that was due. As was widely reported recently in the press, BDO has incurred expenses in excess of £8.2 million in administration of the scheme, whereas it has managed to get only £5.5 million for the victims. I tell all hon. Members that there are serious issues about whether that mechanism should have been used to resolve the situation. Until recently, the victims were told they could expect 15p in the pound back, but now it is not clear whether they will receive even that limited amount. An application has been made for disqualification orders to be taken against the directors, but as yet we still have no indication of whether there are likely to be any prosecutions in the criminal courts.
I believe that the case of Farepak highlights important failings in the regulation of the prepayment industry. That applies not just to Christmas savings clubs but to many situations where individuals pay for things in instalments, and, of course, it is people on modest incomes who do that. Most people who pay up in this way often reasonably expect that the sums they pay will be ring-fenced and put in a separate account and that they will have priority if the organisation goes down. Today, I ask the Government, five years after Farepak, to look into what can be done for the Farepak victims as well as at the wider issues of the prepayment sector, and to come back with proposals to ensure that the sector is better regulated so that we can give proper protection in the future.
Dr Julian Huppert (Cambridge) (LD): It is a great pleasure to speak in this debate on credit and debit card surcharges. This Christmas, more people than ever are buying their presents online. Last week’s retail figures showed that internet shopping, or, as it is rather mysteriously called by the Office for National Statistics, non-store retailing, rose nearly 20% between November 2010 and November 2011—a staggering increase. Purchases made online now constitute 12.2% of non-fuel purchases. It is therefore essential that the Government do everything they can to ensure that when we buy something online the prices are fair, the process is easy and the transaction is transparent.
That is simply not the case and the problem with surcharges is getting worse. A recent study by Which?found that in 2004 Ryanair charged its customers 80p for debit card payments, but that now passengers have
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to fork out £12 just to be able to pay for their flight. The British Retail Consortium, meanwhile, estimates that the transaction costs are 37p for credit cards and 9.2p for debit cards—rather less than £12. Those costs are no longer surcharges but a business model in their own right, and one that severely undermines legitimate economic growth. If Ryanair’s surcharges have risen 15 times in seven years, just think what such charges will do to economic growth across the country as we pull ourselves out of recession.
When consumers choose to buy something, they do so in the belief that the price is fair and that they have got a good deal. So, when hidden surcharges are added at the end, consumers come away feeling wronged and the incentive to buy is greatly reduced.That is compounded by the fact that businesses are incentivised to think of new ways to get away with hidden costs, rather than delivering desirable products or services at the cheapest possible price. Prices go up and innovation is throttled, harming society as a whole. The Government must act now or risk stifling our fragile recovery.
This November, retail sales were down 0.4% on the previous month, a disappointing outcome for hopeful high street shops. Clearly, the depth of the recession, the ongoing crisis in Europe and the difficult economic circumstances around the globe have had a severe impact on consumer confidence and people’s disposable income. Over the same month, however, online shopping was up 2.4%. The fact that internet shopping is growing is not exactly news, but what is important is the pace of that growth compared with that of other industries in this country and of online shopping in other countries. A recent study by the Federation of Small Businesses estimated that online trade will represent 10% of gross domestic product by 2015. If the Government also hope to eliminate the structural deficit by roughly that year, they would do well to pay close attention to internet shopping.
Ofcom has found that eight in 10 UK internet users ordered goods or services online in 2010, a higher figure than that in any other European country. What we have here in Britain is a very large number of people who have access to the internet, use it on a regular basis and are turning to it as the means by which they trade. In that respect, at least, we are leading the way in Europe. As a consequence of those benefits—the savings for customers and the convenience—the Government have already announced £100 million to support the roll-out of high-speed broadband. Although it is nice to see the Chancellor embracing some Keynesian investment, card surcharges already represent a major supply-side restraint which could be removed without any significant cost to the Exchequer. One of the many questions that any Government must ask themselves is what are the barriers to growth. Here we have a significant and growing barrier to progress, and it is time we took action to end the distorted market and unleash the full potential of online retail. Otherwise, consumers will be put off internet shopping.
Hidden costs harm confidence and skew the market away from productive enterprises, but they are also inherently unfair and damaging to a free and open society. The Deputy Prime Minister spoke yesterday about the need for an open society, the need to be transparent, and the need to have a fair distribution of
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wealth and property. Such non-transparent charges entrench inequalities in wealth and property; they make more difference to those with less.
It has always been the case that the most discerning consumers—those who have the luxury of time and possess significant purchasing power—are able to sit back, compare prices and select what they want; that is something that those who are always working to pay the bills simply cannot afford to do. It should be of concern to the Government that a recent Which? survey found that half of people think that card surcharges make comparing prices difficult. The free market is distorted and undermined by any hoarding of information, and the effect that such charges have on our fundamental sense of fair play is damaging to society as a whole. The charges engender significant mistrust in businesses. That is as harmful to their balance sheets as it is to the consumers who feel betrayed.
It is great that the reduction in travel associated with internet shopping has significant environmental benefits, in terms of CO2 emissions and problems associated with overcrowding. In particular, it eases congestion on the transport network. I am sure that any of my constituents who have tried to cut through the Grand Arcade these past few Saturdays would greatly appreciate slightly fewer Christmas shoppers there; those shoppers could, of course, go to the independent shops on Mill road and elsewhere.
What can we do? What should the Government do? How can we enable internet trade to grow, and ensure that prices are fair? This is one of those extremely rare circumstances where the solution is as simple as it is effective: we can require card surcharges to be included in the advertised price. I am sure that many hon. Members, particularly on the Government Benches, will be delighted to know that the European Union is already taking a step in that direction—the 2014 consumer rights directive is set to limit debit card surcharges—but we can and should take action now, and go further. We could be leaders in Europe.
In June, the Office of Fair Trading upheld the super-complaint brought by Which? about payment method surcharges. The OFT said that the Government could amend the Payment Services Regulations 2009 to ban the surcharges and make pricing more transparent and fairer. The Government must respond by taking that small step, in order to unleash growth, empower consumers and build and safeguard a free and fair society.
Kate Green (Stretford and Urmston) (Lab): I am grateful for the opportunity to raise concerns about the collection and recycling of hazardous mercury-bearing waste from lamps, and waste electrical and electronic equipment, known unpromisingly as WEEE.
WEEE is one of the fastest-growing waste streams in the UK. Following the adoption of a European directive in 2003, UK regulations were introduced. They took effect in 2007, and were aimed at recovering more of that waste and ensuring its treatment in an environmentally sound manner, with less going to landfill. The regulations require any business that sells and imports WEEE, including hazardous WEEE, to join an approved compliance scheme, pay a registration fee to the scheme, and supply data on the amount of electrical equipment placed on the market each year.
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Under the regulations, companies are required to finance the costs associated with the treatment, recovery and disposal of WEEE, but it appears that some unscrupulous organisations have been charging disproportionately for that. That may explain why the big four lamp manufacturers and importers—Sylvania, Philips, OSRAM and GE—have established their own not-for-profit organisation, Recolight, which offers free lamp-recycling, paid for by the imposition of an up-front fee, unique to the lighting industry, on the sale of hundreds of millions of lamps purchased by households and commercial and public organisations since the introduction of the WEEE regulations. That may seem an understandable response, but I am concerned that it may have led to Recolight enjoying a dominant position in the market for the recycling of WEEE lamps.
The ability of the big four to apply a common up-front fee to every lamp certainly gives the appearance of the existence of a cartel. I understand that decisions about the application of the Competition Act 1998 fall outside Ministers’ remits, but the result appears to have been a suppression of competition in the market, which—this is the crucial point—limits the ability of the market to reduce the adverse environmental impact of hazardous mercury-bearing WEEE lamps. It is of concern that since the formation of Recolight, lamp recycling rates have actually fallen, whereas previously there was 25% year-on-year growth, and there has been growth in all other WEEE sectors. Research and development investment is also falling as a result, and jobs are being lost.
Negotiations on the European Commission’s proposals for a recast WEEE directive are drawing to a conclusion. I understand that the Government expect to launch a consultation on the amendment of the UK WEEE regulations shortly, and I urge Ministers to consider how best those regulations could be recast so as to prevent any manipulation of the market in a manner that reduces the effective management and disposal of hazardous mercury-bearing electrical waste. It is vital that the market works fairly to achieve that outcome, and clearly the lamp-recycling industry requires stability if it is to operate effectively.
I have a number of questions relating to the structure of the market, the impact on recycling rates, and the opportunities that will arise from recasting the WEEE directive and making consequential amendments to the regulations in the UK. First, in the light of an apparent fall-off in rates of lamp recycling, can Ministers say what monitoring there is of levels of recycling of WEEE, and what action is being taken to promote increased recycling volumes in order to protect the environment and WEEE operators—those are the main priorities of the WEEE directive—and ensure that consumer revenues are used appropriately? Will Ministers ensure that standards for the collection, transport and recycling of hazardous mercury-bearing lamps are improved, and ensure that full health and safety data on product recycling are made available to the UK lamp-recycling industry? Will they take the opportunity of the recasting of the WEEE regulations to look at whether the roles of the Environment Agency and the Health and Safety Executive could be strengthened? Will Ministers consider requiring the value of evidence to be set by an independent third party, particularly where producers’ compliance schemes compete, from a dominant position, with those of recyclers?
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Do Ministers think that collection and compliance functions should be separated, and will they consider that during the exercise amending the WEEE regulations? Overall, will Ministers ensure that the overarching priority of the WEEE regulations is to increase recycling rates and improve environmental protection? It is clearly unacceptable for any behaviour by manufacturers to impact adversely on those objectives; that must be looked at carefully. It is important that Ministers take all possible steps, now and in the future, through the introduction of the amended WEEE regulations, to prevent such practices. I hope that Ministers will confirm that there will be strict regulation of the compliance schemes that have driven the kind of protective actions that are now threatening the survival of a once thriving independent market, so that we can ensure that recycling rates, rather than profit margins, are maximised. I am sure that Ministers will appreciate the public policy significance of these issues, and I very much look forward to the Government’s response.
Iain Stewart (Milton Keynes South) (Con): I am grateful for this opportunity to put on record my concerns about how the Higher Education Funding Council for England—HEFCE for short—will, in 2012-13, allocate its funding to widen participation in higher education, and how that will impact on the Open university, which is in my constituency.
The Open university is a much-cherished institution, and it enjoys widespread support across the country, and in all parts of the House. It has a very impressive record on widening participation in higher education over the past 40-odd years. In the current year, 20% of its new students have come from the 25% most disadvantaged communities in the country. It has 13,500 students with a registered disability, and some 18,000 students working through its access and opening programmes, so it has a very impressive track record.
In the current year, HEFCE is providing some £368 million to higher education institutions across the country to support them in meeting the additional costs of attracting the students whom we are talking about. The Open university receives approximately 10% of that. I am aware of Treasury pressure on the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills to divert some of that funding to other areas of higher education. In this academic year, BIS included the following wording in its annual grant letter to HEFCE:
“for 2011-12 the top policy priorities for targeted funding should be supporting widening participation and fair access”.
My wish is that similar wording is included in the funding letter for 2012-13 which is due to be published in a few weeks. Without such wording, my fear and that of many at the Open university and in the wider higher education community is that there could be serious unintended consequences for the Government’s laudable goal of widening participation. I am not disputing that there is keen competition within higher education for a slice of the funding cake. There will be many equally worthwhile goals, but I fear that redirecting this money into other aspects of higher education would jeopardise the Government’s ambition to provide as wide a range of higher and further education options as possible. That is a role that the Open university currently performs exceptionally well.
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“Widening participation in higher education has an important impact on future economic prosperity and therefore is worthy of public investment…We welcome any additional investment to remove barriers to participation in higher education.”
I endorse that entirely. Of course, all institutions in the country have to live within their means. I would like to place it on record that the Open university has played its part in this. When the previous Government withdrew funding for equivalent and lower qualifications, that resulted in a significant drop in income for the Open university. It consequently reduced its running costs by some £30 million. To help keep tuition fees low—the Open university has fees of around £5,000, compared with £8,000 or £9,000 elsewhere—it is further reducing its running costs by some £75 million by 2014-15 and some £30 million of that has already been realised, but if the Open university were to lose another £37 million as a result of the redirecting of funding, there would be devastating consequences for its programme of widening participation.
The Government have a good record in this field and have worthy ambitions. The current funding scheme works. I very much welcome the £150 million national scholarship programme and the higher education White Paper published in the summer has a strong ambition to widen participation. I appreciate that the Minister cannot give me or the Open university an early Christmas present by confirming that this money will stay, but may I urge him to speak to colleagues over the next few weeks so that that letter reflects current provision?
Thanks to the vision of a Labour council supported by a wide range of stakeholders and community groups in north Lincolnshire, Scunthorpe now has a fantastic new performance venue, the Baths hall. On Sunday, the Scunthorpe choral society joined forces with the award-winning Scunthorpe junior co-operative choir to give their annual carol concert in that state-of-the-art venue. Their performance was fantastic. However, many people booking tickets for the cover price of £10 found themselves paying an additional £1 of credit or debit surcharge—a hidden cost not seen until the purchase was in progress. That is just one illustration of the widespread use of surcharges, which I want to highlight today.
It is estimated that 94% of the UK adult population holds a debit or credit card. Debit and credit card users are facing increasingly high surcharges when purchasing goods and services. Rip-off surcharges are often hidden until the end of the payment process, so it is impossible to tell how high the charges will be until the final payment is made. The argument is made that these charges cover transaction costs. In truth, it costs companies only about 20p to process a debit card payment and no more than 2% of the transaction value for a credit card payment.
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In March, Which? asked the Office of Fair Trading to investigate the charges for paying by card. It is not only individuals and businesses that suffer from the practice of excessive surcharge, but retailers too. The British Retail Consortium representing retailers believes that Which?was right, in its super-complaint, to draw attention to excessive charges levied on customers using debit or credit cards. Retailers themselves face significant difficulties when handling card payments. The widely varying fees that banks levy on retailers for processing the different payment methods is a big issue for them.
Results from the British Retail Consortium’s most recent cost of collection survey show that, on average, the banks’ charges for processing a credit card transaction are 15 times higher than for cash, but responsible retailers protect card-using customers from the banks’ excessive charges on them. Responsible retailers have been engaged in a long-standing campaign to bring those fees down to levels that reflect the actual, very low, costs of processing transactions. The BRC believes that banks should play fair by their customers, as responsible retailers do with theirs.
In times of austerity, when as a nation we must all find ways to save money and tighten our belts, tackling excessive surcharges seems a fair and reasonable way to put money back in the pockets of consumers, squeezed family budgets and businesses. Action has already been taken in order to try to tackle excessive surcharges. The Which?super-complaint, challenging the practice of excessive surcharging, was upheld in June by the Office of Fair Trading. Over 43,000 members of the public pledged their support for the campaign. The OFT recommended that businesses make payment charges transparent by including the price of transaction fees in headline prices.
The OFT also recommended that the Government take regulatory action on surcharges. There are two options: the Government could wait until 2014 and implement the consumer rights directive that has recently been passed by the European Parliament. That will place a limit on the amount of a surcharge. However, that will only cap surcharges, not eliminate them altogether, and nothing will happen until 2014. Two years is a long time to wait, and we need a solution now as surcharges are hurting family pockets and businesses now. An alternative and, I believe, preferable option would be to amend existing UK law, namely the payment services directive. An amendment to article 52(3) would not only control surcharges, but could eliminate them completely. As the hon. Member for Cambridge (Dr Huppert) said earlier, it is important that action is taken now.
In closing, I reiterate that these rip-off surcharges are just that—a rip-off. They rip off individuals, families and businesses. At a time when we want to cut costs and save money, I urge the Government to take urgent action. I urge Ministers to think clearly and act swiftly. Let us not wait for the EU directive to take effect in 2014. Let us show the public that we as a Parliament can act speedily and responsibly in the interests of our people, and end these rip-off surcharges as quickly as possible by using the powers available to us in this House.
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The theme of this debate has already become apparent. It is warnings against excess, calls for a fairer and more prosperous society, requests for things we want in the new year—not from Father Christmas, but from Ministers —and an optimistic belief that Parliament can change things. I join in that optimism. I specifically associate myself with the call from my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey) that the market in the borough of my birth may be more prosperous with every year that passes.
I have been raising such issues ever since I entered Parliament, and the issue that I want to highlight this year is high pay. We have talked a lot about low pay but now, mercifully, we are also talking about high pay. When Mrs Thatcher was Prime Minister, I intervened in her final speech here to criticise the Tories for their record on wealth inequality. Predictably, she was unapologetic. It was her clear view that rising wealth inequality was not a problem so long as we were all getting wealthier: never mind about the gap.
Sadly, Labour adopted the same policy in practice. Rich people created wealth and they should be rewarded—for example, by cuts in capital gains tax—so that they could invest more of their unearned income in wealth-creating projects. I am afraid my colleagues never shared that view, and we do not share it now: I think we have been proved right. We have seen not greater redistribution but greater inequality between the rich and the poor. A very good OECD report produced in October 2008 entitled “Are we growing unequal?” shows that the top 1% in this country now own 14% of the national wealth. Department for Work and Pensions statistics covering the last decade or so of the Labour Government show that the average household income of the top 10% rose by almost 40%, whereas the average household income of the poorest 10% fell by just over 10% over the same period. That is not the way to make a just and fair society. Therefore, I think that it is right to return to these issues and remind colleagues that the figures continue to show some great inequalities.
According to the Office for National Statistics, bonus payments across the whole economy in the financial year 2010-11 totalled £35 billion, the same as the previous year, so there has been no reduction, despite the austerity facing the country. The total amount of bonuses paid in the financial insurance industry in 2010-11 stood at £14 billion, which is also identical to the figure for the previous year. Earlier this year, in order to justify Stephen Hester’s £7.7 million pay package, the chairman of Royal Bank of Scotland said:
“We need talented and motivated people and we need to be able to pay them fairly”.
That was after the company made losses of £1.1 billion in 2010. In 2009, at the RBS meeting in Edinburgh to discuss Sir Fred Goodwin’s £16.9 million pension, shareholders objected, but even though 90% of them voted down the remuneration report, they had no power to amend his pay because he had an advisory role.
There is a perverse logic to such bonuses: people at the top are rewarded in order to make the company do better, but even if it does not do better those people are still rewarded in the hope that that will turn things around. I think that people at the top sometimes forget that they stand on the shoulders of others—the people at the bottom, such as the administrative workers, electricians, cleaners and manual workers, without whom there could be no profits for those companies at all.
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My party’s manifesto at the last election proposed that there should be fair pay audits for every company with more than 100 employees in order to combat discrimination in pay, and that all public companies should be required to declare in full the remuneration of anyone paid £200,000 a year or more. The coalition agreement states:
“We will bring forward detailed proposals for robust action to tackle unacceptable bonuses in the financial services sector; in developing these proposals, we will ensure they are effective in reducing risk.”
We now have an opportunity, because there have been further reports that are very helpful. For example, the One Society report produced in September made it clear that the pay of low-paid workers in the UK is literally one third of 1% of the pay of their chief executives. The High Pay Commission report published a couple of weeks ago confirmed that last year executives of FTSE 100 companies awarded themselves a 49% pay rise.
The Government have just finished their consultation on executive pay, and I want them to be robust in the new year and to continue to drive forward change in our tax system. I want what the Prime Minister said about the public sector, which was that there should be a fair ratio between the highest and lowest-paid, to be reflected in the private sector. I welcome the fact that the salary of every civil servant earning more than £150,000 will be published. It should be similar in the private sector. Just as the Government have started well by reducing tax on the low-paid and increasing tax on those who earn more, I hope that we will see the transfer of powers, as the Prime Minister said, from the boardroom to the shareholder, and that people on the work floor will be involved in decisions on the salaries of people at the top. What people want this Christmas is not a multimillion pound bonus, but for everyone to be paid fairly, and to pay their fair share too.
Priti Patel (Witham) (Con): I start by wishing everyone a happy Christmas. I have been waiting a considerable time for this debate, and I am glad that it is now upon us. I would like to talk specifically about businesses and growth and some of the barriers affecting growth in my constituency.
By way of background, 83% of the local work force in my constituency are employed by small and medium-sized enterprises, which is around 15% more than the national average. Jobs and growth in my constituency are disproportionately dependent upon the success of small shops and medium-sized businesses. My constituency is home to around 3,800 SMEs that each employ fewer than 250 people across a wide range of sectors. I pay tribute to all the business men and women across the county of Essex. We are a highly entrepreneurial constituency full of small businesses, because they do a hell of a lot to create vital jobs.
My constituency has some outstanding world-class businesses and family-run businesses, such as Crittall Windows, an award-winning international company. We have the world-famous Wilkin & Sons jam factory in Tiptree, an outstanding chocolate maker, Amelia Rope, and a worldwide logistics company called Simarco. They all exemplify Essex’s attitude and status as a county of entrepreneurs. As ever, with most independent
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and small businesses, given the right kind of macro-economic and fiscal framework, they will adapt to the changes and challenges thrust upon them by any Government, by international circumstances and—dare I say it?—by Europe.
The Government deserve much praise for the actions already taken to support small businesses and growth, and the decision to reduce the small profits rate to 20p stands in stark contrast to what we saw under previous Governments. We also heard from the Chancellor last month that he will now halt the fuel duty rise in January, which is welcome news for small businesses. Businesses are now eagerly awaiting the promise of red tape reform. The one-in, one-out rule is all well and good, but all I hear is that we should just have a bonfire, throwing many out and bringing none in.
There are still many barriers to growth. Interestingly, in the past 10 days we have heard about the Portas review. I should declare an interest as the daughter of small retailers; my parents are shopkeepers. I think that we all recognise the fact that our high streets are having a very challenging time. They need reform. Even in a place such as Witham, where businesses work hard, we have empty shops on our high street; it is a fact. Although there is no silver bullet or magic wand, the Government and local authorities need to start looking at the recommendations and implementing some of the excellent proposals that Mary Portas has outlined. I would like local authorities to become really ambitious in their agenda for growth and in how they support business, which might mean removing some of the licensing and planning restrictions that have been detrimental so that we can find ways to boost growth on the high street and make our town centres far more vibrant. We must also support national market day. Those of us who represent market towns want to see much more emphasis on that area. I hope that the Government will start prioritising some of the reforms she advocated.
The other area is red tape, including the ever-burdensome red tape that comes from the European Union. For example, the agency workers regulations will cost Britain £1.5 billion. To put that into some kind of context, that is more than the apprenticeship budget alone, which we debated last night. I would rather see that money go into businesses and job creation in this country.
The other concern for Essex and my constituency is infrastructure. Essex and the constituency are well placed. We have Tilbury, Felixstowe, Harwich, the A12 and the A120, but our roads are struggling because there is no infrastructure investment. We also desperately need infrastructure investment in our railways in Essex. We need to get freight off the roads and back on to the railways. Anything that can be done to deal with that area would be useful, because ultimately businesses will grow if we can sort out our infrastructure problems.
Finally, I want to touch on banking. I hear endlessly from small businesses in my constituency that banks are simply letting them down, not on a small scale, but on a macro scale. I am concerned by the actions of the banks, which are effectively causing my constituency and small businesses misery. While the small businesses are creating jobs, the banks are leveraging, with shocking terms and conditions and fees being added to business
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accounts. They are dealing with individuals and small businesses in quite a threatening way. I had one dreadful case in my constituency involving one particular businessman, about whom I have written to Ministers this week, and I should like an official, if not a Minister, to meet him. Businesses now feel compelled by aggressive banks to sign up to unfavourable terms and conditions, and that has to change. I hope that Front Benchers will respond positively to the issues that I have outlined and give small businesses an early Christmas present by committing to remove some of those barriers.
Mr Philip Dunne (Ludlow) (Con): I thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, and the Backbench Business Committee for giving me the opportunity to rediscover my voice in the Chamber, and for the format of the debate, so that one does not have to sum up 46 contributions in one go.
I shall make a couple of general remarks about the importance to this country’s recovery—following the legacy of deficit and recession that the Labour party left us—of regenerating a healthy economic environment. It is the key to prosperity and to generating growth and jobs, but it is rare for Members to spend time singing the praises of the private sector. We spend much of our time focused on the public sector and on the problems that arise within the private sector, but rarely do we celebrate the fact that the private sector accounts for four out of five people in employment and the majority of all taxes generated, employing people’s creative juices and the entrepreneurs of the future to drive the economy forward.
This country under this Government has started to have some success in the private sector. Exports in particular have grown by 16% since May 2010, and jobs generated in the private sector, as the Prime Minister reminds us, are picking up the slack where jobs are being cut in the public sector, so it is vital that we have a healthy private sector economy.
I will not respond to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (John Hemming), because his comments did not relate to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, but I will ensure that the Justice Secretary is aware of his concerns about tribunals in the care sector.
I shall therefore address the role of retail, which the hon. Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey) and my hon. Friend the Member for Witham (Priti Patel) raised. I am a committed believer in the importance of retail for generating growth in the economy, not least because before I became a Member I founded a business that started as an idea and ended up employing 2,500 people in 144 stores throughout the country. I completely understand the importance of retail as a force for regeneration not just on the high street but in the wider economy, and its potential for adding significant jobs where retail formats are able to grow.
The hon. Members for Cambridge (Dr Huppert) and for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin) said that the impact of online sales poses particular challenges for retailers, and that is why it was so important for the Government to receive the report from Mary Portas on how we revitalise our high streets. The Government intend to look at her recommendations very seriously and will report on them next year.
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The key message that I learned from my time in retail was that to attract people into stores, whether one’s store is in an out-of-town centre or on the high street, one has to make it an attractive experience. Retail is becoming essentially a leisure business, so I was almost enticed to visit Stockport when the hon. Member for Stockport mentioned the cultural experience day ticket, something that other areas—perhaps even my constituency of Ludlow—may wish to take on board.
My hon. Friend the Member for Fylde (Mark Menzies) referred to the great success of the enterprise zone initiative. The Government have announced 24 enterprise zones, including one in his constituency, and I congratulate him on his achievement in securing it in response, in particular, to the loss of jobs at British Aerospace. That is a fine example of how strong constituency advocacy can achieve results quickly under this Government. He was concerned specifically about the impact of differential capital allowances, and he will be aware that enhanced capital allowances are available only for enterprise zones in assisted areas, which his constituency is not, but I will ensure that the Chancellor of the Exchequer is aware of my hon. Friend’s concerns, which I will forward to my right hon. Friend.
The hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Katy Clark) mentioned the challenges to those many people in all constituencies throughout the country who were affected by the collapse of Farepak back in 2006. I have constituents who are still awaiting payouts, as does every Member, I suspect. The insolvency was particularly complicated, with 116,000 claimants who were initially hard to identify because they were clients of some 21,000 agents and the company did not keep good central records.
Processing claims and distributions to rightful claimants is therefore a costly exercise, and the main reason why funds have not yet been disbursed to those who have lost money—to creditors—is that there can be only one distribution, and the administrators are determined to ensure that they make the maximum recovery so that they can make that single distribution. Otherwise, the cost of distributing will eat into the funds available for recovery. That is the main reason why it has not taken place yet.
Creditors are represented on a creditor committee. They are in regular and close discussion with the administrators about how the distribution is made, and they are also approving all fees paid to the administrators. There is a process—in which all creditors, including all those individuals, are represented—for securing the proper information about what is going on.
The hon. Members for Cambridge and for Scunthorpe referred to the challenges posed by hidden surcharges through, in particular, online purchasing, which, as I said earlier and they identified, is a rapidly growing part of our daily lives. As cash payments and payments by cheque decline, and as payments by card accelerate, it is important to ensure that products are sold transparently in relation not just to the top price, but through comparison websites, so that online shoppers can make a genuine comparison. The Government are looking carefully at all the options for legislation arising out of the Office of Fair Trading’s welcome report.
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foreign exchange in this country and through the use of debit and credit cards overseas. That will be done as a voluntary arrangement, and most of the largest banks in the UK have agreed to place a zero charge on foreign exchange purchases in this country. Through the UK Cards Association and the British Bankers Association, a new code will be set up so that charges levied on transactions overseas are transparent, a development that I am sure hon. Members will welcome.
The hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) has a particular interest in the waste electrical and electronic equipment directive—I hesitate to call it WEEE, because that can be misinterpreted outside this place—and a constituency interest through a company that is a major recycler of electrical equipment. I have seen her correspondence with Ministers in the Business Department. She has raised a number of points about how the regulations might be beefed up, and I shall ensure that following this debate the consumer affairs Minister, the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr Davey) is made aware of her concerns.
My hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes South (Iain Stewart), who is a doughty champion of the Open university, not least because it is the largest university in the country and, perhaps, because it is based in his constituency, raised concerns that have been well flagged by current students at the Open university. On the Government’s e-petition website there are no fewer than three petitions, one of which has 42,000 signatures, calling for the Government to maintain their widening participation funding for the next academic year.
I can confirm that widening participation and social mobility remain key priorities for this Government, and by way of example we have this year, for the first time, for the coming academic year extended access to loans for tuition costs to part-time students, many of whom are at the Open university. We are also providing more financial support for those from poorer families. The maintenance support grant for those from households with an income of less than £25,000 is rising from under £3,000 to £3,250 for the next academic year. The national scholarship that is coming into effect from next September will ultimately generate some £300 million of additional cash to help to support tuition fees for some of the most disadvantaged. The Department has raised with the Office for Fair Access concern about whether funding for part-time courses will continue to receive wider participation funding, and it will be considering the issue carefully. As my hon. Friend said, the Minister is due to submit his letter in January, and that will give guidelines to the Higher Education Funding Council as to how it will continue to demonstrate its commitment to widening participation.
The right hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes) has a distinguished track record in this House for championing social mobility, and it was therefore no surprise that he wanted to talk about the High Pay Commission. As he knows, the Government are determined to get on top of a challenge that is another legacy of the previous Government, who, in 12 years, oversaw a widening disparity between boardroom pay and pay on the shop floor that needs to be addressed. We want to see transparency, proper accountability for shareholders, and a sense of responsibility
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from Britain’s boardrooms. Last September, we published a discussion paper on executive remuneration in conjunction with a consultation on the future of narrative reporting for companies. That put forward wide-ranging proposals on improving the link and aligning executive pay more closely to company performance. The consultation closed last month. Earlier this month, the Treasury launched a second consultation, on bank executive remuneration. That is consulting on arrangements that would extend to the eight most highly rewarded executives below board level disclosure requirements on their pay. It will report at the end of February, and I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman will be interested in what it has to say.
If I have not dealt with any Members’ points sufficiently, I am sure that the Department will be able to follow them up in due course. I wish you, Mr Deputy Speaker, and everybody present a happy Christmas.
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Communities and Local Government
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Nigel Evans): We now move on to the debate on issues relating to Communities and Local Government. Seven Members are listed to speak and there is a six-minute time limit on contributions. As I will be leaving the Chair shortly, may I wish everyone in the House, and all those who work in it and visit us, a merry Christmas and a happy 2012?
Esther McVey (Wirral West) (Con): When the coalition came into government, its focus had to be on reducing the UK’s debt and putting the UK economy on a sustainable footing. For too long, the UK had overspent and under-delivered. The Chancellor made it clear that the Government’s economic policy objective is to achieve strong, sustainable and balanced growth that is more evenly shared across the country and between industries, rebalancing the economy by moving from unsustainable public spending and towards exports and investment. This should support the UK’s long-term economic potential and help to create new jobs. In addition, the Government have introduced the Localism Act 2011, which recognises the need to develop sustainable communities, allowing them greater freedom to develop while focusing on the planning needs of the local area, with a strong emphasis on regeneration.
Combining both those aspects is the starting point of my speech, which is about the regeneration and expansion of the Liverpool city region’s ports and waterways. How important are the ports to the city region? The ports and maritime industry have played a vital role in the history of Liverpool. In fact, so prosperous was the port that for periods during the 19th century, Liverpool’s custom house was the single largest contributor to the British Exchequer. Disraeli described Liverpool as the second city of the empire as the port became the gateway to the world, with 40% of the world’s trade passing through it. Liverpool built the world’s first enclosed commercial dock in 1715. Further docks were added in later years, all interconnected by lock gates and extending 7.5 miles along the Mersey. This interconnected dock system was the most advanced port system in the world. These magnificent docks, extensive dock systems and waterways still exist today and are ripe for regeneration.
However, the course of life does not run smoothly, and during the 20th century the port began to decline owing to a combination of the UK’s lack of a manufacturing base and the shift away from the Commonwealth to the Common Market. The southern ports of Southampton and Felixstowe, and eastern ports such as Hull, benefited from this move. In the 1900s, Liverpool’s population was about 850,000, but it began to decline in the 1950s, and rapidly so in the ’70s. Today, the population is about 450,000—and yet the city was designed to hold double. A city with such a large infrastructure to sustain—from a tube system, to parks, listed buildings, art galleries and museums, and even two cathedrals—is expensive to run and much in need of an increased population. Added to that, Liverpool, without the full use of its port and waterways, is only half a city; having water down only one side and an inability to make use of it makes it thus. I therefore propose that any impediments to the use of its waterways, or unfair restrictions placed upon the city so as not to
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enable it to use them, would harm not only Liverpool and the Liverpool economy but the whole of the city region.
As times change, situations do too, and in 2012 the port of Liverpool is again ripe to come to the fore, for several key reasons. First, there is the growth of the new emerging markets such as those in the far east and Brazil; that does not only affect imports, as the UK is looking to double exports to Brazil by 2015. Secondly, there is the decision to widen the Panama canal to accommodate the world’s largest vessels. That is due for completion in 2015 and promises to change the structure of world trade flows. When completed, larger ships will emerge from the Pacific, prompting expansion of the US eastern seaboard ports such as New York. As Liverpool is already the primary western facing port into the Atlantic, it will be favoured as a primary port for all these extra-large vessels. Thirdly, there is the domestic consideration of costs to business and ultimately to the consumer. Liverpool is geographically well placed and very central, with a population of 8.2 million within 70 miles of it and easy connections to Ireland and Scotland; and a four-hour heavy goods vehicle journey from the port of Liverpool can reach a population catchment of 34 million. Fundamentally, Liverpool remains a great place for doing the things that supported its early growth—notably, handling the UK’s trade with the USA and the Americas and emerging markets, and maintaining its links with Ireland.
The city region has the ability to create a port hub—a super-port, if you will, Mr Deputy Speaker. To achieve this, it will need to continue the development of the 3MG inter-modal hub in Halton, the rail freight scheme at Parkside, the world cargo centre at Liverpool airport, and the post-Panamax facility, which is a new £300 million container terminal capable of simultaneously handling two of the new-generation post-Panamax size containers, and is privately funded by Peel Holdings. Although the existing maritime and logistics sectors support approximately 34,000 jobs, development of the super-port projects could transform the Liverpool city region economy, creating 21,000 jobs by 2020 and nearly 30,000 jobs by 2030 with the extension of the cruise liner terminal. At present, liners are permitted to berth only for port-of-call visits, but a turn-around facility would generate approximately £1 million for the city region economy for each liner. There is also the development of the—
Valerie Vaz (Walsall South) (Lab): It is always a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Wirral West (Esther McVey). I thank everybody in the House who has looked after us over the year and wish them a very happy Christmas and a happy new year. I hope that this Christmas gig will become as popular as the “Doctor Who” Christmas gig.
I want to raise some planning issues that have upset my constituents, because I do not like to see my constituents upset, and then to discuss the national planning policy framework, which the hon. Member for Chippenham (Duncan Hames) will also mention. I am a member of the National Trust and have dealt with planning litigation. I have had to read planning policy guidance and planning policy statements, so I understand why some people
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want to streamline them. However, that should not be done to the extent that they are non-existent. They are comprehensive and, together with the local plans and unitary development plans, they came about as a result of careful consultation. Word is already out that the national planning policy framework will be a lawyers charter. Lawyers are rubbing their hands in glee.
Turning to Walsall South, I hear stories in my surgery of intimidation, threats and broken windows, all because some people oppose an application. I had many specific cases to raise, but sadly time has been cut short, so I will deal with just two. In my constituency, the green belt is already under threat. For example, officers said that the proposal for the Three Crowns inn site would involve unacceptable development in the green belt and there were no special circumstances to outweigh that. However, the planning committee let it go through, so three detached houses have been built on the green belt. That is a great cause for concern. My constituents told me that a substantial amount of time was taken up by speakers in favour of the development, but that they were allowed only three minutes.
That brings me to the long-suffering folk who live around 1 Woodside close. All previous applications have been refused by the inspector on the basis that development would have an adverse impact on the character of the local area. My poor constituents have had to put up with six applications of a similar nature. Of the last two applications, one for the construction of 13 flats was dismissed on 28 October 2010 and one for the construction of 14 flats was dismissed on 20 August 2011. Still the applicant persists without any response from the council. Clearly, the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004 needs to be revisited by the council. The residents in Cottage Farm residents association feel that their views have not been taken into account. I will present a petition to the House at the end of the debate this evening on behalf of those residents. I admire their resilience and stamina.
That brings me on to the national planning policy framework. The Government want to promote well-being, but they put it at risk by putting the green belt under threat. The Chancellor wants to use planning to stimulate growth, but town centres are crying out for development. The Government appointed Mary Portas to look at what is wrong with our town centres and she has told them to make explicit in the wording of the NPPF a presumption in favour of town centre development. In Walsall town centre, 15.8% of shops are empty—an increase of 20% since February.
The NPPF will weaken the test that is applied to town centres. Under the sequential test, developers have to show that there is no suitable alternative site in the centre, but that does not apply to offices. The NPPF will relax brownfield targets; relax the requirement to plan for the efficient and effective use of land; reduce the protection of the green belt; remove the direction to direct offices to the town centre; and reduce sustainable economic development. The combination of those things will push development away from where it is most needed.
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Walsall has a history of protecting employment land and has a sustainable settlement pattern. Manufacturers who are experiencing growth have not asked me to raise planning issues; they have asked for money for apprentices so that they can train them and fill the skills gap. This is not about housing either, because the Home Builders Federation holds more than 280,000 units with planning permission that are ready for development. Planning permissions do not deliver new homes. The problem of there being not enough homes is more to do with the stagnant property market, banks not lending and the boom in overseas investors investing in housing, not affordable housing.
Paragraph 16 of the NPPF states that the development of sites protected by the birds and habitats directive would not be sustainable. However, in the autumn statement, the Chancellor said that he wants to relax the habitats directive. I am on the side of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, the National Trust, the Prince of Wales, the campaign by The Daily Telegraph, the Campaign to Protect Rural England and the people of Walsall South. Whose side are the Government on? With respect to you, Mr Deputy Speaker, I have a special phrase: this is not about being a nimby, but about being a NIGEL—“Not In the Garden of England”. We are all NIGELs now.
Stephen Gilbert (St Austell and Newquay) (LD): May I start by thanking the many Members from all parts of the House who have paid tribute to the way in which the Backbench Business Committee handles these debates? As Forrest Gump put it, these pre-recess Adjournment debates are a bit like a box of chocolates:
“You never know what you’re gonna get.”
All the Members and staff in this House will be looking forward to spending Christmas with their family and friends. We are looking forward to a traditional Christmas dinner and, if we are lucky, to a warm log fire. However, not all our country-folk are as fortunate. I would like to spend some time remembering the hundreds of people around the country who will not spend Christmas with their friends and family, and who will not enjoy gift giving and festive celebrations, but who will instead spend it on the streets, desperately hoping for passers-by to give them a few pennies or pounds.
Homelessness can have dire consequences. Just last month, I was saddened to hear about the death of two of my constituents who had been sleeping rough on the streets of Newquay. If we are to tackle the crisis of homelessness in our communities, we first need to understand better the causes. A recent report by the charity St Mungo’s highlighted the role that relationship
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breakdown, domestic violence and mental health problems can play in leading people to sleep rough on our streets. Indeed, relationship breakdown is the largest single trigger of rough sleeping cited by outreach workers. It is the reason for just under a half of all male rough sleepers. Almost a third of female rough sleepers have left home to escape domestic violence. The St Mungo’s study also found that just under half of rough sleepers have one or more mental health problems. Indeed, people who have slept rough are more than 15 times more likely to have a diagnosis of schizophrenia than the general population.
At this time of year, it is important that we recognise the work of charities such as St Mungo’s in helping people in desperate need. I hope that in his response the Minister will join me in paying tribute to the great work that such charities do in caring for rough sleepers and giving people a second chance. In particular, I would like to recognise the work of Cosgarne hall in St Austell in my constituency in helping local people.
Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman is making an excellent speech on the problems of homelessness. I join him in paying tribute to the work of St Mungo’s and many other charities. Does he acknowledge that one problem for such charities is that when they house people in hostels or relatively short-stay accommodation, they have enormous difficulties in finding move-on accommodation? It ends up with a blockage in the system because local authorities cannot cope with the numbers that charities refer to them. The Government must address that issue.
Stephen Gilbert: I agree entirely with the hon. Gentleman. We need to make the journey from presentation at the local authority through to hostel accommodation and supported accommodation much more seamless. I endorse entirely his recommendation.
St Petroc’s is another homelessness charity in Cornwall. It helps to provide food and shelter to the more than 100 rough sleepers across Cornwall. That will be particularly important in the cold days and months ahead. I have visited the St Mungo’s shelter in Brent, as I am sure has the hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn), and seen the work it does with homeless people. I was also lucky enough to visit the Outpost housing project in Newcastle recently, which works with young lesbian, gay and bisexual people who get kicked out of home after coming out. Like many hon. Members, I have also been to Centrepoint here in London.
From all those visits, one thing is clear: we are all just a few steps from being homeless, whether through losing our job or losing our partner. There is no typical homeless person and homelessness can and does affect people from all walks of life. That is why I am calling on the Government to consider the introduction of a right to shelter—a fundamental statement of principle that the Government will do more to help those who find themselves homeless, often through no fault of their own. It is simply not right that many people can go to their local authority for help and be turned away to sleep on the streets in the sixth largest economy in the world. As well as a right to shelter, there needs to be more recognition by drug, mental health and other service providers that they have a role to play in preventing homelessness. We need a more flexible, personal service
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that reflects the complexity of an individual’s life so that we can achieve the vital ambition of ending rough sleeping.
Over the past year, 102,000 people approached their local council and declared themselves homeless, an increase of 15% on the previous year. Tackling homelessness must remain a Government priority, so I welcome the fact that the spending review protected the £400 million of homelessness grant to local authorities and the voluntary sector, and the fact that the Government have prioritised help for single homeless people, providing £10 million to the charity Crisis to help in its good work. I also understand that a cross-departmental ministerial working group has been set up to address some of the complex causes of homelessness. However, much more can be done, and I reiterate my call for a basic right to shelter and sufficient funding to ensure that no individual is left with no option but to sleep rough.
I hope that my contribution today, though limited, will serve as a wake-up call to the Government to do more in the years that remain to them, so that in future we can all enjoy our Christmas holidays knowing that nobody will be spending them out in the cold.
I absolutely concur with what the hon. Member for St Austell and Newquay (Stephen Gilbert) has just said about homelessness. He put the case very well. Despite various changes in homelessness legislation over the years, I find that in London a depressingly large number of people are denied access to housing because they are single, because they are concealed homeless or because they do not have an identifiable physical condition or mental illness. They end up sleeping rough, sleeping in cars or in some cases just endlessly sofa-surfing among friends’ homes.
It is quite surprising that if we go down to “Occupy London Stock Exchange” outside St Paul’s, we find quite a lot of people living there who work, and for whom it is a place to live and survive. That is the reality of homelessness in this country. It is probably slightly worse in London than the rest of the country, although I acknowledge everything that the hon. Gentleman said about Cornwall and the south-west also having a considerable problem.
I wish to draw attention to a number of matters in this short contribution. I am proud to represent an inner-London constituency, and housing is the biggest issue that my constituents face by a long chalk. The borough as a whole has 13,000 families on the register of those who need somewhere much bigger to live, and we have a very large number of young people and children growing up in grossly overcrowded accommodation. In such accommodation it is impossible for all the children to maintain good health, do their homework and achieve anything at school. It is hardly surprising that there is so much family breakdown and underachievement in school.
I have people in my advice bureau in tears because they have three teenage siblings, sometimes of widely differing ages, sharing a bedroom and they are unable to study or do any homework, with all the obvious consequences. That leads to underachievement in school and to consequences for the rest of our society, as those
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young people feel excluded from the education system and end up in the criminal justice system because of what they get into.
We have to recognise that the overall rate of private renting in Britain is growing at the expense of owner-occupation. That gap is growing much faster in London, to the extent that in my constituency, privately rented accommodation now accounts for well over 30% of all households, owner-occupation is below 30% and the rest is made up of council and housing association accommodation and a very small number of co-operatives. Almost a third of my constituents live in private rented accommodation.
For young people who are in work—perhaps a young couple earning reasonable salaries—it is impossible to raise the deposit for a mortgage even if they can afford one. Their only chance of buying is if their parents are well-off enough and prepared to remortgage their own property to provide them with a deposit. The average age of first-time purchasers in London is now in the late 30s, if not the 40s. The choice between private rented, council rented and purchased accommodation that the Government talk about so blithely simply does not exist.
Even in my borough, which is doing its very best on housing matters, it is impossible to buy somewhere under a part-rent, part-purchase shared ownership scheme. A key worker needs to be on more than double the average London income to get anywhere near buying somewhere under shared ownership. That is a major problem.
The situation has very serious consequences for London. Where are the skilled workers of tomorrow whom we need in the public service? Where are the service workers of tomorrow? Where will such people come from unless we seriously address the need to examine all sectors of housing difficulties?
Stephen Gilbert: The hon. Gentleman makes an eloquent case, and I agree with much of it. Does he agree that one concern is that a pernicious generational divide might be emerging, broadly between the baby boomers—the housing “haves”—and generation X, for which, as he rightly says, home ownership is an aspiration that many will never be able to meet?
Jeremy Corbyn: Absolutely. Those who own and occupy their own homes in my constituency tend increasingly to be much older people. If they pass on or decide to sell their property, it is nearly always sold to a speculative owner who then rents it out privately. The rental income from those properties is absolutely enormous. There is therefore a very strong case for seriously increasing the powers, facilities, opportunities and abilities of local government, and for intervening in the question of housing markets as a whole.
I turn very briefly, because the debate is short, to the case of my own borough council. It is doing its best to address the borough’s housing issues, and it is building about 100 new council homes a year, largely on local authority housing land, disused garages, car parks and difficult places on estates. In some cases it has made agreements with preferred partners through housing associations, which are building on former industrial land, although there is not much of that, or on other sites. The council’s condition for joint participation with a housing association is that it maintains the existing tenure system—a tenancy for life—and rent
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structure. That means that the rents are not market-related but economically related, and are those that the local authority charges. That is having a good effect, and the council is doing its best, but unless we can address issues on a wider basis, with much greater Government investment in council housing for rent, the needs of my borough will not be met any more than those of any other borough.
I have two points to make in the last 42 seconds that I have. The first is about housing benefit. Will the Government raise the cap on housing benefit, so that the new rent levels that are imposed on people do not force them out of their homes? I have lost count of the number of people who have come to my advice bureau about to lose their home because of the housing benefit cuts and rent increases.
Finally, the Labour mayoral candidate Ken Livingstone has proposed the concept of a London living rent. We have had a London living wage, and it is time to have a London living rent to be fair to people who are forced to live in privately rented accommodation by making it affordable, long-term and permanent.
Peter Aldous (Waveney) (Con): I am grateful to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and to the Backbench Business Committee for giving me the opportunity to raise the issue of sprinklers in buildings. I do so because last year a serious fire took place in commercial premises in Lowestoft, in my constituency. Thankfully there were no casualties, but if sprinklers had been installed, the significant impact and upheaval that subsequently affected many people would have been avoided.
Wessex Foods was a large food warehouse and factory located on the south Lowestoft industrial estate, processing raw meat into burgers. On Sunday 14 July 2010, firefighters from the local fire station were called to a fire at the site and arrived in just a few minutes. Unfortunately, the fire had already developed to such a degree that they were unable to go into the building safely. The building was completely destroyed by the fire, which took 10 days to be fully extinguished. At its height, 14 fire engines and 80 firefighters were at the fire, and over the course of the succeeding 10 days almost every firefighter in Suffolk attended the scene.
The impact on the local community was profound. A factory that had been in operation for 30 years has now been permanently closed and razed to the ground, and 150 people have lost their jobs. Despite the size of the building, at approximately 5,000 square metres, and the use to which it was put, sprinklers had not been fitted. If they had been, the outcome would have been completely different and the firefighters would have been back at the fire station within an hour.
There are compelling reasons why the current approach to sprinklers should be reviewed. Where sprinklers are installed, there is a dramatic reduction in fatalities and injuries. There has never been a multiple fire death incident anywhere in the world in a building fitted with a sprinkler system that has been designed to the appropriate standard for the purpose intended.
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to evacuate a building as quickly as young people. Those who suffer from dementia face added challenges. As a nation we are encouraging older people to continue living in their homes longer. I have no problem with that, but we need to ensure that elderly people, especially those living alone, are provided with an appropriate level of protection.
There has in the past been concern about the reliability and cost of sprinklers. However, in recent years, there have been significant advances in both design and reducing costs. The likelihood of a sprinkler going off accidentally is now estimated to be of the order of 16 million:1.
It is important to have regard to the views and needs of the fire service. Firefighters do a great job, often in hazardous and dangerous circumstances. We owe it to them to reduce risk as far as reasonably possible. With fire service budgets and resources coming under increasing pressure, it is important to focus on measures that make their jobs easier. I am mindful that in rural counties, including Suffolk, we are reliant on a combination of full-time crews and retained crews in market towns. As work patterns change, recruitment of retained firefighters is becoming more difficult. We thus need to ensure that we reduce the risk of major incidents wherever possible. It is also important for Government to listen to local fire chiefs and fire authorities. They are the people on the ground with first-hand experience, who invariably know best, and they advocate more widespread use of sprinklers. In the past year, not only Suffolk but Norfolk, Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire, Staffordshire and Humberside have demanded a more proactive approach.
For commercial and industrial premises, two issues need to be addressed. First, we find ourselves out of step with many other countries. In England, only buildings of more than 20,000 square metres are required to be fitted with sprinklers. In Scotland, that figure is 14,000 square metres, while in Germany it is 1,800 square metres. If we had been in line with the European average, the devastation caused by the Wessex fire would have been avoided. Secondly, there has been too little focus in determining policy up to now on the business disruption that arises from a major fire. In these difficult and uncertain economic times, we can ill afford that. Some 85% of small and medium enterprises that suffer a serious fire never recover or cease trading within 18 months.
It is important that the Government review the new and compelling evidence on sprinklers that is becoming available. This should be taken fully into account in the review of part B of the building regulations due in 2013. It is important that that review takes place on time and is not delayed. The evidence that we need to look at includes feedback from Wales, where the fitting of sprinklers in new residential property has been mandatory since the spring. Next year is the bicentenary of the installation of the first sprinkler system in Britain in the Theatre Royal, Drury lane. Some might say that not much progress has been made in 200 years: I would say that now is the time to redouble our efforts to save lives, to protect the vulnerable and to safeguard jobs.
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I speak today in support of increased local decision-making in the planning system. Specifically, I would like to encourage the Government to ensure that the neighbourhood plans made possible by the Localism Act 2011 give local people enough power to have a real say over what development takes place in their area, where it takes place and, crucially, whether it meets the sustainable development test.
There are many cases in my constituency that illustrate not only the ways in which people currently feel disengaged from the planning system, but the great potential in communities when they get organised. A great number of my constituents have contacted me about large housing developments proposed near Birds Marsh woods and the Avon floodplain in Chippenham. They have emphasised the importance of preserving the countryside around the edge of the town, and many have expressed their frustration at their apparent inability to affect the decisions being made. One lady made the point that,
“the voice of ordinary residents does not seem to be heard, and decisions are made by people for whom this is not their home”.
Earlier this month, I asked the Minister with responsibility for decentralisation what advice he would give to councils that face such developer interest in out-of-town sites. He assured me that the “town centre first” policy remains firm, but that development in Chippenham would suggest otherwise, as Wiltshire council felt free to ignore it. There will be no public confidence in a "take it or leave it" attitude to planning policy, with some councils proceeding with development that is neither sustainable nor what local people want, for fear of paying for expensive appeals by developers.
Glyn Davies (Montgomeryshire) (Con): I intend to speak on much the same issue later in respect of wind farms. Does the hon. Gentleman take the view that when the Government impose massive development on an area where the people simply do not want it, it poses a huge threat to people’s faith in democracy?
Duncan Hames: The imposition of development plans that are not owned by the local community was exactly what we had in the regional spatial strategies—the grand regional plans left to us by the previous Government —and I applaud this Government for abandoning them. The RSS in the south-west of England never actually took legal force, and I am glad that it will never do so. It is important that people feel that decisions are made locally and democratically.
In Wiltshire, the council has not yet adopted its core strategy—its local plan—and we of course await the final version of the national planning policy framework in the spring. In the interim, our system is not robust enough to balance the competing interests in the planning process, and development too often seems inevitably set to proceed.
For the hon. Gentleman’s information, I was born in Chippenham, thus I have an interest in it. I applaud what he is trying to do. Out-of-town developments not only disfigure beautiful landscapes in a beautiful area; they also create vastly increased traffic and
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environmental consequences for everyone else, as well as a complete hollowing out and destruction of the town centre, which becomes the home for charity shops and banks—and very little else.
Duncan Hames: I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman, and I am delighted to learn of his interest in Chippenham. In fact, it was that very concern about the hollowing out of the town centre that prompted the resignation last week of the chair of the Chippenham Vision group, who had sought, in a voluntary capacity, to work with different parts of the community to build a vision for the future of our town centre. However, that was fundamentally undermined by the decision to grant a dramatic increase in the retail floor space of an edge-of-town superstore, which will no doubt be expanding into non-food items, threatening the businesses in our town centre, to which I shall return later.
Given the Government’s new presumption in favour of sustainable development, and given the record of other councils in agreeing permissions on unallocated “white land”, which does not benefit from the protections in the draft framework, I see a need for robust mechanisms to ensure the rigorous application of that presumption according to clear tests. I was encouraged by a recent response that I received from the Under-Secretary of State, Baroness Hanham, who, without pre-empting the consultation responses, acknowledged that the meaning of “sustainable development”, as well as its application, was an area where the Government needed to look again more closely in the consultation. I would suggest that a crucial part of any mechanism for deciding whether an application qualifies for that presumption should be input from the local community. The question should not end up being decided in the courts through case law, or by planning inspectors. If that happens, the Government will not achieve their objective of greater localism.
Instead, I suggest that we should look to the examples offered by communities in Wiltshire that are working with the Government’s framework for neighbourhood plans in the Localism Act 2011. Woolley, in Bradford-on-Avon, and Malmesbury, in north Wiltshire, are two communities that are seizing this opportunity. In their impressive document, “Plan for Woolley 2026”, residents have come together in an entirely voluntary capacity as Friends of Woolley to draw up a framework for Woolley’s physical, community and economic development for the next 25 years. Meanwhile in Malmesbury, Councillor Simon Killane is spearheading the neighbourhood planning pilot scheme. That includes a neighbourhood forum, which will bring residents and community organisations to meet potential developers to discuss their plans and what they might mean for the local community and the infrastructure it needs. Those plans will be assessed against the neighbourhood plan, based on residents’ own aspirations and ratified by a local referendum.
I was pleased to read Baroness Hanham’s assurance that such neighbourhood plans will have to be “given a fair hearing” against other local authority plans or, indeed, the national planning policy framework. The 2011 Act gives neighbourhood plans statutory force. As she points out, such plans will have to be
“in general conformity with strategic policies in the local plan”.
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“the test is of general conformity and not conformity.”
That means that it should be possible for a neighbourhood plan to conflict with land allocations in existing core strategies or local plans, as long as the general aims of development can be achieved, perhaps by bringing different land into use. The Government need to be clear about what “sustainable development” is taken to mean in that context. In my view, sustainability encompasses the impact of development on carbon emissions, travel-to-work journeys, the conservation of wildlife and the preservation of our countryside.
I would not oppose housing development, but I believe that local plans need to propose development that accommodates the needs of the local population and the understood demographic changes that are envisaged, and not be about accommodating outflow or overflow from other towns. To do so would be to allow a council’s settlements to become dormitories, which is something that we are vigorously fighting against in Wiltshire. Members should be aware that the Select Committee on Communities and Local Government is due to publish its report on the draft national planning policy framework tomorrow. I look forward to reading its recommendations and contributing to further debates on this subject, so that we might harness the power of genuinely local decision making in our planning system.
Justin Tomlinson (North Swindon) (Con): Thank you for this opportunity to raise the subject of financial transparency in local government, Madam Deputy Speaker. I would also like to extend my thanks to the TaxPayers Alliance and the Local Government Group for providing some of my research notes.
This is an important issue, because we would all agree that we should be doing everything we can to ensure that council tax is affordable, especially against the backdrop of pressure on front-line services, particularly adult social care, which is piling on costs for local authorities. With that in mind, I welcomed the Secretary of State’s announcement in June 2010 calling on councils to provide financial transparency by publishing online information about spending over £500 by the end of January 2011; all councils except Nottingham city council have now done so. Such financial disclosure will act as a trigger, enabling local taxpayers to see how councils are using public money, shine a spotlight on waste, establish greater accountability and efficiency, open up new markets, and improve access for small and local businesses and the voluntary sector.
To strengthen that, the Government published their “Code of recommended practice for local authorities on data transparency” in September 2011. The code stipulates that the provision of public data should become integral to local authority engagement with residents, so that it drives accountability to them, it should be promoted and publicised, so that residents know how to access it, and it should be presented in a way that encourages residents to use and compare such data. Despite all that, however, we have not been overrun by a fully mobilised army of armchair auditors seeking to identify savings. This is a real opportunity that has been missed. To my mind, that is because although a vast amount of data has been put into the public domain, much of it is hard to comprehend.
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I believe that the focus should be on the quality rather than the quantity of what is available. Three examples highlight this. First, most councils publish their expenditure to comply with the guidelines, but that does not necessarily mean that the publication is clear. Individuals are therefore often unable to challenge expenditure. Secondly, we have seen examples in which, when the data are printed off, font size 2 is used. Those data are technically accessible, but they are not exactly readable. Thirdly, the information is often hidden away on websites. A good example is provided by Birmingham city council. To access its data we have to go to the homepage, then click on “Council and Democracy”, then on “Services”, then on “Featured Services”, then on “Corporate Resources Directorate”, then on “Invoices and Payments”, and then on “Payments to suppliers over £500”. The process takes us through seven different pages, and it is not signposted in any way. The information would be very hard to find without going through the DirectGov site—or being Columbo. Chris Taggart, the founder of OpenlyLocal.com, has said:
“Public sector data is still being treated as an asset to be sold, rather than an underlying infrastructure of a modern democratic society, and with this approach people and the innovators who seek to empower them are marginalised and disenfranchised.”
There are, however, many good examples of local authorities providing data in innovative and eye-catching ways. Examples are Kensington and Chelsea, and Northamptonshire, which map the data so that residents can understand at a glance where the money goes. The Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy says that councils should set out reasons for particular spending decisions so that a more informed judgment can be made. It also highlights the need for effective feedback mechanisms, so that people can comment on spending and have their views taken on board.
Information needs to be accessible, transparent and understandable. I therefore welcome the five steps to fully open data that are set out in the code, but they need to be more robustly enforced. Guidelines could be altered to ensure that local authorities published their expenses in a comprehensible manner. A number of small and medium-sized enterprises are also working with open data, including OpenlyLocal, Spotlight on Spend and Armchair Auditor. Those private enterprises are all developing new ways of presenting council data. I would urge central Government to encourage local government to make use of such sites to break down its spending and make it more easily digestible and comparable.
I also have a recommendation. I would like to use incentives to encourage residents to become that army of armchair auditors. There is a fear that any savings that residents identify will simply disappear back into a council black hole. Perhaps 50% of the savings could go back to the council for it to spend as it wished, with the other 50% being spent on the front-line service of the resident’s choice. That could involve improving the local school, the local community library or a local sports club. This could be processed by a committee of back-bench councillors and finance officers, who would weed out the majority of suggestions. Probably 95% of the expenditure identified would be justifiable; it might just have been badly explained on the council website, for example. The remainder of cases could be passed on to the lead member for finance to bank, which would help the taxpayer and improve front-line services. CIPFA
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has also pointed out that when expenditure is found to be justifiable, a letter should be sent to the resident to explain what the money is being spent on.
A number of arguments have been made against this proposal. Some councils have said that they would be embarrassed if residents found that they were not spending money efficiently. I say that they should embrace that, because if a saving is identified, the council will have the opportunity to spend the money on something that people will reward it for. Nottingham city council says that the process would cost too much money. I do not think that that is an excuse when there is so much pressure on council tax bills. It has also been suggested that it would be too difficult to provide answers, but I find that unacceptable. Surely someone is signing off those budgets, and therefore owns them. A further argument is that much of this would involve one-off expenditure, but I believe that local authorities should still learn from such experience. This is a real opportunity to enthuse local residents and to deliver much-needed savings.
Mark Hunter (Cheadle) (LD): I am conscious that it is a privilege as well as a duty to wind up a debate for the Government from the Dispatch Box on any subject. Having spent some 18 years as a local councillor myself, including three years as leader of Stockport council, before being elected to this place, winding up a debate on local government issues today is a special honour for me.
Members on both sides of the House acknowledge that local government faces unprecedented challenges. All councils are effectively being asked to do more with less, and some are managing it better than others. I am confident—indeed, the coalition Government are confident—that local councils up and down the country are equal to the task. This Government want to work with local authorities whenever and wherever they can in a spirit of partnership.
Most Members of all parties are genuinely committed to good, sound local government as the most effective way of delivering the essential public services on which so many of our constituents depend. We recognise and acknowledge that there are hundreds of thousands of dedicated professional people employed by local authorities who are doing a very good job to the best of their ability. Although we expect councils to share the burden of our deficit reduction strategy, it is not because of some ideological desire to do down the public sector, but because local authorities collectively account for about a quarter of all public expenditure. As the country struggles to overcome the difficult financial situation we are now in, councils have a key role in helping to tackle the problems.
I have been particularly pleased to note the Government’s progress on their empty homes strategy, their investment in social housing, and increased democracy in the planning network through neighbourhood plans—putting local residents in charge of the decisions that affect them.
Let me now deal with today’s debate. I start by thanking all Members who have contributed by speaking passionately about their own concerns—and, more importantly, those of their constituents. In the time available, I will endeavour to give a worthwhile response to each Member’s speech.
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The hon. Member for Wirral West (Esther McVey) referred to the development of the port of Liverpool to promote economic growth. As a fellow north-west MP, I am familiar with the issues she spoke about. Indeed, the hon. Lady and I share in our constituencies the great river Mersey, which, as everybody knows, starts in Stockport and finishes in Liverpool—not the other way round.
I am speaking for this Government and for myself when I say that it is vital for the Government to continue to do everything in their power to contribute to economic growth in the Liverpool city region, the north-west region and, of course, across the rest of the country as well. The hon. Lady is right that the port of Liverpool has a crucial role to play in all this. As she will be aware, the Government have welcomed the report on Liverpool by Lord Heseltine and Sir Terry Leahy. Their knowledge and understanding of the issues have been invaluable in shaping that report. Although it was an independent report, so Government policy will not be bound by it, we acknowledge that it provides a unique opportunity—not shared by other cities—for Liverpool city region and its partners to own the recommendations and to drive them forward in partnership with central Government. It has been noted and acknowledged that 6,000 jobs and £1.6 billion-worth of investment could be added to the wider SuperPort initiative by 2020.
The hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz) talked about planning issues in her constituency. The first thing I would say to her is that I am no stranger to the frustrations of the planning system myself, so I sympathise with some of the frustrations she expressed today. As it happens, like the hon. Lady—I do not know whether it is appropriate to declare the interest—I am a member of the National Trust.
This Government clearly acknowledge that an effective planning system is vital for economic growth, for strong and vibrant communities and for a sustainable environment. As I am sure the hon. Lady is already aware, I cannot personally discuss the merits or otherwise of individual planning applications, as there is a strongly held convention that Ministers do not comment on the merits or otherwise of such an application in case it impinges on the impartiality of the Secretary of State, should that application come before him for determination. The specific issues she refers to are, of course, the responsibility of Walsall metropolitan borough council.
Reforming the planning process is one of the Department’s key priorities and I am sure that the hon. Lady, like myself, will be looking forward to reading the Government’s response to the national planning policy framework consultation, which will be published in spring next year. Indeed, the coalition agreement and the growth review commit the Department to a radical package of reforms that will transform the planning system to ensure it meets the aspirations of our communities and supports the sustainable development that the country needs while at the same time being as simple to understand and as streamlined as possible.
The next contribution was from my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay (Stephen Gilbert). I start by praising his campaigning work on homelessness. I know he has an excellent track-record on this issue both in his own constituency and at a national level. He speaks with great passion about the topic. I can confirm the coalition Government’s commitment to action on the issue, on which they have already done a great deal of work.
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Let me mention just a few of the measures that we have taken. We have protected the £6.5 billion Supporting People budget, and we will invest £400 million in homelessness prevention over the next four years. We recently announced a £42.5 million boost to provide more than 1,500 new and improved bed spaces to improve hostels for rough sleepers and ensure that those coming off the streets receive the support they need. We are giving an additional £20 million to Homeless Link for a new homelessness transition fund to support the roll-out of No Second Night Out and protect vital front-line services. I echo my hon. Friend’s tribute to the valuable work done by St Mungo’s, which was also mentioned by other Members, and by St Petroc’s in his constituency.
I agree with the hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) about the importance of affordable housing, not just in London but throughout the country. The Government have manifestly taken serious steps to tackle the chronic lack of such housing. In 2011-12 we are allocating £40 million to London boroughs to prevent homelessness and tackle rough sleeping. The Department has also transferred £8.45 million a year to the Greater London Authority for four years so that it can fund and commission pan-London rough sleeping services. They include rolling shelters, tenancy sustainment teams and outreach services which generally operate across borough boundaries.
As was mentioned earlier, we have provided £12.5 million for Crisis, the national charity for single homeless people, for a crisis private rented sector development programme to enable the voluntary sector to set up private rented sector access schemes for single homeless people. In its first year alone, the programme will lead to the creation of more than 1,500 tenancies. Our £4.5 billion affordable homes programme is set to exceed expectations and deliver up to 170,000 new homes by 2015.
My hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) spoke of the benefits of installing sprinklers in residential and commercial new-build properties. I listened with interest as he made his case—with great enthusiasm—and I am sure that the Department will also have noted its merits, especially given his detailed knowledge of the terrible fire at Wessex Foods in his constituency, to which he has referred before.
My hon. Friend did not call for the introduction of new regulations, although he highlighted the fact that sprinklers can save lives, thus preventing a considerable impact on the local community. It is important to note, however, that building regulations already contain provisions for the installation of sprinkler systems in buildings where the risk is considered high enough to justify their use—such as tall blocks of flats, commercial and industrial
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premises, and assembly and recreational buildings over 30 metres high—as well as provisions for large storage buildings and care homes.
In December last year, following an extensive public consultation exercise, the Department published the findings of a review of building regulations in a report entitled “Future changes to the Building Regulations—next steps”. The review concluded that there was no new evidence that would justify revisiting the requirements for sprinkler protection for all buildings at present.
I commend the work being done by my hon. Friend the Member for Chippenham (Duncan Hames) in relation to the national planning policy framework on behalf of his constituents. I assure him that his views are being taken into account in the national planning policy framework consultation, which—as all Members will know—recently closed. I am sure he appreciates that I am not in a position to pre-empt the outcome of the consultation by commenting on the issues that have been raised today, but I know that he joins me in welcoming the aim of the reforms, which is to simplify a system that most people agree has become too complex and confrontational, and to emphasise the central and critical role of the local plan to decision making. The draft national planning policy framework distils more than 1,000 pages of national policy guidelines into about 50.
We have made clear through the housing strategy published on Monday 21 November that we must do more to provide homes for young people and growing families. We also need jobs in expanding businesses. However, that will not be at the expense of our natural and historic environment. The points made by my hon. Friend about sustainability are hugely important.
Finally, I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson) that financial transparency in local government is essential. Like me, he served as a local councillor before being elected to the House, and it was interesting to hear about his experience in Swindon. The coalition Government expect councils to be transparent about their finances. We have set out our expectations in our code of recommended practice for local authorities on data transparency, which was published on 29 September 2011. As set out in the code, all local authorities in England are now expected to publish online details of any expenditure of over £500. We have been very pleased with the positive response from councils in respect of publishing this information—with one or two notable exceptions. I am also pleased that local government is continuing to forge ahead and publish a wealth of further information beyond expenditure, such as on contracts and tenders, council allowances, senior salaries and payments.