One for the localists amongst you: there were oral questions on communities and local government yesterday.
Monmouth MP and pugilist David Davies asked about the Government's programme to tackle violent extremism, a topic which Shadow Minister for Communities and Local Government Paul Goodman has also been pursuing.
"David T.C. Davies: When I last raised this issue, I asked the Secretary of State for an assurance that not one penny of Government money was being given to extremists or to violent extremists. She was unable to give me that assurance at the time, but the Department has now had a year to look into the issue. Can we possibly be given an assurance today that not one penny of Government money is being given to extremists, and if not, why not?
Hazel Blears: The hon. Gentleman is correct in saying that he has raised the issue before. I am delighted to be able to tell him about the range of work that has been done in the last 12 months. First, extensive guidance was published for all local authorities in June last year, setting out exactly the criteria on which groups should be funded. We fund groups that stand up to tackle violent extremism and uphold our shared values. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that following a point of order raised by the hon. Member for Wycombe (Mr. Goodman), I undertook to place in the Library of the House, by the end of April, full details—they are held in our Government offices—of the projects being funded."
That answer does not inspire confidence.
"Mr. Paul Goodman (Wycombe) (Con): As the Secretary of State has answered this question herself, may I first say to her that we believe she had no alternative to the course that she took in suspending relations with the Muslim Council of Britain?
Let me now return to the question. The House will have noted that, for the second time, the Secretary of State was unable to give my hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth (David T.C. Davies) the guarantee that he seeks that extremists have not got their hands on taxpayers’ money. As I know from correspondence with her, the reason is simple: no system exists to check who receives the cash before it is given. That is frankly scandalous. Can the Secretary of State at least guarantee that when she publishes information on where last year’s Preventing Violent Extremism money went—she has promised to do so—she will publish the details of who received the money, down to the very last penny?
Hazel Blears: The hon. Gentleman is wrong to say that there is no system for checking the allocation of those funds to community groups. There is a system, for local authorities, the police and a range of other organisations, to ensure that the funds are allocated to groups that uphold our shared values and are committed to standing up to tackle extremism.
I have told the hon. Gentleman that this is not a ring-fenced grant, for the very reason that we want the work to be embedded as mainstream work for local authorities, and to draw in funding from other sources to ensure that it can be done in a proper, comprehensive fashion. I have also told him that we will place the information in the Library. We have told local authorities that the grant is not ring-fenced, but because of its exceptionally sensitive nature, the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Mr. Khan), has written to local authorities saying that we will continue to monitor it extremely carefully. The hon. Gentleman must accept, however, that if we want this work to be embedded as mainstream activity, we must be prepared to make sure we are working in proper, effective partnership with our local authorities."
Something has gone wrong here, and MPs are right to keep pressing until we find out what it is.
Henley MP John Howell asked about council tax:
"By how much band D council tax has increased in Henley in (a) absolute and (b) percentage terms since 1997-98. 
The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Hazel Blears): Before I respond to the hon. Gentleman’s question, I would like to take the opportunity to apologise to the House for inadvertently disclosing some information this morning, just a few minutes before it was contained in a written ministerial statement to the House. I have apologised to the Prime Minister. I take this matter very seriously indeed, and I would therefore like to apologise to the House.
The average band D council tax, including parish precepts, in south Oxfordshire—Henley—has increased by £830, or 129 per cent., since 1997-98. In England as a whole, the increases in the same period are £726 and 106 per cent.
John Howell: Given the higher rate of increase in my constituency compared with the position nationally, will the Secretary of Secretary now apologise for the pressure that she has put on council tax by the below-inflation grant settlements given to my district and county councils, by the unfunded additional burdens that she has put on to them, and by the pressure on the funding of core services through the way she is dealing with ring-fenced grants?
Hazel Blears: I have made one apology today, Mr. Speaker, and I certainly do not propose to make another in the terms that the hon. Gentleman has requested. I am quite astounded by his question in many ways. I am sure that he will know that under this Government there has been a 39 per cent. real-terms increase in grants to local government, whereas under his party’s Government there was a 7 per cent. real-terms cut in the last four years. He knows that in this current period there is almost an extra £9 billion for local authorities across this country to continue to provide support and help to their communities."
Shadow Minister for London Bob Neill called out Hazel Blears on her methodology:
"I am sure that the whole house will welcome the right hon. Lady’s initial remarks. While she is in the vein of apology, will she continue that by apologising for her persistent habit of quoting figures and comparisons in terms of average council tax, given that that methodology has been dismissed by the Library as inappropriate—the different mix of dwelling values means there cannot be a like comparison—and has been described by the respected academic, Professor Tony Travers, as “not respectable”? Will the Minister resort to like-to-like comparisons of band D, which show that Conservative councils invariably cost less?
Hazel Blears: What people are really bothered about is what they pay. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is aware that in relation to band D council tax, Labour increases are 2.8 per cent., Tory increases are 3.3 per cent., and Liberal Democrat increases are 3.2 per cent. Labour certainly does cost people less."
North Wiltshire MP James Gray raised the vexed issue of travellers:
"What estimate she has made of the number of Gypsy caravans which are illegally parked on (a) land owned by caravan owners and (b) other land. 
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr. Iain Wright): The count of Gypsy and Traveller caravans in England undertaken in July 2008 showed that there were 2,240 caravans on land owned by Gypsies without planning permission and 1,750 caravans on land not owned by Gypsies. This demonstrates the need to provide more authorised sites for Gypsies and Travellers.
Mr. Gray: Last Saturday, a large group of Travellers moved on to a site at Hullavington in my constituency, which they own but for which they have no planning permission, and immediately lodged an application for retrospective planning permission. If the recent experience at Minety, also in my constituency, is anything to go by, they will be allowed to stay on that site, either permanently or at least temporarily, for the very reason that they are Gypsies. How can that be justified alongside the experience of my constituent, Miss Tina Johnston, in neighbouring Box, who is not a Gypsy but lives in a caravan on her farm? She has recently been thrown off the farm because she does not have planning permission; meanwhile, down the road, the Gypsies are being allowed to stay on the site because they are Gypsies. Surely there should be one law for Gypsies and for settled people.
Mr. Wright: On there being one law for Gypsies and Travellers and one law for the settled community, I completely disagree with the hon. Gentleman. There is one law for this country, and it is applied equally to Gypsies and Travellers and to the settled community. On the specific example that he gives, he will realise that, because of the Secretary of State’s role in the planning process, I cannot possibly comment. However, I can say in general terms that retrospective planning applications are a respected part of our planning process that is used for Gypsies and Travellers and for the settled community.
I recommend that people, whether they are Gypsies, Travellers or members of the settled community, work closely with their local authorities. There is not an automatic assumption that when there is development on land, planning permission will be granted. A comprehensive and co-ordinated accommodation needs assessment for Gypsies and Travellers will provide local authorities with much greater tools."
Shadow Foreign Office Minister David Lidington intervened on the same subject:
"May I put it to the Minister that his claims that we have a planning system that treats everyone equally are at odds with the recent experience of my constituents in Prince’s Risborough? Over the Easter weekend, Travellers moved on to land that they own that is both green belt and part of the Chilterns area of outstanding natural beauty. They are now using retrospective planning applications to try to defeat efforts by the district council to enforce stop orders and see the land restored. It is this business whereby people who pre-empt the planning system seem to gain an advantage that arouses such indignation and resentment from people who play by the rules.
Mr. Wright: I reiterate many of the comments that I made to the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray). Retrospective planning applications are a fundamental part of our planning process and apply equally—I stress the word “equally”—to Gypsies and Travellers and to members of the settled community. [Interruption.] As with the hon. Gentleman’s point, the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) knows that I cannot comment on specific matters, but he mentions green belt, and there is an automatic presumption against inappropriate development on green belt land. Gypsies and Travellers— [Interruption.]
Mr. Wright: Thank you, Mr. Speaker. There is an automatic presumption against inappropriate development of green belt land. Gypsy and Traveller accommodation sites are classed firmly as inappropriate development in the planning guidance, and I imagine that the hon. Gentleman’s local planning authority will take that into account."
Mid Bedfordshire's Nadine Dorries contributed too:
"The Minister mentioned in an earlier answer the necessity for a qualitative needs assessment of Gypsies and Travellers. Does he agree that any assessment should take into account both health care and education and employment needs, and that any sensible assessment would conclude that Gypsy and Traveller sites need to be near dentists, doctors, hospitals, schools and employment? They should be near to where those facilities are available—not in rural villages where there is no public transport and no such services, miles from anywhere.
Mr. Wright: I agree with the hon. Lady—she is right about access to health care and other public services. There are huge disparities and inequalities between Gypsies’ and Travellers’ life expectancy and educational attainment, and that of the settled community. It is the Government’s job to try to help address that. Provision of sites close to health facilities such as dentists’ and doctors’ surgeries, and to good schools, is vital, but there are of course good schools, dentists and doctors in rural areas, too. Local areas and authorities are best placed to assess that."
David Cameron's adviser Andrew Mackay asked about the homeowner mortgage support scheme:
"The Minister for Housing (Margaret Beckett): I am pleased to announce that homeowner mortgage support is now available to help home owners remain in their home if they fall on difficult times. It will enable eligible borrowers to reduce their monthly mortgage interest payments to affordable levels for up to two years to help them get back on track with their finances if they suffer a temporary loss of income. The scheme is part of the Government’s comprehensive offer of real help for home owners who are struggling to keep up with their mortgage payments.
Mr. Mackay: Since the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced the homeowner mortgage support scheme in December, more than 25,000 homes have been repossessed. Why has action taken so long? Will the Minister apologise to all those families who lost their homes unnecessarily, due to the Government’s incompetence?
Margaret Beckett: As the right hon. Gentleman might have observed if he paid attention to the House’s agenda, we had to change the law to allow us to continue with the scheme, and then we had to put in place the detailed arrangements that underpin it.
As for apologising, I am, of course, sorry as always when people lose their homes, but the right hon. Gentleman should know that the scheme is not the only thing that the Government have done. The court protocol has been in place for some time; the legal desk advice that we have given— [Interruption.] It is no good the right hon. Gentleman shaking his head—35,000 families dealt with the legal desks last year. There is also the extra support for the Department for Work and Pensions’ enhanced mortgage interest scheme. The Government have done a whole string of things, but we wish to do more—and we are doing more."
Shadow Housing Minister Grant Shapps followed up:
“Today I want to offer to families worrying about their mortgages…protection”.—[ Official Report, 3 December 2008; Vol. 485, c. 35.]
Yet five months later, that headline-grabber has still not helped a single family out there, so I repeat the call of my right hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell (Mr. Mackay). Will the Housing Minister use this Question Time to apologise to some of the 28,700 families whose homes have been repossessed since then, particularly given that the Prime Minister suggested at the time that the Government’s scheme would cover 70 per cent. of the mortgage market, whereas an analysis of this morning’s statement suggests that the scheme—the part that the Government have directly negotiated—will cover just 25 per cent. of the mortgage market? Is not the Minister once again in danger of raising expectations, only for them to be dashed when homes are repossessed?
Margaret Beckett: I have had the benefit of seeing the press release that the hon. Gentleman issued on the matter, which has the benefit of being wrong in two instances and of calling the scheme a proposal without substance. All I would say to him is that only the Conservative party would think that a proposal that attracts the support of 80 per cent. of the mortgage market is a proposal without substance.
When my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister announced our plans to go ahead with the scheme, he was extremely anxious, as was I—the hon. Gentleman will recall this, if he casts his mind back—to stress how important it is for people, first, to recognise that help can be made available; secondly, to go to their lenders for advice; and thirdly, to take independent financial advice. We thought it right then—and we think it right now—to draw people’s attention to those issues and, in particular, to the fact that there are already four or five other means of help available, but only to quite a narrowly defined group of people. That is why we thought it necessary to introduce the scheme, but of course it takes time to work up such details.
I am not familiar with the figures that the hon. Gentleman quotes, but they must, I think, be wrong. My understanding is that— [ Interruption. ] Well, they bear no comparison with any figures that have come from anyone else. I would simply say to him, first, that about 50 per cent. of mortgage lenders are participating directly in the scheme that the Government are offering and are able to take advantage of the guarantee that the Government have put in place. Secondly, in total 80 per cent. of mortgage lenders are either in the Government scheme or are offering provisions comparable to it. That is why we believe that it will be able to help many tens of thousands of people.
Finally, the hon. Gentleman, like the right hon. Member for Bracknell (Mr. Mackay), called on me to apologise to those who, despite the help that the Government have already made available, have lost their homes in the interim period. I am extremely sorry that those people lost their homes. As the House will know, in every year there are repossessions, despite, in this instance, help being made available by the Government. However, I am lost in admiration for the sheer gall of the Conservatives, who did not lift a finger to help a single family during the recessions of the ’80s and ’90s. All they did was to offer funds to buy up houses that had been repossessed, so we really do not need any lectures from them."
Shadow Secretary of State Caroline Spelman asked about planning:
"The Infrastructure Planning Commission is set to cost taxpayers £15 million in the first year and £9 million for every year after that. Based on an estimate of 34 cases, that is going to be quite a lot of money per case. Given that even Sir Michael Pitt has admitted that it will be subject to legal challenges, how much taxpayers’ money does the Minister estimate will be spent on judicial review cases in the UK and further disputes in the European Court of Justice? I am sure that Members of all parties anticipate belt tightening in tomorrow’s Budget, so would not the best way to start be to remove a bit of quango flab, such as the IPC?
Margaret Beckett: I am interested to learn that that remains the view of the Conservatives, because the business community has made plain—not least when the Planning Act 2008 was going through the House of Lords—that it totally disagrees with them. As I told my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Paddy Tipping) a moment ago, the assessment is that, on average, the establishment of the IPC will save around £300 million a year. The hon. Lady may think that of no significance, but I assure her that the business community does not."
Wellingborough MP Peter Bone was rather happier with the reply he received:
"What planning guidance applies in respect of access to public sector building developments by means of transport other than car. 
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr. Iain Wright): Planning policy guidance note 13 on transport encourages access to public sector building developments by sustainable transport modes. It requires travel plans, which evaluate site access, for applications with significant transport implications. The transport options are then agreed with local authorities and transport providers as part of the planning process.
Mr. Bone: I am so grateful to the Minister for that reply that I almost want to sit down, but in my constituency the NHS is moving an out-patient facility from the centre of the largest town in the district to which 20 per cent. of people travel either on foot or by public transport to a small town whose bus service runs only once an hour and which is obviously inaccessible to most pedestrians. Will the Minister meet me to discuss what appears to be a flagrant breach of planning policy?
Mr. Wright: I would certainly be happy to meet the hon. Gentleman. In respect of the provision of health facilities—or, indeed, of any major improvements to public services—a local planning authority would need to ask about the travel plans and travel assessments required to allow customers to use such facilities. I imagine that the local planning authority did that in this instance, but I look forward to meeting the hon. Gentleman shortly to discuss the matter."
A number of MPs asked about impact on retained firefighters of the possible abolition of the working time directive opt-out:
"Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): What representations she has received on the effect on retained firefighters of the abolition of the working time directive opt-out. 
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr. Sadiq Khan): I have received a number of written representations about the potential impact on firefighters working a retained duty system of the abolition of the working time directive opt-out, including from hon. Members, Members of the Scottish Parliament, and the Retained Firefighters Union. I also had a meeting with the president and national general secretary of the RFU earlier this month at which the loss of the opt-out was discussed. I have also received representations from members of the Local Government Association fire services forum and others.
Mr. Harper: I am grateful to the Minister for that response. In my constituency of Forest of Dean our fire service is provided solely by retained firefighters. I have had the opportunity to go on a training exercise with those based in Cinderford to see their excellent work. Given the importance of that opt-out, without which the Chief Fire Officers Association has said the retained service could not function, why have Labour MEPs been voting against retaining it, thereby letting down the people of my constituency and our country?
Mr. Khan: The hon. Gentleman is right to say that retained firefighters do an invaluable job. He referred to his rural constituency, but there are 17 fire and rescue authorities where retained firefighters comprise more than 50 per cent. of the operational work force. The Government take the possibility of the opt-out very seriously. We are in conciliation talks with the European Commission, representatives of the European Parliament and the presidency, which represents the Council of Ministers, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has written to the Foreign Secretary and the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform. The hon. Gentleman will be pleased to know that the next round of conciliation talks is set for 23 April and we are keen to ensure we have the proper resilience arrangements in place by keeping the opt-out."
"Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): The Minister is clearly trying to deal with this matter in a very sensitive and realistic way, but does not this whole issue of retained firemen—there are a number in my constituency and they play a vital and valuable role in the fire and rescue service—show that it is inappropriate for such matters to be dealt with on a European-wide basis, given that the culture and practices in this country can be very different from those in other countries of the European Union? Will he give a guarantee today that we will continue to exercise the opt-out?
Mr. Khan: The hon. Gentleman will be pleased to hear that the UK Government will not accept any amendment that phases out the opt-out or implies that it will be phased out. This is a crucial priority not only for the UK Government, but for many other member states that use the opt-out and have been very important allies to the UK Government."
"Mr. Stewart Jackson (Peterborough) (Con): The Minister conveniently body-swerved the very direct substantive question put by my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper). The House will know that on December 13 Labour MEPs voted to abandon the UK’s opt-out on the working time directive—the Chief Fire Officers Association has said that such a policy would mean that the fire service could not function effectively. Does the Minister accept that as his party is completely divided on this issue and its MEPs are voting against our national interest, the UK’s negotiating position is weaker as a consequence of that split?
Mr. Khan: I am trying to take this point seriously, as I have been invited to do, but the idea of being lectured about European unity and MEPs by a Conservative Member involves breathtaking hypocrisy—
Mr. Khan: The UK Government are committed to defending the opt-out and other flexibilities in the common position agreed by the Council of Ministers last June. We would like an agreement to be reached—as I said, the next round of talks is on 23 April—but not at any price. I have indicated our views on the opt-out, and the hon. Gentleman will be aware from an earlier conversation between us of the respect that I have for retained firefighters. They do an invaluable job and the fire and rescue authorities around the country would not be able to do their fantastic job without them."
Croydon South MP Richard Ottaway expressed displeasure with Sadiq Khan:
"The Secretary of State will have sat in many Cabinet meetings and agreed that the best way to counter terrorism is through a global effort working closely with our allies. Under the circumstances, was she as concerned as I was to hear the remarks by the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Tooting (Mr. Khan), attacking the use of Predator drones in Pakistan by the United States, no doubt in an attempt to curry favour with one minority or another? Will she remind him of the doctrine of collective ministerial responsibility? He cannot run with the hare and hunt with the hounds on an issue as important as that.
Hazel Blears: My hon. Friend has recently completed a worthwhile and useful visit to Pakistan, where he was able to see at first hand some of the pressures felt. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that we need to work with our international partners to tackle the severe terrorist threat that this country faces and it is not the case that my hon. Friend was seeking to distance himself from a particular policy. He was rightly drawing to our attention the need to ensure that we are aware of the pressures on a range of communities, both abroad and in this country, and are therefore able to prepare our response accordingly. I can confirm to the hon. Gentleman that my hon. Friend shares absolutely our policies aimed at tackling radicalisation in this country."