(1 month, 2 weeks ago)Commons Chamber
The planning process is part of our democracy. It is one of the reasons we elect local councillors and one of the reasons we have planning committees that are independent of party political leadership. Citizens in every community across the country have a stake and a say in what happens in their local area, but the Conservatives’ planning reforms pull the rug from under our local democracy and instead roll out the red carpet for the big developers, with the automatic granting of outline planning permission; statutory presumptions in favour of development; planning notices moving to online only; no real role for existing neighbourhood plans; still not enough action on net zero energy-efficient housing resources and low-carbon heat; proposals that do not go far enough to deliver more council and affordable housing; and, based on recent permitted development rights, high-street shops that can be converted into often low-quality housing, with limited standards on space, light or community structure, and mobile phone masts that can be seemingly plonked anywhere. All in all, it is a complete shambles.
Let me take a few examples from my constituency. In Horfield, a developer bought a large house on the corner of a street and is developing a complex of bedrooms with shared living spaces. Local residents with concerns were able to submit them to the planning process, but under these proposals, the development could have had its planning permission automatically granted. In Avonmouth, we have had a long-running battle with an over-concentration of low-quality waste processing sites. Each new application for such a site now receives very high engagement from local residents, but under these proposals, a statutory presumption in favour of development could now apply.
On the Downs, a proposal to convert an old toilet block into a new coffee shop required the publication of physical notices. Even in those circumstances, many local residents did know about them. Under these proposals, those notices will now just be online. In Lawrence Weston, we have a very successful local neighbourhood development plan, but under these proposals, all that hard work by local residents now stands for nothing, with neighbourhood plans being effectively closed down.
In Henleaze, a freeholder is trying to use permitted development rights to build more flats on top of existing ones. Leaseholders sought to buy the freehold to prevent a future development, but under these proposals, the cost of the freehold has massively increased because of speculative development, making it impossible for the existing tenants to afford it. The Government promised to revive high streets, but under these proposals, they are just closing them down.
Lastly, for the thousands of young people and families on low incomes, these proposals offer little hope. We need more council houses, more affordable homes, a route to home ownership where tenants can save for their deposit, and low-carbon, energy-efficient houses now, and we need to protect the rights of citizens to be a valued part of our local democracy. It is therefore evident that the Government need to get back to the drawing board.
(6 months ago)Commons Chamber
I welcome the Government’s interest and their recognition of the importance of Royal Leamington Spa to be a recipient of potentially £10 million. As an important sub-regional shopping centre, it is a vital part of the region’s economy and quality of life, so let me praise the council officers at Warwick District Council for the quality of their original submission and the work they have done since in refining the proposals against a reduced contribution proposed by the Government. That said, £10 million is a sound amount for them to work with, and I hope it can do much to address the air quality in the town, highlighted by the World Health Organisation as an issue, while revitalising the commercial centre more widely.
However, let me cut to the chase. Over the past decade the Government have cut £15 billion from local authorities across the UK, yet handed back just £3.6 billion to some towns which they invited to bid for moneys. Members will know that back in October I questioned the Prime Minister—did I have the guts, he asked me—about how it could be that the Secretary of State could approve tens of millions of pounds for his Minister and his constituency town of Darwen, while that Minister could return the favour and approve tens of millions of pounds for the Secretary of State’s constituency town of Newark—beyond belief. But how were the 101 towns selected in the first instance? Surely, if the Government were honest in their claim to level up, they would have allocated the moneys to the most deprived communities across England, but they have not. In the past year, we have heard many cases of the Government using algorithms, or more often malgorithms, but this is back-of-a-fag-packetithm. While Housing, Communities and Local Government officials may have recommended that the Government did one thing—namely, allocate funds to the most deserving communities—instead the Secretary of State and Ministers allocated moneys to towns in the lowest priority category.
It is also worth noting that the Government chose to allocate by region, not need, so the north and the midlands were disadvantaged by their political ploys. How else could Bournemouth benefit but, shockingly, South Shields be left off? Both are seaside towns, but I think I know which is in greater need of the funding. It is something Harry Redknapp would have appreciated more than most. I will not even go into Cheadle. While Big Ben no longer bongs, this Government bung, and they are doing it on an industrial scale. A simple analysis of the towns that have received moneys underlines the political tactics laid bare. Certainly the timing of the announcement, in the last few weeks before the last general election, might give us a clue. It was carefully targeted at marginal seats. Interestingly, the impartial cross-party Public Accounts Committee concluded in its investigation that the selection process was not impartial. It took evidence from Christopher Hanretty, a professor of politics at Royal Holloway, who said that
“the process by which towns were invited to bid for money from the Towns Fund was driven by party-political electoral advantage”,
riding roughshod over any pretence to be levelling up this country. Any section 151 officer in a council would be sacked if they acted like this.
Any impartial observer will see this for what it is, and certainly the public do. It is grubby government of the worst order.
I welcome the opportunity to debate the towns fund, because transparency and accountability are vital at all times, in particular when we are talking about a process that has largely been discredited due to the way in which the fund has been handed out so far. The priority to support town centres is undoubtedly the right one, but the process of deciding where that money is spent so far has undoubtedly been the wrong one.
I have consistently talked about the importance of the high street. So many people want to have pride in their local town and to see it thriving, and the towns fund is one clear way of realising that ambition. However, is that not something that every town should have the chance to benefit from? Should not that fund be distributed fairly, giving everyone a slice of the pie? Should not we be empowering local communities to choose their own priorities, rather than making them jump through multiple hoops in a competitive bidding process that is neither fair nor transparent?
What about other funds? When will we see the new version of the shared prosperity fund? We have left the EU, so we should have had that oven-ready to go a long time ago. Communities cannot wait while another complex set of opaque bidding procedures are cooked up.
My town centre, Ellesmere Port, is struggling. It has been struggling for a long time now. As in many other towns, the rise of the internet and changes in shopping habits, accelerated by the pandemic, have led to shops closing down, sadly on an almost weekly basis. So we would welcome cash from the towns fund, but for it to be a truly transformative project, it needs to address not just the symptoms of decline, but the causes.
Where are the plans to tackle the massive disparities between the north and south, in employment opportunities, earnings and life expectancy? Why do so many young people feel they have to leave where they live and move to a city just to get a foot on the ladder? It is a scandal that where people are born and who they are born to are still the biggest determinants of their life chances. That is what this fund should be looking at, not at tarting up 12th-century gatehouses. Where has the money been spent so far? My research indicates that more than 80% of the towns fund cash to date has gone on management consultants—that is hardly the transformation we were hoping to see.
Power flows towards London and wealth flows upwards into the hands of the elite. A Westminster handout on Westminster terms, with Westminster priorities in mind, will not change that. For too long, people have felt left behind and held back by a system that does not work for them. People already feel that they do not have the power to take decisions about the most important things in their lives: whether a local hospital should stay open, where a new school might go, or even how often the buses run. To empower local communities, we need a different approach—no more crumbs from the table. We do not want divisive, politically motivated, short-term fixes that only have the electoral cycle in mind. We need a new, long-term approach that actually attempts to tackle the underlying issues, and one that empowers and enables our local communities by giving them the responsibility, the power and the resources to shape their own futures, allowing them finally to take back control.
(6 months, 1 week ago)Commons Chamber
Listening to the Secretary of State, it seems that everything is fine in local government, and local authorities have all the money and resources they need. Well, the Local Government Association does not say that, the Institute for Fiscal Studies does not say that, council leaders do not say that and Tory MPs—the ones who have a spine, anyway—do not say it. The Secretary of State consulted local government given the dire circumstances, and local government gave a view about council tax; it is entitled to do that.
The year 2021 marks 40 years since I was elected as a Merseyside county councillor, and now we have the city regions. Those councils were abolished by Mrs Thatcher—mainly because they stood up to her—and the beginnings of the first stage of austerity began. It seems that nothing much changes in 40 years. I continue to see local government bear the brunt of cuts and policies of retrenchment in the light of the Government’s inability to see beyond the confines of Westminster and Whitehall. Not content with making a hash of virtually every policy decision and initiative in relation to covid—I use the words “policy” and “initiative” with a certain amount of caution—they continue to dump on local government.
When I was the leader of Sefton Council, I often referred to the overall balance experienced and witnessed among local councils across the country. As early as 2010, my council had in-year cuts to funding—for example, for neighbourhood renewal funds— and things simply got worse that after that stage. As time went by, my authority had cut after cut after cut. When I first came to the House in 2015, five years into austerity, I heard one Conservative Member express surprise at and bemoan the fact that his local police authority was supposed to find savings that year—it was as though he was some sort of Rip Van Winkle who had just woken up. The shadow Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon North (Steve Reed), is a former council leader, like me, so has witnessed the impact of continued retrenchment in local council finance. That is the responsibility of the Government, not local government.
Meanwhile, as the unprecedented crisis in local government goes into even deeper and darker places and councils struggle to provide the most basic of services, the Secretary of State should be concentrating on the wellbeing of the living, not on the wellbeing of inanimate objects and issues such as the removal of statues in various areas. It is a diversionary tactic; I am sure the Secretary of State could have come up with something a tad more imaginative than that.
Allowing and expecting councils to increase council tax by 5% will mean very different things for households in different parts of the country. Although the percentage increase is uniform throughout the country, the starting point in absolute terms is very different. It is important to take that into account. If we follow the Chancellor’s assumption that councils increase tax by the maximum allowed, for band D householders in the Sefton Council area, the tax will go up in April by £99 for 2021, compared with £54 in Westminster and £55 in Wandsworth. Is that fair? No, it is not.
I have a number of questions for the Secretary of State. With the UK having experienced the worst recession of any major economy, does he really think that now is the time to raise council tax? Does he recognise that most councils will simply have no choice but to raise council tax to preserve crucial services such as adult social care and children’s social care? What assessment has he made of the impact on the economic recovery of taking £90 out of the pockets of families? Frankly, is it not about time that, instead of bowing down to the Chancellor, the Secretary of State stood up for local government and said, “Enough is enough”?
It is clear from the tone of the debate so far that Conservative Members have an ideological aversion to local government and local communities making decisions for themselves. The impact of covid-19 leaves a £50 million hole in Manchester City Council’s budget and a £37 million hole in Trafford Council’s budget for 2021-22. Both local authorities, which cover my constituency, are stuck between a rock and a hard place, being forced by the Government to propose increases to council tax in the middle of a pandemic. The savings options being considered by both local authorities will protect frontline services where possible. However, the tough options of cuts and savings are still hard to stomach.
Last week, communities in my constituency were affected by Storm Christoph, with residents being evacuated from their homes because of flood warnings on the River Mersey. The response by Manchester and Trafford local authorities was second to none, and I praise them for their outstanding response. Unfortunately, when the Prime Minister visited the Mersey valley last week, he failed to understand that those outstanding responses by the local authorities involved will become harder in future because of the depth and breadth of the cuts he is proposing. Communities at risk of flooding must not be let down because of inadequate resources. We must not let that happen at any time in the future.
Trafford Council has a funding gap of more than 20% of the size of its revenue budget for next year. It has also spent £50 million more than its £175 million revenue budget for this year. This demonstrates the scale of what local authorities such as Trafford are handling in excess of their usual workload in their response to covid-19, and with income streams falling, the demands on statutory services remain. The council tax hike will hit families in Wythenshawe and Sale East hard, when so many are worried about their future, the future of their jobs and how they will get through the next few months, particularly in a community such as mine, where tens of thousands of jobs are dependent on aviation at Manchester airport. With the Government not having given any specific aviation deal, many families in my constituency remain worried. The Government need to recognise that local government needs to be properly funded and that Manchester and Trafford residents must not be hit with a rise in their council tax bill and deterioration in their services.
(8 months, 1 week ago)Westminster Hall
My hon. Friend does not need an answer from me on that point. Why has our area lost out? Where was the Tees Tory Mayor when the orders were being handed out? He was nowhere to be seen.
No doubt some will claim that jobs have been boosted in the area, but it is going to take a few more media pictures of the Mayor in a hard hat to convince me of that. The cost per job created in the Tees Valley Combined Authority area is calculated at £96,093. That means that for every job created in the last three years, the Mayor has spent nearly a hundred grand. How on earth is an approach like that going to deliver the sustainable job growth our region so desperately needs? The figures are astronomical. We urgently need a fully independent audit of exactly where the millions of pounds of taxpayer money have gone.
I will not at the moment. Even if we put aside the costs, the number of jobs that have been announced barely scrape the sides of the black hole of unemployment in the Tees Valley. For every job announced in the last three years, five have been lost in the last seven months. Sadly, we cannot even get the Mayor to tell us whether those jobs are being filled, or even where they are.
The Tees Valley’s gross value added per hour worked, an indicator of productivity, continues to lag 9.1% behind the UK average. On top of that, research by iwoca has shown that businesses in the north-east have been particularly hard hit by the pandemic. As a result, the region is forecast to lose 11.7% gross value added in 2020. That will wipe out all the economic growth in the north-east since 2004. We will be back to where we were 16 years ago.
Opportunities presented by the possibilities of carbon capture and storage, a freeport and civil service relocation may be part of the answer, but they are simply not enough. I welcome incentivising businesses to come to the Tees Valley, but it will not be much comfort to local businesses that fall outside the free port area and are anxious about the potential loss of EU trade and new tariffs.
This is not just about jobs. While I am all for planning for the Tees Valley’s future, the impact of Brexit and the pandemic is felt by our communities now. A 10-year plan is no good to my constituents, who contact me worried about how they are going to pay their bills this month. Last month, statistics released by the End Child Poverty coalition showed that the north-east has seen the biggest rise in child poverty in the UK. In my constituency, the proportion of children living in poverty has risen to 34%; in others in the Tees Valley, the figure is higher still. It is a tragedy and a scandal.
In Stockton North, 3,109 families with children received universal credit in May 2020, and 1,700 families with children received working tax credit. Behind those numbers, there are thousands of living, breathing children, plunged below the breadline as a result of having poorly paid jobs—or no jobs at all in their family. I am deeply disappointed that today the Chancellor has not listened to calls to retain the increases in universal credit and working tax credit, so that families with children could keep that small but vital economic support. Across the Tees Valley, 79,000 families are affected. This is a Government who would rather spend millions on the festival of Brexit than bring children out of poverty by retaining even small benefit increases, or than feed them during all school holidays. This is not levelling up; it is grinding down.
We all know that where economic inequality thrives, so do health inequalities. Stockton-on-Tees is often used as a case study to highlight health inequalities in the UK. Men who live in the town centre are expected to live 18 years fewer than their peers just a couple of miles down the road. I have lost count of the number of times I have heard Tory Ministers promise to tackle these worrying inequalities, but nothing has happened. The people of Stockton were promised a new hospital building, but 10 years later, it is yet to materialise. We just get occasional scraps that do nothing to plug the gap.
The Health Secretary visited the University Hospital of North Tees recently. I prayed he was going to announce its replacement, as I knew a statement was coming up within a few days. The statement came, but North Tees was not on the Health Secretary’s list. Surely any commitment to levelling up the Tees Valley must have addressing health inequalities at the core of its mission, and a new hospital has a major role to play in that.
A proper levelling-up agenda would be such a boon for Teessiders, but while the Tories claim that that agenda is already under way in the Tees Valley, there are serious obstacles that will prevent its delivery. Just last week, the think-tank Demos published a new report, “Achieving Levelling-Up: The Structures and Processes Needed”. It concludes that while levelling up is possible,
“there is zero chance of achieving it without…changes to the current system”
of devolved politics. One barrier it identifies is that the work of local enterprise partnerships and combined authorities is largely invisible, making real accountability to the public impossible.
The situation in the Tees Valley Combined Authority area is much more concerning than that, because the Tory Administration are not just invisible in terms of accountability, but are actively obstructing proper scrutiny. The Mayor has created a web of different companies and organisations through which he spends public money, but is shielded from vital public scrutiny. There are even reports that donors to his campaign have been appointed to significant positions in those companies and organisations. Decisions are often made outside formal meetings, through a complex network of political and business relationships and friendships, informed by advice from expensive consultants.
I will not at the moment. This is a chumocracy on a local scale that mirrors the widespread and despicable cronyism we have seen play out on the national stage in the Government’s constant privatisation of the response to the pandemic. It is shameful cronyism that I am worried will bear more fruit in the administration of any Tory levelling-up fund. If the management of the £3.6 billion towns fund is anything to go by, we have serious reason for concern. Billingham, in my constituency, was deemed more in need of support than towns in Tory MPs’ patches, including a town in the Secretary of State’s constituency, which was 270th on the list, but Billingham missed out and the Secretary of State’s constituency did not.
It is clear from the Chancellor’s announcement today that the Government are not going to invest the money that the Tees Valley needs to overcome the destabilising impact of Brexit and the pandemic on our communities and industries. While he splurges on whizzy defence gadgets and Brexit festival guff, public sector pay and benefits are largely frozen. These freezes will actively discourage the growth that we need in the Tees Valley, and they will level down, not up.
Locally, the Tory combined authority is the one public body in the Tees Valley with money to spend, but despite that, there is no comprehensive support package for our constituents. Instead, there is the £1 million Houchen gate—£1 million of taxpayers’ money that could have done so much good, wasted on a gate. The Mayor bought the loss-making airport for about £80 million, but he has secured a few flights; some people will be grateful for that. I heard one person say today, “What use is it being able to get on a flight to Alicante when local people still can’t get a bus home after 7pm?”.
Personally, I am still a little surprised that it ever happened. Labour-led authorities at that time supported the purchase of the airport. The Mayor was elected on the promise that he would buy the airport; it was in his manifesto and others facilitated his doing it. He is the person who will have to bear the brunt of the problems that we will face in the future, including the many millions of pounds that we are going to lose, year on year.
Most certainly. I cannot understand why anybody wants to hide where the public money has been spent. I know that there are different people involved in all these different companies. I would like to know what their agenda is. Is it the agenda of the people of the Tees Valley?
The failure of the Government, both nationally and locally, angers and saddens me. The Tees Valley is fit to burst with potential. We are ripe and ready to be levelled up; we are calling out for it. We have the potential to exploit the amazing opportunities for green industry, including carbon capture and storage. We have a high skill base, tight-knit communities and local authorities that, despite political changes, have a track record of working together, and achieving great things when they do. Sometimes, local Tories try to claim that Labour politicians are talking down Teesside.
I almost have to laugh. Talking down Teesside? It is the greatest honour of my life to represent the amazing and diverse citizens of Stockton North, and to champion the vibrant history and culture of the Tees Valley. The real problem is that for the past 10 years, the Tories have been booting down Teesside. Their mind-boggling incompetence in handling the covid crisis is yet another catastrophic kick to the region. Pointing out the heartbreaking inequalities that affect our constituents is not talking down our area. It is standing up for our area in the face of a national Conservative Government who have neglected the north-east for years. The Tees economy is on the cliff edge of a hard Brexit, and the lack of investment and post-pandemic rebuilding will push it into the abyss.
The North East England chamber of commerce policy director, Jonathan Walker, got it exactly right when he said:
“The human, social and economic cost of this is appalling. Levelling up has to mean more than just shiny projects. It must mean giving young people in our region the same life chances as they’d get in other parts of the country.”
He came out with another statement today; he said that the Chancellor’s announcement today was a missed opportunity:
“On the face of it a levelling-up fund sounds good but it is far too small in scale and ambition to be effective.”
I want our young people to get the benefits, but sadly I see no prospect of them getting the support they need. There are plenty of these shiny projects, but the absence of substance breaks my heart, because they could have so much more. Our constituents deserve better than this. They need better than this.
I appeal to the Minister to stress to his colleagues the need for true levelling up; for help sustaining jobs and creating new ones; to be open, honest and transparent when dealing with public money; to end the health inequalities that continue to blight our communities; and, perhaps above all, to give our young people real hope that they can have the careers they want and a future they can look forward to. Let us make the expression “levelling up” more than a cliché. Let us make it a demonstration of action.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned over-reliance on public sector workers. Are those the same public sector workers for whom we came out from our houses and clapped on a Thursday night in appreciation of the work that they do and in acknowledgement of how much we rely on them, or is he now casting them to one side as well?
It is an absolute pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mrs Cummins. I thank my hon. Friend and constituency neighbour the Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) for securing the debate, and Mr Speaker for granting me permission to speak on behalf of my constituency of Middlesbrough.
Ten years of Tory austerity have been utterly devastating for our people, and for none more so than for the people in my town of Middlesbrough and for our communities across the Tees Valley. That the Government are now talking about a levelling up agenda is the result of the inequalities that have taken hold across the regions over recent years because of their policies. The prolonged period of underfunding and not providing communities with the powers to help themselves has left us in a state where the disparity in funding levels across the UK is stark.
Let us look at transport. Last year, London got £903 per head and the north-east £486. The Government do not have the interests of the whole nation at heart. The Middlesbrough to King’s Cross rail service has been put back and back and back. The latest estimated time of arrival is December 2021, and further delays would not surprise me.
(11 months ago)Commons Chamber
I will try to be brief, although I must make a declaration as co-chair of the all-party group on local democracy, which has been pushing for this legislation for some time.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friends the Members for North Cornwall (Scott Mann), for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double) and for South East Cornwall (Mrs Murray), who have worked on this with me. I would also like to pick up on some of the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for North Norfolk (Duncan Baker), who recognised the great work that his parish councils are doing to keep their public loos going, and to recognise some of my own, some of which I also used on my summer surgery tour this year, in Rookhope, which is run by Stanhope Parish Council and Durham County Council, and in Wolsingham, run by the parish council there. The latter council is one of the reasons why I have been such an active campaigner on this issue, because it is paying about 2% of its annual budget on the rates for the public loos, so this relief today will make a major contribution.
I want to pick up on a couple of the Opposition’s amendments. I am glad they have withdrawn amendment 1, which would have extended the scope of the Bill, and amendment 2, which would have limited it, as they were somewhat contradictory. Amendment 3 would add a level of complexity for much larger councils and is unnecessary at this stage, although it will be well worth considering the issues it raises for inclusion in future legislation.
I will keep this brief, as I am sure the Minister will be pleased to hear. It is disappointing that the Government have rejected our amendments, which, for reasons already outlined, we believe would have further widened public access to loos. The Minister will be aware that there are strong feelings in both Houses about the number, quality and accessibility of public loos, and the Lords will return to the matters that we have raised in our amendments.
The Bill as it stands is a welcome attempt to cover some of the costs associated with public lavatories, and for that reason, we will support it. The relief that the Bill provides does not cover all the costs of maintaining public loos, given the enhanced cleaning regimes that councils and other loo providers have put in place to tackle covid.
I sincerely hope that introducing the Bill at this time is a signal from the Government that they are committed to supporting councils, many of which have run public toilets during this crisis. If the Government are serious about saving public loos, they should also consider our request to carry out an equality impact assessment. Doing so would be a tangible demonstration that the Government are committed to supporting the most vulnerable.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.
(1 year ago)Commons Chamber
This vague waffle on timelines and content just will not cut it. The UK has received over €10 billion in structural funding since 2014 as an EU member, and it is now staring at economic disaster, with no information on what will replace those funds. Will the Minister guarantee today that the shared prosperity fund will not result in areas such as Fife seeing any reduction in funding?
It is not just the Scottish Government who are looking for clarity on this. Just last week, the Institute for Fiscal Studies published a report that said that, four years after the Brexit vote, it is “high time” we had some idea of where the Government are going. Does the Minister agree with me, the Scottish Government, the Welsh Assembly Government and the Northern Ireland Assembly Government that it is high time we had clarity on these schemes?
The report highlighted by my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Alyn Smith) did not end its criticism there. The IFS went on to say that it was “disconcerting” that the shared prosperity fund was still not finalised and suggested that
“With limited time left, one option the government could consider would be to continue with existing EU funding allocations for one more year.”
Will the Minister today commit to do just that, to protect all our communities and ensure that they are not left behind by this incompetent UK Government?
Five months before the transition periods ends, there is still lots of talk from the Government about future funding arrangements but no details. Last month, the Minister told me that he would make inquiries on this, yet his response only promised more details in due course. Does he appreciate that communities cannot afford to wait in perpetuity and need clarity on this now?
I am grateful, but endless meetings do not give answers to communities and local governments who need that information and clarity. Another issue is the stronger towns fund. There has been lots of self-congratulatory back-slapping from Tory Back Benchers but very little detail. In the departmental spending debate on the estimates earlier this month, there was still no detail forthcoming. Will the Minister advise us today when Scotland will receive details and a timeline for the stronger towns fund?
I am grateful to you, Mr Speaker, for allowing me to ask the supplementary despite my hon. Friend the Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden) being held up.
Does the Minister recognise that after all Government funding is taken into account, including the emergency funding, councils still face a funding gap of between £6 billion and £10 billion, while they are of course required by law to balance their budgets in-year and take appropriate measures to ensure that that happens? How many jobs does he estimate will be lost as councils are forced to make severe cuts to plug this gap?
Eighteen of 55 patients who tested positive for coronavirus were transferred from North Tees University Hospital into local care homes between 1 March and 15 April. That was directly in line with the Government advice that a negative test was not required before discharge. A further 266 were transferred without a test. The policy changed on 16 April, but does the Minister accept that many deaths on Teesside, and perhaps thousands across the country, could have been prevented if the Government had got it right in the first place?
The Minister may not know this, but on 1 June, following the Prime Minister’s appearance at the Liaison Committee, I wrote to him about local authority involvement in tackling this virus. In particular, I asked him to
“give an assurance that data will be shared fully with all partners…In particular…directors of public health.”
I have not had a response to that letter, but I have heard from Greg Fell, the director of public health in Sheffield, and other directors that they are only getting generalised data—they are not getting, on a daily basis, the names, addresses and NHS numbers of those infected and those they have been in contact with. Does the Minister accept, therefore, that while this information is held by Public Health England, it needs to be passed on to directors of public health, and passed on quickly, and will he give an assurance that that will happen this week?
The Health Secretary quite rightly praised my local council of Blackburn for its efforts to bring down infection rates. I quote:
“On Blackburn, I think the council… are doing a fantastic job… they’ve taken… steps locally and I applaud that. This is exactly the sort of local action we want to see.”
Although Councillor Khan welcomes the praise, as do the communities that have worked closely with the council through this difficult time, does the Minister recognise that they have been failed by the test and track system? I raised that in the House last week. Data made available to me over the weekend shows that only 43% of people from the national service have been contacted successfully. Does he accept that the additional burden on the council requires resources to help keep services running and keep our communities safe? They need the funding now. Finally, will Minister agree to meet me and Councillor Khan to discuss the challenges going forward?
Town and parish councils across mid-Cornwall have done an incredible job of supporting their communities through the pandemic, going out of their way to provide extra services. As a result, they have incurred extra costs, as well as seeing their income drop because of car parks. I know the Government have made money available to Cornwall Council to support these hard-pressed councils, but so far it has declined to pass that on. Will the Minister join me in thanking town and parish councils across the country for all the work they have done in recent months? What more can the Government do to ensure the money they have made available gets to these parish councils? 
Over 820,000 people have already fallen into council tax arrears as a direct result of covid-19. The expiry of the emergency protection on 23 August will make it worse for vulnerable and struggling families, who could face unfair and unsafe bailiff action. Will the Minister consider the introduction of a pre-action protocol to protect them? 
For a mainly rural large county such as Greater Lincolnshire, the effective management of change for local government reform and devolution is critically important to all businesses and individuals. I am aware of a recent speech by the Minister of State, Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Mr Clarke), and wondered if he had anything to add with regard to achieving the best outcome for his parliamentary colleagues and our district and county councils for a right and fair deal for my constituents. 
There are sections of my community blighted by absentee landlords, substandard housing and a total disregard for the need for tenant vetting. Will the Minister take this opportunity to support the Horden housing masterplan in my constituency to regenerate local housing, which could be replicated in neighbouring areas that face the same housing issues and create much needed jobs in the local economy in construction and the housing industry? 
(1 year ago)Commons Chamber
I thank my hon. Friend for bringing forward the Bill. Does he share with me the relief felt by key workers across my constituency, such as ambulance drivers and the police, who, in rural areas, often conduct very long shifts and, as a result of the efficiency of putting those workers on the frontline, no longer benefit from physical facilities themselves?
I do not know where to start—after so many weeks away from this place, it is extraordinary to come back to this Bill, which is incredibly important.
On the east coast of India, in a town called Pondicherry, on the seafront, beside a broad walkway, underneath coconut trees and opposite a massive statue of Gandhi, there is a large public sign. It has a map of the town on it, and all public lavatories are clearly marked. There are pictures and diagrams clearly illustrating activities that may be carried out in them, and importantly, there are also pictures and diagrams illustrating equally clearly where those activities should not be carried out. There is information about the public health consequences of carrying out these exercises other than in lavatories. It requires no app and no internet. The sign is replicated in other public meeting spots around the town, and I love it—I love it so much that I have a picture of it on my phone. I have followed the toilet trail around the town, and I can vouch for every one.
On a serious note, the message from the sign is clear, and it is one that we need to reflect on as we consider this Bill. Across the whole globe, public health requires that there are public toilets and that people can use them with confidence, know where they are and trust that they will be available, safe and clean for use. I salute that wonderful town and all the others across the world who understand the need to promote public lavatories and, importantly, to break down taboos about talking about them, because we definitely need to do that.
It is absurd to think that people will leave their homes for leisure, pleasure or the many jobs that take us out and about and suspend their need for a lavatory. Urination, defecation, menstruation and changing babies’ nappies are all natural bodily functions, even if we do not enjoy talking about them, and they all require toilets. The absence of toilets does not remove those bodily functions. Instead, it removes people’s freedom to enjoy public space. It affects their health or, unfortunately, prompts the unsavoury use of public space as a lavatory. The Bill recognises that, in part, and we will be supporting it. Since it helps to address some of the problems of financing the upkeep of a public lavatory, we will not stand in its way.
I want to place on record my appreciation of the House of Commons Library research staff, who turned around a briefing for my hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Kate Hollern) and I in quick time to help us to prepare for this debate, and of the Royal Society for Public Health and the British Toilet Association. Their contributions inform our scrutiny and will help us to make suggestions for improvements, which I hope Ministers will consider in the autumn. I also thank the Clerks in advance for their help.
We will support the Bill, but we have concerns. First, there is the lack of help with lavatories in other public buildings, such as a library or a community hall. Secondly, the Bill does not redress the overall damage done by the past 10 years of cuts to local authority funding, which have resulted in councils’ unwillingly taking difficult decisions to remove loos or restrict their use. I am concerned that the funding that the Bill provides, though welcome, will not be sufficient to remedy the gaps, and I want to ensure that the Government are aware of the strain that local authorities are under at the moment in any case.
Thirdly, there is no recognition of the consequent inequality of access to public space, particularly for elderly, sick or disabled people, parents of young children and women and girls. Nor does the Bill recognise the consequences for all of us when some people end up using the public space. Fourthly—I know the Bill was originally planned before covid, as the Minister also mentioned, but here we are—there is nothing that I can see that would help struggling local councils to restore and to provide additional cleaning and staffing during this crisis, at a time when we all want to encourage people to feel confident about going out and about. The Minister mentioned the covid importance, but I have not yet seen anything that deals with those increased costs, and I hope we can return to that at a later date.
I would like each hon. Member here to imagine the loo map of their own constituency. They have probably all checked, Mr Deputy Speaker, and I hope you have too. It is a fascinating subject. Has the map been made public? Is it in plain view? Can it be found in a place that people naturally head to for information? Can someone who does not have a smartphone easily find out where the loo is while they are out and about? Will it be close, open, safe and—ideally—free?
To anyone listening to our debate who says they never use public loos—I do, by the way—I encourage them to consider what it is like to have a bladder infection, to be in that early stage of pregnancy where the baby is causing urgent needs, to be elderly and not able to sprint to a lav, or not to have the confidence to go into a café and say, “I have a medical condition and I need to use your loo.”
Many councils, towns and cities, including Bristol, do have the schemes that the Minister has mentioned to use loos in private property, but many people do not know about those schemes. That includes the Can’t Wait card; the Minister quite rightly commended businesses for that, but I fear that many people still do not know about it or do not have the confidence to use it, and of course at the moment many businesses are shut.
If there are not sufficient facilities, we all suffer. There are the social and economic consequences, and there are consequences for us all, with the smells, health and hygiene problems, if people choose to or feel forced to urinate or defecate in public. The Royal Society for Public Health recently published a fantastic report called “Taking the P***”—one can fill in the asterisks for oneself, Mr Deputy Speaker. The subtitle, and the subject, is “The decline of the great British toilet”. It is a most educational report, and I urge everyone who has a problem discussing the subject of loos to take a read and consider what life would be like if we did not have public toilets, and what it is already like when there are not enough.
More than half of the public apparently restrict their intake of fluids before and during a trip out, at the risk of dehydration and other health consequences. One in five operate on a toilet leash, not allowing themselves to go further than they can nip back home from to use the loo; that number rises to more than two in five for those who have medical conditions. That has economic as well as social consequences.
(1 year ago)Commons Chamber
I thank everyone in the Chamber for their contributions, in particular my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts) who introduced the debate, and my hon. Friends the Members for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier), for Warwick and Leamington (Matt Western), for Sheffield, Hallam (Olivia Blake), for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) and for Reading East (Matt Rodda).
Everyone has recognised the fantastic contribution of local councils and it is well deserved praise. Local councils have stood up to the challenge. They have continued to provide and support social care for elderly and disabled people under very difficult circumstances, have found accommodation for 90% of rough sleepers at extremely short notice, have administered more than £10 billion in business rates relief in grants for local businesses and co-ordinated support for people in vulnerable groups who have been shielding.
The response has been all the more impressive because local government has seen unprecedented levels of funding cuts over the last decade. It is interesting to hear Members talking about the last two years. I was a councillor for 20 years. In the last decade, under the current Government, local government has lost £51 billion. Just think about that—£51 billion in a decade. As a consequence, people have lost their jobs—street cleaners, park attendants, librarians, key workers, social workers, youth workers—and services have been lost at a great level. Councils are now facing a very difficult decision, because the key workers that we have clapped and cheered over the past few weeks could be at risk of losing their jobs, unless the Government keep their promise.
The Government have devolved responsibility for key elements of social care spending, such as crisis grants, the independent living fund and council tax. Councils are the mechanism that holds communities together. My local council—Blackburn with Darwen Borough Council—has done an absolutely amazing job. The council leader, Mohammed Khan, has been totally committed to keeping stability in the town, keeping people safe and delivering the services they need. But Blackburn with Darwen has lost 30% of its funding in a decade—the second highest figure in the north-west, beaten only by Liverpool.
Blackburn with Darwen has lost £51.7 million, and I am ashamed that we can sit here cheering councils and saying what a fantastic job they have done, while totally ignoring the cuts they have had over the last 10 years. The council has done everything in its power to support people through this pandemic. We have seen more than 30,000 food parcels, 3,500 vulnerable people supported and £40 million issued in business grants, all of which has helped Blackburn with Darwen through a difficult time. I would also like to recognise the 1,700 volunteers in my constituency, who have proudly played their part in helping vulnerable people through.
It has been quite clear that the Government’s stuttering over national decisions has placed even more burdens on local councils. As has been widely publicised, there were shortages of PPE, particularly in care homes. I have spoken to many care homes in my constituency that were at their wits’ end because they could not get the equipment they needed to keep their residents safe. Of course, it was councils that stepped in when the Government failed. The Government just acted too slowly. As a consequence, people lost their lives.
The school voucher scheme—another area where councils had to step in—was riddled with problems. Parents and children were left abandoned when the Government failed, and councils stepped in, giving children the food they needed. It is shameful that the Government extended the scheme only after a premier league footballer campaigned on the issue. Maybe what we need, rather than proper debate, are glossy headlines to make the Government move.
Test and track is an absolute joke—[Interruption.] I am sorry, but it is. Local directors have been given no information—
I can actually prove it, Minister. They have been given no information or have been given information too late to implement any changes. As for the app, I am sure we will see it some day.
All of this has been a recipe for disaster, but councils have kept their promises, because they are committed to serving their residents. Yet again, councils will be given no comfort in this estimates debate today. How long must council services—those on the frontline in our hard-hit communities—be treated as Cinderella services? On 16 March, the Secretary of State told councils that the Government stood ready to do whatever was necessary to support them in their response to coronavirus. By 4 May, he was back-pedalling on that pledge, and he gave a grim warning:
“We would not want anyone to labour under a false impression that what they are doing is guaranteed to be funded by central Government.”
Interestingly, the Chancellor said the exact opposite yesterday. He says they agreed wherever it takes. Perhaps we again have an example of a headline not being a true reflection of what is happening in debates.
It is true that the Government have provided councils with funding of £3.7 billion in three tranches to meet the costs of the crisis. The first was mainly for adult social care and was allotted on the basis of relative need. However, the second was allocated on a per capita basis and did not take into account deprivation, despite the mortality rate from the virus in the most deprived areas being more than double that in the least deprived areas. As a result, the funding for metropolitan councils in deprived areas was substantially lower in the second tranche, whereas the allocation for many Conservative-controlled shire councils miraculously increased. Funding for Surrey rose by 32%, whereas that for Liverpool fell by the same percentage—so much for the promise of levelling up.
Blackburn with Darwen Borough Council received a little over £9 million, yet it has been well publicised that, with the anticipated loss of income, the council could face a deficit double the size by the end of the financial year. In March, April and May, councils lost £470 million in business rates and £506 million in council tax as businesses were forced to close and people lost their jobs.
Councils across the country are already making cuts to services and will inevitably be looking at serving section 114 notices. Last week, the Secretary of State announced just £500 million in further funding for councils and a yet-to-be-worked-out sum for loss of income, fees and charges. I say “yet-to-be-worked-out”, because once again, there is no detail.
I recognise that time has marched on. I just ask the Minister to urge the Secretary of State to live up to his promise and, perhaps if that does not work, we can get the right hon. Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois) to get the Prime Minister’s adviser to make a difference.
I thank the Minister for his comments, although I still think there are issues to be worked through. My hon. Friend the Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier), the Chair of the PAC, raised a point about clarity. We still need that clarity from the Government. I would still like it on the record, too, that the £3.7 billion will not be reduced by the commitment to cover 75% of income losses. That needs to be clear. [Interruption.] The Minister is nodding, which is very helpful.
Finally, I want to pick up on the shared prosperity fund. No area should get less than it gets now, but no area should get less than it would have got under the new arrangements that would have come into place if we had remained in the EU. That is a very important point for South Yorkshire, and I hope that the Minister will consider it.
Question deferred (Standing Order No. 54).
(1 year, 1 month ago)Commons Chamber
I thank the Minister for his response, but the financial cost of covid-19 to Enfield council is expected to be more than £68 million and the Government have so far funded only a fraction of that burgeoning cost. The Minister is fully aware of local authorities’ statutory duty to provide a range of services to their communities. In the absence of fair funding, should local authorities begin making plans for more austerity to fill the funding gap by cutting vital services such as libraries, waste collection or adult social care?
The recent reports on disparity in the risk and outcomes of covid-19, published by Public Health England, confirmed that black and minority ethnic communities have been disproportionately affected by covid-19. What plans does the Minister have to ensure that areas that have been badly hit by covid-19, particularly those with large black and minority ethnic populations, receive the support necessary to recover from the social and economic effects of the outbreak?
Hounslow Borough Council has identified spending pressures of around £15 million and income losses of £95 million due to covid-19, and the funding gap is rising. Our local authority is heavily dependent on aviation and my constituency has the fourth largest amount of furloughed employment. How do the Government plan to support partnerships between councils, industry, training providers and community organisations to ensure that our economic recovery and our community recovery go hand in hand?
Manchester has lost £136 million in revenue this year alone. In Greater Manchester, the funding gap is £406 million. In the UK, it is £10 billion. The Minister just told us unequivocally that local authorities should not make plans for more austerity. Is he committing to fully fund those gaps?
The financial position of Merthyr Tydfil and Caerphilly County Borough Councils, which cover my constituency, was difficult enough before the pandemic owing to years of UK Government austerity. Will the Minister commit to ensuring that the Welsh Government receive the funding they need for Welsh local authorities and the funding that the Prime Minister committed to Wales in February to tackle the effects of Storm Dennis? The impact of the floods and the pandemic have caused a hugely difficult situation for local authorities in my area and across Wales.
Thank you, Mr Speaker, but it is not so sunny today I am afraid.
The Government made a promise to councils that they would provide full support so that councils could do whatever it takes to get through the coronavirus crisis. According to Local Government Association figures released on 29 May, councils needed as much as £6 billion to cover the cost of coping with the ongoing pandemic. If things returned to normal, that was the Government’s promise. However, we all know it is obvious that things will not to return to normal in July. Will the Minister speak to his Treasury colleagues and keep his promise to cover the deficit faced by councils and prevent them from going over the cliff edge? I acknowledge the Minister’s earlier responses, but he has yet to give a complete commitment to funding councils’ deficit.
I refer Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I have welcomed the super announcements to help business improvement districts with various funds, to support local economies through the uncertainty of the covid-19 pandemic. This has been a vital lifeline for Love Loughborough, the BID in my constituency. Given the need to ensure that our town centres have the resources they need to get back on their feet, what further steps are being taken to support BIDs as the lockdown restrictions are eased?
The new unitary Buckinghamshire Council has ambitious regeneration plans for Aylesbury, which has garden town status, with an excellent masterplan already prepared. Will my hon. Friend confirm that funding will still be available from central Government for the imaginative and innovative garden town project, which will make Aylesbury a place where people will want to live, work, visit and invest, long after the coronavirus crisis?
Hinckley business improvement district has worked over the past decade to increase footfall and reduce shop vacancies. In answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough (Jane Hunt), the Secretary of State talked about the vision that may well be in place. Will he expand on where he thinks BIDs should be in the future of driving forward such places as Hinckley post-covid-19? 
On the Westferry development, the Secretary of State has just told the House that the Department was advised of the conversation with Richard Desmond at the fundraising dinner before he overruled his own planning inspector to approve the Westferry development, but a whistleblower in the Department says that there is no record of the dinner appearing in official documents. That is potentially a serious breach of the ministerial code, especially as the Secretary of State himself has just admitted that it is a highly contentious application. Will he now confirm when and how he advised the Department of the meeting, given the question of bias that this issue raises? 
(1 year, 2 months ago)Commons Chamber
I will make two points in response to the hon. Gentleman. First, I have a most excellent staffer who for the last 10 years has described herself as my office expert on parking charges. She cringes somewhat when into the email inbox pops yet another case, but as I tell her, she has a 100% track record so far and we are very proud of her.
On the points the hon. Gentleman made about private parking charges at the moment, I am conscious that in Test Valley borough, half of which I represent as the Member for Romsey and Southampton North, the borough council waived parking charges right at the beginning of the pandemic and has since extended the free parking period. There are some challenging questions ahead, because as we move forward post pandemic, we want to see our high streets recover and to assist that recovery. I think the Chancellor and the Department have come up with some amazing and really important packages, but I have no doubt that the income from parking that councils have forgone has been a huge cost to them. They will need to find ways to make up that loss, but my plea to them is to show a spirit of tolerance and support for the shopkeepers and to allow our high streets to recover gently from this difficult period. The immediate reimposition of parking charges as lockdown ends would be a retrograde step. I was delighted to see the Minister nodding during that intervention, in which a really important point was made.
As my constituent said to me, had mediation been offered to him early in the proceedings, he would have taken it—it would have been the sensible thing to do. Instead, however, he kept responding to Premier Park, “No. I’ll see you in court.” The company kept responding, “We’ll take you to court,” or rather, “We’ll send you more letters threatening to take you to court. We’ll get increasingly aggressive. The charges will go up and up. We’ll employ a succession of different legal representatives until you don’t know which one you’re trying to deal with.” But two years on, the offer of mediation was made, my constituent accepted it and they settled on a sum of 15 quid, which I do not think is bad going.
What worries my constituent and me is the repeated bullying tactics: the threats of legal action, which are then not followed up for many months—in this case 20 months—the alarming threat of county court judgments, which we know have a devastating impact on people’s credit rating, and the threatening assertion that there will be lots more letters like that one.
I am conscious of the most excellent piece of legislation introduced by my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Sir Greg Knight), which came into force in March 2019 and paved the way for a single code of practice for private parking, giving drivers greater protection through a new appeals service. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer, when he was at the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government and occupying a similar portfolio to the Minister, championed the issue on behalf of the Government. This sort of code could have made my constituent’s life much less of a misery.
More recently, back in November 2019 my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government appointed the British Standards Institution to work with consumer groups and industry to write the first ever compulsory code of practice for private parking firms to
“restore common sense to the way parking fines are handed out…crack down on dodgy operators”
“introduce a new independent appeals service”.
I know that is correct, because I lifted it from the press release I found on gov.uk. The code was also to ensure that a mandatory 10-minute grace period, which already applies to local authority car parks, be extended to all private parking services.
I take my hon. Friend the Minister back to the precise period my constituent parked for: six minutes, which is four minutes less than the minimum grace period suggested. I am prepared to concede that my constituent’s supposed six-minute transgression happened before the excellent private Member’s Bill and before the Secretary of State appointed the British Standards Institution to write the new compulsory code, so maybe it is not reasonable to expect a member of the British Parking Association to apply 2019 standards to a 2018 offence—notwithstanding the fact that it was Premier Park itself that dragged the whole matter out for 20 long months—except that the British Parking Association voluntary code of practice already referenced a 10-minute grace period.
Returning to the crux of the matter, the previous Minister with this responsibility, my hon. Friend the Member for Thornbury and Yate (Luke Hall), in response to a written question indicated that the British Standards Institution was contracted in December 2019 to develop the new code. It was tasked with convening a group of key stakeholders to write it, and there was to be a full public consultation within six months. The final code would be developed this year.
I do not wish to hassle the Minister and try to hurry the process along, and I absolutely acknowledge that covid has got in the way of many things, but this year is ticking by very quickly. My constituent and, indeed, those of other hon. and right hon. Members who have returned to this Chamber time and again to discuss private parking services need the code. I argue that the parking industry also needs it, and it is more than a year since the excellent private Member’s Bill of my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire.
Will the Minister this evening in this much delayed debate therefore please give us an update on progress and an absolute commitment that, exactly as was said in February, the code will be developed this year and introduced? Will he reassure me and my constituent that the 10-minute grace period or transaction period, which allows a driver to enter a car park, establish the charges and then decide whether he wishes to pay them or whether they are far too high for his taste and he wishes to leave and go elsewhere, will be included? That could have saved my constituent 20 months of harassment and pain.
That grace period should be a crucial part of enabling drivers to make informed choices in future. That is what this is all about: allowing drivers to make informed choices and giving them a bit of leeway so that they can decide whether that is actually where they wish to park. I learned from my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire that there might be many good reasons why parking charges are not advertised outside a car park, such as it being in a conservation area where there might be restrictions on signage. We should give drivers the opportunity to go into a car park, have a look and then potentially leave.
I conclude by asking the Minister to make that assurance, to give us an update on when this code is coming and when the public consultation will happen or whether it has already happened and to give us a sense of progress and a sense that this matter is in hand and will be dealt with.
I welcome what the Minister has outlined for the right hon. Lady. I think it is exactly what we want to hear in this House, but when it comes to monitoring and checking, will the changes in the pipeline be enforced by locals councils, the police or another independent body?
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way. He was very specific then about a 10-minute grace period after a ticket had expired. Will it also include a 10-minute grace period in the circumstance that he himself identified where somebody perhaps drives into a car park and finds that there are no spaces, or that it is too expensive?
(1 year, 4 months ago)Commons Chamber
I am grateful for the intervention, if only because it enabled me to have a drink, but it was a useful one, because the hon. Gentleman will argue that we were suggesting to the Government that some of these loans should be conditional on participation in the scheme and the guarantee not just of the 80%, but of the 20% that employers would pay to top up the salaries as well.
That 500,000 people are applying for universal credit is a sign of the scale of job losses that we are facing now, so there is a real need to close the gaps and bring forward the scheme with some urgency. As many have said, there are 5 million self-employed out there. Let us be clear: the self-employed pay the same rates of tax, so they deserve the same protections and they are losing out.
As we have heard, the scheme will be announced tomorrow at a press conference, so let us say clearly that the self-employed must be treated fairly and they must be treated as any other workers, as in the job retention scheme. Let them be able to claim 80% of the income lost—yes, self-declared—and if there are any concerns about overpayments, exactly as has been said, they can be clawed back in their next tax return. This is not as complex as some have said. If people claim fraudulently while still working, they will rightly be prosecuted. It is as simple as that.
But right now, as we have heard from my right hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr Jones), my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry South (Zarah Sultana) and others, millions of cabbies, childminders, plumbers, electricians, painters, decorators and actors have all lost work or have had to close down their businesses, as have builders designated as self-employed under the construction industry scheme, and they have no income. They need a solution now.
We will see what the scheme is tomorrow, but the delay has just been unacceptable. For all those saying it is complicated, yes, it can be complicated, but other countries are managing it. One example that was given earlier was Ireland, where the national support scheme will be up and running on Friday and covers both PAYE and self-employed workers at 70% of their net wage. Many other countries have had more comprehensive and more generous schemes.
I turn to the issue of statutory sick pay, mentioned by my hon. Friends the Members for Brighton, Kemptown and for Brent Central (Dawn Butler). As has been said time and again in this House, when the Health Secretary and his predecessor were asked whether they could they live on £94 a week, they were honest and said no. It is blindingly obvious that the rate has to be increased. At the moment, it is less than half the level of many other European countries. Our view is that it should be at the level of the real living wage, but we need an increase, and we need it rapidly, because people are having to choose between health and hardship.
I give the House another real example that was sent to me by an hon. Member whose constituent has been told that their terms and conditions are being changed, so instead of getting sick pay of three weeks on full pay, they will get merely SSP. While the Minister is at it, let us stop insulting the unemployed and disabled people by telling them that they have to live on £73 a week, or, if they are under 25, £57 a week.
Thousands of workers have been laid off in recent weeks through no fault of their own, and many are struggling to make a claim for universal credit online, as several hon. Members have pointed out. We want to know urgently from the Government what they are doing to expand capacity in those departments. I urge the Government to heed the call of the Resolution Foundation today to raise jobseeker’s allowance and employment and support allowance, exactly as we are saying. We also suggest that there is an urgent need to increase the carer’s allowance.
Other hon. Members, such as my hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Ruth Cadbury) earlier this week, have proposed at least a temporary £10 increase in child benefit to help to lift children out of poverty. As my right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham said, the Government have to get to grips with reducing the five-week wait for universal credit and follow the calls of groups such as the Child Poverty Action Group to turn that advance loan into a grant. We should not be pushing the poorest people in our society into further debt.
I spoke to the Public and Commercial Services Union, which represents staff in the Department for Work and Pensions. As a point of fact, during the last spike in demand after the global financial crash—a number of us were here—the DWP had 130,000 staff. Today it has just 78,000 staff. We are told that an extra 10,000 may be coming, but as the hon. Member for Glasgow South West said, the contractors and the staff who are directly appointed need to be cared for, so we are asking for the enforcement of social distancing and proper protections.
Many of the Government’s workers have not received personal protective equipment and clothing, with nurses and doctors relying on makeshift masks and plastic bags. Again, I pay tribute to the bravery and dedication of the NHS and social care workers who have ploughed on regardless, but they deserve better too.
Individual cases are being brought to us that it would be useful for the Minister to be clear about. For example, on medical advice, should pregnant workers be self-isolating if they cannot work from home? The advice that has been given appears contradictory to many workers and employers. I have been forwarded a case where a pregnant worker was told to take three months’ unpaid leave if she would not continue to do face-to-face working. That is the sort of treatment of some people out there at the moment.
We welcome the moves to protect mortgage holders and ensure that payment holidays are in place, but as many hon. Members, such as my hon. Friends the Members for Brighton, Kemptown and for Croydon Central (Sarah Jones), have said, we need the same security for renters. The difference needs to be understood: a rent holiday is not the same as a mortgage holiday. Rent is paid continuously while in tenancy, while mortgages are fixed-term, meaning that repayment terms can simply be extended. It is therefore important that the Government act to ensure that people’s rent payments are covered for this period, not merely suspended.
As others have said, we are extremely disappointed by the legislation published yesterday—frankly, the Prime Minister has broken his promise to the country’s 20 million renters. It was not an eviction ban, as promised: the legislation will not stop people losing their homes as a result of the virus. As my right hon. Friend the shadow Housing Minister said, it just gives people some extra time to pack their bags. The Housing Secretary said this morning that the Government could extend the three-month delay on evictions. He said it was extremely unlikely that any repossession proceedings would continue. That is just not clear or strong enough. The Government must look again at this.
There are wider problems. Over recent years, austerity cuts have lessened the value of support available via housing benefit. The Government must immediately suspend the benefit cap—and yes, the bedroom tax must go. We welcome the moves announced last week on local housing allowance, but the Government must go further and restore the allowance from the 30th percentile to the 50th percentile of market rates, as it was before 2010, under the last Labour Government. People will have made rental decisions based on their incomes, and they should not be penalised by the unforeseeable impact of the virus. Now is not the time for families to be downsizing or sofa-surfing with parents, grandparents or friends in the cramped and overcrowded conditions that my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) described so clearly.
We cannot have a situation in which, at the end of this, tenants have either depleted all their savings or— worse—amassed large and unpayable debts. The suspension of evictions for private and social tenants must be extended from three to six months. Shelter has told us that as many as 20,000 eviction proceedings are already in progress and will go ahead over the next three months unless the Government take action to stop them. They must be stopped, and I urge the Minister to be absolutely clear when he stands up: no evictions of any kind.
Others are also being hit by the impact of the virus. We need to ensure that undergraduates are not charged rent for student accommodation that they are no longer using as their institutions close. We need to know what scheme is in place for students to claw back rent or escape tenancy agreements rendered defunct by the crisis. Likewise, we are urging the Government now to suspend the interest on tuition fee debt.
The issue of utility bills has been discussed on both sides of the House. My hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden gave the stark example of what has happened with key meters and the behaviour of British Gas at the moment. Unless we do something to intervene on utility bills, especially when families are at home and their energy bills are increasing, families could shortly be threatened with disconnections. We cannot have bailiffs coming round to houses about water, energy or even internet bills.
What about the internet? My hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central emphasised the critical importance of internet capacity and access at this point in time. We need to know what the Government are doing about internet access. Many people in our community used to rely on libraries to access the internet, but now libraries are closing. The Government must bring forward new measures to ensure that people can get online—whether for benefit services or to maintain some proper form of social contact.
The hon. Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess), my hon. Friends the Members for Mitcham and Morden and for Brent Central, and my right hon. Friend the Member for North Durham all raised the problems of charities, at a time when many people are falling back on charities. We have been told, by Members here and by reports coming in from across the country, that charities, voluntary organisations and social enterprises are running out of money; the predicted losses will be about £4 billion in the next 12 weeks. What is being done to support those groups? The Government also need to clarify whether some of them could participate in the job retention scheme.
Finally, I echo what others have said; my hon. Friends the Members for Brent Central and for Coventry South put it eloquently. Lessons must be learned from this crisis. We must ensure that in future we build into all our public services the resilience they need to deal with any future crisis. We must eradicate from the economy the low pay and insecure work that prevent people from having the personal economic resilience to cope when hardship threatens. Above all, as others have said, we need to learn the lesson that austerity is no solution, and never will be. As has been said, let us start planning now for the economy and society that we want to shape after we have won the war against this virus.
Madam Deputy Speaker, you mentioned that this is my last speech in the Chamber as shadow Chancellor. I am grateful for the many kind words said about me and the Leader of the Opposition. In fact, I do not recognise myself from them, but thank you very much. It is almost as though I have been tamed.
Some Members present will recall that when I address party meetings, I usually end with a single word. It is a word upon which the Labour and trade union movement was founded. It is based on a secret we discovered; one that working people learned in the fields and workshops of the early industrial revolution. It taught us, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) said, that unity is strength and an injury to one is an injury to all. That word is solidarity. It is solidarity that will see us through this crisis, protect our community, and on which we should build our society in the future. Madam Deputy Speaker, I end with solidarity.
Let me ask the Minister for, I think, the fifth time today, what action are the Government considering to protect workers and employees who have one of those letters but whose employer is forcing them into work? What are they going to do for people put in that dreadful situation?
I accept what the Minister is saying, but during my contribution I referred to the email that I received from Scott Hawthorne, who runs a recycling business. He wants to do the right thing by his workers but he is still waiting and does not quite understand how to implement the scheme. I urge the Minister to get the information out to businesses as a matter of urgency, because those that want to do the right thing need to be able to implement it.
My ex has been sent a letter from his employer saying, “We want to put you on the 80% but we don’t yet know how this works. We do not know the details.” I suggest that it is perhaps not just one employer that needs to be written to; all employers in this country need to be given greater guidance. That letter came from a top law firm that his employer had got in to try to work out the system, and that firm could not work it out either. I do not think it is about an individual case. Will the Minister please put on the public record the details of how employers will use the scheme?
Will the Minister advise Members as to whether local authorities will be given full information about the number of universal credit claimants? As he rightly points out, many of us, along with local authorities—including mine in Slough—are expecting a huge hike in that number.
I thank the Minister for finishing his sentence so that I heard that last bit, as it was helpful. He said just a few minutes ago that letting agents and estate agents are now on the essential list of things that have to close. I did not think that they were; I thought that was the advice. Either way, people are being evicted right now and will not be included in that definition the Minister used. How on earth are they going to find anywhere else to go if there is nowhere open to help them? We need clear guidance from the Government that nobody should be evicted, for any reason, at this time.
I am very grateful to my right hon. Friend the shadow Chancellor for raising the point I raised with Treasury Ministers yesterday about child benefit. Surely raising child benefit by at least £10 a week, as recommended by the Child Poverty Action Group, during this time—children are at home and the price of food is going up, as they will not now get free school meals or meals at school—would be quick and easy to do, unlike other schemes which are taking longer to set up?
The Minister said that only children of parents who are engaged in essential services should be going to school. Earlier in his remarks he talked about “essential” construction. Can he confirm that the children of construction workers working on an essential site will also be included?
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I am most grateful to you for granting this point of order. Robert Peston, the ITV journalist, is tweeting that Boris Johnson has confirmed that the Government will be making an announcement tomorrow on help for the self-employed. Mr Speaker, you will recall the ticking off that you gave to the Chancellor for making statements that should have been brought to this House. First, I just wondered, given the time, why the Government are not coming here this evening, if they are ready to make an announcement on help for the self-employed, especially given the fact that so many right hon. and hon. Members right across this House have been asking for that day after day. Secondly, if it is the case that, for whatever the reason, the Government cannot come to the House this evening, why are we not sitting tomorrow? Why did the Government seek to move the motion that the House would be going into recess tonight? It is simply unacceptable that while so many of our constituents are in financial peril, their elected representatives will not be able to hold the Government to account. Further, I wonder, given the circumstances and because oversight is now so critical, why we are not due to be here for more than three weeks. What can we do to make sure that the Opposition parties can scrutinise the Government? I ask through you, Mr Speaker, that at the very least Opposition party leaders are offered the opportunity of ongoing conference calls with the Government as these announcements are made. The way the Government are behaving is simply not acceptable.
(1 year, 5 months ago)Commons Chamber
Today, the Manchester Evening News reports on the findings of the Marmot review, which are truly shocking. It says that life expectancy has fallen for women and stalled for men, the likes of which we have not witnessed for 120 years in England. The richest men now live nine and a half years longer than the poorest and the equivalent figure for women is 7.7 years. The north needs not just a rebalancing of capital, but an investment in human capital. How can any levelling up address the austerity-led crisis so that the poorest do not see a decade stolen from their lives?
I thank my hon. Friend for his answer, but I recently asked Cabinet Office Ministers not to overlook coastal communities in the south as we seek to level up between the north and the south. Levelling up is a laudable aim, but we should not overlook places such as Clacton, which, as is well known, has pockets of extreme deprivation. We need real and lasting support there. Can my hon. Friend assure me that the Government’s support for local growth in my area will be the norm rather than a passing fad?
What steps is the Department taking to ensure that local councils prioritise brownfield development over green-belt development and make use of sites such as Fiddler’s Ferry, a coal-fired power station in my constituency that is about to close?
T3. Would the Minister care to offer guidance on whether town fund boards should be populated by the usual suspects who have appeared on local enterprise partnership boards in the past decade, or does he feel that we should seek a fusion of new ideas and new faces? 
T2. Some 850,000 people are currently living with dementia, and that includes 2,000 people in my Oldham East and Saddleworth constituency. The typical care costs for somebody living with dementia are £100,000. In its Fix Dementia Care campaign the Alzheimer’s Society has called for an additional £8 billion to be spent on social care, including £2.65 billion specifically for dementia. What discussions has the Secretary of State had with the new Chancellor to ensure that that happens? 
T7. Four communities in County Durham benefited from the high streets fund, but Labour-run Durham County Council supported none of the communities in my constituency of North West Durham. Will my hon. Friend investigate the possibility of reopening the fund so that Consett and the three-town area of Tow Law, Crook and Willington can access that vital source of funding? 
Earlier in this questions session, the Secretary of State announced a new homes ombudsman, which will be welcome if it has the right powers. Will he also consider requiring an escrow account for each new build property, so that a proportion of the house price can be withheld until the snagging is completed and remedial work is carried out?