Simon Clarke debates involving the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government during the 2019 Parliament

Thu 4th February 2021
3 interactions (541 words)

Planning Decisions: Local Involvement

Simon Clarke Excerpts
Monday 21st June 2021

(1 month, 2 weeks ago)

Commons Chamber

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Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government
Nigel Evans Portrait Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Nigel Evans)
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The wind-ups will begin promptly at 7.10, and apologies to the probably 17 Members who will fail to be called.

Simon Clarke Portrait Mr Simon Clarke (Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland) (Con) [V]
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It is a pleasure to be called to speak today, because Britain needs more good homes. That is an undeniable fact. We witness it in the ever-increasing house prices right across our country. We witness it in the ever more cramped accommodation that too many families are forced to settle for. We witness it in the ever more expensive and dysfunctional rental market trap, which makes it so hard for so many people of my age to buy their first home.

The Government have sensible proposals on the table to allow communities to designate those areas that are appropriate for development and those that should be protected; to make building beautiful homes a top priority; to empower communities to set out the right design codes to ensure that new homes are in keeping with their surroundings; and to create an infrastructure levy to fund the new roads, schools and GP surgeries that these new developments need in order not to impose a detrimental effect on the existing community.

Like any constituency MP, I know just how hard it is to discuss matters relating to planning, but we are sent to this House to do the right thing for the country, and I am clear that this must mean cutting the ropes that are preventing us from building the homes that our people need. For too long, we have attempted to address what is fundamentally a supply-side problem with demand-side solutions. Frankly, that is the easier politics of the situation, though we owe it to the country to be honest that the fundamental issue is one of land supply. Even if someone is fortunate enough to own their own home, especially in the parts of the capital or the south where prices are so high, it is their children and grandchildren who are the victims of the impasse that our efficient planning system has created.

We meet today in the shadow of the Chesham and Amersham by-election. I wish the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Sarah Green) every success in her new role representing that constituency and welcome her to this House, but this was an election won in the very worst spirit of pandering to nimbyism, denying the growing social injustice that we are witnessing and privileging the interests of the haves over the have-nots in our society. This may be all right for the Liberal Democrats, whose long tradition of saying one thing locally and one thing nationally has reasserted itself; it may be all right for a desperate Labour party whose speeches collectively today have been nothing more than a terrible mixture of, frankly, hypocrisy and innuendo directed at those on the Government Benches; but it is not a choice open to my party.

To govern is to be sent here to make the tough choices on behalf of the nation, and we have to face the reality that there is nothing inevitable about the broken housing market that we have at the moment. It is broken because we have lacked the political courage to fix it. That needs to change. The Government have come forward with moderate and pragmatic proposals to unlock more land for housing while protecting the legitimate interests of existing communities and looking after their areas. It is high time for us to take this forward and build the homes that Britain needs.

Darren Jones Portrait Darren Jones (Bristol North West) (Lab)
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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.

Towns Fund

Simon Clarke Excerpts
Matt Western Portrait Matt Western (Warwick and Leamington) (Lab)
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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.

Simon Clarke Portrait Mr Simon Clarke (Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland) (Con) [V]
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I should declare an interest as a member of the Middlesbrough town deal board, of which I am very proud to be a part.

The towns fund is a great Conservative policy, targeting investment at proud communities that have not shared equally in our country’s success. It is a core part of levelling up—improving facilities, enhancing economic opportunity, unlocking private sector investment and boosting pride in place. We all want to have towns to be proud of. In the Tees Valley, that is no different for Middlesbrough, Thornaby, Hartlepool, Darlington or Redcar, all of which were invited to bid into the programme.

In my area, so much is going on locally to be positive about, from our free port bid—to be submitted shortly—to Teesside airport being saved and the regeneration of the Teesworks sites at Redcar by our Mayor, Ben Houchen. Indeed, only last week we had the wonderful news about the new Teesside vaccine against coronavirus. The only thing locally that is not positive is the Labour party. Earlier in the debate, we heard the hon. Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) complaining about Stockton being disadvantaged, but Stockton received £16.5 million from the future high streets fund and Thornaby, as we heard, has its own town deal bid under way. So it is just nonsense to try to pretend that his borough is being disadvantaged.

Frankly, I want to be more positive. I pay tribute to all the council officers and business leaders giving their time and expertise to their local bids. In particular, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Redcar (Jacob Young), who has been at the heart of the bid by his town; he cannot speak in this debate because of his role as a Parliamentary Private Secretary.

There is a lot for us to be excited about. We have £3.6 billion being invested—in a process approved by the independent civil service—to provide a major boost for left-behind communities like my home town. Helping the left behind used to be what the Labour party was all about; as it is, it is the Conservatives who are getting on with that job, and I am very proud of that. I am very grateful for the £20 million of future high streets funding announced in December for Middlesbrough and Loftus. I urge Ministers to show all possible speed in determining the outcome of Middlesbrough’s town deal bid, so that we can make our town a better place to live and work.

Looking ahead, I would be grateful if the Minister in his remarks will advise on where we stand on potential future competitive rounds of bidding for the towns fund and the future high streets fund, because that will make a massive difference to a number of communities. I think of places in my constituency such as Guisborough or Brotton, both of which have exciting proposals, which could be unlocked with the support of that fund. That is the kind of initiative we need to see more of. It is time we had less negativity from the Opposition Benches about us putting levelling up into practice, so that we can all move forward as one country, overcome the challenges of covid and build a better Britain for all of us.

Justin Madders Portrait Justin Madders (Ellesmere Port and Neston) (Lab) [V]
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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.

Council Tax: Government’s Proposed Increase

Simon Clarke Excerpts
Monday 25th January 2021

(6 months, 1 week ago)

Commons Chamber

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Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government
Peter Dowd Portrait Peter Dowd (Bootle) (Lab) [V]
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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”?

Simon Clarke Portrait Mr Simon Clarke (Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland) (Con) [V]
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It was my great privilege to serve as the Local Government Minister for the first six months of our response to covid-19, and am I am grateful to have this opportunity to commend the whole sector for its response. I witnessed three things in my time at the Department that are particularly relevant to today’s debate. First, I witnessed the absolute sincerity of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, and all in the Department, in respect of the Government’s commitment to provide all the support that the sector needs throughout the pandemic.

As we heard my right hon. Friend say in his speech, the gap between what many leaders say and what the sector then self-reports to the Department is often profound. Throughout the spring, we faced real concerns about the number of councils that might need to issue section 114 notices to declare themselves effectively bankrupt; as we have seen, that has not transpired. It has not transpired for a reason: namely, the effective and highly tailored support schemes that have been put in place alongside direct grant support. We should not underestimate the complexity of the local government landscape and the need to respond to the different challenges that face different types of council in different parts of the country. That response has been accomplished, and councils have worked admirably and been able to get on with delivering their important work.

Secondly, I saw the exceptional knowledge and dedication of the local government finance team in the Department. The team’s staff live and breathe the work and the recommendations of Ministers reflect the hard work that they put in in direct conversation with council finance officers. We have struck a fair balance, apportioning the costs of our response to covid-19 between central and local government. Most reasonable people would accept that that is the only realistic route through the current situation.

Thirdly, we need to recognise that local authorities clearly have important responsibilities, too. Some authorities have been hit hard over the past year by factors that are legitimately outside their control. Some, such as Bath and North East Somerset Council, have been affected by factors relating to covid; others have been affected by issues such as cyber-attacks—I know that Ministers are working hard to resolve the situation at my local authority, Redcar and Cleveland, at pace. Such authorities must, and will, be supported.

However, other authorities have made seriously poor decisions for which they simply cannot attempt to blame central Government. The Secretary of State has already referred to the situation in Croydon and the reverse Robin Hood scenario that has played out in Nottingham. The sheer brass neck of the shadow Secretary of State in tabling today’s motion is genuinely astonishing, given that it is overwhelmingly Labour councils that have failed. I could go on: Bristol, Southampton and Brent, and the situation presided over by the Mayor of London, that master of evasion, which deserves to be punished by the electorate in May. It is of course the Labour group on the Local Government Association that is so keen to abolish the referendum lock, which is the only thing that in practice stands between ratepayers and exorbitant tax rises, so for the Opposition to initiate today’s debate is, I am afraid, pretty rich.

The Government have put in place an unprecedented package of support. What councils do beyond that is, rightly, a matter for them. This Government and Conservative-led councils will focus on getting the basics right: prudent financial management, driving down costs and waste, delivering high collection rates and supporting the truly vulnerable. I would note in this regard the extra £670 million next year that the Government have allocated to address the council tax hardship, which follows the £500 million for the same purpose this year. We have local democracy in place for a good reason. Councils control important aspects of our lives and should be accountable for that. Central and local government together have to meet the costs of responding to the pandemic, and for that reason, the quality of local decision making matters enormously.

Mike Kane Portrait Mike Kane (Wythenshawe and Sale East) (Lab) [V]
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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.

Levelling-up Agenda: Tees Valley

Simon Clarke Excerpts
Wednesday 25th November 2020

(8 months, 1 week ago)

Westminster Hall

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Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government
Alex Cunningham Portrait Alex Cunningham
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That is great news, but that is jam tomorrow. We definitely need jam today.

Simon Clarke Portrait Mr Simon Clarke (Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland) (Con)
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Does the hon. Gentleman realise that public procurement rules can change only after Brexit? This is a very good example of why the decision that he described moments ago as toxic, and which his own constituents overwhelmingly supported, was of course the right one.

Alex Cunningham Portrait Alex Cunningham
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Again, we get jam tomorrow. It is all about jam tomorrow—something that is going to happen in three or five years’ time.

--- Later in debate ---
Alex Cunningham Portrait Alex Cunningham
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25 Nov 2020, 12:01 a.m.

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.

Simon Clarke Portrait Mr Simon Clarke
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Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Alex Cunningham Portrait Alex Cunningham
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25 Nov 2020, 12:02 a.m.

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.

Simon Clarke Portrait Mr Clarke
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Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Alex Cunningham Portrait Alex Cunningham
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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?”.

Simon Clarke Portrait Mr Clarke
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Clearly, the Labour party opposed the rescue of Teesside international airport; it is probably the only example I can recall of the Labour party opposing taking something into public ownership. Is the hon. Gentleman still saying today that it was the wrong decision? I think people across Teesside would be amazed by that.

Alex Cunningham Portrait Alex Cunningham
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

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.

--- Later in debate ---
Alex Cunningham Portrait Alex Cunningham
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

25 Nov 2020, midnight

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.

Simon Clarke Portrait Mr Simon Clarke
- Hansard - -

25 Nov 2020, 12:01 a.m.

That is exactly what is happening today.

Alex Cunningham Portrait Alex Cunningham
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

25 Nov 2020, 12:02 a.m.

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.

Judith Cummins Portrait Judith Cummins (in the Chair)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

25 Nov 2020, 12:04 a.m.

I ask Back Benchers to keep within five minutes to start with. I am planning to call Front Benchers at around 5.15 pm. Simon Clarke.

Simon Clarke Portrait Mr Simon Clarke (Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland) (Con)
- Hansard - -

25 Nov 2020, 12:04 a.m.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Cummins. I congratulate the hon. Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) on securing today’s debate. I just wish he could have been more generous in his speech. It was, I am afraid, a quintessential example of talking down Teesside, the phrase he rightly used. Indeed, it contained a series of remarks that are deeply disparaging of what is going on in our area, and some half-baked innuendo around impropriety by the Mayor that he would be ill-advised to repeat outside the House.

What is happening in the Tees Valley will, of course, transform the life chances of his constituents and mine. Under successive Governments, our area has never been supported properly to adapt to a changing world, so our traditional strength in heavy industry became a new-found weakness. That is changing under the Conservatives. The solutions the Labour Government offered were the wrong ones; there was an unsustainable reliance on public sector jobs, a culture of welfare dependency, and a lack of thought about how to instigate proper, sustainable, private sector growth.

What is required for the Tees Valley? Opportunity, investment, and leadership—and that is what we now have. The hon. Gentleman denigrated the fact that there is a 10-year plan; I am glad there is a plan. It is a plan that has been agreed in partnership between Government, local government, our councils and industry. That is an example of precisely the kind of successful devolution that we need to see more of in this country.

Andy McDonald Portrait Andy McDonald
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

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?

Simon Clarke Portrait Mr Clarke
- Hansard - -

25 Nov 2020, 4:50 p.m.

I will take that point head-on. Of course we appreciate our public sector workers—

Andy McDonald Portrait Andy McDonald
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

25 Nov 2020, 4:50 p.m.

Well, you won’t pay them.

Simon Clarke Portrait Mr Clarke
- Hansard - -

25 Nov 2020, 4:50 p.m.

We do, actually, and we have defended the lowest paid in today’s statement, but it is very important to note that in the end we need to have sustainable private sector-led growth in the Tees Valley and that was not what was delivered under the last Labour Government. What we need to see is growth, and how will that growth be delivered? There are five key aspects to that.

The first is the regeneration of the former SSI steelworks site at Redcar, supported by £233 million from the Government. It is the largest redevelopment project in the United Kingdom. What will go there? In February, I had the pleasure of speaking at the launch of Net Zero Teesside at the Riverside stadium. As we heard last week, carbon capture, usage and storage will be at the heart of the Government’s green industrial revolution. It is backed by £1 billion of Government investment, and the Tees and the Humber CCS clusters—

Alex Cunningham Portrait Alex Cunningham
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

25 Nov 2020, 4:51 p.m.

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Simon Clarke Portrait Mr Clarke
- Hansard - -

25 Nov 2020, 4:51 p.m.

I will not, because of lack of time.

This is an important part of that piece. CCS will sit alongside other clean energy projects, including the national hydrogen transport hub and the offshore wind industry. The hon. Gentleman said that there is no good coming to the area from it. An application is being made for the new £90 million quay at South Bank, which will create hundreds of jobs. It is all set to be built next year.

The second feature of our vision for Teesside is, of course, a freeport. Despite Labour doing everything it could to stop Brexit—which is the reason why Teesside is now represented by more Government than Labour MPs—we will leave the transition period and regain full national independence on 1 January. Freeports are one of the best examples of how we can drive growth and jobs. [Interruption.] Some of my colleagues are having to self-isolate, but if Members look at the electoral geography of Teesside, they may notice that it has changed.

The third aspect of our plan is, of course, an infrastructure revolution. It cannot be overstated how important it is that the Mayor saved our airport in the teeth of the hon. Gentleman’s opposition and that of his colleagues. We have had the announcement today of the new flights to Alicante and Majorca—something that both his constituents and mine will enjoy next summer. That is on top of the new service to London Heathrow, the UK’s global transport hub, and the multimillion-pound regeneration of Middlesbrough station and Darlington station.

Of course, the fourth strand of levelling up comes in the form of skills. The Government have already committed £450 million to the Tees Valley Combined Authority’s plans to give young people access to skills training, introduce high-quality broadband and overcome barriers to work. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s kickstart scheme, part of the emergency response to coronavirus, has already surpassed 500 jobs for local 16 to 24-year-olds, with applications still open.

The fifth and final element of levelling up is, of course, direct investment through the £3.6 billion towns fund. Middlesbrough, Redcar, Thornaby and Hartlepool are all awaiting the outcome of their bids. Darlington has already had £22.7 million from the fund. And that comes on top of bids to the future high streets fund, which I hope will benefit both Middlesbrough and Loftus.

We all know that levelling up is the task of at least a decade. None of this will be achieved easily. None of it comes simply. But it is happening precisely because we have confidence in Teesside, in the people of Teesside and in the future of Teesside. Rather than talking it down, we talk it up, and that is being rewarded for the people of the area, who see hope, growth, jobs and optimism. They see that from the Government side of the House, from the Conservatives, and long may it continue.

Andy McDonald Portrait Andy McDonald (Middlesbrough) (Lab)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

25 Nov 2020, 4:53 p.m.

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.

Non-Domestic Rating (Public Lavatories) Bill

(3rd reading: House of Commons)
Simon Clarke Excerpts
Richard Holden Portrait Mr Richard Holden (North West Durham) (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

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.

Simon Clarke Portrait The Minister of State, Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (Mr Simon Clarke)
- Hansard - -

3 Sep 2020, midnight

Today’s debate has raised some interesting and valid points that help us to understand how the provisions of the Bill will operate. But before I get to the detail of the amendments, let me first remind the Committee of the purpose of the Bill.

As has been discussed, the importance of public lavatories to our communities and economy is recognised by local and central Government alike. In particular, we recognise, especially at this time, the need for access to high-quality facilities to maintain high standards of public hygiene. More broadly, good toilet provision helps the high street and supports the independence of people who rely on those facilities. This small but important measure supports the Government’s strategy to open up our economy and society as we recover from coronavirus and delivers on the Budget 2020 commitment to provide a mandatory business rates relief for public lavatories.

As Members would expect, the Bill has been welcomed by councils that operate public lavatories, as well as by the public who use them. It will ensure that eligible public lavatories, both privately and publicly run, will receive a 100% reduction in their business rates. Crucially, in cutting the costs of public lavatories, particularly in cases in which rates bills make up a significant proportion of their running costs, the Bill will help to keep these vital facilities open.

--- Later in debate ---
Kate Hollern Portrait Kate Hollern
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clauses 1 to 4 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

The Deputy Speaker resumed the Chair.

Bill reported, without amendment.

Third Reading

Simon Clarke Portrait Mr Simon Clarke
- Hansard - -

3 Sep 2020, midnight

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

This Government know how important good lavatory provision is for all of us at work, in our leisure time or as we shop, and this Bill delivers on the commitment made by the Government at Budget to establish a 100% mandatory business rate relief for eligible public lavatories.

I would like to take this opportunity to thank Members on both sides of the House for their positive contributions, in particular my hon. Friends the Members for North Norfolk (Duncan Baker) and for North West Durham. This Bill has genuine cross-party support, and I am grateful to the hon. Member for Blackburn for her constructive comments. I am also grateful to those who, on Second Reading, fully supported this measure, particularly my hon. Friends the Members for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double) and for North Cornwall (Scott Mann), who have both worked tirelessly in support of getting this measure on to the statute book. This represents mission accomplished. Furthermore, I would like to reiterate the welcome support offered to the Bill’s passage from the National Association of Local Councils and the British Toilet Association, as well as local authorities, including town and parish councils up and down our country, who have worked so hard to open their facilities to the public and to support their local communities.

During the passage of the Bill, a number of questions and points have been raised that it may be helpful for me to address briefly. I can confirm that local authorities will be fully compensated by central Government for awarding the relief, including those lavatories run by parish and town councils. Subject to enactment of the Bill, the relief will apply with effect from 1 April this year, meaning that eligible properties will receive a backdated discount, ensuring that they will pay nothing in the current financial year and onwards. In line with other reliefs, local authorities will be responsible for determining eligibility within the scope of the legislation and will award support to those lavatories that they consider to qualify for support.

It is also worth noting that in late July, the Government published our response to the Changing Places consultation and announced changes to building regulation guidance to mandate the provision of Changing Places toilets for the most severely disabled in many new public buildings. That is the right thing to have done and it is something that we can all be proud of across the House.

This Bill is a positive measure, which has been widely welcomed by those who run public lavatories, and provides support to help keep these facilities open. I commend it to the House.

Kate Hollern Portrait Kate Hollern
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

3 Sep 2020, 12:02 a.m.

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.

Oral Answers to Questions

Simon Clarke Excerpts
Stephen Flynn Portrait Stephen Flynn (Aberdeen South) (SNP)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

What recent discussions he has had with the Scottish Government on the shared prosperity fund. [904967]

Simon Clarke Portrait The Minister of State, Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (Mr Simon Clarke)
- Hansard - -

This Government believe in respecting the results of democratic referendums. Leaving the European Union has provided us with an opportunity to align the objective of the EU structural funds with domestic priorities, while continuing to support vital jobs and growth opportunities across the United Kingdom. The new UK shared prosperity fund will be our vehicle for delivering that. UK Government officials regularly speak to their counterparts in the devolved Administrations about this and other issues.

Neale Hanvey Portrait Neale Hanvey [V]
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

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?

Simon Clarke Portrait Mr Clarke
- Hansard - -

The 2019 Conservative party manifesto committed at a minimum to matching the size of EU structural funds in each nation. It is very important that we get these decisions right. This is, after all, an enormous sum of money—our money—sent formally to the EU and then top-sliced and sent back to us with conditions. I very much look forward to controlling it for ourselves.

Alyn Smith Portrait Alyn Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

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?

Simon Clarke Portrait Mr Clarke
- Hansard - -

It is obviously importantly that we provide that clarity—I wholly agree with the hon. Gentleman—and we are going to provide that clarity after the cross-government spending review in the autumn.

Stephen Flynn Portrait Stephen Flynn
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

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?

Simon Clarke Portrait Mr Clarke
- Hansard - -

Obviously, I do not accept the hon. Gentleman’s characterisation of the Government. We are working very hard to ensure that we deliver on the decision to leave the European Union. We will be in a position to give full details on the UK shared prosperity fund after the cross-government spending review, which will be so important to determining many aspects of our future relationship with Europe, as well as our commitments to our own spending priorities. We will continue working closely as one United Kingdom to understand the changing needs of local and regional economies, and I am happy to meet Ministers from the Scottish Government to find an acceptable way forward.

David Linden Portrait David Linden (Glasgow East) (SNP)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

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?

Simon Clarke Portrait Mr Clarke
- Hansard - -

My officials meet fortnightly with those of the Scottish Government, and it is obviously very important that we maintain that dialogue. As I indicated in my reply to the hon. Member for Aberdeen South (Stephen Flynn), we are clear that we are prepared to have talks at ministerial level with our Scottish counterparts. We want to provide that clarity, and we will be in a position to do so when we have had the spending review, which will detail our commitments in the round.

David Linden Portrait David Linden
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

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?

Simon Clarke Portrait Mr Clarke
- Hansard - -

The stronger towns fund is a vital part of our levelling-up work. I make no apologies whatsoever for saying that it is a really important tool to rectify long-standing economic imbalances in the country. The Barnett formula will be applied to investment for England in the normal way at the spending review. The funding is committed to the devolved nations, which means that the Governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland will receive a share of funding, with allocations to be confirmed in the next financial year.

Siobhain McDonagh Portrait Siobhain McDonagh (Mitcham and Morden) (Lab)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

What steps his Department is taking to ensure that recipient local authorities are informed when a family is moved by another local authority to temporary accommodation in their local authority area. [904950]

--- Later in debate ---
Steve Reed Portrait Steve Reed (Croydon North) (Lab/Co-op)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

20 Jul 2020, 2:55 p.m.

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?

Simon Clarke Portrait The Minister of State, Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (Mr Simon Clarke)
- Hansard - -

Our engagement with councils has enabled us to understand pressures at a national and local level across England. To date, we have announced £4.3 billion-worth of additional resource to councils, including £3.7 billion of unring-fenced funding. We have also announced the sales fees and charges co-payment scheme to compensate for irrecoverable income loss that is designed to flex according to the extent of the losses as they crystallise. We will also extend the period over which councils must manage shortfalls in local tax income relating to this financial year from one year to three years. All those measures are intended to prevent councils from having to make difficult in-year decisions. I reiterate the message that I have now sent out countless times to individual authorities: any authority facing an unmanageable situation should make contact with my officials.

Alex Cunningham Portrait Alex Cunningham (Stockton North) (Lab)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

What discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care on the role of local authorities in helping to prevent local outbreaks of covid-19. [904957]

Simon Clarke Portrait The Minister of State, Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (Mr Simon Clarke)
- Hansard - -

20 Jul 2020, 2:57 p.m.

My Department has been working closely with the Joint Biosecurity Centre and the Department of Health and Social Care to develop a framework for the local management of further outbreaks of coronavirus, and councils will play a crucial role in this process. All upper-tier local authorities have published their local outbreak control plans. I am in regular contact with my counterparts at DHSC. We gave new powers to councils to control local outbreaks of covid-19 that came into effect only this Saturday.

Alex Cunningham Portrait Alex Cunningham
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

20 Jul 2020, 2:57 p.m.

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?

Simon Clarke Portrait Mr Clarke
- Hansard - -

20 Jul 2020, 2:58 p.m.

I pay enormous tribute to the care workers on Teesside and of course to our local NHS, which we share as Teesside MPs. This has been a constantly evolving and very complex situation, as Governments around the world, including our own, have obviously learned as matters have progressed. We have acted consistently and in good faith throughout. We have worked very hard with the care sector to protect patients. The £600 million infection control fund that we have instigated is designed to ensure that the care sector is safe, with a strong measure of containment against the disease for patients going forward.

Clive Betts Portrait Mr Clive Betts (Sheffield South East) (Lab) [V]
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

20 Jul 2020, 2:58 p.m.

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?

Simon Clarke Portrait Mr Clarke
- Hansard - -

Since 24 June, all local authorities have been able to access postcode-level testing data through their director of public health, and that is securely shared by PHE on a weekly basis. I understand that that has been going on pretty much from the moment that it became available. PHE also shares information with local directors of public health as part of the routine investigation of outbreaks and incidents. That includes information on individual cases and their contacts, as required, to support the public health response.

Kate Hollern Portrait Kate Hollern (Blackburn) (Lab)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

20 Jul 2020, 12:01 a.m.

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?

Simon Clarke Portrait Mr Clarke
- Hansard - -

I thank the hon. Lady for her question. It is obviously very important we get control of the situation in Blackburn. Public Health England and NHS Test and Trace are actively working with Professor Harrison and his colleagues there to ensure a rapid solution is implemented to support their local work. Clearly, this is precisely why we have allocated £300 million to support the wider test and trace programme. We are also supporting Professor Harrison and his team with additional mobile testing capacity and a local visit in order to better understand how the needs of the community in Blackburn can be supported. I am obviously very happy to meet the hon. Lady and Councillor Khan to discuss how we take this forward, as I have with a number of other authorities in a similar situation.

Barry Sheerman Portrait Mr Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

To ask the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, what steps he is taking to ensure that new housing is of the highest standard of environmental sustainability. [904958]

--- Later in debate ---
Steve Double Portrait Steve Double (St Austell and Newquay) (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

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? [905010]

Simon Clarke Portrait The Minister of State, Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (Mr Simon Clarke)
- Hansard - -

20 Jul 2020, midnight

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. There is no question but that we owe an enormous debt to town and parish councils for everything they have done throughout the pandemic. We have encouraged principal authorities to discuss the funding provided with their town and parish councils where they are delivering covid-related services. The grant funding of £3.7 billion is un-ring-fenced, recognising that local authorities need to make appropriate decisions about how to meet major covid-19 service pressures in their local area. I certainly hope that Cornwall Council will give that proper consideration.

Wera Hobhouse Portrait Wera Hobhouse (Bath) (LD)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

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? [905011]

--- Later in debate ---
Karl McCartney Portrait Karl MᶜCartney (Lincoln) (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

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. [905012]

Simon Clarke Portrait Mr Clarke
- Hansard - -

20 Jul 2020, midnight

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. I had recent constructive discussions with both Lincolnshire MPs and all Greater Lincolnshire council leaders on this subject. It is now for them to develop proposals for local government reform and I am committed to working with them. Levelling up all areas of the country by devolving money, resources and control from Westminster is a priority for the Government. Our devolution and local recovery White Paper, to be published this autumn, will set out our detailed plans, including for restructuring local institutions and establishing more mayors.

Grahame Morris Portrait Grahame Morris (Easington) (Lab) [V]
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

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? [905014]

Non-Domestic Rating (Public Lavatories) Bill

(2nd reading)
Simon Clarke Excerpts
Simon Clarke Portrait The Minister of State, Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (Mr Simon Clarke)
- Parliament Live - Hansard - -

16 Jul 2020, 12:04 a.m.

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

The Government recognise the vital role that public lavatories play in our communities and the economy. Ensuring access to public toilets and handwashing facilities is critical in maintaining a high level of public hygiene as the lockdown continues to ease across the country. More generally, our ability to work or to enjoy leisure time often depends on the availability of appropriate toilet facilities. This is especially important for essential workers such as taxi or delivery drivers who do not work in fixed locations and who often rely on public facilities, and it will be important for all of us as more and more people begin making use of our public spaces again as lockdown eases.

Given how vital these facilities are, it is understandable that there has been significant public concern about the potential reduction in available lavatories. Members of this House have also raised valid concerns about the provision of toilet facilities in their own constituencies. At Budget 2018, the Government responded to calls from local councils and the public and committed to introduce a business rates relief for public lavatories. This Bill delivers on that commitment, providing support for those who provide public lavatories, both publicly and privately run, by reducing one of the most significant running costs for toilets and making it easier for them to be kept open.

Today also marks an opportunity to thank colleagues in this House who have campaigned long and hard for the Bill’s introduction, including my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall (Scott Mann), my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double), who is in his place, and my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham (Mr Holden), as well as a number of others. Furthermore, I thank the National Association of Local Councils for providing its support for this Bill. I am pleased to say that, in line with the announcement at Budget 2020 by the Chancellor, this Bill will, subject to Royal Assent, apply retrospectively from April 2020. That will mean that, for eligible properties, the relief will be backdated to the start of this financial year.

Andrew Griffith Portrait Andrew Griffith (Arundel and South Downs) (Con)
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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?

Simon Clarke Portrait Mr Clarke
- Parliament Live - Hansard - -

That is a well made point. It is precisely because so many people rely on these facilities that it is important that we do this. Although it is not necessarily the kind of legislation that people will talk about in 100 years’ time, it is of real, practical value.

Simon Clarke Portrait Mr Clarke
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16 Jul 2020, 12:01 a.m.

As the hon. Lady says, they should—because this legislation does something of lasting benefit. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Andrew Griffith), and I also commend the hard work of our emergency services throughout the current crisis.

I am aware that, as we emerge from lockdown restrictions, there has been concern about the reopening of public toilet facilities that may have been closed because of covid-19. Although decisions on reopening public lavatories are rightly for councils, the Government have been clear that we encourage them to open wherever possible. Indeed, I wrote to councils in June to say just this and to refer them to the Government’s advice on measures that can be taken to open toilets safely. I am grateful to councils for their efforts in reopening these facilities and hope that today’s Bill will come as welcome news.

I extend my general gratitude to the local authorities, town and parish councils up and down the country that work hard to provide public lavatories in their areas and to keep them open. I also pay tribute to the councils, associations and businesses that have launched innovative local initiatives to provide further lavatory access to the public—for example, the community toilet scheme devised by the London Borough of Richmond upon Thames that is now used by local authorities across the country. This enables local businesses to work together with councils to widen lavatory access so that the public can use their facilities without making a purchase. I recognise that that may be more challenging in current circumstances, but it is an innovative and helpful approach that I commend, and which will become important as more and more businesses reopen.

I highlight the excellent work of the British Toilet Association and its national campaign—imaginatively called “Use Our Loos”—which encourages businesses to join these community schemes and open their toilets to the public. Participating lavatories are shown on a map called the Great British public toilet map, so that visitors to an area always know the location of available facilities.

For some people, medical or other conditions may mean that they are particularly likely to need access to toilet facilities at short notice, so I very much welcome the introduction of the “Can’t Wait” card, which is now widely accepted by businesses, even when they do not offer public facilities. I am sure that Members across the House will join me in commending such initiatives, which are already making a huge difference to people’s lives.

For people with special access requirements, it is about not just having any facilities available, but having the right facilities. That is why there has been a strong cross-Government drive to provide more Changing Places lavatories to help maintain the dignity of people with special lavatory requirements when they are away from home. The Department for Transport’s inclusive transport strategy includes £2 million to improve the provision of Changing Places toilets in motorway service areas, and the Department of Health and Social Care has made £2 million available to install over 100 Changing Places toilets in NHS hospitals throughout England.

In May 2019, we launched a consultation on proposals for the increased provision of Changing Places toilets in new and refurbished buildings. Following that consultation, the Government have committed to change building regulations guidance to mandate the provision of Changing Places toilets in new public buildings. At Budget 2020, the Chancellor confirmed that the Government will launch a £30 million Changing Places fund. This will allow the Government to work with the Changing Places Consortium and others to identify the sectors where we most need to accelerate the provision of such facilities in existing buildings.

Although the focus of today’s Bill and this debate is public toilets, I recognise that this Bill comes at a time of unprecedented challenges for business, when business rates may be at the forefront of concerns for those who occupy non-domestic properties. That is why the Government are taking unprecedented steps to help businesses that are most affected. As a result of the Government’s expanded retail, hospitality and leisure relief, eligible businesses are expected to receive almost £10 billion in business rates relief as part of the Government’s wider support for the economy during the pandemic. Combined with existing measures, this means that a total of 1.1 million ratepayers—over half of all ratepayers—will pay no business rates at all in 2020-21. Our economic response is one of the most generous globally, and the Government are working urgently to deliver vital schemes such as the expanded retail discount as quickly as possible. I would like to use today’s debate to pay tribute to local authorities for working hard to implement these measures right across the country.

The Non-Domestic Rating (Public Lavatories) Bill is only a short, four-clause Bill, but one that is important to reduce running costs and help keep these vital public facilities open. The Government have been listening to and addressing issues surrounding the provision of public toilets for some time. A measure to enable local authorities to give business rates relief to public toilets through the discretionary relief system was included as part of the Local Government Finance Bill in 2017, and concerns were raised that a discretionary relief not fully funded by central Government would not be widely used. The Government have listened. This Bill will provide 100% mandatory relief. Specifically, the Bill provides 100% mandatory business rates relief to properties in England and Wales that are used wholly or mainly as public lavatories. Local authorities will be responsible for implementing the relief and will be fully compensated by central Government for any loss of local income resulting from the measure. Subject to the safe passage of the Bill, it will have retrospective effect from 1 April just gone, in line with the Chancellor’s commitment at Budget.

The Welsh Government have worked with the UK Government to ensure that public lavatories in Wales will also benefit from this measure. That will help the Welsh Government to deliver their commitment to provide access to public toilets for public use under part 8 of the Public Health (Wales) Act 2017.

A business rates relief for public toilets has been called for by councils and health and disability charities for some time and has wide-ranging public support. The Government have responded. This small but important Bill will make a real difference to many people’s lives, including essential workers, as lockdown eases. The savings will assist councils. Removing the additional costs of business rates could make the difference in helping to keep these vital facilities open, while supporting high standards of public hygiene as we emerge from the virus. I hope that Members across the House will agree that this is a positive step and support the Bill’s passage. I commend it to the House.

Thangam Debbonaire Portrait Thangam Debbonaire (Bristol West) (Lab)
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16 Jul 2020, midnight

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.

Housing, Communities and Local Government: Departmental Spending

Simon Clarke Excerpts
Kate Hollern Portrait Kate Hollern (Blackburn) (Lab)
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9 Jul 2020, 12:05 a.m.

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—

Kate Hollern Portrait Kate Hollern
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

9 Jul 2020, 12:06 a.m.

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.

Simon Clarke Portrait The Minister of State, Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (Mr Simon Clarke)
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9 Jul 2020, 12:02 a.m.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts) on securing today’s debate and I thank hon. Members across the House for their contributions. I entirely echo the tributes that have been paid to the hard work and sacrifice of local government officials and elected representatives around the country. It is a good chance to pay tribute to the frontline workers—the carers, the teachers, the mortuary staff, the social workers, the emergency planners, the refuse collectors and so many others who have done their utmost to make sure that our society continues to function at such a difficult time. Every tier of local government has come together to rise to the enormous challenges that covid-19 has created.

Time is very short, so I will be brief. From the outset of covid-19, the Government have said that we would ensure that councils have the resources that they need. We have already delivered a multibillion-pound infusion of support. Last week, we announced a further comprehensive package of support with several important components. First, we are providing a further £500 million of funding to cover additional local authority spending pressures. That means that since the crisis began, the total unring-fenced grant funding that has been provided to local authorities for their spending pressures now stands at £3.7 billion, and that is without including the £600 million that we provided for care homes to relieve the strain on social care services.

We have particularly asked councils to prioritise some core aspects of their work. The hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier), who chairs the Public Accounts Committee, pressed me for detail on this, and those are: adult social care, children’s services, public health services, fire and rescue services, household waste services, shielding the clinically vulnerable, homelessness and rough sleeping, domestic abuse and managing excess mortality. I am very happy to provide any further clarity that would be helpful—

Simon Clarke Portrait Mr Clarke
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9 Jul 2020, 12:05 a.m.

As time is extremely tight, I had better make progress.

We have provided in total almost £28 billion to local councils, businesses and communities to help to support them through the virus. That includes £300 million for the new test and trace service. Unlike the hon. Member for Blackburn (Kate Hollern), who spoke for the Opposition, I will not talk that down. I think it is making immense strides. I pay huge tribute to the work of Tom Riordan, the chief executive of Labour-controlled Leeds City Council, who has done a fantastic job in helping us to bring that tool together.

The second element of our comprehensive package is a specific mechanism to address councils’ income losses. That includes a co-payment scheme to cover irrecoverable losses from sales, fees and charges income in financial year 2020-21. That includes such things as car parking fees or revenue from cultural assets. The hon. Lady said that it is not defined, but it is not defined precisely to enable flexing according to the extent of those losses as they crystallise, so it is capable of being as generous as is required to meet the eventual losses that we face.

Through that co-payment scheme, the Government will cover 75% of losses beyond the first 5% of planned income. This will help to address the issues that my hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Chris Loder) alluded to. In addition, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has committed to extending from one year to three years the period over which councils can manage shortfalls and local tax income relating to this year, as was specifically requested by the LGA.

The Chair of the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee referenced leisure centres. We are working with the Treasury and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport on this issue. We recognise its complexities and I can assure him that we are very serious about tackling it. In the autumn spending review, the Government will agree an apportionment of irrecoverable council tax and business rate losses between central and local government for 2020 and 2021.

Taken together, the support offered here will safeguard a range of essential public services, from social care to public health, shielding the vulnerable and now helping to safely reopen our economy and wider society. There will always be scope for specific, bespoke discussions with individual councils that find themselves in difficulty. The shadow Minister referred to Luton Council and its airport. I can assure her that we are very aware of that issue and continue to work closely with them.

On the wider work we are doing, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor gave an excellent statement yesterday underscoring our commitment to saving jobs and boosting growth. Clearly, levelling up is a massive responsibility that the Government are intensely serious about. We heard several colleagues refer to the £3.6 billion towns fund, including the future high streets fund. Be that Barnstaple or Warrington, we want to make sure these funds are paid out quickly and help to make a real difference and deliver for our society. That comes on top of the £5 billion stimulus from the accelerated getting building fund that the Prime Minister announced last week.

We also want to work closely with council leaders from all political parties in delivering our ambitious devolution agenda. This is appropriate, given the hon. Members for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts) and for Sheffield, Hallam (Olivia Blake) and their role in this, as we have the parliamentary order coming up next week to unlock £900 million of investment for the Sheffield city region, which is great. We have also negotiated the £1.1 billion of investment for West Yorkshire announced at Budget. With West Yorkshire’s new Mayor in place, 41% of residents in England and 63% in the north of England will be served by directly elected city region Mayors.

I heard the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois), and I look forward to meeting them to discuss the situation in Essex, but I can assure them that we will not be pressing ahead with proposals that do not command popular consent. That is always at the forefront of our mind.

On the comments from the SNP Front Bench, I can also confirm that we will publish our White Paper on devolution and local recovery in the autumn, which will address issues concerning the UK shared prosperity fund, which I should point out is our money, top-sliced and sent back to us by the EU. None the less, we will provide detail on that. Clearly, it is very important and he can rest assured we are working hard to work out how we can safely allocate that money, but we made a commitment in our manifesto at the general election that no part of the UK would receive less from the shared prosperity fund than they currently do under EU structural funds.

I am conscious that time is very tight, so I will conclude by pointing out that levelling up is not specific to the north and the midlands of England. I had good talks with my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Bob Seely) and we continue to look at his island deal. The whole country—all the nations and regions of the United Kingdom—should look forward to our work on levelling up. We are committed to making it happen and making it happen soon.

Clive Betts Portrait Mr Betts
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

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).

Oral Answers to Questions

Simon Clarke Excerpts
Monday 15th June 2020

(1 year, 1 month ago)

Commons Chamber

Read Full debate Read Hansard Text
Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government
Kate Osamor Portrait Kate Osamor (Edmonton) (Lab/Co-op)
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What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on the adequacy of funding for local authorities during the covid-19 outbreak. [903171]

Simon Clarke Portrait The Minister of State, Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (Mr Simon Clarke)
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We have paid an unprecedented £3.2 billion to local authorities to address the pressures that they are facing in response to the pandemic, including £17.9 million to the hon. Lady’s own council, on top of an increase of £13.5 million in its core spending power this year. We have introduced measures worth more than £5 billion to help to ease councils’ immediate financial pressures. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I are currently working closely with Cabinet colleagues on a comprehensive plan to ensure councils’ financial sustainability over the financial year ahead.

Kate Osamor Portrait Kate Osamor [V]
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

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?

Simon Clarke Portrait Mr Clarke
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The answer to that question is unequivocally no, they should not. As I set out in my previous answer, we are working closely with the Treasury on a comprehensive settlement for the sector, which we will bring forward in due course.

Naz Shah Portrait Naz Shah (Bradford West) (Lab)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

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?

Simon Clarke Portrait Mr Clarke
- Hansard - -

The hon. Lady’s question is a good and important one. Obviously, that is something that the Government have published research on, and it is obviously a fast-evolving situation. We continue to work closely with councils that cover areas of high density of BAME population, including, for example, Bradford. We want to understand those pressures and as we do, then we will adjust our response accordingly.

Seema Malhotra Portrait Seema Malhotra (Feltham and Heston) (Lab/Co-op) [V]
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

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?

Simon Clarke Portrait Mr Clarke
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The hon. Lady asks an excellent question. Clearly, it is important that local authorities and business work together. We have so far allocated a total of more than £103 million to Hounslow Borough Council precisely to help ensure that we support the whole community. That includes a generous settlement of grants for businesses as well as additional funding worth more than £14 million for the council. It is vital that any authority with particular issues—for example, links to aviation—that is struggling to make the books balance speaks to the Department and we will of course always be happy to offer detailed advice.

Jeff Smith Portrait Jeff Smith (Manchester, Withington) (Lab)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

What recent estimate he has made of the value of revenue lost by local authorities as a result of the covid-19 outbreak. [903172]

Gerald Jones Portrait Gerald Jones (Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney) (Lab)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

What recent estimate he has made of the value of revenue lost by local authorities as a result of the covid-19 outbreak. [903212]

Simon Clarke Portrait The Minister of State, Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (Mr Simon Clarke)
- Hansard - -

We are working closely with the sector to develop a good understanding of the pressures that local authorities currently face. We have announced £3.2 billion of additional funding, councils will be able to defer £2.6 billion in business rates payment, and £850 million in social care grants were paid in April in a move aimed at helping to ease immediate pressures on local authority cash flows.

Jeff Smith Portrait Jeff Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

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?

Simon Clarke Portrait Mr Clarke
- Hansard - -

As I explained in my previous answer, we will issue a comprehensive spending plan, which ensures that we do not leave local authorities facing unmanageable spending pressures in the year ahead. I point out that Greater Manchester councils have received £168 million of additional funding in response to the pandemic and their core spending power in this financial year increased by £150 million. I know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has held detailed talks with Sir Richard Leese, and obviously an invitation to have further conversations as required always stands.

Gerald Jones Portrait Gerald Jones
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

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.

Simon Clarke Portrait Mr Clarke
- Hansard - -

The winter storms have passed from memory, given everything that has happened subsequently, but they were terrible and had a significant impact on several communities, particularly on the west coast of the country. I am very conscious of that. We of course make a commitment that the funds that were promised will be paid. Local government is a devolved matter and therefore my Department does not engage directly with Welsh councils, but they can rest assured that they will receive their fair share according to the Barnett formula.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Off to lovely Lancashire with shadow Minister Kate Hollern.

Kate Hollern Portrait Kate Hollern (Blackburn) (Lab) [V]
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

15 Jun 2020, 12:01 a.m.

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.

Simon Clarke Portrait Mr Clarke
- Hansard - -

We are obviously very conscious of £9.3 million that we have given to Blackburn with Darwen Borough Council. It is crucial that we deliver a suitable funding settlement for local authorities. We are working hard with Treasury colleagues to do that. The hon. Lady can rest assured that we will bring further details to the House as soon as we are ready.

Alyn Smith Portrait Alyn Smith (Stirling) (SNP)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

What recent assessment he has made of the implications for his Department’s priorities of the covid-19 outbreak. [903206]

--- Later in debate ---
Jane Hunt Portrait Jane Hunt (Loughborough) (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

What steps he is taking to support the renewal of local economies as covid-19 restrictions are eased. [903175]

Simon Clarke Portrait The Minister of State, Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (Mr Simon Clarke)
- Hansard - -

Obviously I very much welcome the fact that today is a big moment for all our local economies as shops reopen, which is really positive news. We have given councils, businesses and communities over £27 billion thus far to support them as we move to recovery from this pandemic. That includes almost £13 billion in business grants, which has so far supported 832,000 businesses, and the £50 million reopening high streets safely fund, which the Secretary of State referred to. Today we are also publishing the guidance on the £3.6 billion towns fund, which will enable 100 places across England to make further progress with their town deals.

Jane Hunt Portrait Jane Hunt
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

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?

Simon Clarke Portrait Mr Clarke
- Hansard - -

BIDs have a significant part to play in our high street regeneration programme, and they will be even more important given the setback we have all experienced during the first half of this year. That is why we have legislated to allow BIDs that were due to re-ballot this year to continue until March 2021 and have announced £6.1 million in emergency support funding for BIDs. I am pleased that the Love Loughborough BID—not one to be said unless you have a taste for tongue-twisters—will receive £12,747 from this additional fund.

Lucy Powell Portrait Lucy Powell (Manchester Central) (Lab/Co-op)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

What criteria his Department uses to determine eligibility for the new building safety fund. [903176]

--- Later in debate ---
Rob Butler Portrait Rob Butler (Aylesbury) (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

What plans he has to support the regeneration of towns. [903178]

Simon Clarke Portrait The Minister of State, Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (Mr Simon Clarke)
- Hansard - -

Our £3.6 billion towns fund will create jobs and drive economic growth in towns across England, and the new high streets task force, along with our £50 million reopening high streets safely fund, will help local areas to kick-start the safe reopening of their town centres.

Rob Butler Portrait Rob Butler
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

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?

Simon Clarke Portrait Mr Clarke
- Hansard - -

Yes, I can. Well planned, well designed, locally led garden communities play a vital role in helping to meet this country’s housing need well into the future. As we announced at Budget 2020, the Government have demonstrated their support for the Aylesbury garden town through a £170 million housing infrastructure fund award, which should help to unlock its full potential.

Rob Roberts Portrait Rob Roberts (Delyn) (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

What plans he has to help support people to buy their own home. [903183]

--- Later in debate ---
Luke Evans Portrait Dr Luke Evans (Bosworth) (Con) [V]
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

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? [903234]

Simon Clarke Portrait The Minister of State, Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (Mr Simon Clarke)
- Hansard - -

I thank my hon. Friend for his question, which is a very good one. As he rightly says, BIDs have a very important role to play in this regeneration. We see them at the heart of the process of making sure that the high street comes back stronger from this pandemic and that we make good progress in making sure that the high street is genuinely fit for the future. That means meeting the needs of modern consumer habits.

Ruth Cadbury Portrait Ruth Cadbury (Brentford and Isleworth) (Lab)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

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? [903229]

Private Car Parks

Simon Clarke Excerpts
Tuesday 2nd June 2020

(1 year, 2 months ago)

Commons Chamber

Read Full debate Read Hansard Text
Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government
Caroline Nokes Portrait Caroline Nokes
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

2 Jun 2020, 12:02 a.m.

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”

and

“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.

Simon Clarke Portrait The Minister of State, Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (Mr Simon Clarke)
- Hansard - -

2 Jun 2020, 12:08 a.m.

I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) for raising this issue and I congratulate her on securing this much-delayed debate. I also want to thank her and indeed, hon. Members across the House because this is an issue that I receive a lot of representations about on a daily basis. It is something that I am keenly aware needs resolving, and Members across the House are firm in their view that action is necessary on the regulation of the private parking industry.

Too often, our constituents are treated poorly at the hands of parking firms, and I know that many of my constituents in Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland feel the same. The clear cross-party support for the Parking (Code Of Practice) Act 2019 was therefore hugely encouraging, and I am pleased that, through the Act the Government are giving motorists greater protection against bogus parking fines and clamping down on rogue operators.

Self-regulation in the private parking sector has led to some undesirable practices, including misleading or confusing signage, aggressive debt collection, spiralling fees and opaque appeals services, and we heard some of that in the case of my right hon. Friend’s constituent, Mr Hindle. Members see in our postbags the effect that these poor practices have on people in our communities. They include the motorist who made a genuine and minor error entering their vehicle registration number into a machine and received £100 fine in the post; the driver who entered a car park on a busy day and could not park due to lack of spaces but got a ticket regardless because the camera assumed they had parked; the car park with signs that are impossible to read, subject to terms and conditions which are difficult to understand or which change without proper notice. Letters from motorists and even from MPs have gone unanswered by parking companies, although it does sound as though the hon. Lady has a staffer who will not be defeated by such tactics.

These practices are unfair and not good enough. The private parking industry plays a crucial role in our transport infrastructure, from facilitating commutes every morning to making our high streets accessible for shoppers and those accessing vital services. It employs thousands of people and serves millions of customers every day in normal times. We understand its importance, and that is why this Government are taking action to crack down on rogue firms, protect motorists and raise standards across the sector. With that in mind, I am pleased to update Members on the progress of our action after the passing of the Parking (Code Of Practice) Act, which was introduced thanks to the hard work of my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Sir Greg Knight), and we are actively delivering on our 2017 manifesto commitment to tackle rogue parking operators.

The Act provided for the creation of an independent code of practice for private parking companies and a one-stop shop for parking appeals, and our new code will ensure that enforcement and appeal processes are fair and proportionate. It will bring consistency, creating a level playing field across the industry, and it will benefit motorists, operators and landowners alike. If a parking company were to repeatedly break the code, its access to DVLA data could be blocked, and this data includes information on the vehicle keeper, so a company blocked from accessing it would be effectively unable to pursue parking charges. Blocking rogue operators in this manner will grant motorists greater protection against companies not delivering the standards that the Government and the public would expect.

We have taken steps to ensure that the code is not only reflective of the issues that we want to address but is informed by outside experts. On 3 November last year, the Government announced that the British Standards Institution would write the code in consultation with consumer and industry groups and carry out a full consultation once the draft was ready. The BSI is widely regarded as expert in regulatory delivery and has a proven track record of working with Government. Developing the code of practice as a British standard is thus a guarantee that the new regulation will be robust and of the highest quality, and the Government’s choice of BSI also delivers on our promise to listen to industry and consumers and involve them in the design of the new regulation. BSI’s process for developing new British standards involves reaching a consensus for a range of key stakeholders and seeking a wide array of views through a full public consultation. That will help to ensure that the code is entirely comprehensive.

I assure my right hon. Friend that, working in conjunction with the BSI, it is a priority to ensure that this code addresses the most significant and recurring issues that consumers deal with.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

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?

Simon Clarke Portrait Mr Clarke
- Hansard - -

2 Jun 2020, 12:03 a.m.

It would not be an Adjournment debate without an intervention from the hon. Gentleman. In this case, he raises a really significant point. We need to make sure that these regulations have teeth. The deterrent lies in the fact that repeat offenders will find themselves unable to access the DVLA database and so it will in effect be self-policing.

In November, we announced that the Government would propose that the code considers a mandatory requirement to give all drivers the 10 minute grace period, which my right hon. Friend referred to, after their tickets expire. This will be a common-sense measure to ensure that drivers are not unfairly penalised for trying to do the right thing.

Caroline Nokes Portrait Caroline Nokes
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

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?

Simon Clarke Portrait Mr Clarke
- Hansard - -

2 Jun 2020, 12:04 a.m.

I confess that, given the code is in draft, I do not know the answer to that question, but I will write to my right hon. Friend, as she would expect, to clarify. I suspect that it will make good sense for it to do so in practice, but I will not presume to prejudge what the independent regulation may eventually come up with.

I also want to address issues raised about debt collection, because it cannot be fair that a hard-working family is prevented from obtaining a mortgage because a small breach of a car park’s terms and conditions led to a county court judgment that, as my right hon. Friend refers to, can have such serious consequences, especially if it is sent to an old address. I have seen constituency cases of that nature. We are proposing that the code considers new protections for consumers, and looks at extra measures to crack down on intimidating and aggressive debt collection practices. We will also look at the appeals system, because this is a particularly significant issue. There are two appeals services in the private parking sector. Both have their own processes and procedures and different rates at which parking charges are overturned at appeal. Which appeals service a motorist has access to depends not on their choice or the nature of the alleged breach of contract, but simply on which trade association the operator happens to belong to. That cannot be fair and is at odds with natural justice, which is why it is the Government’s stated position that we intend to appoint a single appeals service for the entire industry, giving motorists the ability to challenge unfair charges.

Finally, we are actively exploring ways to combat unfairly issued tickets from automatic number plate recognition technology. There is a widespread sense from motorists that this technology does not function as it should. I have heard of motorists entering and leaving a car park yet still having a ticket issued, and that is obviously a real concern. We want a private parking sector that works fairly in that regard.

Turning to the substantive issue of timing, I am pleased to update the House that work with the BSI commenced in December, and it has now convened a group of key stakeholders to write the code. This group comprises representatives from the parking industry, consumer groups, standards bodies and, recognising the key role that parking plays in supporting our high streets, the retail sector.

I can also update the House that we have appointed Steve Gooding, the director of the RAC Foundation, as our technical author, and he has now produced the first draft of the code. The RAC Foundation is a well-respected transport policy and research organisation and Mr Gooding is a former director-general of the Roads Traffic and Local Group at the Department for Transport, so he will bring real knowledge, experience and expertise to bear on his work. This is only a first draft and, as I have said, the final draft will be worked up in close consultation with key stakeholders, and there will be plenty of opportunity for everyone to have their voice heard in this process.

In the context of this debate, I would like to put it on record that the Government are doing all they can to utilise our parking infrastructure to best serve our collective response to the coronavirus. I am sure that the measures that we have announced to support frontline workers and volunteers have been welcomed by both the House and the British public. We are offering free parking for NHS workers, volunteers and social care workers in council-owned on-street spaces and car parks. In conjunction with NHS England, the parking sector and local government, we have produced a free parking pass to allow those workers to park in council spaces, worry free. We have pledged to cover the costs of providing free car parking to NHS staff working in hospitals during this unprecedented time. Our aim is to alleviate any unnecessary pressures on those workers by removing any fears that they may have about fees or fines while they carry out what is by common consent truly heroic work.

As we take the first steps towards recovery, we want to offer alternatives to public transport, but we are of course wary of an increase in the numbers of people taking end-to-end car journeys. To ease parking capacity, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport has announced that the Government will seek to repurpose underused parking facilities outside town centres, made possible by close collaboration with local authorities and private operators. Those who live too far from town centres to cycle or walk can therefore park on the outskirts and finish their journeys on foot, bike or even—excitingly—an e-scooter.

Individual businesses are also playing a hugely positive role. Many private operators have been offering parking spaces to NHS workers during the coronavirus crisis. I commend such efforts and reiterate the Government’s appreciation for them.

I recognise the need to progress the new code at pace, and across Government we recognise the urgency of this issue. It is crucial to get the regulations right and, as my right hon. Friend said, the coronavirus situation has had an impact, but we have committed to developing the final code this year. Prior to that, a public consultation will take place to give the parking industry, the public and other interested parties the opportunity to have their say.

The 2019 Act builds on action that the Government have already taken to tackle rogue private parking firms, including the banning of wheel clamping and towing and the stopping of over-zealous parking enforcement by councils and parking wardens. Beyond our work on the private car parking sector, the Government are taking decisive action to improve public and private car parking throughout the country.

The Government are taking determined steps to protect motorists across the country. The Act will tackle an issue that our figures show affects literally millions of motorists every year. We will ensure that the private parking industry works to the high standards that motorists can reasonably expect, and we will tackle the rogue operators and their unfair practices. It will be an industry that will deliver for everybody.

I thank my right hon. Friend again for raising the issue of Mr Hindle, and I put on record my own tribute to Mr Hindle for his persistence in showing a certain British doggedness in refusing to accept a fundamentally unfair situation. I thank my right hon. Friend for the opportunity to update the House on the work that we are doing to improve the sector. I of course look forward to returning to the Dispatch Box to give further updates when the final code is ready.

Question put and agreed to.

Financial and Social Emergency Support Package

Simon Clarke Excerpts
Wednesday 25th March 2020

(1 year, 4 months ago)

Commons Chamber

Read Full debate Read Hansard Text
Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government
John McDonnell Portrait John McDonnell
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

25 Mar 2020, 12:01 a.m.

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.

Simon Clarke Portrait The Minister of State, Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (Mr Simon Clarke)
- Hansard - -

25 Mar 2020, 5:45 p.m.

I begin by offering the deepest thanks and praise of all of us in this House for all those working to deliver essential services to the public across the country. The way they have come together is nothing short of astounding. Equally astounding is the fact that the Prime Minister confirmed this afternoon that, in the past 24 hours, 400,000 Britons have signed up to act as volunteers to support our NHS, which is an incredible statement of the shared sense of purpose we all feel in this unique national endeavour.

I want to address directly every individual working to deliver an essential public service or a business, or to support their local community during this crisis, from NHS employees, local government workers, care workers and community volunteers through to those keeping our supermarket shelves full: you are keeping this country running and collectively helping to shoulder the burden, and we thank you. The whole House will want to join me in recognising the contribution they have already made and will no doubt continue to make over this period of crisis. We need the help of the British public to ensure that we beat the virus as quickly as we can and, above all, we need them to stay inside whenever possible.

This is the worst public health crisis in any of our lifetimes. The Government are responding, and we aspire to make our measures as comprehensive as we possibly can. A national crisis needs a national response and we are offering UK-wide support to ensure that people in all four corners of the country are receiving help.

Whatever resources the NHS needs, it will get. As an aside, today we have agreed with local councils in England to provide free parking for our NHS and social care workers as they fight coronavirus. I am working closely with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, the Chancellor and other ministerial colleagues across Government to ensure that public services receive the funding they need to get their residents through this crisis. That means supporting those on the frontline; those who are in a dispensable. Generous tributes have been paid to them in excellent speeches from my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess), the hon. Member for Croydon Central (Sarah Jones)—I will return to some of the points she made—the hon. Members for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh), for Brent Central (Dawn Butler), for Gordon (Richard Thomson) and for Coventry South (Zarah Sultana), as well as the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Lloyd Russell-Moyle), whom we are all glad to see back in his place after recovering from the virus, the hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens), the right hon. Members for North Durham (Mr Jones) and for East Ham (Stephen Timms), the latter an expert in all matters to do with the welfare system, and the hon. Members for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson) and for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah). I thank everyone who has taken part in this afternoon’s debate. I assure all hon. Members that the Government are absolutely resolved to do whatever is necessary to support public services and authorities through the response to the coronavirus.

In normal times, I am a convinced believer in an agile state supporting free enterprise, which delivers jobs and revenue for our public services. The hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central gave a paean to the power of the market, but she is right: these are not normal times. In this strictly limited period, we must all accustom ourselves to a relationship between the state and civic society that is unprecedented in peacetime.

Chi Onwurah Portrait Chi Onwurah
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I have to correct the record. It was not a paean to the power of the free market; actually, I was identifying its critical failings when it comes to providing capacity for the state to respond to pandemics of the type we face.

Simon Clarke Portrait Mr Clarke
- Hansard - -

I will of course take that point for the record. Let me in turn pay my own tribute to the power of the market.

In these unusual times, we have a shielding policy, for which my Department is responsible. Letters have been sent to 1.5 million high-risk individuals asking them to shield themselves and stay at home for the next 12 weeks. I think we all recognise the magnitude of what we are asking people to do. I emphasise to everyone who is in the process of becoming shielded that we are there for them and we will not let them down.

Chris Stephens Portrait Chris Stephens
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

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?

Simon Clarke Portrait Mr Clarke
- Hansard - -

25 Mar 2020, 12:04 a.m.

To put it simply, none of those individuals ought to be going to work at this time; the Government would stand with anyone who refused to go to work because they need to be shielded, and we will stand up for them if any employer is so foolish as to try to press that point.

Those who are being shielded will benefit from a website and a telephone helpline, both of which are now fully operational. We are working with all partners—councils, the food industry, local resilience and emergency partners and voluntary groups—to ensure that essential items can be delivered as soon as possible to those who need them. Deliveries of food will start this week, medicines will be delivered by community pharmacies, and groceries and essential household items will be delivered by local councils and food distributors working with supermarkets to ensure that no one needs to worry about getting the food they need. Parcels will be left on the doorstep.

The Government, the food industry, community pharmacies, councils and emergency services are working around the clock to get this scheme off the ground. I pay tribute to the civil servants who have been working tirelessly throughout this period. I am enormously impressed by the dedication and resolve that they have shown. I can also confirm that, from today, we have deployed military planners to every area of the country to help to co-ordinate this work. We pay tribute also to our armed forces and the role that they will play in this effort.

As Members have highlighted, it is not only the incredibly hard-working medical professionals on the frontline against coronavirus who are under immense pressure. We in my Department know that local authorities, which are essential to the running of this country, are feeling the pressure too. We have already announced £3.4 billion to alleviate that pressure, comprising £1.6 billion of covid-19 pressures funding and the initial £1.8 billion grant for business rates relief measures. We know that immediate pressures require immediate cash, so we can now confirm that the funding will be with every local authority, in its bank account, by Friday. We have said that we will do everything we can to support the sector, and this is us doing it.

When it comes to grants for businesses, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy has now issued guidance to all local authorities, and we will provide the full £13 billion of funding for the business grant support scheme at the beginning of April. We must acknowledge that the crisis will not just burden our social care system and affect our most vulnerable; it will also affect our local economies, so local authorities should be confident about contacting businesses in their patch and making arrangements for the grants to be paid as quickly as possible. Time really is a vital factor here.

Further to the targeted funding, we have set out detailed guidance for local authorities on the 100% business rates discount for the retail, hospitality and leisure sectors, which was published by my Department this week. Today, we have announced a further expansion to the discount to remove some of the previous exclusions from the relief, to ensure that businesses that are now required to close—including estate agents, letting agents and bingo halls—will pay no business rates this coming year. My Department will amend guidance as necessary this week. We will, of course, fully compensate local authorities for the costs of this measure.

More broadly, I acknowledge that asking businesses to close their doors is a huge ask—those businesses have often been built up over many years of hard work and sacrifice—but it is only through such measures that we will ensure public safety. By the action that the Government are taking, we will mitigate the effects of the crisis so that once it is over, businesses can bounce back and renew our economy.

The Government’s measures not only are targeted at our businesses and public sectors but will support citizens at an individual level, too. We are working to support those who, through no fault of their own, are facing a sudden drop in income. The Chancellor has announced unprecedented measures to support people by making funding available to cover up to 80% of wages. In response to a point raised by the shadow Chancellor in his speech, I can confirm that apprentices will qualify for that if they are on PAYE. I will write to him on that point, but it is certain that they are included.

Kevan Jones Portrait Mr Kevan Jones
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

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.

Simon Clarke Portrait Mr Clarke
- Hansard - -

I take that point to heart. If the right hon. Gentleman sends me the details, I will write to him after this debate and ensure that that company is contacted personally so that we can provide the guidance needed for his constituents.

Lloyd Russell-Moyle Portrait Lloyd Russell-Moyle
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

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?

Simon Clarke Portrait Mr Clarke
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25 Mar 2020, 12:07 a.m.

I can confirm that other Government Departments, alongside my own, will have heard the hon. Gentleman’s remarks, and we will ensure that they are taken to heart.

This is a convenient point to discuss universal credit and some of the related issues, which the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown raised, as did the hon. Member for Glasgow South West. I can confirm that advances for all new universal credit claimants are now available online or by phone, with no requirement to attend the jobcentre. Earning rules for the self-employed have been temporarily relaxed for those who are sick or self-isolating. From 6 April, we are increasing the standard allowance for UC and the basic element in working tax credit for one year: both will increase by £20 a week on top of the planned annual uprating, and that will apply to all new and existing universal credit claimants and to existing working tax credit claimants, too. We recognise that there is going to be an enormous increase in the number of people claiming universal credit; we will continue to make sure that the system responds to this fast-changing situation.

Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi Portrait Mr Dhesi
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

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.

Simon Clarke Portrait Mr Clarke
- Hansard - -

25 Mar 2020, 12:08 a.m.

I can of course commit that we will share that information whenever we have the full dataset available. It is obviously important that we make sure the figures are accurate, but we will share all the relevant data so that local authorities can plan.

We have announced a £500 million hardship fund so that local authorities can provide council tax relief to vulnerable people and households in their area. Working-age people who already receive council tax support will have their council tax reduced by a further £150 and local authorities will have the flexibility to provide funding to support others, too.

On renters, we are aware that for many who are not receiving their regular income a financial strain will be put on all aspects of their lives. We want to protect tenants during this crisis. To address the concerns raised by the hon. Members for Croydon Central and for Mitcham and Morden, and the shadow Chancellor, I can confirm that the Government are clear that no renter who has lost income because of the coronavirus will be forced out of their home. The very clear guidance we have given to judges and bailiffs means it is extremely unlikely that any possession proceedings will continue during this period.

Simon Clarke Portrait Mr Clarke
- Hansard - -

I will give way in one moment. We expect a formal practice direction to the courts imminently, underscoring that point.

Sarah Jones Portrait Sarah Jones
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

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.

Simon Clarke Portrait Mr Clarke
- Hansard - -

25 Mar 2020, 5:59 p.m.

I will write to the hon. Lady with full details on that point and make that letter public. That is a firm commitment to the House this afternoon.

I am conscious that time is pressing. On support for rough sleepers, I want to confirm that the support package is comprehensive and, of course, therefore extends to some of the most vulnerable members of society. Not all of us are so fortunate as to have a stable home in case we are sick, so we are developing a bespoke response and have launched a £3.2 million covid-19 rough sleeping fund. Dame Louise Casey is heading up our rough sleeping response to covid-19, and our aim is to make sure that everyone is protected and is in appropriate accommodation. On the point raised by the hon. Member for Croydon Central, hotels engaged in this process should stay open, and the Department is working closely to ensure that that is the case. We are working intensively across all local authorities in England, and Dame Louise is focusing on high-priority areas, both in and outside London. The hon. Lady raised the issue of Grenfell, and we are absolutely clear that building sites and priority work, where appropriate PHE guidance has been observed, can continue, where the work is genuinely essential. We will be issuing further detail on this point. We want to see the Grenfell issue of cladding continue to be addressed at this time, assuming that safe practice can be followed.

On the care system, we are providing £1.6 billion for local authorities’ response to the covid-19 pandemic, to address the additional pressures they are facing. We expect that the majority of that funding will be spent on providing adult social care services, which are going to be required. I can confirm that 26,000 care organisations—care homes, home care and hospices—have each received 300 fluid-repellent masks. Obviously, many more will be needed and we are dramatically ramping up the supply of those. The Army is now involved in making sure that they are distributed across the country as required.

The hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden raised the issue of children’s hospices in her question, and I can confirm that the Chancellor of the Exchequer is working on a support package for charities right now, We are working at pace and hope to bring forward plans shortly, recognising that, as she rightly said, time is of the essence in making sure that these places do not have to close. On children, young people and those who work with them, our priorities are their safety, minimising disruption to everyday life and not unduly impacting on their progression and education. That is why we have asked parents to keep their children at home wherever possible. Schools and all childcare providers have been asked to continue to provide care for a limited number of children: those who are vulnerable; and those whose parents are crucial to the covid-19 response and who cannot be safely cared for at home. We are extremely grateful for the work of teachers, childcare providers and local authorities, and we will continue to monitor closely what is happening on the ground. To be clear, the position is as follows: children should be sent to school only if they have to be because someone’s work is genuinely crucial to our national response. If people are able to keep their children at home, they should do so.

Ruth Cadbury Portrait Ruth Cadbury (Brentford and Isleworth) (Lab)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

25 Mar 2020, 12:04 a.m.

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?

Simon Clarke Portrait Mr Clarke
- Hansard - -

25 Mar 2020, 12:04 a.m.

I thank the hon. Lady for her suggestion, which will have been heard. I can confirm that free school meals ought to continue to be available during this time. Schools have discretion to make sure they find the appropriate way to do that, but I take her point on board. Costs will be higher for families at a time like this.

Barry Gardiner Portrait Barry Gardiner (Brent North) (Lab)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

25 Mar 2020, 12:04 a.m.

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?

Simon Clarke Portrait Mr Clarke
- Hansard - -

25 Mar 2020, 12:05 a.m.

It is key workers only. I have to correct the hon. Gentleman. It is only those who are doing the jobs specified in the list we have issued.

To conclude, the Government have responded rapidly to this crisis. An enormous amount has happened in the past two weeks. I am proud of what we are doing. We are ensuring the long-term protection of public services and businesses.

Siobhain McDonagh Portrait Siobhain McDonagh
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

25 Mar 2020, 12:05 a.m.

Will the Minister give way?

Simon Clarke Portrait Mr Clarke
- Hansard - -

25 Mar 2020, 12:05 a.m.

I think I must move on.

Once this crisis is passed, the United Kingdom can re-emerge with pride and purpose. The Government are working flat out to get the right support to the right people at the right time. We must address this crisis very frankly. If too many people become seriously unwell at one time, the NHS and our public services risk being overwhelmed. It is absolutely vital that we slow the spread of this disease. We must do so together as one nation. I offer my deep thanks for the constructive approach and hard work of our counterparts in Opposition. We must look out for one another, our loved ones, friends, family, neighbours and strangers, because that is how we will overcome this. I urge any local authority, if faced with immediate unmanageable pressures, to contact my officials at the earliest opportunity. We are likely to be sorely tested in the weeks ahead, but I ask Members to rest assured that Her Majesty’s Government are prepared to do whatever it takes. The message to the public is very clear: we will support you and we will get through this together.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House has considered the emergency financial and social package needed to support people, families and business through the covid-19 outbreak.

Ian Blackford Portrait Ian Blackford (Ross, Skye and Lochaber) (SNP)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

25 Mar 2020, 12:08 a.m.

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.

Oral Answers to Questions

Simon Clarke Excerpts
Monday 24th February 2020

(1 year, 5 months ago)

Commons Chamber

Read Full debate Read Hansard Text
Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government
Lia Nici Portrait Lia Nici (Great Grimsby) (Con)
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4. What steps he is taking to encourage local growth in Great Grimsby. [900865]

Simon Clarke Portrait The Minister of State, Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (Mr Simon Clarke)
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Great Grimsby is the Government’s pilot town deal. We are already investing over £40 million across Government to deliver local priorities. We will provide further significant investment through the £3.6 billion towns fund and we have already delivered funding to help to develop local plans for Great Grimsby’s future prosperity and growth.

Lia Nici Portrait Lia Nici
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

24 Feb 2020, 2:49 p.m.

Will the Minister let me know what the Government are doing to address the number of vacant commercial properties on our high streets, including in constituencies such as mine?

Simon Clarke Portrait Mr Clarke
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24 Feb 2020, 2:49 p.m.

We have introduced a number of measures to address the number of empty shops on high streets, including our Open Doors pilot project, which matches landlords of empty properties with community groups, and a proposed private register for empty commercial properties. We are also cutting the business rates bills of small retailers by 50% from this April for properties with a rateable value of below £51,000. That is an increase from the one third that we have delivered in the current financial year.

Jim McMahon Portrait Jim McMahon (Oldham West and Royton) (Lab/Co-op)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

24 Feb 2020, 2:49 p.m.

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?

Simon Clarke Portrait Mr Clarke
- Hansard - -

The hon. Gentleman raises a really important point. Clearly, the process of levelling up is not restricted to that of economic infrastructure; it is also absolutely about making sure that the life chances of individuals are realised to the full. That means, for example, making sure that our skills policy works, and the Government are committed to delivering a new national skills fund—we will announce more about that as part of the Budget process. It also means that it is really important that we get the process of skills devolution right, and we are keen to make sure that we work with strong local mayoral leaders to make sure that they deliver those budgets in a way that makes a real difference. This is clearly a long-term challenge. We need to make sure that we get the right devolution models in place so that such things as the towns fund and the future high streets fund are complemented by comparable work on life chances.

Mark Garnier Portrait Mark Garnier (Wyre Forest) (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

6. What steps he has taken to ensure that local authorities receive adequate funding in the local government finance settlement for 2020-21. [900867]

--- Later in debate ---
Giles Watling Portrait Giles Watling (Clacton) (Con)
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9. What steps he is taking to encourage local growth in Clacton. [900870]

Simon Clarke Portrait The Minister of State, Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (Mr Simon Clarke)
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24 Feb 2020, 3 p.m.

The Government are committed to giving communities across the United Kingdom, including Clacton, real power and investment to drive growth and unleash their full potential. I am pleased that Clacton has progressed to the business case development stage of the £1 billion future high streets fund and will be bidding for capital funding shortly. The South East local enterprise partnership, which covers Clacton, has received £590 million through the local growth fund to drive regional development.

Giles Watling Portrait Giles Watling
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

24 Feb 2020, 3:01 p.m.

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?

Simon Clarke Portrait Mr Clarke
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24 Feb 2020, 3:01 p.m.

I can certainly provide that reassurance. I have vivid memories of the Clacton by-election, when I first met my hon. Friend: I get all the best days out!

The Government are committed to levelling up all regions of our country. I speak as a proud north-easterner, but I am very conscious that deprivation is not limited to the north or to the midlands. It is clearly found in pockets throughout the country. I can absolutely reassure my hon. Friend that wherever those characteristics exist, we will be there to act.

Rob Butler Portrait Rob Butler (Aylesbury) (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

10. What steps he is taking with Cabinet colleagues to ensure that local authorities include education and health infrastructure in housing developments. [900871]

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Andy Carter Portrait Andy Carter (Warrington South) (Con)
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16. What steps he is taking to encourage local growth in the North West. [900877]

Simon Clarke Portrait The Minister of State, Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (Mr Simon Clarke)
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24 Feb 2020, 3:12 p.m.

We are investing £1.5 billion across the north-west through the local growth fund, including £201 million in Cheshire and Warrington. We have also invited 20 north-west towns, including Warrington, to put forward locally led proposals to draw down up to £25 million from the Government’s towns fund.

Andy Carter Portrait Andy Carter
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

24 Feb 2020, 3:12 p.m.

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?

Simon Clarke Portrait Mr Clarke
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24 Feb 2020, 3:12 p.m.

We are putting forward money through Homes England for the development of such brownfield sites. Our national planning policy framework is clear that local authorities should prioritise brownfield land but, equally, we do need to build the homes required.

Andrew Bridgen Portrait Andrew Bridgen (North West Leicestershire) (Con)
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17. What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on supporting local authorities to increase levels of recycling. [900878]

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Karl McCartney Portrait Karl MᶜCartney (Lincoln) (Con)
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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? [900889]

Simon Clarke Portrait The Minister of State, Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (Mr Simon Clarke)
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We are always up for new ideas. Town deal boards should be business-led and representative of their communities. We provided guidance on their membership and made it clear that we expect to see a business chair and the local MP on the board. We will set out a clear decision-making process for boards to follow.

Debbie Abrahams Portrait Debbie Abrahams (Oldham East and Saddleworth) (Lab)
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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? [900887]

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Richard Holden Portrait Mr Richard Holden (North West Durham) (Con)
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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? [900894]

Simon Clarke Portrait Mr Simon Clarke
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24 Feb 2020, 3:28 p.m.

I thank my hon. Friend for his question; it is great to have an MP for North West Durham who is committed to fighting hard for his community rather than grandstanding. Our £1 billion future high streets fund is key to levelling up the economy of all parts of the country. There will be a second phase of the fund and we will bring forward further details in due course.

Jeff Smith Portrait Jeff Smith (Manchester, Withington) (Lab)
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24 Feb 2020, 3:29 p.m.

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?