April Adjournment Debate

- Thursday, 3rd April 2008

 

Debate
Date of Proceeding: 03.04.2008
Reference: 474 c1006-9
Member: Lilley, Peter
Title: April Adjournment
Description: It is a great pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Mr. Jackson). I shall allude to some of the issues that he raised, because I share some of his concerns and views.

First, I want to raise some issues affecting my constituency that have the common theme of housing. My hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess), who was hoping that I would launch straight into cannabis, in which case he would have stayed, now knows that he is free to depart, unless he wants to stay for quite a long time.

I turn first to the provision of accommodation for Travellers and Gypsies in my constituency. Like everybody else, they need homes, and we have to provide accommodation for them somewhere in the eastern area. Following the lead of my hon. Friend the Member for St. Albans (Anne Main), I raised the matter in a debate in the House, and I wish to return to it because we did not get a satisfactory answer about two things from the Minister who responded. The first was why such a high rate of growth of the population of Travellers in the eastern areas is assumed. Why is it assumed that the Traveller population is increasing more rapidly than the population of Africa, which has the highest growth rate otherwise known in the world? Why is such a large growth rate built into demands for provision that are being imposed on local authorities?

Secondly, we want to know the rationale behind the policy of requiring the local authorities that already have the highest number of sites for Travellers to provide the highest number of additional sites. People in the part of my constituency that falls within the St. Albans area are particularly incensed, because St. Albans already has by far the largest number of sites for Travellers in Hertfordshire, yet it is being required to provide nearly twice as many as most other local authorities, and the highest number in Hertfordshire. Surely that is not fair. I hope that the Government will require the Government office for the east of England to think again and advise the East of England regional assembly likewise that it should not follow such a policy. It puts a blight on my constituency, because so many sites have to be considered. The sooner the whole matter is resolved, the better it will be for everybody, Travellers and settled population alike.

The settled population-the vast majority of our constituents-also need homes. In Hertfordshire, we have in the past met the targets for building new homes for the existing population, and we have done so without building on the green belt in my constituency. That is becoming increasingly difficult, because the targets imposed on us have been raised, raised and raised again.

North Hertfordshire district council now has to provide an additional 15,000 homes. The Government have already given permission for the building of an initial 3,600 homes west of Stevenage-the largest incursion on the green belt that has ever been known-yet that additional demand has been put upon us. My constituents are worried, because in seeking sites for that large number of homes, the local authority has to consider an even larger number of potential options. So, large areas of the constituency are being examined as potential areas although-thank heavens!-not all will be selected to meet that target.

That problem has caused concern, disturbance, anger and resentment, but those emotions are nothing compared with the outrage that has greeted the discovery-the exposure-that officials from the Department for Communities and Local Government have had meetings with their counterparts in Luton borough council, South Bedfordshire district council and Bedfordshire council, as well as with representatives of the developers, Blore Homes, to consider building homes in the North Hertfordshire district council area of my constituency. Moreover, they met without informing or inviting officials or councillors from North Hertfordshire district council or Hertfordshire county council, and they did not let me know that the meetings were taking place.

In other words, the DCLG considers that it can meet its targets by building in our district, on the beautiful stretch of land between Luton and the ill-named but extremely lovely part of my constituency known as Lilley Bottom. That name has nothing to do with me, although it may possibly have something to do with my ancestors. I wrote to the Minister for Housing a couple of weeks ago, as soon as I learned what had been going on. I wanted to know why Government officials had met developers and local authority staff to consider building in my constituency without letting my local authority or me know. So far, I have had no reply.

The Deputy Leader of the House will respond to the debate. Although she will probably not be able to explain why I have received no reply, or give me the answer that I need, I hope that she will make sure-post haste-that her colleague replies to me. The anger in my constituency will only be compounded if Ministers fail to tell us about what is going on, or to apologise for what has gone on so far.

Why do so many homes need to be built? Why have the targets been raised? Sixty per cent. of the additional homes that we need are simply the result of the existing population living in smaller households. That happens because people are leaving home earlier and living longer, and also-sadly-because families split up. The average household size declines each year, with the result that a county such as Hertfordshire-or anywhere else-needs roughly 0.5 per cent. more houses each year. That accounts for the 60 per cent. of additional homes to which I have referred. However, those additional homes will require little extra infrastructure. We will not need more schools or hospitals, and probably no more roads, electricity or water. We need that extra infrastructure only when there is an increase in total population, and that is exactly what is happening in this country.

The excellent report from the House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee highlighted the fact that net immigration into this country is causing a substantial increase in population. Based on the Government Actuary's projection, I calculate that our net population will increase by 190,000 a year through net immigration-and, of course, we must not forget those people's offspring. Indeed, nearly 40 per cent. of the new households that we need in this country will be the result of the policy of allowing immigration to exceed by so much the number of people returning home or emigrating.

The Economic Affairs Committee report also said that two thirds of the new households in Greater London are the result of net immigration. Although there is remarkably little direct immigration into Hertfordshire, we see its consequences. People of all ethnicities move out of London into the county and, individually, they are welcomed-after all, many of the people in Hertfordshire came from London originally. However, the net inflow into London has also produced a huge net outflow. Much of it has been into Hertfordshire, and that is what has created the problems that I have described.

We have had 17 statements about housing demand and supply in the 25 years that I have been a Member of Parliament-no, 17 statements in the 10 years that the Government have been in power-not one of which has mentioned net immigration as a cause of the extra demand and the need for extra supply. So, the Government have been trying to obscure what is going on.

Personally, I have always taken the view that most immigrants are not, as they are often caricatured, scroungers, criminals or welfare-dependent. They are hard-working, law-abiding, decent people who want to come to this country to work hard for the benefit of themselves and their families and to make a contribution to society, but they need homes. It would be monstrous to allow people to come to this country and then not to provide the additional homes that they will need in due course. I want to highlight the hypocrisy of parties that encourage immigration and oppose restrictions on immigration but then campaign against the need to build additional houses whenever and wherever it occurs. I hope that the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) is listening to my remarks, because he has said in the past that one way in which he diverges from me and cannot understand me is on my desire to place a restriction on immigration to this country.

Simon Hughes indicated dissent.

Mr. Lilley: The hon. Gentleman said so in a debate on the subject, and he can look it up in Hansard, if he has any desire to resile from that position. I hope that he will have words with the Liberal Democrats in my constituency, who oppose every proposal to build houses, while not being prepared to do anything about the cause of a larger population in this country.

Simon Hughes: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Lilley: I will give way to the hon. Gentleman in a moment, as soon as he has thought of a good line to take.

My hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough said that his had been a lone voice in highlighting the issue-not quite alone, because I have been doing so for some while. In 2005, I published a pamphlet called “Too Much of a Good Thing? Towards a balanced approach to immigration”. Instantly, of course, Liberal and Labour opponents declared that I must be a racist, because I was discussing immigration. They were laughed out of court, because people in my constituency know that I have spent the past 25 years working extremely hard with the Bangladeshi, Pakistani and Sikh communities to integrate them into the broader community. So that attempt to silence me did not work and probably rebounded on those opponents, as was shown in the subsequent election result.

Simon Hughes: I am very happy to continue a conversation later with the right hon. Gentleman, but, first, I have never taken the view that there should be no limit on immigration. That would seem an illogical view
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to take given this country’s size. Secondly, I was a dissenter in my own party when the view was taken that we should have no delay in the new east European entrants being allowed in immediately. I took the view that we should do as the French and others did, which was to have a gradual process, which was eventually done for Bulgaria and Romania. Thirdly, I am certainly always willing to engage with colleagues from any party, if they believe that they cannot have extra house building in their own communities when the population nationally is going up. I spend a lot of my time telling my own colleagues as well as others that everywhere must take its fair share of additional housing and the additional number of people who come to this country.

Mr. Lilley: That is good; I shall be able to quote the hon. Gentleman to his colleagues in Hertfordshire, and I suspect that they will disown him as he has effectively disowned them.

I want to comment on two aspects of the Government’s response so far to the Lords Committee report on immigration. First, they revert to asserting, “But still net immigration contributes £6 billion a year to the economy.” They are using a half-truth in a way that would be monstrous if they were to use the other half. It is true that immigrants contribute an extra £6 billion in goods and services to the gross domestic product, but it is equally true that they consume £6 billion in goods and services from GDP. It would be monstrous if anyone said therefore that immigrants are a net burden of £6 billion on the economy, but that could be done with as much veracity as Ministers saying that immigrants are making a net contribution of £6 billion. Immigrants produce £6 billion, and they consume £6 billion. Most of us roughly consume as much as we produce. Indeed, the nature of Government statistics means that they automatically produce as much as they consume.

Mr. Stewart Jackson: Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is strange that in the week when the 10p tax rate was abolished-a change that will affect 5.2 million people who earn between £5,000 and £18,000-the Lords report found that it is the low-skilled, low-wage work force who, under a Labour Government, will be most disadvantaged by the policy of uncontrolled and unfettered immigration?

Mr. Lilley: It is, and that is an indictment of those who have tried to pretend that that is not happening. The Lords Committee made the important point that if we try to meet so-called labour shortages-skills shortages-by importing skills from abroad rather than by skilling-up our own people and rewarding those who acquire those skills, we will permanently keep an unskilled, low-paid element of our population. That is one of the most malign consequences of the policy that the Government have been pursuing for the past 10 years-a policy that I hope they will bring to an end as a consequence of the report.

Ministers have commented on the Lords Committee’s suggestion that a limit or broad target be set annually to bring about a more balanced relationship between immigration into the country, and emigration and return from it. The Government’s response has been, “That’s nonsense; the policy affects only a fifth of those coming into this country. Those who come here from the EU,
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those who come here as students and relatives of people who live here would not be covered by it,” but exactly the same is true of their points-based system, which they flaunt as though it will be the solution to high levels of immigration. They cannot have it both ways. The truth is that we should return to the situation that we were in before the Government were elected, when we had much firmer control and restrictions on immigration, and allowed people to come and settle here only if they were genuinely needed-the aim was not that they should effectively replace the existing population.

I want to turn to a matter that was raised by a number of hon. Members in this debate and in the previous debate-the issue of drink and drugs. As was emphasised by a constituent who recently came to my surgery, too often we put too little emphasis on the problems of drink, relative to the problems of drugs. My constituent has benefited from the care provided by Hertscare, a local anti-addiction organisation to which she paid tribute, and I join her in paying that tribute. She felt that it was not given enough resources to cope with those who suffer from alcoholism, as compared with those who suffer from drug addiction. It is important that we get the balance right, because overall the damage done by addiction to alcohol is at least as great, if not greater, than that done by drugs.

Earlier today we had a debate about drug policy. One aspect of it concerned the response to rumours that the Government’s Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs is to reject the Prime Minister’s suggestion that the cannabis classification be upgraded again-it was downgraded at the request of his predecessor on the advice of that body. As far as I know, I am the only Member of the House who has served as a Front Bencher, both in government and in opposition, who has never taken cannabis and has no desire to take cannabis-

Mr. Burns indicated dissent.

Mr. Lilley: Sorry; shall we say the only Cabinet-level Member who has not taken cannabis? It seems particularly true of Cabinet Ministers that they find themselves forced to admit that they have tried cannabis. I have not taken it, and as a result I have a clear enough head to know that one cannot enforce or defend a policy of banning cannabis in a country where we allow nicotine and alcohol. It simply does not work, has not worked and will not work.

I draw the attention of the House to another of the prescient pamphlets that I wrote some years ago, “Common Sense on Cannabis,” arguing that if we try to outlaw cannabis use, the danger is that we will drive soft-drug users into the arms of hard-drug pushers. All too often, we push people into the arms of those who persuade them to move on to heroin and cocaine. In that pamphlet, I put forward the highly unpopular policy that we should not simply de-penalise the sale of cannabis, but legalise it in a controlled fashion.

At the time, the pamphlet caused quite an upsurge of interest, and there was a great deal of support for it on the Labour Benches. It was that which caused Tony Blair to invite the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs to consider downgrading cannabis-a typical
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Blairite response that achieved the worst of all possible worlds. It was an attempt to manipulate the headlines to make it appear that he was doing something that would appease his Back Benchers who wanted a more liberal policy, without in fact altering the law in any significant way. It sent out the signal that cannabis use was tolerated, while leaving it against the law and allowing no method of getting it except from gangs who also push hard drugs.

Now we are seeing the new Prime Minister doing the same smoke and mirrors thing, thinking he can give the impression that he is doing something substantive by asking for cannabis to be upgraded again. These things are second order and not important. What we need is fact-based, evidence-based realism on the issue of drugs, and that we clearly will not get from the present Prime Minister, any more than we did from his predecessor.

I hope the House as a whole will not rule out listening to or taking the advice of the advisory council before we have even heard it. I do not know what it will say or what evidence it will present. When it has offered evidence and advice, I will examine it. If it causes me to change my mind, I will change my mind, but I will not say that we should accept it or reject it before we have even heard what it is.

Simon Hughes: I share the right hon. Gentleman’s view. I have always taken the view that if one sets up such an eminent body to advise, there must be a mighty good reason for not accepting its advice. Our system should presume that the advisory council’s recommendation would have effect unless Parliament consciously votes to overturn it. If the Government could step away from that, we would have a much better debate and outcome.

Mr. Lilley: That is a valid point, although I would not go that far. We should not hand over and put out to commission the powers of the House. If the advisory council offers advice, we should consider it. It may be good advice or bad advice, but I always took the view that Ministers are responsible for the advice that they take and should never blame their advisers. The House is responsible for the advice that it takes and should not leave it entirely to its advisers, but it should listen to the advice before it rules out taking it or commits itself to taking it.

No Adjournment speech would be complete without a reference to post offices, and mine in particular would not be. There is some poetry by Walter Scott, I think, although I cannot quite remember it-something about “Sadder than owl-song in the evening breeze, Is that cry of woe, ‘I told you so.’”

I was the Secretary of State at the Department of Trade and Industry responsible for the network of post offices, then I moved on at the Department of Social Security to be their main customer and source of revenue. I had to consider at that stage whether we should go down the line that the Government have decided to go down, and make people receive payment, wherever possible, through the banks rather than through the post offices, and thereby potentially save-as the prospect was offered to me when I was Secretary of State-£400 million on the contract that the DSS had with the post offices.

I decided that that would be a false saving, because making that saving on the DSS contract would so undermine those post offices that the Government would
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have to step in to subsidise them. Indeed, it would cost more than £400 million to subsidise and maintain them. Why? The Government paying pensions and other benefits through the post office was unique, and people left the post office with more money than they entered with, so they spent some of it there. That created footfall and custom. It meant that the-

Barry Gardiner (Brent, North) (Lab): Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Lilley: I will, in a second. Hon. Members: He has just come in! There seems to be a general view that I should not give way, because the hon. Gentleman has not been in the Chamber for long, and I think I have been speaking for too long. Equal weight should be given to both points, and I shall endeavour to move on.

I therefore concluded that we ought to try to make the post offices as low cost as the banks in delivering cash, and I introduced a computerisation programme that was designed to achieve that. For a year or two after the Labour Government came to power, we were told that that was going according to budget and plan, but then they suddenly announced that it was not, cancelled it, pocketed what they thought was the saving and found themselves going down exactly the route that I predicted. That is why we are in this position now.

I do not know whether it is possible to go into reverse at this stage and find some way to reduce the costs of delivering benefits and pensions through the post offices, but if we could do that we would undoubtedly increase their viability no end and avoid the need for subsidies and for so many closures. However, we ought to put the blame where it is due, which is on Ministers who adopted the policy against the advice of their officials. I have constantly asked Ministers to acknowledge that they were told that that would be the consequence, but they have refused either to admit it or to deny it-I am sure that they would have denied it, if they had been able to. They have deliberately created the situation in which we find ourselves, and they cannot escape the blame for that.

I hope that the Members of Parliament who are gathering on both sides of the House to hear my closing remarks have an excellent recess and use it to read not only the two pamphlets that I wrote, which I mentioned earlier, but, probably even more importantly, the House of Lords report on an issue that is one of the most important to our constituents. Indeed, according to all the opinion polls, it is now considered among the most important issues by our constituents, for the obvious reason that they can see what is going on and do not need the Lords report to point it out in the way in which we experts do. I wish you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, a very happy recess.

 

 

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