Tuesday 11 November 2008
[Hugh Bayley in the Chair]
Housing (Greater London)
Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Chris Mole.]
May I remind hon. Members that last week Mr. Speaker made a statement saying that all hon. Members, officers and staff of the House who wish to observe a two-minute silence at 11 o’clock this morning will be able to do so? Therefore, at 11 o’clock I will be standing and I hope that those hon. Members who are in this Chamber will join me at that time.
I welcome this debate and I acknowledge your point, Mr. Bayley, so we will finish in good time to allow us to observe the two-minute silence.
This is not the first debate that we have had on housing in London and it certainly will not be the last. A number of recidivists are here, including my hon. Friend the Member for Regent’s Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck) and the Minister. I guess that we will debate the matter quite a few more times, because the housing situation in London is difficult and, for the constituents whom my colleagues and I represent, it is dire.
There is a huge amount of housing stress. The current financial problems—the credit crunch—have exacerbated these difficulties, with a number of people moving into negative equity, although I suspect that a lesser proportion have moved into negative equity in London than in other parts of the country. There are also problems with repossession and there is a huge level of stress among owner-occupiers.
London housing is expensive, both in the private rented sector and in the purchasing sector. The lending policies of many of the banks and building societies over the past few years—lending astronomical proportions of people’s income, often relying on two incomes—mean that there is a serious crisis if one partner loses a job or does not get the bonus that was expected. I hope that the Minister will offer us some assurance about the behaviour of the banks and the building societies on the repossession policy, because repossession of a property benefits almost nobody; it is a disaster for the family concerned and is traumatic for the children of that family, which often ends up homeless and a charge on the public assets anyway. I hope that, since we have put £34 billion into the banks and given a huge amount to them in loans, we will use the power of public ownership of the banks—or at least part public ownership—to enforce on them a much more humane, rational policy on lending and repossessions. That does not just apply to London; it applies to the whole country.
Broadly speaking, 58 per cent. of Londoners live in owner-occupation, 9 per cent. live in housing association properties, 19 per cent. in private rented accommodation and 14 per cent. in local authority properties. Those figures are from a couple of years ago and I suspect that the number in owner-occupation has gone down, the number in private rented has gone up a great deal and the number in local authority accommodation has probably remained roughly the same.
The problem in London is that housing is so expensive that local authorities are not building as much as one would hope. The housing associations have similar problems. So many people are having difficulty buying that they are forced into the private rented sector—indeed, many are forced into the private rented sector by local authorities that have nowhere to put them or because the housing associations cannot do it. On top of that, the number of starts, particularly in the private sector, has decreased a great deal—by 19 per cent. in one year, in respect of the relevant quarters. The number of starts by registered social landlords—that is, housing associations—is roughly the same. However, the number overall has gone down. The number of completions has also gone down. We are looking at an acceleration of decline, which is a difficult situation to be in.
The useful briefing provided by the Greater London authority states:
“London has by far the greatest housing needs of any English region…50,000 households are homeless and living in temporary accommodation in London, and around 200,000 households are overcrowded.”
We also have
“the highest house prices in England, with acute affordability problems in most boroughs…In the last three years nearly 75,000 new homes were built in London, 34 per cent. of which were affordable homes (either social rent or products such as shared ownership for those on intermediate incomes). These figures do not include several thousand vacant homes returned to use and non self-contained units in hostels and halls.”
I mention that because the word “affordability” is thrown around too easily when we talk about housing needs in London. The reality is that, certainly in my constituency and, I suspect, in those of my colleagues, there is no possibility for 80 to 90 per cent. of the people that I represent to buy a home in the community where they live. The figures vary across London, but there is probably no constituency where even half can afford to buy within their community. This is a serious crisis.
The reality is that we are not building enough homes. The Housing Federation briefing states that we are
“not building enough homes. Only two thirds of the social homes needed in the capital each year are being built and, overall, London needs at least an extra 11,000 new homes a year…The number of people made homeless in London last year outstripped the number of new social homes built. Over 15,000 families were accepted as homeless by London councils last year. But fewer than 11,500 new social homes were built.”
In other words, the number of people who are homeless is increasing; the social disaster is getting worse. It goes on:
“House prices cost over 14 times the average Londoner’s income and private rents are more than twice as expensive as social rents…In 2007, the average cost of a London home was £355,000…Buying at the cheapest end of the London market still requires an income of over £56,000, more than double median earnings in the capital.”
This is a disastrous situation.
I welcome what the hon. Gentleman says. If I can catch your eye, Mr. Bayley, I hope to elaborate on some of the points. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is utter madness to consider the plans for a third runway at Heathrow, where 3,000 or 4,000 homes will be demolished, when the number of homes and houses is so pitifully short in the London area?
I am completely with the hon. Gentleman on the future of Heathrow airport. I am opposed to the third runway for many reasons, including the potential loss of housing if it goes ahead. That will not necessarily make an enormous difference to the huge housing issue that we are dealing with across London, but it is one of many factors.
Before I go into how we look at and deal with the problem—the solutions—I ask hon. Members to think for a moment about the issues facing people in London: a higher proportion of their income than in any other part of the country goes on housing; house prices are the highest of anywhere in the country; the housing waiting lists are the longest; the housing transfer lists are the longest; the number of people who are homeless is the highest; the number of people living in hostel accommodation is the highest; and the number of people who are totally homeless is the highest in the whole country. Those things have a huge effect on society in lots of ways.
I represent an inner-city constituency, which, like all other inner-city constituencies in London, is a peculiar nexus, being both very expensive to live in and very poor at the same time. The stresses caused by housing problems are huge. There are people who, if they could dispose of their housing assets, are theoretically capital rich. However, in reality, they are often cash poor because they spend such a huge proportion of their income on mortgages.
Some people live in council or housing association accommodation that, by any stretch of the imagination, is grossly overcrowded. That means that if one child gets sick, all the children get sick; if one child cannot do his or her homework, none of the children can do their homework; if one child cannot bring friends home, none of the children can bring their friends home. Gradually, we end up creating a situation in which the children of such families are underachieving in school, the families concerned suffer from poor health and the teenagers of such families spend more time out of the home than they necessarily want to because there is no space for them to entertain or be at home. That therefore leads to the problems of underachievement in education, and increasing rates of social disorder and crime.
Frankly, children’s lives are being wasted because they do not have anywhere decent or reasonable to live and they cannot survive in the family unit. Too often, that leads to family break-up. How many of us, as London MPs, have sat in our advice bureaus and listened to the most heartrending stories of people who live in grossly overcrowded conditions? Families cannot survive if there are three or four children living in a one-bedroomed flat, as, unfortunately, is often the case. The local authority then sends a letter to such families which states that they do not have enough points for the bidding scheme. London is awash with people who are desperate to get the local paper every Thursday to start the choice-based letting process. By the end of the day or a few days later, such people are disappointed and it is up to us to try to do something about it.
Another important aspect is the effect of the problem on single people in London. Household structures are changing rapidly across the whole country. Although the notion of the two-parent, two-child household clearly exists in many parts of the country, it is less and less becoming the norm. People live much more complicated lives and many more people choose to live a single existence. I have faced the problem—I am sure colleagues have, too—that when single people who are threatened with homelessness, or who are homeless, arrive at my office or advice bureau, there is nothing I can do for them unless they have a serious medical condition. Virtually all local authority lettings policies—understandably, I suppose—give greater weight to people with medical conditions, older people, families or children. They put almost no emphasis at all on the needs of single people.
I have met people who have a reasonable job as sales representatives in a shop, for example, but who sleep in cars and go to a public toilet in the morning to freshen up and make themselves look smart for the day. They then go and work in west end shops and go back to sleep in a car at night because they cannot afford the deposit for a private rented flat. Even if they could afford to take on a flat, they cannot afford the rent. We must do something about that. Changing the allocation policy is part of the action we need to take, but we also need to build far more places to rent.
I have mentioned the high social cost, which is disastrous for many people who suffer from housing problems as a result of the housing shortage in London. However, there is also a big financial cost because all local authorities have built hardly any or no properties at all during the past 20 years. The social building that has taken place has been largely done by housing associations. Under right-to-buy legislation, local authorities have been forced to sell a large number of properties. There is a declining public sector, and an increasing demand on that public sector. Local authorities can no longer house people in council housing association places, so they are forced to place families in private rented accommodation. Sometimes the local authority will pay the deposit and sometimes it will have a leased arrangement with people. Such accommodation is very expensive.
Last week, we had a debate about rented accommodation, and I am sure the Minister understands that there is an over-convenient relationship between most London local authorities and local letting agencies. Local authorities simply call such agencies and say that they need 50, 100 or 200 flats and they produce them. However, it seems that little inspection is made of those places. The places I have visited are disgusting, and that is reflected in the reports that I have read. People are forced to live in such conditions; they have no choice because that is where they have been placed. The rent levels are not cheap; in fact, they are phenomenally high. I know families who are paying—or are having paid for them through housing benefit—£300 or £400 a week for inadequate accommodation.
I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman; he makes an important point. Does he agree that part of the difficulty is that there is a relationship between local and central Government in relation to the housing benefit rules? That also makes the problem of affordability acute. I endorse what he said about the appalling human cost, which applies even in relatively wealthy boroughs, such as the city of Westminster—as it does, of course, in Islington.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. We must deal with housing benefit with great care. First, I should state that I support the housing benefit system in the sense that it gives people the right, when they are on income support, jobseeker’s allowance or a basic state pension to receive support for their housing costs. I do not want to take that away from anybody.
However, I have a problem because, in effect, the local housing market is maintained by the housing benefit system, through which high rents are paid. That maintains what somebody decides is the market level and the problem goes on. The cost to the public is phenomenal. A few weeks ago, a family came to me who were living in a small, former council house. The rent was £420 a week. The house next door is still owned by the local authority and the local authority tenants were paying a rent of something like £100 or £120 a week. In other words, there is a £300 gap, which goes to somebody who bought the council place on a discount some years ago. Owners of former council houses can live off that money quite easily because their mortgage is probably small—or perhaps they do not have a mortgage. They can live off one property and we, the public, are paying the difference. We, the public, are paying a phenomenal amount of money to keep somebody in temporary accommodation, which normally involves a six-month contract. In the case I have mentioned, the property was in a reasonable condition, but often the conditions in which people live are appalling.
I am not given to quoting the Evening Standard; indeed, in many ways, I do not have a huge regard for the paper. However, yesterday it provided an interesting breakdown of housing benefit costs across London. The article states that they amount to £4,151 million—in other words, £4 billion a year is spent on housing benefit in London. As I have said, I have no problem with people receiving housing benefit. However, if we break down the figures further, the average cost created by people in private rented accommodation who receive housing benefit compared with those in social rented accommodation is more than double. We are subsidising a private rented system and something has to be done about that. I reiterate that I am not in favour of taking the right to housing benefit away from people and I am not in favour of red-lining. However, I am in favour of examining the problem. We must consider putting in place rent controls across London or the country, as the Labour Government of the 1970s did to deal with a similar housing crisis. We must be prepared to be bold in dealing with the problem.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that a difficulty with rent controls—this goes back to the first world war when they were first imposed—is that often the quality of housing stock can deteriorate rapidly? Although one might agree that it is right to make things affordable, often the unintended consequences of rent control can be disastrous, particularly for the poorest in our communities.
I recall that during the days of rent control, the rate was often so low that there simply was not enough money to pay for building repairs and maintenance. We must take account of the need to retain sufficient quality of housing and, of course, I understand that point. However, I think that during this crisis, we, the public, are being ripped off big time by the private landlords across London.
We must consider what action we should now take. When local authorities carried out large volumes of building work in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, most of it was a result of direct Government grants to local authorities—in some cases, through 60-year borrowing arrangements. Indeed, many hon. Members in the Chamber today are former councillors and will be well aware of that situation.
The housing association movement grew, and 70 per cent. of its capital expenditure was initially borne by central Government grant. Successively, local authorities have almost ceased building altogether. One or two of them are doing small amounts of building at present, and I hope that that is a good sign of a return to building. Housing associations increasingly have to borrow a higher proportion of their capital expenditure on the money markets and have increasingly stopped looking like social landlords or social associations. Increasingly, they look like property companies with a social conscience that have to borrow large sums to build. They build almost speculatively, and they expect to sell a proportion of whatever development they are doing. With what is left over, they are able to build for rent, which is the very purpose that they were set up for in the first place.
Increasingly, the social housing that we get in London is a result of planning agreements under section 106 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990, whereby there is a requirement that a proportion of the construction be left over for affordable housing, which means a combination of part-rent, part-purchase properties and direct social renting to people in desperate housing need. With the slow-down in the construction industry, there is an increasing number of mothballed or incomplete property developments across London. There are large numbers of unsold properties. There are also large numbers of stalled schemes, and it is unclear what will happen to them.
In this crisis—it is a crisis—I appeal to the Government to do a number of things. I appeal to them to change the regulations on the construction of private developments throughout the country, so that they meet the same standards as those that are required in the building of housing association properties. It is bizarre that, even if housing associations or councils have the money to buy up many of the unsold private places, they do not have the necessary room sizes and do not meet the energy standards—they are just not good enough. That is not right, and we need to do something about it. Surely, it is within the purview of the Government to do that.
I appeal to the Government to recognise that the social housing crisis can be dealt with only by accepting that the building of council housing or housing association property is an end in itself. It is not an add-on to what the private sector does. After the war, in the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s, there was consensus between the two major parties that we had to build far more housing for people in desperate need. There was not a huge debate about that. The debate was more about numbers than about whether to build. Now, we are simply not building anything like enough properties.
I ask the Government to consider seriously the issue of repossessions. As I said at the beginning of my contribution, they should ensure that the banks operate a reasonable policy and do not repossess homes willy-nilly. They should take people into their confidence and go through the best way of keeping them in the property. When all else fails and a family are threatened with repossession, it makes a lot of sense if the local authority has the power and the resources to buy the property, so that it becomes part of the local authority’s estate and the residents become the local authority’s tenants. In that way, we avoid the trauma and cost of homelessness and increase the housing stock all at the same time. It makes a lot of sense to use the public sector as a way to protect people from what could be a disaster for them and to increase the potential for housing throughout London.
I hope that the Minister will talk to me about the stuff that I and, I am sure, many of my colleagues read in the papers yesterday. The suggestion was that some blue-skies thinking is going on in his Department and that we are about to end the idea of council tenancies for life. The suggestion was that some policy wonk is working away on the idea of an annual or five-yearly review of the means of council tenants and that, if they are thought to be doing okay, they can be moved out of council tenancy and told to go and fend for themselves. That would be complete anathema to many people, particularly in the Labour party, who believe in housing as a right. I hope that the Minister will assure me that some crazy policy wonk has just gone off message. Perhaps whoever that person is could go off job as well and find something else to do, rather than fiddling about like this. They should use their undoubted imaginative talents on increasing the size of the social rented sector, rather than reducing it, as they seem to be doing.
My last point concerns what we do in London as a whole. Every local authority faces a huge housing problem. There is now some degree of centralised government across London through the Greater London authority and the mayoralty. The previous Mayor, Ken Livingstone, ordered that 50 per cent. of all major developments should be affordable properties, of which, roughly speaking, one third should be socially rented, the difference being those properties that are part-rent, part-purchase. He had a target right across London.
Unfortunately, the new Mayor, Boris Johnson, has abandoned the London-wide target and is telling everyone that he will deal with the matter by negotiating with each borough. It is an interesting idea that the Mayor will turn up and negotiate with each borough. I look forward to the video of the meeting between the Mayor and, for example, the royal borough of Kensington and Chelsea, the city of Westminster, Barnet, Bromley or Richmond. I can just see him turning up and, in his hugely charismatic way, saying, “I think you should build a few more social houses.” They will say no, and he will say, “Well, look, we’d like you to.” “No.” “Would you think about it?” “No.” “Oh, okay then, shall we have some more coffee?” I just do not envisage a tough defence of the needs of the public sector and the poor coming from the current Mayor of London.
The hon. Gentleman has made a caricature both of the city of Westminster, which I shall defend in a few moments, and of the Mayor, Boris Johnson, who is acutely aware that the targets of recent years under the previous incumbent of that post simply were not working. Let me give just one example that relates to the city of Westminster. The initial plan for the redevelopment around Victoria station involved, in effect, a section 106 agreement to allow £300 million of investment in Transport for London. Zero social housing would have been provided on that site, under the former Mayor. Because of the city of Westminster’s representations, the new proposals going through from Land Securities will ensure that there is some social housing on the site. Although I do not necessarily disagree entirely with the hon. Gentleman’s concern about cosy deals having taken place between mayors of particular parties and others in the past, it is also fair to say that that is something of a caricature that is not borne out by all cases.
This is work in progress, because we have not yet had the result, so far as I know, of any of the fabled borough-wide meetings. Indeed, I am waiting with bated breath to find out when the meeting with Islington will take place. It keeps being postponed and, I understand, not by the local authority but by the Mayor. He is obviously a very busy man, despite the fact that he lives in Islington. Never mind. I am not asking for special treatment; I am just asking him to understand that there is an issue.
The hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field) has talked about the social housing developments around Victoria station. Good. How many are there? Where are they? How many more are there in other places? My point is that a London-wide target is essential. The Mayor does have a strategic role and strategic responsibility and should exercise that strategic role and strategic responsibility. Leaving it to negotiations with the boroughs will not achieve what he wants; it will achieve far fewer places.
I will interrupt the hon. Gentleman only briefly, because I know that other hon. Members want to speak, but perhaps he will help me on this point. If the previous Mayor’s rigid approach to the 50 per cent. figure was so desirable, why was it that, according to the figures that the hon. Gentleman cited at the beginning of his speech, he delivered only 34 per cent.?
The 50 per cent. target was very desirable and I supported it, as I imagine many Members did. It was not achieved, because it relied far too much on large-site development, rather than small-site development, and there was a degree of opposition to it among developers, who claimed that they could not financially stack up particular developments. In my borough, for example, we have a system whereby anything above 10 units has to include a social proportion. That is fine. The problem is that most of the developments are very small. The number that come in at eight or nine units to avoid the social requirement is miraculous. Alternatively, sites are broken up to avoid that social responsibility.
We need a Mayor who is tough, who will intervene and who will deliver social housing for the people of London; but on the evidence so far, I am not confident that Boris Johnson has that as his highest priority. He has also fiddled around with the division between rented and part-rent, part-purchase properties. In the inner-city areas, the part-rent, part-purchase, so-called affordable properties are not affordable to the majority of people who live locally. They are not affordable to the majority of people in housing stress. There are only one or two boroughs where that is not the case.
London faces a housing crisis—a crisis for people in rented accommodation, those in council accommodation, those who rent privately and those who are owner-occupiers and pay very high mortgages. We need Government intervention to ensure that we conquer that housing crisis and provide homes for rent, with security of tenure, for those who need them. We need intervention to do that. Leaving it to the market will make the situation worse and increase homelessness, poverty and the social disorder that comes from that. In his reply, I hope that the Minister will tell us that the Government will invest in homes and young people, to prevent people from ending up with poor-quality lives, because of the poor-quality property that they are expected to live in.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) on securing the debate. In my speech, I shall tackle some general issues and then one specific issue.
Let me say first that we are in a crisis, which will get worse because of the problem of repossessions. In my advice bureau in Ilford, North, I have seen people who, 12 or 18 months ago, would never have expected to need to come to me for help with housing. Secondly, it is not necessarily helpful to try to blame anyone. I do not come at this subject from the angle of saying whether the last Mayor did well, or what the next Mayor is doing, because that is not relevant. My constituents are worried about what affects them today, here and now.
I believe that the banks have a role to play. In the past few weeks, constituents have told me that the banks’ attitude toward people who can no longer meet their mortgage costs has been less than sympathetic. The Government have announced that they intend to do more to ensure that banks are more caring than they have been in the past. That is a vital step toward solving some of the crises that we might find ourselves in.
I am not sure what “affordable homes” mean in London. Incomes are declining—in the past few weeks, I have met constituents who have been asked to take a 25 or 30 per cent. drop in salary to maintain their job. They are doing that to stay in employment and I understand the reasoning behind it, but none the less, what was affordable a few months ago, is not affordable now. We need quality homes that people aspire to and are able to live in, whether that is achieved through the private sector or the public sector, through purchasing or renting.
The group I want to focus on comprises those families who are some of the most vulnerable in our community—families with children who have special needs. In the past few weeks, I have seen a rise in the number of families who have come to me because the husband, wife or partner is now out of work and they can no longer afford the mortgage. I have seen break-ups in marriages and, I am sorry to say, some attempted suicides. The effects on those vulnerable children are drastic, so I want particular emphasis to be given to helping some of those needy families.
The problem affects all sections of our community. It is not limited to those on low incomes: nowadays, everybody is affected. I will cite two cases—obviously without names—that have been brought to my attention during the last few weeks. One is the case of a husband and wife with two children; one child is high up on the autistic spectrum, and the other also has special needs requirements. The parents have been notified by one of our leading banks, which said that it would be sympathetic, that the family need to vacate their property and that a court case would be brought against them if they did not do so. The parents have missed three months’ mortgage payments—that is all—and they asked for a mortgage holiday while they sought employment. That request was declined.
I am fairly confident that, if the case reaches court, the home will not be repossessed—certainly, what I heard in yesterday’s statement from the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government leads me to believe that that will not happen. However, it is wholly wrong to put the family in that position and to cause them that worry and stress when they are trying to look after their children. It is simply wrong. I am not convinced that the banks are listening.
The second case is more disturbing. I was contacted by a constituent who can no longer afford their home. That has been the case for nine to 10 months. That person contacted me and told me that they were so depressed that they wished to end their life. Fortunately, I was able to contact their general practitioner, who visited them and we were able to stop that person from doing anything silly. We were able to take an account of their problems. The situation was caused purely because they no longer had enough money. Their fuel and food bills have gone up—I know that we are seeing some fuel and food prices coming down, but they are still at almost record levels. It is unacceptable in 2008 that people feel they no longer wish to live because of the situation that they are in.
If I look at my own constituency, as the hon. Member for Islington, North said earlier, I see building projects that included affordable homes, which were started as long as a year ago, but on which no further work is being done. Workers have been pulled off because the developers, whoever they are, can no longer afford to pay the staff. They are concerned about selling the houses that they were planning to sell, and because of that, the building work has stopped. I urge the Government to try all possible ways to get that work recommenced, because if those houses go into the market, people will be able to rent them and get out of the problems that they are in.
I will finish my contribution—you gave us six minutes, Mr. Bayley, and I am just coming up to that—by saying that it is vital that we try to allow people to stay in their own homes. However, we should not encourage the suggestion made in some radio advertisements, which state, “We can take your home off your hands in 24 hours, and you can rent it back from us and buy it back in years to come.” The rents charged are exorbitant, verging on criminal, unacceptable, and must be stopped.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) on securing this important debate. No doubt some of the points that he made will be reinforced to a degree.
I have four key points to make. First, to state the obvious, the model of affordable house building and delivery, which has in recent years increased the supply of affordable housing—particularly in London under the former Mayor, but across the rest of the country as well—is broken. We must accept that and respond to it. It is broken as a consequence of the crisis that was imported from the American sub-prime market into our economy and because our affordable house delivery programme has been so heavily predicated on section 106 deals and the sales programme of shared-ownership properties.
My hon. Friend the Minister will be aware that in London alone, according to the G15 group of major housing associations, there are £1 billion-worth of unsold shared-ownership properties. Because those properties stand empty and unsold, a cash-flow crisis is created for social housing providers and registered social landlords, which makes it impossible for them to proceed with delivery beyond the current financial year.
We need a radical Government rethink, in both the very short term and the longer term, about how to get back on target for the affordable housing delivery programme. In my view, that should include the ability to buy on the open market. We also need a rethink of subsidy arrangements for the longer term. We cannot afford to allow the consequences of this financially led crisis to impact on those who are in most desperate need of satisfactory housing, whether the people on medium to low incomes who want to buy and are unable to, or the many hundreds of thousands of people who are trapped in desperate housing need. There is particular pressure on family-sized accommodation. Under the section 106 sales-led delivery programme, such accommodation has not been delivered for a great many years. That, of course, has impacted upon housing need.
Although we have seen welcome measures—I am sure that there will more—to inject liquidity into the home ownership market and to assist the restarting of first-time buying, the risk is that the needs of those in housing need will be overlooked. I thank my hon. Friend the Minister for coming to my constituency to meet homeless families in temporary accommodation and families in severely overcrowded accommodation. He has seen for himself the conditions they live in. The threat of the current situation—it was difficult enough before—is that there will be an even greater pincer movement on the availability of social housing, which will make their situation worse. Already, one London household in 10 is on the social housing waiting list. Overcrowding is rising in the United Kingdom, and 750,000 Londoners live in overcrowded accommodation.
Although the Government made a move this time last year to introduce new guidance on overcrowding and to put some money into research, it is important that momentum is stepped up on that front. The guidance needs to be issued, because we have two conflicting and incompatible systems of measurement for overcrowding. We need to drive ahead on the information and on measures to tackle overcrowding. That could include deconversions and extensions, which could go a considerable way to helping, as well as cash incentives.
We also need to recognise the needs of homeless households. I say again to my hon. Friend the Minister—I have a meeting with him soon, for which I am grateful—that it is absolutely unacceptable to treat homeless households as we do, shipping them out of areas where they have strong local connections. I have sent my hon. Friend information on two such households in my constituency this week. In one, a young mother with post-natal depression whose family has lived for 80 years in the Church street area, was sent to Barking and Dagenham. In the other, a young man who has lived for 27 years on the Lisson Green estate and who has three children in local schools, is commuting every day, as many families do.
I wish to make a couple of quick points. As my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North said, the abolition of the borough delivery target threatens progress on affordable house delivery, which was just becoming significant. Westminster city council achieved 11 per cent. of its affordable housing delivery target over the last two years, which is completely unacceptable. However, I very much welcome the £36 million that the Housing Corporation has invested in delivery. The target became legally binding only recently, so it was too early to see its fruits. It is dangerous that it is being torn up.
Finally, my hon. Friend touched upon the article on short-term tenancies on the front page of The Times yesterday. I believe that the subject was investigated thoroughly in the Hills review. John Hills was specifically charged with considering that subject, and came up with no evidence to support such a proposal. Indeed, he stated that there were strong arguments against a system of review based on coercion, and that
“A threat to security of tenure…would be controversial, to say the least”.
He said that that was so for a number of good reasons, including perverse incentives. I rely utterly on the wisdom and thoughtfulness of the new Housing Minister and of my hon. Friend the Minister here today to ensure that this ridiculous and fashionable dogma that has suddenly reared its head again is crushed, as it deserves to be.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) on securing this debate. It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck), who has initiated similar debates previously.
Although the debate highlights the crisis that we all feel and see, it is slightly reassuring to hear that it affects boroughs other than our own. Week after week, we sit in our constituency surgeries hearing the tragic cases of people who cannot find housing. There is a great deal of frustration, which I am sure other hon. Members here today share. People come to us, seemingly as a last resort, but there is very little that we can do except speak to the housing authority and see whether anything further can be done.
The fact of the matter in most cases, as we have heard, is that no housing stock is available. As I have tried to explain to some of my constituents, it is not the borough’s deliberate policy to stop people having a house. It simply does not have the stock. It is incredibly difficult to explain that, and I can understand why people’s frustration often boils over. I would hate to work in a housing department—indeed, I pay tribute to those who do. We listen to such problems in our surgeries, but those working in housing departments listen daily—hourly—to people who are desperate to get a home.
The hon. Member for Islington, North rightly pointed out the problems for families. I know of similar cases; I am sure that we all do. The idea of the old-fashioned nuclear family—the married couple with two kids—has changed. We now see people marrying for the second time who have to bring up kids from a first marriage. I am dealing with a case at the moment of a family with teenage children who are unrelated and of different sexes, but who are expected to share the same room. I am sure that that is not allowed, but it has to happen or the family will have nowhere to live. That is unacceptable.
The London borough of Hillingdon, which covers my constituency, has another housing problem—again, one that will be found in other areas. Brunel university is located in the borough, so student housing has taken up a lot of the private rented sector. It has also pushed up prices. I spent some time at London university living in private rented housing, so I am not blameless, but it is something that must be considered.
The frustration of local people is that they want to see their kids getting a place of their own and making a start, but it is not possible. Another effect is completely overstated, but it has to be said. When people come to my surgeries—again, I am sure that similar things happen elsewhere—one of the first things they say is, “Yes, but we live near Heathrow.” We know what that means: they think that asylum seekers will be pouring into the country and taking local homes. The facts do not back that up—it may be a small factor, but that is all. Unfortunately, in times of housing shortage, it is exactly such things that increase tension. It is something of which we must be aware.
We have not discussed this, because of the lack of time, but I think of older people, who often find themselves without suitable accommodation. We need more suitable accommodation for older people. I accept that some may not want to leave their present home, but if new homes are adapted and if they seem nice, they might be willing to move, thus freeing up accommodation for others.
We shall hear more about housing problems as a result of the current crisis. Things will become more and more difficult. My hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, North (Mr. Scott) spoke of a well known bank. What worries me is that many of the most vulnerable people go to mortgage lenders who not only charge incredible rates, but are ruthless when customers default. Such cases are difficult to deal with. We as MPs can talk to the banks and we might normally get a favourable response, but some of these mortgage companies are like the car clampers of the banking world: they take no interest in human misery.
Later today, we will be debating Heathrow. Given that the London borough of Hillingdon has an acute shortage of housing, it is incredible that the Government should be on the verge of giving the go-ahead to a scheme that would knock down 3,000 or 4,000 homes. No one knows exactly how many homes will go, but people who have lived in villages and communities for generations will be expected to find somewhere else to live. At present, there is nowhere else for them to go. I find that incredible. If only for that reason, we should not have the runway expansion at Heathrow.
This afternoon, if I am lucky enough to speak, I shall elaborate on my other reasons for taking that view, but we are talking this morning about housing provision. If we knock down 3,000 or 4,000 homes, it will make finding housing in west London even more impossible than it is now.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) and other speakers have said, there is a housing crisis in London—a crisis of temporary accommodation, of overcrowding and, above all, of affordability, which has not yet been resolved by the fall in house prices. An organisation with which many London Members will be familiar, London Citizens, conducted research on the housing affordability standard. It showed that for those on the London living wage, which is currently just below £8 an hour, the only type of affordable housing in London is social rented housing provided by council housing associations. That is the case for many of my constituents whether renting or buying in the private sector. Even many types of shared ownership housing are simply not affordable in London, which might not be the case for the rest of the country.
I look forward to hearing from the Minister what the Government’s response to the London housing crisis will be. London Labour MPs are preoccupied with the Mayor’s response and the steps that he and his advisers are taking, which are worsening the situation. We have heard about the abandoning of the 50 per cent. target. There is a myth that that target is difficult to achieve, but in its last three years of a Labour administration, Hammersmith and Fulham local authority achieved an 80 per cent. affordable housing target, split roughly 50:50 between intermediate and rented property, so although it might not be easy to achieve, it is possible.
The reason for abandoning that target has far more to do with London politics and the fact that the Mayor has surrounded himself with advisers from the right wing of the Conservative party, many of whom are from the old Porter regime or a younger generation of the same ilk. [Interruption.] It has its amusing side, but I am afraid that it is a serious matter for constituents.
The housing policy in my local authority area is to reduce the percentage of social housing—that is what the authority says it intends to do—despite the fact that that percentage is already below the inner-London average. To that end, it has three policies: the first is to build no new affordable homes; the second is to sell off existing affordable homes, and the third is to demolish existing estates.
I do not have time to discuss all the case studies that have been carried out, but I shall deal with one, because it is a good example of people being caught with their fingers in the till. A development in White City—the most deprived part of my constituency and the area with greatest housing need—was intended to provide 150 new homes, half of which would have been affordable, but when the Conservatives took over the administration of the council two years ago, they put that development on hold. They waited until the change of mayoralty, so that there would be no block imposed, and at that stage removed all rented affordable homes from the scheme. Effectively, the authority removed all the affordable homes, given that income levels of £30,000, £40,000 or £60,000 a year are needed to afford even the very few shared-ownership units on that development. The £12 million that the Housing Corporation provided to subsidise the affordable homes was sent back as not wanted.
Ironically, the Greater London authority’s own officers objected and said that
“a zero social rented development in this case would be a disproportionate approach”.
The Conservative-controlled committee ignored that and said that it would speak directly to the Mayor, which it did. Lo and behold, a week later the decision was reversed, meaning that there will be no affordable rented homes on that or any other sites developed in the borough. Other Conservative councils in London are seeking to follow that precedent.
In Fulham is the Imperial Wharf development, where permission for 241 affordable homes, including 191 affordable rented homes, was withdrawn from the developer, because they were not wanted. Very nearby is the Watermeadow Court development, which is to be demolished with the loss of 80 affordable homes. Obviously, the tenants will have to be rehoused; the opportunity cost of that is that doing so may use accommodation that would otherwise have gone to people in overcrowded accommodation or on the housing waiting list.
In addition, 60 good-quality units intended for homeless families have been sold off at market rates to produce capital receipts. Those families will either jump the housing queue or enter private rented accommodation, which will result in an extremely large bill for the taxpayer. Furthermore, plans are on the table to demolish up to seven, or part of seven, estates in the borough.
This problem will be cured only by Government intervention, which appears to be more fashionable these days than it has been in recent times. The implications of the policies in London that I have outlined are appalling for my constituents.
Does my hon. Friend agree that part of the response to some of these problems has been to expect those boroughs not in the heart of London or in the greatest housing to take the strain by providing more housing through sub-regional partnerships and by enabling people to apply for housing outside their own area? Does he also agree that that system has not worked, because many outer-London boroughs, such as Barnet and Croydon, have not provided housing or participated in the sub-regional partnerships? They have failed to take the strain off some of those inner-London authorities.
As always, I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for her intervention. There are two points there: first, people have a right—a human right, I believe—to continue to live where their families grew up, whether in central London or elsewhere. We have a duty to provide affordable housing in those areas. Secondly, clearly there is no willingness to do that. Families are being told to move out of the borough, and the council is actually boasting about the length of time that people will be on the waiting list—12 years before people will even be considered for a property. Homeless families turning up to the town hall are made to wait outside in the cold for several hours before being seen. However, as she said, when they are palmed off to outer London, there is clearly no willingness to accommodate there. This crisis bas been caused not just by the economic circumstances, but by political intervention. Only Government intervention will resolve that.
Thank you very much for your guidance, Mr. Bayley.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) on securing this very important debate and on sharing with us his heartfelt thoughts. Twenty years ago last month, I moved to his constituency. As is my wont, I recently walked around that area—Birnam road, just off Tollington park—and judging by the new development on the Durham road estate, things have been spruced up. However, that is not to take away from what he was saying. I am sure that there are some major problems within those estates.
Housing has been an issue close to the heart of London Members since the Great Reform Act. I am reading a quite fantastic book, which all Londoners should read: Jerry White’s “London in the Nineteenth Century”, which deals with housing crises back when London did not extend much beyond the boundaries of my constituency, and perhaps that of the hon. Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck). It discusses the problems of the rookeries and the slum clearances. Back then, housing was a major issue. The hon. Gentleman rightly pointed out that, in the aftermath of the second world war, and in the 1950s and 1960s, there was a united front politically in providing more housing in the capital. Although there are some disagreements—I am sorry about the tone of the comments of the hon. Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush (Mr. Slaughter), who is not in favour of the work of the Conservative-run Hammersmith and Fulham council—there is much broad agreement on some of the concerns that we all share.
I receive a huge postbag of letters from constituents on many subjects. After immigration and the antics of parking regulators in Westminster city council, housing is the third most commonly raised subject. Many poor working families in Westminster have lived there for generations, but are regarded as not being poor enough to qualify for council or other social housing. The waiting lists in inner London—I am sure that this applies equally to Islington, Westminster and Hammersmith and Fulham—are mind-boggling. The area has become over-polarised. One must be unfeasibly rich or unfeasibly poor to live in so much of central London. That has been a perennial problem in the centre, but it is now extending to much of the capital.
I do not want to say too much about The Times article yesterday. I have some sympathy perhaps with what the Government are trying to do. The notion of a secure tenancy for life that can be passed on down generations seems very much at odds with London mobility and diversity—the idea that those in the public sector would have security, but those in the private sector would not. However, that will be further explored in times to come.
Last month, I met representatives of the G15—a group of London’s largest housing associations, which house one in 10 Londoners, or some 700,000 people, and manage more than 400,000 homes. The group develops most of London’s new affordable housing each year, and aims to create balanced and sustainable communities. It offers a range of homes to ensure that estates do not concentrate poverty, but contain a vibrant mix of people and incomes.
The lack of capital liquidity to fund new housing schemes, the collapse in the financial viability of house builders and an acute lack of mortgage finance for those buying new homes are starting to cause real problems for London’s housing providers. Although affordable housing production is progressing, it centres only on schemes that were either in progress when the crunch arrived or could not be stopped. That will mean a reasonable number of completions this year, but a collapse in the programme next year and, conceivably, no programme at all in 2010-11 unless there is an engineered flow of mortgages for first-time buyers.
I will not say very much more. I hope that the Minister will tell us what will be done about the gap that I mentioned. There is a risk of us being complacent today because work is going on, but the effect of the credit crunch will have a major impact in three or four years’ time unless action is taken now to put some of the work in train. It is fair to say that many housing associations are building homes for all sections of the housing market, from social rented and shared-ownership homes to the intermediate market rent and market sales. As all hon. Members will agree, we need to maintain that broad mix in London’s communities. As well as offering homes for the poorest in society, we also need to provide better options for the people who are too rich to be able to rent socially, but too poor to buy in the market. That middle group has become ever larger in the communities that we represent. We want to have cohesive communities in which people do not feel the need, or desire, to move away from places in which they have lived and worked for some decades.
I have overstepped my time, but thank you, Mr. Bayley, for allowing me to make my contribution. I know that it is a very important subject to which all of us will return before too long.
I apologise for the state of my voice. I have a very bad cold, so I hope that you can hear me, Mr. Bayley.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) on securing this important debate. The hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field) described housing supply and lack of housing provision as an issue that is dear to the heart of every London MP. That is very true. As a fellow London MP, it is certainly an issue that is dear to my heart. Lack of housing, poor, overcrowded, unaffordable and unsuitable housing have all been mentioned today, and they are among the key issues brought to my own office every week. Like the hon. Member for Islington, North I hear the same stories week after week. We hear similar stories about how poor housing causes misery, breaks marriages, ruins health, destroys education and, most importantly, extinguishes hope for many families in London.
Up to 50,000 children are stuck in temporary accommodation in London. In my constituency, that represents one in 10 of Brent’s children. The continual moves and the unsuitable housing affects their ability to thrive at school. Just as they settle in one school, they are moved on somewhere else. If that temporary accommodation is also overcrowded, there is no way that they can do their homework. That point has been made by many hon. Members today.
More than 300,000 people are stuck on waiting lists for social housing in London, and 20,000 of those are in Brent, many of them in my constituency. That is an issue of both lack of supply and extreme demand. Falling house prices will not necessarily help the matter. As mortgages become less affordable, we expect a knock-on effect on the affordability of renting as well.
Many hon. Members mentioned cases from their own constituencies. I want to mention a couple from mine. Mr. H. has been on the housing list since 1984. He is in band C, so he is classed as someone in housing need. He is disabled and unable to work. He is single, but he has children who do not live with him. He cannot get a property because he is a single man, which means he cannot get proper access to his children. Mr. H. has been left on the housing list under four different Prime Ministers and still has little chance of finding a home.
Miss G. was registered for re-housing 11 years ago. She was in band C but, after representations from our office, she was upgraded to band B two years ago. She is in a two-bedroom property with four children, all of whom share a bedroom. Her son suffers from autism and learning difficulties. He has to share with his sisters, which has affected all of them.
The hon. Member for Islington, North described other such heart-rending stories. The hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall) spoke about how often such stories tip over into racial tension. Housing is one of the few issues in my constituency—an area of probably unqualified tolerance—that will bring tension about immigration to the fore, which is why I hope the Government will now accord greater priority to the matter.
Like other hon. Members, I was very anxious about the ideas that were floated in The Times yesterday. We need to find new and innovative ways to deal with the lack of housing. We already have a situation in which a person has to have a severe physical and/or mental health problem—probably a drug problem—and probably also has to be a single mother to have any chance of social housing. It is hard to see how the situation can be improved if such people are threatened with eviction if they fail to look hard enough for a job, and also if they get a job and their circumstances change.
The Government must tackle the supply issue. I hope they will consider using the current downturn to take advantage of falling land prices to buy up land and properties, where appropriate. They will have to lift registered social landlords’ borrowing limits and extend that flexibility to local authorities. We have that opportunity, and we should not let it go by. We can deal not just with the current crisis, but with the long term.
The Government must be more flexible with their house-building targets. As the hon. Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck) mentioned, we have to accept that funding schemes through sales programmes will cause problems at the moment. I hope the Government will bring forward that subsidy and allow RSLs to fund their own building programmes through a greater proportion of subsidy rather than relying on private sales, otherwise we will end up with no build at all, which will mean that the Government miss their housing targets.
We must have a coherent programme to tackle the issue of empty properties. A number of hon. Members mentioned partially built properties. Developments that are not completed often lie empty. I said that RSLs should be able to buy up some of those properties. However, as the hon. Member for Islington, North mentioned, that will not always be appropriate because such buildings will not necessarily be of suitable size to meet the long-term needs of social tenants.
The Government could make better use of their own scheme, the empty dwellings management orders, to ensure that such buildings are put back into use for private rent. Moreover, I hope they will consider more short-term rent options. Other options exist in other countries in which property is brought into use on a short-term basis. We must be innovative when we consider this issue. It is no good for town centres to have many properties lying empty and available for squatters to inhabit when we have tens of thousands of people in the same area waiting on the housing list for more property.
On repossessions, it is vital that we do whatever we can to keep people in their homes. It will be a disaster not just for those individuals who lose their homes but for local authorities, because they will have to deal with even more people who are desperate for housing at a time when the system is creaking at the seams.
I have concerns about the pre-action protocol that the Government have announced. There is considerable doubt that the courts will enforce much of what is in the protocol. Instead, I hope the Government will consider amending the Banking Bill, which is going through Parliament at present, to put some of those things into law.
Housing is a vital issue that affects all of us here today regardless of our party. The Government have made a number of announcements recently to tackle the problem. Unfortunately, when we go through the detail, we find that there is not a great deal of action. I hope that that will change and that the Government will accord greater priority to the matter.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) on securing this important debate. His was a thoughtful speech. I do not agree with all of his analysis, but we have a good deal in common, which highlights how the issue affects all London Members of Parliament. All Members who have contributed to the debate have added aspects of their experience and perspective in dealing with it. It seems to me that everyone agrees that there is a serious problem. In tackling it, I hope that the Government will remember that what is important is what works, rather than what might seem rigidly or dogmatically attractive.
That is why I take a different view from some Government Members of the approach adopted by the current Mayor. I do not doubt the good intentions of the previous Mayor, with his 50 per cent. target, but the reality is that its rigid application did not work in practice. It delivered only about 34 per cent. affordable housing. That is why the current Mayor is right to adopt a more flexible approach. If we are to deliver more housing, as we all want to, it will certainly require the Mayor to use his housing powers vigorously—I do not dispute that for a second—but it will also require him to use those powers collaboratively with the London boroughs and the development industry.
I hope that the Government will be wary of responding to our current difficulties by falling into over-reliance on too rigid a form of intervention or regulation. Over-regulation in dealing with supply-side issues can sometimes have a perverse consequence, rather than helping. We must be flexible and pragmatic in our approach.
I suspect that a mayor might say that he will discuss it with that local authority in the same way that he would with the Labour mayor of the London borough of Newham, who has also argued strongly that significantly more privately owned housing is needed in his borough to create a more mixed community. The hon. Gentleman’s intervention highlights the danger of a rigid, one-size-fits-all approach. Newham in east London, like a number of inner-city boroughs, needs proportionately more privately owned accommodation to provide mixed communities; other boroughs have different needs.
I thank the hon. Gentleman. Is that not exactly the point? The more deprived boroughs are seeking a social mix through more privately owned accommodation. It is therefore essential that places such as Hammersmith, Westminster, Barnet and Croydon take a larger proportion of social housing, or we will end up with nothing.
The hon. Lady forgets that the rigid application of the Mayor’s 50 per cent. target led, in many well-documented instances, to sites being mothballed rather than brought on stream, and 50 per cent. of a mothballed site is nothing. Such measures do not achieve their objectives. I shall return to that point.
We also need to tackle the other perverse situations that have arisen due to the planning system. The London borough of Barnet, for example, has identified Colindale as an area where it would very much like to introduce housing regeneration, but a number of outer London boroughs suffer from the local government finance system: perversely, because they are on the floor, they get no benefit from any enhanced tax base gained through new housing development. Very often, the formula works to their detriment in such a way that they do not get the funding that they require for services for the extra population. The issue must be tackled at source.
We need to recognise that housing policy in the long term must address aspiration. Back in 2000, the London assembly produced a cross-party report demonstrating that 77 per cent. of key public sector workers in London aspired to buy. They will struggle to do so on current wages, but we certainly ought to help them achieve that aspiration, rather than blocking it. That is why the development of a healthy intermediate sector in London is all the more important.
A number of my hon. Friends, particularly the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field), referred to the key issue of those who are working, economically active and key to our city’s well-being, but who will never qualify for social rented accommodation. I hope that the Mayor’s housing strategy, which I gather is due to be published later this month for consultation, will address that need. London probably needs a greater percentage of intermediate, more flexible and more imaginative schemes to meet its housing need, and the Mayor seems willing to address that.
When we consider the disincentives, we also need to consider how planning rules have tended to work in the past. There is an issue about affordable family homes in both the intermediate and the social rented sectors. One problem is how density is calculated. It is often calculated on the basis of units rather than habitable rooms per hectare, so it is easy to meet the requirement by building a large number of flatted units rather than family homes. The new Mayor is alert to that perverse incentive, which needs to be dealt with.
The Mayor has set an overall objective of building some 50,000 affordable homes, which seems eminently deliverable. It is calculated consistently with the basis for the local area agreements, and the Government are therefore more likely to buy in. I think that the Mayor, as chairman of the London board of the Homes and Communities Agency, will use his £5 billion housing budget imaginatively.
Finally—I know that the Minister will want to respond—I hope that we can tackle the issue of repossession. My hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, North (Mr. Scott) referred to instances of it in his constituency; I have had the same experience in mine, in outer London. I recently visited Bromley county court, which is the third busiest in London. The judges there made it clear to me that they do their level best not to make possession orders but to suspend where the person is making an effort to pay, but the problem that they have found is that people often do not come to court or take advice early enough in the process and are sucked too far into debt by the time that they come before the court. That is why it is hugely important that changes in the legal aid scheme do not have the perverse consequence of reducing the amount of affordable legal advice available in high street solicitors’ firms and citizens advice bureaux. It is important to recognise that. There is good will on the part of the judiciary, but we need to help people prevent the problem from arising in the first place.
I hope that the partnerships with the boroughs will develop things such as aspiration under the first steps programme and by using some of the interesting models developed by organisations such as the Notting Hill Housing Trust, which has shown much more imagination in getting people into the intermediate market. We also need to make much more use of existing stock. I understand that the Mayor expects that a significant percentage of new housing will come through non-new build—making better use of existing stock—and that he will set a target that only 1 per cent. of London’s housing should be empty. That is a brave and challenging target, and it gives the lie to the idea that the Mayor is not willing to step up to the issue.
When the Mayor came into office, he discovered that Transport for London owned houses near the north circular, 87 per cent. of which were empty. That is not much of a record for the previous mayoral regime. The current Mayor has been unfairly criticised. The reality is that we will only tackle the problem if the Mayor and London boroughs of all parties work together to deliver products appropriate for London’s particular housing needs, which involve unique pressures and problems. I hope that the Government will continue to give London the flexibility to tackle those problems in a way that meets its specific needs.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Bayley. I think that I am the only non-London Member here. It is always a pleasure to discuss housing issues here because of the high quality of debate.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) on securing this important debate. He tackled the issue extraordinarily well in his usual articulate, eloquent and passionate style. One thing that he reinforced for me was that housing is not just about housing: it is about life chances. It is about giving children somewhere to do their homework, so that they can increase their educational qualifications. It is about having a well-ventilated and heated home, to reduce the risk of asthma and other respiratory diseases. It is about ensuring that people have a place to play in decent recreational and sporting facilities in their community. Good housing increases and improves life chances. Conversely, bad housing increases people’s stress levels and reduces aspiration and ambition.
Before I go on, I just want to congratulate the hon. Member for Brent, East (Sarah Teather) on her new post; I also hope that she feels better soon. I think that this is the first time that I have discussed housing matters with her. She may be interested to hear that the reason why I came in panting and out of breath was that I had just had a meeting with the Brent private tenants’ rights group about preventing homelessness among private rented sector tenants. It was an extremely important meeting about what we can do to improve quality in the private rented sector, alongside the Julie Rugg review. I am very keen to move forward and address some of the suggestions that emerged from the meeting.
We last examined housing back in April, when my hon. Friend the Member for Regent’s Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck) secured a debate on housing needs in the capital. Since April, things have moved on enormously. We have seen a new London Mayor elected and also an international economic downturn, the likes of which, as the Prime Minister has said in the House, we have not seen since the first world war. I have also had the opportunity to visit my hon. Friend’s constituency to see some of the issues that she has to tackle as part of her constituency case load, particularly with regard to overcrowding and the need to secure family accommodation. I was very grateful for the opportunity to make that visit, because it opened my eyes about what is needed in the capital.
We have addressed a range of issues today, but overall the debate reinforces the message that increasing housing supply is vital. It will not be a magic wand or some sort of panacea that will solve every housing problem. However, by increasing the supply of housing in the capital, we can tackle some of the acute problems that we face.
We need to increase the supply of housing because, despite the short-term financial turbulence, London remains a growing and successful world city—arguably the best city in the world. The London plan estimates that London’s population could grow to 8 million or more by 2016, with between 27,000 and 36,000 additional households a year before then. Indeed, London’s population could be as high as 8.7 million people by 2026. So we need to think about the needs of all Londoners—a point made by the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field)—and to maintain a good supply of homes for rent and sale, both affordable and market homes, to meet the wide-ranging and diverse demands of our city.
My hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North was very articulate about the fact that we are changing how we live. Families do not have the 2.2 children in a house that there used to be in previous generations, and people are living longer and their ambitions and aspirations are increasing. Housing tenure and housing stock must reflect those changing social and demographic factors.
I was really struck by the point that my hon. Friend made in his opening address that average house prices in London, despite short-term falls in the last few months, are 14 times the average salary of Londoners. That is the statistic that will stay with me from the debate, and it represents a problem that we need to tackle by improving and increasing the supply of housing and its affordability.
The average house price in London remains £340,000, so buying a house remains a problem even for those households on reasonable salaries. Despite recent progress, there are still almost 54,000 households in temporary accommodation in the capital—70 per cent. of the national total.
I said that we need to increase the supply of homes in the capital, and we have been building more homes in London in recent years. In 2006-07, more than 31,000 homes were built. However, the Greater London authority estimates that London will require an additional 353,000 new homes in the next 10 years to meet the backlog that hon. Members have mentioned today and to address future demand.
Several hon. Members have mentioned the strategic housing role of the Mayor of London. I do not want to make party political points; I think that housing is far too important an issue for that. Given London’s housing needs and its world-class position, it is important that the Mayor has a strong, strategic housing role. That is why, as well as preparing the strategic development strategy for the capital, we gave the Mayor responsibility for producing a statutory housing strategy and for advising Ministers on the allocation of housing investment in London from the regional housing pot, which will amount to about £4 billion in the next few years.
Since the Mayor was elected in May, however, I must say that it has not been clear how he intends to fulfil that role and help to meet the housing needs of Londoners. As I say, I do not want to make petty party political points, but politics is about priorities. I want the Mayor to do well and to address the housing delivery problem in London, but it does not seem to be a priority for him whatsoever. His housing policy seems blurred and confused, and well down his list of priorities. I have no clear idea about how he intends to meet the commitment on housing delivery.
The Mayor’s direction of travel document on the London plan, which is entitled “Planning for a better London”, says that he will work with boroughs—something that was requested by hon. Members this morning—to identify ways to improve the supply of housing and to ensure a supportive planning policy framework for delivery. Although I appreciate that changing the London plan is a matter for the Mayor, it would be incredibly helpful for all concerned—whether central Government or local boroughs—to have clarity on the process of alteration and review as soon as possible. Without a clear steer, both boroughs and developers are unsure about what housing requirements they should meet, and the resulting delays will not help the families that the hon. Members here today represent so well.
I must also say that the Mayor is sending out some very confused messages on affordable housing. It has been said many times this morning that he intends to remove the strategic target in the current London plan to deliver 50 per cent. affordable housing. That would also require an amendment to the London plan. At the same time, he says that he intends to work with London boroughs to deliver 50,000 additional homes by 2011, thus continuing a commitment made by the previous Mayor.
I understand that the new Mayor has already begun the process of negotiating annual affordable housing targets with each borough for the next three years, up to 2011. However, that approach is time-consuming, cumbersome and, in the end, results in delays that families in London can ill afford. It is very important that all London boroughs step up to the plate and do their best to achieve those targets, to help to meet the needs of all Londoners. However, it is very clear from my perspective that the boroughs are bemused and confused about the planning targets for affordable housing. So I await with interest the Mayor’s proposals on how he intends to set those targets for the whole of the 20-year London plan period.
The hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) said that the Mayor intends to consult the London assembly later this month on his draft housing strategy. I very much look forward to seeing that important document and the detail about how the Mayor proposes to address London’s housing needs for the longer term.
A great number of important issues were mentioned in today’s debate. Unfortunately, I will not have the time to discuss all of them. However, one of the clear themes that emerged is the concern that hon. Members from all parts of the House have about the rise in repossessions in recent weeks and months. As has been articulated by my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North and others, current housing market difficulties mean that some householders are struggling to meet their housing costs.
Although the number of households affected by repossession is thankfully still very low, for those people whose homes are being repossessed, it is a major life trauma that creates real stress. We are determined to help people who face those very disturbing circumstances. We are committed to working with lenders and advice agencies to help people to face repossession so that, wherever possible, they can remain in their homes.
Hon. Members will be aware that, in September, we announced a £200 million mortgage rescue scheme, which will help up to 6,000 of the most vulnerable home owners facing repossession to remain in their homes. We are currently working hard with delivery partners to ensure that the Government’s mortgage rescue scheme is open for business as soon as possible. When my right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing came to her post about a month ago, she was struck by the fact that the mortgage rescue scheme was set to open in January; she wants to bring the opening date forward as quickly as possible, and I commend her for that.
The mortgage rescue scheme will be firmly targeted on families with dependent children, the elderly and vulnerable groups who can no longer afford their repayments and who would be eligible for homelessness assistance if their homes were repossessed. My officials have also been holding a series of mortgage repossession summits for local authorities around the country, to discuss the regional position and to consult people on how the mortgage rescue scheme will work. I understand that the London summit will take place this Thursday, and we hope that officials will be back in the capital at the end of the month to host a delivery briefing, to outline how the scheme could operate.
I would also stress that lenders are examining further options to assist households that are due to experience payment shocks and concerns in the coming months, and we continue to work closely with the Council of Mortgage Lenders and other partners to achieve that aim. The Government, particularly my right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, have been talking very forcefully to lenders about this issue and encouraging them to ensure that they do not go straight to repossessions and that other measures are put in place; the same aim was behind the interest rate cut last week.
I am very conscious of time. It has been an excellent debate that, unfortunately, we will need to have time and again. However, I hope that I have demonstrated that the Government are committed to improving housing supply.
Thank you. Before I call Dr. Evan Harris to open the debate, I should inform the Chamber that he has requested that Mr. Speaker exercise his discretion to waive the House’s sub judice rule to enable reference to be made to the case of Miss Debbie Purdy, which is currently under appeal. The Speaker is willing to exercise his discretion to enable reference to be made to the Purdy case for the purpose of discussing the principles that it raises. Members should not, however, discuss the details of the case.
A large number of hon. Members are present, some of whom have written in. I shall try to strike a balance between the parties and between points of view. If colleagues seek to catch my eye and have not already written in, they might like to send me a note briefly explaining their point of view.
Thank you for that statement, Mr. Bayley. It is a pleasure to have you in the Chair.
Many hon. Members wish to speak. I intend to take 10 minutes, but if there are interventions, which I am willing to take, that will lengthen my time a little. However, I shall try to curtail my remarks. This is the first time in 10 years that the issue has been debated, but I do not intend to cover everything that could be said on it. The subject raises strong feelings on both sides of the House, across parties, in the media and among the public, and it is only right that Parliament should debate it and be seen to debate it.
It is right that the legislature should be seen to keep such things under consideration, and I hope that there can be a review—more active consideration than mere debate—and that the House will be allowed to come to a view on the matter at some point, as it is unlikely to be easily subject to manifesto commitments or party Whips.
I want to make it clear that although I have been an elected member of the British Medical Association medical ethics committee for many years, I am not speaking on its behalf. I am grateful to Dignity in Dying for its briefing material.
No doubt the hon. Gentleman would care to clarify that the majority of doctors were, when last asked, opposed to the legalisation of assisted suicide. All the medical royal colleges and the BMA have declared their opposition to it after extensive consultation with their members. He has rightly declared his connections, but will he acknowledge that he is probably in the minority of clinicians in the views that he holds?
I have never been of the view that what doctors say goes, and I do not believe that I am in a minority. If the question is asked fairly and properly, it is far from clear that there is not majority support in the medical profession for giving people autonomy, with safeguards, of course, over end-of-life decisions. The benign conspiracy in which many doctors sometimes participate for paternalistic reasons is, in this case, far worse than making clear arrangements, with safeguards, to enable patients to have more autonomy.
This morning, we heard about the very sad case of a 13-year-old girl who says that she wishes to die with dignity at home. There is a life-preserving operation with a good chance of success that she could have, and, as far as we know, she is not in pain or suffering. Doctors say that if she had that treatment she would not be liable to die very soon. Even in that difficult case and even though she is not strictly terminally ill or in unbearable pain and suffering, she has been allowed autonomy over that decision. She is entitled to do that at the age of 13, and the situation is even more clear-cut for adults. They can refuse treatment when not terminally ill, when not in pain and suffering and when that refusal will cause their death.
If someone wishes to be actively helped to die, they cannot get that help in this country under the law, even when there is no doubt about their capacity. That is true even when it has been checked that there has been no coercion, when they are terminally ill and when they are suffering. They might not be suffering from pain, with modern palliative care, but they might still be suffering unbearably, in their view. The difference between the treatment of those two cases, when the outcome is the same, is so extreme that it cannot be justified.
I am grateful to my neighbour from Oxford for giving way. I am sure that we can all understand the sensitivity of the case to which he has referred, but does he not accept, as I think most of the public do, that there is an important difference between not intervening artificially to prolong life and actively intervening to shorten it?
Of course I accept that there is a difference, but it is not so great that autonomy should be taken away completely in one situation and respected absolutely in the other. The end result is the same, and the wish is the same; it is only the activity or passivity that is different. It is not right that we should defend forcing someone to be kept alive against their will simply on the basis that assisted dying involves an act—their own act, in most cases—rather than simple refusal. I do recognise that there is a difference though.
On the current law, the Suicide Act dates from 1961, and is in need of revision. Assisting someone to die is punishable by a maximum penalty of 14 years’ imprisonment, but such a punishment would be inappropriate in the sort of case that we are discussing. We all know of examples of people who are seeking help to die, and that is different from assisted suicide. The hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs. Moon), who is present, knows that we are not talking about assisted suicide. Assisted dying is for people who want to live, not for people who want to die, as with assisted suicide. I have no difficulty with the current law criminalising assisted suicide when people are suicidal and are helped through websites or indirectly. I hope that she will have the chance to acknowledge that point later.
In the case of Debbie Purdy, although the court recognised the argument that the current situation was unsatisfactory, it specified that it was for Parliament to change the position. Parliament should examine the 1961 Act. It is not the case that the law ain’t broke, so we shouldn’t fix it. We cannot say that, and I shall give examples of the negative consequences when terminally ill people are forced to look for alternatives to exercise control over the manner and timing of their death when they feel that their suffering has become unbearable.
Figures suggest that 16 British citizens travel to Dignitas each year. The Home Office has identified about four cases of so-called mercy killings each year, which is probably a small fraction of the real number, as they often never reach the courts. Each year, a number of terminally ill people resort in desperation to violent and often botched suicides, and a number of people find that they have to refuse food and water to exercise control over their time and manner of death. They use their ability to refuse treatment because the fairest and most humane way of exercising control is not available to them. More than 900 people a year receive assistance in dying from their doctor, on their explicit request. They are forced to get illegal assistance to die, and the consequences of that can be severe not only on the manner of their dying but on those who seek to help them.
If the hon. Gentleman wishes to quibble about the point, I am speaking in the context of what he is discussing. Will he answer my substantive question? How many people who assisted that which he wants them to be able to assist without consequence suffered a term of imprisonment, either actual or suspended?
But I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman is happy that people are doing that and not being imprisoned, or whether he thinks that it is bad that people are not being punished for what is strictly an offence. Not knowing whether they are liable to be prosecuted and imprisoned is a traumatic experience for many, particularly the recently bereaved.
I can give the Chamber the opportunity to hear the answer to the question asked by the hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis), which is zero.
The Minister must be asked the same question, then. Is it a good thing that people are apparently breaking the law but not being imprisoned, and perhaps not even prosecuted? Either way, we ought to have a law that says what it means and means what it says, rather than making people feel that they have to take a chance. Some think that they cannot take that chance, so they are unable to give or receive assistance.
There is not a choice between palliative care and assisted dying. Everyone recognises that palliative care is an important part of end-of-life care, and the suggestions for legislation on assisted dying have included palliative care. However, it is a form of treatment, and at some point a person is entitled to say that they are fully palliated as far as medical and nursing care can provide for, and that they do not wish to have any further palliation as an alternative to a dignified death. It is not for us to impose on them our view that they must be satisfied with the palliative care that they get. In jurisdictions where there is assisted dying, there has been an increase in the provision of palliative care, and rightly so. In Oregon there is no perceived conflict between the two.
I shall give some examples of the difficulties that people face in knowing what will happen to them if they assist someone with death. As we know, Dignitas helps people with incurable illnesses to die, and it regularly features in the British media. We understand that 650 British citizens are members of Dignitas, and more than 100 have travelled to Switzerland to have an assisted death since October 2002. I wish to mention the case of Reg Crew, who had motor neurone disease. His wife Win Crew and their daughter Jan Healey accompanied him to Dignitas when he died in January 2003. His wife Win has written:
“Although I am a Roman Catholic, like many others in my position, when Reg said he wanted medical assistance to die, to avoid a long and painful death, I felt this was the right thing to do. I agreed with him that the disease should not rob him of the ability to choose the manner of his inevitable death…For several months after my return, I had the threat of legal action hanging over me but what alternative was there?”
The problem with the current state of the law for people in that situation is that they fear legal consequences for their loved ones on return to the UK. That is cruel. A lack of legal certainty about prosecuting those who accompany loved ones to Dignitas leads some terminally ill people to travel to Switzerland all by themselves, and as a consequence to go earlier than they would have liked. It forces people to make that decision while they are still able to make it themselves and do not need assistance. They are forced to die in a foreign country, away from familiar surroundings and in some cases without their loved ones.
The second example is mercy killing. Under current law, anyone who ends the life of another can be convicted of murder and receive a life sentence, even if the act is a compassionate response to a dying person’s request for help to die—a so-called mercy killing. Despite the risk of a murder conviction, a number of people who resort to mercy killing regard it as the final act of love towards a loved one who is dying and requests help to die. Home Office records show that in the past 15 years, a total of 57 suspects in homicide cases could be described as being involved in mercy killings. Again, that probably represents a small fraction of the true number.
The impact of that is, again, very negative. There is obviously a risk of imprisonment, long drawn-out trials and public labelling. People who have committed an act of mercy killing often also suffer long-term effects on their mental health, which can lead to self-harm or even suicide. A Home Office report states that of the 57 suspects of the act of mercy killing, 21 have committed suicide.
With no clear policy in place, people may claim to have committed a mercy killing or assisted a suicide for compassionate reasons, when in fact their motives were more sinister or selfish. We do not have a law that provides safeguards. Mercy killing is clearly not the answer, nor is the status quo, so we have to recognise what is happening and consider what can be done to avoid the all-round negative consequences.
Violent or botched suicides are another consequence of the current law. People take the act into their own hands and attempt suicide, which can lead to long drawn-out and painful deaths. It is impossible to calculate the number of such cases, but examples are known. My final example is Sue, who has said about her terminally ill father’s attempt to commit suicide:
“My father had prostate cancer. At some point there was nothing more doctors could do. My Dad sadly experienced how the laws in this country operate. He threw himself down the stairs in an attempt to kill himself. It didn’t work, but the doctor left him there as long as he could, waiting to see if he might die. This is how the law forces doctors to abandon their patients. My father was left at the bottom of the stairs for two hours with a cut on his head. Eventually he died a week later at home.”
As a consequence of the law, people are sometimes forced to die a lonely death in the absence of their loved ones, out of fear of the legal consequences for anyone they ask to be present at the time of their death.
As it is illegal for anyone to help another person to die, some people choose to commit suicide while they are still able to do so. Again, that may mean that they die earlier than they would wish. Authorities in Oregon are aware of 94 terminally ill people who were prevented from committing violent suicide because the option of assisted dying was available to them, and 50 of them went on to die a natural death. I do not have time to go into the case of people who refuse food and water, but again it means a more protracted death than the painless one that is available through assisted dying.
The hon. Gentleman is helping the House and the country by talking about death in a way that is not embarrassed or afraid. Can he give the number of people in the Netherlands who have had death brought on early by request, and compare it with the overall suicide rate?
I think those figures are available and if the hon. Gentleman will allow me, I will try to come back to that later, because I do not have them to hand.
Finally, I want to say a word about doctors helping their patients to die and about the review of the murder laws. We know that there are occurrences of involuntary euthanasia, where doctors help patients to die without their wish, and of voluntary euthanasia, which is the patient’s wish. I shall quote from a research paper by C. Seale, “National survey of end-of-life decisions made by UK medical practitioners”, in Palliative Medicine 2006, volume 20. On pages 3 to 10 it shows that
“of all the deaths in the UK in 2004, 0.16 per cent. were cases of doctors ending life following an explicit request from the patient”.
That means, in broad figures, that 936 deaths were a consequence of patients receiving assistance in dying from their doctor on their request. Such assistance is given outside any legal framework and without any safeguards. We know that assisted dying is taking place at the moment and it would be far better, as has been done in other jurisdictions, to put it on a legal footing, with whatever safeguards the House feels are appropriate. If people are worried about the protection of the vulnerable—I understand that concern—the answer is to have the safeguards in place. It is not a question of the principle of providing for autonomy.
I want to raise with the Minister the review of the law of murder. The Law Commission has recommended that the Government undertake a public consultation on whether the law should recognise either a defence or partial defence of mercy killing and if so, to what extent. So far, the Ministry of Justice and the Government have not taken up that recommendation. It would be appropriate for them to do so, given that it was made by the Law Commission and given that the Government have pursued other approaches in the review of the law of murder, including a new definition of diminished responsibility.
The new definition—that a person must have a recognised medical condition that substantially impairs their ability to make a rational judgment about the criminal act— seeks to achieve something separate in respect of attacks in domestic situations by people claiming provocation. I understand that and I am not arguing against it, but even that definition will have an impact on a partial defence being available in the case of mercy killing. It is not a case of doing nothing; the Government are already doing something that will have an impact, so it must be right for there to be an holistic approach.
Although there is more that I could say, including on the figures that have been requested, I invite the Minister to recognise in her summing up that there are many views in Parliament and that the Government and any political party will find it difficult to put the issue in a manifesto. I hope, therefore, that she will at least be open to the idea that we need to have a review, and that Parliament must, from time to time, since 1961, have the opportunity to debate this matter in a careful, clear and informed way.
Order. A great number of hon. Members want to speak. I have not quite done the calculations, but we are talking about three or four-minute speeches, if everybody is to be called. Am I right in understanding that the Liberal Democrats do not have a Front-Bench spokesman present?
I congratulate the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) on securing the debate. It is about time that the issue was debated. Clearly, there are strong feelings on both sides, and it would be silly to pretend otherwise. I am much in favour of a change in the law along the lines put forward in Lord Joffe’s Bill, which was debated in the House of Lords some two years ago. Although it was defeated, it reflected to a large degree the sort of measure that I would like, with all the necessary safeguards. It was tightly drawn, as any such measure must be.
I raised the matter in the House of Commons at business questions on 30 October, and I asked for the opportunity to have a debate. Interestingly, the Leader of the House replied:
“The criminal offence of assisting somebody’s suicide is unique as it is the only part of the criminal law where it is an offence to assist the commission of something that is itself not an offence.”—[Official Report, 30 October 2008; Vol. 481, c. 1039.]
That was an interesting interpretation, and no doubt the Minister will echo it when she responds.
Somehow, the impression tends to be given by opponents of the measure that those who want to see a change in the law want to encourage the terminally ill to end their lives by such means. Nothing could be further from the truth. Both sides in this controversy rightly take the same line on the need for the best palliative care to be available to the terminally ill.
The same applies to hospices. In my borough of Walsall, we have campaigned for more than a quarter of a century to have a hospice, and I am glad to say that at long last there is a reasonable chance that we will have one within two years. On those sorts of measure—on doing everything possible for the terminally ill—there is no difference between the two sides whatsoever. Again, I repeat that the idea that those of us who want a change in the law want to encourage people to die could not be further from the truth, and that should be emphasised.
As the hon. Gentleman said, we are faced with a small number of people—it will always be a small number—who take the position, as their health worsens, that they simply want to end their lives. Of course, if they were in a position to commit suicide, that would be quite legal; if they attempted suicide and did not succeed, they would not be prosecuted, because of the 1961 Act. Those people are either unable to commit suicide, because of their medical condition, or simply do not wish to do so. If I were terminally ill and I decided that I wanted my life to come to an end, I would not wish to commit suicide, perhaps for lack of courage or confidence that I could do it.
The question arises, which is the crux of the debate: should the law permit those who are in such a condition that they want to end their lives to do so in this country, without travelling abroad? That is the nub of the issue, and it is not going to go away. The controversy will continue, but I believe that, in time, although I do not know when—quite likely not in my lifetime—there will be a change in the law.
Last week a national newspaper carried a piece about a different person to the one mentioned by the hon. Gentleman. Her husband had been diagnosed with terminal cancer three years ago. He received treatment—I am sure that he received the best treatment available—but there came a stage, as she wrote in the article, when he decided that he simply did not want to continue to live. That was his wish. Some hon. Members who are strong opponents of what I am suggesting would no doubt take the view that he should not have that right, but he nevertheless believed that he had the right to control his own life and to decide that it should come to an end. He knew that it was not possible to do so in the United Kingdom, but he also knew that he could go to Switzerland, where the means would be provided for him to do so. Although there have been no prosecutions, there is always a possibility of prosecution. Despite that legal risk, his wife and adult children decided that they would accompany him. They were insistent that he should not go on his own, and they went to Switzerland. He was filmed confirming that he was acting on his own free will, before he was given a drug in liquid form, and the wife and the children held his hand as he died.
I accept that there needs to be the strictest safeguards against abuse. I would not wish to be a party to any change that did not have such safeguards. Hence, the measure in Lord Joffe’s Bill would be limited and apply only to the terminally ill, where two independent doctors had examined the person. Provision would include a palliative care specialist, who would explain all the available alternatives. At every stage, the person would have the right to change his mind.
There is no question of such a measure leading to large-scale abuse. I do not deny that abuse could occur—it would be wrong to say that it would be impossible—but I believe that the kind of measure that I have described, which was defeated in the House of Lords, would provide the widest possible provisions for dealing with abuse and all the other difficulties that obviously cause us concern.
The hon. Gentleman commented on the situation in Oregon, where the position is much along the lines that I have been advocating. Its assisted dying Act, the Death with Dignity Act, has been in existence since 1994. It is interesting that the number of people who die in hospice care—I emphasise “hospice care”—in that state has doubled since the Act came into operation. Therefore, the idea that providing facilities such as those that I have been recommending for the terminally ill means that there would be less care or that more people would decide to take their lives has been shown to be absolutely false in the one state in the United States where such facilities exist.
I note that during the presidential, state and Senate elections—whatever elections took place last week—there were several resolutions on the ballot paper. In Washington, a large majority voted in favour of having the same provision as in Oregon.
That reminds me of the House of Commons and the House of Lords. I am not surprised, as such things take time. Various reforms, changes and measures that affect private behaviour and things such as the abolition of the death sentence and so on all took time and a great deal of campaigning. Obviously, my hon. Friend, whose view is different from mine, is encouraged by what he just said. I am discouraged by it, but it is a matter of debate.
I hope that the debate will continue. Just as people were given a right to decide under the Suicide Act 1961 that they could take their lives, I strongly believe that people who are terminally ill should be able to decide that they want to end their life, despite all the care and facilities that are available, and be able to do so without travelling abroad. The sooner the law is changed, the better.
Unlike the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris), I believe that the empire of the law should have some limits. It may be perverse for a legislator to say this, but I do not think that a change in the law would be the right way forward in this regard, although I very much understand the suffering involved in the individual cases to which he and the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) referred in their speeches.
When my father was dying 18 years ago, I had a role, as his next of kin, to work with a long-standing family doctor to ensure that he had enough morphine—he was terminally ill with cancer—to ward off pain. To an extent, his life might have gone on a few days or weeks longer than it would have otherwise. That seemed to be the common-sense approach to the situation. This may seem rather hypocritical, but I think that, at times, we should perhaps turn a blind eye to what are often desperately difficult circumstances.
We must recognise that, as a compensation and blame culture becomes more prevalent around the world and in this country, medical professionals in particular will become increasingly reluctant to do the right thing if there are laws in place that may be seen to provide safeguards but simply regulate their lives more strongly.
I have fears about an assisted dying, or euthanasia, regime putting pressure on elderly people who do not have an immediately life-threatening condition. In essence, the right to die could morph into a duty to die.
I believe that I can refer to the recent high-profile case of the 23-year-old rugby player, Daniel James, who was taken by his parents to Switzerland. It was a dreadful case. One of the most disquieting aspects was that, when the story came into the public domain some months after his death in Switzerland, his parents referred to his having been a second-class citizen, given the injuries that he had sustained. Those injuries were serious and may not have come through even under the Joffe safeguards. They massively affected quality of life but were not life-threatening. It was envisaged that Daniel James could well have lived for some decades to come. What was worrying was the notion of his in any way having a second-class life or being a second-class citizen. Saying that some lives are more valuable than others is dangerous.
Absolutely. In many ways, the case demonstrates some of the difficulties that we face in trying to frame a law that will cover all the cases that we would wish to cover, while ensuring that individuals have the right to die or to go through an assisted-dying process.
What worried me most about the case was the lack of common sense shown by the police. The reality of the situation—this may sound rather hypocritical—is that the police must take a common-sense approach. As someone who believes in a higher being—unlike the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon—I think that perhaps the judge in these ethical and moral matters should not be on this planet but elsewhere.
I was encouraged by the Minister’s comment that there had been zero prosecutions in the nearly 50 years since the Suicide Act 1961. [Hon. Members: “Imprisonment.”] No imprisonment, although there may have been prosecution and some investigation.
We need to take a much more common-sense approach to these desperately difficult ethical matters. I am glad that we are having this debate. I know that many hon. Members wish to speak, and I hope that as many people as possible will be able to put their viewpoints across in the course of the debate. We will obviously be interested to hear some of the Government’s thinking about how this element of the law should be changed, if at all.
First, I declare that I am chairman of the national Care Not Killing alliance and a patron of Alert. Those two organisations oppose the introduction of assisted suicide and voluntary or involuntary euthanasia to the law of this land. CNK promotes palliative care and tries to educate the general public about the arguments in this difficult policy area.
There is no doubt that the Voluntary Euthanasia Society—I still call it that but will come to its new title in a minute—has been behind many of the attempts in this country over many years to change the law. It has increased its lobbying recently. It was behind Lord Joffe’s Bills and has been involved in many of the high-profile cases that have ended up at Dignitas in Switzerland. It has used the media, particularly television, to put some hard cases to the public. I was on television last week after an emotional appeal by a Bristol lady, Kelly Taylor. It is difficult for someone with an opposing view to appear on that medium after an emotional appeal to end a person’s life has been made, but I believe that bad law would be the result if the general public, and this place in particular, were to listen to all the hard cases. We have to consider the whole area.
I am sorry but I cannot, as I have limited time.
Over five years, Lord Joffe made three attempts in the House of Lords to change the legislation in this policy area. Each time, he softened his approach. Have hon. Members noticed? Let me mention what he has said in a Select Committee in the House of Lords:
“We are starting off, this is a first stage....I believe that this Bill initially should be limited, although I would prefer it to be of much wider application, but it is a new field and I think we should be cautious...But I can assure you that I would prefer that the law did apply to patients who were younger and who were not terminally ill but who were suffering unbearably, and if there was a move to insert this into the Bill I would support it.”
So his real intention is to get a Bill in to open the door and then later, perhaps, he or some other person in either the House of Commons or the House of Lords would try to amend the law. We are at a critical stage. Once the law is amended, the door is open to all kinds of exploitation in future.
I have a huge amount of respect for the hon. Gentleman and I know that he has considered these matters for a long time. Does he not accept that it is for Parliament to decide the law? Arguing that we should not make a change in the law because Parliament might later change it, forwards or backwards, is no sort of argument; it is not even a slippery slope argument, because Parliament is there to decide. I am sure that he understands that Parliament has made rules on embryo research, including on 14 days, which he supported, even though it could go to 28 days if an hon. Member proposed it and Parliament agreed. But we still do the right thing a step at a time.
I think that my further remarks will answer that question.
The Voluntary Euthanasia Society started with terminally ill, mainly elderly, people suffering, initially, from cancer. It did not win the argument using such cases, so it then looked at long-term cases: people suffering from muscular dystrophy, multiple sclerosis and motor neurone disease. A number of cases have been paraded before us in the media, some of which have been mentioned today. All those cases are tragic. The Voluntary Euthanasia Society has even changed its name to Dignity in Dying and is also campaigning for improved palliative care, with a sting in the tail, of course, because it has supported, and has now successfully achieved, getting living wills on to the statute book. There is no doubt in my mind about what is happening. We will have a soft approach until the legislation is changed and then the very people who change that legislation will harden their stance later.
To answer the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris), I am pleased that a High Court judge said recently that the place to change the law is not in the courts, where the Voluntary Euthanasia Society has been taking its cases; the place to change the law is here, in the two Houses of Parliament. This is where we must have the debate and we must have a much more extended debate than we have time for this morning.
In 2005, Lord Goldsmith, when he was Attorney-General, said to the House of Lords Select Committee on Assisted Dying for the Terminally Ill Bill:
“it would be inappropriate…for him”—
the Director of Public Prosecutions—
“to issue a policy the effect of which was to say that ‘I, the Director of Public Prosecutions, have decided to suspend or not to apply part of the law which Parliament has put in place and has not removed’”.
So the judiciary is clear on this: parliamentarians must change the law—
I am sorry but I will not give way. The law cannot be changed significantly in the courts of law.
A number of hon. Members have mentioned various states and countries, including the Netherlands, the state of Oregon and Washington state, which has recently changed the law. The significant thing about Oregon is that, according to recent research published in the British Medical Journal, one in six Oregonians who have taken lethal drugs provided by their doctors were actually suffering from treatable depression, which the doctors had failed to diagnose. There is a danger that some people will want to go beyond terminal illness and serious long-term conditions and go to younger people and those seriously suffering from mental illness as well. Baroness Warnock said in a recent article in The Times:
“If you’re demented, you’re wasting people’s lives, your family’s lives, and you’re wasting the resources of the NHS.”
What a statement for a peer of the realm to make! Let me remind hon. Members that some of the 700,000 Alzheimer’s patients in this country would follow the course proposed by hon. Members if Baroness Warnock and her supporters had their way.
I am sorry but I will not give way. We have limited time.
The majority of doctors are opposed to physician-assisted suicide, as is the British Medical Association and all the royal medical colleges. In 2005, the House of Lords Select Committee recorded the view of the General Medical Council:
“A change in the law to allow”—
“would have profound consequences for the role and responsibilities of doctors and their relationships with patients. Acting with the primary intention to hasten a patient’s death would be difficult to reconcile with the medical ethical principles of beneficence and non-maleficence.”
I agree. In the words of Lord Carlile of Berriew,
“The slippery slope is no fiction; it is already well-polished.”
There are few of us who are not afraid of death, especially the uncertainty that is associated with it. We are all anxious not to become a burden on others and none of us would wish to suffer pain over a prolonged period. That is what organisations such as Dignity in Dying—I still prefer to call it the Voluntary Euthanasia Society—play on. The alternative is to ensure that people have dignity in dying and that their physical, spiritual and emotional requirements are met. I welcome the introduction by the Government of the recent end-of-life care strategy, which has many good things in it. Hopefully, dignity in dying will become much more prevalent when that strategy is practised across the country in future.
I do not want physician-assisted suicide to become a treatment option. I remind hon. Members what Hippocrates said in 400 BC:
“I will give no deadly medicine to anyone if asked, nor suggest any such counsel.”
How a society treats its dying patients is a litmus test for that society.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) for reasons that I shall explain. I claim responsibility for encouraging the Voluntary Euthanasia Society to change its name precisely because the allegations in respect of compulsory euthanasia were used quite neatly by opponents to muddle up in the public mind, and in the argument, what it stood for, which was voluntary euthanasia, and that is quite a different matter.
Following the arguments produced by the hon. Gentleman, I commend Lord Joffe and Baroness Warnock for their honesty. There are two sides in this debate, one of which, having watched how the arguments have been put forward, has been commendably straightforward about what it is seeking to achieve in tackling issues that many of us find profoundly difficult.
The hon. Gentleman made it clear that each time Lord Joffe introduced measures, they were increasingly restricted to try to test the views of the other place. Lord Joffe did that because every time we deal with the fundamental principle of whether competent adults should be able to judge whether to end their lives if they are terminally ill, that proposition is overwhelmingly supported by the public. I understand that, when this matter was tested most recently, 85 per cent. of the public agreed with that basic proposition, and they do so because, like me, they see that it is only reasonable that people should have some autonomy at the end of their lives in circumstances where they have almost lost total control. If people have witnessed relatives dying in such circumstances, with total lack of dignity, they will understand that the change of name from the Voluntary Euthanasia Society is wholly appropriate.
Given the limited time, I shall address two particular points. My hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field) made a case for the “grey area” and for Parliament doing nothing. I am afraid to say that that argument can no longer be made. In the latest case, the judges have made it clear that it is time for Parliament to take up its responsibilities. I was concerned by the alacrity with which the Minister leapt to her feet to confirm for my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) that there have been no cases of imprisonment for assisted suicides. There have been prosecutions; people have been left on bail for murder for months and have then had to go through the judicial process. We are failing people such as the family of Debbie Purdy. They are in a position of doubt because we, as Members of Parliament, are not prepared to take up our responsibilities and make the law clear.
However, the issue is not just about those who are involved in assisting people to commit suicide who would not otherwise be able to do so in circumstances in which a terminally ill person is competent and wants to bring their life to an end; it is about providing the comfort of the knowledge that a terminally ill person will potentially have control at the end of their life over circumstances that they cannot predict. That is the greatest and most striking benefit from the change in the law in the state of Oregon, where 17 per cent. of people who are dying take the opportunity to discuss the possibility of ending their life in circumstances over which they have some control with their family. That simple proposition is overwhelmingly supported by the public and would bring comfort to an increasing proportion of our population who are now dying from diseases in a more drawn-out, longer, undignified way than previous generations. We, as Members of Parliament, have a responsibility to hold a debate and bring this matter to a conclusion. We must bring our laws up to date so that they operate in the interest of those people.
At the moment, we are obviating our responsibility and that is why I profoundly disagree with my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster. The grey area in which we are placing people leaves them in uncertainty and doubt, and we are not doing them any service at all. Medical professionals are now in a position in which they know that it is in the interests of their patient to administer the lethal morphine dose. However, that is cloaked by the law of dual effect, and they administer pain relief in the absolute knowledge that their patient will die. In many circumstances, the one thing they are unable to do is to establish the wishes of their patient because as soon as they enter into that discussion, they place themselves in peril of prosecution because we have failed to make the law clear. It is time for us to address that.
Like my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon), I declare an interest: I am the chair of the all-party group on compassion in dying, and so, obviously, I have a specific and opposing view to him. I should like to make the view of the all-party group clear to hon. Members, because there is a great deal of misunderstanding about the views of Members who support the right to a dignified death.
Let us be clear that the law as it stands places an absolute ban on assisting another person to die. Assisting a suicide is an offence under the Suicide Act 1961—the law has not changed—and it is punishable by a possible 14 years’ imprisonment. The law is out of step with public opinion and the morals and values of today. In the recent ruling in the case of Miss Debbie Purdy—I am delighted to see she is with us today; she is a powerful advocate for the issues surrounding assisted dying—the judges acknowledged that the offence of assisted suicide is widely drawn.
I take that on board entirely, Mr. Bayley. Indeed, the judges ruled that only Parliament can change legislation—a point that I am sure we would all readily accept.
Some opponents of a change in the law on assisted dying argue that the law is not broken so we should not attempt to fix it. However, much evidence shows that, despite those claims, the status quo has many negative consequences. The hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) said that the status quo forces terminally ill people to look for alternatives, to exercise control over the manner and timing of their death when they feel that their suffering has become unbearable. That status quo has a terrible cost. We have already heard that, on average, 16 British citizens travel to Dignitas every year. The Home Office has identified that there are four cases of mercy killing each year, but I suspect that that represents only a small fraction of the real number of cases. Of course, such cases often never reach the courts.
Sadly, each year, a number of terminally ill people resort to what are often violent and botched suicides. A number of people refuse food and water, to exercise control over the time and manner of their death. In addition, every year more than 900 people explicitly request that they receive assistance in dying from their doctor. The consequences for those who help can be dreadful, and many terminally ill people are driven to desperate measures, such as violent suicide or starvation. They are unable or unwilling to find someone to help them, because they know that that would involve breaking the law.
Those figures demonstrate that the status quo has an extremely negative impact on a sizeable proportion of terminally ill people. I should like to make it clear that Dignity in Dying campaigns for all terminally ill people to have access to excellent top-class palliative care services, regardless of age, disease, geographical location or any other factor.
[Mr Eric Martlew in the Chair]
Of course, we all know that access to excellent palliative care is not always available. We also know that, for some people, good-quality palliative care cannot address their concerns about losing autonomy, control and dignity at the end of their lives. That is far from being a failure of palliative care. This is person-centred issue and, most frequently, at the heart of a request to die is a concern over a loss of autonomy and a desire for control.
The House of Lords Select Committee on the Assisted Dying for the Terminally Ill Bill recognised that there is a group of patients whose demand for medically assisted dying will not be deflected by any circumstance—certainly, not by more and better palliative care. The National Council for Palliative Care, the British Medical Association and Macmillan Cancer Support have all acknowledged that to be the case. Dignity in Dying believes that mentally competent terminally ill adults should be allowed the option—it is an option, because it is a matter of personal choice—of an assisted death within strictly legal safeguards. That would bring an end to the many negative consequences of the status quo for terminally ill people and their loved ones.
As we have heard, there are a number of ways in which individuals will take matters into their own hands—for example, Dignitas deaths, mercy killings, violent and unfortunately botched suicides, people refusing food and water and, in some cases, doctors helping their patients to die. The Swiss organisation Dignitas helps people with incurable illnesses to die and regularly features in the British media. In fact, more than 650 British people are members of Dignitas and, since October 2002, more than 100 British citizens have travelled to Switzerland to have an assisted death. That is an average of 16 citizens a year who go to Dignitas. Those people have travelled with the help of their loved ones, and they fear terribly what the legal consequences will be for their loved ones when they return to the UK.
The lack of legal certainty in respect of prosecution of people who accompany their loved ones leads some terminally ill people to travel to Switzerland alone and often—this is a very important point—much earlier than they would otherwise have wanted to do. People are forced to die in a foreign country, away from familiar surroundings and, in some cases, without their loved ones—without their family.
Mercy killings are slightly different. Under the current law, anyone who ends the life of another can be convicted of murder and receive a life sentence, even if the act is a compassionate response to a dying person’s request for help to die. Despite the risk of being convicted of murder, a number of people resort to mercy killing, and they often regard that as a final act of love towards a person—perhaps someone to whom they have been married for 50 or 60 years—who is suffering and has requested help to die.
Home Office records show a total of 57 suspected cases of homicide from 1990-01 to 2004-05 that could be described as mercy killings. I am sure that that is only a fraction of the real number, which can never be discovered. The current situation has incredibly negative effects.
I take on board that point, Mr. Martlew. I shall make just a couple of final points. The Law Commission has recommended a review of the way in which mercy killing is treated under the law, but the Government and the Ministry of Justice have not established such a review. In a written answer to me on 24 April, my hon. Friend the Minister said that the Government had no plans to do that, despite the fact that changes proposed by the Ministry of Justice to the law of murder could result in genuine mercy killings resulting in life sentences for murder. Such harsh treatment is unfair and goes against public feeling. I understand why the Government are making the proposed changes, but the effect could be that the benign sentencing that we have come to expect or to know in relation to genuine mercy killings is replaced by long custodial sentences. The whole area is murky, and I ask the Minister to adhere to the Law Commission’s recommendation for a consultation on mercy killing, which would be in everyone’s best interest.
In view of the fact that the hon. Member for Calder Valley (Chris McCafferty) took more than twice as long as the guidance from the Chair advised, I shall be exceedingly brief. I believe that the title Dignity in Dying would be far more appropriate for the hospice movement than for the former Voluntary Euthanasia Society.
I believe that my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field) was absolutely right when he said that one has to apply common sense in these terribly delicate and sensitive areas. Legislating for situations as extreme as those with which we are concerned today is not the best way to apply common sense. The law and common sense are often poles apart. I believe that the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) put his finger on the nub of the problem when he said that hard cases make bad law.
My own sole contribution to the debate will be to pick on a single word that has been used by the apologists for voluntary euthanasia—safeguards. They say that, of course, appropriate safeguards must be in place. One cannot, in practical terms, put safeguards in place. One cannot safeguard a vulnerable elderly person from being pressed in private to tell the doctors that he or she wants his or her life to be ended prematurely, and one cannot have a safeguard against a selfless vulnerable person, even without pressure being applied by anyone else, feeling that it is their obligation to ask for euthanasia in order not to be a burden on others. Of course, as the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) said, there are relatively few tragedies in the present situation. Let us not substitute heavy-handed legislation to make a much larger number of abuses the consequence of ill considered interference by the state.
This is not the first time that I have debated euthanasia with my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris). I congratulate him on obtaining the debate. We have debated the issue before, certainly at the Liberal Democrat party conference in Southport—my constituency—in 2004. Then, the party backed assisted dying in principle, subject to important and very detailed safeguards, and called for a royal commission. Subsequently, there have been accusations of backsliding from one MEP in the north-west, but that none the less stands as the current party policy.
I lost that debate. I argued that there should not be a party policy, but my hon. Friend, through his persuasiveness, was able to convince the party otherwise. I must make it clear that our positions have not changed since: we stand on opposite sides of the fence. I feel that it is my destiny in this place to follow my hon. Friend, frustrating his legal innovations. As he is a chairman of the National Secular Society, I am reminded of the first MP who identified himself as an atheist in this place, Charles Bradlaugh, who was followed round by a stupider brother called Henry Bradlaugh. He used to appear at many gatherings at which he spoke in a messianic way about atheism and shouted at the back. I will not do that, because this is a very difficult and emotive issue, which is not helped by demonising or stereotyping proponents and opponents as either knaves or fools. There is clear moral intent and careful thought on both sides.
Clearly, important background views colour and run right through the debate. I acknowledge in the context of the debate that some see life as a gift that should be endured, or enjoyed, and some see it as an amazingly fortuitous random event that should be no more unpleasant than it has to be. For the purpose of the debate, we can park or bracket off the different faith positions and concentrate on a rational analysis of the inherent difficulties of assisted-dying legislation. I shall offer my personal analysis.
Assisted dying is a more inclusive, broader term than assisted suicide, with which it is conceptually confounded—it has been in the debate. It is clearly different from palliative care of the dying, suicide or a patient’s right to refuse treatment. Assisted dying proposals in all nations are designed to authorise and legitimate help given with the positive and primary aim of ending life swiftly—not generally, but subject to specific conditions. The grounds are invariably much the same. Either the individual believes something about their condition or the state believes something about their condition—that it is unbearable, hopeless, profoundly undignified or unnecessary or, as has been cited many times in the debate, lacking in autonomy.
Nearly all the proposals that we see these days insist that the individual must believe something and the state must do so, too. If just the state had a view of the individual’s condition, it would be involuntary euthanasia. If it was left entirely to the individual to judge their need of state euthanasia, we would have assisted suicide for depressives and the like. Both of those are unacceptable, so the only currently mooted proposals involve an individual regarding their life as intolerable, worthless, unbearable or lacking in human dignity and the state endorsing that choice. Their view on their condition is thought to need state, medical or social sanction. Most current proposals and most current laws—whether in Oregon, Holland or wherever—reflect that. An individual states a view of their predicament, and some authority agrees that that is rational. Grounds are stated by the individual.
The hon. Gentleman has put together quite a cogent argument, but something that he has not addressed and that has not been addressed at any time during the debate is that totally unregulated area that has entered modern life—the internet. On the internet, there is access to information about dying and how to take one’s life. There is no regulation of that and there is also—
I agree, but that is probably outwith the remit of the debate. I am simply making the point that there is a generic quality to every proposal that we see. Grounds are stated by an individual, and those grounds are then agreed by the state. Let us consider the recent case of Daniel James, who was not dying in the ordinary sense. In many cases, his choice was presented in the media as the right choice. It was agreed that his life was unbearable, a burden and so on. However, I have the same concerns as the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field). I received an e-mail from a constituent of mine, and I will read a small section of it. My constituent, Dr. Sue Garner-Jones, wrote:
“I am writing to ask that you please say something about the hysteria surrounding the “bravery” of the late Daniel James and his family. I am seriously concerned that this might have a severely detrimental effect on anyone who lives with disability or cares for someone in this situation, especially as Mr. and Mrs. James are referring to his life as a tetraplegic as “second class”… I am a tetraplegic, as you may know, and have been for 30 years since a car accident paralysed me at 19... Many times I have felt despair, as most of us do, so of course I respect and understand this man’s decision and am not judging him: I have neither the wish nor right to do so. However, to call this action “brave”, “courageous” and “selfless” implies that those of us who battle on are “cowardly” and “selfish”, which is unfair and untrue… Please speak out as there should be one voice for those of us who turned a “tragedy” into almost a “triumph” and despite the temptation to give up went on. Society must not return to thinking of the disabled as literally “invalid.”
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way. He is my friend in the real world, not only in terms of the jargon that we use in discussions. However, I fundamentally disagree with him on this matter, and I am surprised that, as Front-Bench spokesman for the Liberal Democrats, he is attacking our party policy. Surely, if he votes with his conscience against assisted dying, he must accept that he is denying the consciences of other people, such as Daniel James, Christopher Pailthorpe, Debbie Purdy and Diane Pretty—
I am finishing, Mr. Martlew. My key point is that whatever their condition, some people will choose to react in one way and some in another. That applies right down to motor neurone disease. Last year, I had an intern whose father had motor neurone disease and appeared before Lord Joffe’s committee. The father died during the time that the intern was with me.
In deciding to authorise assisted dying, the state must take a view on the reasonableness of one action or another, and take the consequences. We can get out of that conclusion only if the state can unequivocally identify those conditions that individuals ought not willingly to have to bear. That cannot be done satisfactorily and with clarity without having a secular state with clear, immutable values. There is no evidence that the state has those values nor expectation that it will have or that other states will be able to do so. Over time and between countries, there will be marked differences on this matter.
My conclusion—this is my personal analysis—is that any argument presented must confront the accusation that we will be replacing the clear, albeit discretionary, law that we have now with a discretionary but fundamentally unclear law. We must answer that point.
I will endeavour to cover the four corners of the debate as best I can in the short time available. First, we must realise that the question is not whether the law is clear. It is. The question is whether it is the right law and, if it is not right, how we should change it.
Section 2(1) of the Suicide Act 1961 states:
“A person who aids, abets, counsels or procures the suicide of another, or an attempt by another to commit suicide, shall be liable on conviction on indictment to imprisonment for a term not exceeding fourteen years.”
That could not be clearer. The one thing that criminal law must be, whether in the Suicide Act or any other aspect, is certain as to its meaning and effect. It is in respect of the effect of the legislation that certainty is beginning to leave us. It is not for me to say today where that certainty should be recovered—in a new law or in the strict implementation of the current law, or somewhere in between.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) on bringing this subject to our attention. The topic is difficult to grasp and sometimes embarrassing to talk about. However, as parliamentarians, we must think about it from time to time. The Suicide Act was passed in 1961—nearly 50 years ago. No statute is necessarily apt for all time, and it may be that Parliament will, following the advice of the divisional court and the recent judgment of Lord Justice Scott Baker, reach a conclusion that may last us for another 50 years. We should not shrink from having that debate. I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on at least beginning that process, even if we do not reach a conclusion today.
The question we need to have answered is: what should the law be? The answer cannot come from the courts, albeit that the courts are—this may surprise the professional politicians among us—reasonably good at reflecting public opinion and expressing it in a coherent and rational way. In the recent case, Lord Justice Scott Baker emphasised that the case was not about whether it should continue to be a criminal offence in this country to help another person, whatever the circumstances, to take their own life: that was a matter for Parliament and not the courts. Nor was it about whether someone could obtain, in advance, immunity from prosecution for helping another person to travel to another country where assisted suicide is lawful for the purpose of an assisted suicide. That question had already been decided in the negative by the Appellate Committee of the House of Lords in the case of Diane Pretty.
We should not mislead ourselves by referring to that recent case or any earlier case. We as a Parliament must decide on a matter of public policy about where the law should be directed. As I said a moment ago, we must grapple with that decision with some vigour. Given the increasing number of cases and the publicity that this sort of law attracts, we cannot simply let matters lie. We cannot avoid the debate. I am not suggesting that the law necessarily needs to be changed, but we must be clear what we are about. If that requires us to think for ourselves, so much the better.
The hon. Gentleman has made it clear, on other occasions if not this one, that in the past, most Members of Parliament would have considered life to be God-given and that it was not for human beings to step into the shoes of the Almighty to terminate it. However, society and the way that Members of Parliament think and have been brought up has changed considerably, not only in the past 50 years, but in the past 150 years. It is still shocking that in the five years prior to 1958, 3,000 people were convicted not of assisted suicide, but of the crime of attempted suicide. Of those, nearly 200 were sent to prison. Within most of our lifetimes, people have been sent to prison for attempting to kill themselves. Those figures shock us, but today we tend to think of those who attempt suicide as people who need help and pity, not condemnation and punishment.
I suspect that we are beginning to think differently about those who want to end their own life for their own private reasons. It is not for me to provide an answer or rewrite the law, but it is important that the process of thinking begin. We should not be embarrassed to take outside advice or to allow ideas to be tested—some to destruction, some to the fruition of greater thoughts. Before I rose to speak, eight Members brought their personal, political and philosophical experiences to the debate. I have been impressed by, among other things, the absolute conviction that doing nothing and not having the debate is no longer an option. We must apply our minds both outside and inside Parliament to ensure that we create a set of laws and a regime that will be apt for the next 50 years, if not for all time.
You will readily appreciate, Mr. Martlew, that I am not a philosopher, a scientist or a doctor. I am not even a priest. However, whatever the legal answer to the question, “What is the law?”, we need to deal with the vexed and vexing question that surrounds the present law on assisted dying. It needs to be put into shape by Parliament. That, as I said a moment ago, is our duty. It is a duty from which we must not shrink.
The present state of affairs is increasingly under attack, but no statutory answer to the problem has been found. We reopened the debate today, but we have not concluded it—and I do not suppose that the Minister will do so. However, from my party’s point of view it is a question with which we shall have to come to grips, if not today then over the next few years. It cannot be allowed to rumble on in this unsatisfactory way.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) on securing this debate. The subject has clearly aroused enormous interest, and we have had an excellent debate—short but good.
We heard contributions from all sides; the arguments were well thought through and passionately stated, and the strongly held beliefs expressed were frequently based on personal experience and personal philosophy rather than party politics. Consequently, the three Liberal Democrat Members here today reflect three different positions. We have heard the Liberal Democrat Front- Bench spokesman, the hon. Member for Southport (Dr. Pugh), repudiating his own policy. We have seen the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field) flanked by people who passionately disagree with everything that he said. Similarly, different views have been expressed by my right hon. and hon. Friends.
This debate is clearly not one that we needed to start. It is ongoing. Others with an interest—including Dignity in Dying, or the Voluntary Euthanasia Society—continue to press on the subject. Although Parliament has not changed its settled view since 1961, as the hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) made clear the debate has not been in suspended animation. I have no doubt that it will continue.
I wish to make it clear that I agree very much with what hon. Members said about the state of the current law. There is no doubt that the position is clear. As the hon. and learned Gentleman said, until the Suicide Act 1961 was passed, one could be sent to prison for attempting suicide if one managed to survive the attempt, and frequently people were imprisoned for such offences. Section 2 of that Act deals with the highly unusual offences of aiding, abetting, counselling or procuring the suicide or attempted suicide of another. It is not unique, but it is unusual because it criminalises something that is not itself an offence. There is a similar offence under the Female Genital Mutilation Act 2003, but the provision is highly unusual.
The crime of complicity in suicide—it is still a crime—covers a variety of situations. As we heard today, it covers situations of widely different moral culpability. There is a continuum, but Members would draw the line at different places. One merit of having a clear law is that it draws a clear line. However, as the hon. and learned Gentleman and others have said, one must then consider how to enforce it. If one has a clear line and no enforcement, is the position any clearer? That question has been the nub of our debate.
In the context of concerns expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend (Mrs. Moon) in her brief intervention about technological advances and the use of the internet to encourage suicide, the Government have reviewed the situation. We have considered the current state of the law, as has the Law Commission. Among other things, the commission said that it believes the current law to be about right.
Having reviewed the matter, the Government, too, believe that the present law covers encouraging suicide on the internet. However, because equivalent provisions have been replaced in the rest of the criminal law, we believe that there would be benefits in updating and clarifying the language. We have said that we intend to do that when parliamentary time allows. I cannot say this morning, before the Queen’s Speech, when that might be—whether it will be sooner or later—but we have made it clear that we intend to simplify and modernise the language of existing offences. It will be done when parliamentary time allows.
The Minister says when “parliamentary time allows”, but on behalf of all who have taken part in this debate—I presume that we all want this debate to continue—may I ask her to ask the Leader of the House to give us the opportunity to debate the matter properly, on the Floor of the House in Government time?
It is not a no. It is not fair to say that. I have undertaken to draw the matter to my right hon. and learned Friend’s attention. No doubt, the hon. Gentleman will also do so.
It is clear from today’s debate that there are passionately held but differing views between parties. People can often be divided into those who have seen death closely—frequently the death of a loved one, and a number of Members have referred to their own experience in that respect; I, too, have had such an experience—and those who have not. That is one factor that may cause people to come to a conclusion on the subject. The experience of Mrs. Winifred Crew was prayed in aid by the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon. She is a constituent of mine, and I have discussed the matter with her. Others come to a view and face up to the concerns and difficulties of this aspect of the law through constituents who have faced such issues, even if we ourselves have not.
The debate was good partly because it was non-party political. It proceeded from our experiences and those of our constituents. It will continue to do so. It is difficult to be clear what the law should be—if one accepts that it should change—and what safeguards we should have. The debate was clearly between what I might call the slippery slope argument and the safeguards argument. One person’s slippery slope can be another person’s safeguard. Some take the view that the difficulties are so great that the capacity to draw a line somewhere in this new grey area, if we are to step over the current line, is such that it is not possible to change. That is the debate that is needed.
Does the Minister agree with the hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) that no safeguard could ever work, and that even if we wanted to change the law—I am not saying that she should tell us her view—we should not go there because no safeguards could protect the vulnerable? If she does agree with the hon. Gentleman, does she accept that we have a crisis now? Vulnerable people could, for the reasons he gave, refuse treatment even when they were not terminally ill and thereby bring about their death, because they had been coerced directly or felt that they were being coerced? Does she agree with him?
I agree that there are pros and cons to the status quo, and I can see that there will be pros and cons to any change, or to the line being drawn in any particular place that might be suggested. We need a consensus in society and in Parliament before any change can be made—if, indeed, there is an acceptance among Members of Parliament that the law ought to be changed. The moral dilemmas and difficulties are great. We all have different views, as do the political parties, on precisely where that line should be drawn.
This morning’s debate has indicated that this is a live issue and a matter that parliamentarians and Governments must and will continue to consider. I have no doubt that there will be opportunities for those on all sides of the argument to debate the subject and to propose measures to change the law in one way or another. We will have the opportunity to take those decisions.
Boundary Review (Devon)
I believe that I am the only Member for a Devonshire constituency who was born in the county, so I feel some emotion about any changes made to it. It is the county of Sir Francis Drake, Sir Walter Raleigh, Sir Francis Chichester, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Agatha Christie and Sir Joshua Reynolds—so many famous people have come from my county. Unfortunately, a flawed process is under way looking at how the county is managed. It has been marred by the misinterpretation of criteria and guidance, which has led to conclusions that have upset everyone and failed to achieve any obvious service delivery improvements, taxpayer savings or enhanced democracy anywhere in the historic and beautiful county of Devonshire. Specifically, the process has disadvantaged one of the two unitary authorities—namely, Torbay. The process is flawed because it is top-down and seeks to fix a problem that may not exist. It has no identifiable grass-roots support and fails to recognise what problems may exist and how improvements could be made for the people of Devon.
I am an advocate of unitary local government supported by independent precepting parish or town councils, but I fear that the way in which the review has been handled will result in the worst of all worlds for all areas of the county. The boundary committee for England ought not to be allowed to move the goalposts and change its interpretation of the guidance once the process has begun. That is a serious allegation, but, on 6 February, guidance was published for communities and local government in response to the decision not to allow Exeter city council to become a unitary authority. Section 8 of the guidance stated:
“The matters on which the Boundary Committee is requested to advise in relation to the unitary proposal from Exeter City Council are:
a) where there could be an alternative proposal for a single tier of local government and if so on what basis, for Exeter and the whole or part of the surrounding Devon county area, (with existing, or if necessary changed, boundaries of Plymouth City or Torbay Borough) which would in aggregate (including any implications for Plymouth City Council and Torbay Borough Council) have the capacity, if it were to be implemented, to deliver the outcomes specified by the five criteria set out in Annex A to this request”.
Paragraph 1.4 of the draft proposal, which was published in July, reads:
“In providing that advice, we are able to propose changes to the boundaries of the city of Plymouth and the borough of Torbay, both of which are existing unitary authorities in Devon. However, the guidance accompanying the Secretary of State's request for advice makes clear that we may only recommend changes to the boundaries of those two authorities if, on the basis of evidence received, our judgement is that such changes are essential to facilitate a unitary pattern of local government in the two-tier area of Devon that would have the capacity to meet the five criteria. Further, any changes to the boundaries of Plymouth or Torbay must maintain the concept of those areas as unitary local authorities.”
Then, yesterday, the boundary committee issued a briefing note for today’s debate in which the boundaries have moved again:
“With regard to the existing boundaries of Plymouth City Council and Torbay Borough Council the Secretary of State also said: 'boundary changes to Plymouth City or Torbay Borough are to be considered necessary only if, on the basis of any evidence received, the Committee considers that: they are essential if there is to be an alternative proposal for a single-tier of local government”.
First we were told that Torbay and Plymouth would be specifically included in any discussions on changes in local government service delivery in Devon, then that they might be involved and now that they will be involved only if certain criteria are met.
It was felt that Torbay had been included at the start of the process—the boundary committee gave a clear indication to officers and councillors, as well as to me, that we should engage with the process—so it is extraordinary that council tax payers’ money has been thrown down the drain and time wasted when we were allegedly never invited to participate in the first place. The Minister should ask why Plymouth and Torbay unitary authorities would have made considered submissions, alongside individuals and organisations from both areas, if the boundary committee had not misled them into investing time and resources.
How the boundary committee can continue under the misnomer that it is advising the Secretary of State on the structure of local government in Devon, when four out of every 10 Devon households are excluded from the review, amazes me. I cannot speak on behalf of my Devonian cousins in Plymouth, but my constituents, who make up three quarters of the residents of Torbay unitary authority, will miss out and be disadvantaged if either of the recommendations from this unelected and unaccountable quango are accepted. This process has missed an opportunity to reunite Plymothians and the people of Torbay with the rest of Devon as a whole, or at least with unitary authorities with “Devon” in their titles. Three or four evenly sized unitary authorities could have met each of the five criteria laid down by the Secretary of State. They could also have tackled the problems faced by Torbay unitary authority and the challenges confronting the south Devon economy.
Torbay is the same size as the Exeter unitary authority that the boundary committee ruled out on the grounds that it was too small to be an effective unitary authority. Torbay needs to be placed in a much wider south Devon context of commuter patterns, health care and education provision and economic activity. The towns of Totnes, Ashburton, Dawlish, Paignton, Newton Abbot, Torquay, Teignmouth and Brixham share a common heritage and history. Yet the people of Teignbridge and South Hams have been denied the opportunity to consider taking over the smaller area and population of Torbay, and instead could be taken over by the largest unitary authority in the country with a headquarters a long way from the people it serves. Indeed, unitary county hall could well end up in Barnstaple if one of the draft recommendations is accepted.
If either of the recommendations is accepted, Torbay will be the smallest unitary authority in the south-west region, encircled by the largest unitary authority in the country. It will certainly not be in my constituents’ interests to be overshadowed in this way and it would be a great injustice not to allow them even to participate in the process that brought it about.
In a letter to the review manager from the elected mayor of Torbay and the chief executive, the point was made very clear that:
“No viable, long term solution for the local government structure for Devon can be considered without the implications of any proposal on Torbay and Plymouth.”
That should be straightforward and common sense, but clearly it is not happening. Torbay and Plymouth have effectively been excluded from the review, even though the review’s final and accepted recommendations will have important implications for both those areas.
The solution is to go back to the drawing board and start again from the grass roots up. If the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government wants to improve local government in Devon, the whole of Devon should be included in those improvements. She should return to the criteria, reform them and get the review right. Instead of displeasing all the people all the time, the Government should include all the people in determining changes to the delivery of their services. This is after all supposed to be local government, but “local” seems to be the one thing missing from this whole debacle.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Torbay (Mr. Sanders) on securing this debate. In his opening remarks, he quite rightly listed the famous sons and daughters of Devon. I had not realised that he also hails from the county that he represents. I can see that that is a particular source of pride for him.
I am very conscious of the pride that there is in the county. My concern, however, has been to consider whether or not there are better arrangements for the future governance of Devon. In particular, I refer to arrangements that would benefit the residents of Devon. That is the underlying principle behind our interest and the request that we have made to the boundary committee.
I welcome the fact that the hon. Gentleman describes himself as an advocate of unitary local government. In the past 15 months, I have felt like I was one of the few advocates of unitary authorities and one of the few who could see their great advantages, including avoiding duplication, increasing efficiency and simplifying responsibility for local council tax payers and local residents.
This debate takes place at a significant time in the restructuring process. As the hon. Gentleman is aware, the boundary committee is considering the representations on its draft proposals for single-tier local government in Devon. Its job is to assess them and provide advice to the Secretary of State and Ministers at the end of the year. I should make it clear that, at this stage, the job is that of the boundary committee and that the Government have no formal role, not least because the boundary committee is charged under statute to conduct the process and is set up under statute as an independent body.
As things stand, therefore, the statute prevents Ministers from making any decision on alternative proposals for unitary local government until six weeks after the date of receipt of advice, which is scheduled to be 31 December. Let me assure the hon. Gentleman that Ministers, not the boundary committee, will make the decisions and that we will be accountable, including in the House, for any decision. Given where we are in the process, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will understand that I will not comment specifically on the draft proposals that the boundary committee has published and on which it is considering representations.
Let me deal with the hon. Gentleman’s core concern. He asks on what basis the boundary committee is considering the position of Torbay and Plymouth and whether it has changed since February, when the initial request for its work was made. On 6 February, we asked the boundary committee to provide advice on a number of matters in relation to a proposal for a single tier of local government in Exeter that had been submitted to Government. That request specifically asked the boundary committee whether certain alternative unitary proposals could be identified that would have the capacity to meet the criteria that the Government had set out. In that request—I checked on this during the hon. Gentleman’s speech—we made it clear that the alternative proposals should involve changes to the boundaries of Plymouth and Torbay only if, on the basis of any evidence received, the committee considers that they are essential if there is to be an alternative proposal for a single tier of local government for Exeter and the whole or part of the surrounding Devon county area. In aggregate, that would have the capacity to deliver the outcome specified by the five criteria.
If the hon. Gentleman has not had a copy of the full request—I suspect that he has—I am happy to let him have one. In black and white and on paper, the basis on which the boundary committee could, or perhaps should, consider the boundaries of Torbay has been clear from the outset.
Does it not strike the Minister as odd that the extremely experienced and able local government officers in two local authorities, together with capable councillors—in one case an elected mayor—and a Member of Parliament have all interpreted that differently? Not only that, they had conversations with the commission and were encouraged to put forward ideas. Later, they were told that they should not have done that, because it was not part of the criteria.
I cannot account for how local government officers might have read the guidance, whether they understood it or how they understood it. If the hon. Gentleman had talked to me about it at the same time as other hon. Members, I would have been very clear with him. What was reflected in the request for advice was, essentially, that we should not look to alter the unitary authorities where they exist, but that there had to be some scope for the boundary committee, if it felt that it might be necessary as part of any overall proposals for other arrangements within the county, to consider that question. That was the basis nearly eight months ago, when we first published the advice.
I accept the point that the Minister makes. Since being told that one had wasted one’s time, I have been trying to request a meeting, albeit with the Secretary of State, to discuss the matter. I have been told that the decision is taken not by the Secretary of State, but by the boundary review and that it will make its recommendations at the end of the year.
If the hon. Gentleman was seeking a formal meeting with the Secretary of State, he will have to wait for the boundary committee to conduct its part of the process. It is up to the committee how it does that, as long as it meets the terms of the guidance and the timetable that we have set out. It is for those with an interest in the subject to make their representations and their case to the boundary committee. When we receive alternative proposals—if the boundary committee wishes to make them for Devon—there will be a period of four weeks in which the hon. Gentleman and others can make representations directly to Ministers. If he wishes to meet me at that stage and there are grounds to do so, I will be happy to meet him. Then it will be—this is set out in statute—at least another two weeks before Ministers can make any decision on future unitary arrangements, based on alternative proposals from the boundary committee.
As I said earlier, Ministers will make the decision. We will take into account not just what we may be advised to consider by the boundary committee, but any representation that is made to us at that time. Any decision that we take will be reported to the House, and we will be accountable through hon. Members and to the House. Clearly, if we proposed any change to the current local government arrangements, we would have to table regulations to that effect, and they would be fully debated. That would allow hon. Members to scrutinise the details of the proposals, as well as to hold us to account for any decision that we take.
I think that I heard the hon. Gentleman say that he accepts that there is no question of him not being allowed to participate in the process. The purpose of the published request to the boundary committee was to make it clear from the outset the basis on which the boundary committee had been asked to consider the position of Plymouth and Torbay in the context of its principal job, which is to look at the unitary arrangements—or potential unitary arrangements—in those parts of Devon that are still two tier. In other words, we wanted to ensure in the process that existing unitary authorities would not be changed unless that was necessary.
I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman got to these questions, although they were implicit in what he said. Can we not allow the boundary committee to do something different from what we asked it to do in February? Can we not make it clear that we want it to consider the boundaries of Plymouth and Torbay in a more open fashion? To some extent, we are bound by the statutory nature of the process, which is set out in legislation and does not allow us to amend a request for advice from the boundary committee after it has been issued. If we were to consider taking such a step, we would therefore have to issue an additional request.
Given that the original request for advice was made eight months ago, that there is less than two months to go before the committee is due to make proposals to the Government and that Devon and all the interested parties have been working on the basis of the advice that we requested from the boundary committee, it simply does not make much sense to consider that option, not least because it would extend the period of uncertainty, which I am anxious to keep to a minimum, because I recognise that it raises big questions for people and existing councils in Devon. I am anxious to get to a position where we are clear about what we think should be the way forward without unnecessary delay.
However, it may be of some interest and comfort to the hon. Gentleman, as he has taken the trouble to initiate the debate, if I make it clear that the legislation and the process have the potential to allow for boundary changes after the creation of any new unitary authority in Devon. Although the boundary committee stated when it published its draft proposals on 7 July that it had decided not to recommend changes to the boundaries of Torbay or Plymouth in its draft proposal, the committee might consider that some boundary adjustments could be advantageous to the authorities concerned, including his. The committee’s view, which I share, is that those boundary adjustments could be promoted if a review under section 8 of the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act 2007 were undertaken later.
Essentially, the boundary adjustments would probably be described better as modifications than as fundamental re-drawings, but the powers exist nevertheless under section 8 of the 2007 Act. I urge officers in the councils concerned to consider that if we decide to proceed with adjustments to the local government arrangements in the other part of Devon. If we do, the hon. Gentleman may also want to make representations on that point when we seek to implement any decision.
I have explained what stage we are at and the process that we will undertake following receipt of the boundary committee’s advice and proposals at the end of this month. After that, the earliest that the Secretary of State could take and announce any decision would be the middle of February. If appropriate, we would then introduce any necessary regulations to the House without undue delay. As I said, I am keen to ensure that we reduce the period of uncertainty and give the clearest possible direction, so that the House has the chance to discuss and approve or reject the proposals. If we were to consider a system of unitary authorities for all or part of Devon, the work necessary to prepare for such a change could then be started in earnest.
In summary, I have two things to say to the hon. Gentleman. First, the basis on which the boundary committee has conducted this process and considered the boundaries of Torbay or Plymouth has been clear from the outset; it was clear in the request for advice published back in February. Secondly, it seems sensible, particularly more than eight months on, to stick with our present approach. There is a legal framework for dealing with questions about boundary changes for Torbay and Plymouth subsequently, and it could be initiated either by the boundary committee or under the legislation by a local authority, including his, in whose favour he speaks so strongly.
It is a pleasure to participate in this debate and to do so under your chairmanship, Mr. Martlew. It is the first time that I have served under you, but I have heard highly of how fairly and sympathetically you chair Committees. Hopefully, I will need neither your fairness nor your sympathy.
My objectives in the next quarter of an hour are, first, to demonstrate the culpability of the financial sector in landing us in our present very straitened circumstances; and, secondly, to consider how the sector seems, at this very early date, to be responding to Government measures and to the recession that is just getting under way. I will contend that the way in which the financial sector behaves will affect the length, depth and seriousness of the recession. If the financial sector is positive in partnership with the Government, there is a chance that we will have a short and shallow recession. However, if it is not, and I will contend that there is every sign that it is not acting positively, the great fear is that we will have a deep and long recession, which will adversely affect many people in this country.
I start by making the point that yesterday in the Chamber we had a debate on the economy on an Opposition motion. There was the political opportunity to blame the recession on the Government’s policies and so on. However, any fair person who has looked at the events of the past 12 months, or who has been involved in them, must say that the origin of the current economic problems clearly lies in the finance industry and in the United States.
I am glad to see that I have support in another part of Westminster Hall today.
The fact that there was cheap money enabled money to be pumped into the system and inappropriate lending to take place. My favourite example from America is that of the old lady of 90 who was employed as a cleaner and given a $450,000 mortgage. After two years with that mortgage, she felt that it was time to retire, which I think was a very sensible move, but of course she lost her house because the mortgage was called in. That is probably an extreme example but it is none the less an example of the extent of the laxity and irresponsibility of borrowing, because of the cheap money that was available.
However, the really bad thing that came out of the United States was that the financial sector, not content with extending the market with cheap money, packaged it into different financial instruments. For some reason that, looking back now, no one can understand, those instruments received a triple A rating and the American financial sector was able to sell them throughout the world—a major selling place was the UK—without the buyers taking the trouble to analyse what was in these financial vehicles, because of the triple A rating that had been granted to them. Thus, some of these very doubtful loans were added to—what? No one knew, because they just bought these instruments, as they were covered by a triple A rating. The instruments were very saleable and they made money.
The lack of judgment, the irresponsibility and, some would say, the greed of the financial sector stored up a huge problem. When the sub-prime market fell apart in the United States, the repercussions were felt, but they were really felt because of these financial vehicles. In the UK, what was happening was that the banks and building societies were borrowing short and lending long. They were going to the wholesale markets and borrowing money, lending out on mortgages, and repaying their own loans by borrowing further. Because of the toxicity, or rather the contamination, of these financial instruments, the wholesale market just froze completely and the financial institutions were caught in a very difficult situation. As a result, Northern Rock went under; other financial institutions are merging, and others have been taken over.
After 12 months, we were almost feeling that we could see our way through this problem when the American Government decided not to rescue Lehman Brothers and a fresh tremor went through the financial markets. The situation is now so serious that, to reflect it, I would like to quote the Governor of the Bank of England, from a speech that he made in Leeds:
“An…almost unimaginable sequence of events began…It is difficult to exaggerate the severity and importance of those events. Not since the beginning of the First World War has our banking system been so close to collapse.”
If that was extravagant language from Mervyn King, his deputy, in a casual interview with the Scarborough Evening News, gave that newspaper a lovely scoop that went round all the world. He said:
“This is a once in a lifetime crisis, and possibly the largest financial crisis of its kind in human history. In terms of impact on the real economy we are still in early days.”
Now that comment might be a bit overstated, but it reflects the second worry, which is the impact on the real economy. For 12 months, we hoped that the problems in the financial market would not move across to the real economy, to affect employment, but it is now clear that that is happening.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the statement to the Scarborough Evening News is unfortunately all too true, in that, although the Government have acted with determination to rescue our banks, there is now a desperate need to repair those banks? I say that because they are in such a bad shape, in terms of their ability to lend, that it would be good news if the Government could think seriously about taking the bad debts off the balance sheets of the banks and copying what was done successfully in Sweden in 1992. Then, bad debts amounted to 15 per cent. of Sweden’s GDP but by taking those bad debts off the banks’ balance sheets, Sweden was able to come through very difficult times successfully. We now face similar problems, if not worse ones, in this country.
That suggestion was made during the debate on the economy yesterday, and I think that it has some merit. It is interesting that the Paulson rescue launch in the US was initially going to do that, but it did not get through Congress. The Americans have now moved across to the model proposed by our Prime Minister and Chancellor, which has gone round and been accepted.
I am comforted by what the Prime Minister said when he was interviewed with the Chancellor on the day of the rescue. When he was asked, “This is plan A, what is plan B if it does not work?” the Prime Minister simply stated: “Whatever it takes.” If I was in the financial sector and the Prime Minister said that he would do “whatever it takes” to deal with the problems the sector faces, I would be enormously comforted.
I would just like to go back to the Governor of the Bank of England. In the same speech in Leeds, he said:
“The actions that were taken”—
by the Government—
“were not designed to save the banks as such, but to protect the rest of the economy from the banks.”
I hope that every bank’s board of governors reads those words from the Governor of the Bank of England and digests them, because that is the situation that we are in. The banks have been rescued. They will still have problems and may need more help, which they have been promised, but are they prepared to have a positive partnership with the Government in ensuring that the rest of the economy—the real economy—is protected and the recession is abated and kept shallow?
I would just like to race through the reactions to the Government’s rescue package and what has happened since it was announced, because I am not certain that those reactions have been positive. The Government have very sensibly pointed out that they are using £500 billion of taxpayers’ money to bail out the banks that got us all into this mess, and that taxpayers would have something to say about it if that money were handed over without any conditions. The three conditions are very modest. The gist of the first one is that bonuses to boards of directors should end for the period of the recession. The second is that shareholders should forgo their dividends for a suitable period. Given that we are rescuing the whole financial market from collapse, in the words of the Governor of the Bank of England, that is not an extreme condition. The final condition, which is the most important for the real economy, is that lending should carry on at 2007 levels in terms of competitiveness and availability.
The reaction to those conditions has been interesting. Barclays needed about £3.5 billion, but did it go to the UK Government and sign up? It did not. Rather than sign up to those conditions, it went off and sold nearly a third of the bank to two middle east states. That does not strike me—a politician who represents 60,000 people —as showing a positive attitude to the problems of people in the community.
After the 0.5 per cent. co-ordinated rate cut that was put through before the 1.5 per cent. rate cut by the central banks, half of all lenders passed on nothing of that cut, and the majority of the remainder passed on only a percentage. That raises questions about the spirit of the banks’ thanks for being rescued. Then we had the farce of the 1.5 per cent. cut. The Chancellor had to pull the banks into Downing street, feed them breakfast, show them what the papers were saying about them and browbeat them into passing on the cut. I was interested to see, in Sunday’s Observer, that Barclays, which owns Woolwich, has yet to decide whether it will pass on the cut. HSBC, First Direct and a host of smaller, but still large, building societies, including Britannia, Coventry, Yorkshire and Skipton building societies, have also yet to make that decision.
There has been open and public repudiation of the conditions by TSB, which has told all its staff that bonuses will be paid. That is the same bank that, in the week before the 1.5 per cent. cut, prevented customers from moving from making repayments on both interest and capital to having interest-only loans. If one is in trouble, the first suggestion that a sensible bank would make would be to change to an interest-only mortgage, because those payments are cheaper than the repayment option. So, TSB stopped existing customers from switching to interest-only mortgages in those straitened days. Before the 1.5 per cent. cut was pushed through, there was an almost universal withdrawal of tracker funds from the market, but since a few building societies have passed on the 1.5 per cent. cut, public statements of open defiance have been made that the next cut will not be passed on.
There are 4.7 million small businesses in this country, in which 30.5 million people are employed. The Federation of Small Businesses says that one in three small businesses has seen no new credit on the market, that a third have seen an increase in the cost of new credit in the past two months, and that more than 30 per cent. have seen an increase in the cost of existing credit—that is the rub—in the past two months. One in 10 small and medium-sized enterprises has been refused credit in the past two months. As a result, one in three small businesses will reduce employee working hours, cut staff and stop all future hiring if the current credit climate continues. The FSB’s newsletter, which is just out, says that although it
“welcomed the Government’s bail out of the banks, the effects of this are not being felt by small businesses.”
I return to Barclays, which is not my favourite bank. In September, it sent a letter to a firm, which the federation has sent to me. I shall not mention the firm because I have had no contact with it and do not have its permission. The letter states:
“Like many of our customers, you have an overdraft facility with us to help you manage your cashflow. The interest rate margin on your overdraft will be changing from 6.870 per cent. to 10.870 per cent. above Barclays Bank Base Rate.”
So, we are talking about the mythical 14 to 16 per cent. overdraft rate. As if that is not enough, the next sentence in the letter says:
“Please may I reassure you that our commitment to your business hasn’t changed.”
Who says that banks do not have a sense of humour? But it is a sick sense of humour for small businesses that are struggling to stay alive.
Two banks—HSBC and TSB—said that they would pass on the rate cut to small businesses, but when the Financial Times money market survey looked at the rates, there was no indication that the cut had been passed on to small businesses. Does anyone get the impression that the banks have learned any humility after having to be rescued? I have not seen an ounce of humility or sympathy. We have to help people through the recession, but it is clear that the banks are not going to be positive or willing partners, and that raises problems for the Government and the public. The Government have put more than £500 billion of taxpayers’ money into rescuing the financial sector, only to receive the sort of responses that I have described. As a representative of taxpayers, I have to ask the Minister whether he thinks that we are getting a good deal.
I have some questions for the Minister. Given that the bail-out has rescued all the banks and building societies in the industry, as the Governor of the Bank of England has pointed out, is not it sad the deal has been confined only to the three banks that have signed the agreement? Banks that have refused to take the money, such as Barclays, are under no obligation to meet the terms of the agreement. The industry will be protected from a domino effect, and banks such as Barclays will gaily carry on doing business.
Is the money that has been taken being defined as capital only, rather than as loan guarantees or the Bank of England’s special liquidity scheme, which I am sure that all the banks and building societies have participated in at some stage? If they are participating in the other two funds, should not they be caught by the conditions?
As far as mortgages are concerned, repossessions are growing at a sad rate. Is there a mechanism available, or is one being put together, to check that the banks are, in every case, seeking repossession only as a last resort? When will the Government begin their scheme to help those who are unemployed or on benefit, but have a mortgage and are unable to meet it? What will be the trigger point?
The next question will be difficult to answer, but I am sure that given his abilities, the Minister will manage to deal with it with no problem. The one bank that the Government own has the highest number of repossessions of any major bank and the highest standard variable rate. How can we order other banks to do certain things when the one bank that we control and own is behaving in that irresponsible way?
I shall finish by adding some questions that the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) asked in yesterday’s debate, which were not answered. I think that they are pertinent. Particularly in the case of small businesses, are the Government or anybody else monitoring the amount of business lending, and especially checking that it is actually taking place? Are they monitoring on a weekly or monthly basis how much credit is going from each individual bank into the business sector, and do they have any mechanism for telling Parliament what is happening as regards the flow of funds?
I am grateful for this opportunity to speak. I reiterate that the Government deserve to be congratulated on their judgment and political courage in taking steps to put such a huge sum at the disposal of the financial markets. However, to prevent the recession from extending deeper into the real economy, and to prevent people from losing their homes, or losing their jobs and then their homes, the banks need to behave in the spirit of the Government’s requests. I cannot see any sign that they are doing that willingly, and I would welcome answers to my questions.
I welcome the debate and the opportunity to consider bank lending, which is very important at the best of times, but particularly so in the current tougher economic circumstances. My hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, East (Mr. Mudie) is absolutely right that we have seen unprecedented turbulent conditions in the world economy in recent weeks, and that the action that we in the UK have taken has been widely copied by other Governments around the world, who have admired the leadership that the Prime Minister and the Chancellor have provided. They will both be going to Washington to meet the Finance Ministers and heads of national banks of the G20 countries later this week. I was at the meeting last weekend of the same countries’ Finance Ministers and central bank governors in Sao Paulo in Brazil. The crisis is a global problem and international collaboration will be key to resolving it.
Here, the Government have a central responsibility to ensure financial stability so that confidence can return to the financial system on which we all depend. We will focus on providing the right conditions and the right framework to support responsible lending at reasonable prices to creditworthy businesses and individuals. The recapitalisation scheme announced in early October has seen £37 billion of public money announced for investment in preference shares in Lloyds TSB, the Royal Bank of Scotland and Halifax Bank of Scotland.
The banks are certainly not getting a free ride. Public money is being lent on commercial terms and taxpayers will be rewarded for the calculated risks that are being taken with their money. The banks have signed up to specific conditions, including on mortgage lending and loans to small and medium-sized enterprises, such as maintaining for the next there years the availability and active marketing of competitively priced lending to home owners and small businesses at 2007 levels. To pick up on a point that my hon. Friend made at the end of his speech, we are putting in place effective monitoring. UK Financial Investments Ltd, which we are setting up, will oversee the implementation of those conditions. Participating banks, as can be seen in the notices on their websites, have committed to publishing an annual report on their small business and mortgage lending so that there is transparency about how banks are supporting SMEs and home owners.
The effects of the global crisis are being felt here. The cash flow of businesses across the country is being hit, and families are finding it hard to locate affordable mortgages. That is the sharp end of the credit crunch. We are taking steps to direct support to those who need it most. Of course, there are good reasons why banks’ business models have changed over the past year. Lenders face inaccessible and expensive funding and are having to take steps to strengthen their balance sheets.
Unfortunately I will not be able to give way, but I think that the hon. Gentleman and I will be together in a debate tomorrow, so we might be able to touch on some of those points then.
Individual decisions on offering loans, and on the price of those loans, must remain commercial decisions for lenders. It would be a serious error to require banks to take uneconomic decisions against their judgment of risk and cost. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, East, will recognise that that would just store up trouble for the future, so we will not do that. However, he is right that banks are at the heart of our economy and that they need to play their part in helping the UK through these difficult times. Recent cuts in interest rates by the Bank of England should have a positive effect on inter-bank lending and on credit markets more generally. As credit conditions ease, the banks should pass savings on to their customers whenever they can. As my hon. Friend rightly reminded the House, the Chancellor met chief executives of major UK banks to make that clear last week, and there have been some welcome announcements since.
We know that ensuring that there is sufficient access to appropriate credit is vital to enabling SMEs to start up, grow and survive as flourishing businesses. By guaranteeing loans to small businesses, we have encouraged lenders to extend the credit that SMEs need to grow. In the year up to March, more than £200m of lending to SMEs was guaranteed, and in this year’s Budget we increased the lending available under the small firms loan guarantee scheme. The total of the outstanding loans to British companies with a turnover of less than £1 million was just over £53 billion in the second quarter of this year, a rise of 12 per cent. on the year before.
This is not just about lenders passing on the cut in the base rate of interest. They fund themselves from a range of sources; some will reflect much of the fall in the base rate, but others will not. For example, deposits from savers and market borrowing are likely to be less affected by the cut.
My hon. Friend is right that repossessions have risen recently. He mentioned Northern Rock, and the reduction in the total size of its mortgage book has contributed to an expected increase in the proportion of the book showing repayment difficulties. In particular, its loan book contains a number of high-loan-to-value “Together” loans, which, as is well established, have a poor repayment record. The company acknowledges that, and I understand that it is investing in its management operations and talking to debt charities to discuss their concerns about its repossessions.
Of course, Northern Rock’s mortgage rates, which my hon. Friend mentioned, reflect a key part of its business plan—to pay back its substantial taxpayer loan. It announced in its quarterly trading statement in the middle of last month that it had reduced the amount of loan outstanding to the Government by £15.4 billion. The outstanding amount was £26.9 billion at the end of December, and it has fallen by £15.4 billion—more than half—to £11.5 billion. In that context, and given the desirability of Northern Rock repaying its loan to the Government and the taxpayer, that explains some of what is happening. Since Northern Rock is in receipt of what European law describes as state aid, it needs to operate with various competitive restrictions while it is in public ownership.
We have taken other steps to support home owners who run into difficulties. My hon. Friend asked about the reform of the support for mortgage interest scheme. I think that I am right in saying that the changes that have been announced will take effect at the beginning of the new financial year. They will help people in the first couple of years, after a shorter period of waiting when they start on benefit. We have issued new guidance to the courts to halt court action on repossessions unless alternative options that help the home owner have been fully examined first. I agree with my hon. Friend that repossession must be the very last resort.
School Funding (Devon)
I am pleased to have secured this debate on education funding in Torridge and West Devon, and in Devon more widely. It is a subject of considerable concern to many of my constituents. Over the past six months or so I have received an unprecedented number of representations from heads of small rural primary schools, as well as from parents, governors and teachers, about the position that they find themselves in as year by year their budget declines and what they have to do with it increases.
The subject of my speech will be the manner in which the current dedicated schools grant is allocated. In 2007-08, Devon is 144th of 149 local education authorities in that regard. A Devon schoolchild receives £410 less per year than the national average. Pupil numbers are falling: between 2006-07 and 2007-08 they fell by 800, which under the current formula meant a cut of £2.8 million. When I have previously raised the extreme disparity between the amount a Devon schoolchild receives and the national average with the Minister for Schools and Learners, he has replied that the priority of Ministers is deprivation. He says that in Devon there are significantly fewer disadvantaged pupils according to Government criteria. This year 8.5 per cent. of Devon’s dedicated schools grant is for disadvantaged pupils, against a national average of 12.1 per cent. That may be true of Devon as a whole, but it is not true of Torridge and West Devon.
The borough of West Devon and the district of Torridge comprise the most disadvantaged areas of the county of Devon. West Devon is one of the most rural and sparsely populated areas of England. Just 0.4 people per hectare live in West Devon, compared with an English average of 3.77 people. Devon county council notes that while the county is perceived as being well below the average in suffering from deprivation, it actually has the fourth lowest average wage in the country. In Torridge and West Devon, we are in the bottom 10 for wages in the entire country. In West Devon the most recent available figures show, for example, that average annual earnings were only 63 per cent. of the average for England and Wales, and in Torridge the figure is even lower.
Of the 80 parishes that were studied in a recent Exeter university project, 28 of the most disadvantaged parishes were in Torridge and 13 were in West Devon. That means that more than half of the most deprived rural areas are in my constituency. The indices of deprivation 2007 reveal that the extent of rural deprivation in the area is grim. Ten wards in Torridge and West Devon are among the top third of deprived areas in the country. The parish of Lydford, which is close to my home, is one of the most deprived rural wards in England, 9,231st in the rankings and lower than many deprived urban areas.
Geographical deprivation is a particularly important factor in rural Devon and it has achieved significant notice in the media in recent months. In my constituency we have some of the most geographically deprived wards in the country. England is divided into more than 32,000 areas. In those areas, the wards of Bridestowe, Forest and Milton Ford are in the top 100 most geographically deprived areas in the country, while others such as Walden, Two Rivers and Broadheath are in the top 200. In total, 14 wards of Torridge and West Devon are in the top 500.
Pupils in those circumstances are suffering the effects of a fundamentally misaligned system of grant allocation. The dedicated schools grant is calculated by multiplying the number of school and early years pupils by a standard rate. That rate is based on need as assessed in 2005-06. There are four additional elements: area cost adjustment, sparsity, additional educational need and high-cost pupils. I will come back to those, but the central theme of my remarks is that there has been a fundamental failure to recognise the extra costs of running a high number of smaller schools in large rural areas such as Torridge and West Devon and Devon as a whole. In addition, there has been a substantial rise in the number of children with special educational needs, which is unrecognised.
Over the summer I visited many schools and met heads, teachers, parents and governors. They told me of the gradual erosion of the ability of those excellent schools to provide the education that the children deserve. They told me of the strain on heads, as they take on ever greater teaching responsibilities; of the cost of their strategy and leadership roles; of the suspension of library subscriptions; of the ever more thinly stretched time of teaching assistants; and of reductions in experienced staff.
Some 129 schools in Devon local education authority have 100 pupils or fewer, so 40 per cent. of all schools in Devon have fewer than 100 pupils, and 72 per cent. of those schools are in rural areas. The local education authority has determined that even the smallest schools—those with 53 children or fewer—require a minimum of 2.6 full-time equivalent staff, 500 hours of administration and one mealtime assistant. There are 42 such schools in Devon, which is 13 per cent. of all primary schools, including a dozen in my constituency. The tasks of leadership of smaller schools is in many respects the same as in larger schools. The proliferation—the blizzard—of Government initiatives does not discriminate by pupil numbers and salaries have to reflect that.
Each school, however small, must have a fixed cost regardless of the number of pupils. Tearchernet estimates that primary schools with between 80 and 100 pupils cost 16 per cent. more per pupil. That additional cost, which must grow as the number of pupils gets smaller, is simply not reflected in the current grant. The Minister may argue that those factors are taken into account by the sparsity element. I accept that around £9 million this year is allocated to Devon on account of that factor, but she knows that the current sparsity index relies on data from the 1991 national census. In addition, the cost of smaller schools has almost certainly risen, not least because of the extra responsibilities of which I have spoken.
The other day I heard a story that in the past few years Northumberland received less sparsity allowance than Birmingham. The current sparsity assessment does not reflect an ageing population or the scarcity of children, so we need to look again at how sparsity is assessed. It affects the cost of education in a large rural area in many ways. For example, if one is buying in support services, the support staff who come to provide those services will have to charge as an overhead the cost of travel to the school. There are a multitude of ways in which sparsity affects the cost of delivering education in a large rural area.
I want the Minister to explain why it is that a Devon schoolchild receives £410 less than the national average. If it is because of deprivation then I hope that I have illustrated that deprivation is as bad in parts of Devon as it is in many urban areas. Yet the smaller schools in those deprived and geographically deprived areas are the ones that are suffering the effects of the crunch on their budgets.
If the sparsity factor is intended to take account of the extra costs of running small schools—fixed costs that cannot be seriously reduced—surely it needs to be reviewed urgently. I know that a review is taking place, but adjustments must be made to reflect the number of small schools and the fact that children may be scarce, although in a county such as Devon, with an ageing population, the population may in fact be growing in certain areas.
The sparsity factor clearly is not doing its job. As I visited schools during the summer, I was told stories by anxious parents who congregated in draughty halls to talk to me. They told me about coming in to maintain the fabric of the building because the school’s budget was insufficient. I myself participated in a painting session at Meavy school in West Devon. The governors and I did the work because we could not afford to have somebody else do it—we had to do it ourselves. Parents, governors and teachers are truly worried. As I said, there is an unprecedented level of concern. Sparsity and the cost of running small schools must be reflected in the Government’s allocation of grant funding.
Another factor that I would urge the Minister to take into account is the considerable rise in the number of special educational needs children in Devon. In the summer of 2003, SEN children made up 14.4 per cent. of the total school population. By the summer of 2008, it was 20.9 per cent. The Minister may be aware that there has been a significant increase in the number of diagnoses of children who are on the autistic disorder spectrum, yet those vastly increasing numbers are not reflected in the dedicated schools grant. That is largely because the assessment of need was made prior to 2005-06, and the current dedicated schools grant is a spend plus grant. Therefore, all the assessments of need are locked in as of 2005-06.
That is one reason why the disparity exists, but I would be deeply grateful to the Minister if she could explain, although not in the habitual terms of Ministers who recite figures that we all know, how she would respond to an anxious parent or governor, or a strained head teacher, many of whom I have met this year. They are taking on an additional teaching load because they cannot afford to employ an experienced teacher, or even a teacher at all.
The dedication and commitment of such people to primary school education in my constituency is unparalleled. The schools get excellent Ofsted reports, and the parents and governors are deeply committed to them. Such schools support small rural communities, and it is not an exaggeration to say that they are loved. They are an intrinsic part of the community and deliver an excellent education for children, particularly vulnerable children.
How would the Minister explain to those people that, bit by bit, they are experiencing a painful erosion in their ability to do what they want to do for children, and to provide them with the best possible education? Costs mercilessly and remorselessly rise while budgets decline in real terms. The fabric of the buildings is deteriorating. Subscriptions cannot be taken out for the school library. Teachers have to take on extra responsibility. I urge the Minister to provide a real answer to those people through me, because although this debate is not well attended, I know that her words will be attended to most carefully, given the attention to the problem in my constituency and across Devon.
I know about the current review of the dedicated schools grant. One assurance that I seek from the Minister today is that the special value of small rural schools will continue to be recognised. The Government created a presumption against their closure, which I welcomed. I hope that she will be able to say that it will continue—that small schools and the valuable benefit that they represent to communities and children will continue to receive emphasis in the Government’s policy making. As well as emphasis and protection, however, small schools need Government support through funding, and that means a realignment of the dedicated schools grant to reflect some of the cost pressures of which I have spoken.
If realignment is not carried out urgently, I gravely fear for the future of many—or certainly some—of the schools in my constituency and across Devon. That would be a catastrophe, because, as I have said, those schools provide an extraordinarily fine education. I should declare an interest: my own son, who was on the mild end of the autistic spectrum, received the most extraordinarily fine education from our local village school. It was caring, and it was provided in a small setting. Those on the autistic spectrum cannot deal with a large group or a big crowd of children. Therefore, in many cases, a small village school is ideal. I would like such education to be fostered and nurtured, and provided for hundreds more children living in the rural areas that I represent.
The expressions of concern that I received this summer were unprecedented. I almost received more requests for meetings than I could cope with from anxious head teachers, parents and governors. I would like education in small schools to be fostered and nurtured, but there is a deep sense of distrust and concern that the current review will not produce a realignment of funding and grant to enable them to prosper. Amalgamations and federations often do not work in dispersed rural areas because of the distance that one has to travel to collaborate. That is a problem with early years as well. If there is a large distance to travel, it is difficult for two or three villages that have to co-operate even to set up such a facility. What they really need is a recognition of the additional costs of such schools.
I am grateful to the Minister for being here. I hope that I shall give her ample time to give my constituents, through me, a real answer. They and I know that education funding has risen. I have seen all the figures, and so have they. We know that in the past five or 10 years education budgets have risen in real terms, but so have costs.
There is a high teaching cost in rural areas. For example, the area cost adjustment does not seem to include any cost adjustment for Devon that reflects the higher cost of employing teachers in rural areas. We want to know that the Minister and the Government are looking at the plight of small, often fragile and vulnerable rural communities and not discounting them because they are small. We must recognise that small schools form a crucial part of the education that is offered in this country, and that it is education of which we should be extremely proud.
I congratulate the hon. and learned Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr. Cox) on securing the debate. It is possible to tell from his comments that he is deeply involved with the issue and with representing his constituents.
Nothing could be more important than ensuring that every child, in every area, can go to a good school. As the hon. and learned Gentleman said, to achieve that, we have put unprecedented investment into our educational system. Our teachers are the best they have ever been—those are not my words, but the words of Ofsted. More than ever before, children and families are being put at the heart of everything we do, and services for them are at the heart of communities. Through academies and trusts, new school governance models have given local government and schools greater freedom to make the best use of the resources that are available to them to respond to local challenges and best serve the children and families in their area.
Local authorities are more in control of how their funding is allocated, and it is right that they are. It would not be right to impose central solutions to local problems. Local authorities are best placed to understand the needs of their communities and to allocate their funding accordingly.
Nearly £3 billion of funding is provided nationally for deprivation. We are aware that not all of it reaches the schools with the deprived pupils, so we are working with local authorities to ensure that funding provided for deprivation is being targeted to those pupils. The distribution of that funding is left to local discretion and Devon county council has consulted the Department to work out how to move funding in the local formula to such schools.
As the hon. and learned Gentleman pointed out, Devon has received a year-on-year increase in school funding of 12.8 per cent. over the current three-year settlement to ensure that we can continue to build the best possible system for our young people. As he mentioned, we have set the funding for the next three years under the spend plus method, which has two principal advantages. First, every local authority is guaranteed an increase per pupil per year, with an obligation to pass on a minimum guaranteed increase per pupil to schools. Secondly, allocating funding over a three-year trajectory—currently from 2008 to 2011—has successfully given schools and local authorities greater stability and security in their allocations to ensure that they can plan ahead with certainty. Although that inevitably reflects historic patterns of distribution and spending, it has preserved in the baseline the additional funding above the old schools formula spending share, which many local authorities, including Devon, historically provided for their schools. For those reasons, we are confident that the funding levels first set in 2005-06 by the spend plus method have provided the right balance of funding for local authorities across the national picture. In addition, two thirds of respondents to our consultation last spring favoured retaining spend plus rather than switching to an updated version of the old SFSS.
We must strive for excellence in education provision for every child and we must aim for consistently high standards, but it does not follow that funding, service provision or any other measure should be applied in exactly the same way across the country. If we are to close the gaps between the most disadvantaged and the rest, we need to invest in those areas, and those pupils, who need it most.
In 2007, 36 per cent. of young people receiving free school meals achieved 5 A* to C GCSE passes compared with 63 per cent. of their better-off peers. That discrepancy is not acceptable. In the classroom, our teachers provide more intensive support to those pupils who are underachieving than they do to those who are charging ahead under their own steam. That is why we have introduced greater personalisation and flexibility into the curriculum, so that every child’s needs are catered for, not just those of the fortunate few. Our funding streams must allow the same flexibility, so that we can target resources where they are most needed, while maintaining a consistent standard of education. With a guaranteed increase in spending per pupil over a long-term trajectory, the spend plus method has helped us to achieve that.
We need to ensure that the system is keeping pace with the change and challenges that local authorities will face in future. We need to start thinking about that now to ensure a thoroughly thought-through system for 2011. That is why we launched a review of school funding in January to create a new formula that will commence directly after the current three-year settlement. The review will take into account a wide variety of views and research to develop a formula which continues to direct funding where it is needed, taking into account local priorities and costs. It will be targeted to raise the achievement of all pupils consistently across the national picture to reflect the changing needs of local areas and to support schools to be fully equipped for 21st-century learning. Priority factors in the review process will be the area cost adjustment, provision for high-cost pupils, special and additional educational needs and sparsity, which I will address later. We are inviting input into that process via the formula review group, which is currently gathering evidence for the review, and we will be opening work up for public consultation in 2010. I strongly encourage our partners in local government and schools, and other interested parties, to contribute to that process. The work of the review group will be available on the Department’s Teachernet website.
As the hon. and learned Gentleman has expressed, rural schools in sparsely populated areas remain a significant challenge to the local authority in Devon, and around the rest of the country, in making planning and allocation decisions. As he mentioned, we have recognised that in the current funding formula. In 2007-08, the dedicated schools grant contained almost £188 million of funding for sparsity, of which Devon will receive £9.14 million.
We are determined to protect rural schools, because they are making an invaluable contribution to their local areas. The hon. and learned Gentleman can be confident that the review will take these issues into account. We already recognise the value of rural schools. As he said, earlier this year the Minister for Schools and Learners wrote to local authorities reminding them that we introduced a presumption against closure in 1998. That does not mean that we say that no rural school will ever close, but it is up to local authorities to ensure that the balance is managed properly against the presumption that we will close them.
We want to see surplus places in rural primary schools used to broaden the services that schools offer. Our vision of the 21st-century school offers an opportunity to do that. We also want to see shared governance arrangements between small village schools as a means of addressing financial and educational challenges. Although the hon. and learned Gentleman said that that would not work in Devon, I recall that, at oral questions a few weeks ago, hon. Members who represent Somerset constituencies said that federations were working well in rural schools there.
Our review will reflect our aim to protect rural schools, together with an assessment of the changing costs of rural schools over time. Some local authorities with many rural schools may decide to allocate more funding to their primary provision. That will be a matter for local determination, but as we develop the new funding formula, we will focus on building a strong system so that every school can operate to the best of its abilities to provide the highest possible standard of education to its young people.
In the meantime, as our review progresses, we are providing support to schools and local authorities to help them make the most of their funding and resources. My Department has produced a package of measures, including a day’s free consultancy advice for every school, combining educational and financial expertise, and a new interactive website that will serve as a gateway to existing guidance on improving value for money and as an ongoing means of support.
I am grateful for what the Minister says, because much of it is of great interest—for example, the review and the invitation to participate in it will be welcomed—but I asked her a specific question and I wonder whether she feels able to answer it. Let us suppose that one of the anxious and strained head teachers from a small rural school—I met many of them over the summer because they wanted to see me—said to her, “Why am I having endlessly to take more teaching responsibility? Why are my teaching assistants ever more stretched? Why can I no longer subscribe to the library? And why must I send out for volunteers to help repaint the school?” Could the Minister answer those questions, because they do not understand why?
As I said, on value for money, we are providing support to schools to help them work their way through such questions. There may be new, innovative ways in which they could manage their budget. My Department would be more than willing to help schools to do that.
In the children’s plan, we committed ourselves to having a world-class education system for all and to an ambitious target of making this country the best place in the world to grow up. I mentioned our vision for 21st-century schools. We want them to be the best that they can be. We need to develop a funding system that will support that concept.
We are saying to children and young people everywhere, “Your communities, your education, and your future are worth investing in.” That is our aim as we take the review forward to the next funding formula for 2011 onwards. I hope that the hon. and learned Gentleman will take the opportunity to get involved in the review. I am sure he will; he has already demonstrated his commitment to his local schools.
Question put and agreed to.
Adjourned accordingly at one minute to Two o’clock.