Tuesday 29 June 2010
[Mr George Howarth in the Chair]
Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Angela Watkinson.)
Housing Need (London)
On a point of order, Mr Howarth. You will be aware that we have just lost an hour and a half of precious parliamentary debating time because of the failure of the hon. Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) to turn up on time. The situation was compounded by the failure of the Minister of State, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr Hayes), to turn up in time for our 9.30 am debate. That debate was on the very important subject of apprenticeships. Is there any way in which we can reinstate that hour and a half of parliamentary time, which was lost because of tardiness that would not be tolerated of any apprentice throughout the country? Is not such a situation a contempt of the House, particularly given the number of hon. Members who would like to speak in this housing debate? Given that the hon. Member for Gloucester did not see fit to turn up on time for his debate, the hour and a half that was lost could have been used for the housing debate.
There is, unusually, a point of order in the hon. Gentleman’s comments, but I think he was straying towards making a political point at the end of his contribution. The reality of the situation is that it is open to the hon. Gentleman whose debate was lost earlier or any other Member to apply to the Speaker for a further debate through the normal procedures. If any Member considers that the subject of the debate that was lost is important enough, that debate can be held, but it will have to be the subject of a separate application. I do not think that what happened was a contempt of the House, although it might be seen as discourteous.
I am very pleased that we are having this debate, although I am sorry that it will last only an hour and a half. I am sorry that the previous debate collapsed, but we could well have used three hours to discuss housing in London, so it seems that a monumental parliamentary opportunity has been lost. I hope that the hon. Members concerned will reflect on the situation because we are sent here to represent the people and to try to deal with their problems.
I am resuming the debate on housing in London. There is a slight feeling of déjà vu—the actors in the theatre have changed only slightly—because we have discussed housing needs in London many, many times before, and I suspect there will be many more debates on the subject. London Members know that there is no bigger issue, no greater stress and no greater problem that faces all our constituents than housing, whether that relates to people who are trying to buy, people who are trying to get social housing, people who are going through the problems of being a leaseholder or people who are living in private rented accommodation.
The levels of housing stress with which MPs deal are absolutely enormous, but I need not go over that in too much detail because hon. Members in the Chamber will be well aware of it. The levels of stress associated with problems of overcrowding, and of uncertainty and insecurity of tenure, lead to ill health, underachievement in school, family break-up and unemployment, and they have a wholly corrosive effect on our society. I am not asking for something special because we are talking about London. I am asking for recognition that the whole country faces serious housing problems and that they are even worse in London than throughout the rest of the country.
One could quote many relevant statistics at great length. I shall not cite a vast number of figures, but I would like to run through some information that was helpfully provided to me by Crisis. Reading across the piece, the average house price in London is £362,000, which is £140,000 higher than that in the rest of the country, and the average income is £26,000 a year, which is £6,000 more than in the rest of the country. The gross annual income needed for a mortgage in London is £93,000—it is £109,000 in my borough—so we can easily see the disconnect that exists.
Total local authority stock in London is 432,000 and housing association stock is 350,000. The number of new lettings by local authorities was around 23,000 last year, with 22,000 lettings by housing associations. Some 353,000 families are on the waiting list for social housing in London, of whom 52,000 are in temporary accommodation, while the number of households accepted as homeless is 12,000, although that relates to the last year for which figures are available. All that information shows that buying anywhere is unaffordable, that there are huge waiting lists for social housing and that the number of homeless people is rapidly increasing. The 12,000 London households accepted as homeless represent about a fifth of the total for the whole United Kingdom.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. I apologise that I will need to slip out of the Chamber part of the way through it, but I hope to be back at the end.
I want to raise with my hon. Friend—and indeed all hon. Members present—the human tragedy behind those figures. People are living in temporary accommodation for four, five or six years. They move constantly and are unable to settle anywhere. The children of such people are really badly affected by continually having to up sticks to move to other accommodation. Should we not be most concerned about that situation?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I recall that in the halcyon days when I was chair of housing for Haringey council, we were able to build a large number of council houses, some of which were very good properties. We were determined to build good-quality properties not because we had a desire to spend vast sums of public money, but because we had a desire to conquer the problems of housing shortage and the stress that goes with it. Three quarters of the people in this country who are in temporary accommodation are in London, and my hon. Friend is right to point out the effects that that has.
All hon. Members have seen people in our advice bureaux who are living in their third or fourth piece of temporary accommodation and whose children have had to move schools or make very long journeys to stay in the same school. Those people are unaware of what will happen to them because of the lack of security that surrounds such a situation. We have a very serious problem indeed. I mentioned the corrosive effects of housing stress in London. One such effect is overcrowding, a second is uncertainty, a third is the problems of private rented accommodation, and a fourth is very high cost, which is the matter that I want to move on to.
If someone secures a council or housing association tenancy in London, the rent for a two-bedroom flat will be, broadly speaking, £100 to £120 a week. That is a reasonable rent—it is an economic rent, not a subsidised rent—that allows people to live somewhere reasonable, secure and safe. However, this country’s very bad record on building social housing over the past 20 years or so means that the number of people re-housed by local authorities or housing associations is low. Most local authorities say, “We cannot possibly house you; you’ll have to go into private rented accommodation.”
Councils therefore assist people to get private rented accommodation and have, in some cases, an over-close relationship with various letting agencies. The rents in such accommodation are often very high. They can be £250 or £300 a week, but I have even come across rents of £400 a week or more. If the people concerned are unemployed or on benefits, those rents are largely paid through housing benefit. For them, having a private rented place with the rent paid initially sounds like a reasonable option, but two problems can emerge. One is that such people are left in an enormous benefit trap, because if they succeed in finding a job, they will lose all or most of their housing benefit, and they therefore cannot possibly take a job unless it is incredibly well paid. One needs an awfully large salary to be able to pay £400 a week in rent. I suspect that that figure is far more than hon. Members in the Chamber pay for their mortgage monthly.
As a country, we are therefore pouring billions of pounds in housing benefit every year into the pockets of private landlords who do not give security and often provide inadequate accommodation. It is often very difficult to get them to carry out repairs, as I am sure that all Members in the Chamber who have corresponded with private landlords to try to make them carry out repairs have found. We must bear in mind the benefit trap and the huge cost to the whole country. It is fairly obvious, as a point of principle, that it would be far better to invest our precious national resources in building homes for affordable rent through councils and housing associations, rather than pouring the money down the drain by putting it in the pockets of private landlords through the housing benefit system. None of that is particularly new.
The hon. Gentleman and I have held similar views on those matters for many years, and I have not changed mine. Does he agree that we ought to encourage local authorities to use their powers to acquire all the residential properties in their boroughs that are sitting empty? There are now powers for local authorities to take over the management of such properties, albeit not their ownership, so that they can let them at affordable rents, rather than pushing people into the private sector which, as he rightly said, makes things impossible for those who want to get back to work because of the benefit trap.
I take your point and I will be brief, Mr Howarth, because I want all Members who wish to speak to have an opportunity to do so.
I largely agree with the points made by the hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes). Local authorities do have the power to buy on the open market and to take over empty properties, and they should use that power. Indeed, my right hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Margaret Hodge) was chair of the housing committee in my borough in the 1970s and undertook an enormous purchase of street properties throughout the borough, which did a great deal to preserve its street character and to house many people who would not otherwise have been housed. Clearly, there will never be enough land for new build in central London, so that is one way of dealing with the problem.
I want the Minister to answer four simple questions. I am sure that he will give me positive answers to them all because I know him to be a decent, reasonable and helpful chap who wants to deal with the housing problems in London, even though he does not represent a London constituency—there is no crime in not representing a London constituency. [Interruption.] I do not wish to be controversial, because that is not in my nature. The statements that the coalition Government have made over the past few weeks are disturbing, to say the least. They initially said that they would continue investment in infrastructure in our society, which I took to include the current building programme and the enhanced building programme for council houses—the Minister can confirm whether I am right or wrong. However, last week’s Budget included a statement on housing benefit that is absolutely devastating for those of us who represent London constituencies. It is devastating for the whole country, but its effect will be particularly acute in London.
I should tell the Minister that 30% of my constituents live in private rented accommodation, that about 40% live in local authority or housing association properties, and that the remaining 30% are owner-occupiers. Many of those in private rented accommodation are in receipt of housing benefit. I will quote again from the information helpfully provided by Crisis:
“From Oct 2011, Local Housing Allowance (the new form of HB…) will be set at the 30th percentile (rather than the 50th as now). This is probably the most serious of the cuts and will mean many more people will face shortfalls and/or find it very difficult to find and sustain a tenancy. It will be particularly difficult in areas where more than 30% of the private tenants are benefit claimants. This may well lead to an increase in homelessness.
From April 2011, rates will be capped (from £250/week for a 1-bed to £400/week for a 4 bed). This will mean certain areas are likely to become no go areas for claimants, particularly larger families, with significant implications for mixed communities and community cohesion, through changes to the 30th percentile will affect more people…Alongside this, working age people in social housing will no longer be able to claim HB on a property deemed bigger than their needs. This is designed”,
“to tackle under occupancy. From 2013/14 onwards, Local Housing Allowance will be uprated on the basis of the Consumer Prices Index, rather than on the basis of local rents.”
Non-dependent deductions are another issue. When taken together, those proposals will be absolutely devastating for those of us who represent high-cost, inner-urban areas. They will, in effect, start a process of the social cleansing of claimants across London.
Bearing in mind your earlier strictures, Mr Howarth, I will be brief, and I am sure that all Members wish you a happy birthday.
With regard to the figures that my hon. Friend quoted in relation to private sector leasing, is the situation in his borough the same as in mine, where the majority of those PSL properties are former local authority properties that have been bought from the council and are now being leased back to it? Does he agree that one needs a strong stomach and a sense of irony to look at housing in London today?
Many of them are ex-local authority, although not all. I am constantly astonished when I speak to people in my constituency who are living in ex-council flats that are privately rented and are paying twice, or three or four times, the rent of their next-door neighbours who are still council tenants. What is going on in London is absurd and obscene. I hope that the Minister will at least recognise that the housing benefit proposals are punishing the poor, tenants and those in housing need for a problem that they never created. I am not sure what the proposals will achieve. Unless they are linked to a huge building programme of places for affordable rent, all we will be doing is making a bad situation much worse and punishing a whole generation of young people and children across London. I want to hear about the building programme, so I hope that the Minster will be able to address that point.
I shall make my two further points quickly because many colleagues wish to speak. Has the Minister any plans to improve the situation of leaseholders who have bought places, usually under shared ownership schemes, from housing associations? There seem to be enormous problems about representation in housing associations, and many of them seem to have a generally unresponsive attitude to high leasehold and service charges.
My final point relates to planning issues. Most local authorities in London have now adopted a proposal that a proportion of all new build schemes should be for social housing. The former Mayor of London, Mayor Livingstone, wanted a proportion of 50% for those in housing need, although I would rather it was 50% for social housing. Is the Minister prepared to underline what the previous Government tried to do by providing sufficient resources so that new build can take place or providing borrowing allowances for local authorities?
My local authority has a new cabinet member for housing: James Murray, who is part of the new Labour team—not new Labour with a capital “N”; I do not ever want someone to misquote me on that. I shall end by quoting from his message to me:
“In Islington we have thousands of families on the waiting list for housing, many living in desperate overcrowding. It is not rare to see 7 or 8 people in a 2-bed flat—with the children often unable to do their homework, unable to have any privacy, and with the whole family suffering under the stress…The announcement last week of a cap on housing benefit could put a third of Islington’s private sector tenants who are on housing benefit at risk of eviction. This will only increase the pressure on social housing—and so more than ever we desperately need more investment in social rented homes. You will hear the same message from many Labour politicians in inner London—and that is because this investment is the only answer.”
Many of us present are old hands at speaking in Westminster Hall on the continued complexities and persistent demands of providing affordable, decent and plentiful homes in the capital. I fear that I have joined the hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) as one of the usual suspects in that regard, and perhaps in many other ways as well. The frequency of our presence in this Chamber testifies to the difficulty of striking the right balance when dealing with housing need in London.
As those who have heard me speak on this subject before will know, an ostensibly wealthy inner-city constituency such as mine is not in any way immune to these problems—quite the opposite. Housing has been, and continues to be, the single most important issue in my postbag, along with immigration. No doubt, the two things go hand in hand for Westminster, and for any of us with London seats, because this global capital city is a magnet for those seeking to make their fortunes—not only from across the world but from all corners of the British isles.
The pressure that the vast flow of people into and out of my constituency places on our housing stock is enormous. Rental values have shot up in recent years, and so too has the huge cost of providing for those in need, although the amount of money that landlords get from tenants on housing benefit has similarly driven up prices. It is, I fear, for that reason that some of the most shocking and high profile stories about housing benefit have come from my constituency; the £104,000 a year home was in Mayfair in the west end. There are individual families whose accommodation costs the taxpayer thousands of pounds each and every month.
I have a lot of sympathy with what the hon. Member for Islington North said on this subject. There is a risk that some of the proposed changes will drive some of the most vulnerable people out of London, and that will need to happen to a large extent.
I heard the hon. Gentleman say that some of the most vulnerable families will be driven out of central London, and I believe that he said that was necessarily so. Where does he think they should go?
I hope that the hon. Lady will allow me to continue with what I have to say; these issues affect all of us in the capital. In his Budget statement, the Chancellor said that we could no longer have a state of affairs where people who do not work are living in homes that ordinary working people simply could not afford for themselves. Putting aside that principle, housing benefit has also become an enormous trap, as the hon. Member for Islington North rightly said, for its recipients in London, and I agree. In the past few weeks, I have canvassed people in the Churchill Gardens estate, where the precise situation that the hon. Gentleman described is prevalent. In other words, people are living next door to one another, one in a council property paying rent that is very low by the standards of the vicinity, and another in a property that has been sold two or three times and is now in the hands of a housing association, effectively being passed on to nominations from the local authority at three or four times the rent of the property next door.
Has the hon. Gentleman spotted a potential inconsistency in the argument of the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, who says that the unemployed in the north of England, for example, should give up their homes and move to London, while those on benefits in London should give up their homes and move to the north of England?
I fear that there are many inconsistencies going back not only over the past six or seven weeks but, I suspect, over the past six or seven decades. One inconsistency is that we had a Labour Mayor of London for eight of the past 10 years, and housing development was almost at its lowest. In many ways, having overly stringent rules prevented many developers from deciding to develop; they sat on their hands and waited for property prices to increase. The situation has made unemployment a logical option for many people living in London, because it has been forced on them, due to the huge poverty trap. That has meant that unemployment in the capital, even in the boom years, was the highest of any region in the UK.
The announcement in the emergency Budget of a cap to limit the cost of a four-bedroom property to £400 per week has caused incredible concern among my constituents. I suspect much of that concern is caused by the uncertainty of how such a cap will be applied in individual cases, and I want to highlight a couple of typical cases that have come to light in the past week or so. Most of the concerns raised with me so far have come from elderly or disabled constituents, many of whom have been unable to get on to Westminster city council’s list for a council property, so instead they live in the private rented sector and have their rent paid by housing benefit. One such constituent is Mr Roger Aves, a disabled resident who requires a live-in carer. He wrote to me:
“You cannot get a broom cupboard in central London for the amount being proposed yet central London is my home and has been since 2001. My medical input is large and being close to my health providers and social care was paramount to my choice of living here.”
Another constituent, William Richards, is an 80-year-old pensioner from Pimlico. He said:
“'I agree with a cap on total amounts although it may well affect me in the future. What is a bit mystifying is reference to ‘percentile’—
referred to earlier—
“which appears to be another way of reducing the benefit but is not made clear at the moment. I have lived in the same private rented accommodation for 25 years. My rent is increased by 10% per annum. How will my flat be evaluated compared to the rent of a social housing flat? Will it be based on the market rent of a privately rented flat in Pimlico or on a council flat?”
As many of us know, some of the most illustrious and sought-after areas in central and outer London are often cheek by jowl with council estates. Mr Richards says:
“The two do not bear comparison. Even now my pension does not cover my rent and I have been living on my savings for many years now in order to pay for the basic necessities. I may well be forced to leave my home.”
It is vital that the likely impact of any changes is made clear to people such as Mr Aves and Mr Richards, and we need certainty at the earliest opportunity.
My local authority, Westminster city council, supports the cap and lobbied for some time on reform of housing benefit, as it is essential to reducing the welfare bill, particularly with rates of £2,000 per week claimed for larger properties in Westminster—rare, but none the less real cases.
Does the hon. Gentleman share my sense of irony that Westminster is supporting the cap now after making almost £6 million for the council tax payer in recent years through housing benefit being above the rents paid for temporary accommodation? Is he not aware that to be politically in line with the Government, Westminster is cutting its throat and the throat of its council tax payers to the tune of nearly £6 million?
The hon. Lady makes a very valid point; one of the main absurdities of the housing benefit system is that there is so little incentive for local authorities, whether in London or across the country, because they can get the money back from central Government. That situation has to change.
Westminster council estimated the worst-case costs at £8.1 million, reflecting the expense of the long-term temporary accommodation contracts that the council was encouraged to enter into under the previous cap regime. Many would welcome the Government’s implementing the new caps and mitigating the associated risks. In particular, places such as Westminster need the guidelines around local connection to be changed. Under the existing guidelines, local authorities affected by the caps are required to try to house people in their vicinity. I think that Westminster city council is particularly concerned that the courts will find against it if it tries to house families out of the borough, leading to additional costs and more uncertainty and family disruption.
The guidelines need greater flexibility, and the Minister must recognise that there are specific issues in London, for boroughs of all political complexions, that need to be thought through. We need to ensure that local authorities can, to an extent, house out of borough when it has not proven possible to find temporary accommodation in the area at the new capped rates.
There is much more that I would like to say, but I appreciate that other Members wish to contribute so I shall end my comments with these thoughts. Given that the proposals are due to come in over the next few months, in the run-up to the next financial year, I wish to say only that many Members on the Government Benches welcome the review of the housing benefit system, the flaws of which have been glaringly obvious to all of us who deal frequently with housing cases. I accept that there will be differences across the House as to how the changes should take place. If the case for change is successfully made, we will require a much closer working relationship with the boroughs, and clear and frequent communication with London Members, who will be receiving ever more letters from anxious constituents in the months ahead, so I hope the Minister will pledge to ensure that there is proper communication, which will be essential.
It is also vital that the most vulnerable in our communities are properly reassured. If they are not, we risk undermining the most compelling aspect of the case for reform, which is that the measures should primarily be about fairness, with the hard-working being rewarded and the truly vulnerable being properly and fully protected.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Mr Howarth. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) on securing this debate.
I shall not rerun all the figures that have been heard already. I agree absolutely with what my hon. Friend said, and I also agree, up to a point, with the contribution of the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr Field). The central issue is the implicit threat to so many of the most vulnerable people in my constituency from what the Government propose on housing benefit. I freely and openly admit that I am a cynic when it comes to their policies on what I still regard as social housing—I prefer to call it council housing, but let us make it broader than that.
It seems that we will have, yet again, a rerun of the attacks that were made on social or council housing under the first Thatcher Administration—the coalition Government are actually Thatcherism mark 2—and we can remember what happened during that time. We saw a massive explosion in homelessness. I do not think that there was a single street in London during that time that did not have its community of homeless people sleeping in doorways, many of whom had serious mental health as well as physical health problems. The waiting lists grew ever longer, and families were placed in bed and breakfast accommodation where they were allowed into what were, in the main, utterly appalling conditions. I visited many of them, and I speak about what I actually saw. If those images had been presented to members of the Kennel Club as fit places for dogs to live, there would have been riots in our streets. Families in such accommodation had to leave it at 9 o’clock in the morning and were not allowed back until 5 o’clock at night, in many instances.
Out of the desperate need of those families—every black cloud has a silver lining—came a growing number of charitable and voluntary organisations that attempted to get certainly the children off the streets of London, where the then Government had deemed it was entirely right and proper for them to be. Many of the children were of pre-school age, and, of course, there was nothing like Sure Start and no free nursery provision in those days.
What is being proposed by the present Government for housing benefit will recreate precisely those conditions all over again. No one in this Chamber would argue that the housing benefit system should not be examined closely—many of us have been arguing that for a considerable time—but to believe that we can improve it by punishing those who have no homes without the support of housing benefit seems utterly absurd.
For example, rents in my constituency and in that of every London MP who is sitting here this morning are way above the national average and, in many instances, way above the London average, yet the Government propose that a cap should be placed on housing benefit. I cannot in all honesty see the landlords who are presently benefiting from the system saying, “Oh dear, are we charging too much? Perhaps we should bring the rent down.” They will simply not accept the same number of tenants whose rent payments are dependent on housing benefit. That is also something that has been growing over the past few years.
Then we look at the north, where people who cannot get work in London are apparently supposed to go to look for jobs. Rents undoubtedly are much lower there than they are in London, but one knows precisely what will happen. The landlords will say, “Oh, goody.” If the Government are prepared to pay a certain amount for a house, flat or whatever, up the rents will go. There will be absolutely no saving of any kind for the national purse, but there will be real, serious human tragedies played out on our streets yet again.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Islington North said, the proposal will impact horrendously on children. He did not say that—I am paraphrasing—but that is what he meant. It will impact horrendously on children who cannot do their homework or make friends because they have nowhere to bring friends after school to play or have a cup of tea. It will impact terribly on parents who are constantly left feeling guilty, because they see the damage that is being inflicted on their children.
The proposal will also have appalling repercussions on the wider community. All hon. Members receive letters and complaints from constituents about noise—in many instances, it is perfectly natural, normal noise. Children make noise, and if three or four of them are in an extremely small flat with nowhere to play—more than likely up a tower block—they will make noise, and that will create the usual neighbourhood dramas that we all have to deal with day in, day out.
I go back to my original hypothesis, which arises from my cynicism and hard-won experience of many years ago, that this is just another brick in the wall of the attempt by the present Government to destroy social housing as we all understand it. They want all properties that at present could be deemed to be social—whether council, housing association or some other form of social housing—to be taken out of that sector and placed in the private sector. It seems that they want to put all housing in the private sector and to remove all kinds of support for people who will never be able to buy a house of their own or meet what will be the soaring costs of renting in the private sector, certainly in London, because they want London to be a place where rich people live. They do not want it to be a place where poor people live.
This is a step up from the gerrymandering—I exclude the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster—that we saw in Westminster. My hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck), who is sitting one seat away from me, knows precisely where I am going with that. That kind of gerrymandering involved decanting people from areas of Westminster and bringing in those who were deemed to be Tory voters. I have to tell the Government that the fallacy that only rich people vote Tory is absurd. I know many people whom they would not regard as being even vaguely well off who are solid, absolutely committed Tories and will be all their life.
The idea that the way forward is to create virtual ghettos of a different kind is absolutely and utterly unacceptable in a country such as ours, certainly in this century. We cannot go down the road of arbitrarily deciding which properties can be charged for at a certain level in this way. The proposals for housing benefit are monstrous, and they will, as they inevitably do in such areas, impact most on the most vulnerable.
I sincerely hope that the Minister, who I am surprised to find sitting here supporting such policies, will rethink them. If he will not do that, I hope that he will report on what he hears this morning in the hope that those above his pay grade will think again about something that could be so destructive for this city.
It might be helpful if I announce at this point that I intend to call the first of the two Front-Bench spokesmen at 12.10. If hon. Members who are trying to get in do the maths, they will realise that it will be difficult to get everyone in. However, the more disciplined hon. Members are about the time that they take, the more likely it is that we will get more of them in.
Thank you, Mr Howarth. I shall follow your stricture and keep my remarks to 10 minutes or thereabouts.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) on securing this debate. He is right: many of the usual suspects are present for it. They include some ex-Ministers who share responsibility for the housing situation that we have in London.
It is fair to say that housing has been neglected by successive Governments and that the problem in London has not emerged in the past couple of months. There are different figures for how many households in London are looking for or waiting for social housing, but 350,000 has been quoted to me. Whichever figure one takes, a substantial number of people need social housing.
Clearly, as a result of demographic changes in London, pressure on housing will increase as the population increases. Demand might rise further if the coalition proposal to safeguard housing rights for people who are looking for work and perhaps coming to London has an impact, which it could. The proposal has some merit, but for it to work, we need some spare capacity in housing in London. I would not want such a proposal to displace people who are waiting for housing in London and who, in many cases, are being advised that they could wait for seven, eight, nine or 10 years. Such waiting times are being quoted to some people in my borough.
Clearly, too, the housing benefit changes, to which many hon. Members have already referred, will have an impact. There is some evidence, certainly in the commercial sector, that some landlords are responding to the present financial situation and, if not knocking down prices, holding prices for leases that run for four or five years.
The situation may or may not have changed but the policy certainly has, so does the hon. Gentleman support what the Housing Minister said about looking at having no secure tenancies for new lettings in the future? Does he support the £250 to £400 cap on housing benefit, which must affect his constituents as well as mine?
Some valid points have already been made in the debate and, perhaps surprisingly, one of the reasons for my being here today is to listen to the Minister, who is a sound and honourable man, explaining—hopefully, explaining away—some of the apparent contradictions in a number of the proposals. I know from his background in local authorities that he believes, contrary to what the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Glenda Jackson) said, that council and social housing in this country has a strong and sound future. I am sure that he will defend that principle.
Going back to my theme, we have heard such a proposal before but presented in different words: essentially, it amounts to a property-owning country. That is good old-fashioned Thatcher dogma, simply re-dressed in another way. We saw what happened when that dogma ran the first time: a massive loss of homes, businesses and families. The Government will create that all over again.
That is the hon. Lady’s interpretation of the coalition Government’s proposals across a number of policy areas, but it is not one with which I can agree. I agree that we need to guard against the potential impact of the proposed housing benefit changes on migration from central London to outer London boroughs or beyond, but I hope that Opposition Members accept that we are in rather a difficult financial position at the moment. I am keeping a tally of their proposals on how to address that position. They have accepted the need to cut 20% from a number of departmental budgets, including those of the Departments for Work and Pensions and for Communities and Local Government, so we need to hear some sort of explanation. Indeed, the hon. Lady said that housing benefit should be looked at, but presumably not with a view to increasing the funding available. I hope to hear at least an outline of some possible Opposition solutions or improvements to the coalition Government’s proposals. I shall wait and see.
Does the hon. Gentleman not understand that if we invested in housing with affordable rents, through housing associations and councils, we would immediately cut the housing benefit bill enormously: instead of paying £400 a week, we would pay £120 a week?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I assure him that I understand his point perfectly, but he must be aware, having spoken in many such debates in the past 13 years, that housing in London is in short supply. The previous Government did not manage to resolve the problem, but I hope that the coalition Government will do so.
I want to refer to some of proposals in the coalition programme that will address the issue.
As someone who also represents an outer-London borough, I share the hon. Gentleman’s concern about the migration of people from central to outer London—a number of my constituents, who are struggling to find housing in the private sector because of the changes, are already concerned. He hopes that the Government will make some changes to prevent such migration from happening, but what sort of changes would he like the Government to make?
I am afraid that I shall again have to defer to my hon. Friend the Minister, who I am sure will pick up that point when he responds to the debate. I want to put on record some of the proposals that the coalition Government have listed in their programme—measures, or sentiments, that can address the situation. When the Minister responds, I hope that he can put some flesh on the bones of such sentiments, as well as give an indication of where the Government are going with housing, so that we have greater clarity about how housing provision and needs will be addressed.
We will promote a radical devolution of power and greater financial autonomy to local government and community groups. We will abolish local spatial strategies and return decision making on housing and planning to local councils. We will radically reform the planning system, to give neighbourhoods far greater ability to determine the shape of places in which their inhabitants live. We are exploring a range of measures to bring empty homes back into use, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes) made clear in an intervention earlier. We are also looking at new trusts and perhaps ways of providing cheaper homes that people can buy—cheaper because community trusts hold the land separately.
Is the hon. Gentleman aware that David Orr from the National Housing Federation has said that changes to the planning system, such as the end of regional targets and the cut in investment, mean that the amount of affordable housing built in England this year could fall by 65%?
I am aware of those concerns. However, a bottom-up approach to housing is required. Again, when the Minister responds to the debate, I hope that he will explain how the proposals in the coalition programme will help to increase the supply.
I want to mention the promotion of shared-ownership schemes. Registered social landlords, such as London and Quadrant led by David Montague, are proposing imaginative schemes, such as the “up to you” programme, to make homes available for people who might not be able to pay a deposit for a property.
The situation is challenging, but we have some solutions or partial solutions to the problem of housing need in London and beyond. I should like to ask the Minister a specific question—just to get some clarity—on the decent homes programme. Although the issue is a local one, it might affect other hon. Members. The London borough of Sutton was awarded partial funding for its decent homes programme shortly before the general election. I seek confirmation that that funding remains available, and I ask about the future of the programme, which was due to last for a number of years. Tenants and the Sutton Housing Partnership are interested in what will happen to the decent homes funding.
To conclude, we are clearly in a challenging situation as far as housing need in London is concerned. It is not something that has emerged in the past couple of months but has been a long-standing problem in London, with a shortage of supply of affordable homes and, indeed, homes for sale. I hope that the coalition Government can take on that situation and can address it in the next five years.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn), who has a long history of bringing to this place for discussion matters on which Opposition Members work as a team. My hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck)—I hope that she catches your eye, Mr Howarth—also has a long history of bringing such matters to this place.
As London MPs, we are not here to suggest that we have cracked housing issues in London. We all have a long track record of campaigning on them, and understanding them, largely because we know from our constituency surgeries that London is a tale of two cities—the two cities that my father found when he arrived here in 1956. He shared a one-bedroom flat with a small paraffin heater in Finsbury Park with five others. He is not with us today, but I know he is pleased that I now have a big house in Finsbury Park. That is the progress of immigration.
All of us in the Chamber have large homes, and all of us have employment, but we are here because either we are moving incrementally forward on housing or moving backwards. The Budget and its housing benefit issues will move us backwards. I predict that the result of the exodus from inner London to outer London will be equivalent to what happened in the Parisian suburbs and there will be social unrest in three or four years. It is right to put that on the record. That will be the consequence of the social cleansing of inner London. It is patently clear to all Members of Parliament who represent London constituencies that the face of homelessness, particularly in London, is a black and ethnic minority one. Those are the people who will be cast out of Westminster, Islington, Camden and Hackney to find their way and their homes as they will, against a backdrop of existing acute housing need in London.
We have a Mayor who is not committed to building the necessary affordable homes in the city. Looking at the list of Conservative local authorities, I find it pathetic that only 200 affordable homes were built in Westminster in the last year for which we have figures; just 100 were built in the London borough of Kensington and Chelsea and, even worse, in Richmond only 127 were built. Those authorities have the space and the opportunity, but over that period their attitude to building affordable homes was poor. That is the backdrop against which people will suffer.
Last Friday, an event was organised by the charity, TreeHouse, which supports families with young children on the autistic spectrum. I spent the afternoon on the Broadwater Farm estate with the Uddin family. I collected their son, Adil, from Broadwater Farm primary school, to be close to the family as they deal with their five-year-old’s serious autistic needs. There are eight of them and they live in a two-bedroom flat, which is typical of housing need in my constituency. My message to that poor family with six children is that their disability living allowance will probably be cut by the present Administration, so despite having a three-week-old child, they can forget any possibility of receiving the baby or toddler element of the child tax credit, because that will go too. Mr Uddin makes representations to me about housing need, but against a backdrop of 3,471 people on the temporary accommodation list in the London borough of Haringey and, as we speak, 818 in emergency accommodation, it is very unlikely that the family will be able to move from their two-bedroom flat, despite the fact that eight of them live there. Even worse, the new Government, because of their attitude to economic matters, has deemed that the housing pressure in our London borough is set to become even worse.
Opposition Members believe passionately that despite the tough economic times, the way through is to invest and to determine growth. This is an opportunity for a new deal arrangement for our country, and Liberal Democrat Members should remember the opportunities that Lloyd George put in place with his people’s Budget. It is a disgrace that hon. Members who represent areas such as Hornsey and Wood Green, and Bermondsey, where there are poor and needy constituents, support a Budget that will result in an exodus and social unrest. It is a disgrace.
No, I will not give way. We have heard enough from the hon. Gentleman and, frankly, it was pretty poor.
One in eight people on housing benefit is unemployed, but many are workers—cleaners, shop workers, hospital porters and so on. The pressure that the Budget will put on them is unacceptable. It is a disgrace, and will lead to the sort of social unrest that I and my constituents saw in 1985 when unemployment was 20% in the constituency, and probably 40% among black people. We will see that again with the cutting of the future jobs fund alongside the ridiculous, nasty policy that underpins the Government.
[Mr Mike Hancock in the Chair]
We have heard some excellent speeches from Opposition Members this morning, and I hope that we will hear more. I will try to be brief. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) on giving us that opportunity.
London has always been a city of mixed communities. In constituencies such as that of the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr Field), mine and those of other hon. Members, we see the historical product of that mixture. Properties were built by Peabody and Octavia Hill, and the 19th century housing associations. They recognised that there were slum conditions in London and that the poor have always lived in different parts of London. We are in danger of engineering a set of solutions that fly in the face of the centuries-old history of London by making London, particularly central London, safe for millionaires to live in.
We had a mixed stock of housing in our cities, and that stock has changed, but the supply of properties has not changed. The buildings are still there, but the people who live in them are different. For example, Westminster has 14% less social housing than in the 1980s. In Sutton, there has been a 7% fall in the number of social housing properties, and in Wandsworth, remarkably, there has been a 22% fall in the proportion of social housing properties. Some of the people living in ex-social housing properties bought their properties, and rightly so. Good luck to them. Understandably, they took the opportunity, and then sold and moved, so those properties are now in the private rented sector. My hon. Friend the Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound), who has left the Chamber, said that some people living in ex-local authority homes are paying rent of £400, £500 or £600 a week when their neighbours are paying only £100 a week.
We have heard about the employment trap being almost a justification for such policies, but let us not forget that rents cause the employment trap. Those who are living in private rented accommodation and facing a rent of £400, £500 or £600 a week obviously find it difficult to work, although despite that many do. If they had the benefit of a social rented unit, as many of them used to have, they would not face the employment trap and the disincentive to work. Indeed, all the records show that unemployment and worklessness in social housing was far lower 30 years ago than nowadays because all sorts of social housing—housing association and local authority property—is residualised due to the reduction in stock.
We now blame tenants and those who live in those homes but, in many cases, they would have been social tenants if the available capacity were the same as 20 or 30 years ago. We retreat to the policy that was actively encouraged during the 1980s of shifting large numbers of people not just to outer London, but in some cases to bed and breakfasts in Margate or to social housing in Birmingham, regardless of all the local and community connections people might have had. What a desperate legacy we are still dealing with for families who were, by definition, going through the homelessness gateway and therefore vulnerable. They had children, disabilities or caring responsibilities, and we are still dealing with some of the consequences of cramming people into bed-and-breakfast accommodation and shattering their local connections in order to implement a harsh homelessness policy.
This policy is absolutely insane. Although I have been critical in the Chamber about the Labour Government’s failure to build enough social houses, they did—rightly— look at ways of reducing homelessness. The number of households accepted as homeless has fallen steadily over the past 15 years. Over the past year, a duty of homelessness was accepted for 36,000 households—9,000 over the last quarter. That number is down.
Looking at homelessness prevention we see that last year, 123,000 households were diverted from making a homelessness application. Fine. We all agree that keeping people in their homes and providing them with an alternative would be a sensible thing to do. However, where were those 123,000 households diverted? More than 60% were diverted to the private rented sector. We have achieved a reduction in homelessness by placing people in the private rented sector. Now we are saying to those people that we can no longer put them in the private rented sector in most places, so what will happen? They will be homeless. They will make an application and, under present law, there is a duty to accept them as homeless, so what is the answer?
Earlier, the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster came up with an answer: the coalition Government will change the law. I predict that they will change the law so that local authorities no longer have a duty to house homeless applicants; Westminster council has made it clear that it supports that position, as has Hammersmith council. Local authorities could not house those people because if they did, the entire policy on housing benefit reduction would be shattered. Therefore, the Government will change the law to allow all homeless households to be housed only in the private rented sector. They will remove all forms of local connection. But what will be required? How will the Minister answer that? Will households be required to find alternative accommodation anywhere in England, or will it just be anywhere in London? That question goes to the heart of the implications of the policy.
The Government propose to cleanse lower-income people, many of whom work, from large parts of London. That is the core purpose of the policy; it has no other purpose. Those households will have to live somewhere—unless they do not have somewhere to live. In 1997, one of my first cases as an MP was helping a family whose children were living in a bus. I predict that one consequence of this policy will be that families will sleep in their cars, on waste ground or on the streets. We probably will have disorder; there will be catastrophic overcrowding and we will see people living in the streets. Of course, we will also see people shipped away to the north of England.
What is the sense in a policy in which, on the one hand, the Secretary of State for the Department of Work and Pensions says, “Let the workless come to London to find jobs,” but on the other hand, the workless are driven out of London to where the housing is? Such a policy is intellectually incoherent and, above all, morally indefensible.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn), who has an outstanding record on this issue. As he says, “Here we go again.” The fact that 11 Labour Back Benchers are present shows the strength of feeling and the importance of this issue. The hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr Field) also regularly attends debates on this subject, although I note that he and his new Liberal Democrat friends have not so far been in a position to defend the changes to housing benefit. We wait with interest to hear what the Minister says.
I sponsored a debate on the issue about two months ago in which I kept to my usual two themes: first, to urge the then Government to build more social housing in London, which they were beginning to do, and secondly to draw attention to the social cleansing that has been going on for some years in my borough of Hammersmith. I will not talk about that today, but it is a template for what could happen elsewhere. There are many clubs in the armoury, from demolition to sales or the refusal to build any new social housing, and in many ways that has set the agenda.
Even that picture, however, looks rosy compared with what we see now. Not only have there been changes in the Budget, which I will come to in a moment, but we have had clear statements of intention from the Minister responsible for housing. I referred to them earlier, although the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) declined to comment, as he declined to comment on anything else. I know that he is a decent individual, so perhaps it was from embarrassment at what his Government are doing.
When my hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck) asked the housing Minister on 10 June whether he would confirm that
“new tenants—people in housing need coming off the housing waiting list, as he described—will enjoy the security enjoyed by existing tenants”,
the reply was that Government policy
“may include looking at tenure for the future.”—[Official Report, 10 June 2010; Vol. 511, c. 451.]
As we know from the figures given by my hon. Friend the Member for Islington North, there are about 45,000 new tenancies in London a year, which represents 6% or 7% of tenancies over the term of a Parliament. The policy could mean that a quarter of social tenancies in London disappear. It effectively means that social housing, whether assured or secure tenancies, will become a bin-end, a type of housing that is being phased out. As my hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North said—she has an exemplary record in raising these issues—the product of the past 20 or 30 years has been increasingly to use the private sector for housing.
I wonder if my hon. Friend has had the same experience as me—I expect he has. A woman with three children came to see me in my surgery. They had nowhere to live, and I told her that there was no social housing and that she had to go into the private sector. She replied, “But it’s so expensive, Emily, what can I do?” I said, “Don’t worry. You can get housing benefit.” She said, “What about when I go to work?”, and I said, “Don’t worry; you’ll still get housing benefit to top up your salary when your children go to school.” I now feel as if I have betrayed her by pushing her into the private sector when housing benefit is about to be taken away.
I suspect that my hon. Friend is more compassionate than I am. Tenants come to me who have three or four kids and they are living in a one-bedroom flat. They say that the council is blackmailing them and telling them that they will never be rehoused unless they give up their secure tenancy and take an assured shorthold tenancy in the private sector with what are, as has been pointed out, inflated rents. I say, “Stick it out because once you’re there, they can do whatever they like with you. At least you have a permanent tenancy at the moment.” That is a hard thing to tell people who are living in extreme housing need.
The system of direct lettings gets people off the housing waiting list by placing them in highly insalubrious private accommodation, and getting them into undesirable relationships with the private landlords who are found in local authorities such as Hammersmith. Schemes to avoid homelessness by keeping people in private sector tenancies, the use of private sector letting—a relief after the old bed-and-breakfast system—and, as my hon. Friend has just said, the removal of rights to permanent housing, have forced people into insecure housing in the private sector and meant that a time bomb has built up.
The response of the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives has been to reduce the sum of money available. Let us forget figures of £100,000; no one is in favour of that or of £2,000 a week. We are talking about £400 or £250 a week. I have been told that so far my borough has identified 750 families who will have to move, I think, out of the borough. There are very few suitable properties, although I think that yesterday we heard the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions say—I shall check Hansard for the exact quote—that he wanted people to find the right level of housing, the right level of housing for people who live in London. So people move outside the M25 or live in a slum. Many of my constituents already live in a slum, because of the pressure on housing in the private sector, and that will increase. To pillory people and to say that they are unemployed, feckless and so on is, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) said, absolutely wrong.
Shelter has said:
“The vast majority of housing benefit claimants are…pensioners, those with disabilities, people caring for a relative or hardworking people on low incomes, and only 1 in 8 people who receive housing benefit is unemployed.”
Those are the people the Conservative party and the Liberal party are seeking to victimise—they cannot escape that. I look forward to what the Minister will say, but he has a very difficult task today.
It is fair to say that housing is one of the biggest issues in my constituency, if not the biggest, and I am very pleased to be able to take part in the debate. Having a decent place to call home is something that many of us take for granted, but for thousands upon thousands of Londoners, the housing crisis in London can be described only as a living nightmare.
In my constituency, the biggest problem is that there simply are not enough reasonably priced homes to go around. In parts of Lewisham East, average house prices are 10 times average salaries. For many young people and public sector workers, home ownership is a distant pipe dream. Even the council’s housing list offers little hope. The list stands at 17,000 households but, in contrast, about 1,400 properties become available to rent each year, so for each family that moves into a suitable property, another nine will be disappointed. For larger families, the wait for a suitable property can seem to take for ever.
In some parts of the country, overcrowding could be sorted out by using homes better, such as by matching the size of a household more closely to the size of the property, but even if under-occupation was completely eradicated in London, we would still be left with a huge problem. Private sector cross-subsidy for new affordable housing has not delivered the number or type of the new homes that are so urgently needed.
This issue is not about giving people a cushy place to live, but about giving kids the chance to do well at school and giving mums and dads the type of home life that prevents them from going nuts and enables them to go out and get a decent job. I could not quite believe it when the Chancellor of the Exchequer suggested in last week’s Budget that one of the ways he plans to limit spending on housing benefit is by restricting tenants’ access to appropriately sized homes. Will the Minister recognise the devastating impact that overcrowding has on the lives of my constituents and will he assure me that the Chancellor’s zeal for reducing spending on housing benefit will not result in even more misery than there is at present? I cannot help but think that the coalition’s proposals to do away with housing targets and its weird obsession with so-called garden grabbing will just result in fewer homes being built in the capital. What assurance can the Minister give that that will not be the case?
The issue is not just building more homes, however, but investing in the homes that we do have. As the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) said, a number of arm’s length management organisations in the capital are crying out for investment. In my local authority area, Lewisham Homes is being inspected to determine whether it has reached the required standard to unlock £154 million of capital funding over the next five years. Other round 6 ALMOs in Lambeth and Tower Hamlets will undergo similar inspections in due course. Given the Chancellor’s remarks about the importance of capital expenditure in the next few years, will the Minister reassure me and residents of properties provided by Lewisham Homes that the Government will look favourably on the investment needs of homes in London, and will he honour the commitment made to Lewisham by the previous Government?
Will the Minister also commit to looking beyond the decent homes standard and finding a flexible way for tenants to have the ability to set local priorities for investment? I have lost count of the number of times that people have said to me, “I have a perfectly decent kitchen, thank you. What I want is a lift that works.” The scale of the investment required in London’s social housing must not be underestimated, and nor must the long-term implications of not investing.
Housing is an issue that does not get enough airtime. It is also something that the new coalition Government seem not to understand. Last week, various news outlets were reporting the impact that housing expenditure can have on the nation’s public health, but for those of us who are familiar with the state of London’s housing needs, that was not news. I sincerely hope that the new coalition Government will do all that they can to improve London’s housing conditions and to ensure that the type of homes that Londoners need are built. I for one will do all that I can to make sure that they do.
Not at all, Mr Hancock.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) on securing this fascinating debate, which has been marked by passionate, knowledgeable and expert contributions from my right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) and my hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck). We heard a brilliant speech by my hon. Friend the new Member for Lewisham East (Heidi Alexander), as well as expert contributions from other hon. Members.
I want to pick up on a point made by the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake). Of course savings must be made. We understood that, which was why we set out plans to halve the deficit in four years. The question, however, is when we make the savings, how quickly we make them and whether we make them in areas of expenditure that drive growth and get the economy moving again. Labour Members believe that we need more investment in social rented housing, not less, and that was why housing in London was such a priority in the £1.5 billion housing pledge that we announced last year to get the economy moving.
Will the Minister tell us when we shall know what is happening to the homes that we planned to build in London before the election? The Treasury announcement on 24 May about spending cuts required the Homes and Communities Agency to make savings of £230 million as part of a wider package of savings in the Department for Communities and Local Government totalling £780 million for this financial year—a financial year in which, if we had been in power, cuts would not have been made. Will he tell us what proportion of the £100 million to be saved from the affordable housing programme will be taken from the HCA in London? Will he also tell us what proportion of those savings will be met by the cancellation of homes planned for London under the kick-start programme? In total, 17 schemes were planned for the capital, and this is a very important issue, not just for families stuck on waiting lists who are desperate to get a home of their own, but for developers and people working in the construction trade.
We had planned the biggest council house building programme in two decades, but the new Government’s announcements have put at risk 194 of those homes on a dozen sites across London for which we had earmarked £15.5 million. Will the Minister tell us which of those developments will be going ahead? Given that the Mayor has gone back on his pledge to build 50,000 affordable homes for London over three years and that he is abolishing the policy that half of new homes should be affordable, given that Shelter’s former chief executive, Adam Sampson, has said that the Mayor’s policies
“perpetuate the wealth and class divisions in the nation’s capital”,
and given that London borough waiting lists have risen by 20,000 in the two years to April 2009, will the new Minister say what stance the Government will now be taking on the Mayor’s London housing strategy?
Every home lost in the recession has been a tragedy for the family involved, but repossession levels have run at a fraction of those in previous recessions because we took action to help Londoners who were struggling to meet mortgage payments. We helped 25,000 families and provided £2.8 million for local authorities to establish loan funds. Will the Minister give an assurance that that area of expenditure will be saved from the cuts that the new Government make?
When we came to power in 1997, estimates suggested that almost 2,000 people were sleeping rough in London. By this year, we were within touching distance of ending rough sleeping once and for all. The only announcement that the new Government have made in this area has been an utterly trivial point about the way in which figures are counted, but today, however the calculation is done—whatever measure is used—it is clear that the number that we inherited has been cut dramatically. Most figures suggest that it has been cut by three quarters.
It would be wrong not to give considerable credit for the improvements made in relation to rough sleeping since 1997. However—and this is not just the anecdotal evidence of a central London MP—things have been getting markedly worse in the past couple of years. I accept that there is a big duty on the present Government to ensure that we bring back some of the significant improvements made in the aftermath of 1997, but it would be wrong not to put on record the fact that there have been and there are increasing problems with rough sleeping. We need a new initiative to build on some of the successes, but things have been getting worse.
What we need is a commitment by the new Government that they will continue the investment and initiatives that the previous Government were putting in place.
There are certainly major challenges ahead, not least in connection with rough sleeping among people who have come to Britain from eastern Europe. First, the Labour Government set out an ambitious plan to cut rough sleeping by two thirds, so I want to know whether the goals and targets that we established will survive the election of the new Government. Secondly, many vulnerable people with multiple needs are struggling to get the support and services that they need. Although Homeless Link requested that all party manifestos included a commitment to tackle multiple needs, the Labour party’s was the only one to do so. What action do the new Government propose to take to help people with multiple needs?
Thirdly, we need to increase homeless people’s access to the NHS, because homelessness is often about not only housing, but health. Fourthly, we need to renew our efforts to tackle rough sleeping by people with no recourse to public funds. We need to ensure that those with the right to work can do so and that those who cannot are able to return home. Finally, and most importantly, we need to increase homeless people’s opportunities to get skills and work so that we change not only where they live, but their whole lives.
The Labour Government got Ministers in the Department for Work and Pensions, the Home Office and the Department of Health to work together more closely than ever to co-ordinate efforts right across the Government to tackle homelessness and end rough sleeping. Will the Minister tell us whether it will continue under the new Government and how his Department will develop it? Will there be ministerial leadership and cross-government co-operation so that we can end the scandal of rough sleeping for good?
Okay, I will do my best. Hon. Members will appreciate that it will be difficult to answer in detail the many points that have been raised.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn), who has been a tireless campaigner for improved housing in London. He does himself an injustice when he describes himself and other hon. Members present as the usual suspects. Housing need is a matter that people rightly feel real passion about, and hon. Members from all political parties have invested a lot of personal commitment in tackling it over the years. I do not, therefore, want to downplay or minimise the importance of the debate in any way, and I thank those Members who have contributed. I see from the record that many of them also made speeches on 2 March, and although their language was perhaps slightly less hostile, they were equally firm in challenging the then Government about Ministers’ performance.
The hon. Member for Islington North rehearsed very well the issue of housing stress, which we see in London and in other inner cities, although it is particularly evident in London. I will not review the figures and statistics that he gave, but Members can perhaps take them as having been read and accepted by this Government. The hon. Gentleman and, indeed, all Members posed a number of difficult questions, and I do not deny that they are difficult. If they had been easy, I have a feeling that the Labour Government and the Labour Mayor would have solved them in the boom time, rather than leaving them for the coalition Government to try to solve in the bust time. However, we will do our best. Let me make it clear that increasing the supply of housing, including affordable housing, is a priority for the Government.
I am grateful to the Minister, and I recognise that his time is limited. Given the commitment that he has given to increase the supply of housing, including social housing, will he tell us what advice he has received about the impact that decisions taken by the Government to date—notably, the freezing of the Homes and Communities Agency investment budget and changes to the planning system—will have on housing supply?
Certainly, if I get to that part of my speech, I will answer the point. The right hon. Gentleman has a superb, lifelong record on this issue, and I welcome his contribution.
The fact is that there has been a significant gap between the supply of, and demand for, new homes for decades, and housing supply has failed to keep up with the growing population. Of course, that is particularly the case in London. The Government will create a framework of incentives for local authorities to deliver sustainable development, and that will commence at the earliest opportunity. Local communities will really benefit from delivering the housing that they want and need. Our incentive scheme is designed to encourage local authorities and communities to increase their aspirations for housing and economic growth and to take more control over the way in which the local community is developed.
In a short time, the Government have moved to free up the housing market, with the suspension of home information packs. We have also protected spending on social housing as well as we can, and that remains a Government commitment. That is why we are using £170 million from the £6 billion of savings to reinvest in social rented housing—I emphasise that it is social rented housing—which was, unfortunately, not properly funded under the outgoing Government. Although decisions about the allocation of that £170 million have still to be made, it seems likely that something in the order of 40% will be invested in social rented housing in London. That will require a partnership between councils, the Mayor of London and the Government.
Many such matters are now devolved to the Mayor of London, and some decisions about allocations are very much matters for him. Members will be well aware that his London plan is facing examination in public, and I have a feeling that those who are sitting around this table will want to make sure that their views are clearly expressed to the inspector during that examination. The Government intend to the give the Mayor responsibility for the Homes and Communities Agency in London to help provide the flexibility to meet the housing needs of local communities in the city.
The hon. Lady is obviously some sort of psychic, because I was about to say that homelessness remains a significant problem in London. As has been said, three quarters of homeless households in temporary accommodation in the country are in the capital, and the Government are committed to addressing homelessness head-on. That is exactly why my right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing announced last week that the Prime Minister had agreed to a cross-departmental approach to tackle the problem of homelessness and rough sleeping. Many people around this table will know that my right hon. Friend has a strong personal commitment to tackling homelessness. The new ministerial taskforce met for the first time on 16 June, and its members will work together to determine how the policies for which they have responsibility can help to address the complex problems that cause people to lose their homes. [Interruption.]
Thank you, Mr Hancock. I am trying to give Members the information that they asked for, and I have two and a half minutes to do it in.
I was asked about bringing empty homes back into use. That is clearly one possible way of tackling the housing shortage in London, and I am leading active work in the Department to make progress on the issue.
My hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) asked about progress on decent homes. The money for local authority social housing and decent home programmes for the current year has already been released and is not in doubt. Money for future years will be considered in the comprehensive spending review. I will write to him specifically about the Sutton arm’s length management organisation, as I think that he asked me to.
I want to challenge some of the gospel of pure hypothesis, which I heard from two Opposition Members. Let me tell the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Glenda Jackson), whom I admire a lot, that other parts of the country—some of us come from outside London—already have local caps, alongside local reference rents, on housing benefit. I can tell her—[Interruption.]
Several Members strongly made the point that they wanted their concerns about the detailed application of last week’s announcements conveyed to the Department for Work and Pensions. I give an assurance that those concerns will be relayed, exactly as Members have asked.
To pick up the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr Field), let me say that the consultation should take full account of the views of London boroughs and London Members. I am quite willing and ready to give that assurance.
Low Educational Attainment
I do not intend today to give the Minister a big work load today, but I want to lay down a marker. I thank Catch22, Save the Children, the Child Poverty Action Group and Michele Sutton, the principal at Bradford college, for contacting me and providing me with useful information, as well as useful questions that I shall no doubt put in written form later.
A few years ago, I was on the second largest council estate in Bradford in the youth centre, where I have been on the committee for probably nearly 30 years now. I came out of the door and a mobile library was outside. I decided to go and chat to the driver. A young woman got on the mobile library bus with a toddler. The buses are set up with a play area with Lego bricks and so on at one end. I remember clearly that the toddler got on and started to move towards the books, but the mother said, “You don’t want those; they are only books.” It is funny how things stick in one’s mind, but that said so much about the possibilities and life chances that that child probably had.
The research on early years, and indeed pre-early years, is pretty compelling. I know that today I am speaking to people who know about the subject and are concerned about it, and I am not here to teach anyone to suck eggs, but I want to mention the “Meaningful Differences” research by Betty Hart and Todd Risley at the university of Kansas some years ago. It showed that parents from what they called the professional class had interactions—words that were spoken—with their children at a rate of, on average, 2,150 per hour. Among those from what they called working class backgrounds the rate was 1,250 per hour, and for those from what they called welfare families it was 620 words per hour. That is happening hour after hour, day in, day out. The cumulative effect of that in the first three years, if extrapolated, was a difference of 20 million words between the professional class and the welfare class, and that is before we consider the quality of the language, or the social interactions happening alongside language development.
Clearly, many of the measures that we have put in place start far too late in a child’s life. We can start at any point, but, to take the example of universities, I am very aware of what happens there in the way of pastoral care and financial support for young people from deprived backgrounds. In addition, there is the Aimhigher campaign to encourage more people from disadvantaged backgrounds to go to university. Work is done in sixth forms to encourage applications, and in schools at key stages 3 and 4 to encourage staying on into the sixth form. In year 6 there is help with the difficult transition from primary to secondary school, and other work is done in schools and off site with those who struggle academically. Primary schools give additional support, including mentoring and one-to-one support. Nurture rooms have been created, and there has been a development of parental involvement and learning enrichment programmes in those environments. At the pre-school stage there is early years work, with Sure Start children’s centres to provide help to children.
The sad fact, however, is how little of that works. Despite all the things I have mentioned, the gap between a child from a deprived background and one from a more affluent background increases as they go through the education system—the disadvantage widens. That is incredible but true. I have secured today’s debate not because I have answers, but because it is clear from all the good work done by many organisations that none of us seems to have them.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on raising this important issue. Perhaps I may add a slight complication into the mix regarding the problem that he has elegantly identified: an urban-rural divide. He was careful not to characterise the problem as an urban phenomenon, and I am sure that he will agree that there is also a challenge for rural areas, where often it is difficult to measure at the base the problems of social exclusion because of the dispersal of rural households and the frequent proximity of deprived families to apparent affluence. That has an effect on educational achievement and the capacity of authorities to deliver responsive measures to the children in question.
The problem is not just urban but rural, so there are particular challenges for hon. Members who represent rural areas. However, I appreciate that as the debate covers England, the Minister cannot respond specifically to my Cardiganshire concerns.
Deprivation, of course, knows no geographic boundaries, and is everywhere we look. It needs to be dealt with wherever it is located.
A great deal is being done in many settings, but it is all really amelioration and compensation or, in more prosaic terms, catching up. We clearly need to focus more on the pre-school and pre-early years settings. As we know, many children are already at a disadvantage in the womb. This debate is intended to identify a problem of which many people are already aware, to show that I know a little about it and feel strongly about it, and most of all to send out a clear message that I am extremely keen to work with other organisations and politicians to address the problem.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford East (Mr Ward) on securing the debate. This is my first outing in Westminster Hall as a Minister, and it is pleasing that the debate was initiated by a Liberal Democrat, with a response from a Liberal Democrat and a Liberal Democrat in the Chair. I know that the hon. Member for North West Durham (Pat Glass) wants to intervene later, but she will forgive me for momentarily making a smug Liberal Democrat point.
I thank my hon. Friend for securing the debate. He is an active campaigner on the issue, and he shares my passion for matters of social justice. I hope that his securing the debate so early is an indication of the issues that he will champion in the five years of the Parliament. He shares the ambition of the coalition Government and, indeed, that of hon. Members across the House to secure better futures for children who live in poverty. What he said about the importance of early years education was music to my ears. I am grateful to him for making those points today.
My hon. Friend argued persuasively that deprivation and fairness really matter. They matter to individuals and communities, and they matter to the success of our country. Sadly, as he said, where children live and the families who they live with are still uniquely strong predictors of how their lives will turn out. For example, statistics show that a baby born in Harlesden in my constituency of Brent Central is likely to die more than 10 years before a child born in neighbouring Kensington, which is but a short drive away. That is unacceptable. It is an outrage that those statistics should still be so relevant. That is what why I am so passionate about fighting on this matter.
I thank the Minister for giving way. In the past 10 or 15 years, organisations and national strategies have resulted in our becoming the most data-rich nation in Europe and possibly the world. Those data tell us that the attainment of our highest-achieving pupils is as good as, if not better than, that of those in Europe or the USA; we are pipped only by a specific group of countries. However, the attainment of our lowest-achieving pupils is almost an international disgrace. Over the past three or four years, Government policy has shifted towards narrowing the gap between the highest and lowest attaining pupils—between pupils living in poverty and the rest, looked-after children and their peers, and pupils with special educational needs and others.
People who, like me, have spent 25 years working at all levels with the worst-attaining pupils, disadvantaged children and children living in poverty were mentally running around the country punching the air because such children were suddenly at the forefront of Government policy. I seek a reassurance from the Minister that the spotlight of the inspection framework and considering not only raw attainment—
I understand the point that the hon. Lady was trying to make, even if it was cut short. I reassure her that I am absolutely committed to gap-narrowing. For me, that is the point of early years education and early years provision. We may disagree about some of the ways to measure whether the gap has narrowed. We may debate the matter in more detail over the next few years, but I suspect that we share the same commitment to ensuring that the investment in early years provision narrows the gap—the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford East. I shall say a little more about that later.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams) makes a good point. I represent an inner-city seat, and I see the consequences of poverty writ large in my advice surgeries and in my constituency office every day. However, the problem is not confined to the cities; it is very evident also in rural areas. What he said about the dispersal of families, which makes it more challenging for local authorities and other service providers to tackle the problem, was a point well made, and I am well aware of the issue. The policies that the coalition Government have put in place will include specific mechanisms to deal with child poverty.
The uncomfortable truth is that the link between deprivation and low attainment exists across the country—not only in my constituency but everywhere. My hon. Friend the Member for Bradford East gave some statistics, but those given to me by my officials are even more stark. They suggest that children from poorer backgrounds have a smaller vocabulary at the age of three than their peers and that, by the age of four, they have heard 30 million fewer words. Whether the figure is 20 million or 30 million, the statistics are stark. Again, that is a challenge for early years provision. Low-ability children from rich families overtake high-ability children from poorer families at primary school. As my hon. Friend pointed out, the gap widens as the children grow older; children eligible for free school meals are half as likely to achieve five or more GCSEs at grade A to C, including English and maths, as those from wealthier backgrounds.
I welcome the opportunity to debate the subject and to consider some of the reforms needed to break the link between deprivation and low attainment. It goes to the heart of the coalition’s plans to build a fairer, more responsible and freer society that we should have policies to tackle the problem on all fronts. That could be done through better-focused early years provision, which I mentioned a moment ago, or through giving families more practical support or ensuring that children from poorer backgrounds get the same chance at school as their peers.
The question, therefore, is whether we consider deprivation to be an automatic barrier to success, or whether good teaching, good early years provision and good government can all play a part in helping to reduce inequality and unfairness. I passionately believe that that is a role for the Government, and we believe that those factors can bring that about. That is why we have already set about tackling deprivation, not only as an end in itself; we are also tackling the systemic weaknesses that highlight and deepen those divisions as children go through life.
For example, we are committed to hitting the 2020 child poverty target already laid out in legislation. We also plan a review of poverty and life chances, which will be chaired by Frank Field. We have set out a school reform programme. Most critically, we have announced the pupil premium. Finally, of course, we have decided to recruit more health visitors for Sure Start children’s centres to help the most disadvantaged families.
I applaud that list of measures. I was in the teaching profession in a previous life. What greatly impressed me was the need in areas of deprivation for real measures to encourage parental participation in the education system. I was involved in a pilot scheme to improve numeracy among parents. We need to get that partnership right. I hope that the measures that the Minister listed will include a strong role for parents. The old adage was that teachers have children for six hours a day but that they are at home for the remaining 18. It is most important that we get official recognition of that and encourage parents as well as the children.
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. The Secretary of State for Education will consider that as part of schools’ wider role, but it is not only for schools. Sure Start centres also have a role in encouraging parents to be involved with their children. There are also the informal and more formal literacy schemes that have been mentioned.
The list that I gave is a broad package of reform designed to break the link between deprivation and low attainment on all fronts. The danger is that we could be fatalistic about it, but I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford East that the first few months and years of a child’s life are critical. However, we must remember that deprivation is not all that matters. We can improve the lives of children and young people at every point in their development. For me, it goes to the heart of our liberal philosophy that we must always give people second chances—there must be no closed doors—throughout the education system.
My hon. Friend raised various issues when opening the debate. In particular, I wish to speak about the Government’s strategy on child poverty. Reducing poverty must be a fundamental part of our strategy to increase social mobility. The coalition Government are clear about the need to create that fairer society. To that end, I am delighted that we have committed ourselves to eradicating child poverty by 2020. I look forward for working with Ministers across the Government on how to achieve that goal. My hon. Friend will be aware that Liberal Democrat plans for a pupil premium have been adopted by the coalition. It is a critical element of our reform plans. I believe that schools have a pivotal role in breaking the link between deprivation and low attainment.
My hon. Friend will know that we are keen to ensure that Sure Start children centres focus more on working with families from deprived backgrounds—those from the neediest families. Children’s centres have much to offer all families from all backgrounds, but we must ensure that they are better at reaching out to those families who are most in need. For example, more than 95% of families currently take up their free entitlement offer for child care, but a disproportionate number of more disadvantaged families still do not. Sure Start has an important role to play in encouraging families to take up that offer and in promoting fairness. To a certain extent, that is already happening in many of the good Sure Start centres. We have some tremendously talented, dedicated early years professionals, both in the work force and in outreach teams, who are committed to reducing social injustice, and we have many good examples to show how we can achieve that. However, the Government can do much more to ensure that best practice is spread across the country.
Health visitors have a crucial role to play in reaching out to vulnerable families. They are there from pregnancy right through to the first few years of a child’s life, so, as my hon. Friend said, they cover the earliest days of a child’s life. That is why we are committed to increase dramatically the number of Sure Start health visitors and to ensure that more vulnerable families access such services. As a Government, it is our responsibility to help every child, whatever their background or circumstances, to achieve their full potential. If we trust professionals to do their jobs and free them from the top-down bureaucracy of recent years, we can achieve that. Most importantly, we believe that the coalition should take action to support the disadvantaged and that such support—whether through free child care, the pupil premium or early intervention—is crucial to unlocking social mobility and overcoming low attainment.
Strong learning and development in the early years can have a huge impact on reducing the causal link between deprivation and low attainment. It lays the foundation for achievement at and after school, with 94% of children who achieve a good level of development at age five going on to achieve the expected levels for reading at key stage 1. Those children are then five times more likely to achieve the highest level.
The most recent evidence from neuroscience also highlights the importance of the first three years of a child’s life. At birth, a baby’s brain is only 25% formed, developing to 80% by the age three, with most growth taking place in the first year of life. A strong start in the early years has been found to increase the probability of positive outcomes across the child’s life; a weak foundation has been found to significantly increase the risk of later difficulties. In short, the first 36 months of a child’s life are as important, if not more so, than the next 36 years, so good, properly targeted early years provision can do a huge amount to mitigate the impacts of deprivation.
It is also worth mentioning that we are looking at the wider impact of deprivation and not just at the income measures themselves. Frank Field has been tasked by the Prime Minister to lead a review of poverty. We also have a new ministerial taskforce on childhood and families, which is being chaired by the Prime Minister and includes the Deputy Prime Minister. Its role will be to tackle what the Deputy Prime Minister has described as
“the everyday bottlenecks that frustrate family life”.
There will be further announcements on the programme of the new ministerial taskforce and how it will operate. It will certainly consider some broad areas that are very relevant to a child’s life chances: parental leave and flexible working; how we can protect children in the event of family breakdown; increasing access to safe and secure play space; and helping children to avoid pressures that force them to grow up too quickly. We expect that work to conclude in the autumn and follow a timetable similar to that of the spending review. I certainly expect it to address some of the points about poverty and attainment that my hon. Friend raised at the start of his remarks.
I should like to return to the role of schools. My hon. Friend spoke specifically about early years, rather than schools. He argued very passionately that it is early years intervention that makes such a difference. However, that is not enough; we have to ensure that we give children, at whatever stage, the best possible chance to succeed. Schools are part of that critical mix in breaking the link between poverty and low attainment.
The ethical imperative of our education policy is quite simple: we have to make opportunity more equal. We must overcome deep, historically entrenched factors that keep so many people in poverty and that deprive so many people of the chance to shape their own destiny. By 18, the gap is vast. In the most recent year for which we have data, out of 80,000 young people eligible for free school meals, just 45 made it to Oxbridge. As a nation, we are clearly still wasting talent on a scandalous scale, and that is why I am so glad that at the heart of our coalition’s programme for government is a commitment to spending more on the education of the poorest. That specifically picks up on one of the points that my hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion raised about the difficulties that rural communities face. A rural area may not be classed as deprived, so families from the poorest backgrounds do not get the extra help that they need. One of the advantages of the pupil premium policy is that the money follows the child, so the child’s school will get money to ensure that extra help is focused on raising attainment at every level.
I thank the hon. Member for North West Durham (Pat Glass) for her interventions. I have already googled you and seen that you have made solid contributions to the subject over many years. Indeed, you have contributed to education, which I was not aware of before. I am not criticising anybody in this debate, because I am aware of the tremendous efforts that are being made by professionals and volunteers to raise the life chances of young people. As the chair of governors of a school in a deprived community, I am really frustrated by the fact that although we have an extremely impressive value added score—our achievement is high—our attainment is very low because of the level at which the children come into the school. However much we do, and we try to do more and more, we continually face the problem of children coming into the school with low attainment.
Order. That was very close to another speech. Let me remind Members that when addressing other colleagues in the Chamber, we do not use the word “you”; we use their constituency title. I am not being pernickety; that is the custom of the House. Moreover, when a Member refers to someone who is still a Member, they should do so not by their name, but by their constituency.
Thank you, Mr Hancock. You are absolutely correct, and I am sorry for forgetting to refer to the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field) by his constituency title.
I understand my hon. Friend’s point, but it is the Government’s responsibility to narrow the gap. We must focus our efforts on that to ensure that young people from a poorer background have a better chance of fulfilling their potential as they come into school. That is the point, I think, that the hon. Member for North West Durham was making in her intervention a few minutes ago. However, it is not adequate to say that because a child comes from a poorer background and has had a difficult start in life, a school should not put in that extra effort. That is the point about pupil premium and about ensuring that schools are clear about raising aspiration. That is why my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is clear about why he wants to give schools more autonomy. He wants them to have more flexibility on the curriculum, so that they can focus on the particular needs of children. We must ensure that we have high-quality teachers, and that teachers are absolutely clear that we have high aspirations for all children going through school regardless of their background. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford East will be reassured by the Secretary of State’s proposals for the next six months, as we look towards a second Bill later in the year.
In conclusion, a mix of reform is needed to break the link between deprivation and low attainment. The reforms that we have instituted go far deeper than ever before and are uniquely ambitious. There is no point being in politics, fighting elections or seeking office unless one is ambitious to make a difference. It is only through a new approach to breaking the link between deprivation and low attainment that we can build a fairer society and ensure that all children have the opportunities and capabilities to flourish.
North Wales Economy
This afternoon, I hope to illustrate the progress that has been made under 13 years of a Labour Government in the economy of north Wales, how fragile that economy is, and how threatened it is by current proposals and possible future proposals from the Con-Dem coalition. I hope to look at the reasons for the success of our local economy and examine the threats from the coalition. I will be seeking specific assurances from the Minister on a number of specific points of the current Con-Dem policy.
The history of north Wales shows that in the last 40 or 50 years we have relied on tourism, heavy industry and agriculture, all three of which have taken a pounding. At Courtaulds in Flint, in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson), there were 3,000 job losses and at Shotton in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mark Tami), there were 7,000 job losses in 1981 under the Conservative Government. That Conservative Government decimated—dare I say annihilated?—heavy industry in north Wales. Shotton steelworks had the biggest industrial lay-off in a single day: 7,000 workers were laid off in one day. That was the Tory legacy.
Labour believes in timely and positive Government intervention in key industries. When we look at the success of north-east Wales, we see that the last Labour Government gave launch aid back in 1998 to Airbus— £500 million of launch aid. From the ashes of Shotton steelworks rose the Airbus factory, the most expansive factory in western Europe, which has 7,000 workers and 700 apprentices.
Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the key issues that we must address is ensuring that future work comes to the Airbus factory and that one of the key elements in that regard was the signing by my right hon. Friend the Member for Coventry North East (Mr Ainsworth), when he was Secretary of State for Defence, of the contract for 22 aeroplanes under the A400M project, which the current Government have not yet confirmed? Will my hon. Friend seek today an assurance from the current Government that they will confirm that order for 22 planes?
I back my right hon. Friend on that issue. I give credit to the Government—I do not want to be too negative, lest anyone think that I am—for the decision that has been made about the AirTanker. People in north Wales are grateful for that decision. However, the A400M project needs to be looked at very carefully for the good of Britain’s defence and of workers in north Wales.
The Con-Dem Government have said that they do not believe in big Government intervention in industry, as they have shown by withdrawing the loan to Sheffield Forgemasters steelworks. We do not want that situation repeated in Wales.
The decision on Sheffield Forgemasters may have an impact on nuclear development and indeed on wind development in north Wales, because the casting for those projects would be done in the UK. It is essential for the supply chain of the whole of the United Kingdom, and in particular of north Wales, that those projects go ahead.
Nevertheless, I back my hon. Friend on that issue. The vision of an “energy island”—the term he created—that he wants for his constituency depends on Sheffield Forgemasters making those critical engineering components for the nuclear plant.
Under Labour, we have seen a massive investment in higher and further education. North Wales has a new university in Wrexham, Glyndwr university, which is acquiring top-class research facilities, such as the OpTIC—Opto-electronics Technology and Incubation Centre—research facility in my constituency. It is forging links with the private sector; it is doing everything that a 21st century university should do.
It is not only the HE sector that is important; FE in north Wales has made great gains. In my constituency, we have colleges in Denbigh and Rhyl and for the first time in their history there are colleges in Abergele and Llanrwst. They are community colleges, rooted in their local communities and responding to the needs of those communities for skills. Those colleges are delivering. Rhyl college is an award-winning institution. Llandrillo college has 25,000 students and is one of the best run colleges in the whole country.
However, the first act of the Con-Dem Government when they came in was to reduce the number of university places by 10,000, with more reductions likely in the autumn. How will the FE and HE sectors in north Wales, indeed in the whole of the UK, cope with cuts in funding of between 25% and 30%? How will we maintain the momentum in north Wales that I have described if those cuts are made? Will the Minister guarantee that the Government will make an analysis of the economic impact on local and national economies of those cuts before they are made? A cut of £1 in the FE or HE sectors may seem sensible, but it could lead to further cuts of £2, £3 or £4 if it means a reduction in training and research.
North Wales has a big agricultural industry. The Tories have promised an attack on red tape and bureaucracy. Before they make that attack, may I ask them to learn the lessons of history for the agricultural sector—the lessons of their last period in government? During that period, there was Alar in the apple industry, anthrax in the pig industry, botulism in the food processing industry, listeria in the dairy industry, salmonella in the poultry industry and E. coli in the meat industry, and who can forget that there was BSE in the beef industry? Many of those diseases came about because of a reduction in food and safety standards in specific industries. Will the Minister guarantee that there will be no assault on standards in the agricultural and food processing industries, which would damage the economy of north Wales?
I turn now to an issue that I hope is dear to the Minister’s heart—seaside towns. The second and third biggest towns in north Wales are Rhyl and Colwyn Bay, traditional seaside towns that have suffered the same plight as many British seaside towns during a long, 40-year, period. The cause of the poverty in towns such as Rhyl and Colwyn Bay is the conversion of hundreds of former hotels and guest houses into houses in multiple occupation. Slum landlords have become millionaires by making money out of misery. The Tories refused to introduce mandatory licensing of those premises. Labour introduced it in 2004 and north Wales councils are only now fully implementing it. I believe that the Con-Dems are reviewing the HMO licensing scheme. Will the Minister guarantee that HMO licensing legislation will not be watered down?
Colwyn Bay and Rhyl, along with Prestatyn and other north Wales coastal towns, have benefited from co-operation between the national central Government and the Labour-led Welsh Assembly Government. In the whole UK, the WAG are leading the way on seaside regeneration by adopting a strategic and thematic approach, not in just one seaside town but in five or six seaside towns along the north Wales coast, stretching from Prestatyn to Colwyn Bay. Welsh colleges, the local authorities, the Department for Work and Pensions, voluntary organisations, the private sector and the public sector are all playing their part in that regeneration. Will the Minister guarantee that he will positively engage with the WAG on seaside town and town centre regeneration?
It is not only seaside towns that need regenerating. When the Labour Government came to power in 1997, they told the national lottery to stop giving money to the Churchill family—£12 million for the Churchill diaries—and to the playing fields of Eton, which had received £5 million. They told the national lottery to vire such heritage money to towns that had architectural merit and deprivation, so towns in north Wales, such as Holywell, Rhyl, Denbigh, Llanrwst and, I think, Holyhead, have benefited because of those instructions.
Dolgellau is another one; I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention.
So we have done well. In my constituency, Denbigh received £10 million of funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund under Labour. Will the Minister guarantee that limited lottery funding will be vired towards the areas with most need?
The key to the success of seaside towns and other towns is the back to work initiative, including programmes such as the city strategy, the future jobs fund and fit for work. We have only two city strategies in Wales. One is for Rhyl—Gareth Matthews from what was then Working Links and I got it for the town in 2007—and the other is for the heads of the valleys area. I think the town of Rhyl has the best practice in the whole UK. Rhyl is leading the way. Its town-based, small area, co-operative, collegiate approach across the private, public and voluntary sectors resulted in an almost 20% drop in the number of people claiming jobseeker’s allowance in the Vale of Clwyd between January and May 2010. The number fell from 2,242 to 1,836. That is 406 people back to work in my constituency in the past five months, the best result in north Wales.
The future jobs fund played an important part in those results. The Rhyl city strategy hopes to put 340 young people back in work by September this year; 190 are already back in work. The strategy has achieved 100% of its targets to date. Young people have been given a wage, training and a reason to get up in the morning. Their confidence has been restored, their CVs enhanced and their job prospects maximised, but all that is under threat. One of the first acts of the Con-Dem coalition was to axe the future jobs fund.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate. I appreciate fully what he is saying about the back to work initiative. Is it not strange that the Government want to cut back on social welfare payments and, at the same time, on back to work initiatives? Where are we going in terms of social justice?
It is déjà vu all over again. It is back to the future—back to the 1980s, when whole communities were parked by the Conservative Government, who said, “Stay on the dole. Bring your kids up on the dole, and your grandkids as well.” We are only just beginning to unwind 18 years of misrule under the last Tory Government.
We have the facts and figures to prove that the policies we have pursued are working in north Wales. More than 2,000 people went back to work between January and May this year. Our policies are working. We want a continuation of the future jobs fund. The cuts were implemented without even an assessment of whether the programme was successful. Will the Minister guarantee that he will monitor youth employment in north Wales over the next 18 months and that if it starts to rise, he will press for the reintroduction of the future jobs fund? What assessment has he personally made of the effectiveness of the future jobs fund, which has put young people in his constituency back to work?
The previous Tory Administration were riven with factionalism over Europe. We all know what the Tory Prime Minister, John Major, called certain troublesome MPs, so I will not repeat it. Was internal conflict in the Tory party the reason why the Tories failed to engage positively with Europe during the 1980s and 1990s? When they were closing the pits and the steelworks and letting seaside towns rot, they did not even bid for objective 1 funding for Wales. In 1997, when the Labour Government came in, they applied for objective 1 funding, provided match funding and implemented the scheme. I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Neath (Mr Hain). At the behest of the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Mr Llwyd), Betty Williams, Gareth Thomas and me, he included Denbighshire and Conwy in the scheme. As a result of that brave decision, which was taken against civil servants’ advice, Denbighshire county council received £124 million in public and private objective 1 funding over a seven-year period. I presume that Conwy received the same.
We have made being in Europe a success for Wales. Labour provided the match funding. Will the Minister assure me and the people of north Wales that during the Con-Dem cutbacks, match funding and convergence funding—the follow-on funding for objective 1—will not be cut back and will be included in the Welsh block? It makes economic sense. For every £1 given by the UK Government, we can draw down £2 or £3 from Europe. North Wales cannot afford cutbacks on that scale.
Will the Minister inform the House why the Tories did not bid for objective 1 funding for parts of Wales earlier, when they closed Shotton steelworks and the pits? Ireland did so and turned its economy into the Celtic tiger. Could Wales have done so in the early ’90s? Will he guarantee that blind prejudice towards Europe will not interfere with negotiations on the next phase of EU funding—tail-off funding, which should come at the end of convergence funding?
Energy, particularly renewable energy, has been a success for Labour in north Wales. Sharp has located its biggest solar panel factory in Europe in Wrexham. The biggest solar panel in the UK is at the Technium OpTIC in my constituency. The Technium OpTIC has just pioneered photovoltaic paint and is working on fission power. We will have the largest array of offshore wind turbines in the world when the Gwynt y Môr wind farm is completed, despite the fact that the leader of the Conservative party has referred to north Wales turbines as “giant bird blenders”. Will the Minister guarantee to give up his personal opposition to the Gwynt y Môr wind farm and promote wind energy in Wales?
Non-renewable as well as renewable energy companies operate in Wales, including BHP Billiton, which is based in Northop, in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn. We also have E.ON, which has a gas-powered power station in Connah’s Quay. North Wales has so much energy that we shall be exporting it.
My hon. Friend mentioned that the previous Conservative Government did not claim objective 1 funding. Does he not find it surprising that a former Conservative Secretary of State for Wales, the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr Redwood), returned to Whitehall money that was due to the people of Wales? Many businesses in north Wales, especially in our villages and small towns, are small businesses. Does my hon. Friend agree that the Government’s changes to VAT will have a devastating effect on such businesses?
I concur on both points. The right hon. Member for Wokingham returned £120 million to Whitehall while Welsh schools were closing and services were being cut, and the impact of the VAT rise on spending power in the high street will have a devastating effect.
North Wales will be exporting power through the Irish interconnector, from Connah’s Quay power station through Prestatyn in my constituency and over to Ireland. The project is being paid for by Eirgrid.
I highlight the good work of my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen), who coined the phrase “energy island”. It is not just a phrase; it could become a reality, if the Con-Dem Government do not renege on Labour’s decision to let the replacement of Wylfa proceed. Will the Minister guarantee that his party and his Government will not do a U-turn on the new nuclear plant for Anglesey?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for mentioning the energy island concept. North Wales can be a centre of excellence for both aviation and low-carbon energy for the future, building a skills base of transferable, high-level skills, which is what the Government aim to do. With respect to the Minister—I know that he has been supportive of nuclear power in north-west Wales, and I hope that will continue—a centre of excellence for highly skilled jobs is what we are all aiming for.
Thank you, Mr Hancock. In conclusion, north Wales has an excellent story to tell. The fastest growing local economy in the country is the Deeside hub between Deeside, Wrexham and Chester. We have some of the biggest increases in employment; five of the top six constituencies in Wales for increasing employment are in north Wales. We have a proud tale to tell. I do not want the progress that we have made in the past 13 years to be undone by a Con-Dem coalition demolition job on the Welsh economy.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane) on securing the debate, which is, of course, dear to my heart because I am the Member of Parliament for the constituency immediately adjacent to his. There can be no doubt that the recession has hit north Wales as hard as many other parts of the country, if not harder. In fact, over recent months, there have been significant job losses right across the region—134 jobs lost at David McLean, more than 50 jobs lost at JCB, 130 jobs lost at PT Construction on Deeside and, most significantly, major job losses at Air Products in Wrexham, Anglesey Aluminium and the Indesit factory in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency. The Indesit factory was, in fact, a major employer for my constituency, where more than 300 jobs were lost.
Although the hon. Gentleman paints a rosy picture of employment and industry in north Wales under the Labour Government, it is not quite so rosy. Indeed, without wanting to put too fine a point on it, over the past 10 years, the claimant count in his constituency has increased by 40%, long-term unemployment has increased by 16%, the youth claimant count has increased by 63% and long-term youth unemployment has increased by 71%. Although one does not want simply to trade statistics, as I say, the rosy picture that he painted in his opening remarks is, unfortunately, not borne out by recent developments in north Wales.
Given that the hon. Gentleman has already taken 19 minutes for his opening comments, I feel that I have to make some progress. He mentioned a number of important points that will be of concern to all hon. Members who represent constituencies in north Wales and, because he raised those specific points, I would like to comment on as many of them as I can in the time remaining.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned the A400M project, which is of significant importance to north Wales. Indeed, the Airbus factory should be regarded as the jewel in the crown of industry in not only north Wales, but the whole of the United Kingdom, because it provides high-quality, high-tech jobs that must be the way for the future. The A400M is, of course, actually developed in Filton, as the hon. Gentleman will know. However, the wing technology that is being developed at Filton is shared at Broughton. The Wales Office is certainly very supportive of the A400M project, but having said that, as the hon. Gentleman knows, a strategic defence review is under way and, of course, all announcements must wait on its outcome. I gently inform him that the Labour Government did not progress the A400M project or commit themselves to it.
Yes, but as the right hon. Gentleman knows, a number of projects were signed up to—including the Sheffield Forgemasters project—very late in the day during the election period for a reason that is patently obvious to even the most charitable observer.
The hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd mentioned Glyndwr university and Technium OpTIC. I endorse his commendation for OpTIC. In fact, the first official visit that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I paid to north Wales after our respective appointments was to Technium OpTIC. I particularly commend Professor Mike Scott, the vice-chancellor of Glyndwr, for forging ahead with OpTIC and, as the hon. Gentleman has pointed out, ensuring that the university forges strong links with the private sector. Such an approach is certainly the way forward.
We also heard about Landrillo college. Again, I can do nothing but commend Landrillo, which is, in fact, headquartered in my constituency. I pay tribute to Huw Evans, the principal of Landrillo college, for forging links with the private sector.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned agriculture. I think it is fair to say that over the years, the Conservative party has shown nothing but support for the agricultural sector and it will continue to do so.
The hon. Gentleman also mentioned seaside towns—an issue of personal interest to me. Colwyn Bay is an important town that has declined over recent years. It is, in fact, currently in receipt of strategic regional assistance moneys from Europe via the Welsh Assembly Government. I echo what he said about houses in multiple occupation, which have been a scourge of seaside towns—Rhyl in his constituency and Colwyn Bay in mine alone. However, I must gently criticise the Welsh Assembly Government’s policy of attracting people into north Wales who have no connection with the area because doing so has ensured that incomers can leapfrog indigenous north Waleseans. That has caused a great deal of concern to councillors in my constituency and, I am sure, in the constituency of the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Mr Llwyd).
The hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd mentioned the Heritage Lottery Fund. I remind him that the lottery was a Conservative innovation. He has already mentioned John Major. If I remember rightly, the lottery was John Major’s pet project. I am glad to say that the coalition Government intend to review the operation of the lottery to ensure that it reverts to its original aims of supporting good causes. We want to ensure that it is not rifled by Government as a support to taxation.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned the Rhyl city strategy and the future jobs fund, which he regards as important. We have to make a decision in this country: whether we create real jobs, with some prospects of creating real wealth, or whether we subsidise jobs that are guaranteed only for six months. Doing the latter does not create real wealth and runs the risk of returning the young people on those programmes to the dole. The focus of the Government should be on creating real wealth. That is the nub of the difference between the Labour Government and the coalition Government. The previous Government were happy to fritter away this country’s resources through borrowing to mortgage our children’s and our grandchildren’s future, without tackling the root causes of the problem that the economy faces, which is essentially the enormous deficit that this country is running. The enormous structural deficit and debt run the risk of strangling each and every one of those young people before they get a job at all.
This Government intend to focus on reducing the deficit, on restoring real jobs to the economy, and on ensuring as far as possible that those who are able to work can do so. That is why I commend the work programme that was announced today by the Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, my right hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling), which was criticised by the hon. Gentleman. This Government are not afraid to face the real decisions that we need to take to put the country back on the right track. We may receive criticism from the hon. Gentleman, but we have received the support of the OECD, the G8, the Governor of the Bank of England and any number of chief executives he may care to mention. The future of this country is real, genuine, honest employment.
If the hon. Gentleman would like to listen, he might actually be pleased with what I am about to say. I commend him for his advancement of the energy island concept. He understands that only real jobs will rescue Anglesey, and I commend him for it. I repeat my previous support for Wylfa nuclear power station. I hope that it gets built, and but for the fact that the Labour Government effectively had no energy policy for 10 years, Wylfa would now be well on the way to being built. We have had 13 wasted years of Labour, during which time we ate the seed corn for future generations. It is time to get Britain back to work; it is time to get Britain moving again. I believe that the coalition Government will do just that.
I spent most of last week in Kosovo and in Bosnia and Herzegovina as a member of the Defence and Security Committee of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, alongside members of the Assembly’s Committee on the Civil Dimension of Security. I am pleased that, through whatever mysterious processes apply in this place, I have been given an early opportunity to share my thoughts and concerns with hon. Members.
There is perhaps a widespread temptation to believe that just because no significant violence is taking place in the western Balkans, the problems in the region have been solved, but that would be a serious illusion, particularly in relation to Kosovo and to Bosnia and Herzegovina, on which I will focus my remarks. With regard to the most difficult problems in those two countries, I say straight away to the Minister that the hardest nuts definitely still have to be cracked.
I will start with Kosovo. I want to refer to one or two security matters and then move on to the main unresolved political problems facing that country. As we know, the entire justification for NATO’s original involvement was, of course, based on security. We remember vividly the appalling violence that took place, which was mainly committed by Kosovo Serbs, and the spectacle of hundreds of thousands of Kosovo Albanians trapped in the mud on the Macedonian border. Since the conflict was finally brought to a close, NATO’s role there has been based on the security contribution that it can make. There are three questions that I want to ask the Minster against that background. They all relate to my basic proposition that having expended so much effort, time and money, and the lives of NATO service personnel, it would be a serious dereliction of duty if we underestimated or wound down prematurely our security presence through KFOR—the Kosovo peace implementation force—in Kosovo.
The plan is to reduce the KFOR presence from the present 9,500 service personnel to 2,000, or perhaps fewer, so my first question is this: will that be too severe a reduction in too short a time scale? We have reinforcements in the shape of three over-the-horizon battalions, but those are available on seven to 14 days’ notice, so my second question is this: is that period appropriate to ensure that if the worst starts to happen in Kosovo, reinforcements will arrive in time? My third question relates to information that I obtained in what was, I stress, an unclassified briefing. KFOR has been denied a particular intelligence capability as a result of NATO budget cuts. I shall refer to that in more detail when I speak to the Minister in private after the debate, but the question that I want to put on record is this: will that cut, which is motivated by financial concerns, expose KFOR to an unacceptable level of operational risk?
I will now address the critical political problems in Kosovo that remain unresolved. In my view, the foremost concern is Serbia’s policy towards Kosovo. I have been visiting the former Republic of Yugoslavia, now Serbia, for more than 30 years—since President Tito was in power. I am under no illusion whatsoever about the importance of Kosovo in historical, cultural and religious terms to the Serb people, but I must state clearly that, notwithstanding that background, it cannot be right for the Government in Belgrade to continue to support, establish and finance parallel political structures inside Kosovo, including the funding of local elections, which is creating an extraordinary position in which there are two mayors in some of the Serb enclaves, with one elected under the aegis of Belgrade and the other elected under the aegis of Pristina. The international community must make it clear to the Government in Belgrade that a continuing policy that subverts the elected Government in Kosovo is incompatible with progress towards EU and NATO membership, which Serbia wishes to achieve.
The second major concern relates to the process of international recognition that Kosovo has achieved and hopes to achieve in future. The progress thus far has been somewhat disappointing. Only 69 countries recognise Kosovo as an independent nation state, and that does not even include all 27 EU member states, as five do not recognise its independence. Those 69 countries represent just over one third of the members of the United Nations General Assembly. The hope is that, following the International Court of Justice’s judgment on Kosovo’s independence, which is expected shortly, there will be a breakthrough beyond the 69 figure. The key figure that needs to be broken is 100, because anything above that would mean that more than 50% of members of the General Assembly recognise Kosovo as an independent sovereign state. I hope that the Minister will be able to assure us that the British Government will do all that they can following the Court’s judgment, with many other countries, to ensure that the recognition of Kosovo passes beyond the figure of 100 so that majority support in the General Assembly is achieved.
My final key point, which is ultimately the most important one, is that the unhappy and unacceptable reality is still that north of the Ibar river, particularly in north Mitrovica, we effectively have a state within a state. It is an area under Kosovo Serb control where the writ of the Pristina Government does not run and where there is a wholly unacceptable degree of lawlessness—indeed, there is no effective rule of law to speak of. The European rule of law mission in Kosovo, EULEX, has thus far been a serious disappointment. It has an incredible number of personnel in the country—around 3,000—but has signally failed to establish an effective criminal justice system in north Mitrovica and the northern Serbian enclaves.
The situation in the court in Mitrovica is disgraceful and truly shameful as far as the international community is concerned. There is a backlog of 30,000 cases, and sadly EULEX has caved in to Serbian demands, including from Belgrade, that no local judges or prosecutors should perform in the court house in Mitrovica. As long as that situation continues, we are effectively dealing with a fragmented state, so I urge the British Government, with their international partners, to do much more to ensure that the rule of law is re-established north of the Ibar river. Only then will we end the current situation which, in my view, is almost akin to that in Cyprus. In theory there is a single integrated state, but a significant territory is outside the jurisdiction and rule of law of the elected Government.
The situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina is perhaps even more fragile and potentially more dangerous than that in Kosovo. The Dayton constitution was a huge success in so far as it enabled the appalling internecine fighting and bloodshed to stop. The fundamental problem, however, is that while the constitution, which is built on layer upon layer of blocking mechanisms protecting the sectional interests of the three major ethnic groups, was successful in bringing about an end to conflict, it is effectively unusable as a serious decision-making mechanism to deal with either NATO or EU membership.
Nothing illustrates that more than the issue of property, especially defence properties. NATO Foreign Ministers took an excellent decision at their meeting in Tallinn in April to offer Bosnia and Herzegovina the entry point for eventual NATO membership. They offered it membership action plan status subject to conditions, one of which is that it resolves the issue of ownership of defence properties. There are just 69 properties held by the entities—in other words, by the federation and Republika Srpska—the ownership of which should be transferred to the state. So far, it is wholly unagreed and there is total logjam, which poses the question: if the ethnic groups inside Bosnia and Herzegovina cannot agree the relatively simple and straightforward issue of the transfer of 69 defence properties from the entities to the state, what can they agree on in terms of imperative constitutional reform?
In Bosnia and Herzegovina, we have a stalemate, but it is worse than that—it is a stalemate over which is suspended a sword of Damocles. The sword is the powers that Republika Srpska has taken to hold referendums, and the threat is that those powers will trigger a referendum on secession. If that happens, and the referendum is carried and Republika Srpska secedes from the rest of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bosnia and Herzegovina in its present form will collapse with unknown and unquantifiable consequences, not only in Bosnia and Herzegovina, but elsewhere in the western Balkans. What can be done in this situation?
I do not believe that a new vista will open up after the forthcoming local elections in the autumn. That idea was put to us, but it is a complete illusion. Nor do I believe that it is realistic or reasonable to expect the current High Representative to use the Bonn powers as Lord Ashdown did when he was High Representative—that era is over. Two critically important policy steps need to be taken that would resolve the crisis in Bosnia and Herzegovina. As in Kosovo, the Government in Belgrade need to change their policy fundamentally. As long as Republika Srpska believes that, at the end of the day, Belgrade will finance, back and support it, it can go on being wholly negative towards constitutional change.
Most important of all is this: ultimately, the people of Bosnia and Herzegovina must own their constitution and vote for the constitutional changes necessary to give them an effective decision-taking Government. We need to bring about a seismic change of attitude among the people of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Some might say that that is impossible; I most certainly do not. It is not impossible because the Serbs in Serbia, as shown in the previous major elections, have already achieved that seismic change in attitude. They voted largely to put the past behind them and look forward to EU and NATO membership. If Serbia can achieve that seismic change of attitude, surely it is possible for Republika Srpska as well. It will also require a major change by the international community, which will need to adopt a quite different policy from that adopted so far. It will need to offer much more carrot than stick, to offer incentives to get support for NATO and EU membership, and to bring more imagination, determination, skill and sensitivity to the negotiating process. I believe that that is the way forward, and it is the only way forward if Bosnia and Herzegovina is going to remain integrated, stable and, above all, at peace.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley) on securing the debate and commend him on his persuasiveness for the case that he put to the Speaker’s Office to secure the allocation of the debate so soon after his visit to the region.
I assure my right hon. Friend that the new Government attach great importance to developments in the western Balkans and to the promotion of stability in the region. My colleagues in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office have already taken a great interest in the region. The Foreign Secretary visited Sarajevo for a western Balkans high-level meeting on 2 June—one of his first overseas engagements—and the Minister for Europe visited Macedonia and Kosovo last week.
My right hon. Friend raised important questions, particularly about Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina. He talked about some of the problems that those countries face as being the hardest nuts to crack. I am grateful to him for the examples that he gave and for his advice. I shall address those points in a moment, but I should like to make some more general points first.
The Government have made it clear that we see the enlargement of the EU as a vital strategic goal. It will create stability, security and prosperity across Europe based on the firm foundation of democracy, the rule of law and shared values. We see EU membership as an unparalleled opportunity for the countries of the western Balkans to move on from the conflicts of the past, many of which my right hon. Friend vividly touched upon. The new coalition Government fully and strongly support EU and Euro-Atlantic integration for all the countries of that vital region.
This is a two-way process. Of course the international community needs to play its part by sharpening its focus on the western Balkans, and I agree entirely with my right hon. Friend when he says that the west must raise its level of involvement and pursue a clear, determined, firm and active approach that is focused on delivering results. We need carefully to uphold the rigorous conditionality inherent in the EU accession process to drive many of the important reforms on which he touched. However, the countries must also play their part. They need to demonstrate serious political leadership in meeting the criteria set by the EU. Obviously, that will not always be easy: compromise and flexibility will be required. They will have to take steps that may prove unpopular at home, and they must also resolve outstanding bilateral differences that, if not tackled, risk becoming serious obstacles to one another’s progress.
Turning to the two countries that my right hon. Friend touched on, I shall first deal with Kosovo. He mentioned the fact that the size of KFOR will be reduced from 9,500 personnel to 2,000 or fewer. He rightly raised the point that the over-the-horizon battalions are on 17 to 14 days’ notice, I believe he said, and he asked whether reinforcements would arrive in time. I shall refer that important question to my colleague at the Ministry of Defence, the Minister for the Armed Forces, to try to get a firm answer for him.
My right hon. Friend also asked about the withdrawal of important intelligence capability, which I understand was done, as he said, on financial grounds. He suggested that it may well put the whole operation at risk, and I share his concerns. It is obviously something that we ought to look at as a matter of urgency. Again, I shall come back to him on that point, and I should like to accept his invitation to have a private chat about it after the debate.
My right hon. Friend mentioned the process of the international recognition of Kosovo. He put very well his vivid recollections of some of the wretched and sad events that afflicted this troubled area and also mentioned NATO sacrifices. I agree that that in itself is a good reason to ensure that movement is made to resolve the problems and, above all, to ensure that Kosovo receives international recognition.
My right hon. Friend said that only 69 countries currently recognise Kosovo, and that five EU countries are non-recognisers. I saw those figures when I was being briefed for this debate and found them surprising. That is certainly one of the things that the coalition will look at. The Foreign Secretary spoke about intensifying bilateral relations with several key European partners and other countries, and we need to look at exactly that kind of issue. We need to ask those countries to explain why they do not recognise Kosovo, in line with the vast majority of other European countries.
My right hon. Friend mentioned the activities and machinations that are being controlled from Serbia, particularly the initiatives that have resulted in two mayors currently being in place, undermining each other. That was a good point. I agree entirely with what he said about the area north of the Ibar river, where there is a state within a state and all the resulting lawlessness.
We shall watch the outcome of the extremely important International Court of Justice decision and advisory opinion on Kosovo’s declaration of independence, which are coming up. Obviously, we must await what the court says, but we will look at its decision carefully and, above all, use it as a spur to reinvigorate the international campaign that is being promoted by several European countries to ensure that other countries row in behind the Kosovo independence movement and to ensure that the figure of 69 increases substantially to 100, which is very much in line with the objectives of Her Majesty’s Government. Indeed, when my hon. Friend the Minister for Europe visited Kosovo last week, he made those very points. He made it absolutely clear that Kosovo’s independence and territorial integrity are a matter of fact and irreversible, and he warned specifically against any attempt to use the occasion of the ICJ advisory opinion as a pretext for returning to a discussion of status. He underlined the Government’s full support for Kosovo’s EU perspective as part of the western Balkans region moving towards EU membership. He is very much on the case and working extremely hard.
On Bosnia and Herzegovina, I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for stressing the point about defence reform. Bosnia and Herzegovina has been invited to join NATO’s membership action plan, and NATO has made it clear that it will do so when the defence property that he referred to has been properly apportioned. That is why we urge the country’s leaders to meet the clear criteria set out by NATO in that regard.
I agree with my right hon. Friend and find it staggering that, following the Tallinn conference when Bosnia and Herzegovina made it clear that it wants to push ahead with its NATO membership, it has since dragged its feet and there has been a logjam. I share his frustration and, indeed, amazement that progress has not been made. One would have thought that the goal and what is at stake for Bosnia and Herzegovina in joining NATO would be incentive enough to ensure that the problem is sorted out. I would not have thought it beyond the wit of officials and bureaucrats to get a grip on the matter, but it does require renewed political leadership. I entirely agree with my right hon. Friend that that is exactly what that country must do.
My right hon. Friend mentioned the sword of Damocles, as he put it, and the fact that there may well be several referendums. I agree entirely that a fundamental change in policy is needed on the part of Belgrade. There needs to be a change in attitude and culture. Likewise, he mentioned that there needs to be a change in attitude in the international community—a change of approach, a revitalised approach—but I think that, above all else, what needs to be made crystal clear is that both Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina want to join the EU and that the criteria for doing so are simple. They will have to resolve their problems in a statesmanlike, constructive and coherent manner. If they do not do that, the chances of their coming into the EU will diminish substantially.
I agree, as my right hon. Friend spelt out so clearly, that in both Kosovo—he mentioned the area north of the Ibar river, where there is almost a state within a state and lawlessness prevails—and in Republika Srpska, where exactly the same thing is happening, Serbia is intervening behind the scenes. In the case of Republika Srpska, it is trying to encourage a secessionist movement that would have the effect of completely destroying Bosnia and Herzegovina. We must be absolutely aware of that and make it crystal clear to Serbia that what it is doing is not in its own interests. It is incredibly destructive, and it will simply delay the date when it will be eligible to come into the EU.
Once again, I thank my right hon. Friend for securing this debate. There may well be some points that I have not had a chance to touch on. If so, I shall write to him, and I shall certainly refer certain points to the MOD. The point about the battalions is important.
I should like to underline the importance that the Government attach to countries in the region intensifying efforts towards reconciliation and improved regional co-operation. Some positive steps have been taken in recent months: Serbia, Turkey and Bosnia and Herzegovina have sought to improve their relations through the Istanbul declaration, and the Serbian parliamentary resolution condemning the Srebrenica massacre was a welcome step towards greater reconciliation in the region. Slovenia’s and Croatia’s Brdo process is a welcome initiative to promote active co-operation across the region, and the coalition Government strongly encourage further such effort.
To conclude, the Government will continue to be actively engaged in the western Balkans. We will seek, encourage and promote effort and positive momentum to ensure that all countries in the region are put fully and irreversibly on the path to joining the EU and NATO. If they look at those goals positively and show statesmanship, that in itself will be the biggest driver of all in solving some of the problems that my right hon. Friend so eloquently touched on, and if that happens, for the first time in our lives the region will be incredibly stable and have a bright future.
Question put and agreed to.