Wednesday 13 October 2010
[Mr James Gray in the Chair]
Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Mr Goodwill.)
I am very grateful, Mr Gray, to all the right hon. and hon. Members who have joined me today to take part in a hugely important debate on what I consider to be the Government’s very ill-conceived plans to slash housing benefit for the poorest families in the poorest communities—plans that will inevitably force thousands of people to leave their homes, their families and their friends as they try to find an affordable roof over their heads and the heads of their loved ones. In my view, the Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Thornbury and Yate (Steve Webb), can feel nothing but shame at having to come to Westminster Hall to defend such ill-conceived proposals. With his background and knowledge, he should know better.
When we last debated this issue, my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier) eloquently outlined the devastating implications of the Government’s plans. In addition, we have all been provided with evidence on the impact of the proposals by my hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck), whom I congratulate on her well deserved place on the Opposition Front Bench, and by the research carried out by a range of organisations working in housing.
The Government’s proposals on housing benefit have to be considered alongside the other proposals that were announced at the Conservative party conference last week: the capping of all benefits that a family can receive at £500 a week and the ending of the universal child benefit. All of that comes on top of the housing benefit cuts set out in June and the cuts to child tax credit, maternity allowance and the child trust fund.
I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for giving way and I congratulate her on securing this debate. Because I am sure she wants to be part of a responsible Opposition, I think it might help our discussion if, in her remarks, she set out the alternative proposition. Is it her position that rents and housing benefit should simply be uncapped and that people on benefits should be able to choose to live wherever they want to, without any limit being imposed, or does she accept the principle of a cap?
As the Minister will know, the Labour Government themselves set the housing allowance. The purpose of this debate is to demonstrate that the intent of the present Government and of the Minister himself will not be achieved by the proposals that he has put before us. That is what I intend to do this morning.
Given that we are talking about intent, does my right hon. Friend agree that it is possible that the Government’s intent is not fairness and that, instead, as we are told a senior Minister has said, this is all about highland clearances?
I agree entirely. There are several quotes in the press from senior civil servants demonstrating that they think the proposal will create the greatest dispersal of families that has been witnessed probably since the 19th century. Perhaps that is part of the political intent of the Government.
In my view, the litany of cuts that I have outlined—all of them, not just the housing benefit cuts—represent an historic assault on the poorest families in the poorest communities, which I think even Baroness Thatcher would have considered to be a bridge too far.
I am glad that we have reached that point so early in the debate. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we seem to have moved from a position where the proposals look like ill-thought-out budget cuts to a position where they look like a deliberate policy to socially cleanse the poor from central London, which the Minister is defending? We have already seen that process in Hammersmith, with the demolition of council estates. The proposals will ensure that, for ideological and electoral reasons, it will no longer be possible for the mixed communities of London to continue to exist as they have for centuries.
I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. In my view, the process is much more about political engineering than it is about achieving sensible reductions in public expenditure. I shall talk about the impact that the proposals will have in my constituency and the borough of Barking and Dagenham. In doing so, I hope to expose the flaws in the Government’s argument and what I think is the shameful agenda that they are, in fact, pursuing.
The Minister claims that the policy objective of the cap on local housing allowance—setting that cap at 33% of average local rents—linking housing benefit to the lower consumer price index rather than the retail price index and capping the total benefits that workless households receive, is to drive down rents. Let me tell him that he will not achieve his objective. His policies will not drive down rents. What they will do is drive out families—drive them in their droves out of the inner-London constituencies where they live to constituencies such as my own in the London suburbs.
Let us consider the facts—these are the facts from the Department for Work and Pensions, not my facts. In Brent, 9,650 families will lose from £18 a week to £160 a week and the families who will lose the most are those with the most children. In Hackney, 16,440 families will lose from £13 a week to £125 a week, and again the families who will lose the most are those with the most children. We can also take the example of Camden, where 2,940 families will lose from £20 a week to £262 a week, and yet again the families losing most are those with the most children.
It is simply nonsense to believe that the rents in Brent, Hackney or Camden will go down. A survey by London Councils found that 60% of landlords who are renting to tenants in receipt of housing benefit would not be prepared to reduce their rent by even a small amount if their tenants could no longer afford to pay the existing rate because of the reduction in local housing allowances. More than 90% of landlords said that they would try to evict a tenant or refuse to renew their contract if the tenant fell into arrears, if the shortfall in rent was more than £20 a week. Those landlords know that their properties will not lie empty. We all know that there is a massive shortage of housing in the capital and we know that, with the drying up of the mortgage market, more people are being forced into the private rented sector, which in turn increases demand in that sector. We know that the buy-to-let market is booming, because investors can get a good return on their properties. Landlords will not lower their rents, but poor people will be forced out of their houses.
Do not just listen to me on this subject—listen to Boris Johnson, the Conservative Mayor of London, when he says in the briefing that he prepared for today’s debate that the Government’s proposals will lead to
“the loss of the private rented sector as a major safety net for London boroughs”.
“We expect landlords to leave the housing benefit market due to the perceived instability of housing benefit in the short and medium term”.
Those are Boris Johnson’s words, not mine.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way and I congratulate her on securing this debate. I very much want to reinforce the points that she is making. The private rented sector is absolutely vital to meeting housing needs in London. During the past 15 years or so, that sector has begun to recover from very low levels seen in the late 1980s. The real damage that could be caused by these maladroit and ill-considered housing benefit changes could well destroy confidence and take away a large quantity of housing that otherwise would be available to meet the needs of Londoners.
I bow to the huge experience and knowledge of my right hon. Friend and I agree entirely with his analysis of the likely impact of the changes that the Government are proposing to make.
In my constituency, all 3,810 households that currently receive local housing allowance will already lose out because of the housing benefit cuts that will come into effect next year, so they will experience additional hardship as a result of those cuts. Because rents in Barking and Dagenham are currently lower than in the inner-London boroughs, private tenants in the borough will not be hit as badly as those in central London, where rents are the highest in London. but as inner-London private tenants are forced to find a home in outer London, rents will inevitably be driven up in the outer-London boroughs. More demand on limited supply will be a double whammy for the people of Barking and Dagenham. Has the Minister commissioned any research to understand better the potential impact of his proposals on rents in outer-London areas such as Barking and Dagenham? If so, will he place that research in the Library?
We know from anonymous quotes in the press that civil servants are telling Ministers that the proposals, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Mr Slaughter) said, will lead to the biggest population movements experienced since the industrial revolution. Even at her worst, Shirley Porter deported only 1,000 people out of Westminster, yet this Liberal Democrat Minister is deliberately forcing tens of thousands of families out of inner London, in a shameful act of social engineering and political gerrymandering that will damage our communities irreparably.
The right hon. Lady rightly draws attention to the problems. Does she agree that the provision of council housing is one way to address supply and demand, and can she inform us how many council houses were built during the 13 years of Labour Government?
I accept the point that insufficient priority was given to the building of council houses under the Labour Government, but we must deal with the situation in which we find ourselves. Making the position worse by deliberately forcing the poorest families out of the only homes that they can find is an outrageous and cruel act of public policy.
Does the Minister accept or even understand that if the reforms proceed, inner London will become a no-go area for the poorest people in our communities? What will be the further impact on my constituency? He knows well that changes in housing tenure over the past 20 years, since the introduction of the right to buy, have created deep social tensions in Barking and Dagenham as new people have moved into the borough and established residents have become unable to secure homes for their sons and daughters. The extreme right and the British National party tried to exploit people’s legitimate frustrations for divisive and evil political ends. We saw them off, but this Government’s housing benefit policies will inevitably reignite those tensions as private tenants from inner-London boroughs compete for homes with established residents of Barking and Dagenham. Has he considered at all the implications for social cohesion of his short-sighted reform proposals?
Has the Minister also considered his policies’ impact on local authority services? If Barking and Dagenham suddenly experiences an influx of literally thousands of families, what will that do to local schools and hospitals, to special educational needs provision and to child protection services in the borough? The proposals will place an unacceptable strain on local authorities in the more deprived outer boroughs—authorities that are already struggling to meet their communities’ needs in areas such as housing and education while planning to meet the 25% to 40% cuts that will be forced on them by the comprehensive spending review announcements next week.
In education, for example, Barking and Dagenham is already facing the huge challenge of keeping up with the pace of demographic change. Demand for primary school places is a particular problem not only for my constituency but across London. As it is, the local authority is having to create hundreds of new reception places every year—337 extra primary school places are needed in 2011 and 247 in 2012—and does not have sufficient funding to meet projected demand. The borough simply cannot cope with further significant levels of inward migration.
Barking and Dagenham council already has a housing waiting list of more than 11,000. That waiting list will only grow longer as more people move into the area and more households seek to be housed by the local authority because they have been priced out of the private sector.
As my right hon. Friend may know, that is already happening. Kensington council is urging people to move out before the rush starts. Hammersmith council is urging overcrowded families to give up their secure and assured tenancies and to move into the private sector and rely on housing benefit, without telling them that they will then have to leave the borough next year when that benefit is cut.
That is outrageous. I must also tell the Minister that I am absolutely convinced that within a year or two, boroughs and authorities such as Kensington and Chelsea or Hammersmith, from which families move out to areas such as Barking and Dagenham or Tower Hamlets, will cease to take responsibility for providing all the other local authority services that those families will need. They will then be an additional burden on those local authorities.
Who will foot the bill for social services and support for those families? They are already on the edge, and they are bound to make greater demands as they are uprooted from their inner-London homes and lose their links with the local services on which they depend. Has the Minister properly considered the impact of the proposals to cut housing benefit on the demand for other local authority services? Has he received advice on whether the proposals will increase homelessness and child poverty, as I believe they inevitably will?
The reforms will not achieve what the Government claim, but that is only half the story. The truth is that the Government want to drive low-income families out of inner London and other wealthy areas. London Councils estimates that at least 82,000 London households will find themselves in that position, and that is without taking into account the impact of the measures announced at the party conference last week. People will not have the option to move to a cheaper property in the same area because there will be none, unless they are prepared to downsize and move into overcrowded accommodation. They will have no choice but to move to areas where rents are more affordable. That will be a tragedy for families and communities. It is completely wrong of the Government to implement such a policy, with the full knowledge of the demographic upheaval that it will cause, and to leave local authorities to cope with the consequences.
We will also lose the diverse communities and social mix that have been a part of London’s character for generations. Central London will become the home of young professionals and the very well-off who, conveniently, can be relied on to vote Conservative. Those struggling on low incomes will congregate in the outer boroughs, which will become more disadvantaged, overstretched and troubled. The reforms will cause suffering and push more families into poverty by forcing them to contribute more of their income to housing costs. Members of all parties recognise the need to reform housing benefit, but this is not the way to go about it.
The reforms have not been properly thought through. They have the potential to cause hardship of a kind not seen since the creation of the welfare state, and they have been informed by a disgraceful political calculation. How a Liberal Democrat can attempt to defend them is beyond me. What evidence do the Government have to support their claim that the new cap will reduce rents in the private sector? What additional resources will be made available to help local authorities such as Barking and Dagenham cope with any significant increase in inward migration? Finally, how will the Government keep their promise to eradicate child poverty, given the hardship that their policy will inflict on low-income families?
I congratulate the right hon. Member for Barking (Margaret Hodge) on securing this debate. I am not here to defend the proposals, but I will be consistent with my position during the 40 years of my public life, the past 13 of which I have spent as a Member of the House. If only the present Opposition had been consistent with the views that we are now hearing during their 13 years of Labour rule, perhaps we would not be in this situation.
The right hon. Lady and her colleagues might wish to know that in 13 years of Labour Governments, 6,470 council houses were built. In the first 13 years of the previous Conservative Governments—I am using the same number of years—the figure was 507,200. Labour’s total, as I said, was 6,470.
The hon. Gentleman has asked how many social houses were built. If we factor those figures in, the number is still considerably lower than that achieved during the 13 years of the previous Conservative Governments. Presumably, the right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr Raynsford) can give us chapter and verse about how successful the housing association sector is, an issue on which the Government in whom he served failed so lamentably.
Will the hon. Gentleman tell hon. Members about the state of the social housing stock in 1997, the condition of the properties in which people were living, the extent of the backlog of disrepair that had to be dealt with and the scale of the renovation programme—the decent homes programme—that was put in place by the previous Government, which has improved the living conditions of millions of people in this country? Why is he being so churlish about that?
The right hon. Gentleman is correct about the inheritance of the new Labour Government, but that makes their concentration on one aspect of housing just as bad. I am not saying anything new; these are points that, as Hansard will confirm, I put to the then Prime Ministers Blair and the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown), as well as to Prescott when he was in charge of council housing—or rather non-council housing.
In the years of plenty when the economy was thriving, new Labour should have emulated what Clement Attlee did in 1945 after six years of war: introduced a house building programme to house the poorest people in the land. It did not do that. The poorest people were among those the party turned its back on, which is why it lost 5 million votes at the last general election.
I agree that we should have built more houses—I have always said that—but is the solution to this problem to introduce changes to housing benefit that will affect current tenants and will not result in any more houses being built? The savings generated by the cuts will not be ploughed back into building housing, which might have made such cuts more tolerable, so how can these changes be justified on the basis that not enough houses have been built?
If the hon. Lady had been paying attention, she would have noticed that I opened my remarks by saying that I am not speaking in defence of the coalition Government’s proposals—anything but. I am just setting the scene by pointing out that the problems are inherited. I do not agree with how the matter is being dealt with, but Her Majesty’s official Opposition should not come here today and pretend that they are the saviours of the social housing market, given that the record shows that they built only—let me repeat the figures—6,470 council houses in 13 years, in contrast with the previous Conservative Government, who built 507,200 in their first 13 years.
Let me now say that I do not agree with the proposals on housing benefit. I know that the Minister will be aware of them, but I draw his attention to the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke—particularly Matthew chapter 19, verses 13 to 15, Mark chapter 10, verses 14 to 15, and Luke chapter 18, verses 15 to 17, which includes the phrase “suffer little children.” I do not want this coalition Government to make children suffer, but that is what will happen as a result of the proposals on housing benefit. I wish to put it on the record that I have already initiated one debate on child poverty in this Chamber since the general election. Another record for the previous Labour Government is that they left 3.9 million children living below the official poverty line. What an appalling legacy. I do not want that figure to increase; I want it to be eliminated.
I am grateful to the Local Government Group, particularly Mr Ben Kind—the public affairs and campaigns manager—for sending me a briefing in advance of today’s debate. That document states:
“The housing benefit measures announced in the June 2010 budget, including capping local housing allowance rates, paid to tenants in the private sector, and setting them based on the 30th percentile of local rents, are likely to increase homelessness costs, since they will diminish the willingness of private rented sector landlords to let to housing benefit customers. This will have hugely variable and disproportionate effects on different parts of the country.”
On the local housing allowance, the briefing points out:
“Councils will continue to have a duty to house those who are homeless and this will be a challenge to council homelessness budgets. Although the precise extra cost is still hard to estimate, temporary accommodation costs seem certain to be higher.”
I know that from my own constituency of Colchester. It is a relatively prosperous town in a relatively prosperous part of the country, but there are pockets of deprivation. The simple fact is that housing a homeless family is far more expensive for the public purse than putting them in a proper, decent house.
I refer colleagues to the full debate that I had on child poverty, in relation to which I was contacted by the Child Poverty Action Group. In that debate, I pointed out that it is no good for any Government, either this Government or the previous Government, to come up with wondrous schemes and policies for the betterment of people if the basic pieces of the jigsaw—the framework and the corners—are not in place. Such a basic building block is a house. If children do not have decent housing, the rest of the Government’s proposals are almost meaningless.
Social housing is already extremely scarce—I have mentioned the failures of the previous Labour Government—and an increase in the number of people who are priced out of privately rented housing will place additional demands on housing stock. Meanwhile, the increase in the non-dependant deduction could have a negative effect on family and community stability to the extent that young adults feel that they have to move out of the family home. That could have the adverse effect of encouraging the concealment of the presence of and incomes of some family members, which will add to the level of fraud and error in the system.
I do not wish to defend the relatively small number of people in society who abuse the system. Unfortunately, the Daily Express and the Daily Mail think that everybody on housing benefit is abusing the system. The minority who do are destroying the case for genuine people who are not defrauding the system, but who are depicted as scroungers. Of course, we need to tackle that problem, but we must not alter the whole system to deal with just a few scroungers.
I am interested in that point. Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the biggest scroungers are the private landlords who are charging absolutely exorbitant rents for appalling properties that they do not maintain? We—the public—are paying for that. Is it not time that we got real and dealt with the issue of the conditions of the private rented sector and the rents that are charged? We should start bringing in controls. Attack the landlords, not the tenants.
Let us put on the record that there are some very good landlords. Good landlords would endorse the points that have just been made. It is the rogue landlords—those who exploit their fellow human beings—who we need to deal with. Successive Governments have failed to address that matter.
I come back to the question of supply and demand. Thirty years ago in Colchester, there was no such thing as homelessness. People could be guaranteed a council house within six months to a year, depending on their location of choice. The right to buy was not the real problem; the real problem was the failure to replace with new stock the houses that had been sold. Successive Governments failed to deal with that.
It has been said that we must not use extravagant language and say that the proposals will result in the biggest forced social movement of people since the highland clearances because that is emotive and there is no comparison with that situation. I do not wish to give any comparisons of that sort; it would be wrong to do so. However, it is a fact that if there are benefit changes and the housing cap goes through, the forced migration of whole communities—or a large number of people from a particular community—will take place. Families, pensioners and children will be removed from the communities in which they grew up. That will have a devastating effect on their lives. I want to concentrate on the effect on children because, as I am sure colleagues have realised, I have been picking up on that angle since the general election.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman that it is unfortunate when extreme language, such as the reference to the highland clearances, is used. However, did he read in the papers at the weekend that a senior Conservative Minister in the Government described the policy as exactly that? They said that we will not have seen anything like it since the highland clearances. Such references are emotive, but they may be entirely descriptive.
I do not think that our Scottish colleagues would accept that comparison, but the point being made is that people will be forced from their homes against their will. In the previous debate that I secured, I referred to that as economic cleansing. Of course, those families that stay put in their houses and struggle on with higher rent will have less disposable income to spend in local shops and on local services, which will have an impact on their local economies.
Children will be forced out into the suburbs or elsewhere, and it is important to remember that this is not just a city phenomenon, but one that can have an impact in rural areas. It will also have an impact on schooling, as there will be depopulated schools in some areas, because of the forced removal, and overcrowded schools in others, assuming that parents can find the places.
I know that other Members wish to speak so I conclude by quoting from one section of the excellent briefing that I was sent by Scope:
“An unemployed or low-income lone parent or couple with one child (or two children who share a room) is likely to lose around £500 a year once this reform takes effect…These reductions are likely to have a disproportionate impact on disabled people…those living in cities and urban centres with higher property costs—especially London—will be particularly affected…a reduction in the financial support that Housing Benefit provides will further reduce the number of suitable properties disabled people can afford, increasing the risk of them having to live in inappropriate housing, exacerbating their social isolation and dependence on other forms of support.”
I recognise that the coalition Government inherited serious financial problems that they need to tackle, but nowhere in the coalition agreement does it say that poor families should be forced out of their homes or that children in disadvantaged families should be further disadvantaged.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Margaret Hodge) on securing the debate. She spoke convincingly about why the proposals are so misguided and I associate myself with all that she said.
I think that the Government’s announced shake-up of housing benefit is well intentioned; they talk about reducing the welfare bill, getting more people into work and forcing private sector landlords to lower their rents. What is there not to agree with about that? However, anyone who has looked at the proposals will recognise that they are likely to have a devastating impact on families and communities up and down the country. Put simply, many decent, responsible people will struggle to keep a roof over their heads and will have to leave their homes.
As has already been said, in parts of the country, such as London, some high-rent areas will simply become no-go zones for people in receipt of housing benefit. Although, as the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) said, much is made in the right-wing press about work-shy households living in Mayfair mansions, the vast majority of those who will be affected by the changes will be pensioners, people with disabilities, people caring for relatives and hard-working people on low incomes.
Only one in eight people receiving housing benefit does so because they are unemployed. In Lewisham, 9,600 people who rent flats on the private market are in receipt of housing benefit. The proposed changes to how the benefit is calculated will mean that those residents will lose on average £17 a week, or £884 a year, from next October. That represents an overall reduction in Lewisham of £8.6 million.
Furthermore, some of the largest families in the largest properties will also have their housing benefit reduced from next April due to the introduction of the weekly cap. Those are not people who have money left over at the end of the week; they often struggle to make ends meet. They already often experience shortfalls between the housing benefit that they receive and the rent that they pay. Last Friday, a gentleman came to my surgery and told me that because he had to pay for his mother’s funeral abroad, he could no longer keep up his rent payments. The Government’s proposals will make situations such as his worse, and the problems that many families currently face in tackling the shortfall between the benefit that they receive and what they have to pay in rent will become even worse.
I accept that one of the Government’s solutions for tackling that hardship is to increase the payments made to local councils for discretionary housing payments. I am seriously concerned, however, that the scale of that increase will not even touch the sides of the problem in my constituency. Will the Minister consider doubling the planned increase in DHP, and has any assessment been made of the amount of money that will come to London for that? I am aware that organisations such as London Councils believe that DHP should be increased by £19 million in the capital to address the unique complications of the private rented sector here.
The problem in London is complex. One of the major fears of my local authority relates to the knock-on effects of the introduction of weekly rent caps in expensive central London boroughs, which have already been mentioned. It has been estimated that nearly 10,000 households will have to move from the five most expensive areas in London to lower-cost areas as a result of the proposed changes, but if anyone in this Chamber thinks that areas such as Lewisham have spare flats with suitably low rent just lying around and waiting to be filled, they are sadly mistaken.
Only one third of rents in Lewisham’s private sector are set within local housing allowance limits, and one third are already occupied by housing benefit claimants. Lewisham has 17,000 people on the housing register and more than 1,000 homeless households in temporary accommodation. My corner of south-east London will simply be unable to absorb a further increase in housing demand because the supply of homes is already so short.
The sad reality of the proposals is that they will actually reduce the amount of housing available to people in need. Research undertaken in London has shown that landlords are likely to withdraw from the market for housing benefit tenants for fear that people will default on their rent payments and because anticipated rental income will no longer cover their costs. My right hon. Friend the Member for Barking referred to a study that indicated that 90% of landlords would not accept shortfalls in rent of more than £20 a week and that they would evict tenants or bring tenancies to an end as a result, and 60% of landlords have indicated that they would not accept any shortfall. However, I understand that landlords are saying that they would consider lowering their rents if housing benefit could be paid to them directly. Will the Minister consider reintroducing the direct payment of housing benefit to landlords?
Will the Minister outline what support he intends to provide to councils to deal with the problem of increased homelessness? Like many of my colleagues who have spoken this morning, I cannot see how the changes will not result in more and more people being priced out of their homes. Will he commit to maintaining and increasing the homelessness prevention grant, which will help local councils with the additional work that the proposed changes to housing benefit will undoubtedly create?
In conclusion, I urge the Government not to proceed with the proposals and to think hard about whether they fit with the claim that we are all in this together. Are they not, in effect, a vicious attack on some of the poorest and most vulnerable members of society? One of the solutions to reducing the housing benefit bill must be to build more social rented housing. I accept that more could have been done on that over the past 13 years, but as my right hon. Friend the Member for Barking has already said, the housing sector was facing huge challenges when the previous Government came to power in 1997.
What discussions has the Minister had with his colleagues in the Department for Communities and Local Government about the new supply of affordable homes? My concern is that some of the wider changes being made to the planning system, along with the reduction in capital grant available though the Homes and Communities Agency, will mean that those new homes simply will not be built.
Finally, the idea that the proposals will somehow miraculously get people into work is laughable, and the assumption that private sector rents will be lowered is deeply flawed. The proposals may well reduce the welfare bill, but at a huge cost to my constituents, who are already struggling hard to make ends meet.
Thank you, Mr Gray. I will be brief so that everyone can contribute to the debate.
I welcome the debate and congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Margaret Hodge) on securing it, on what she said this morning, and, in particular, on her successful annihilation of the British National party in the general election, which she did on behalf of all of us.
As Members know, I represent Islington North, which is an inner urban constituency. It is perceived by the Daily Mail and Daily Express to be the fountain of all things that are bad in our society. The perceptions are of liberal intelligentsia, cappuccino society and restaurants where new Labour used to meet. I personally have never had anything to do with new Labour whatsoever, so I take no responsibility for that.
Unfortunately, that image has placed itself in the public eye as being fact but, in reality, it is not. My hon. Friend the Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) and I represent a borough which is the eighth poorest in the country. It has a large number of people living in council or housing association accommodation, a large number of people living in private rented accommodation, and probably one of the lowest levels of owner occupation in the country. I believe it is now down to about 30%, which is less than half the national average. The number of people living in private rented accommodation has gone up by a huge amount and now represents more than 30% of the population. They are not all on housing benefit, but some are.
The local authority has a huge housing problem to deal with, but, in the long term, it can be addressed only by purchasing existing properties and converting them into flats, where appropriate, and by building new properties where land becomes available, which is a huge problem in inner London. Indeed, during an earlier incarnation as chair of housing in Islington, my right hon. Friend the Member for Barking managed to secure the purchase of a large number of street properties which were then converted into flats and remain so, so Islington has many street properties. Also, she presided over a considerable level of council house building in the early 1980s, despite huge opposition from the then Conservative Government, so it is not that enormous efforts have not been made to try to address the issue of housing stock.
However, as in every other borough, nothing had been done in the way of major repairs before 1997 because of central Government cuts, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr Raynsford) said. The council was reduced to doing repairs only if tenants took legal action against it to get them done, and that was normal throughout London at the time. I accept the criticisms made by the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) about the lack of new house building, but he should recognise the enormous repair problem that was left to the incoming Labour Government in 1997, and also recognise that decent homes standards have made a difference.
I have discussed the problems of housing benefit in countless debates; indeed, many Members in the Chamber today have taken part in them. This nation spends a vast amount of money on housing benefit, but I have no problem whatsoever with the principle of it. I absolutely support it, and where housing benefit is paid to people living in council or housing association accommodation, it is all straightforward.
What annoys me beyond belief is when two successive families come into my advice surgery—I shall not reveal names, as that would not be appropriate—family A lives in a council flat and gets housing benefit for the full rent, which is around £100 per week, and family B, who could be living next door in an identical flat with identical social conditions, receives housing benefit of £250, £300 or £350 a week. Why the difference? It is because family B’s flat was bought from the council under right to buy, possibly with a large discount. Someone is able to live off the private rent paid for by housing benefit. That is wrong, and the Government must deal with it, but the problem cannot be addressed by punishing the tenant or attacking people who are in receipt of housing benefit, which is exactly what the Government are trying to do by introducing a housing benefit cap.
What is likely to happen in my community and in the communities of others here today, particularly inner-London Members, is that large numbers of our constituents on a low wage, income support or jobseeker’s allowance and in receipt of housing benefit, will be faced with a horrible choice. The housing benefit will be cut, but the landlord will refuse to lower the rent. They will then be faced with a terrible choice. Do they take the children out of school? Do they move away from the area where their family live, where they may be caring for an elderly relative, where they have community links, where they have their general practitioner or local hospital? They have that kind of social support network, but they will have to try to find a private rented flat somewhere else, some distance away.
My hon. Friend speaks extremely well on behalf of Islington, but may I chip in with this? One argument put forward is that the housing benefit cuts will result in rents dropping, but may I point out to the Minister, who may not know this—I know that my hon. Friend does—that only 12% of Islington’s private rental sector receives local housing allowance? Therefore, if the benefit were cut, the market would simply move on to other people. If we wish to push down rents in the private rented sector, we cannot do it by cutting housing benefit. I would suggest that the Minister listen carefully to my hon. Friend, because the points that he is making are extremely valid, particularly in respect of Islington.
Absolutely. My hon. Friend understands the borough very well. That is the situation, and I suspect that it is exactly the same in Hammersmith and Fulham, Westminster and many other inner-London areas. There is enormous demand. This is a fast-growing, vibrant city where there is huge demand for private rented flats. The effect of the proposals will be social cleansing of the poorest people out of what are perceived to be high-cost areas. Like other boroughs, Islington is subject to the peculiar combination of being high cost but poor at the same time. That does not apply in the whole country, but it certainly does in London, and I hope that the Minister will at least begin to understand that.
Islington council cannot house all the people on the waiting list by any manner of means. There are 8,000 families on it at present, and serious overcrowding problems in existing council and housing association accommodation. A small amount of building has been started—I wish it well and welcome it—but I suspect that, after the Chancellor makes his statement, there will be an end to all council house building in this country, unless I have been misled by the media, which, of course, is possible.
I ask the Minister to look at the issue and deal with it in an intelligent, rational and humane way. He should not place a cap on housing benefit but instead look at the exorbitant private sector rents that are charged and introduce at least some form of appeal system against excessive rents. As my hon. Friend the Member for Islington South and Finsbury said, if people are moved out of private rented accommodation, somebody else on housing benefit or housing allowance will not be moved in. The property will be filled by someone from the open market, because that is the reality of the situation.
James Murray, the executive member of Islington council who deals with housing, made an excellent submission to the Work and Pensions Committee, in which he states:
“Islington is a high demand area, with some of the highest private sector market rents…With over 8,000 people on its housing register, and demand for social housing far outstripping its supply, the borough relies heavily on the private rented sector to help house its residents.”
Islington has placed, through the rent deposit scheme, large numbers of people in the private rented sector on an agreed rent, but all those arrangements will disappear. Islington has tried to co-operate with the private sector in doing that and calculates that,
“Over the past 18 months 228 of the 422 households placed through the rent deposit scheme will be adversely affected by the caps.”
The answer is to recognise the housing needs of people in London and the social damage of overcrowding and homelessness, not punish the tenants and victims, and instead—I agree with the hon. Member for Colchester —build as many properties as rapidly as we can and deal with excessive rents, bad conditions and bad landlords, of whom, unfortunately, there are still far too many all over London. It breaks my heart when people living in vermin-infested flats, which we the public are paying several hundred pounds a week in rent for, come to see me. Such tenants feel that they have no rights and feel excluded. Their children are suffering educationally, from overcrowding and everything else.
We need a decent, fair society. The Prime Minister claims that we are all in it together, but I do not believe that he really thinks that, because if he did he would be doing something about the disgraceful way that many private sector tenants are treated. Support the tenants; do not bail out the landlords.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Margaret Hodge) on securing this debate. I am stunned that the Minister, who has, as my right hon. Friend mentioned, been sent here again to attempt to defend the indefensible, seems to have ignored previous debates on this issue. His response to the entirely justified criticism by my right hon. Friend was to try to move the debate, which was endorsed by the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell), on to the failings of the previous Labour Government. It is almost impossible to believe that the Minister did not take on board the litany of facts and figures that were presented to him in this Chamber by the usual suspects, who are here. [Interruption.]
I said “usual”, not “old”. [Laughter.] These hon. Members know, from first-hand experience in their own constituencies, precisely the depth of damage that will be inflicted on our constituents if these proposals go through without any reconsideration or re-evaluation of what is actually, practically, going to happen. If the Government are not going to listen to what the loyal Opposition are presenting to them in this respect, perhaps they will give consideration to organisations such as Citizens Advice, Crisis, Gingerbread and the Chartered Institute of Housing, all of which are saying that the housing benefit proposals will increase the amount of homelessness and that it is unlikely that they will save any money at all.
The amount of social disturbance that will take place is scandalous. Crisis predicts, as I have had occasion to say in this Chamber, that if the proposals go through there will be a vast increase in homelessness. However, there will still be a statutory responsibility for local authorities to house children, so we will go back to the bad old days of bed and breakfast. As Crisis says, it is the norm for bed and breakfast charges to be £60 a day for a room. How much will that save the country? Children will not only lose their homes, but lose their schools, friends and community support and will more than likely lose an immediate and direct medical service, so their parents will have to take them, should they be ill, to the local accident and emergency unit. How will that affect those boroughs to which these thousands and thousands of families are expected to move to reduce the rent they pay and to stay in some kind of reasonably permanent housing?
Citizens Advice has said that there is only a short time left for someone who will have to move out of their present accommodation if the changes are brought in. A family may be forced to change their accommodation twice in as short a space of time as three months. Citizens Advice quotes cases where this has already happened.
It is incomprehensible that the party that purported to be on the side of the weakest, poorest and most vulnerable in our society has signed up totally to the proposals on housing benefit. In one way I am surprised, but in another I am not. The Deputy Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr Clegg), who has become the Marshal Pétain of his generation, had the audacity to speak at the United Nations on the failure of countries infinitely poorer than ours to meet their millennium development goals on tackling infant mortality and reducing deaths in childbirth, but one of the first policies that he has endorsed will make women and children in this country homeless. He has also urged his colleagues, supporters and followers to enjoy their power. Will the Minister do that today? Will he enjoy the power that has been vested in him and use it to destroy families and communities?
My hon. Friends have already said that central London will become a no-go area for basic, usually very low-paid jobs, on which the whole of central London depends. I will be interested to see what happens in the Palace of Westminster if this measure goes through. It is highly likely that there will be a marked reduction in people keeping our offices clean, providing us with food and giving us the services on which we in the Palace of Westminster depend. If that situation is expanded across the whole of central London, what will we see? There will be fewer bus drivers and, certainly, fewer teachers. Teachers are already telling me that they cannot afford to buy and are finding it virtually impossible to rent. The Government argue that we have to attract foreign investment to give yet another kick-start to bring this country out of recession—although they have provided a gentle nudge more than a kick—but if this proposal goes ahead the very services on which this city depends simply will not be there.
It is utterly absurd to think that the outer London boroughs will be able easily to take up the thousands of people who will have to move out of central London—this is not an exaggeration, as the Minister must know—and meet their housing, educational, social and medical needs. Does he really wish to turn this city back to what it was under Thatcherite mark 1—he is signed up to Thatcherite mark 2—when people were living in doorways and slept for the night on gratings? Lincoln’s Inn Fields, for example, was taken over by a tented community. That will be the result of this disastrous policy if the Government do not begin seriously to rethink what they are proposing. If they do not listen to Her Majesty’s loyal Opposition, perhaps they will listen to organisations whose sole purpose in life has to do with helping provide people with decent housing. Then perhaps they will, for heaven’s sake, rethink this disastrous policy.
It is important to realise that issues to do with housing benefit do not just apply in London. I acknowledge that problems in London are great—far greater than in many other places—but the suggested housing benefit reforms will affect other parts of the country in ways that are similar, if not quite so grotesque.
In Edinburgh we will not be affected by the proposed cap. The local housing allowance is already beneath that cap. However, the decision to restrict the LHA to the 30th percentile will affect us, as will the decision to up-rate not according to what the market is doing, but according to the consumer prices index. The proposals will have an effect on the kinds of homes that people can find.
As it is, many people in Edinburgh who are receiving housing benefit or local housing allowance already meet a shortfall on their rent. Housing benefit is not just for people who are out of work, as some of the propaganda would suggest. Many people work and are able to stay in their homes only because housing benefit is available to them, even if it tapers off. Many people are already paying an excess out of their limited incomes because they have not been able to find anywhere else within the LHA. The number of people in that situation will rise. That is a substantial financial difficulty. Some of my constituents are paying £10 or £15 a week out of a limited income just to top up their rent payments. That problem will become greater.
I live in a city with a large private rented sector. It is not as large as in Islington, but 20% of all households are in the private rented sector, which in Scottish terms is high. At the moment, around 18% of private rented sector properties are occupied by people who receive some housing benefit. There is ample scope for landlords, if they no longer wish to have tenants on housing benefit because of the lower local housing allowance, to find other tenants. There is a huge shortage of properties in the city and plenty of other people to fill them without landlords reducing rents. We are a high-cost city and a high-rented city. Students and young people will be able to occupy such properties; perhaps if they are sharing, they will be able to pay the high rents that a household could not meet.
There are other practical issues for people who must move that are not always taken into account. Some of us forget—I had almost forgotten until recently when someone came to see me and told me that she must move—the difficulty of finding a deposit. There are schemes to help people to provide a deposit, but they are limited and those in Edinburgh are very limited. For many people, finding enough money for a deposit to enable them to move is a huge issue. Many of us may believe that it is not that big a deal, but to find £400, £500 or £600 for a deposit, which may be low by London standards, is a lot of money for some people. There are practical issues that make it difficult for people to contemplate moving.
The obverse is touched upon by one of the briefings from Citizens Advice. For example, in Brent, if a tenant, because of the changes in housing benefit, finds it impossible to pay their rent and loses their tenancy, they will also lose their deposit because the tenancy agreement is broken before the due date. The landlord wins all round.
That worsens the position.
In Edinburgh, if people with homes in the private rented sector, whether they are in work or not, can no longer afford such homes because they do not receive housing benefit, they will come to the council for help with housing. The council has already entered into lease agreements with landlords for around 1,500 to 1,700 properties to provide accommodation for people who have presented as being homeless. They are outside the local housing authority, and the rent levels are extremely high, which is a serious problem. That was intended to be a temporary expedient, but it has been temporary for five years, and the council has recently entered into another contract because it has little choice. The LHA cap will not apply, but if more people go into such accommodation and the council must take on more private leases to cover the situation, the real bill for housing benefit—we are always being told about the huge total of housing benefit—will be squeezed from one end and will push up at the other end. There will be unintended consequences.
Labour Members recognise that some of the changes and reforms, sometimes well intentioned, have had unintended consequences, and that should be taken into account before the changes go ahead. At the end of the day, the total housing benefit bill may not fall, despite the changes that will badly affect individuals, households and families. It is not good enough to say, “You didn’t do enough about building housing, so we must do this.” If the solution is to build more houses, build more houses. We did that, although they may not all have been council houses, as the Scottish National party said. It came to power saying that it was dreadful that we had not built any council houses, and that it would do so, but the total number built was exactly the same because it gave a little money to councils to build council houses but it took it away from housing associations that were building houses; the global figure did not change.
The answer is not to punish people for the failure of a policy. That is perverse. If there were even a suggestion that some of the money saved would go towards building houses, at least there would be some purpose in the argument, but I do not believe that that will happen. We have had no such assurances. From a perspective much further north than London, I agree with my hon. Friends that the reform is bad and will affect my constituents. I urge the Government, even at this late stage, to reconsider.
I thank the right hon. Member for Barking (Margaret Hodge) for introducing this important subject and congratulate her on her election success. Importantly, she saw off the British National party. I also congratulate the hon. Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck) on her deserved promotion, and I welcome my good and hon. Friend the Minister, whom I am sure does not have the attitude that our Opposition Friends are suggesting.
I shall not develop the argument, but there is an issue with the housing legacy. I understand the point made by the right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr Raynsford), but the failure to build enough houses, particularly in London, left a terrible legacy for the new Government. We must be honest about that. The waiting list in Southwark is 15,000, and Labour Members cannot back off from that.
We must all face the fact that the population in London is rising significantly all the time, so the social challenge for the Government is extremely difficult. I am sure that it is not in their mind to drive people from one part of the country and forcibly to move them elsewhere, but there is a risk of unintended consequences. In the final week before the announcement of the comprehensive spending review—I know that some of the decisions on housing are not yet finalised—I want to take the opportunity to influence my hon. Friend and our colleagues through this debate and more widely to make the best possible decisions. There is clear evidence that forcing people away from their communities does long-term damage to children and the next generation in their relationships, and to the social fabric and community cohesion.
The campaign for homes in central London, with which I, the hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) and others are associated, recognises that some people are born and brought up and have their home and being in the centre of our cities. They should be able to expect to remain there, even if they are not on high incomes, which most of them are not.
I am conscious of the time, but I want to mention three acute issues. The first is the housing benefit changes planned for next year. The Budget statement in June proposed that housing allowance rates be capped in April. Secondly, from October next year, rates will be set at the 30th instead of the 50th percentile of local rents. The method of working them out is complex, but the previous Labour Government set up broad market rental areas, so that they are considered in the community context.
Thirdly, further down the track,
“Housing benefit awards will be reduced to 90 per cent of the initial award after 12 months for claimants receiving Jobseekers Allowance. This will be introduced in April 2013.”
That policy is wrong. It is too inflexible and must be changed. One cannot presume that someone who has been trying to find work has not been able to do so because of their own failure, and that they must therefore move. The consequence of that and some of the other proposals risks forcing people from where they are, and by definition they then become a burden on the local authority if they are in any of the vulnerable categories or have priority needs. The problem does not go away; it simply moves, with trauma to those concerned.
What should our policy be? I can only summarise, but of course we need a policy that delivers more homes at affordable rents in London and elsewhere, including short-term homes, as other Governments have realised, perhaps on brownfield sites and the like. We absolutely need to make sure that empty homes are filled, and that people with spare space are encouraged to move so that that space can be released to others. We must not shake the security of tenure principle, because that is not the right approach.
We must ensure that we do not discourage people who are currently living in private rented accommodation from going into work because the rents are so high that should they start work, or should their partner come to join them, they might suddenly discover that they cannot stay in their property. That is a terrible failure which we must correct, and I have heard the Minister and other people say that they intend to do so.
In the view of London Councils—I stress that this is a cross-party view held not just by the Conservative Mayor but by all three parties that lead councils in London—there must be a review and change to the 90% rule, and a change to the rules currently planned for implementation next year. In its submission, which I hope the Minister has received and which I endorse, London Councils asks the Government to
“reconsider the level of the national cap in London and for the Central Broad Rent Market Area (BRMA) in particular”
and my own area. London Councils goes on to ask for the introduction of a transitional scheme. It also asks us to ensure that
“Current claimants…be subject to the 30 percentile change from April, but not to the national cap”
and that only new claimants who could find a property would be subject to the national cap. London Councils wants a progression—a transition—so that London has an opportunity to work out a solution with the Government, rather than be told the solution by the Government.
The June proposals were over-hasty and need to be revisited. They are not fair. I do not think that the Minister would want the Government to be known for a policy that was draconian and most adversely affected the poor and the disadvantaged. That is not the housing policy that he or I signed up to, and I hope that the Government will not sign up to it either.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Margaret Hodge) on securing the debate. She has done us a great service by setting out to the House the implications for those local authorities that are likely to receive people who move from higher-cost areas. Many of us, including me as a constituency MP, have focused on issues that will impact on the areas from which people will be moving, but we must understand the sheer scale and extent of the proposals.
Almost 1 million households will lose out as a consequence of the combined measures introduced in the June Budget. As was rightly pointed out by my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh East (Sheila Gilmore), that will have implications for the entire country. The measures will have the most extensive impact in London, but that will ripple through all local authority areas in the country, including a particularly sharp effect in the south-west, Bristol, Brighton, Cambridge, Oxford, Edinburgh and parts of the north-west. Although London is at the sharp end of the proposals, it is not exclusively affected.
We heard powerful and well informed speeches from across the Chamber, and particularly from those hon. Members who will see the impact of the proposals. My expert and right hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr Raynsford) spoke about the potential damage to the private rented sector, which is a valid point. My hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham East (Heidi Alexander) spoke correctly about how the image of work-shy households in Mayfair mansions is completely contradicted by the lived experience of the overwhelming majority of people who claim local housing allowance. She and others mentioned the fact that in east or south-east London, and many other parts of the country, there are no rooms or houses to spare to absorb that movement.
My hon. Friend the Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) talked about the sometimes perverse consequences of the right to buy, a popular policy that delivered much to those who benefited from it, but which down the line has contributed to some of the problems. In yet another extraordinarily powerful speech, my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Glenda Jackson) talked about the impact of dislocation on households and children. The hon. Members for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes) and for Colchester (Bob Russell) talked about the impact on children, and they were right to do so.
Before I address one or two of the substantive points and ask the Minister some questions, it is important to place on the record a correct understanding of what housing benefit and the local housing allowance for private tenants actually do, and why they have risen so much. We have heard a great deal—including this week from the Secretary of State—about the explosion in the cost of the local housing allowance. Almost half, 48%, of the entire increase in housing benefit over the past five years has been a result of the growth in the private rented sector. It has been driven by cases and not by rents. Of that, 28% is accounted for by an increase in social rents, while a mere 20% is accounted for by rises in rents themselves at a time when house prices have doubled.
That does not mean that we do not have problems in some areas. We know that there are hard cases and that some people will always swing the lead; that is the case everywhere and in every system. However, such people are outweighed by thousands to one by those who rely on housing benefit and the local housing allowance to keep a roof over their heads. There are ways of dealing with hard cases by allowing local authorities discretion, and some such measures were set out by the last Government in the March Budget. We must not let hard cases dictate a national policy that impacts on 1 million people. That is the catastrophe.
Ministers seem to fail to understand the number of households on local housing allowance who are in work—again, the Secretary of State failed to refer to that. Over the past two years, there have been a quarter of a million new cases of people in work claiming local housing allowance. During the recession, as wages and the hours that people worked fell, people turned to housing benefit and the local housing allowance to stop themselves from being made homeless. The coalition Government have completely ignored that. Research commissioned by my party when considering housing benefit reform last year laid to rest the myth that, taken as a whole, the local housing allowance discriminates against working households.
Research published three weeks ago stated that
“housing benefits arrangements do not seem to unduly favour local housing allowance recipients compared to most low-income working households”.
One clear message is that it would be a mistake to see housing benefit claimants and low-income working families as totally distinct categories. Most interviewees in the research study moved between those categories, sometimes several times, so that the same household could be a low-income working household one week, and find itself on housing allowance in another.
Despite all the evidence and research, in something like 20 weeks, a policy will come into effect that could impact on 114,000 households, mostly in London, who live in properties too expensive for them. The Mayor of London’s own submission contains an expectation that 20,000 children will be moved. In my local authority, 5,500 households will be way above the cap. If we consider that half of those households are larger households with children, that is 5,000 children in one borough. Where are the school places going to come from? Where will those children be educated? Where will health services be found for them? Where will they be found homes? The sheer lack of planning for the scale of population movement, and the debt, homelessness and distress to be caused is overwhelming. That is in 20 weeks. In a year’s time there will be a much bigger and deeper cut with the move to the 30th percentile, which is far wider.
The Minister says that rents will fall. Where is the evidence for that? Will all rents fall? Of course they will not. Some rents will fall, but where are the calculations about the numbers affected in areas where rents do not fall? Does the Minister think that the market does not exist, despite everything that we hear about it? When tens of thousands of people leave their homes in high-cost areas and move to Croydon, Barking, Southend, Hastings or Luton, surely the market will respond and rents will go up. Where will the savings be made? That is before households turn—as they will—to local authorities for rehousing.
Over the past two years, 120,000 households have been placed in the private rented sector by local authorities to prevent people from becoming homeless. What are those households going to do? Has the Minister considered how many of those households will apply to local authorities as homeless? It will be the overwhelming majority. Will local authorities have to pick up those duties and house those households in temporary accommodation, and at what cost? Do we not see the rankest hypocrisy from my own local authority of Westminster, which has been the cheerleader for some of these reforms for what I must say are highly political reasons? In response to a question that I asked the Minister, Westminster was the first council to write to the Government to ask for assistance in dealing with temporary accommodation costs. What extraordinary hypocrisy for it to be holding its hand out for financial assistance while lobbying for the changes that will see the majority of households, particularly those with children, moved out of the borough.
We are talking about a staggering movement of people, an increase in homelessness and an increase in the number of children—many of them vulnerable—throwing themselves on the mercy of ill-prepared local authorities in other parts of the country, including London, which are themselves expected to make a huge cut in their own expenditure at the same time. Many of the households involved are working households.
Has the Minister reflected on the effect of the policies on his own constituency and, indeed, that of the Secretary of State? It is worth remembering how they are affected. In the Secretary of State’s constituency, 13,990 households are losers in the two broad rental market areas affected, and of those, just under 5,000 are in work. In the Minister’s area, a shade under 1,000 working households lose, with families in two-bedroom properties losing nearly £1,000 a year. The policies are impacting in the Government’s own backyard. I hope that that will give them some pause for thought.
Many measures are being proposed to ameliorate some of the most catastrophic impacts of the decisions. The Minister should allow time for impact assessment before local authorities are placed in the position that has been described, because I predict that even with the most minimal impact of the policies, we will see the most distressing scenes that we have seen in many years, as families are forced from their homes, are forced into debt and have to queue at local authority housing departments to make a claim for homelessness. There will also be an impact on the demand for services from local authorities throughout the country, which will have to deal with people’s needs. Please will the Minister tell us what measures are being put in place to allow local authorities to cope with that?
I have already congratulated the right hon. Member for Barking (Margaret Hodge) on securing this important debate. I also congratulate the hon. Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck); the Select Committee’s loss is the Labour Front Bench’s gain. She and many other hon. Members who have spoken bring to the debate a great deal of expert knowledge on housing. In the eight minutes remaining, I shall do my best to respond to some of the key points that were made.
My hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) is a doughty campaigner on housing issues and I hope that he always will be. He raised very important questions. Are the measures not bad for child poverty? What about disabled people? A number of hon. Members mentioned the position of vulnerable groups. My response to my hon. Friend is twofold, but principally it is that if we examine what we are spending on housing benefit, we see clear evidence that a significant part of our spending is not subsidising people in need to have decent housing, but subsidising landlords. In each of the past five years, we spent an additional £1 billion in real terms; each year it was another billion, then another and then another.
I want to put a hypothetical scenario to my hon. Friend. The Department for Communities and Local Government says to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, “We want to spend £1 billion next year building affordable homes.” The Chancellor says, “Yes, I’d like to do that.” Then he goes to the Department for Work and Pensions and we have just put in a bid for another £1 billion and another £1 billion for housing benefit, and he has to go back to the DCLG and say, “I’m sorry. The DWP has claimed that £1 billion. It’s not available for affordable housing. It’s not available for tackling child poverty.” The crucial point is that we have a housing benefit system that protects the vulnerable but does not pre-empt resources that could be spent on the very things on which we in this Chamber want to spend money.
No. I will give way to the right hon. Member for Barking, who initiated the debate, but in the remaining seven minutes, I want to respond to some of the points made in the debate.
I want to correct a number of the inaccurate impressions that have been given. As the hon. Member for Westminster North said, it is a helpful focus in this debate—as distinct from our July debate, which was on the position of tenants—to ask about the position of the receiving local authorities. That is an entirely valid point. We are in discussions with our colleagues in the DCLG. We are working with the local government associations across the country to work out how best to support local authorities, which will face challenges; I do not dispute that for a second.
The allocation of the discretionary housing payments, which will be trebled from £20 million to £60 million, is part of the picture. As the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Sheila Gilmore) pointed out, one of the issues for people will be difficulty in securing deposits, and one of the things that discretionary housing payments can be used for is to assist people in paying for deposits. That is part of the purpose of the scheme. We have deliberately trebled that money and, although I cannot say anything definitive about the allocation of that funding, inevitably we shall want the money to go where the need is greatest, and inevitably that means that London will get a significant slice of that money. That is clear, and I think that it will help.
I want to question the description that we have heard of the private rented sector in London. I hesitate to do that in a room full of London MPs, but I shall give it a try. It has been presented as though it is an incredibly static situation, in which people live in communities for generations and it is always the same property, yet surely hon. Members would accept that there is massive turnover in the private rented sector in London. People move in and out of properties all the time.
The idea that there are static communities where any disruption will somehow undermine the community seems to me a parody of what is actually going on. The same applies to the suggestion that in the most expensive parts of London, there are mixed communities, with people at all income levels. The only people who can afford very high rents are the very rich and the very poor; there is nobody in the middle. The suggestion that we are somehow disrupting those terribly cosmopolitan, mixed communities is not true. [Interruption.] Indeed, it is not true. What can we do about the situation?
I think that the Minister has demonstrated, as he will have heard from the comments around the room, a lack of understanding of the nature of the population affected. I am referring to the families, about whom we have concern, who will be dislocated by his proposals. Will he give an undertaking to do just a little bit of research that will demonstrate the potential impact on movement across London, which families that will involve and how they will be impacted? If we shared that research and the evidence, we could then have a sensible debate about the impact of the Minister’s proposition. Will he give us that assurance today?
Like the right hon. Lady, I am keen to have a sensible debate on this subject. She mentioned the evidence that the Mayor of London has produced. The Mayor met my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State towards the end of September, and we are in close dialogue with London local authorities and others so that we do understand the implications of the changes.
With regard to turnover in the private rented sector, the local housing allowance scheme only came in just over two years ago, in April 2008, and 75% of private rented sector cases are now within the scope of that scheme. There is huge turnover of people. People are making decisions about new—
No. People are making decisions about new tenure choices all the time, and we are saying this: why should those whose rents are wholly paid by the taxpayer not face the same constraints as those who are in low-paid work? I take the point made by the hon. Member for Westminster North that the two are not distinct categories; there is movement between the two. However, people in low-paid work are not choosing to live in the most expensive parts of the city, because they know that they would have to be able to pay those rents out of their wages. Why should people on benefit be in an advantageous position, in terms of their housing choice, compared with those in low-paid work? That simply is not right.
I am convinced that nothing in my language or my ministerial colleagues’ language is about clearances or scroungers. That is not what we are talking about. We are talking about value for money for the taxpayer, including the low-paid taxpayers in the constituencies of each hon. Member present, whose taxes are going to subsidise those exorbitant rents. Although we have heard that those very high rents are exceptional, I was appalled when I discovered that the 5,000 families to whom we pay the most housing benefit cost the taxpayer an annual £100 million—5,000 families receive £100 million a year just in housing benefit, leaving other benefits aside. It cannot be right that low-paid workers in our constituencies, people dealing with child poverty and disabled people are paying taxes to pay those rents.
My hon. Friend the Member for Colchester asked about the position of disabled people. One of the changes that has not been reported is the improvements to the system of housing benefit for disabled people who need a non-resident carer. We are spending an extra £10 million on writing off that extra bedroom in the housing benefit assessment, because we recognise the particular needs of disabled people.
These are huge issues and it is disappointing to have only a few moments to respond to them. The crucial consideration is to be fair—yes, to people on benefit, but also to the low-paid taxpayers whose taxes are paying for these things. If we simply pay the full, very high rents, we make it very difficult for people to take work, which will ultimately be the best antidote to child poverty and the best long-term prospect for people. That is the goal of the reforms.
Bogus Charity Bag Collections
It is an honour and a pleasure, Mr Gray, to be speaking on this important issue under your chairmanship. This is not the first time that bogus charity collections have been raised in this Chamber. In February 2007, the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) held an Adjournment debate on the matter; the then Minister, charitable organisations and consumers wholeheartedly welcomed the debate, and it certainly raised awareness of a growing problem. However, despite the positive response from the then Minister, we meet three years on and the problem is more widespread, not less, and nothing much has changed. I hope that this time this Minister will be able to offer not only warm words, but real action.
House-to-house collections of donated goods are a crucial source of income for many charities—those with and without shops. For example, last year they contributed more than £22 million to the British Heart Foundation for the fight against heart disease, and 43% of sales income came from goods donated through doorstep collections. Age UK raises approximately £25 million per year from charity bags, which accounts for around 60% of the stock sold in their shops.
Even for the vast majority of charities that do not have shops, house-to-house collections form a massive part of fundraising. Legitimate private collection companies—some of which are better than others—are used to collect on behalf of many charities. Their professional fundraising ability means that companies such as Clothes Aid collect around £2 million per year on behalf of their tied charities.
Charity bag collections are a convenient way for people to recycle unwanted textiles. Our increasingly busy lifestyles mean that it is hard to find the time to drop clothes into a shop, and, given that shops themselves are often located in pedestrianised areas, it becomes incredibly difficult to make large donations following a spring clean, or a post-diet or a pre-winter wardrobe update. Like millions of people, I put my clothes in a charity bag and pop them outside my door before heading off to work. I do so in good faith, with the belief that they will be put to excellent use and raise vital funds for whichever charity is collecting. Sadly, it appears that that trust can sometimes be misplaced.
On 13 July, a flyer was posted through the door of my constituent, Mr Philip Wilson. It simply stated that clothes, shoes, blankets, towels and other such items were urgently needed by Breakthrough Breast Cancer; that Clothman Ltd, which it stated was a commercial participator that helps raise money for Breakthrough, would pick up the bags on Wednesday; and that £100 from each tonne collected would go to the charity. It carried the Breakthrough branding, had a woman pictured on the front, a registered charity company number and website details. It also had a mobile telephone number that you could call for further information.
The leaflet looked genuine and a normal charity supporter would not doubt it. However, on this occasion the leaflet went through the wrong door—or the right door, depending on how one looks at it. Mr Wilson is mid-Kent’s fundraising co-ordinator for Breakthrough Breast Cancer, and therefore knew that his charity did not do door-to-door charity collections. He contacted the local council, the trading standards office and the police, but, despite a collection van being stopped mid-act, the operator was allowed to continue for allegedly having the correct registered charity number on the flyer. Of course, the flyer was fake, but the number was legitimate. That incident illustrates the difficulties that genuine charities face.
I first became acutely aware of bogus charity collections during the summer recess, when BBC South East televised an in-depth undercover investigation, which highlighted a spate of incidents across Kent. That investigation was already under way when Mr Wilson contacted the BBC and, shortly after, he came to my surgery. It has become clear that what happened in Chatham in mid-July has happened and continues to happen daily in streets up and down the country.
There are two major problems in combating this criminal activity: one, the legislation and, two, the often relaxed attitude of the police. Taking the police response first, I understand that the theft of a single bag of clothes may not seem like a high priority, but when it is estimated that the theft of clothes is in excess of 36,000 tonnes per year, at a cost of more than £14 million to charity, it should be taken more seriously. There are some examples of a good police response. Derbyshire police have recently conducted a successful undercover operation into this specific crime, and other forces have made individual arrests, but usually the attitude of the police is that they face tight budgets and bogus collections are not a key target or high priority.
The second challenge is the reluctance and/or capability to perform cross-border policing on level 2 or 3 crime. For example, Clothes Aid recently passed over intelligence on a small gang stealing in Bedfordshire, Hertfordshire, Essex and the Met area, but each force has refused to take the lead because it is “cross-border”. That reaction ignores the fact that this is, quite simply, an organised crime, which is cross-county and growing.
If I may, I shall move on to the legislative aspects. For a charitable collection to take place, a licence must be applied for under the House to House Collections Act 1939 and the House to House Collections Regulations 1947. The Local Government Act 1972 transferred all licensing to the local authority, except in London. Larger charities can apply for a national exemption, but without a licence or an exemption doorstep collection is illegal. Although it is feared that as much as 50% of house-to-house charity collection is bogus, Charity Bags notes that only one in 10,000 illegal clothing collections in the UK is subject to enforcement action or prosecution by the local council.
In the Charities Act 2006, the previous Government introduced a new licensing and regulatory regime for house-to-house collections, but secondary legislation is required for it to be implemented. I was concerned to read that the Minister and the Charity Commission have publicly stated that they do not believe that to be a priority. Given the effect on public trust and the financial cost for charities, I respectfully disagree, and I suggest that anything that helps combat this organised criminal activity should be a priority. I urge the Minister to introduce secondary legislation at the earliest opportunity. A better licensing system is only one aspect of the changes required to combat the problem. Since most stolen clothing is exported, I would like to see more robust monitoring from border police and better international intelligence communication.
There needs to be tougher enforcement action against bogus collectors, from the van driver up to the mastermind operator organising the entire ring. The current level of deterrence is laughable, and bogus collectors continue to act with impunity. Consideration needs to be given to whether the bogus operators breach other important legislative and tax requirements, from employment duties through to tax evasion. Finally, the charity industry needs to work together to improve collection codes. I hope all relevant organisations will participate in the consultation on the new code of conduct recently published by the Institute of Fundraising.
First, I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate, because it is important. One concern raised with me by a constituent was about the transparency of the revenue that goes to charities. I encourage my hon. Friend to include that as part of the consultation; there is a variety of information. There is also the unscrupulous practice of certain collectors picking any charity bag—not their own—and re-bagging it. I support my hon. Friend’s actions.
My hon. Friend makes a good point. Furthermore, we could consider a register of reputable door-to-door collectors to provide the donor with easy access to trustworthy information. Transparency is extremely important to combating the problem, and we need to work with the charity industry and the legitimate private companies that operate under contract with those charities, to ensure that it exists.
I thank the hon. Lady for giving way and congratulate her on securing the debate. Sadly, we still have to discuss this issue because it remains a problem, although I and other Members have been raising it for some years.
The hon. Lady mentioned working in partnership with the charity industry, and that touches on the nub of the issue. As she said in relation to cross-border agencies, many agencies—whether trading standards or the police—do not take responsibility. Would it be possible, perhaps using the Minister’s good offices, to get the relevant agencies together to hammer out a solution, rather than having everybody saying that it is not their responsibility?
The hon. Lady should be congratulated on, and recognised for, all the hard work that she has done on this issue over the past three or four years; her debate in 2007 certainly started the process of increasing awareness. The fact remains that there is no communication across all the agencies and regulators involved. She raises a good point, which I hope the Minister will take on board.
The charity industry should consider a register of reputable door-to-door collectors to provide donors with easy access to trustworthy information. I now have a greater awareness of some of the bogus activity that takes place, and I recently received through my door leaflets that looked dubious. To be honest, however, it is difficult to find out whether collection organisations are legitimate, and giving consumers easy access to such information will greatly improve the public’s trust in collections and the amount that is donated to charity.
As a nation, we are generous donors to charity, which means that hundreds of charities benefit from millions of pounds, and that pays for many different services that the state cannot provide. Furthermore, our clothing donations help fulfil environmental and waste targets. However, of the three primary ways of donating clothes—shops, banks and bags—two are under threat from thieves. All charities that collect door to door now worry about theft. Half of all donors who no longer give clothes cite scam collectors as their reason for not doing so.
Bogus collection has grown from a small-time deception to a nationwide organised crime, costing charities millions of pounds in lost revenue. Unless the issue is taken seriously right from the top, the scam will continue. I urge the Minister to deliver more than a few warm words and instead to lead the attack so that the public can give with confidence and charities can receive the donations that they deserve.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch) for securing the debate. I want to say a few words in support of her on what is an important issue right across the country.
A company operating in my constituency and across Cornwall has been distributing and collecting charity bags for second-hand clothes. The company is called InterSecond Ltd and it has been appointed by its parent company, Azzara, which is registered in Lithuania. InterSecond could be a company or a charity—it is impossible to find out. Its bags have highly misleading logos, which could easily be confused with those of UK breast cancer charities.
Cornwall council, the licensing authority for charities’ door-to-door collections, has not given InterSecond a licence and is actively pursuing an investigation into the complaints that it has received. BBC Radio Cornwall is warning people across the county that InterSecond’s activity is bogus and that they should not make donations. Such bogus activities are not only misleading, but rob legitimate charities of much-valued income.
Will the Minister consider two actions that he could take? First, when organisations apply to the licensing authority, companies or charities based outside the UK that are beneficiaries of the collection’s proceeds should have to give evidence to the licensing authority that any claims made are true. Secondly, the licensing authority should have the ability to pre-approve the information that will be printed on the bags to make sure that it is not misleading. Clear guidance to licensing authorities would really help.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I warmly congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch) not only on securing the debate, but on presenting her arguments extremely forcefully. It is also important to register the presence of the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson), who performed a similar useful exercise back in 2007, so she represents some continuity in terms of pressing the case for continued action on this extremely emotive and difficult issue.
As my hon. Friend said so well, we clearly have a problem. We all know, even just from walking the streets of our constituencies and knocking on the doors, that the public are more and more exposed to leaflets, bags and requests for information, and that is irritating them. There has been a change in the economic incentives underlying the behaviour that my hon. Friend is concerned about. Prices for second-hand textiles and clothing are at about £700 to £900 a tonne, so there is some serious money to be made.
The Fundraising Standards Board tells me that there has been a 100% increase in complaints to it over the past year. The media and various Members of Parliament are taking an interest in the issue, which is clearly serious. However, this is not so much about the sums involved or the cash cost to charities, which outside bodies estimate at between £5 million and £15 million a year. What concerns me is the issue of public confidence in charities at exactly the time when we want to encourage more people to give. This is clearly an important issue of public confidence.
Three types of collection activity potentially damage the sector’s reputation. The first is outright fraud, which involves fake charities adopting the names of real charities for their collections, pretending to be charitable and stealing clothes that are left on doorsteps; my hon. Friends the Members for Chatham and Aylesford and for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton) identified such activities. The second area of activity involves misleading literature that gives the impression that there is a charitable beneficiary, when that is not in fact the case. The third area of concern is the actual theft of bags of clothing left out for legitimate charities to collect.
All that behaviour is absolutely reprehensible, but the question is what we can do about it, and I take on board the point that the issue has been raised over some time. A lot of activity is going on, but the question is how effective it is, and it is important to review that. There are three levers that the Government can pull: more and clearer regulation, enforcement and education. The Government’s position is that the challenge and the priority relate more to enforcement and education than to further regulation.
The regulatory base that is in place is sufficient, and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford will know, collections are regulated under the House to House Collections Act 1939 and the House to House Collections Regulations 1947. Where collections are undertaken by a commercial collector on a charity’s behalf, the necessary commercial participation agreement under part 2 of the Charities Act 1992 must be in place. As a Government who see themselves as being in the business of deregulation rather than of adding to regulation, our instinct is therefore not to reach immediately for the regulatory lever, not least because we would be concerned about imposing additional costs and burdens on those who perform their activities in a wholly legitimate way.
My hon. Friend rightly pressed me about the implementation of the Charities Act 2006. She will be aware that it is due for review next year—there is a requirement on the Government to review its workings and implementation—and I have already made an explicit commitment in public that a review of the issues before us will be an explicit part of that process.
The honest answer to my hon. Friend is that if I thought that full implementation of that measure would transform the landscape and make a huge difference, I would have carried that out some time ago. In fact, the advice that I have received is that the net impact of implementation could be marginally deregulatory, in the sense that it would effectively replace the requirement to get a local authority licence to operate in a specific area with a requirement to get certification from the Charity Commission to operate anywhere. I am not entirely persuaded that that would solve the problem, but research is being conducted and, as I have said, there will be an explicit review of the issue in the context of the review of the Charities Act 2006. My hon. Friend has that undertaking from me.
Enforcement was a central concern of my hon. Friend. We look to various players in the field to make a difference and an impression: local trading standards officers, the police and, of course, those responsible for regulating advertising standards in the context of leaflets that are arguably misleading. The debate has prompted me to review what is going on, and on the face of it I am reasonably encouraged by the level of activity and what that tells me about the underlying concern of the agencies responsible.
For example, I welcome the work that the Fundraising Standards Board is doing with the Trading Standards Institute to develop a toolkit to guide all trading standards officers through the relevant legislation and through what evidence is needed to tackle bogus charity collections and effect successful prosecutions. As my hon. Friend will know, the process in relation to detection and evidence is extremely difficult. However, there is clearly partnership work going on to develop a toolkit that will help trading standards officers in that difficult work.
I thank the Minister for what he has outlined, but I dispute whether it is difficult to detect the people in question. Quite often they clearly state where they will be, and at what time. It is misleading or misguided to think that it is difficult to catch them and find evidence. It is often very easy to catch the perpetrators in the act. I feel that sometimes it is not a question of catching them; it is a question of the process afterwards—prosecuting them. That is where the slow-down is.
I understand and accept my hon. Friend’s point. As to difficulty of detection I was thinking not so much of the person in the van as of the mastermind in the control room—the real villain of the piece. I also think that the public will play an increasingly important role in detection and evidence. For example, in my constituency we have rolled out the concept of neighbourhood and street champions, people who have value as the eyes and ears of public agencies, on a range of issues. In the present context they could play an important role in detection and evidence-gathering.
I was trying to summarise some of the welcome activity that I detect is going on among various agencies who are trying to work together to develop better practice. The Institute of Fundraising has a current consultation on its code of fundraising practice on house-to-house collections. That code will apply to all collections of money and goods made house to house, whether they are carried out by volunteers, fundraising organisations or third party agencies.
I note that the National Association of Licensing and Enforcement Officers is doing some work on developing guidance for local authority licensing officers on house-to-house collection of goods. I have looked again at what the Advertising Standards Authority is doing as the UK’s independent regulator of advertising. Again, I am satisfied that it takes the issue seriously and that its connections with the Office for Fair Trading are reasonably robust, so as to create the opportunity to act against those who mislead the public through advertising material.
The police’s sense of their local priorities clearly presents an issue, but the Office of the Third Sector, as was—it is now the Office for Civil Society—has been in regular contact with the Association of Chief Police Officers. I give my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford a personal undertaking to write again to ACPO to press the issue, and to raise the matter of cross-border co-operation that she specified.
The level of fines and the effectiveness of deterrence also needs to be considered. I understand that one of the maximum fines, for collecting without a licence, is about £1,000. There seems to be a mismatch between that and the price of a tonne of textiles, so again I shall write to the Ministry of Justice to explore its appetite for a review of the level of fines and deterrence.
To deal briefly with education, I have reviewed what has been done. My hon. Friend will know that the Office of the Third Sector was instrumental in co-ordinating the “Give with Care” campaign. It distributed about 500,000 leaflets around the country. That was relaunched in 2010. The Charity Commission has been extremely proactive, and keen to raise awareness of fraud and theft. The media, Members of Parliament and various other stakeholders have played an important part in raising the profile of the issue, notifying the public and encouraging them to report suspicious behaviour and perhaps to be more rigorous in checking the claims made on the material shoved through their letter boxes.
I acknowledge that there is a problem, and I congratulate my hon. Friend on raising it again. The more I look at the matter, the less easy it is to see an easy, quick-fit solution. The nature of the activity is in the shade and at the margin of the law. As I have tried to stress, our instinct is that the question is much more one of enforcement and education than regulation. There is a lot of activity and there are many programmes. The question has been raised—and I join in asking it—whether the activity is sufficiently robustly co-ordinated. Despite the levels of activity, there is always scope to do more and think harder about the issue. My hon. Friends the Members for Chatham and Aylesford and for Truro and Falmouth have both put some concrete, specific ideas on the table.
I want to close with an invitation to my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford: given the scale and complexity of the problem, it is time to convene a round table of those people who are actively engaged in trying to reach a solution. I will do that, and my hon. Friend is invited to participate in that event, given the leadership role that she has played, through tabling her early-day motion and obtaining the debate.
The challenge will be for the people around that table to think afresh, review what we are doing and consider whether we could take cleverer, more co-ordinated and more robust actions to get on top of the problem. There is clearly a significant risk that the problem will undermine the confidence of the British public in giving to charity, at exactly the time when we want them to give more.
Police (Public Trust)
[Hugh Bayley in the Chair]
I am grateful for the opportunity to introduce this debate. Sir Robert Peel, the founder of policing, said:
“The police are the public and the public are the police; the police being only members of the public who are paid to give full time attention to duties which are incumbent on every citizen in the interests of community welfare and existence.”
His comments were true in the 19th century and they are true today. Policing remains a noble vocation. For many serving police officers, their duties remain much more than a job or profession. At its very best, the police service still manifests the highest of public service attributes; it is public service in uniform. I pay tribute to the 11 police officers who have been killed on duty since 2002 and the 3,271 police officers who have been seriously injured over that same period, and, indeed, to officers on the front line today who are perhaps being injured in the course of their duties.
Like most Members of this House, I was brought up to respect the police, and for the most part that respect still remains, but in recent years I have become aware—not only from the mailbag and inbox from my own constituency, but from the experience of those whom I read and hear about in different parts of the country—that public trust in the police is declining. It is indisputable that a sizable minority of officers are increasingly overshadowing the dedication, courage and professionalism of the vast majority of serving police officers—officers who do the right thing, not the wrong thing. I do not in this debate set out to criticise the police, but, as a candid observer and supporter of those who do their duty, I want to raise a number of serious concerns that I have about some aspects of modern policing, which, in my humble view, unless the police address them, will continue to undermine much needed public confidence and encourage the growing lack of trust in those to whom we entrust so much.
I understand that the police need and want a good working relationship with the media. The success of broadcast programmes such as “Crimewatch” underscore such a relationship working well, and the same is true in relation to the press. The police and the media working well together—working lawfully together—can and does bring results, which are welcomed by the law-abiding public. However, what is not acceptable to the public is when serving police officers sell their stories, whether true or untrue—stories often obtained by officers in the course of their official policing duties. In such instances, disciplinary action needs to be far more severe than it is on the disappointingly rare occasions that such action occurs now. If officers breach internal disciplinary codes over relationships with the media, what other laws and rules might they be breaking? If they break the law, action should be taken.
Police officers also need to be reminded, under caution if necessary, of their legal obligations to uphold the Official Secrets Act. Police officers are not above the law; they are subject to the law and they must uphold the law. Moreover, when senior officers fail to take action against officers who fail to uphold the law, public trust ebbs away. This personal feasting on the media can bring the whole of the police service into disrepute. That lesson applies to senior officers too. They should try to avoid losing their sense of perspective in exchange for a few moments of glory in newspapers, which are decreasingly read. It would be far better for the police to stick to policing.
It is also not for senior and chief officers to decide what is and what is not in the public interest, or what they will or will not investigate. The law is set by this Parliament, by the people and for the people, not around a large and strategic coffee table. That is why the office of the Director of Public Prosecutions must avoid any hint that it is the police, rather than the Crown Prosecution Service, who ultimately decide what cases may or may not be investigated and brought before the courts. That is why I am calling today for a review of what is and what is not “in the public interest”. What does the term “in the public interest” actually mean? Who really determines what is in the public interest, using what criteria?
One of the key areas of concern for many of my constituents and, indeed, for many serving police officers I speak to is the apparent lack of discipline exercised in and by some police forces. It is not acceptable to taxpayers or to dedicated and hard-working police officers for other police officers to break the rules—sometimes consistently—many of whom are subject to no discipline or, if they are disciplined, are only very lightly disciplined. It is the view of those of my constituents with whom I have spoken about this issue that far too many bad apples remain in the police service, often with impunity. For every officer who “gets away with it”—whatever “it” might be—public trust in the police ebbs away.
Indeed, the culture of the police service offering a job for life, or for 30 years, even to officers who have a very poor disciplinary record and years of complaints against them, must end. Honest, hard-working police officers deserve better and so do the public. As one police officer put it to me recently,
“from the junior ranks to chief officer level, there needs to be a 21st century reminder that it is not a ‘warrant card’ that gives the police service its success, but public trust, public co-operation and policing by consent.”
I welcome the Government’s review into policing pay, terms of employment and conditions, but I hope that that review will also look at that important area of discipline and especially at the public demand for chief officers to approach their disciplinary responsibilities far more proactively. That will mean far more than the call to limit payouts at employment tribunals; often, it will mean enforcing warnings and disciplines at a very early stage in a police officer’s career—early intervention. A problem ignored today will often emerge as a more costly and complex problem tomorrow. Chief officers have the rank and the pay to deal with important man-management decisions, and they need to show a little more forthrightness in doing so.
Corrupt police officers should be brought before the courts, and on conviction thrown out of the force. Being dismissed from a particular force does not serve justice in the way that the public rightly expect and deserve. Furthermore, when I say “courts”, I mean local courts. It is not acceptable that officers are brought before courts in a neighbouring county to the one in which they serve. I am sure that it has nothing to do with avoiding potentially negative media and public scrutiny, but whatever the reasons or causes for the practice, it must end. There should be no special treatment for police officers.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on his very interesting speech and I agree with the thrust of quite a bit of what he has said. As a London MP, I think that the mendacity of the Metropolitan police at times in relation to some high-profile events, such as the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes and indeed even Mark Saunders very recently, is very worrying, particularly as it seems to be a mendacity that is implied at the very highest level.
My hon. Friend made a very important point early in his contribution about policing by consent. Does he have a view on that issue? Policing by consent is a very particular element of policing in this country, which makes us very different from many European countries. Does he not think that now is the time for a much more open and much broader debate about precisely how our policing should be organised? Historically, going back 160 or 170 years, it has very much been a case of policing by consent rather than policing on a European-type model, but perhaps the model of policing and the expectations of the general public are now changing.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that important intervention. I know that he has a lot of experience in this area. In response to his question, I think it is important that when the Government undertake their review, the whole issue of the relationship and building trust between the police and the public is examined. I have touched on discipline already; I will touch on some other issues shortly. I think that my hon. Friend came in just a few moments after I began the debate. I refer him to the words of Sir Robert Peel that I quoted at the outset; perhaps he can read them in Hansard. It is an important point that, of course, the police are themselves members of the public. However, on the question of policing by consent, perhaps we need to look at Bramshill, Hendon and other places where our police officers—from junior officers to senior officers—are trained. We should remind officers that they are policing by consent and that there must be a relationship with the public that does not exist through the warrant card alone but through trust and mutual respect.
As I said, there should be no special treatment for police officers. Police officers are not above the law; they are subject to the law, as we all are. Some officers forget that and as a result public trust in the police ebbs away. [Interruption.]
Order. Since there is a Division in the House, I must suspend this sitting. We are running behind time already, so I suspend the sitting for a maximum of 15 minutes, but I give fair warning to all Members that if the two Front-Bench spokesmen and the initiator of the debate, Mark Pritchard, are back before then, I will start as soon as the three of them are back in their places.
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
There should be no special treatment for police officers; they are not above the law. They are subject to it, as we all are. Some officers forget that, and when they do, public trust ebbs away.
I am not convinced that internal anti-corruption units bring the conviction rates necessary to root out police corruption. I hope that the Home Secretary and the Minister will at least consider the feasibility of establishing a national and specialist anti-corruption unit by pooling existing resources that can be called on to investigate allegations of police corruption. The process by which anti-corruption investigations are triggered should also be reviewed. It should not be left to the discretion of chief officers alone to sanction such investigations.
Similarly, action is needed on race relations. Racism within the police or any workplace is completely unacceptable, but race should not be used by a small number of ethnic minority officers as a way to march chief constables down to the bank to hand over large amounts of taxpayers’ money in order to avoid damaging headlines about police forces. I have some sympathy for the comments of Sir John Stevens, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, on employment tribunals; many more police officers should exercise more resolve in taking on police officers who do not have a genuine employment grievance.
Although the vast majority of ethnic minority police officers undertake their duties professionally, with skill and courage, some constituents of mine fear that some look to their bank accounts before seeking to get on with their duties. White British officers are guilty of abusing the employment tribunal system as well, although their claims are mostly of a different nature. Where false claims are made, officers should be sacked, not promoted. For every spurious police employment tribunal claim, public trust in the police ebbs away.
Of course, many such issues can be minimised and mitigated by the more liberal application of a much needed attribute in some police forces: leadership. I hope that the Minister will consider how leadership might be revived in the police. Surely leadership is not only to be found hanging alongside a gold-framed MBA certificate on a senior officer’s wall.
We need a much improved way to recognise and reward leadership within the police, perhaps by introducing an officer entry qualification or new fast-track promotion for outstanding individuals. For example, the skills of ex-military personnel with experience of leading men and women should be recognised more fully. Others might come from other leadership backgrounds. I fear that bed-blocking by rank, most notably at sergeant rank, threatens to hold back a generation of proven and natural leaders within the police. The police service desperately needs such leaders, and the public want them.
I also hope for a review of the number of police agencies and quangos. It appears that scores of retiring senior police officers—usually they retire quite young—never actually retire. They have little time to spend their generous pensions and large lump-sum payoffs; instead, they leave the force to re-emerge in one of many police agencies or umbrella organisations, usually on higher pay than the Prime Minister.
Bonuses for police officers should stop. A rate of pay should be agreed, and senior officers should either apply for jobs based on that stated rate or take another career path or job. Doing the right thing, doing a good job and believing in their important public service role should be reward enough.
Far too many of my constituents agree that the police, like the BBC, are one of our last great unreformed national institutions, which is concerning. If policing by consent rather than by warrant card is to be re-established, perhaps where colleagues have witnessed a retreat in recent years, I hope that the police will embrace reform rather than rejecting or repelling it.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing a debate on such an important issue. Although there are real concerns, the Kent police constabulary, for example, has a satisfaction rate of 87%, according to the Kent crime and victim survey. That clearly shows that, although there are legitimate concerns nationally, some police constabularies, such as that in Kent, are doing an excellent job.
I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s intervention. He is right to highlight good practice and good police work when he sees it and so, too, are Members across all parties. Indeed, I hope that I have highlighted such things in trying to balance my speech.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on making an intelligent and compelling argument, but are not senior police officers acting perfectly rationally in taking their lead from organisations such as the Association of Chief Police Officers, whose leadership considers it appropriate to give a running commentary on the fiscal decisions of the democratically elected Government? There is also an institutionalised lack of accountability because local police officers are essentially accountable only to the Home Office, not to elected officials or the people whom they serve at local level.
My hon. Friend brings considerable experience to bear, and he is absolutely right that senior officers in particular should stay out of politics, law making and social work and refrain from commenting on important fiscal and Treasury matters. Clearly, they have a view about their police budgets, but if far more police officers spent more time actually doing the job of policing, perhaps crime would be down even further. I agree with my hon. Friend, and he is absolutely right to raise the issue.
I hope that the police will very much embrace the reforms that the Government are introducing, rather than rejecting and repelling them. Chief officers should avoid being alarmist and offering up alarmist comments and overreaction in the debate about the public deficit. They can and will form part of the reform process, but they cannot write their own terms, for that would avoid the real and lasting reform that modern policing needs if it is to re-engage with the public and public trust is to be restored where it has been lost.
I end as I began—by paying tribute to the many police officers who undertake their job day in, day out in a professional, dedicated and often courageous manner. Such hard-working officers, of whom there are many in my own police constabulary area of West Mercia, are similarly frustrated by colleagues in the police force who lie, commit perjury, sell private details to the tabloid media and break the Official Secrets Act. Like the public, they are fed up of lazy and incompetent police officers. Such officers should—I say this as a slight aside—be subject to an annual fitness test and certainly to better leadership and discipline, as I have suggested.
Policing remains a high and noble vocation. The United Kingdom has some of the most dedicated and professional officers in the world, but unless there is a marked change in leadership and discipline, the rooting out of corruption and the sacking of incompetent officers, as well as an avoidance of the growing “them and us” approach to policing the public, whom we all serve, public trust in policing will continue to ebb away. That is not in the police’s interest or the public interest, and it is certainly not in the national interest. Let us see a revival of police discipline and leadership; we will then see a restoration of public trust in policing.
Order. Four Members are trying to catch my eye. As a result of the Divisions, the debate will end at 4.23 pm. I will call the Front Benchers to speak for the last 20 minutes, which means that we have just under 50 minutes. I hope that colleagues will bear in mind that that means that we need speeches of 10 or 12 minutes if we are to get everybody in.
It is a pleasure to speak in my first Westminster Hall debate under your chairmanship, Mr Bayley. It is also a real pleasure to follow the contribution of the hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard). I regard him not only as a friend, but as someone who thinks carefully before making his speeches. His was a very thoughtful speech, which raised several issues of concern to Members on both sides of the House. I am sure that the Minister and the shadow Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker), who was in the Minister’s position until very recently, will have taken on board many of the points made by the hon. Member for The Wrekin.
The debate is well attended, which shows the tremendous interest in the House in policing issues. The hon. Gentleman was right to end his speech by praising the work of so many police officers, but he was also right to mark up a number of issues that really need to be addressed. Our debates in the House deal largely with the great issues—the structures and the new landscape—of policing, and we sometimes forget individual cases. Such cases are often brought to the public’s attention through the media and therefore have a disproportionate influence on how people regard the police. The hon. Gentleman mentioned a number of cases.
We live in exciting times as far as policing is concerned. The Home Affairs Committee is certainly extremely busy scrutinising the Government on a number of policing issues. We have decided to conduct three inquiries into policing this year—they are rather like “The Lord of the Rings” in that they are a trilogy. The first report will deal with police commissioners, and we will rush it out by the end of October because the Bill dealing with the issue is due before the House in November. The second report will deal with the elements of the planned national crime agency, which will result in legislation next summer. The third report will relate to the comprehensive spending review, and I fear that a number of the issues that we raise today will have to be seen in the light of what the Government decide to do about the policing budget.
I want to raise a number of issues that I think will be of use to the House. As constituency MPs, we all have examples of dealings with local people who are concerned about the police, although none of us, except the hon. Member for Edinburgh West (Mike Crockart), has actually served in a police force.
One of the easiest things for the police to look at, which actually costs no money at all, is how they deal with the public. Good customer service is essential to ensuring that we have policing by consent and it means that when people send letters to chief officers or local commanders, they get a reply very speedily. One of the points made to the Committee in its short inquiry into the Independent Police Complaints Commission earlier this year—in fact, it was in our recommendations—was that if police at the local level dealt more efficiently and effectively with concerns raised by the public, the need for complaints would diminish.
The first aspect that I want to raise is therefore very much in the hands of the police, and what happens depends very much on the personality and character of the chief constable; if the chief constable wants to make sure that something works, it will work. I had a useful meeting last Friday with the new chief constable in my area, Simon Cole. I raised my concern that when I write to the police on behalf of constituents who come to my surgery on a Friday, I do not get a reply for weeks or even months. All that those constituents want to know is what is happening about their cases. If they know, they will be satisfied. They might not be satisfied with the outcome, but they will at least know what is going on.
Providing good customer service and responding to concerns are therefore important. The Fiona Pilkington case occurred in Leicestershire. As hon. Members know, Ms Pilkington made 33 complaints to the local police force before she drove off and set her car on fire. That is an example of what happens when people do not get a response. I hope that everyone learns the lessons of what happens when the police do not respond; I know that Leicestershire police have. If forces get their house in order and provide the right service, that will be very helpful.
The second issue is visibility. I do not know whether the Minister knows how much his budget will be next year or whether he has just received a text from the Chancellor asking him to go to No. 11 to discuss it, but I am sure that his budget will be cut. If it is cut, to the levels that he and I think possible, that will have a huge impact on some of the issues raised by the hon. Member for The Wrekin. The police cannot perform the functions that the public expect them to unless they have the budgets to enable them to do so.
I accept that absolutely; it is one of the common-sense issues that could be dealt with quickly. If someone needs to be disciplined they should be disciplined. There is a defensiveness to the public sector. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman has encountered cases against the local health authority in his constituency, as well. When we write in because someone is concerned about their treatment, there is always denial—all the way to the doors of the High Court. Some of the issues can be dealt with by providing proper leadership.
That leads me to my third point, which is about the new landscape of policing. The Minister has a great opportunity, in deciding what will go into the national crime agency, to deal with issues of leadership. Leadership is not being provided at the moment. We took evidence yesterday from the deputy Mayor of London—the kind of no-nonsense politician one wants in charge of a police force. With people such as Mr Malthouse around, one wonders whether there is a need for elected commissioners; there is always someone like him in every local authority.
I hope very much that the Government will pause and think before they shove everything into the national crime agency. The National Policing Improvement Agency is supposed to go in there, with all its police improvement functions, and so is the Serious Organised Crime Agency. The Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre is going in there, and the databases will too.
I know that it is hoped that we shall save money—and we all want to get value for money from the police service—but there may be an opportunity in the few months that remain to deal with the issue of police leadership. There will be arguments on either side about whether that should go to ACPO, about which some hon. Members have concerns. I think that it is an organisation that can be developed to take over Bramshill and provide the necessary leadership.
However, to get the police constables of the future, who will be responsive to the needs of the public, it is necessary to start at a much lower level. The career development that is so vital, especially in policing, should be conducted by an agency that is not the national crime agency. All the good work that is being done by the NPIA should go somewhere else, although I do not have a fixed view on where. The Select Committee will consider the matter, but that work is not suitable for the NCA.
The hon. Member for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti), who spoke briefly and had to attend to other duties in the House, mentioned the Kent constabulary and the good practice there. I saw good practice when I went to Staffordshire a year and a half ago. The former Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling, knows that I am going to raise this issue, which concerns the forms that Staffordshire police were filling in. They had reduced them from 24 to one.
I wrote to Jacqui Smith and said, “This is brilliant; can you please write to all the chief constables and make sure that it is rolled out throughout the country?” It took months and months before it happened. The Select Committee has its own website—I do not know whether the Minister has seen it—which notes good practice by police forces. One of the examples is what is happening in Kent. Guarding against bad practice, which is what the hon. Member for The Wrekin was discussing, is a good way to ensure that good practice happens. Perhaps it happens through guidance from the police Minister, or perhaps it happens when the dos and don’ts are shoved on to the Home Office website.
There is an example of good practice in Northern Ireland, where the Police Service of Northern Ireland has made clear progress over the years. Part of core policy for the PSNI is the interaction of community officers with the general public. They get to know each other and a relationship builds up. Also, for many, there are vocational callings. Some people who are community officers have that vocation in life. That is what they are called to do, and their qualities can be seen coming through in policing.
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that there are many lessons that can be learned from the progress made by the PSNI in Northern Ireland and the way in which it is developing its relationship with the general public?
Yes, there are, and the Select Committee members look forward at some stage in the future to coming to Northern Ireland to see what has happened. The developments have been amazing, and the appointment to the PSNI of Matt Baggott, the former chief constable of Leicestershire, is very welcome. We look forward to visiting him there.
On 22 November, the Select Committee will hold a seminar in Cannock Chase. I have written to the Minister to ask him to speak at that seminar, which will deal with all the issues that I have outlined. It is only 41 minutes away from the Wrekin, so I hope that the hon. Member for The Wrekin will attend. The purpose is outside the context of Westminster, where we can get very political about policing issues. Members on both sides of the House and people on neither side—because we hope that there will also be many police officers and members of police committees there—will discuss the new landscape that is proposed.
I am not one of those who feel that the Government have gone too fast on policing. They are right to have set out a strong agenda for change, but I urge them to heed the views of others who may have an input to make into the matter. I know that the Minister respects the work of the Select Committee because he poached one of our best and newest members—the hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Mary Macleod)—as his new PPS.
The Minister will not agree with everything that we say, but given what the hon. Member for The Wrekin has said and what others will say, let us not rush ahead on some of the issues. Of course principles are important, but we are dealing with a new landscape. Let us make one that is above party politics and based on consensus, and that will last for at least a generation.
I want to extend this interesting debate to consider what we mean by trust. We have discussed the attitude of the public to some of the leaders in the police, but equally important is the public’s trust in the bobby on the beat, and we have not touched on that. I am also concerned to retain a balance in the debate between the bad and good apples in the barrel. The good apples have not had a fair hearing, or been congratulated on what they do.
I am extraordinarily lucky because my constituency is in beautiful Devon and Cornwall and our record on policing is extremely good. In 2009-10 we cut the crime rate by 10%; we have reduced vehicle theft by 27% and overall we reduced antisocial behaviour. I am pleased to say that we are perceived to be the fourth safest policing area in England and Wales, and 63% believe that we are doing a good job, but there is a “but”: despite that record the fear of crime is disproportionately high. That brings me back to the bobby on the beat. Independent research has shown that bobbies on the beat are a key factor in deterring people from committing crime and in making people feel safe. In Devon, we have put 200 more policemen on the front line. We have very active police and “communities together” meetings—most recently, we have met in supermarkets, which makes us extremely accessible; that is where we should be. I certainly welcome the Government’s reintroduction of special constables.
Despite what the figures seem to show, however, we have found that, in relation to trust and confidence, the figures fly in the face of all we have been doing. In 2008, 53.2% of people across Devon and Cornwall said that we were doing a good job, and trust and confidence were high, measured by our approach to dealing with antisocial behaviour. That put us second out of 43 police forces across the country, and compared very well with the average of 46% satisfaction. However, in 2009, we plummeted to 35th out of 43, with the satisfaction rate on dealing with antisocial behaviour down to 46.9%. The question for me and my police team was why?
The challenge—the key issue I would like the Minister to address—is how we should measure trust in the police force. It seems rather bizarre that we have a record of crime and antisocial behaviour being cut in Devon and yet, according to the measurements, trust and confidence in the police is going down. That cannot be right. I urge the Minister to consider how, as a Government, we can introduce appropriate measures that are workable and meaningful to the public. I suggest that we start to consider things other than antisocial behaviour, because I think that a much wider remit concerns the public.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bayley. I thank you for helping the four of us who want to speak work out an equitable distribution of time in the debate.
Like my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz), I consider the hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) a friend in the House. He is tenacious, he never fears to speak out and, on this occasion, I consider nearly everything he said to be utterly wrong. I have to say to him that I thought his contribution was intellectually disingenuous—probably the most intellectually disingenuous contribution I have heard since I became an MP. He made sweeping statements, very few of which were backed up by any empirical evidence. I consider it the duty of the Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice to distance himself very strongly from those statements, unless he has seen the evidence that backs up those claims.
No, I will not be doing that. I have limited time and my real reason for being here today is to talk about the Metropolitan police and their conduct of the inquiry into phone hacking by the News of the World.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East, the Chairman of the Select Committee on Home Affairs, mentioned that it would be nice if chief officers replied to MPs’ letters. Given the national interest in the issue, I would like to gently chastise the Metropolitan police for their failure to respond to what I thought was quite an important letter that I sent to Sir Paul Stephenson on 3 September. In the letter, I asked whether every person whose phone was listed in the Glenn Mulcaire evidence file was informed that they were a target of hacking; and, if they were not informed, who decided, according to what criteria and on what authority, which names were to be investigated and which were to be ignored?
When it became public that a Metropolitan police officer, Michael Fuller, was also on Glenn Mulcaire’s list, I was extremely concerned that Met police officers themselves did not know that they might have been the target of phone hacking. I therefore asked Sir Paul Stephenson if he would confirm how many Metropolitan police officers were on the Mulcaire files. He has not responded.
I would like to make my point first. I will take the hon. Gentleman’s intervention at the end of my speech.
I also asked why people on the Mulcaire list were not informed and how many people were on the list of the Mulcaire evidence file, because that is still not in the public domain. Many Members of Parliament were on the Mulcaire lists. We still do not know how many and I do not know if all the Members of Parliament on that list have yet been informed. I asked Sir Paul Stephenson to answer that and to confirm who decided which Members of Parliament should be notified, according to what criteria, and on whose authority. He has not responded. I also asked Sir Paul Stephenson to confirm which victims were selected to be notified and on what criteria. There are a lot of unanswered questions in relation to the Metropolitan police inquiry.
On a point of order, Mr Bayley. Given that we learned today that the Metropolitan police have specifically, in relation to the case raised by the hon. Member for West Bromwich East (Mr Watson), sought evidence from The Guardian newspaper, I seek your guidance on the issue of sub judice. I do not want to fetter the hon. Gentleman’s discretion to raise these issues, but I am concerned that he may be transgressing the rules of the House on sub judice in relation to that ongoing police investigation.
Thank you, Mr Bayley. I would not dream of attempting to transgress the rules of the House on sub judice. I simply seek to get the facts, and not enough of the facts are in the public domain.
The Minister has it in his power to cast light on this sorry tale. He could review the Metropolitan police advice to the Director of Public Prosecutions, and thus be confident in his own mind about whether the DPP was given all the evidence required to bring appropriate cases. If the Minister wanted to, he could ask an external police service to investigate the conduct of the inquiry by the Metropolitan police. I would like him to acknowledge whether that is an option he is considering taking. He could, if he wanted to, talk to the Prime Minister about the potential for a judicial inquiry into the conduct of this case.
Members of Parliament, senior police officers, senior members of the military, the heir to the throne and leading celebrities have been the target of criminal activity on an industrial scale by News International journalists, and that has not been adequately investigated. So in today’s debate on trust in the police, I would like to say that I have absolute confidence in the police’s ability to get to the truth.
The hon. Gentleman is being as gracious as ever and I am grateful to him for giving way. The right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) rightly said that he did not want to play “party politics” with this debate. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is not attempting to do that, but I fear he is perhaps straying into party politics. I think he is at his very best when he is representing the interests of his constituents in West Bromwich—where, if he looks at the latest statistics, he will see that burglary has increased—who are concerned about and have a real fear of crime, rather than trying to make wild accusations and party political points on a very narrow matter. Let us stick to the debate on the important topic of public trust in the police that is important to his constituents and, indeed, throughout the country.
I do not believe that that was a question; it was a statement. I cannot recall one word of any of my sentences that was of a party political nature. I seek to get to the facts after a unanimous inquiry conducted by my own Select Committee—the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport—and the establishment of two further inquiries agreed by both Front Benches in Parliament.
To sum up, will the Minister let me know whether he sees merit in an investigation into the conduct of the Metropolitan police inquiry into phone hacking?
I congratulate the hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) on securing what has turned into a wide-ranging debate on an important subject: public trust in police forces, a subject that is quite distinct from the effectiveness of police forces. Some of the points that he made are very pertinent. It is clear that there are serious problems in the organisation of police forces: for example, the block on good officers developing and being promoted, especially to sergeant, that first hurdle of promotion. The 30-year limit on the service of police officers and the cost of the generous pension system are also issues. However, we must be careful not to damage the way policing works when we discuss whether that is effective or not. We need young, fit and able officers, but we also need the huge experience of older and perhaps less fit officers, who can often defuse situations, negating the need for a chase in the first place.
I want to concentrate on some of the factors that I feel have contributed to the decline in public trust in the police service over recent decades. The central question to which we inevitably return when discussing policing, and with which I have wrestled for 20 years since starting as a serving police officer, is: what are the police for? I must admit that 20 years ago I held a narrow view of police functions, having had the relevant sections of the Police (Scotland) Act 1967 drilled into me. Much of that Act deals specifically with crime and its prevention, but it contains nothing about increasing public trust in the police. It was my firm belief then that it was the role of politicians, not the police, to deal with the fear of crime.
However, it should not come as too much of a surprise that, now that I am a politician, my view has changed substantially, although my experiences over the past 20 years have fed that change of mind. Back then I served as a beat officer, focusing entirely on crime, and community officers dealt in the main with building links with local communities, schools and businesses. When officers were needed to police demonstrations or football matches, it was generally those community officers whose duties were changed, not mine, which reflected the absolute focus on crime.
That has continued over the past 20 years, unfortunately aided and abetted by the previous Government’s top-down focus. For the 13 years Labour was in government, it continually undermined local police forces by creating central crime targets dictated from Whitehall. That means that the Home Office now judges a police force on how many crimes it detects and clears up. That measurement is the opposite of what I think we should be looking for from local police services.
The public do not necessarily want the police to be good only at solving crimes after they have been committed; they also want them to be good at preventing them. When I started serving, it was considered to be a good night when a PC came back from the beat and no crime had been committed and no victims had suffered loss or injury. With Whitehall targets, it is now considered to be better for a PC to have spent an entire eight-hour shift dealing with arrests, regardless of the nature of the offence. That culture of central target setting has put pressure on officers to behave in ways in which they might not otherwise choose to act, focusing on otherwise minor offences in order to reach targets and criminalising many groups that have traditionally been supporters of the police. That is not new. I remember being taken as a probationary constable to a local shopping centre in Edinburgh to be shown by my sergeant how easy it was to catch people as they left the car park without having put their seatbelts on. Remote target setting has many such unintended consequences.
New responsibilities have been placed on police forces, such as the recently scrapped policing pledge and confidence targets. More than 4,600 new criminal offences have been created since 1997—more than 28 a month. All that massively increases bureaucracy and overloads police officers with paperwork, removing them from the streets where the public time and again say they want to see them. Surveys continue to show that many people’s top priority for policing is to see more bobbies on the beat.
Those new responsibilities also serve to promote the indiscriminate targeting of groups, using methods that are unacceptable to the public but which police forces may feel they can justify through the potential rewards of producing statistics that show how they are dealing with a particular Government priority. A recent example saw residents in Birmingham’s Sparkbrook and Washwood Heath neighbourhoods told that hundreds of CCTV cameras and automatic number plate-reading cameras were being installed to monitor speeding vehicles and antisocial behaviour among youths. Just days before the cameras were turned on, however, an investigative reporter found that those cameras were to be used by the Home Office and MI5 to monitor people entering and leaving those predominantly Muslim areas.
A follow-up report by the Thames Valley police commissioner gave a damning assessment showing that officers failed to comply with national CCTV regulations or to conduct proper consultation. They did not obtain statutory clearance for the use of covert cameras and there was little evidence that officers had even considered their legal obligations. Furthermore, attempts by the police to conceal the true purpose of the project caused significant damage to community relations, with one community leader reporting that relations had fallen back by at least a decade.
With all due respect, it is easy with hindsight to criticise West Midlands police for that operation, but we do not know, and never will, what potential terrorist or criminal outrage that surveillance may have prevented. It is slightly unfair of my hon. Friend to take that case in isolation, because it is the duty of all police forces to remain utterly vigilant in an age of international and national terrorism.
I thank my hon. Friend for his point, but that is the defence that is used when none other can be found: “We know things that you don’t.” In fact, what is being said is: “We may know things that you don’t.” That justifies any means by which communities are policed, which simply is not acceptable. Clear guidelines have been laid down for looking into those offences. We are having a major review of much of the terrorist legislation that is being used for such measures. I hope that we reach a position where we can deal effectively with such concerns and potential problems without using the types of behaviour that have damaged public trust in that police service.
Another example, highlighted this week in The Guardian, demonstrates the far more serious flipside of the racial problem outlined by the hon. Member for The Wrekin in relation to policing and justice more generally. It showed that, per capita, seven times as many black Britons were incarcerated than white Britons, which is an even higher ratio than in the United States, where four times as many black people are in prison than white people. Those data, which come from the recently published Equality and Human Rights Commission report on fairness in Britain, show just how much of an effect decades of racial prejudice in the criminal justice system have had on the black community. Another figure that is particularly striking, and that again goes to the heart of the targets culture, shows that black Britons constituted 15% of the stop and searches in Britain in 2008, despite making up only 3% of the population.
All the factors that I have outlined contributed to public confidence reaching new lows. In response to that, Labour again reverted to type, refusing to acknowledge that central meddling was the culprit, and tried to deal with the problem through targets, setting a target for improving confidence in forces’ local crime and disorder-fighting strategies by a minimum of 12%. It also set a national confidence target, to be measured by annual surveys.
What is the answer? How do we reconnect the police with the public they serve? There must be a wholesale revision of the interaction between the police and the public. The coalition’s plans to bring in locally elected police commissioners is certainly a step in the right direction, and there is certainly something to be said for increasing the local accountability of police forces. If communities are involved, they will be able to have more input into the priorities of local police forces, which will go a long way towards restoring trust in the force.
As it stands, the position is that operational independence must be maintained, and I would argue that it must be sacrosanct. To a large extent, operational decisions have to be made quickly, but that may not be possible under new structures. The amount of information that is needed to make such decisions is immediately available to senior police officers, and they are absolutely the right people to make those decisions.
I have some concerns about the detail of the scheme. I feel that it is probably not local enough, so I hope, as we have urged in our submission to the Home Office, that the plans will be trialled to ensure their effectiveness. It is clear that accountability for policing priorities and dialogue between the consumers of policing and the providers of it need to happen at a much lower level, and in a much more regular and inclusive way. Only by doing that will we restore a degree of public trust in the police and, in so doing, re-establish the principle of policing by consent. That will ultimately answer my original question, what are the police for? This is about working with and in communities to improve people’s lives.
It is good to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bayley. As in the film, I am back to the future in coming back to a role that I had 15 months ago. It is good to see my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz), Chair of the Home Affairs Committee, still in his place. He made his contribution in the thoughtful way in which he normally tries to take forward debates. Many of us will be in Cannock Chase to contribute to the seminar that he has arranged. Some interesting points have been made, and I would like to deal with some of them before the Minister responds.
The hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) made some important points and discussed important challenges for the police. The concern that my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich East (Mr Watson), I and one or two others have is that, despite the hon. Member for The Wrekin’s making a caveat at the beginning and end of his remarks, about individual cases and about casting aspersions on the whole police service, some of the high-profile cases and incidents to which he referred do just that.
The hon. Member for Newton Abbot (Anne Marie Morris) asked why fear of crime goes up when crime is actually falling. I shall refer to that further in a minute. If a particular problem or scandal is splashed all over the newspapers every day—such things should be publicised, of course; I am not saying that they should not—that is what happens.
I was the police Minister when we had the horrific spike in knife and gun crime. Unfortunately, I understand from the figures that there is some suggestion that it is happening again this year. One would go to areas of the country where there had not been a stabbing for years, yet people were frightened of being stabbed.
The language and tone of any debate about trust and confidence in the police are fundamental; that was the problem to which my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich East referred. He raised several serious issues. No one would condone corruption, brutality or police officers thinking that they are above the law. That is why my hon. Friend gets so cross about the phone hacking, and why he wants answers and a proper discussion of the matter. At the end of the day, it is knowledge that enables public trust.
The House of Commons Library pack to inform this debate on public trust in police forces is excellent. It highlights several unacceptable things that have happened and which have seriously undermined confidence and trust in various areas. However, if we let those become the narrative and the story for the whole of the police, we will have a real problem.
I have the Home Office’s crime statistics from July, which were published by the Minister. He needs to answer this question, because it goes to the heart of the matter. One of the reasons why people do not believe the crime statistics is that politicians often play around with them and pick out bits that prove their points. If they do that, why should people believe the statistics?
According to the British crime survey, crime has reduced by one half since 1995. Does the Minister agree with that? The report states:
“The most striking new finding within this report is that both the 2009/10 BCS and police recorded crime are consistent in showing falls in overall crime compared with 2008/09. Overall BCS crime decreased by nine per cent…and police recorded crime by eight per cent”.
Does the Minister agree with that?
Does the Minister agree that the same report shows that the fear of crime is going up, despite those figures? That is exactly the point that the hon. Member for Newton Abbot made. I am trying not to be party political, but, to be honest, when the new Government saw the figures, they took the bit that was not such good news and headlined it, rather than going for a big banner headline that crime fell by one half since 1995 and that recorded crime and BCS crime were down by 9%. Is not that one of the things that we should be doing, instead of tucking it away in a little press release? That is part of the problem.
We have to use the figures and what the crime statistics tell us. The UK Statistics Authority said that the crime statistics are reliable and that therefore we should use them more than we do.
I dispute some of the hon. Gentleman’s suppositions and comments, but if he accepts that the current statistics are complex and confusing, and that there is a variety of ways to collect data on a range of things that the police deal with, why did he not make changes when he was the police Minister?
The point I am making is not so much that the statistics are confusing but that people pick out bits from them to prove their point. The overall crime statistics reflected in both the BCS and recorded crime figures show significant falls in crime. What should we do, if we want to ensure people’s trust and confidence in the police? What confidence can one have in the police?
At a recent conference, the Home Secretary said that the biggest factor was whether crime is falling in police force areas. She said that that is the measure that we should use to give the public confidence and trust in their police force, and to know whether police forces are being effective.
The hon. Member for Newton Abbot spoke about crime falling in her area. That has to be the banner headline. If we try to undermine the statistics all the time, it is no wonder that people’s fear of crime rises.
In discussing how we keep confidence and trust, my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East said that some aspects are not hugely difficult. What seems to be difficult is for it to happen in every community in the country consistently and persistently. The things that drive confidence and trust are neighbourhood policing and a visible police presence, as the hon. Member for Edinburgh West (Mike Crockart) said. There will be a debate about whether that has happened or not, but we need neighbourhood policing, visible policing and police being around and responding properly when phone calls are made about antisocial behaviour by a few kids on the street.
We are all constituency MPs. How many people come to us about terrorist incidents? Not many. How many come to us because they phoned up about what may seem a trivial incident but, to the member of the public, is fundamental? If that is responded to, even though it may seem trivial, confidence and trust in the police go up. People are not stupid. They know that sometimes things are difficult to deal with, but they expect that if they are worried about a kid who keeps banging on their door, somebody will say, “Yes, it should not happen. We are very sorry.” In the best cases—in an increasing number of cases—the police are recognising that and responding in the way that we would all want.
The hon. Member for Edinburgh West discussed the targets set by central Government, which he felt were unhelpful to policing. However, as I mentioned in my speech, during the previous Administration I found that central Government were able to pass on good practice. From his experience, does my hon. Friend believe that it could have been done better? There needs to be a better understanding of the fact that the Home Office has a role in ensuring that good practice in one part of the country is occurring elsewhere. If it does not have such a role, who does?
I was coming to the point about good practice. My right hon. Friend is right. The Home Office does have a role, as do the police, police authorities and others, in disseminating good practice and good information. We have talked before about good community engagement, good communication, informing people about what is going on and having meetings. All those things are fundamentally important, as is answering letters, and so on.
The Home Office has a responsibility for disseminating information, whether through websites or in other ways. I am interested in whether the Minister believes that that is so and whether he will deal with some of the issues that right hon. and hon. Members have raised this afternoon, notwithstanding his not agreeing with certain cultures and targets. What role does he think the Home Office has to play in driving up confidence and helping restore trust?
Briefly, on trust and confidence, my experience is that the Minister has responsibility both for police and criminal justice. In respect of confidence and trust in the police, the issue is not only about what the police do, but what other bodies, including local authorities and local councils, do. What those bodies do drives trust as well. For example, the clearing up of graffiti and things like that makes a difference.
How the police interact with the criminal justice system is fundamental. There is a big issue here. Sometimes the police get blamed for the criminal justice system not working effectively with respect to the police. We need to get better in respect of one thing in particular. One of the biggest confidence and trust builders is for local people to know that somebody who is causing real problems in their area, and is arrested by the police and taken to court, has been dealt with by the courts and taken through the criminal justice process.
I should be interested in hearing what the Minister expects from the spending review. Other hon. Members have mentioned what will happen with respect to the coming cuts. We have all talked about visible policing and the importance of officers on the beat. How on earth are we going to maintain police numbers and the current numbers of police community support officers? How are we going to cut bureaucracy if police staff are going to go? What will happen to the number of police stations? What will happen to police station opening hours? What will happen to confidence and trust in an environment where all that is happening?
We are talking about trust and confidence in the police. Part of the modernisation of the police has been the establishment of a number of specialist units, which some people regard as a waste but I think are fundamental. Domestic violence would not have been tackled to the extent that it has were it not for the training and development of specialist domestic violence units in many police force areas.
The same is true of sexual violence. Victims of sexual violence want to know that a specialist officer is dealing with the case. What is happening to child protection? All those things are fundamental. If we want confidence and trust, it is all very well to say that that should be mainstreamed into police business and into their main work, but often when that happens there is a loss of focus with regard to such matters.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East mentioned the new national crime agency, which is supposed to take in the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre and the National Policing Improvement Agency. I thought that the national crime agency was to be an operational crime-fighting body. The NPIA deals with training, the police national computer and so on. Why would something like that be put into the NCA? If people are to have confidence in the NCA, they want to see a crime-fighting body, not one that encapsulates some of the necessary functions of the NPIA.
Finally, on accountability, the hon. Member for Edinburgh West mentioned elected police commissioners, said that he went along with that proposal and then slightly qualified what he said. My right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East asked whether those commissioners would have operational independence. We oppose the creation of elected police commissioners. First, will the Minister clarify whether the Government’s policy is still, as it was when they were in opposition, to have the power of recall so that another election, to get somebody acceptable, can be held if somebody unsatisfactory is elected as a police commissioner?
Secondly, if the police are still operationally independent, which they should be, of course, what can an elected police commissioner do if he does not agree with what the chief constable does? If the chief constable operates ineffectively, either the commissioner can do something about it or he cannot. How can the elected police commissioner be held accountable if the chief constable is operationally independent—something over which the commissioner has no influence? What will the role of the elected police commissioner be with respect to a chief constable, if the former sees the latter acting unsatisfactorily?
I shall finish where I started, by congratulating the hon. Member for The Wrekin on prompting the debate. He raised some real issues, as did other hon. Members. I say to all police officers out there that the vast majority do a good job in difficult circumstances and they have the full support of every Member of Parliament, notwithstanding some of the difficult incidents that we hear, see and read about. We know that there are bad officers, but we also know that they are not a reflection on the police force as a whole.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) on securing this debate, on putting his case with his customary clarity and forcefulness and on initiating a debate, to which many right hon. and hon. Members have enjoyed contributing, on a matter that is close to our hearts —the performance of our local police forces and their ability to deal with crime, which is still of great concern throughout the country.
First, I should like to pick up on the last point made by the hon. Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) and, in doing so, congratulate him on his new position as shadow Police Minister, which is particularly interesting for him as former Police Minister. He will bring an alarming amount of experience and knowledge to bear and will, I am sure, hold the Government to account through a challenging period for policing. I look forward to working with him as constructively as we can in the weeks and months ahead. I shall return to that subject when talking about crime statistics.
The hon. Gentleman recognises that the overwhelming majority of police officers could not be characterised in any way by some of the things that have been said during this debate. I echo that. I am conscious that, in the past few weeks and months, we have talked about police reform, the challenging spending environment and about the decisions ahead that need to be taken, and that we can lose sight of the fact that, every day, police officers throughout the country work hard to keep all of us safe. The overwhelming majority of them act with impartiality and integrity. Sometimes sufficient tribute is not paid to the work that they do. I should like formally to thank them.
Those of us who recently attended the national police memorial day service in Belfast or the police bravery awards and spoke to the relatives of police officers who lost their lives doing their duty in the past year, including PC Bill Barker, who was swept away when attempting to help people on a bridge in Cumbria during the floods, could not have failed to be anything but struck by the heroism and professionalism of the police and be reminded of the job that they do for us. In the course of this debate about police legitimacy, conduct and accountability, how they respond to us, and their links with the public, we should remember all those officers and what they do. We should recognise that this is a period of uncertainty for people who work in our public services, including police officers, and we should be sensitive to that.
Although I disagree with some of my hon. Friend’s sharper points, the issue, which is essentially trust and legitimacy, is a proper one to raise. He referred to Sir Robert Peel, the founder of modern policing, and quoted his famous seventh principle of policing that
“the police are the public and the public are the police”.
My hon. Friend might have quoted Sir Robert’s second principle:
“The ability of the police to perform their duties is dependent upon public approval of police actions.”
In this country, we have a tradition that policing is not only carried out by consent, but that it flows from the fact that the police are of their communities and have the active support of the public. When that support has ebbed away in specific circumstances, policing has gone wrong. We saw that in the past in the way in which the police interacted with black and ethnic minority communities. When confidence in policing goes, legitimacy also goes. Our leaders in the police service are acutely aware of that important link between confidence and legitimacy.
It may help hon. Members if I add a few metrics to the debate to provide an understanding of the extent to which the public have confidence in the police. The last British crime survey found that overall public confidence in their local police was 69%. That may seem to be high, and is certainly much higher than public confidence in, for example, our profession as Members of Parliament and the media; nevertheless, 30% of respondents said that they did not have confidence in their local police overall. Other figures should make us pause: for example, 50% agreed that the police could be relied on to be present when they were needed, and less than half—48%—agreed that the police could be relied on to deal with minor crimes.
I welcome the fact that the same survey showed that the proportion of people who believe that the police in their area are doing a good or excellent job rose from 49% in 2004-05 to 56% in 2009-10. A majority of the public believe that the police in their area are doing a good or excellent job, but a significant minority do not. On public confidence in the police and local councils, there is a problem with questions that link the actions of both. It is difficult to disaggregate responsibility when they deal with crime and antisocial behaviour issues that matter locally, but only around half of respondents to the survey had confidence in the police and local councils together.
That suggests a number of issues on which we should pause to reflect in the relationship of the police with the public. First, hon. Members have mentioned specific incidents that gave rise to public concern. In every case, there were proper investigations by the authorities and the Independent Police Complaints Commission, but they left an impression—
I am happy to give way to the hon. Gentleman, but I will respond to his points.
There is a danger, as the hon. Member for Gedling said, that such incidents create a damaging impression of policing as a whole. The problem is accountability. We live in the age of accountability, and people expect institutions and individuals who hold office to be properly and transparently answerable to them. That is right. We must have a system for complaints and the public must be able to take up issues if they believe that police performance has fallen down. We must have an overall system of answerability that commands public confidence and strengthens the links between the police and the public.
The thrust of our proposed reforms is to rebuild the bridge between the police and the public, and in particular to recognise that police forces sprang from local communities. We have never had a national police force in this country. Police legitimacy essentially flows from consent in those communities, and we want to loosen the central grip on policing that my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh West (Mike Crockart) described and, in exchange, strengthen forces’ local accountability.
The Minister refers to accountability. Does he accept that there is concern among the public, the rank and file in the police and certainly among senior and chief officers that it is difficult to sack police officers who are not doing their job correctly? Will he respond to my earlier comments and say that he will consider the matter, whether it will be part of the review, and whether we can get rid of some of the police officers who are doing such damage to the reputation of the police service?
I apologise to my hon. Friend, I will certainly respond to the specific points that he raised, but the review into police pay and conditions, which will be led by the former rail regulator, Tom Winsor, has a free rein to consider all such matters, and the way in which police officers are employed should certainly be one. People are free to offer their views to Tom Winsor and his fellow reviewers. That is reasonable, particularly given the scale of the fiscal and other challenges facing the police and their leaders
I turn to the reforms and the specific points made by the Chairman of the Select Committee on Home Affairs. A key element of our reforms is that police and crime commissioners should be directly elected, thus strengthening the bond between people and the police, and allowing local forces to be held to account. We also intend to introduce transparency. The public should know more about what is happening with crime in their area, and they should know how money is spent by police forces. That principle of transparency should apply throughout the criminal justice system, and from January 2011 we will introduce crime mapping at street level to provide the public with more information about what is happening in their area.
On crime statistics, I agree that we need a non-partisan debate. It is important to build public confidence in statistics, and the political trade about them has been unfortunate. Local crime mapping will give the public unimpeachable information that is directly relevant. I am afraid that national crime statistics are becoming less and less relevant because they are not believed. We have two measures of crime, but the recorded crime figures are susceptible to alteration and the way the figures are collected has been changed, and the British crime survey misses out large sections of crime.
I would like to return the challenge. I am relatively new to my position, and the hon. Member for Gedling is relatively new to his. If he would like a sensible discussion about how we can collect crime figures, so that in future months we do not have a dispute about the figures but talk instead about policy and what lies behind those figures, my door is open. That would be a sensible thing to do.
I note the intervention from the Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee. That is a genuine offer; this is the moment to make such a move.
My hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin talked about leadership, and I strongly agree with him about the value of leadership in policing. We have asked the former chief constable of Thames Valley police and chief executive of the National Policing Improvement Agency, Peter Neyroud, to conduct a study into how we can ensure the right leadership and training in the police. In the end, however, that must rest with the police themselves. Part of the reforms that we wish to introduce concerns the reform of the Association of Chief Police Officers to ensure that it takes responsibility for such matters in an accountable manner.
My hon. Friend also called for a review of agencies and quangos, and he will be hearing a great deal more about that in due course. We have proposed a decluttering of the landscape surrounding policing by winding up the National Policing Improvement Agency and taking those functions to a new national crime agency.
On the point raised by the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz), I will of course pay attention to all issues and concerns that are raised by people about the whole spectrum of reforms to policing. As he will know, I have been attending to those issues, and I have taken care to pay attention to the views of stakeholders, police organisations and so on.
I apologise to the hon. Gentleman; I am running out of time. He has raised such matters before. It was and remains a matter for the police, who have made it clear that they will consider fresh information if it emerges. That is precisely what they are doing, and it is right to await their conclusion. Those matters have been debated in the House and are now subject to investigations by two Select Committees. The right way forward is to await the outcome of those latest inquiries.
In conclusion, I believe that the debate about how we structure our police in the future is important. The Government reforms are intended to ensure that we have a strong connection between the police and the public.
Onshore Wind Turbines
I hope that there will be a number of interventions from colleagues, so I do not intend to fill my 15 minutes; other hon. Members might want to speak. I believe that the Government urgently need to reassess their views about the production of onshore wind power.
Order. Before the hon. Gentleman gets into his stride, I should say that the rules governing 30-minute debates allow for interventions on the hon. Gentleman, or the Minister when he replies, but I have not been notified of an agreement between the hon. Gentleman and the Minister for others to speak. Therefore, if colleagues plan to open their mouths during this debate, it will have to be in the form of an intervention. I hope that that is helpful, and I apologise to the hon. Gentleman for interrupting his speech.
Thank you for clarifying that for me, Mr Bayley. This is my first Adjournment debate and I had no idea what the rules were. Over the next few minutes I will try to explain why I think that the Government need to change their position on onshore wind—I will obviously speak for slightly longer than the eight or nine minutes on which I was planning, but perhaps Members who would like to intervene can help out.
I have a number of questions about that area of policy. The current official Government figure for carbon displacement by wind power assumes that wind power can replace conventional generation at 100% efficiency. That is clearly unrealistic in view of the technical challenges of incorporating an intermittent and highly variable power source into a strictly managed supply system. Reports from Denmark and Germany suggest that the carbon costs of absorbing wind power into the grid are substantial. I assume that that is also true for the UK.
A substantial proportion of electrical power demand is continuous—the base load. The balance is required to respond to demand that fluctuates in many ways, including seasonally, instantaneously, or even at the end of an England game—or, if it was last night’s game, not at all. There is no effective or economic way of storing energy on a large scale. Therefore, we have a number of conundrums. The key responsibility of the grid is to ensure that the demand for power is met at all times. That is achieved by ensuring the availability of capacity when needed, and avoiding the generation of unusable power.
I assure hon. Members that I have approached my hon. Friend in person and sought his leave to speak. As he gets into his speech, does he agree that one of the most inefficient uses of wind power, and the most damaging to the local environment, happens when there are one or two isolated wind turbines that are close to urban conurbations, as is proposed at Desford in my Leicestershire constituency? Does he agree that a suitable solution would be to have a fixed distance between habitations and those wind turbines?
I agree with my hon. Friend. If we believe in localism, surely we believe that local councils should be able to set distances between renewable energy projects and dwellings. I like to think that such a measure would be contained in any localism Bill that the Government bring forward, and I would argue strongly for that.
Is not the problem the fact that the determination of where such things are sited is left to local planning authorities? It would be helpful to have guidance that enabled local planning authorities to form a view. The lack of direction from the Government on the issue means that there is massive uncertainty for local residents. Two applications in my constituency have just been made, but residents have no idea about the likelihood of them being determined. The second problem with a lack of national strategy is that local authorities duplicate their efforts in gathering information to form their own individual policies. Does my hon. Friend agree that that matter urgently needs to be looked at?
I certainly agree. In my constituency, Daventry district council will look tomorrow evening at adopting a policy. It is happy to be challenged about the distance that dwellings should have to be from renewable energy projects. All local authorities should develop such a plan because it is local people who should buy into these things.
As we are aware, there is guidance in Scotland, which is manifestly different from the position in England. Does my hon. Friend agree that the right way forward would be the adoption of the guidance that exists in Scotland, which protects the 2 km from people’s houses on an ongoing basis? If we had that, everything would be a lot simpler.
I agree with my hon. Friend, and I will talk about that point later. It is significant and important with regard to issues of noise and flicker, which I will come on to.
I believe that wind is a burden on the grid. It forces other forms of capacity to be shut down to accommodate wind production when the wind is blowing, and then instantaneously to come back on line when the wind stops. I would like to ask the Minister how much additional gas-fired power capacity—that is the only way that we can power up instantaneously—will be required to accommodate the current targets for wind capacity in the UK? What is the anticipated cost to the electricity markets in lost efficiency and stranded capacity associated with gas-fired plants operating as back-up for wind power? Will the Minister outline the efficiency losses, and the operational and economic impact on other forms of generation that have to modify their behaviour to accommodate the power that comes from wind?
Taking all those factors into account, will the Minister state how many grams of carbon dioxide, or just carbon in general, onshore wind will save per kilowatt hour? Is it not the case that, without massive hydro or other bulk storage, wind capacity must be matched on the UK grid almost megawatt for megawatt by fossil back-up operating at inefficient part load?
RenewableUK has publicly acknowledged that profits for wind farm operators are impressively large. That is largely a consequence of the operation of the indirect renewables obligation subsidy mechanism.
Is not the crux of the problem the huge amounts of subsidy involved in operating wind farms, as my hon. Friend is explaining? I understand that it is in the region of £20,000 per mast to the landowner per annum and £100,000 possibly to the operator. That is what is driving the keenness to build wind farms, and we are in real danger of the sustainable tail wagging the energy dog.
I agree. In 2006, the National Audit Office highlighted the fact that the subsidy for onshore wind was excessive and gave poor value as a carbon-saving measure. Those costs are borne by the electricity consumer, and the Office of Gas and Electricity Markets has questioned whether the growing level of that indirect and regressive taxation is acceptable.
The high profitability for onshore wind is skewing renewables investment across our country towards onshore wind and away from research and development for other technologies and other remedies such as energy saving and consumption reduction. It is also, as my hon. Friends have mentioned in relation to each of their constituencies, encouraging large numbers of speculative applications for wind farms.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, in relation to wind turbines in urban areas and on industrial estates, certain criteria are needed? In rural communities, different criteria are needed. Does he accept that when it comes to finding the correct locations for wind turbines, there is a different balance to be struck for different areas? Different rules apply to different places.
Does my hon. Friend agree that, in our two neighbouring constituencies, the advantage of taxpayer subsidy for these wind farms is encouraging speculative developers to come to not particularly windy places, presumably in the interest of making a few fast pounds on the back of the taxpayer, with no real interest in trying to help the grid and renewables whatever?
I always agree with my hon. Friend and neighbour—I would be foolish not to. Just to prove the point, Northamptonshire is one of the least windy places in the country, and in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone), there is a wind farm at Burton Wold that is operating at 19% capacity on average. That is not helping us to deal with our carbon problem.
While we are thinking about the size of the subsidy and the effect on the behaviour of both landowner and operator, does my hon. Friend agree that it is leading to progressively less responsible investment? The example that I want to raise affects both my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy) and me. In my county of East Yorkshire, there have been wind farms of enormous size—400 feet; 125 metres; 40 storeys tall—getting closer and closer to dwellings and, now, less than half a mile from a dwelling. Does my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Chris Heaton-Harris) agree that the sheer size of the subsidy is leading to irresponsible investment?
I absolutely concur with my right hon. Friend.
Do the Government believe that the renewables obligation banding for onshore wind is sustainable, necessary or good value for money? Have they considered the effects of the renewables obligation banding in inhibiting renewable diversification? Will the Minister agree at least to conduct a review of the banding for onshore wind?
Noise is a problem that many of our constituents fear when it comes to onshore wind. Different studies show that about 20% of all wind farms constructed in the UK trigger quite serious noise complaints. Since 2009, the wind industry has adopted a new noise modelling scheme that predicts acceptable noise levels much closer to dwellings, leading to planning applications coming forward with big turbines very close to dwellings. There are fewer proposals in remote locations and, as we have just heard, modern turbines are getting bigger.
The Minister knows that his Department commissioned a report. I apologise: it was not his Department, but the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform. The report was on amplitude modulation and in effect concluded that it was not cost-effective to research wind farm noise problems because only a few people suffer from them. That is patently not the case. However, as the Minister knows, his Department was caught out by a freedom of information request that revealed that in 2006 it had instructed the Hayes McKenzie Partnership to remove from a report a recommendation that acceptable night-time noise levels should be reduced.
I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for allowing me to make an intervention on a subject that has not been mentioned but is relevant to my constituency. In my constituency, there are proposals from Peel Energy to build a large-scale wind farm on the marshes between the Mersey estuary and the villages of Frodsham and Helsby. Those proposals would not just result in the ruin of a beautiful area of Cheshire countryside, but lead to the destruction of wetlands that provide a habitat for numerous species of rare birds. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will reassure me that the Secretary of State takes such factors into account when determining these types of application. Some of the structures end up being very close to areas of outstanding natural beauty.
I am sure that Ministers will have heard my hon. Friend’s very sensible plea for areas of scientific interest to be looked after.
I was talking about noise. Some of us just do not believe that the Department of Energy and Climate Change is promoting wind farms, and not inhibiting them, by trying to force new noise criteria on the whole country. It is slightly worrying that the Hayes McKenzie Partnership has been commissioned by DECC to carry out the new noise review that the Minister recently announced. The science around noise seems to be a very moveable feast.
It is my contention that onshore wind diverts valuable resources from other renewables that do work and that people like. In my constituency alone, if we diverted the money that might well be spent on wind power towards other things, such as air source or ground source heat pumps and home insulation, we might well be able to insulate just about every house in the constituency and get people to buy in to this.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on raising this important subject. It is important, not least in my constituency, where we are struggling with a tidal wave of applications for both onshore turbines and the infrastructure to support offshore turbines, which are often put forward by speculative developers. There is an issue in that respect about the planning guidance. I agree entirely with him about the importance of securing our short-term energy requirements, but also of setting out a proper scientific framework for measuring the different renewable sources that this country could thrive on. Does he agree with me about the importance of identifying those that this country could lead on in a global context? That may not include wind.
Does my hon. Friend also agree that the Leader of the Opposition’s statement of 2009 in a documentary when he was Climate Change Secretary, in which he said that it should be “socially unacceptable” for people to be against wind turbines in their area, like not wearing their seat belt or driving past a zebra crossing, is an unhelpful position and one that, now that he is Leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition, he might like to review?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way twice to me. I want to pick him up on his kindness to Hayes McKenzie and his gentle language about what was, without doubt, a cover-up of the World Health Organisation guidelines, which said that people, when they sleep, should have an environment at 30 dB. What was said by the Government was something much louder than that—35 to 40 dB. That was a very bad cover-up. Hayes McKenzie was clearly complicit, because it did not put in the public domain what was said. I would like my hon. Friend to tell me whether he thinks that Ministers should undertake to make all the information put forward, in whatever review they do, available in the public domain without limitation or edit.
I would very much welcome the Minister committing to that. Indeed, I have asked him about whether there are secondments from the noise industry to DECC at the moment, and I believe that the reply I got was slightly incorrect. I will contact the Minister.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bayley. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Chris Heaton-Harris) on securing the debate. It is a great shame for the whole House that he did not get an hour-and-a-half debate, because there is no doubt that he and the Members here today could have filled the time.
In the remaining 13 minutes I want to go through the issues raised so far and put them in the context of the role that wind has to play in our energy security and our move to a low-carbon economy. I assure my hon. Friend that I understand the concerns that he and others have raised, and as Minister I have taken some of the actions that are designed specifically to address them. Wind has a contribution to make and an integral part to play in dealing with energy security and tackling climate change. We cannot separate security of supply from a low-carbon economy, we cannot have security of supply without a low-carbon economy and we cannot have a low-carbon economy without security of supply. We see those elements as going together, and without them we will not have affordable pricing.
As hon. Members know, we have seen significant growth in the deployment of onshore wind in this country and we expect it to increase over the years ahead. It will be a low-carbon technology that makes the most significant contribution to enabling us to meet our low-carbon commitments in future, but that must be done in a way that takes account of the views of local communities, and one of the most important changes we shall make will address that: people will see the benefits accrue to their communities from hosting facilities that they may not have chosen.
I am not aware of the specific cases to which my hon. Friend refers. If he writes to me, I will be more than happy to look into them.
We have to move to a greater spirit of partnership so that communities can see precisely what they would get out of hosting a facility and realise that genuine benefits would come to them—not necessarily from a wind farm but from other facilities, as well. Other countries have gone down a similar route and we are learning from the approaches that they have taken. We have also seen the significant number of green jobs generated here, albeit not as many as we would have wished from the supply-chain benefits coming to the United Kingdom, and the potential that that brings
I realise that my hon. Friends who contributed to the debate are less concerned about that aspect than they are about the implications of onshore wind for their constituencies, so I particularly want to address those issues. We have seen the benefits from offshore wind, but we recognise that communities often feel concerned that proposed wind farms in their areas will destroy the environment or have other negative impacts. We are convinced that, in the policy of localism that we are going to drive forward, local councils should be the driving force in deciding how they want their communities to develop. That is a fundamental part of the planning changes we are making.
In terms of localism, does the Department look at any measurements? What concerns inhabitants who debate the possibilities and planning applications is that the applications are turned down and then repeated, coming back with one fewer turbine and then two fewer turbines, so they go through the process again and again, and lose all confidence in any aspiration to real localism.
That is central to predetermination and to ensuring that more of the work is done through earlier discussion between the developer and the council, so they can agree what they think might be generally desirable. We are making those changes. We also need to ensure that we have lead authorities with particular expertise in handling such applications. Many authorities have not dealt with such applications before and do not know how to handle them when they come through. Finding ways to build a genuine body of expertise within local authorities is part of the approach we are considering.
We removed regional spatial strategies and the top-down regional energy targets, because they moved us away from the localism we want. We are committed, in relation to applications for below 50 MW, to local communities and local councils deciding how their areas will develop. The new planning framework will cover all forms of development and set out national economic, environmental and social priorities. Tackling climate change and ensuring our energy security will be among our top priorities, but as I said, we want communities and individuals to own a stake in our collective low-carbon future. That is why we are looking at how local communities can benefit from business rates staying locally, and why we want more genuine community ownership of applications, so that people can see the link between hosting a facility and the benefits that it brings directly to the local area and to the services that people care about.
We welcome everything that the Minister has said so far, but sometimes local community advantage cannot overwhelm the destruction of people’s lives. They will be protected only by leaving the decision at local level and not overruling it time and again at a central appeal.
Where a case goes to appeal, it will be decided only in relation to the wider planning guidance that the Government set out. If it is felt that the guidance has not been adhered to in making a determination, it is entirely proper that there be an appeals process. In the spirit of fairness, we all believe that it is right that if an application is turned down at one level, people should continue to have a right to appeal for a redetermination. It must be done within the spirit of the rules set down, and that is absolutely key to what we are saying.
In the debate, we have heard a call for the transfer of support from wind to other renewable sources. We do not see wind as the ultimate solution on its own. It has a part to play, but we supported the banding of the renewables obligation certificates, because that started to give more support to emerging technologies, which need more help to come to fruition. The UK should lead the world in marine technologies, and the steps that we are taking elsewhere will ensure that, certainly by the 2020s and beyond, this will be the natural place in the world for people to come to develop those technologies. In the meantime, we need continuing diversity, and that includes wind. We cannot rely entirely on one low-carbon technology. We expect other low-carbon technologies to come through, particularly nuclear technology—without subsidy—which we are making progress on, as well as clean coal and coal with carbon capture. We expect the widest range of renewables possible in the framework.
Onshore wind is one of the most cost-effective and developed of all renewable technologies, and has almost zero marginal cost, because once the facilities have been constructed, the cost of the energy—the wind—comes without charge.
I hope my hon. Friend understands that many points have already been made in the debate and it is crucial that I have a chance to respond to those in the remaining few minutes.
The renewables obligation has been banded to incentivise investment in other technologies, but what is critical about the ROC is that if the wind does not blow strongly, there is not as much income, because the money received is directly related to the amount of electricity generated. It is based on payment per megawatt hour of power generated. Therefore, if a wind turbine is located where the wind does not blow much and where the turbine does not turn much, very little revenue is returned to the area. That was one of the most important aspects of taking such an approach. It is also linked to the wholesale price: if the price drops as a result of there being a huge amount of supply in the system but not a great deal of demand, the amount of money that goes back is reduced. That recognises the changes in demand and supply found more generally in the system.
We recognise, of course, that wind is intermittent. As my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry said, back-up is required, including from gas, coal or biomass. It could also be done through storage—pump storage and hydrogen or battery technologies are coming through at an impressive rate. That will start to move the technology on from working only when the wind blows to allowing electricity to be available when people need it.
However, there is another side to the argument. Sizewell B, one of our more recent nuclear power stations, has been out of operation for seven months. In that time, it did not produce a single unit of electricity, but our wind system produced 1.8 TWh of electricity, the equivalent of the annual consumption of 400,000 homes. We believe that security of supply comes from a mix of technologies. We cannot put all our eggs in one basket. Having a mix means that if there is a problem in one part, we have a better chance of keeping the lights on, and doing so affordably.
Turbines generally turn about 70% of the time. The load factor figures suggest that it is lower than that, but the turbines may be turning at a relatively low speed for 70% or 80% of the time; there are only a few hours when they are not generating. There was a period at the beginning of the year when they were contributing perhaps only 0.1% of our electricity consumption, but recent figures show that they have been producing 10%. The figures fluctuate, and they need to be seen as part of the totality of what is necessary.
In the time that remains, I shall touch on some of the other issues in the debate. On noise, my primary concern is that the issue is not being treated similarly in all parts of the country. The report that I have commissioned from Hayes McKenzie will consider how noise is to be interpreted to ensure uniformity. It does not seem right that it should be considered in one way in Northamptonshire and in another in East Yorkshire. I assure the House that in appointing Hayes McKenzie I considered who it had worked for to ensure that it can work for local authorities on one side of the equation and wind developers on the other. I want to be convinced—I have been convinced—that the company can provide genuinely independent advice.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) spoke about the previous report. I understand that certain issues were removed before I became involved in this work, relating to things that were outside the initial scope of the report. However, I give an absolute assurance that the Hayes McKenzie report will be published in its entirety and that it will be subject to peer review, so that we can clear about what needs to be done. There is a further review on amplitude modulation by RenewableUK. That, too, will be subject to peer review. I hope that will help to complete the picture.
Other issues were raised this afternoon, and I hope to have the chance to write to my right hon. and hon. Friends to ensure that they have a complete response.
Coal-burning Power Stations
I am grateful, Mr Bayley, for having the chance to speak on the future of coal-burning power stations. This debate follows one on wind turbines, in which we heard about some of the problems caused by such turbines that have been constructed in constituencies throughout the United Kingdom.
I regret that the 13 years of the previous Administration were largely wasted when it comes to pursuing green technology. There was a great deal of hot air, and the former Deputy Prime Minister made many promises that Great Britain would lead the world in such matters. However, we are regrettably behind the curve. That is surprising, because we have some of the greatest institutions in the world, including Oxford and Cambridge, and many engineers and scientists of world renown. We are blessed by that pedigree of innovation and pioneering technology, yet for some reason we are significantly behind other European Union countries on this issue. That is a matter of profound regret.
I hope that the Minister will take on board the fact that we need a co-ordinated Government approach to bringing those scientists together with energy suppliers and other specialists, so that we can work together with the private sector to ensure that future energy generation requirements are provided in the most cost-effective and efficient way. We should not flinch from learning from the experiences of other countries.
As was mentioned in the previous debate, wind will play a part and so will natural gas and solar energy, but I wish to talk about existing coal-burning power stations. What are the Minister’s policies on helping those power stations to convert to clean coal technology or biomass? He will know that European Union directives say that if they are not converted they will be forced to shut. What is his Department doing to help those power stations to convert?
The reason why I feel so passionate about the matter is that we have a major coal-burning power station in my constituency of Shrewsbury and Atcham. The Ironbridge power station is capable of generating 1,000 MWe. It is located in the Severn gorge, only half a mile upstream from Ironbridge, which is a world heritage site. It produces enough power to supply 750,000 homes. I am proud of the fact that we have such an important facility in my constituency.
The station’s two 500 MWe units can each produce 12 times more power than Concorde’s jet engines. The low-pressure blades are nearly 1 metre long, and with the turbine turning at a fixed speed of 3,000 rpm, the speed of the tips of the last row of blades is approximately 2,000 kph—twice the speed of sound. I give those statistics because we should be proud of the technology in Shropshire. It would be a travesty—a calamity—if that power station was forced to close as a result of EU directives.
I was on the telephone earlier today to Mr Bryson, the manager of the power station, which is operated by E.ON. He informed me that the station has 200 employees. As the local Member of Parliament, I am primarily concerned with those people’s jobs. I hope that everything can be done to support the continued production of electricity at that plant. I have toured the plant on several occasions, and I have seen that it uses crushed nut shells from Africa; that accounts for about 4% or 5% of what is burned there, although it is obviously nowhere near enough to comply with the European Union directive.
I invite the Minister to visit the Ironbridge power station. When he next travels to our part of the west midlands, I shall treat him to a lovely lunch in Shrewsbury. I would like him to see the power station at first hand, and the tremendous economic benefits that it gives not only to Shropshire but to the whole of the west midlands.
I am pleased to hear my hon. Friend talk so positively about the coal industry. I hope that he recognises that, globally, there is more than 200 years of coal provision to meet the energy needs of the world. I am glad to hear him talk about clean-coal technology. Does he recognise that there is an opportunity for business in this country to develop clean-coal technology and export it to the world, thus creating a brand new industry and allowing us to lead the world?
Yes, but I am primarily focused on biomass at the moment. Of course clean-coal technology will be an option, and I very much hope that the Minister will respond to that point.
In summary, we can see that the future of coal for UK generators relies heavily on carbon capture and sequestration technology. What has been clear for some time is that CCS is some years away from being economically tangible, and it will take either substantial subsidies or technological breakthrough to make it viable. There are certain difficulties with coal, but I accept, and I hope that the Minister accepts, that that is a possibility. What I hope the Minister will tell us today is what his Department thinks about the prospect of importing biomass for existing power stations, so that they can continue to generate electricity. Moreover, will he tell us what support can be given to them so that they can convert the technology to take in the biomass? Biomass needs full support at this stage from a regulatory and fiscal standpoint, and I very much hope that the Minister’s Department will work with E.ON to ensure the survival of Ironbridge power station.
As I said, I have spoken with Mr Bryson, the manager of the Ironbridge power station. This afternoon, he replied to me, saying:
“As you rightly say biomass is one of the options for the…coal plant and we’ve welcomed the DECC consultation on potential support under the Renewables Obligation for converting existing fossil plants to dedicated biomass. We support this in principle and look forward to the conclusion of the consultation. You might find it helpful to ask the Minister about the progress of the consultation and the impact on closing coal capacity in the UK.”
I should like to speak for longer, but I am conscious that my hon. Friend the Member for Selby and Ainsty (Nigel Adams), who has the important Drax power station in his constituency, wants to speak. I will therefore conclude my remarks by saying that senior citizens form one of the largest groups of electors in my constituency, and an important forum for senior citizens has more than 7,000 members, which makes it the biggest organisation in the whole of Shropshire. Time and time again, I get representations from senior citizens about their concerns over heating bills and how their pensions do not keep up with the rising costs of energy. I hope that the Minister will assure me that everything possible is being done to ensure that energy and electricity production in this country will be maintained, improved and increased so that senior citizens, businesses and others will not suffer from vastly inflated electricity and energy prices.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) for securing this important debate and for allowing me a few minutes to voice my support for the future of coal-burning power stations. The future of such stations is clearly important to me, because my constituency is home to two very large coal-fired power stations at Eggborough and Drax; I also have Ferrybridge on the border of my constituency. Drax is one of the biggest employers in the area and is the largest, cleanest and most efficient coal-fired power station in the country. With a 4,000 MW capacity, it meets the electricity needs of around 7% of the UK, making it a very significant power station.
Coal was responsible for about 44% of electricity supply during the cold spells last winter. Its ability to respond quickly to demand makes coal-fired generation a vital contributor to security of electricity supply. High availability and reliability are among its two most notable qualities.
The UK’s current dependence on gas is potentially dangerous. Gas consumption is marred by price volatility and threats to supply from overseas, with more than 80% expected to be imported by 2015. It is clear that the elimination of a significant amount of coal-fired capacity from 2015 onwards could present a real supply security problem for the UK. As it stands, supplies of coal are four times more abundant than gas, with 200 years of supply, 40% of which comes from OECD member countries.
As my hon. Friend is no doubt aware, Drax has a huge impact on my constituency, too. It is all I see from my front window. However, does he not agree that although we are strong supporters of coal-fired power stations, there is a real potential in the Yorkshire and the Humber region, with its depleted oilfields, for us to pursue clean-coal and carbon capture technologies, which could bring more jobs to our region?
That is a fortuitous question, because I am just about to talk about CCS. I believe that the coal-fired generation sector has a crucial role to play in maintaining secure and reliable electricity supplies, but that the long-term survival of fossil fuel in the energy mix can be secured only if it is fitted with carbon capture and storage. The Yorkshire and the Humber region is ideally suited for a cluster-type approach to CCS, and a regional pipework infrastructure to transport captured CO2 from all the major industrial sites in the region to the North sea could cut the UK’s entire CO2 emissions by 10%.
Like any other sector, to remain viable and relevant, the coal-fired sector needs to be adaptable to change and the introduction of new ideas and technologies. There is a vital role to be played by the coal-fired generation sector in the transition towards a low-carbon economy, most notably through the introduction of biomass co-firing. I have seen such a shift in focus towards a low-carbon economy in action: Drax has committed itself to full conversion of one of its coal-fired generating units from coal to biomass. That is innovative but very costly, and it would not have happened if the single biggest challenge facing the coal-fired generation sector was not reducing its impact on the environment.
Biomass introduction and CCS can be effective ways of achieving a low-carbon economy—that is evidenced by moves within the sector to find greener methods of production. It is important that larger sites feel confident enough in Government support to take new steps in finding alternative methods of power production, because where large sites lead, smaller but equally important sites will follow. I conclude by saying how important a stable and predictable long-term energy policy framework is for the power sector to encourage large scale investments and to instil confidence among coal-fired generators to encourage them to make the significant investments necessary successfully to address the environmental challenge.
It is a continuing pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mr Bayley, in the second of our two energy debates. It is a bit like a lotto double rollover, with many colleagues having the chance to speak about the wide range of energy issues that face us. A common theme runs through the debates, which is the need to decarbonise our electricity supply system, both in the roll-out of renewables and how we decarbonise the mass generation facilities that we have in this country.
Undoubtedly, coal is one of the most important elements within our energy supply system. In general, it produces about a quarter of our electricity. When I visited National Grid a couple of years ago, I found that more than half the electricity being generated was coming from coal plants. There is no doubting the significance of the contribution that coal makes to our energy security. Nevertheless, we must still recognise that coal is much the most polluting form of electricity generation. For example, a coal-fired plant produces about twice as much carbon dioxide per unit of output compared to a gas-fired power station.
Looking forward, I think that it is not a question of whether it is coal, gas, nuclear or renewables that we use; to ensure our energy security, we need to have some of all of those. But nuclear will take 10 years to build, coal with carbon capture is 10 years away as a commercially viable facility and some of the massive roll-out of marine technologies is also 10 years away. In the meantime, therefore, we will certainly need to have more gas in the system and that is why we are also taking urgent action to guarantee that we have the supplies necessary at a time when we are becoming more dependent on imports.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) on securing this debate and on his customary enthusiasm for everything that goes on in his constituency. In his excellent introduction he identified the key issue—the large combustion plant directive. That directive will require about one third of our coal plant to close down if it has not been fitted with flue gas desulphurisation, or FGD, facilities.
My hon. Friend the Member for Selby and Ainsty (Nigel Adams) will have seen at Drax the scale of the investment necessary for a FGD unit to be attached to a power station. Such a unit covers essentially the same ground area as the original coal-fired power station itself and it costs hundreds of millions of pounds to build. Consequently the companies involved have taken very careful decisions about whether the long-term potential of that plant justifies that investment. However, this is a matter for those companies and at the end of their deliberations they will decide whether they can give that type of plant a new life or whether they will simply have to allow it to use its remaining operating hours and close before 2016.
My hon. Friend refers to the large combustion plant directive. I believe that the capacity crunch will come in around 2017. Is he confident that Her Majesty’s Government will not need to seek a derogation from that directive in order to keep the lights on?
The evidence that we have is that the crunch, which had looked as if it was coming in around 2017, is now further out. The recession has reduced demand for power by 6% or 7% and demand has not come back up to the levels that it had been at before the recession. So, there is a crunch coming but it will now come towards the end of this decade.
However, that does not mean that we are off the hook, because following the LCPD is the industrial emissions directive, which will deal predominantly with emissions not related to CO2 . That directive will close down much of our remaining coal plant if the measures are not taken to ensure that our plant complies with it.
We have a mountain to climb and it is right that we should look at the range of options available to us, so that we can ensure that we have the generating capacity that will be so central in the future.
My hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham also raised the issue of biomass. I am well aware of a company that is looking to convert the Ironbridge power station to a biomass facility. I am due to come to Shrewsbury in early December. It may be that I can meet representatives of the company then, or I can meet them in London if that is more convenient. I am very keen to learn more about their plans and to learn about how the use of biomass can provide continuity of output, production and employment at the Ironbridge facility.
We see biomass as having a very significant role to play in the energy sector. It can enhance our security of energy supply, because much of the biomass can come from our own indigenous resources. However, we know that sometimes the biomass comes from other parts of the world and we must be certain that the sources of biomass are indeed sustainable. Biomass is also dispatchable; in other words, it can reflect and respond to the peaks in demand. So, if there is a need for back-up capacity, a biomass plant can ensure that we have the continuing output that will be necessary, just as a coal plant can.
Without doubt, large scale dedicated biomass plants can deliver significant levels of renewable electricity by 2020. The renewable energy strategy, which was published by the previous Government in July 2009, estimated that electricity from biomass, including biogas and wastes, would comprise about 20% of all the renewable power generation that will be needed to meet the renewable energy targets that we as a country face.
We also recognise that electricity from dedicated biomass is cheaper than some other large-scale electricity sources. If the biomass generation needed to meet the renewable energy target were displaced by more expensive technologies, there would of course be an additional cost to consumers and, in all the discussion of these issues, that is a factor that we should rightly bear in mind, as my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham also reminded us.
Moreover, in comparison with some other large scale renewables, biomass can generate more long-term jobs relative to the megawatt-hours of energy output. That is due to the ongoing need for biomass feedstocks creating business and employment opportunities across the UK supply chain.
Use of biomass also provides an opportunity to enhance the forestry husbandry that we have in the UK. I believe that about 40% of our forests and woodlands are not under active management. So there is extraordinary potential and a massive national resource there, not only in terms of biodiversity but providing a renewable energy fuel that can make a major difference in this sector.
The Government support the generation of biomass electricity through renewable obligation certificates, or ROCs, which are tradeable certificates under the renewables obligation. In July, we announced that the support for dedicated biomass electricity plants under the ROCs would be “grandfathered”. That means that for 20 years the price that they would receive would be guaranteed, up to the 2037 end date of the obligation. I think that that will provide the certainty that investors are looking for.
However, we also recognise that we are receiving more inquiries from generators about the potential of switching to biomass and we acknowledge that we simply do not have enough understanding of the potential of that switch and what it can contribute. So we have called for evidence as part of our consultation on the ongoing work of the renewables obligation. That consultation will close on 19 October and we want everybody who has an interest in this issue to respond—I certainly hope that E.ON will contribute—so that we can understand the full range of interests and ensure that we can put a system in place that will encourage us to go forward.
My hon. Friend asks a very apposite question. Anyone who wishes to participate can access the consultation through the Department of Energy and Climate Change website. Alternatively, they can write to me, or to my hon. Friend himself and he can pass any correspondence on to me. They can even write directly to my officials. Whichever way they choose to participate, we will be pleased to have their input and I can give an absolute assurance that it will be taken into account.
My hon. Friend also raised the issue of carbon capture and storage, as did a number of other hon. Friends. I think that CCS is potentially one of the most exciting areas of energy development in the UK. It is an area in which we should be leading the world and in which we are absolutely determined that we will lead the world. CCS can reduce by 90% the CO2 emissions from a coal plant and we think that it is an area in which we must move forward faster.
In this country, we have the sequestration facilities in the North sea, with the depleted oil and gas fields; we have the skills of people who are used to working in the extremely dangerous and hazardous conditions of the North sea; and we have some of the best university expertise, at Edinburgh, Imperial college, Nottingham and elsewhere, which can be brought to bear to ensure that we take CCS forward. Therefore, we are looking at exactly what needs to be done to make CCS happen.
The coalition agreement was clear that we want to have four power stations—commercial power plants—equipped with CCS, as part of our vision of taking CCS forward. We want there to be a much more rapid development of CCS. [Interruption.]
Order. I regret to tell colleagues that there is a Division in the House, so I have to interrupt the Minister.
I ask all colleagues to get back to Westminster Hall as soon as they possibly can. We will start again as soon as the initiator of the debate, Daniel Kawczynski, and the Minister are back in their seats.
I thank my hon. Friend the Minister for giving way. I will be very brief.
Last week at the Conservative party conference, the Prime Minister, the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Minister of State at the Cabinet Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr Letwin), who is also the Minister with responsibility for Government policy, all mentioned CCS, which was very good news for anyone interested in this issue or, indeed, in climate change. Is the Minister personally confident that the coalition Government’s commitment on CCS will survive the spending review?
My hon. Friend tempts me to go into an area that is way above my pay grade and the Chancellor would be deeply annoyed if I set out the response to the spending review now. We have looked at these things very carefully indeed, we have a clear commitment to CCS and we believe that it has a massive contribution to make. We are rolling forward the development of projects 2 to 4, in addition to project 1. We think that that is part of the way forward. We are determined to make this technology work in the UK and I look forward to working with my hon. Friend to achieve that outcome.
Question put and agreed to.