House of Commons
Tuesday 9 November 2010
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
I remind the House that Thursday is 11 November, Remembrance day. The House will meet at 10.30 am, as is the norm for a Thursday. At 11 o’clock, I regard it as appropriate that we should join the nation in observing the two-minute silence so that we might remember those who gave their lives for their country to help preserve our democratic freedoms. Instructions will also be issued to heads of House Departments so that those members of staff who wish to observe the two-minute silence may do so.
Oral Answers to Questions
Foreign and Commonwealth Office
The Secretary of State was asked—
I refer my hon. Friend to the Prime Minister’s statement on the European Council on 1 November. The Council agreed that Herman Van Rompuy should consult member states about a limited treaty change connected with the establishment of a permanent crisis resolution mechanism for the eurozone. We also secured a clear agreement that any such treaty change, should it occur, would not affect the United Kingdom.
It is said that the eurozone needs a new treaty to make it lawful to bail out Greece. It is claimed that that will not affect the United Kingdom as we are not part of the eurozone. Will the Minister confirm that the UK will not need to sign the treaty or, if we do, that the public will be given a referendum on the issue?
It is my long-standing position—and, I think, that of my hon. Friend—that any treaty that transfers new areas of power or competence to the European Union should be subject to a referendum. Clearly, there are still consultations about what form a treaty change might take. It is clear beyond doubt that the United Kingdom will continue to be exempt from any sanctions under the stability and growth pact and we established at the last Council that any possible future treaty change would not affect the United Kingdom and would not transfer power or competence from the UK to the European Union.
The Government’s position is set out in the coalition agreement. What is also clear from that agreement is that one of our top priorities in Europe is to bring realism to budgeting in the European Union since the hon. Gentleman’s party gave away many billions of pounds of the British taxpayer’s money for nothing in return the last time the financial perspective was negotiated, in 2005. The answer to his question is that our top priority in seeking change in the European Union is to ensure realistic budgeting in the future.
Now that the German Chancellor is insisting on the amendment of European treaties, including Lisbon, will there ever be a better opportunity for Britain to renegotiate its relationships with the European Union and seek the repatriation of powers abandoned by previous Governments, or is that vetoed by the Lib Dem members of the coalition?
It is certainly a coalition Government that we have here and my hon. Friend should bear that in mind. I would also ask him to bear in mind that instability in the eurozone, as he well knows, is a serious danger to the British economy. It is clear that the United Kingdom will be exempt from the provisions of any such treaty change. Where we have considerable negotiating leverage in the European Union, as we certainly will over the coming years, our first priority—as I said in answer to the previous question—is to change the way in which the budgets are determined so that, unlike the previous Government, we are not involved in spending billions of pounds extra of the UK taxpayer’s money.
May I congratulate those on the Government Front Bench, and the Foreign Secretary in particular, on their new flexible approach on this issue? I understand that the new treaty change would happen under the passerelle clause. Clearly, the non-euro-using members of the EU—Poland, ourselves, Denmark and Sweden—and our officials and Ministers will be involved in this discussion, and there will be a small transfer of competences. I thoroughly welcome this and congratulate the Foreign Secretary on his new Europe-friendly approach.
I am glad the right hon. Gentleman agrees with an approach that involves not joining the euro, transferring no more powers or competences to the European Union, making sure that this country will have a referendum if any future Government ever propose doing such a thing, and bringing the European budget under control—all things that he has never agreed with before and which his Government never did.
BBC World Service
The transfer of the BBC World Service funding from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to the licence fee from 2014-15 represents a £212 million reduction in public spending. I will continue to set the objectives, priorities and targets for the World Service with the BBC, and no language services will be opened or closed without my agreement.
Is it not the case that in parts of the world the World Service can be a better ambassador for Britain than any number of embassies and diplomats? But does not the change raise some serious questions about its long-term governance and funding? Why should the licence fee payer in Britain pay for programmes that they cannot receive and probably would not be interested in receiving, and why, therefore, should the BBC continue to fund them?
The BBC is very enthusiastic about the change. I have discussed it with Sir Michael Lyons and with Mark Thompson, the director-general of the BBC. They believe there is more that they can do, through bringing the BBC World Service and other BBC activities together, to develop the World Service in the future. Clearly, we would want them to do that, and I do not think that any future Foreign Secretary would allow them to run it down, given the powers that are reserved to the Foreign Secretary. So here we have an arrangement that can maintain or improve the World Service, has the necessary safeguards, and saves £200 million of public spending without increasing the licence fee. That is something that we should all be enthusiastic about.
The Foreign Secretary said that responsibility for the finance of the World Service is being transferred to the BBC, but can he say whether responsibility for the strategic direction of the World Service is also being transferred? In other words, who has the last word on editorial content?
The responsibility for the direction of the World Service will remain exactly as it is now. What I agreed with the BBC Trust and the director-general of the BBC is that the key parts of the governance arrangements previously agreed in 2006 will be replicated in a new agreement, so the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, with the BBC, will set the objectives and priorities and, as I mentioned earlier, the Foreign Secretary will retain a veto over the opening and closing of services. So those arrangements stay the same as now.
I discussed Gaza with the Israeli Prime Minister, Foreign Minister and Defence Minister during my visit there last week. I stressed that economic revitalisation will best safeguard Israel’s security. Gaza’s dependence on aid will continue until there is progress on exports and a better framework is developed for enabling imports of reconstruction materials for UN-led projects.
Yes, I do agree with my hon. Friend. I have said before in the House that I think the blockade of Gaza is unsustainable and unacceptable. The tunnel economy that has arisen in Gaza often serves the interests of Hamas, rather than the interests of anyone else, so it is important for Israel to continue to allow an improvement in the flow of goods into Gaza and, as I said, to begin to allow reconstruction materials in so that there can be a real improvement in conditions on the ground in Gaza. That will help the security of the whole region.
Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that in a briefing provided for me last week in Jerusalem by John Ging, the admirable head of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency in Gaza, Mr Ging said that the situation in Gaza now is worse than it was before the flotilla incident, that huge numbers of children are hungry and undernourished, and that the schools are not being built? Will the right hon. Gentleman take every action available to him to impress on the Israelis that persecuting the people of Gaza will not bring peace?
As I mentioned earlier, I raised the issue with all the leaders of the Israeli Government on my own visit to Jerusalem and Tel Aviv last week. The right hon. Gentleman is right that the school construction that we wanted to take place is not yet taking place. The British Government have announced additional help for the work of Mr Ging and UNRWA—£23 million of new support for the Palestinian Authority, £8 million of that for UNRWA and £2 million to help 300 businesses in Gaza. Britain is doing a lot to help the situation there and we must continue to do so.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on an outstanding visit to the state of Israel last week, but Israel has clearly honoured obligations of humanitarian areas and aid for Gaza. Did the discussion that took place last week concentrate on the effect that Hamas has had in terms of its rocket capability and launching rockets and bombs into the state of Israel?
It is important to bear in mind that dimension as well. The behaviour of Hamas obviously makes all those issues much more difficult to deal with. Indeed, I visited the family of Gilad Shalit, who is still imprisoned—held hostage—in Gaza, and I believe that he should be released immediately and unconditionally. So my hon. Friend is right that it is important to bear in mind that dimension to what is happening in Gaza, but I think that we are united in this House in making the case to Israel, as I did last week, that the best way to improve its security is to permit and encourage an improvement in the conditions in Gaza. That in itself will, over time, weaken Hamas and help to ensure that a new generation of Palestinians is not turned against Israel and against peace.
I welcome the Foreign Secretary’s recognition of the importance of lifting the blockade of Gaza. He will know the importance for the people of Gaza not just of lifting the blockade, but of being part of a viable Palestinian state alongside a secure Israel in a two-state solution. Therefore, what discussions did he have during his recent visit on the role of Gaza in the future peace process?
Gaza plays, ultimately, a very important role in the peace process, because there cannot be a successful peace in the long term without its involvement and inclusion. The immediate priority is to get the peace process going again and the direct talks going, and of course I put the argument very strongly to Israeli leaders and on Israeli media that that requires a new freeze on Israeli settlement building on the west bank. That is the immediate issue, and in that regard the announcements that we have heard in the past 24 hours are extremely disappointing. The immediate priority is to get the direct talks going. A real settlement would have to involve Gaza as well.
British Ministers raise the Cyprus settlement process with our Turkish counterparts at every opportunity. I last did so with both Turkey’s Foreign Minister and Minister for Europe on 23 October. The presence of Turkish troops in Cyprus is one of the issues that will need to be resolved as part of a comprehensive settlement.
I inform the House that I have registered an interest, as I attended the Morphou rally just a month ago. In addition to the religious and cultural destruction suffered by orthodox churches in the northern part of Cyprus, is the Minister aware of the desecration of graves in towns such as Morphou by the siting of army bases and the parking of fire tenders on Cypriot graveyards? What pressure can he bring to bear on the Turkish Government to stop such actions and return those sacred sites to their former use?
It is important that the Turkish Government lend their full weight to the negotiating process that is under way between the two Cypriot communities under the auspices of the United Nations special envoy, and the issues to which my hon. Friend has referred need to be considered as part of those discussions.
I hear what the Minister has said about the representations made to Turkey, but has he made any representations to either of the two community leaders, the President of Cyprus and the leader of the Turkish Cypriot community? What extra efforts are the British Government going to make, knowing that the UN has invited both leaders to go to New York? What extra efforts will be made to ensure that we have a proper, comprehensive peace settlement?
At both ministerial and official level, we are urging the leaders of the Greek Cypriot community, President Christofias, and of the Turkish Cypriot community, Mr Eroglu, to demonstrate leadership, flexibility and a willingness to compromise in the interests of everybody living on the island of Cyprus. We welcome the decision by both leaders to attend the meeting with Ban Ki-moon on 18 November. We remain in very close contact not just with the Governments of Cyprus and of Turkey, but with Mr Downer, the UN special envoy, and we will lend whatever support we are able to in the hope of bringing the negotiations to a successful conclusion.
Will the Minister for Europe make it absolutely clear that the British Government’s position is to continue to seek a united, peaceful Cyprus for both communities, and that as one of the three guarantor powers we, with Turkey and Greece, will lead that effort at the United Nations and in this country, and reject the idea that there might be an acceptable settlement that divides the island between the two communities?
Our treaty obligations, as the hon. Gentleman implies, require us to prohibit any action which might lead to the partition of Cyprus or its union with another country. We remain committed to a bi-zonal, bi-communal federation where there is political equality and respect for the human and cultural rights of all.
The Foreign and Commonwealth Office is totally committed to the creation of a strong and open global economy, and we are working with Ministers and their Departments across Whitehall to this end. During visits overseas and in London, FCO Ministers are continually pressing the UK’s commercial interests. As we speak, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is leading a delegation of 50 business leaders to China.
The tectonic plates of the global economy are shifting from the west to the east, not to mention the resurgent economies of Africa. Fortunately, Britain is in a unique position to take advantage of this, given our location, our language, our culture and our legal system. Does my hon. Friend agree that to take full advantage of this change and to make Britain the gateway to the BRIC economies—Brazil, Russia, India and China—his Department has a critical role to play?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, and I agree with him entirely. Exports and an export-led recovery will play a key role in restoring Britain’s economic fortunes. That is why trade promotion is one of our top three priorities. It is also why my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has instructed our diplomats to focus relentlessly, along with UK Trade & Investment, on seeking out and securing new trade and investment opportunities.
I refer to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
I welcome the recent UKTI visit to the Kurdistan region of Iraq. May I press the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to ensure that its base in the Kurdistan region is effective and that it makes it clear to everybody that that part of Iraq is well and truly open for business?
Elections on 7 November were neither free nor fair. The military regime is clearly using them to entrench its grip on power. No political prisoners have been freed, including Aung San Suu Kyi. An opportunity for national reconciliation has been missed. The Government will maintain pressure on the regime until there is progress on both democracy and human rights.
I congratulate the Government on a very public and scathing criticism of this bogus democracy, but I suggest that they keep calling the generals’ bluff and press the new Government to act like genuine democrats and release political prisoners who are committed to non-violence.
I completely agree with my hon. Friend. I congratulate him on his consistent work with the all-party group on Burma. He is right to point out that there are more than 2,000 political prisoners in Burma. In those circumstances, it is impossible to see how the election can have been described as either free or fair by any observers. Although I very much hope that Aung San Suu Kyi is released, her release will not in itself wipe the slate clean.
Given the absence of free and fair elections in Burma, how will our Government demonstrate leadership through Europe to maintain the arms embargo and ensure that the EU sends the strongest possible signals that the regime must release all its political prisoners?
There is an agreed EU position on Burma set out in the European Council conclusions and decision of 26 April this year. The position of the British Government is entirely consistent with EU policy. EU sanctions on Burma are among the EU’s toughest autonomous measures against any country, and they make plain our determination to see change. Sanctions are designed to target regime members and their associates, not to harm the ordinary people of Burma. The regime’s complaints about sanctions suggest to us that they are biting.
The key country with influence in Burma is China. Can the Minister tell us what representations the Prime Minister is making to the Chinese authorities about the human rights abuses in Burma and the need for it to move to democracy?
We regularly raise our concerns with the Chinese Government, and indeed with other countries in the region, and they can be under no illusions about the strength of our views on Burma. In addition, the Deputy Prime Minister and I raised the issue of Burma with Asian counterparts at the October Asia-Europe meeting in Brussels, and I have raised the matter during recent visits to the Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia, Japan and China.
Both sides of the House are united in condemnation of the Burmese regime for stealing this week’s election. I welcome what the Minister has said about China, but I wish to press him. Will the Prime Minister raise the question of Burma during his visit to China? Burma’s regional neighbours have a special responsibility to put pressure on the Burmese regime. Did the Prime Minister also raise the issue during his July visit to India, and if so, what was the Indian Government’s response?
This is my first opportunity to welcome the hon. Gentleman to his Front-Bench duties. We have something in common, of which not everybody in the House may be aware. We both contested Enfield, Southgate at the 1997 general election, although that contest is remembered primarily for somebody who is not present.
We raise Burma with the Chinese on a regular basis, as I have already said, and yes, the Prime Minister did raise the matter during his recent visit to India.
Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty
7. What recent representations he has received on the UK’s obligations under the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. (22531)
We have received no recent representations about the UK’s obligations. We welcome the result of the review conference in May, and particularly the final document, which the UK played a leading part in negotiating. We were able to announce for the first time our nuclear warhead capability and a re-evaluation of the declaratory principle, which has now taken place.
I thank the Minister for that answer, but does he have any concern that the announcement of a 50-year Anglo-French nuclear deal undermines in any way our commitment to achieving nuclear disarmament at an early date, as outlined in article VI of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty?
No. I thank the hon. Lady for her question and am aware of her background in the matter. The arrangement with the French is entirely consistent with our obligations under the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. It is designed to ensure that we safeguard the reliability and maintenance of our nuclear weapons stockpile, and it makes sense. We are proceeding, through the non-proliferation treaty talks, towards a world of disarmament, and maintaining our nuclear capability and signing the treaty in no way belies that undertaking.
Given that article VI of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty does not require either France or the UK to give up their nuclear weapons while other countries remain nuclear powers, is it not particularly unfortunate that the Government have thrown the future of the British nuclear deterrent into doubt by postponing the vital main gate decision to the other side of the general election?
No. I do not think there is any doubt about the United Kingdom’s position on the nuclear deterrent, and in fact everything that we have done since the election confirms our intention to both maintain the security and defence of the UK and stake our international obligations on the future prospects for disarmament to the fullest extent.
8. What his policy priorities are for the overseas territories in 2011; and if he will make a statement. (22532)
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I are passionate about the overseas territories, as they are an important part of the British family. We are developing a new strategy for them involving the whole UK Government, with the aim of bringing renewed focus to our relationship with them. We have a particular responsibility to ensure the security and good governance of the overseas territories, as well as to support their economic well-being.
I visited the Turks and Caicos Islands recently and had a couple of meetings with Helen Garlick. I also met her, along with my counterpart from the Department for International Development, the week before last. She assured me that the investigation is making good progress, and she is hopeful that she will be able to prefer charges early next year. That will be an important milestone in our plans to get the Turks and Caicos Islands back on their feet.
Following on from my hon. Friend the Member for Houghton and Sunderland South (Bridget Phillipson), will the Minister tell the House how much money the UK Government have given to the Turks and Caicos Islands for the maintenance of their Government and public services?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her question on the Turks and Caicos Islands. In a written statement in July, the Secretary of State for International Development announced plans for the provision of a temporary package of financial support. Work to put the package in place is currently under way. To address the immediate shortfall, the Department for International Development provided a loan of £9.7 million to the Turks and Caicos Islands between June and August, and provided a further loan of up to £10 million to cover the period from September to November. We are determined to get the territory back on a firm financial footing and to ensure that its finances are in order, and then we can announce elections. Hopefully, I will be able to make a statement on that later this year or early next year.
I congratulate the Government on their new, refreshing and positive approach to British overseas territories. Will the Minister tell us something about the Pitcairn Islands? It has been a British territory since 1838—it was the first British territory in the Pacific. Will the Minister confirm that the Pitcairn Islands will remain British for as long as there is a Conservative Government?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question. He is an indefatigable champion of the OTs in this place. Let me assure him that both my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and I are passionate about the overseas territories. I have waited 27 years, from first coming into the House, to become Minister with responsibility for the overseas territories. I have no intention of doing anything other than respecting their wishes and their right to self-determination and trusting them.
No Minister has ever visited the island of St Helena. [Interruption.] I acknowledge that the former president of a European nation was once there. Will the Minister please discuss with his colleagues in DFID the construction of the airport on the island, with a view to bringing it forward as quickly as possible?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, my coalition colleague, for that question. I will do all that I can to facilitate his visit to St Helena, which is an important overseas territory. I am delighted that one of the first things that DFID did was to put an end to the prevarication and delays in the announcement of the airport. The project, which will cost a substantial amount of money, will hopefully go forward apace. Although I do not want to prejudge the commercial negotiations that will have to take place, the news is, none the less, good.
The Chief Secretary to the Treasury recently said that tax evasion and avoidance were unacceptable, and he announced a crackdown on those hiding money offshore. Will the Minister explain to the House why his Government have abandoned the demands of the previous Government for the Cayman Islands to give up their tax haven status and introduce some form of direct taxation?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her question, and I congratulate her on her appointment. Having been a special adviser at the Foreign Office, she will have a great deal to bring to her new Front-Bench job. The previous Minister with responsibility for the overseas territories, the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), approved last year’s Cayman Islands’ borrowings at £217 million with conditions attached. This year, I approved borrowings of £123 million, with the same conditions attached. For the Cayman Islands to get their economy moving again, we strongly feel that they need to maintain their offshore status, and we are following the policy of the previous Government.
We assess that steady progress has been made since the successful Kabul conference. The High Peace Council has been established, and it is working towards the political settlement. The UK is working with groups or individuals who are willing to accept the conditions that were laid down by President Karzai for a political settlement. Insurgents should cut ties with al-Qaeda, renounce violence and work within the constitutional framework.
I thank the Minister for that answer. There have, however, been some differences between recent statements made by President Obama and the Prime Minister on troop withdrawal dates for Afghanistan. Can the Minister confirm that President Obama and the Prime Minister are talking to one another about these important issues, given that any discrepancies give succour to the Taliban and expose our troops to greater risk?
I do not think there is any discrepancy. The interests of all the international forces—48 countries are now represented—are the same: to ensure that the Afghans have a stable and secure country, and self-governance without outside influence. The work to ensure that that happens will be carried out by combat troops from this country until 2015, but the necessary work of development and governance will continue after that. The international forces are working together on these plans and proposals, are constantly in contact with each other and are working towards a series of political and military objectives in Afghanistan, with the full co-operation and activity of the Afghan Government.
There are reports that in Kandahar the Taliban are infiltrating the city, while progress is being made in the rural area outside. What is the Minister’s assessment of the political situation in Kandahar, and does he think that overall we are still making progress?
We do believe that progress is being made. It is a cautious process everywhere, and my hon. Friend is right to draw a distinction between provinces. Last week, we had a successful visit from Governor Mangal of Helmand, who was able to report on two years of progress in the economy and on health, as well as security. He also paid a moving visit to the national memorial to show his debt of gratitude to our troops who have given their lives, and met the mother of one of the soldiers who gave their lives in defence of Helmand. It is a complex process, but Kandahar is making progress. It will always be patchy, but it reminds us of the debt we owe to those who are making life safe and more secure for those in Afghanistan.
Following the sad death of Linda Norgrove in Afghanistan, her family have started the Linda Norgrove Foundation—the website is lindanorgrovefoundation.org —in her memory to help to raise funding for women, families and children in Afghanistan so that they can access education, health care and child care, as well as scholarships for women so that they can go to university. Her family were heartened by the attendance of the Minister with responsibility for Afghanistan at her funeral. I know that we have both been struck by the—
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising this issue. Attending Linda Norgrove’s funeral on the Isle of Lewis was one of the most moving and important things I have done as a Minister. I think we have all been struck by her family’s remarkable ability to respond to the situation without bitterness or rancour, but with deep appreciation of what that young woman achieved. It would be in the interests of the Foreign Office and all of us to support the aims and objectives of the foundation in memory of her and others who work so hard to bring development to the women and children of Afghanistan.
The Prime Minister made it clear that that was only a possibility, and of course it depends on circumstances. The major commitment made is to ensure that troop withdrawals are completed by 2015, and in that time, as I indicated earlier, the objective is to ensure that Afghans themselves have the opportunity to ensure that their country is secure, through the Afghanisation of the police and the Afghan national army. That work and training are going ahead. Last week Governor Mangal said that the province was becoming more secure, and that the training was on track. I am sure that the timetable that the Prime Minister has laid out will be adhered to.
I have had extensive discussions with my right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Defence Secretary, and other members of the National Security Council. The national security strategy and the strategic defence and security review set out our place in the world, our foreign policy objectives and the breadth of capabilities that we require to meet those objectives. Together they demonstrate the strategic and co-ordinated approach the Government are taking to advance our national interests and protect our security.
I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. Does he agree that a robust foreign policy must, by its very nature, have a strong military capability to back it up, as we saw with the role that we played in Sierra Leone and Kosovo, for example? Is he satisfied that we still have that capability, following the defence cuts that are being made?
I am satisfied that we still have the necessary capabilities. We have had to sort out a defence budget that was £38 billion overcommitted when we inherited it, but as Secretary Clinton of the United States said:
“We are reassured that the UK conducted its review in a thoughtful and clear-eyed manner, and that the result will be a UK military capable of meeting its NATO commitments and of remaining the most capable partner for our forces as we seek to mitigate the shared threats of the 21st Century.”
Will the Secretary of State please clarify the way in which foreign policy can really drive defence policy institutionally, and in particular, could you define the relationship between the National Security Council and the Joint Intelligence Committee?
Yes, I can. That is one of the objectives of setting up a true National Security Council, on which the Foreign Secretary sits with the Defence Secretary and the Chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee—and, indeed, with the directors of all our intelligence services. Really for the first time on a systematic and weekly basis—sometimes more than once a week—we sit together and look at the issues of foreign and defence policy in the round. That is a huge step forward in the way British government works.
In 2011, our priorities for the European Union will be to ensure, first, that it can seek to deliver economic growth, through action to increase trade, competitiveness and jobs; and secondly, that it demonstrates effective control over its own spending.
I thank the Minister for that answer, but can he explain to the House why the European Parliament’s lead budget negotiator has stated that the EU spending increase is likely to be at least 4.5%, when the Prime Minister is still publicly stating that there will be a 2.9% cap?
I think the MEP concerned is demonstrating a certain amount of wishful thinking. Our position remains that we are not prepared to accept anything beyond 2.9%, and the Prime Minister was able to win the support of 12 other Heads of Government for that position at the recent European summit.
It certainly forms part of the efforts that we need to make to ensure much more effective budgeting and expenditure control by all the European Union institutions. As my hon. Friend knows, part of the problem is not simply fraud; it is the over-complicated, bureaucratic nature of many European Union rules. That root cause needs to be addressed.
May I suggest to the Minister that our priority should be to seek the abandonment of the common fisheries policy, which is universally regarded as nonsense and has been a major factor in the depletion of fishing stocks in the North sea and elsewhere?
My right hon. and hon. Friends from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will be trying to ensure in the forthcoming fisheries negotiations that we reform the fisheries policy in a way that delivers the proper conservation of fish stocks and the marine environment.
Could the Minister reconfirm that it is a priority of the coalition Government to veto any transfer of powers to Brussels by treaty, and thereby also confirm that there will never be a need for a referendum on Europe during this Parliament?
It is certainly the policy not just of my hon. Friend’s party and mine but of the coalition Government as a whole that there should be no transfer of powers or competence to the European Union by way of treaty change for the duration of this Parliament, up to 2015. We also intend to introduce legislation to ensure that any future British Government would need to seek the approval of the British people through a referendum if they ever sought to impose such a transfer of powers or competencies.
14. What his most recent assessment is of the political situation in Moldova; and if he will make a statement. (22539)
Early parliamentary elections will be held in Moldova on 28 November 2010. It is important that these elections are held to internationally accepted democratic standards. High standards of democracy, human rights and media freedom are essential for Moldova to continue to move closer to the mainstream of the European family of nations, and the UK is playing a full role in monitoring those elections.
I thank the Minister for that reply, which is encouraging about the processes. Does he agree that it is important that we help to consolidate the democratic processes in Moldova, and help to resolve the problem of Transnistria? Does he encourage British MPs to engage with our counterparts in the Moldovan Parliament towards those ends?
I certainly encourage colleagues on both sides of the House to engage in the way that the right hon. Gentleman, who is vice-chairman of the all-party group on Moldova, suggests. When I visited Moldova recently, I was struck by the courage and determination of the democratic politicians there. I think it is important for all parties in this House to demonstrate our support for Moldovan democracy.
Is it not one of the great successes of the last 20 years that countries from the former Soviet Union in the east of Europe, such as Moldova, have moved from the dead hand of communism towards democracy? If Moldova ends up with a coalition Government after its forthcoming election, will the British Government have any particular expertise to offer them?
It is always dangerous for one country to try to export exactly its own way of doing things to a different nation, but we will do whatever we can to address the continued impasse with Transnistria, and to entrench democracy and the rule of law in Moldova.
I have just returned from Israel, the Palestinian Authority and Egypt, where I lent British support to efforts to restart the middle east peace process, and discussed vital security issues, including Iran’s nuclear programme. I look forward to discussing those matters further with Secretary Clinton in the US next week, when I will lead a special UN Security Council session to discuss the situation in Sudan. I will meet President Abdullah Gül of Turkey later today, and tonight I will give the Canning lecture in which I will emphasise the importance of building links and elevating our relations with Latin American countries.
Yes, I certainly will. I discussed the matter directly with the Iranian Foreign Minister, Mr Mottaki, when I met him at the UN General Assembly in New York at the end of September, and I made this country’s views on human rights in Iran absolutely clear. The Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), and I have often made statements to the same effect, and we continue to lead and rally opinion in other nations to raise those issues.
May I welcome the Government’s delegation to China and its work to strengthen economic ties? We wish it well. The Foreign Secretary knows that the strategic dialogue that was agreed with China before the election also provided a framework to pursue human rights and climate change, as well as trade and the economy. Given the importance of human rights, as well as economic ties, will he assure the House that the Prime Minister will raise the case of Liu Xiaobo with Premier Wen during his visit?
I thank the right hon. Lady for what I think is support for the strong continuity of policy with China. The last Government pursued an expanded commercial and economic relationship but also raised human rights issues, and that is exactly this Government’s approach. When I conducted the strategic dialogue in Beijing in July, I raised Liu Xiaobo’s case, and I did so directly with Premier Wen. The Prime Minister will certainly be raising human rights issues on his visit, and we will give the details when he has had those meetings.
T2. Now that legal routes seem to have been exhausted following the disappointing High Court judgment on investment scams in Northern Cyprus, will the Secretary of State confirm that the Minister will take up the matter, and will he meet me, my constituent Sandra Kacinski and other victims to discuss it? (22550)
T7. Although I fully understand our treaty obligations on Cyprus, and I wish next week’s talks with Ban Ki-moon well, will the Foreign Secretary acknowledge the reality that there continues to be de facto partition, from which the Greek Cypriot side benefits and with which it is comfortable, but which leaves the Turkish Cypriots in isolated limbo? Does he agree that that situation cannot go on as it is? (22555)
The right hon. Gentleman is right to recognise our treaty obligations. He will know that we want the forthcoming talks hosted by the UN Secretary-General to be a success and that, as my hon. Friend the Minister for Europe said earlier, we have been supporting the work of Alexander Downer, the UN negotiator. I read the right hon. Gentleman’s article in the newspapers yesterday, so I am fully cognisant of his views on this matter, but I am sure he will appreciate that, as the incumbent Foreign Secretary, I do not want to say anything at this moment that might make those talks more difficult.
T3. I am delighted that the Prime Minister is visiting China today. Will the Foreign Secretary join me in congratulating Renishaw and other fine Gloucestershire companies on the growth of their exports to China? Does he agree that other companies should be encouraged to follow their path of hard work and success in that crucial market? (22551)
Yes, absolutely; I congratulate that firm and many others. The agreements signed during the Prime Minister’s visit to China could add up to about £1.7 billion of contracts. We have already seen the announcement of a huge contract for Rolls-Royce engines earlier today, and my hon. Friend has given us another excellent example of how British businesses can do much more in China.
T8. Does the Minister share my concern, following Richard Falk’s comments, that the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land is irreversible? Will he assure the House that the Government are doing everything they can to press for a Palestinian state and to support the Palestinian people? (22556)
We certainly are doing that. I visited Ramallah last week and met Prime Minister Fayyad of the Palestinian Authority. I also met non-violent Palestinian human rights activists and other leading figures in east Jerusalem. During my visit, I restated the position of this country, and indeed of the whole European Union, which is that we want to see a settlement based on the 1967 borders with a just settlement for refugees and with Jerusalem as the capital of both states. That is the clear British Government position.
Thank you. Can my right hon. Friend also reassure me that, as well as promoting exports, the FCO will play its part in attempting to reduce the interminable red tape that is preventing a company in my constituency, Enterprise Control Systems, from servicing the award-winning defence products that it is successfully selling overseas?
My hon. Friend is welcome to applaud that decision and anything else she might wish to applaud; we are grateful to her for that. Cutting barriers to trade is an important part of our approach to expanding British commerce. In many of our meetings with other Governments, we ask for improved market access. If she would like to give me the details of the difficulties that the company in her constituency is experiencing, we will look at that matter specifically.
The Foreign Secretary will be aware of the multilateral surveillance procedures for EU budgets, which apply to all member states, whether they are in the euro or not. Is he aware of Com. (2010)526, which makes it plain that we have to provide more financial information to the European Union, whether we are in the eurozone or not?
When my right hon. Friend the Chancellor took part in the taskforce, he ensured that we would not need to supply anything to the European Commission that had not been given to Parliament first or that the Commission would be unable to find through the intelligent use of Google. I do not think that the hon. Gentleman has anything to be afraid of.
T5. I am pleased that the Prime Minister will raise human rights issues while he is in China. I hope this is a sign of a Government who take international human rights seriously and who want to have a truly ethical foreign policy. Will the Prime Minister also take the opportunity to talk to the Chinese about the sale of weapons to Sudan and ensure that they are not used there to cause human rights problems and further the conflict? (22553)
I thank my hon. Friend for his support for the approach we take to human rights. As he knows, we argue that that goes hand in hand with the expansion of trade and business across the world because it is the rule of law and respect for human rights that help to assure businesses that they are able to do business across the world.
I very much take note of and agree with the point about Sudan. As I mentioned earlier, I will be chairing a special session of the United Nations Security Council specifically to discuss the situation in Sudan. One of our objectives is to show that the whole world is working together and that China—it is, of course, a permanent member of the Security Council—participates fully in the vision for the future of Sudan that we will set forth.
If the inter-city express programme goes ahead, Hitachi will build the rolling stock in Newton Aycliffe, adjacent to the Foreign Secretary’s constituency. The Foreign Secretary said in Japan in August that Britain is open for business. I know that the British Prime Minister and the Japanese Prime Minister have spoken about this issue, but if it does not go ahead, what effect does the right hon. Gentleman think that will have on bilateral relationships with Japan?
Of course we have had strong representations—to the Prime Minister, to me and to other Ministers—from the Japanese Government about that, as one would expect. This is a very important project. At the same time, as the hon. Gentleman knows, we have to get Government expenditure under control, so the decision is primarily one for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport. The hon. Gentleman’s representations will, as ever, be conveyed to the Secretary of State.
T6. Does my right hon. Friend agree that combating piracy off the coast of Somalia is vital to protecting the UK’s trading interests? Will we take a lead in finding a political solution inland, as opposed to dealing with what is happening offshore? (22554)
I am grateful to my hon. Friend and I agree with him. The Royal Navy is playing a leading role in the counter-piracy operations. Once pirates are captured, they need to be detained, tried and imprisoned. That is why we are working with countries like Kenya, the Seychelles and Tanzania to provide this capacity. I agree that we must try to find a political solution on the land, as that is the only way to eliminate this evil crime.
Three people were killed yesterday when Moroccan forces clashed with Sahawi people in a refugee camp outside Layoun in occupied Western Sahara. Will the Foreign Secretary intervene urgently with the Government of Morocco and the UN to bring about a resolution to this crisis? It has gone on for more than 30 years, and people are wasting their lives in refugee camps when they should be allowed to return home to their own land and decide their own future—not under occupation.
I appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s concerns; he came to see me last week to discuss Western Sahara. The circumstances of the most recent incident are still unclear, and we have asked for monitoring by our own people based in Morocco. The hon. Gentleman’s concerns are shared by many: Western Sahara is an issue that has gone on too long and the problem is very difficult to resolve.
The taskforce conclusions are intended to provide a framework for stability and decent economic governance in the eurozone so that never again are all European economies taken by surprise by the sort of financial collapse that we saw in certain southern European economies about 18 months ago. It is profoundly in the interests of the UK that the eurozone should be strong and stable, given the interdependence of their economic interests and ours.
Does the Foreign Secretary agree that one of the less well known but most insidious aspects of the blockade of Gaza is that Israel threatens to shoot any Palestinian considered to be near the Israeli border? Israel defines 17% of the entire territory of the Gaza strip as constituting nearness to that border, while 17 of the 22 Palestinians killed have been killed in the area. What can the Foreign Secretary do to get Israel to see sense on that issue?
There have certainly been shooting incidents in the area. That underlines the importance of what we discussed earlier: a different approach to Gaza. We need to ensure that reconstruction takes place to prevent, for instance, arguments and incidents involving people who try to collect building materials from near the border and are shot at. That is one of the controversial incidents that have taken place. An improvement in reconstruction and a general improvement in economic conditions would be at least a first step towards dealing with the situation that the hon. Gentleman has described.
T10. I applaud the Foreign Secretary for obtaining the agreement of 12 other member states to a cap on any increase in the European Union budget. Can he square that with the EU treaty provisions which state that the budget must be set through co-decision between the institutions? What progress can be made in that regard? (22558)
That is the position of 13 members of the European Council. They are therefore able to resist any proposal for a budget increase larger than 2.9%. As my hon. Friend has said, the procedure involves co-decision between the Parliament and the Council, and negotiations are now commencing. If there is no agreement, the 2010 budget will be rolled over into 2011. Everyone concerned had better bear that in mind.
Does the Foreign Secretary realise how fed up people are with the foot-dragging over the universal jurisdiction issue? Instead of all these vague promises, why can we not have a simple, straightforward piece of legislation to sort the problem out once and for all?
It is a bit of a cheek for someone who supported the last Government to ask that question. The last Government’s feet were not dragged; they were stuck solid in the cement of inertia that characterised their closing months in office. We have set out what we are going to do. We will introduce the relevant clauses in the next few weeks, and I hope that, given the support of Opposition Members, they will be passed in the current Session of Parliament. Where there was complete inaction opposite, there has been rapid action on this side of the House.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend and the Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), for the attention that they have given recently to the case of Shaker Aamer, who has been detained in Guantanamo Bay for eight years. He is a former resident of my constituency, and his wife and four children remain my constituents. Ministers are aware that this is a critical period. Will they undertake to press their United States counterparts hard, in person, for Mr Aamer’s early release back to the United Kingdom?
I met my hon. Friend and Shaker Aamer’s father-in-law only last week. This is a very difficult case, and it is not entirely up to the United Kingdom, but our position is that we are seeking the return of Shaker Aamer to the UK, and will continue to press the United States authorities to that effect.
I have just returned from Mexico, where I saw at first hand the human rights abuses of Los Mineros, the miners who have been on strike for four years. I understand that there is to be a ministerial visit shortly. Would it be possible for me to meet the appropriate Minister so that he can hear of the atrocities of which I heard?
The hon. Gentleman is right: I shall be visiting Mexico the week after next. It would be good for us to meet beforehand to discuss the concerns that he has just raised.
My constituency is home to many refugees from Zimbabwe, including 80-year-old Peter Seymour-Smith, who fled the country when his land and business were confiscated. He has said that he would go back if free and fair elections were held, which President Mugabe has intimated might be a possibility. What steps would the ministerial team take to ensure that if the elections were held, we would not see a repeat of 2008’s shameful practices and vote-rigging?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her question and for her special interest in Zimbabwe, which is due to the fact that a constituent of hers is an expert on it. I entirely agree with her. It is essential for any forthcoming elections to be properly monitored and observed. It is also essential for monitors and observers to be in place at an early stage to monitor the electoral registration process, to have full access to all the remote areas, to monitor the poll on the day and to monitor the count. We are working with the Southern African Development Community and other organisations to ensure that there is no repeat of 2008.
Armed Forces Charter
Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)
Thank you, Mr Speaker.
Let me begin by paying tribute to the armed services, at this time of all times, for the sacrifices that they have made and continue to make on behalf of our nation. It is also proper that we recognise the sacrifice made by their families, and I am sure that the House is at one in showing its support both for our brave service personnel and for their families.
It is right that the issue of the welfare of service personnel and their families should have crossed the political divide. In that spirit, I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Coventry North East (Mr Ainsworth) and my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) on their work in the previous Government on producing last year’s Green Paper on the service personnel. The Command Paper brought together proposals from across Departments to support not only our armed forces and their families, but veterans of current and previous conflicts.
Although it is absolutely right that attention focuses on casualties from current conflicts, we must not forget that our veterans should expect a lifelong commitment from a grateful nation. We should also recognise the work done by service charities, and I wish to place on the record my thanks to the Royal British Legion for highlighting that important area and the need for an armed forces charter.
The House has recognised that many veterans face varied challenges on return from active duty, and the Royal British Legion is right to highlight the fact that returning personnel are more likely to develop psychological symptoms as a result of their experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq. This nation has a duty of care to them and their families. Opposition Members have to agree with the legion that the Ministry of Defence needs to introduce more effective prevention and treatment strategies to tackle mental health problems, binge drinking and drug abuse.
As the chairman of the Royal British Legion said recently:
“The legacy of the fiercest fighting since the Second World War will be the nation’s to meet for decades to come… politicians…have a…lifelong duty of care to protect and support veterans and their families. The Military Covenant must be honoured, both for those currently serving and those who have served.”
This House has heard and debated many of the challenges facing our veterans as they return from active service or leave our armed forces. Although we should acknowledge the steps taken by both this and previous Governments, the time has come to place on a statutory footing certain aspects of the welfare provision that should be offered by central and local government, and to take the issue out of party politics.
My right hon. and hon. Friends worked hard in the last Government to improve the standard of accommodation for personnel and their families. Under their plans, 75,000 single-bed spaces will be modernised or upgraded to a higher standard by 2013, and I pay tribute to their efforts in this area. However, there will still be a shortfall of some 35,000 bed spaces that are below the acceptable standard, and it is regrettable that this Government have no plans as yet for the upgrading of 25,000 bed spaces outside the current schedule.
For family homes in the UK, the situation is even worse, according to the Royal British Legion. Of the 50,000 service personnel family homes, two thirds do not meet the Ministry of Defence’s own definition of high quality. Under current plans, it will take 20 years to bring all family accommodation up to the higher standard. We bring forward this Bill today in recognition of the continuing sacrifices made by our brave men and women in the armed forces, and by their families, and in recognition of the fact that our nation must honour its debt of gratitude in a fitting and practical way.
Question put and agreed to.
That Thomas Docherty, Ms Gisela Stuart, Mr Michael McCann, Grahame M. Morris, Mr Ian Davidson, Mr Bob Ainsworth, Hugh Bayley, Ian Murray and Tom Blenkinsop present the Bill.
Thomas Docherty accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 11 November and to be printed (Bill 104).
[5th Allotted Day]
I beg to move,
That this House believes that, whilst housing benefit is in need of reform, the Government’s proposals will mean significant losses for hundreds of thousands of working families and pensioners and risk spending an additional £120 million on the cost of providing temporary accommodation; and calls on the Government to bring forward revised proposals for the reform of housing benefit which do not penalise those who have been unable to secure employment within 12 months, and which ensure that any proposals are implemented on a revised timetable which allows councils, tenants and landlords to adjust, allows the impact on rents to be observed and understood, and avoids additional spending on temporary accommodation.
It is common ground across the House that the deficit needs to be cut and that, as the motion states, housing benefit needs to be reformed. The shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my right hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint), will speak later and I am sure she will reflect the views of many in this House in recognising that the issue of housing benefit cannot, and should not, be detached from broader issues of housing provision. However, it is important to start the debate by setting out some of the facts that explain the real and rising concerns that have been expressed from both sides of the House about the impact of the Government’s proposed housing benefit changes. I will address first the reach of the changes, then the reason for them, and finally their potential impact.
If we were to believe everything we read in the newspapers, we would have thought in recent weeks that housing benefit reform is solely a London issue and that it matters only to people who have large houses and should be, but are not, working. Broadcasts and newspapers have suggested that the key issues are workshy families in Mayfair mansions, so let us start with some truths, however inconvenient they are for the Opposition Front Bench. Some 4.7 million people in the United Kingdom currently receive housing benefit, 2 million of whom are pensioners on pension credit guarantee of just about £132 a week, while 500,000 are people on jobseeker’s allowance and 700,000 are people in work in low-paying jobs. From just one measure of the Government’s proposed changes alone—the cut in local housing allowance from the 50th to the 30th percentile—700,000 of these, many of the poorest people in our country in and out of work, stand to lose on average £9 per week.
I am looking forward to hearing the rest of what I know will be a very passionate and important speech. Does my right hon. Friend agree that many people—not only in my constituency, but throughout the country—who have disabilities or who are carers for people with disabilities are terrified that these proposals might affect them?
To illustrate my hon. Friend’s point, one of the depressing aspects of the changes is that we have not yet had a comprehensive impact assessment; I will discuss that during the course of my remarks. We have had figures about the proposed changes from the Department for Work and Pensions, which confirm that they will hit every part of Britain, and from the smallest flat upwards. A poor pensioner living in a single-bedroom flat in Glasgow will lose £7 a week, and a family in a two-bedroom flat in Liverpool will lose £10 a week. Housing benefit recipients in Yorkshire and Humberside are most likely to lose out from this 30th percentile measure, with 90% of local housing allowance recipients seeing a reduction in their housing benefit.
Little wonder that Shelter’s chief executive, Campbell Robb, explained only yesterday:
“The focus of debate so far has been the cap to housing benefit and the impact on London, but this analysis shows that these cuts will affect hundreds of thousands of people across the country.”
That is why the Church of Scotland, a body with a long and distinguished tradition of work and witness in deprived communities across Scotland, on Friday wrote to every Scottish Member of Parliament, raising concerns and questions in advance of today’s debate about the impact of the proposed measures on the communities it serves. Today, Shelter in Cornwall raised concerns about the Government’s proposals, saying:
“The reality is that we are going to be facing much more homelessness and more evictions because of this. Cornwall’s low incomes mean that lots of hard working people do have to claim housing benefit.”
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question. I hope that the Secretary of State will take the opportunity to explain to the House and indeed to the country why, in the package of measures contained in the spending review, the Government decided to take more money from the nation’s families than the nation’s banks.
Calls for a rethink on these proposals have also come from the hon. Member for St Ives (Andrew George), whose constituency covers the Isles of Scilly. I hope that he will vote in support of the motion, as he has said:
“The impact on Cornwall is likely to be very severe indeed.”
He also said that the proposals
“will put a lot of families in extreme stress and ministers should think again.”
Concern is rising among those on both sides of the House and across the country, from Cornwall in the south to Shetland in the north. We have to recognise that when we talk about these rushed and ill-considered changes, we are talking about changes that will affect our constituents, no matter what part of the country we represent. The changes will affect many of our constituents, those in and out of work, as well as many of our poorest pensioners. This debate should be informed by that state of mind, rather than by the lurid headlines that Ministers have worked so hard and so shamefully to create in recent days.
I agree with the following statement:
“Housing Benefit will be reformed to ensure that we do not subsidise people to live in the private sector on rents that other ordinary working families could not afford.”
It came from this year’s Labour manifesto. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree with it?
I do, which is why I wish those on the Government Benches would spend less time reading our manifesto and more time changing their proposals.
Let me deal with the substantive points. [Interruption.] Hon. Members should have just a little patience—one of the virtues that I wish the Secretary of State had learned in relation to these changes. Two arguments are being advanced in favour of the changes, the first being that the housing benefit bill is out of control and the second being that reform will lower the rent levels paid by the state for private sector accommodation available through housing benefit.
Let us start by examining the facts and the merits of those arguments. First, as the Building and Social Housing Foundation points out:
“Housing benefit has remained remarkably consistent at around 14% of the benefits bill for many years and most of the increase over the last 18 months has been down to an increase in the number of claimants, which is exactly what we would expect to happen in response to a recession.”
I will give way in a moment or two. Next, it is stated that in the past five years housing benefit has risen by £5 billion and it has been suggested that the cuts are necessary to stop a soaring housing benefit bill. Housing benefit did rise by about 21% during the recession—that is undisputed—but that was driven by a case load that increased by 18%, including a 26% increase in respect of those of working age; it was not driven by a few rents.
Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman would like to explain how the figures show that the real-terms increase over the past five years was 50%, not 18%. That was fuelled hugely by the Labour Government’s reform to local housing allowance. The figures show that today’s rates of LHA are 10% higher than those that they inherited, and that is due to their change. Perhaps he would like to explain that.
I am just about to explain it, if the right hon. Gentleman would just exercise a little patience. If he had done his homework, he would know that his Department’s own statistics show that since 2000 more than half the increase in the housing benefit bill—54%—did not come from the few high claims. It came from poorer private tenants—those in low-paid work, and disabled or elderly people—claiming housing benefit. More than half the increase is coming from more people claiming, not from significantly increased rents. What Ministers seem to fail to understand is the number of households on local housing allowance who are in work. Over the past two years, there have been 250,000 new cases in work claiming LHA. During the recession, as wages and the hours that people were able to work fell, people turned to housing benefit and to LHA to stop themselves being made homeless. In recent years, during the recession, housing benefit has been vital in keeping people in their homes.
The right hon. Gentleman was a Minister in the last Government. He started his speech with a brief mention of “housing provision”, but he has not said anything about it since. Will he inform the House how many council houses were built and how many were sold by the last Labour Government?
The hon. Gentleman made that point in the debate in Westminster Hall. I will not pretend that our priority was council housing as distinct from social housing, because for Governments over many years there has been a move away from direct provision by local councils to broader social housing, principally provided by housing associations. We will happily stand comparison between the number of social houses that we built during our time in office and the number being trumpeted by those on the Government Front Bench. Incidentally, almost half of the 150,000 in the figure that is now being used by the Conservatives are houses that were initiated by the Labour party when it was still in office. Notwithstanding the fact that I do not think that that was a point worthy of the hon. Gentleman’s genuine concern, I hope that he will back up the words of the early-day motion with his actions this evening and join the Labour party in the Division Lobby.
Does the right hon. Gentleman not agree, as all commentators have said, that since the introduction of the LHA the transparency of it has led to landlords putting up rent? Does he not think that there is a duty on Government in these difficult times to do something about it?
I have great respect for the hon. Gentleman, but there is a difference between having a duty to act—and we support the case for reform in housing benefit—[Hon. Members: “Ah!”] I know that that might be an uncomfortable truth for those on the Government Benches, but there is a difference between a duty to act and acting in such a precipitate and reckless fashion that it ultimately ends up costing the taxpayer more. I think the hon. Gentleman is just old enough to recollect that under the Conservatives in the ’80s and ’90s the impact of higher homelessness was a greater cost to the taxpayer; it did not lower bills for the taxpayer.
The core of the Government’s policy is their belief that by cutting or capping housing benefit—this has been the substance of a couple of interventions—they will reduce the level of rents in the private sector and thus reduce the deficit. In seeking to find a rationale for the scale and speed of the cuts, the Government seem to be getting themselves in some difficulty. The Daily Telegraph today sets out that LHA rents are rising faster than non-LHA rents in the private sector. The Government’s regulations require that the LHA rates are set at the median of the private rental sector rent, excluding those let to housing benefit claimants, so rent officers collect data on non-housing benefit rents in each broad rental area market and use that data to set the local housing allowance.
In passing, incidentally, if the Secretary of State is so concerned about rent levels in the private sector, will he explain why he decided to scrap our proposals for a national register of landlords or indeed for the regulation of letting and management agents, designed to give more protection to tenants? The sound of silence is deafening. Why did he bin the recommendations of the Rugg review?
I do not think that protecting tenants from bad landlords is bureaucratic nonsense. If the Secretary of State did more than visit Easterhouse, he might share that point of view.
Not only does the Government’s core belief that rents will fall risk failing to reflect how LHA works, at a much deeper level it risks ignoring what is happening in the housing market at the moment. Rents in the sector will probably rise, according to the National Landlords Association, which has published results of a poll showing that 50% of landlords would not reduce their rents at all and that nine out of 10 would not rent to housing benefit recipients—[Interruption.] From a sedentary position, the Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Thornbury and Yate (Steve Webb), says, “They would say that, wouldn’t they?” Would that be the claim that he would make against Shelter, the indisputably well-recognised housing charity? “Yes,” I hear from Conservative Back-Benchers. Well, their interventions are perhaps more telling than they realise.
The right hon. Gentleman is keen to use statistics. I wonder whether he is comfortable with the statistic that more than 50% of Labour supporters believe that housing benefit should be reformed. They support us. Is it not ironic that he is proposing such a motion today when his supporters support this Government?
First, I respectfully suggest that the hon. Gentleman reads the motion. Secondly, I suggest that he recognises that we introduced the LHA, which has already been the subject of an exchange across the Floor of the House. He might also want to go back and read the statement of the former Chancellor at the March Budget, when we suggested further measures for reform of housing benefit.
That is commonplace. There is a difference between the right reforms that will save the public money, and the wrong reforms that will potentially cost the public money and lead to higher homelessness, as we have seen so often in the past.
I am keen to make a little progress.
According to a study commissioned by Shelter from the Cambridge Centre for Housing and Planning Research—I wonder if the Government will dispute the integrity of that body—more than four in 10, or 42%, of landlords currently letting to LHA claimants planned to scale back. Shelter estimates that that will equate to 100,000 landlords. Liz Peace, the chief executive of the British Property Federation, said:
“Landlords might decide to abandon the social sector.”
The Conservative Mayor of London—I wonder what the Government will say in relation to this evidence—says 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 the words not of the Labour Front Bench, but of Boris Johnson.
Has my right hon. Friend seen the Daily Mail today? Under the headline “Archbishop is wrong about…welfare…says Iain Duncan Smith”, the opening paragraph states:
“Iain Duncan Smith has attacked the Archbishop of Canterbury’s claims that housing benefit cuts will lead to a cycle of despair that will socially cleanse the poor from Britain’s cities.”
The article goes on to quote the Secretary of State as saying of the Opposition and special interest groups:
“‘They have even tried to suggest that our real purpose is not just to cut the budget deficit but to remove poor people from the heart of our cities.’”
If that is not the purpose of the Government’s intentions, surely that will be the net effect.
I can understand the embarrassment of those on the Government Front Bench, but whether it is the Deputy Prime Minister attacking the Institute for Fiscal Studies or the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions attacking the Archbishop of Canterbury, they diminish the case that they are trying to make.
I would like an answer from the right hon. Gentleman now. He was asked an interesting question. Does he agree with Opposition Members, such as the hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Mr McCann), who think that our measures will socially cleanse London? Will he please answer that question?
I have a clear view that if these proposals pass unamended, London will look very different in the years ahead. [Interruption.] I noted that the Secretary of State did not dispute the fact that he had attacked the Archbishop of Canterbury. Perhaps he will choose to do that next time.
I just want a straight answer. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree with his right hon. and hon. Friends, including the hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow, who for the past two weeks have said that what we are doing will remove every social tenant from London and socially cleanse it? Is that correct?
I have said that I think London will look very different in the years ahead if the Government’s proposals are passed. We can have a contest across the Floor of the House in which I ask the right hon. Gentleman how he feels about Boris, and he can ask me how I feel about some Labour Back Benchers. I know it is uncomfortable for the Secretary of State, but this is a debate about the Government’s policies, not about my words.
Will my right hon. Friend compare the current position to the days when Lady Porter decided to take measures in this part of London to shift people out of certain areas for political reasons? Is not the Government’s current idea one that Lady Porter could only have dreamed of, because it is 10, 20, 30 times worse?
Has my right hon. Friend discovered which Conservative Minister described the measures as having such a high social impact in terms of moving people out of London that it would be greater than the highland clearances?
No, I have been generous and I will make a little progress, although I will be happy to take further interventions. Given that the subject has moved on to the highland clearances, let us move from London to Edinburgh and take the example of Edinburgh to prove that the issue is not exclusively a London one.
I will give way in a few moments, because I am interested to hear what the hon. Gentleman intends to do later this evening.
Let us take the example of Edinburgh. About 20% of all households live in the private rented sector, and about 18% of housing in the private rented sector is occupied by people who receive some housing benefit. If landlords no longer wish to have tenants on housing benefit because of the lower local housing allowance, they will have ample scope to find other tenants in that city.
Perhaps we should move on from Edinburgh to the east midlands. In the other place, the Bishop of Leicester said:
“The present belief that cutting housing benefit will depress the market and reduce private sector rents might just work if there were more houses to meet the demand. As it is, all the risk is being born by the vulnerable, not the comfortable.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 1 November 2010; Vol. 721, c. 1446.]
The right hon. Gentleman and his colleagues are perfectly right to raise this important issue, which is of concern across the House, but will he be his usual self and use careful language? There is no evidence to suggest that the implication of the policy is what his hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) and his hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr Skinner) have suggested—or, indeed, what the Mayor of London has implied. Yes, there are issues, but the idea that people will be moved forcibly from where they are to somewhere else is neither necessarily the case nor evidentially the case.
I can assure the hon. Gentleman that I will be characteristically careful in my language. I hope that he will be characteristically careful in aligning his words with his actions. We will be watching carefully this evening to see whether this is another instance of the Liberals either being able to prove that they are willing to match their words with actions or, alas, not.
I am going to make a little more progress.
There is a substantive question, and that is: on what evidential basis do the Government assert that rents will fall? In the debate involving the Bishop of Leicester last week in the other place, the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Baroness Hanham, in response to being challenged directly on the evidence that the Government could adduce for a fall in rents as a result of the changes, said that it was a “suggestion”.
I think that the shadow Secretary of State is a measured and reasonable man who will not want to be hysterical but will want to look at the facts. Since November 2008 private rents have fallen by 5% and local housing allowance rents have risen by 3%. LHA is pushing rents up. Does he accept that?
I have already covered the point that LHA is calculated in relation to rent in the private rented sector. The Minister generously characterises me as a reasonable fellow, but the fact is that this is the second time in as many days that a coalition Minister has accused the Government’s critics of being hysterical. I think that it was the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government who yesterday told London councils, when perfectly reasonable questions were being asked, to “grow up”. I hope that when the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions speaks in this debate we will have a more measured and reasonable account of why the policies have been decided on and of whether the Government are willing to reflect on the points being raised, and in turn change their mind.
Does my right hon. Friend recall the answer that the Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Thornbury and Yate (Steve Webb) gave less than one month ago, when he indicated that at the last count 48% of local housing allowance recipients received a sum less than the rent that they were due to pay? The idea that half of all local housing allowance recipients are forcing up rents, when they are not actually getting enough housing allowance to pay the rent, is an extraordinary proposition.
My right hon. Friend’s expertise is well revealed in his question. I have been told to avoid hysteria and be careful and measured, but any of us who recollect the impact of the community charge, when a number of poor people started with a small but rapidly accumulating debt and ended up owing significant arrears to local authorities—which ultimately had to write off those debts—have reason to be very cautious before endorsing these proposals.
No. I am keen to make a little progress, by looking at the individual measures that the Government are advancing.
When the Secretary of State speaks, will he explain why the Department for Work and Pensions is not producing an impact assessment on the whole package of changes to housing benefit before the House? An assessment has been made of the introduction of the LHA measures during 2011-12, as the Social Security Advisory Commission requires, but that is partial, and of course does not take account of the effect of the consumer prices index cap on LHA rates from 2013.
We would also expect a separate impact assessment of the jobseeker’s allowance measure and social sector size limits to follow once the secondary legislation is published. At this stage, however, it is unclear whether an assessment will be made of the CPI changes. The fact that no comprehensive impact assessment has been completed before the announcement does nothing to reduce the widespread anxiety about this package of reforms. I therefore hope that the Secretary of State will now accept the concerns of his colleagues and undertake to publish an assessment of the whole package.
Will my right hon. Friend confirm that it is a statutory duty of the Secretary of State to undertake to give an impact assessment, on the basis that this greatly affects London’s ethnic minorities—and if there is a disproportionate effect, to do something to alleviate it? It is extraordinary that that impact assessment has not yet been published.
That is an outstanding point made by a tireless fighter for the people of Tottenham. I know that my right hon. Friend has already taken the opportunity to raise this matter directly with the Secretary of State, who I hope will be able to find an opportunity to respond to it.
My right hon. Friend is right to analyse and dismantle the individual points made, but there is also a cumulative effect. The cumulative effect on my borough after these changes are introduced, if they are, is that 6% of neighbourhoods—seven out of 111—will be affordable to people in receipt of housing benefit. Mine is by no means the worst affected borough in London: all the central London boroughs are affected. If that is not forcing people out of London and making it impossible for people on low incomes to live in London, I do not know what is.
My hon. Friend speaks with force and knowledge about the impact of these changes in his own constituency. I hope that when Government Front Benchers reflect on the range of points that have been made about the impact on our communities and constituencies across London, they will take the opportunity to think again.
I will come to the issue of the cap. The hon. Gentleman does a disservice to the importance and seriousness of this debate by simply reading out the questions the Whips have given him. In terms of the cumulative effect, which is what we were talking about, this package involves £1.8 billion-worth of cuts. The measure that he identifies accounts for £65 million of that £1.8 billion. One of the many attributes missing on the Government Benches is a sense of proportion.
Let us look at some of the individual measures. Labour Members do not have any objection in principle to asking younger single adults to live in a shared house or flat—after all, that is what has happened a great deal in the private sector. Yet it is revealing that the Chancellor, in his spending review statement to the House, described this as a chance to limit the ability to live on housing benefit as a lifestyle choice. So why have the Government not produced an impact assessment for these proposals? How can we be reassured that there will be sufficient supply to accommodate additional people and that the specific needs of young people in special circumstances, such as the disabled, will be addressed before this measure is introduced?
On the social sector, even the Government themselves seem to be struggling to understand some of the proposals. The June Budget promised to change housing entitlements for people of working age in the social sector. Can the Secretary of State explain what that means, and whether it will mean forcing people to move out of their council homes when their children turn 18? The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Thornbury and Yate, who has already contributed to the debate, recently said in an answer to a written question:
“The detailed policy design of this change is still being developed.”—[Official Report, 1 November 2010; Vol. 517, c. 565W.]
In that case, why are the Government so confident that it will save £490 million?
Let us move on to the issue of the CPI. The shadow Chancellor has made it clear that we would support changing the uprating of benefits for a time-limited period, but this is not what the Government propose in relation to housing benefit. Index-linking local housing allowance to the CPI, which does not in any way reflect housing costs, means that the LHA’s value will drop substantially against rising rent levels, and households will increasingly find themselves priced out of all but the poorest-quality accommodation.
The impact is clear if we view the decade from 1997 to 2007 and then project forward. During those 10 years rents increased by 70%, while the CPI—the new inflation index that the Government have chosen—increased by only 20%. On that projection, by 2020 housing benefit based on CPI will have fallen so far behind private rents that it may cover only 10% of the available property. In Manchester it would cover only 5% of available two-bedroom flats, and in parts of Winchester, within 10 to 12 years not a single two-bedroom home would be affordable on housing benefit.
I ask Ministers in all seriousness whether it is coincidental that in evidence to the Select Committee on Work and Pensions last week, Lord Freud suggested that the coalition Government now saw it as
“quite valuable to rewrite the homelessness legislation”
Can the Secretary of State confirm whether that is indeed the case, and can he further assure the House that the Government are not simply seeking to rewrite the rules for those threatened by homelessness as they rewrote the rules for the unemployed in the 1980s and ’90s, parking a generation of people in the unemployment figures?
The right hon. Gentleman is being careful not to set out the Labour party’s position on the cap. Does he agree with his leader, the right hon. Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband), or does he agree with the shadow Health Secretary, who said nine days ago:
“Those top level benefits do need to be capped”?
I will answer the hon. Gentleman’s question directly. The former Chancellor of the Exchequer, my right hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh South West (Mr Darling), introduced an option for dealing with extreme cases in the March budget—excluding a proportion of the highest rents from the calculation of the median. I am sure that given his past employment, the hon. Member for West Suffolk (Matthew Hancock) will be aware of that change. As I have previously stated, I have no objection in principle to a cap, if it is introduced on a staged timetable. I commend to him the speech that I gave at the Institute for Public Policy Research as recently as Friday. However, we have to ask whether a national cap is the most appropriate plan, or whether a regional cap would target the very highest claims in all regions.
I am keen to make a little progress.
I rather fear and suspect that the focus on the cap in some interventions owes more to Andy Coulson than to the Secretary of State. As I have already made clear, despite the fact that it will yield £65 million, it is only one part of a package of more than £1.8 billion-worth of proposed housing benefit changes resulting from the cumulative impact of the June Budget and the spending review.
Perhaps the Secretary of State will be able to answer some specific questions. Why is it necessary to introduce a cap on rent levels from April next year, and the change in the maximum rate to the 30th percentile in October? Is there not a real risk that some households will be displaced twice within a short period, with all the costs and individual traumas that that would entail?
Let us look at the reality of the matter for a moment. Many households will be making their housing arrangements now without full knowledge of what the proposals will mean. They may be arranging for their children to go to a local school, to sign up for child care support or to buy a season ticket for travel to work. It must be right to give individuals enough notice and clarity about what the first tranche of measures will mean for them to be able to ascertain whether they will be able to avail themselves of the discretionary housing payments that the Government claim will be available.
What estimate has the Department made of the impact of the changes on homelessness? Does the Secretary of State accept the figures provided by London Councils, which expects that 82,000 households will be forced from their homes? What estimate has he made of the cost of the changes to local government? Shelter has said that the costs of introducing all the rushed changes will be as much as £120 million. Does he have an alternative figure that he would like to share with the House?
The Mayor of London’s own director of housing has stated that the introduction of the cap in London alone will lead to a 48% rise in homelessness acceptances, which will mean £78 million being spent in London on temporary accommodation. Yet the Budget Red Book estimates savings of only £65 million a year. Given those figures, why would the Government introduce a policy that could end up costing the taxpayer more than it is intended to save?
I now move from the cap, about which people have been so keen to talk in the newspapers for so many days, to the change to the 30th percentile, which is perhaps more deserving of that level of publicity. Liz Phelps of Citizens Advice UK has remarked that the change
“will potentially affect people across the country. It will mean lower rates…It is very crude, short-term thinking. It will cut the DWP budget but it will explode the homelessness budget. We will see a lot more rent arrears, a lot more debt and acute poverty, and then more homelessness.”
I wish to put on record that however important the change is in London and the south-east, it is not simply an issue for that area. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Department’s own figures, which show that some 5,500 local housing allowance recipients in Blackpool will lose up to £25 a month, are not acceptable in such areas, which have some of the highest rates of deprivation in the country?