Wednesday 27 February 2013
[Philip Davies in the Chair]
Asylum Support (Children and Young People)
Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Mr Desmond Swayne.)
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies.
I am pleased to have secured this debate, and it is good to see a number of colleagues here, although perhaps not as many as I had hoped; maybe everyone is in Eastleigh this morning. [Interruption.] Perhaps not quite everyone.
It is good to see the hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin). He served on the recent cross-party parliamentary panel on the experiences of children and young people in the asylum system, which I chaired. That inquiry, which was supported by the Children’s Society, is the instigator for this debate. The hon. Member for Stroud (Neil Carmichael) had also hoped to be here, but he has a clashing appointment with the Select Committee on Education.
Before I say anything else, I would like to express my gratitude to the Children’s Society for its help and support during the inquiry. I am grateful to see the Minister here; I have had an opportunity to discuss the inquiry with him. I know he has read the report, so I look forward to his response. I also thank the 200 or so individuals and organisations that gave evidence to our inquiry, both in writing and in person. We were very lucky to receive evidence from a range of experts, including local authorities, safeguarding boards and academics, as well as from organisations working directly with young asylum seekers and their families. We also heard from the young people and their families themselves, many of whom came to give evidence in the House of Commons, which was a very moving occasion for many on the panel.
I am pleased that the hon. Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma), who also served on the panel, has joined us. All the panel would agree that some of the evidence we received was extremely shocking and very upsetting. We found that families are often surviving on as little as £5 a day per person. Parents told us that they often skip meals to pay for basic items and that it is particularly difficult for them to pay for any item, such as a winter coat or shoes, that requires slightly more money. They told us that they are unable to pay for their children’s school trips and uniform, a situation exacerbated by the frequent moves during dispersal and rehousing that affect many families. Birthdays, toys and other things that other families take for granted are another question entirely.
Asylum support rates have fallen way below the poverty line in recent years; they were first set at 90% of income support rates, but it was later agreed that they be set at 70% of income support rates. Successive Governments have failed to uprate those benefits under section 95 and section 4 of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999, thereby allowing them to fall way beneath the basic level of support that we would consider appropriate for families—that of income support.
As the Minister is aware, no decision has been taken this financial year about uprating section 95 and section 4 support rates, so those benefits have effectively been frozen this financial year without any accountability to Parliament. We have not had an opportunity to question the Minister on why that decision has or has not been taken.
The levels of the benefits are extremely complex and are set differently for children of different ages. For children under 15 without a disability, the levels are significantly less punitive than those set for adults, slightly older children and children with disabilities. Of course, the problem is that families are living on a whole family budget, not just the child’s extra bit of support.
We found that, when the support is added together, a lone parent with a 10-year-old disabled child is living on just a third of income support levels. It is difficult to see how any family can possibly be expected to survive on such small amounts of money. Notwithstanding any deductions for accommodation, which is paid for separately, it is difficult to see how a family can manage for a prolonged period on such small benefit levels.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this important debate. She has set out her stall very well and will surely continue to do so. Like me, was she struck by the great dignity of the people who gave evidence to our inquiry? They were not asking for anything, but, as she argues, they deserve to be treated properly.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. The people who came to speak to us were asking to be treated as human beings, to be allowed to support themselves and to have enough to support their family. They did not whinge, and they were often extremely grateful for what this country has given to enable them to flee to safety from countries that are war-torn or in which they faced persecution.
The people were asking just to be able to survive and to bring up their children well. The stories they told were incredibly distressing. I will address some of the things they said, and I would be grateful if other members of the panel also reported on some of their experiences of listening to those families.
An estimated 10,000 children in the asylum system are supported by these benefits, and many spend substantial portions of their childhood on asylum support. It is not as if the problem affected people for a few weeks but did not have a long-term impact.
Everyone here is of the same mind. Does the hon. Lady agree that part of the problem is that, up to the age of 18, people who fall into this category experience uncertainty and fear? Does she agree that that needs to be reviewed to address the needs of vulnerable young people from when they come into this country until they reach 18, when the system basically washes its hands of them?
The inquiry specifically addressed children who are with their families and who are supported by section 95 and section 4, but there is another question about the vulnerability of unaccompanied asylum seekers and the fact that often all support ends at 18.
Many of us will remember, and those of us with children or nieces and nephews will recognise, that an 18-year-old is incredibly vulnerable if they have no family, which is why they are supposed to be treated as children leaving care. They have significant extra difficulties that need to be catered for and are not always addressed sympathetically by the Home Office’s decision making.
Education legislation is intended to be blind to a child’s immigration status—in fact, the Government are supposed to be blind to a child’s immigration status full stop. We are signed up to the UN convention on the rights of the child, and it seems to me that the UK Border Agency differentiates between children whose parents are currently in the system, or whose asylum case has failed, and children who have permanent residency.
The rules on education in the UN convention are absolutely clear: children must be provided with education regardless. However, the financial support for which they are eligible is an issue. Does it allow children to grow and flourish as the UNCRC expects? It is not adequate to provide children with barely enough to survive on; the UNCRC is clear that we must provide enough to allow them to develop to their best potential. I argue that the system is inadequate even to allow children’s bare survival. It certainly fails miserably to meet our duties under the UNCRC.
At the moment, a surprisingly large number of children live within the asylum support system. A significantly smaller number of those—probably only about 800—are supported under section 4, but the effects on that small number are disproportionate. We in Government know well what impact poverty has on a child’s life chances. All Ministers have accepted that child poverty significantly damages children’s potential for development, and that idea has cross-party support. That is why so much effort has been devoted to ensuring that we get the data right for counting child poverty, understand the indicators and focus on the causes and impacts of child poverty. I know that well from my time as a Minister at the Department for Education, where the issue was one focus of my work. However, we seem not to be able to take the issue as seriously for children whose asylum cases have not been decided.
The situation is significantly worse for those on section 4 rather than section 95 support. Section 4 support is intended to be short-term. It has been described by previous Ministers as an austere regime intended only for those whose applications have failed but who cannot currently return home. However, it is worth recognising that many children spend years on section 4 support. Although it might be intended for adults to live on for a matter of weeks, many children spend substantial portions of their lives on it—we met families whose children had spent almost all their lives on section 4 support. What makes section 4 support so difficult is not just that levels are significantly lower, but, more specifically, that it is cashless and highly restrictive about where the money can be spent.
One thing that struck me about the evidence provided to us was the impact of the Azure card. It reduces the effectiveness and value of the small amounts of money that the families and children get. Does the hon. Lady agree that if nothing else needs urgent consideration, the Azure card and the cashless system do, in order to improve things for those families?
I absolutely agree. Parents said to us that the restrictions on where they could shop meant that things were often more expensive, particularly items such as buggies, which were completely impossible for many families to buy. They would have been much happier to go to the second-hand shop, but of course they cannot use the Azure card there; they are required to go to Mothercare or similar shops. To reflect on my sister-in-law’s experience, buying a buggy at Mothercare costs practically as much as buying a car. I hope that I am not libelling the shop by saying so; I shall probably get letters from Mothercare now. Nevertheless, I think that most people would recognise that such items are extremely expensive. For anyone trying to survive on £5 a day in a cashless system using an Azure card, it makes no financial sense whatever.
Families who want to buy food more in keeping with their own culture find themselves unable to shop in suitable shops. It is particularly difficult for some families that they are expected to walk, sometimes up to 3 miles, in order to go shopping. The idea that a lone parent with several children should walk several miles to use an Azure card to go shopping, carrying the children and luggage back from the supermarket, is completely unreasonable.
Similarly, money on the Azure card cannot be saved from one week to the next, at least in more than very small amounts, so unless all the money is spent during the week, it is effectively wasted. People said that if they are ill and unable to shop, they run out of money and are unable to refill the fridge the following week. If they need a winter coat, they have no possible means of saving up for one. During a winter such as this one, that seems completely unreasonable.
Families also spoke to us about the stigma associated with using the Azure card, which identifies them immediately as asylum seekers. Many spoke distressingly about their experiences of being abused in supermarkets when they produced the card in order to buy their shopping. Sometimes, even after the card had been topped up, it still did not work. It is unreliable, as well as bringing great stigma with it.
The section 4 system seems utterly baffling to me. It is highly expensive to administer given the relatively small number of people involved, and it is a punitive regime that seems disproportionate to the problem that the Government say they are trying to fix. It is worth rehearsing some of the consequences of trying to live under the system.
I had a case in my constituency involving somebody on section 4 support. Those on section 4 support cannot be housed with other relatives; they must be housed in special accommodation. As a consequence, he was separated from his partner and child. As is extremely common, he was not eligible for travel money. The Government have said to me that travel money is available in exceptional cases. Those cases seem to be phenomenally exceptional, because my constituency office has had great difficulty accessing the money when it is needed. That man walked miles across London every day to visit his wife and child, a situation that put intolerable pressure on the child and family. We certainly heard of the reverse situation, where the woman was separated from the father of her child. It makes no logical sense. The Government would save money by allowing people to live with their partners, other relatives or friends, as those on section 95 support may do.
Section 4 support is highly restrictive of what people can buy. One thing that struck me most particularly as a Minister considering the issue was that the regulations expressly forbid the purchase of toys. What a bizarre thing to do. I do not know who thought of it, but it is certainly not compatible with the UNCRC.
For pregnant women and new mothers, the situation can be even more intolerable. Maternity Action and the Refugee Council submitted evidence to us during the inquiry. They have subsequently produced their own report, “When maternity doesn’t matter”, which I will say more about in a moment when I turn to housing. The organisations cited a case in which a woman with no money for a buggy or transport was forced to walk home from hospital in the snow, carrying her newborn baby in her arms, shortly after giving birth. That is a ludicrous and appallingly distressing story.
When I discussed the issue with the Minister previously, he said that he did not believe that the public would tolerate our giving the same amount of support to those whose claims have been rejected as to those still awaiting a decision, but I do not think the public would tolerate the kinds of story that we heard in our inquiry. He underestimates the humanity of the British people if he thinks that that is actually what they want in the asylum support system.
There is a further question about whether such punitive treatment actually has any purpose. It does not make desperate families who fear for their lives return home; it simply leaves them in poverty, jeopardising their health and their children’s long-term development. We saw a case in which somebody left on section 4 support for a very long time was later given refugee status on reapplication. To think that all those people are somehow scamming the system and ought to go home is to miss the point entirely.
It is said that if we raise benefit levels, it will encourage more people to seek asylum here. There is simply no evidence for that. When vouchers were introduced, the number of asylum applications rose. When cash was re-introduced, it fell. There has been plenty of research, which I am happy to share, looking at why people choose a particular country. In most cases, it has much more to do with historical ties between particular countries than with any expected benefits that people might receive when they get to the country. Given the complexity of section 4 and section 95 support—it took us some considerable time to produce the spreadsheet to work out exactly what families in different circumstances would get—it beggars belief that someone in a situation of war, violence or persecution would spend a couple of days researching that on the internet before deciding which travel company to book their flight with. We need to get that into perspective. The answer must surely be to set levels in line with other benefits. Deducting accommodation costs if necessary, we should make a clear commitment to uprate benefits so that people who have fled war, persecution and violence can live —as the hon. Member for Scunthorpe said—a basic, dignified life.
I understand the political difficulties of raising benefit levels for asylum seekers, in particular when there is much debate about wider benefit levels—full stop. Surely it would be more sensible and take an awful lot of political grief away from the Minister if they were simply pegged to other benefit levels and automatically uprated each year. Ministers would then not have to go through the agony of having to work out on which full-news day to introduce a measure; they could simply get on with doing the right and humane thing.
Does the hon. Lady agree that the sensible approach that she is advocating is what used to be the case until, unfortunately, the previous Government made the change? Instead of pegging the support to a proportion of benefits, they decided to remove that linkage and left it floating, drifting, leading to the very destitution that she is describing.
There have been a number of different changes over time. The previous Government agreed that they would peg asylum support to 70% but almost immediately broke that agreement. The problem with this type of issue is that, because it is politically contentious, successive Ministers in different Governments have found it difficult to tackle, which is why it needs to be done in such a way that they do not have to face the headlines every time something happens. Drafting the legislation so as to allow the support to be uprated automatically would surely take the political headache away from Ministers, allowing them to do the right thing. I do not believe that Ministers from any party would wish to see children pushed into severe poverty. It is a question of ensuring that the administration is such that it can be done easily. I strongly encourage the Minister to take that step.
Logically, section 4 should be abolished, to be replaced by one cash-based system for all people regardless. The existing system costs money, it is inhumane and it serves no purpose. If it was abolished and section 95 applied to everyone, I would be extremely surprised were there any political outcry. The Government have managed to make changes to the immigration system and to abolish child detention without any hue and cry, so I am sure it is not beyond the wit of the Minister to amend section 4 so that people get a decent cash system.
Indeed. The Minister could also make a virtue out of it, because the change would almost certainly save money. I made a point a moment ago about how people could be housed with their relatives if less restriction was applied than in the section 4 system, which requires people to be housed in different accommodation. The change would also save money on administration, and I strongly encourage the Minister to make it. At a time of austerity, I am sure he is looking for any method to save a little money.
Not recognising disability and special needs in families seeking asylum is also unjust. We ought to ensure that those needs are recognised in the system, because it is completely illogical to expect a family to be able to cope without such recognition. We heard from one young carer, Riyya, who was left with the most extraordinary pressure of caring for her disabled mother, and of course no financial recognition was given in the benefit system of that pressure or of the extra support that her mother needed. It caused devastation to Riyya during her childhood.
If the Government are really looking to save money, an obvious way would be to allow asylum seekers to work and to support themselves if they have been waiting in this country for some time for their case to be decided. That is what most asylum-seeking families want: they want to be able to support themselves, they do not want to be on benefit. We have spent a lot of time talking up the importance of the work ethic as a salvation for all. One of the mantras of the Government is that work is an important route for supporting oneself, for dignity and for children’s prospects. We know that, and we devote a lot of time trying to get people back into work when they have been out of work for a long time—in all cases except this group, who are often highly educated and talented people with a lot to give to this country. During the time they spend on asylum support, they are deskilled and demotivated, and their children have to survive in high levels of poverty. Again, the Minister could make a political virtue out of that change, because I am pretty sure it is what the public want as well. They want to see people contributing to this country; having given people safety, the public want to see them giving something back, and that is what asylum-seeking families want as well.
On that deskilling of people, many who come to this country have skills or job experience with which they could contribute to society, but sometimes they are not given the chance. Does the hon. Lady feel that more opportunity should be given to those people who come here with skills and job experience with which they could contribute to the country? At the moment it is not happening.
I absolutely agree. The sooner that people are able to get back into a regular pattern of work, so that they can support their family and themselves and give themselves some dignity and a sense of contributing to the country that they have chosen to make as their home albeit under difficult circumstances, the better that is for everyone concerned. Furthermore, the quicker they can integrate, the quicker they can learn English, while from a financial perspective it will cost the country a good deal less to support them. That seems to be a logical and sensible thing to do, and I strongly urge the Minister to look at doing it.
In our inquiry, we intended to look specifically at support rates, which is what I have spent most of the time discussing. Before I finish, however, I want to say something about some of the other things that we found that were equally shocking, such as the way in which families are treated by their housing provider. The families have multiple moves, not only dispersed once but moved repeatedly, with appalling living conditions and cases of disrepair, as well as a lack of privacy and of hygiene. The multiple moves, as I said at the outset of my remarks, affect not only family budgets because of the need to buy a new school uniform every time but children’s school life, and their ability to make friends and to settle. We must remember that the children have fled their own country; they have fled war, violence and persecution, with all the trauma involved, and yet, when the family arrive here, we move them over and over again, often with little notice or little information to allow parents to prepare their child emotionally. What family would want to be moved and uprooted with little notice and without some information so that they can discuss with their child what is to happen? They get no information in advance about where the local schools are or about the area, and no support to allow them to register at a new school or with the doctor. They are basically plucked from one place and dropped into another with no support whatever to allow them to integrate. It is no wonder that mental health problems are so high among this group. It would not be an expensive problem to fix. We could provide support for families if a move is necessary, and we could try to move families with young children less often.
One mother and her four-year-old daughter told us that they moved 11 times in five years. She explained that, as a consequence of what she fled from in her own country, she spent the best part of 10 years moving house, first within her own country, then in this country, effectively fleeing from house to house, being moved by the UKBA. She said, “I’m tired.” I am not surprised she is tired, and I am not surprised that it is so difficult for her children. Moves are often made with no appreciation of the impact on children. Families and local authority representatives told us that contractors do not always turn up when they say they will, so belongings, such as a children’s cots, are packed up and no notice is given of when the contractor will eventually turn up.
The impact on pregnant women is even worse. I have referred to the deeply upsetting report, “When Maternity Doesn’t Matter”, which the Refugee Council and Maternity Action produced this week. They submitted evidence to our inquiry that the impact of dispersal on women’s lives is catastrophic if they are pregnant. The four weeks’ protected period that UKBA agreed to introduce is an advance, but still woefully inadequate. Women are moved away from their partners so they may have no one with them when they give birth and no one to look after their other children. A single mother in the study reported that she was separated from her partner so she had no one to look after her children and she considered leaving her children with a local shopkeeper before she went into labour because she had no other options for child care. Midwives told us that it makes their lives incredibly difficult because they are unable to provide continuity of care.
We would not expect any British woman to experience such conditions, but these women have specific extra difficulties and they should receive more support, not less. Many have suffered female genital mutilation and sexual violence in their own country as well as torture, which exacerbates the risk of flashbacks when giving birth. They have a much higher rate of maternal death than we expect in the general population. They make up 12% of all maternal deaths, but only 0.3% of the overall population. Those figures are staggering and worrying, and the Government must get to grips with them.
Again, it is not expensive to fix the problem. There is no reason for repeatedly moving these women, and that could be stopped. I strongly encourage the Government to examine the matter to ensure that women are treated decently and that their children have a chance to thrive. We know that what happens in the first few weeks and months after childbirth is important for their children and attachment. That is why the Government are putting health visitors in Sure Start children’s centres. We know that post-natal depression and so on have an impact on attachment, and a long-term impact on children’s ability to thrive and what happens to them in later life. Other Departments know that, so why does the Home Office not accept the evidence that is driving Government policy everywhere else? It must work with the Department of Health and the Department for Education. The situation is simply not good enough, and it could be changed.
My final point, which is perhaps the smallest and the cheapest to fix, was the most shocking for the panel. Almost every family told us that housing contractors routinely enter properties without knocking. We heard not just from one family, but from all of them independently that people just turn up and use keys to let themselves in. People may be in the shower and if they are Muslim women they may not have adequate head covering. It causes terror for children, and is an epithet for the lack of respect with which they are treated. They are treated as luggage rather than people who deserve some dignity and respect. The Government must get to grips with that with housing contractors.
I have gone through the details of the report. Some of our recommendations would save the Government money, some would cost a small amount, some would be more popular than their current policies, all would be more humane, and none would encourage more asylum seekers to come here. These changes would be win-wins for the Government if they implemented them.
Any change is risky and difficult, but the Minister is very capable and I am sure that he is on top of his brief. If anyone is politically shrewd enough to appreciate the points on offer, I am sure that he is. He does not strike me as a Minister who has come to his brief wanting to tread water, and I strongly encourage him to take note of the points that the cross-party parliamentary inquiry made.
I thank and congratulate the hon. Member for Brent Central (Sarah Teather) on securing this debate on the important issue of unfairness and injustice. My contribution to the debate is based on my personal knowledge of the subject, my previous work and the casework at my constituency surgeries. I have a large caseload. The views expressed in the report resulted from hearing many experts. The hon. Lady has mentioned many issues that we all face in the community, and I may repeat what she has said, because she expressed the views of many people and many MPs from their experience in their constituencies.
This country has a long-standing tradition of providing sanctuary to those fleeing danger and violence, but unfortunately we are in danger of failing refugees and asylum seekers by giving them inadequate support. It is our duty to provide assistance to those in need, especially to young children and families who have already suffered through war and persecution. Unfortunately, there are many tragic examples of asylum seekers in this country living in terrible conditions due to the low support awarded to them. Some families cannot put food on their tables; some are living in cold, unhygienic, overcrowded and unsafe accommodation; and other people are separated from their families and regularly moved around the country.
The cross-party parliamentary inquiry on asylum support, of which I was a member and which was chaired by the hon. Lady, produced a comprehensive report that examined support for asylum-seeking children and families and made recommendations. One key concern outlined in the report is the discrepancy between support for asylum seekers and families receiving mainstream benefits. Asylum seekers are not permitted to work, and the support that they are entitled to under section 95 of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 is considerably less than current income support, which is a minimum level to meet essential living needs.
The situation is detrimental to the well-being of asylum seekers, leaving families hungry and struggling in atrocious conditions. Some children on asylum support are living on as little as £5 a day. As part of the inquiry, we heard tragic stories of parents going hungry, so that they could feed their children, and having to choose between buying food and buying warmer clothes for winter. Parents should never have to go hungry to feed and clothe their children because they cannot afford to; income support for asylum seekers is clearly insufficient if that is the case.
The situation is even more difficult for families with a child or a parent with a disability. Without access to mainstream benefits, families seeking asylum are also not entitled to benefits such as disability living allowance, carer’s allowance or mobility assistance. That leaves asylum-seeking families with disability significantly worse off than families who are able to access mainstream support. Some families are only getting about a quarter of what they would get under the mainstream system. As it may cost up to three times more to raise a disabled child, it is unreasonable for such families not to receive an allowance to meet those extra costs, especially when they already have difficulty making ends meet. Parents raising a disabled child will also require extra support to help them with their child’s education, health and social activities. Unfortunately, once again, the asylum support system does not recognise those additional needs and forces parents to struggle with such challenges unassisted.
The same is true for children caring for a disabled parent, as they are not entitled to supplementary carer’s allowance or any extra assistance. As the hon. Lady has said, the inquiry allowed us to hear about an 11-year-old girl who cared for her disabled mother. It was not unusual for her to have to miss school to take her mother to hospital appointments and help with the shopping and cleaning. Sadly, as her mother was unable to sign in for her support every single week because of her disability, they would sometimes have to go without any money. Had that mother and daughter been given additional support, they would not have had to struggle in that way and the girl would have had an uninterrupted education.
The lack of support for refugees with additional needs is particularly evident and worrying for children affected by HIV. Such children need warm, clean accommodation and high-quality food and health care, which, in most cases, they will not have access to through their asylum support, leaving them vulnerable to serious illness. In addition, mothers who are HIV-positive should not be breastfeeding, but are not given supplementary funds for formula milk, putting their babies at risk.
Refugees who are fleeing war and persecution should be given an extra layer of protection, but in such cases, some of the most vulnerable are those who receive the lowest support. It is clear that the particular needs and additional costs of living for families where there is a disability or illness must be taken into account to determine financial support for asylum seekers. It is unacceptable for parents and children with disability to be left without the support that they desperately need. Asylum-seeking families should be able to access disability living allowance, carer’s allowance or mobility allowance, so that they are able to live without fear of going hungry, cold or scared.
In this country, we put a lot of emphasis on English language skills and knowledge, which I feel is most important. Everyone needs to learn, so that they can fully participate in the system, but it is also the responsibility of the system to recognise the other social and practical skills that such people bring with them, so that they can be used. Not only could people then offer their own skills, but it could be ensured that they contribute more effectively to society after they come in. I hope that the Minister, in responding, will address how we can best use the skills that people carry with them.
Thank you, Mr Davies, for giving me the chance to contribute to this important debate. I hope that the Minister will listen to the contributions made by all Members this morning, as well as what is said by people who have expertise in the field, who are dealing on a day-to-day basis with many cases, and that he will read the recommendations made in the report. I also hope that he will help the families and children who are going through the most difficult period of their lives and take them out of the poverty trap. Furthermore, let them live and move in society with dignity and respect.
I apologise, Mr Davies, for having to nip out to deal with a constituency issue, but I have been here for most of the debate, and what a good debate it has been. I congratulate the hon. Member for Brent Central (Sarah Teather) on securing it and on building on what has been a very good all-party inquiry into a significant and precise issue. As she said so eloquently in her speech, action can be taken by the Minister—who is a very good Minister—to seize the opportunity and advantage available for a win-win situation.
Most of these children and families come from countries, such as Iran, Zimbabwe and Afghanistan, where violence is endemic and human rights abuses are well documented. Owing to poor-quality decision making by the Home Office on asylum claims, there are consistently high overturn rates on appeal for some countries—for example, for Syria, the rate is 53%; for Sri Lanka, 40%; for Iran, 37%; and for Afghanistan, 30%.
As recent Refugee Council research shows, many families will be refused asylum but may still have protection needs, and they will be too afraid to return to their country of origin. They are left in limbo in the United Kingdom, sadly living in destitution and prohibited from working to support themselves and their children. In general, if a temporary obstacle prevents them from leaving the UK—for example, if they are too sick to travel or if there is no viable route of return—under the section 4 system, they may only live in designated accommodation, and instead of cash, they only receive money to cater for essential living needs on the Azure payment card. As the hon. Lady pointed out, although that is designed as a temporary measure, it can go on for years and, sometimes, as long as a decade or more, which is surely not acceptable.
I want to focus my remarks on the card. It can only be used at designated retail outlets, so people cannot get the best value for money. I think that every hon. Member is committed to systems that allow the delivery of the best value for money, so it is ironic that we have designed something that militates against that. People can only purchase food, essential toiletries and other items up to the value of £35.39 per person per week. We heard from families who reported experiencing frequent technical faults with the card—something that, as the hon. Lady pointed out, can be embarrassing and degrading—and they were not allowed to buy certain items such as condoms or sanitary towels.
Attention can also be drawn to such families, and they can be the victims of abuse. For example, one mother, who had been trafficked for sexual exploitation when she was young and who was living on section 4 support when we spoke to her but has since received refugee status, told the panel how she had been spoken to by another shopper while using the Azure card. The shopper said, “You black monkey, go back to your own country.” These horrific experiences have a profound impact on parents and their children. None of us feels that that racism should be tolerated, and we should not put systems in place that risk that racism taking place.
I was ashamed to hear some of the evidence that we heard. People gave evidence with great dignity and stoicism and no complaining. It left me thinking that we can surely do better and at no extra cost. Indeed, the cost implications of maintaining a two-tier system under section 4, aimed at persuading people to leave the UK, are such that it is not a cost-effective approach. Ultimately, increasing asylum support to bring it in line with mainstream benefits to ensure that children’s needs are met would mean additional costs. However, abandoning the parallel section 4 system could and probably would save money, because it would get rid of an unnecessary and clumsy bureaucracy.
Still Human Still Here estimates that abolishing the parallel support system under section 4 could lead to savings of more than £2 million due to administrative costs and because families would no longer be required to live in designated UK Border Agency accommodation and could remain with friends or relatives, as is the case currently for those on section 95 support. There is an opportunity to save money in times of austerity and to allow money to go further for people who have very little money. It is a win-win opportunity for the Government, and I am sure that this Minister will want to embrace it.
The report recommended that the Government should abolish section 4 support and urgently implement a single cash-based support system for all children and their families who need asylum support while they are in the UK. I hope that all parties in the House will work together with the Government to assist them in bringing that about as soon as possible. The system should include children who were born after an asylum refusal, to ensure that no child is left destitute.
Much more could be said, because of the richness of the evidence that was provided, but I want to focus simply on the cashless payment, which does not make sense in terms of delivering to those who most need it the opportunity to take full advantage of their lives and move things forward; nor does it make sense because of the cost to the UK taxpayer, who is paying for unnecessary bureaucracy. Here is an opportunity to address that and move things forward in a way that benefits everyone.
I commend the hon. Member for Brent Central (Sarah Teather) for initiating the debate. I commend not only the work reflected in her remarks today, but the work of the cross-party panel, which conducted such a compelling inquiry. The hon. Lady has also reflected many of the points and concerns that she has raised in a very cogent early-day motion, which I have also supported.
The Under-Secretary of State for Education, the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mr Timpson), who has responsibility for children, told the main Chamber on Monday, in the debate on the Children and Families Bill, that every child is our responsibility.
The report by the cross-party panel is a call to action and a call for change if we really do subscribe to the ethic that every child is our child, because it shows that, as a result of how the regime for asylum support is operating, children are being held in destitution. Their parents are being frustrated from discharging their most basic responsibility and from fulfilling the most cogent aspiration of any parent—to provide due and proper care and nurture for their children.
The evidence was there in terms of the risk that children were facing. We have a regime that does not work to the imperative of the protection of children and their rights. It is a system that, in many ways, possibly by ensuring the degree of destitution for parents and children, puts parents—mothers—at risk of ending up in undue transactional circumstances, including prostitution. It creates many degrees and levels of risk for children, which we should, of course, be at pains to prevent.
We have heard from the hon. Members for Brent Central, for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma) and for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin) that the system is unfair and cruel and creates inequity. I know that the Minister is a reasonable, sensible and sensitive person. He will see the inequity to which other hon. Members have referred, but if his officials cannot be moved by the inequity, will they not at least be moved by the inefficiency that has been brought out so strongly by the hon. Members and which is demonstrated so strongly in the panel’s report?
There seems to be a naive assumption that a cashless system, as in section 4, is somehow a costless system, but, as we can see in the report and as we have heard from the hon. Member for Brent Central and other hon. Members today, that system is not costless. It is an inefficient as well as a cruel system, because it denies people not just adequate means but the choice to make proper and cost-efficient provision for themselves. A cash system, with a fair application of section 95, would be much better.
There seems to be a mantra on the part of those making decisions in Government that there should be “No more for section 4,” but the mantra should actually be “No more of section 4”. It simply does not work in any way that is fair. It results in severe destitution for many people and intense risk exposure for very vulnerable families. It is the point about vulnerability that seems to be missing.
It seems to me that the system has a tendency to see suspects rather than the vulnerable. Its treating of families and children as suspect rather than vulnerable seems to be the root cause of the problem. We should move against section 4. It is supposed to provide a measure of short-term support to deal with short-term exigencies, but, as we know from parliamentary answers given only this month, more than half the people on section 4 support have been on it for more than two years. Some, as the hon. Member for Scunthorpe said, have been on it for much longer than that, so let us not pretend that section 4 does what the Government initially said it was intended to do. Let us recognise, as the report brings out, the serious problems with section 4 and move against it.
Of course, the lack of choice over disposable means is not the only problem with section 4. There is also—pardon the pun—the tethered living that comes with section 4, with people being denied any choice in relation to accommodation and being forced into UKBA accommodation. As well as that being restricted and unsuitable living, it can lead to intrusive situations—officials can just arrive and appear in the properties where people are living. That can lead to situations that are totally inappropriate in the context of family life. Families should not have to deal with that.
The hon. Member for Brent Central referred to the recent report “When maternity doesn’t matter”, by the Refugee Council and Maternity Action. I attended the event on Monday evening and listened to the accounts of the experiences of some people who have faced dispersal. Refugees, as well as facing the worst effects of displacement from their own country, their own families and the circumstances that they are fleeing, find themselves at risk of ongoing displacement here, whether that is through the policy of dispersal or through some of the other changes that can be visited on people, as was brought out very strongly by the hon. Lady.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful point about how the system operates. Does he agree that the present system and environment force many children, women and families into the undesirable field of racial abuse and sexual violence, as my hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe has said?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. People are left vulnerable not just in a social and economic sense, but to all sorts of victimisation and alienation. That would be wrong in any instance, but particularly when we are dealing with vulnerable children. We should not visit such risks on people.
The regime is in relation not just to section 4, but to section 95, which provides for a cash support system. It makes no recognition whatever of disabled children or children who discharge caring duties for a parent with a disability or long-term condition. We would not tolerate that in any other area of benefits for any other of our constituents.
Although people complain about the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority about this, that and the other, we have made sure that there is provision even in the parliamentary allowance system for people with caring responsibilities or disabilities. One of the worst forms of inequality is to treat people in profoundly different circumstances as though they were the same. That is exactly what is happening in the situation that we are discussing.
Originally, section 95 support was pegged at 90% of income support levels. It was then moved by the previous Government to 70%, but that was never adhered to. The report brings that out. People might argue that in the current circumstances it is a relatively modest request to bring section 95 support to 70% of income support levels.
I hope that the Minister, when he addresses the issues, will take care to read all the points and experiences reflected in the report and listen to its sensible recommendations, which have come not just from the Children’s Society, which did much work to support the inquiry, but from many others, including the Law Centre and many other charities in Northern Ireland that work with asylum seekers and refugees.
It is a great delight to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies.
I congratulate my three hon. Friends who spoke in today’s debate and all hon. Members who took part in putting the report together. I also congratulate, as my hon. Friend the Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) has just done, the various charities and organisations that work with refugees—including those whose primary work is not with refugees, such as the Red Cross—on the diligence that they have brought to the work, to try to make Parliament and the wider public understand the situation faced by many refugees in this country. Of course, I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Brent Central (Sarah Teather) for the work she has done in bringing the issues together, for getting the report published and for how she presented her case today.
Different parts of the country will make different responses to the issue of asylum, because some parts have more refugees and a longer history of refugee communities than others. I used to be a curate in High Wycombe. Many refugees had come from Poland to High Wycombe in the 1940s, and it was an accepted part of Buckinghamshire society that there was a strong support for asylum and for refugees individually.
A respect for asylum and a desire to protect refugees are essential parts of our British decency. They are things we feel proud of because of our response not only in the 1930s and 1940s, but after that. People in the United Kingdom looked at oppressive dictatorships in Spain, Portugal, Greece and parts of eastern Europe and were proud when we were able to provide others greater freedom and liberty than they were able to have in their own countries.
The hon. Member for Brent Central was absolutely right in saying—though this is not often the version portrayed in the Daily Mail, the Daily Express, The Daily Telegraph, The Guardian, The Independent or just about any national newspaper—that there is little evidence to suggest that asylum seekers choose a country because of its benefits system or whether they would be able to work. That, incidentally, is also true of other forms of migration.
It is important that we keep asylum and immigration separate and that Government rules do so, too. If someone has suddenly to leave their country, it is far more common for them to go to a country where they already know someone; that stands to reason. If this country suddenly had a dictatorial Government and people suddenly had to leave, they would probably go somewhere where they had family or friends, whose house they might be able to stay in. Alternatively, people might go to a country whose operation of the rule of law they truly respected. Our historical respect for the rule of law is another reason why Britain has sometimes been a place where people seek refuge.
The hon. Lady was also right in saying that being a refugee is tough.
I arrived in this country many years ago, but in different circumstances. Does my hon. Friend agree that, when people leave their country, they go to a country where there is a history and tradition of tolerance and where they feel they will get a sense of justice? That is also part of why they move—not the benefits.
I absolutely agree. That does not mean that we should throw out all the rules on benefits in this country. It is a simple point to make—the vectors of asylum are oppression and dictatorial regimes, not the attraction of some kind of benefits system in this country. That is not to say that we should build palaces for every single person who comes to this country—no refugee expects that—but it is important to realise why people come.
It is also important to realise that no one wants to be a refugee; everyone prefers to live in their own country. The whole Old Testament is about people who are refugees because they had to leave their own country and the oppression that they lived under. The Israelites went off into the desert because of the oppression they were suffering under the Egyptians. That is a fundamental—theological, if one likes—understanding of the role of the refugee.
We need to do a great deal more, where we can, to ensure that our aid budget is deployed to try to ensure that fewer people around the world have to seek refuge. The number of people seeking asylum in this country and in many other parts of the world rose dramatically in the 1990s for the simple reason that there were many more dangerous places from which people had to flee.
We were hideously ill-prepared—in 1994, 1995 and 1996 there were only 50 people to deal with asylum seekers’ applications in this country—and it took a considerable period to put the situation in order. There were something like 170,000 applications a year; we are now talking about something in the region of 19,000, 20,000 or 21,000.
The hon. Gentleman says that the number of asylum seekers increased because more places around the world were dangerous. Is it not also the case—this is not a harsh point, just one for balance—that many people who came here claiming that they were asylum seekers came for other reasons? In fact, the attraction of easier travel and better media meant that, in addition to the rising numbers, understanding whether the basis for asylum was valid or invalid become more important in the 1990s and the last decade.
That may be true, but part of my critique is that we have been very ill-prepared to make such decisions over the past 20 years. If a long time is taken to decide on someone’s asylum application—that happened under Labour, but also in the early 1990s—the danger is that we end up with people who have become stateless and without any real existence.
Among people coming to my surgery recently, one young gentleman—he is not young any more; he came here some 25 years ago—has never had an asylum decision and has simply being living here. He has not been living off the state. He lives with his wife, and he is the house husband. Sorry—not his wife, but his partner: he has decided to come clean because he wants to marry, and he cannot marry without regularising his position.
It is vital that we make swift decisions, and it is important that the Government do whatever they can to reach the target of all asylum decisions being made within six months. In some cases, we have to be very careful. In particular, I hope that the Minister will look at the new evidence about Sri Lanka. When we return people to Sri Lanka, where they face oppression and persecution, we need to be careful in our relations with the Sri Lankan Government, let alone with others. There can be no greater instance of the trauma involved in someone’s having to leave their country as a refugee than the case of the 92 Burmese refugees who died after being at sea for 25 days off the coast of Thailand.
I am absolutely certain that the vast majority of the British people would be scandalised, upset and shocked by many of the stories told and much of the evidence presented to the group, especially about those for whom no decision has yet been made. The warmth of feeling of the British people, however, is somewhat diminished for those on section 4 support, when it has already been decided that people should go home.
I also think, as I know from an e-mail I had from a constituent yesterday—about a story in the Daily Mail, which makes me slightly hesitant—that there is less support for those in this country who decide to take on further family responsibilities after it has been determined that their asylum claim will not be accepted. I merely note that five of the people we have talked about are women who became pregnant after their appeal had been rejected.
I hear what the hon. Lady says. I do not know whether what she has reported is true or not, which is why I hope that the Minister can reply. He said from a sedentary position that it was not true.
The hon. Lady is absolutely right to refer to the hideous conditions in which many people live. We need to do far more in this country to crack down on unscrupulous and poor landlords, who put people into housing that, frankly, is not fit for living. It has been a disgrace that successive Governments have not concentrated enough on that. Multiple removals are a waste of time, money and energy for the organisations involved, leaving aside the effect on families, and particularly on children who have to change school. I have already referred to slow decision making, and to how important it is that decisions are made swiftly so that people can organise their lives accordingly.
I want to ask the Minister what impact the bedroom tax will have—
The point is that neither will that measure redistribute scarce resources from the over-supplied to the under-supplied. I assure the hon. Member for Bedford that it is not a form of socialism. Child asylum seekers, if they come here under the age of 18, are normally fostered. As I understand it, the Government have admitted today that foster carers’ additional rooms will be counted as additional to their requirements. I fear that that will again crack down on families who want to provide legitimate support for people. What assessment has the Minister made of that?
I hear everything that my hon. Friends have said about the Azure card and section 4 support. I will not declare a new Labour party policy, I am afraid. Of course, the Government have to keep the concept of the card under review, because if it is genuinely more expensive to provide than the savings it brings, that is obviously to cut off one’s nose to spite one’s face. I will not make a new financial commitment today. The Government must, of course, review the amounts, and it is time that they got on with that this year.
I want to make a point about paperless children. A significant number of children who come to this country as asylum seekers say that they are 15, but the system says, “No, you aren’t 15; you are 18 or 19. You are an adult and should go through the adult process.” One difficulty is that many people destroy their papers the moment they get on an aeroplane. I wonder whether there is any means of ensuring that airlines scan the documents required to be shown before people can get on an aeroplane, so that if the documents are destroyed on the aeroplane, they are not entirely lost to the system, and people cannot thereafter claim that they are completely and utterly paperless and therefore stateless.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Brent Central on advancing this issue. Having seen, when Labour was in government, several ex-Ministers find conviction about policies that they did not necessarily exhibit when they were in office, I hope that she will retain her commitment when she returns to office, which I am sure the Prime Minister will want to enable very swiftly.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I congratulate the hon. Member for Brent Central (Sarah Teather) on securing this debate. As she said, she and I met to discuss the report put together by her group of parliamentary colleagues, and I had the chance, both before and after that meeting, to consider it carefully. It will certainly go into the Government’s review specifically on asylum support rates. I thank her for her work and for the evidence. Two of the Members who took part in that work—the hon. Members for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma) and for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin)—are here today. In the time available, I will deal with both her points and those made by other Members who spoke or intervened.
Let me first deal with the financial support. One point made by the hon. Lady today, and one of the key points in her report, is that the amount of money given to both asylum seekers and failed asylum seekers is very low and does not meet families’ essential living needs. It is worth setting out for the House exactly what is available. The legal test is whether it meets people’s essential needs, which are food, toiletries and clothing. A family of four receiving section 95 support, which is that given to those who have an asylum application that has not yet been decided, would get £178 a week to cover those essential costs. A family on section 4 support, which is where a decision has been made and they do not have a right to remain in the country, get £151 a week. It is worth remembering that they have furnished housing with no bills to pay. I accept that it is not generous, but I do not think it is ungenerous. It is lower than the income support equivalents, but people who are in asylum support accommodation do not have to pay any utility bills, buy furniture or meet some of the other costs associated with running a household.
The hon. Lady touched on the relationship between the section 95 support and income support levels, which is worth mentioning. For children, the rates are much higher than the 70% she talked about. For children, the rates range between 81% and 89% of the income support levels. It is true that the rates are less generous for adults. If we look at how we compare with other European countries on families—and therefore on children—we are rather more generous than most of our equivalent European neighbours.
The Minister will perhaps recognise that the rates vary according to the children’s age and tail off significantly at 16, where it would be expected that those children would be in full-time education, especially given the Government’s own policy to encourage everybody to be in education beyond 16. I have discussed the German constitutional court case with him in private. I do not know whether he has had a chance to look at it, but I am happy to send him the details. The support rates there were deemed to be inadequate to meet a family’s basic humane needs. It is difficult to compare our asylum support rates with those of other European countries, because they partly depend on how long someone is on them. It is worth noting that one of our neighbours has had to review its asylum support rates.
I accept that point. It is worth making the point on the German case that our rates for families are rather more generous than the German rates. The hon. Lady is right that there was a court challenge and the Germans have had to make their rates more generous. Ours are significantly more generous. The point she makes about 16 and 17-year-olds is correct, but it is still worth noting that her report and, I think, others have referred to the rates being at least 70% of the income support rate. That is still the case for young people of 16 and 17, where it is 71%. It does fall below that for adults. She will be aware—she and I have discussed this—that we are in the process of reviewing the asylum support rates to confirm that they meet essential living needs. The initial work that we have done suggests that they do, but that work is under way. When we have completed it, we will make an announcement in due course.
The hon. Lady and others, particularly the hon. Member for Ealing, Southall, referred to individuals who have higher living costs, especially those with disabilities or complicated medical problems, who might need particular extra care or equipment. The correct way that they are supposed to be supported is through local authorities using their powers and duties under both the National Assistance Act 1948 and the Children Act 2004 to provide that extra support. It sounds like the hon. Gentleman has encountered some cases in his surgeries with constituents, and there were also some in the evidence given to the panel producing the report, where that does not always happen. Obviously I am happy to look at specific cases, so that we can ensure that local authorities are following up on their legal obligations.
Once people have made an asylum claim, if that claim is accepted and they are given refugee status and are permitted to stay in the UK, they have access to the full range of public services and benefits on the same basis as a British citizen. There are some issues about the transition from asylum support to those mainstream benefits, and the UK Border Agency and the Department for Work and Pensions are looking at those to see whether we can smooth that move from asylum support to mainstream benefits for those who are granted refugee status.
It is worth mentioning at this point the speed of decision making, which is important both from a human perspective and to ensure that people do not use the asylum system as a method of economic migration. I agree with the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant): both our parties have been clear when in government that there is a distinction between providing refuge for people fleeing persecution and for people who move, perfectly understandably, for economic reasons. My hon. Friend the Member for Bedford (Richard Fuller) alluded to that. We now make 50% of asylum decisions within 30 days and 63% are made within a year, and we continue to apply pressure to maintain that progress.
Several hon. Members talked about whether asylum seekers should be able to work. Our view is that they should not be able to, to keep that clear distinction. However, under our obligations under the relevant EU directives, if we take more than a year to make a decision, an asylum seeker is able to apply to work, and we will usually grant them the ability to do so.
The hon. Gentleman’s point would be correct if we were prohibiting people from working and not providing them with any support. While we say they cannot work, so as to maintain that important distinction, we do provide them with housing where the bills are paid and a basic level of subsistence to support them in the period before we make a decision.
In the four minutes I have remaining, I will say a little about the difference between asylum seekers and those who have failed in their claim. That is important and I have made this point to the hon. Lady. If we are to maintain the proud record that the United Kingdom has in giving people refuge from persecution, it is important that those who have gone through the appeal process through the tribunal system, where we will have looked at their cases carefully, and been found not to require that support leave the country. It is important to distinguish that those on section 4 support are those who have been found not to require our protection. They should be leaving the country. We support those cases where there is a temporary barrier to them doing so, but frankly they should not be here. I know that that is a difficult message for people sometimes, but we have looked carefully at their cases and they do not need our protection. They should return home.
I am aware that the Minister does not have much time, but does he recognise, particularly in the case of Zimbabwe, that people were left in a situation where the courts would not return them because it was unsafe, and for a prolonged period of time they were left on very tiny amounts of support?
As I have said, if there are temporary barriers to their removal—I do not know the particular cases that the hon. Lady was talking about—we will support them, but if they are found not to require protection, it is right that they leave. That is why we have a different regime for those who have no right to be here from that for those seeking asylum.
We do not think that the Azure card is more expensive than administering cash payments. It can be used in major supermarkets, chemists, children’s and clothing retailers, and some charity shops, which deals with the point made by the hon. Member for Scunthorpe. The hon. Lady made a point about purchasing birth control or sanitary products with the Azure card, which she raised when we met. I have checked it, and there is no restriction on purchasing those products, although there are rightly restrictions on purchasing alcohol and tobacco. I agreed to look into those cases and have checked them, and there is no restriction on birth control or sanitary products, which is right.
I will deal with some of the points raised in the debate. On accommodation and people moving around, we have specific restrictions in our new Compass contracts on how many times people can be moved. People will normally go into initial accommodation when they first make a claim and then will be moved into their dispersal accommodation. They will be moved from that only if there is a good reason, such as if the property becomes unsuitable or if they request it. Under the contract, they are only allowed to be moved twice in an 18-month period. We should not see people being moved about frequently, because that raises a range of issues.
The hon. Lady also referenced the recent report by the Refugee Council about the dispersal of pregnant women. We changed our policies last August, which she acknowledged, and 19 of the report’s 20 case studies were prior to our policy change. That change should have dealt with some of the issues that have been raised. This has been a good debate, and I am sorry that I have not had time to deal with all the issues.
Londonderry and the City of London
It is a great pleasure to open this debate on the 400th anniversary of the start of the relationship between the City of London and County Londonderry. This debate provides an opportunity not only to mark the past but to discuss the future, as Londonderry faces the need for a renewed economic impetus as it continues to emerge from the decades of the troubles.
I suppose that my own experience and knowledge, having been born in the mid-1960s, was of Northern Ireland being the centre of all the troubles, and we are all very grateful that those terrible days—certainly the terrible death toll during the troubles—are behind us. I particularly recall the terrible death toll of 1972 when, as a young boy, Northern Ireland seemed to be a watchword only for these issues. Of course, we cannot be complacent. Only this morning, we hear news of certain issues—not in Londonderry, but in Belfast—that ensure that the security services and others must remain watchful and vigilant in Northern Ireland. Nevertheless, we can all be glad that the terrible days that scarred the Province and made such an impact on my own generation are now thankfully behind us.
This year—2013—is the 400th anniversary of the foundation of County Londonderry by a royal charter from King James I.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman from the very depths of my heart on securing this tremendously important and timely debate, and it is a very historic debate at that. He talked not only about the past but the future, and he is now moving on to discuss the events of 2013 and beyond. Does he agree that the recent event in the Guildhall in the City of London was a tremendous marker of the 400th anniversary and that we can build on the links between London and Londonderry to ensure that the economy becomes the driver, to ensure that young people who are deprived are given the opportunity for employment and to ensure that we really build on the history and legacy of the past 400 years?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, and naturally I will come on to this issue later. I only hope that the coffers of the City of London will be strong enough to ensure that we will not have to wait another 400 years until there is another such glorious dinner in the Guildhall.
Of course, part and parcel of the creation of Londonderry was the creation of the Honourable the Irish Society, which was created by the same royal charter of 1613. I am sure that everyone here in Westminster Hall today is aware that the relationship between London and Londonderry is one that has had its fair ups and downs during the past four centuries. More importantly, however, the relationship between the City of London and Londonderry presents unique opportunities. In many ways, with the recent focus upon the Northern Ireland economy, the timing for this debate could not be more apt.
I am sure that hon. Members are conscious of the economic problems that we face in Northern Ireland today. The massive imbalance between the public and private sectors is the largest in any British region, and that has created a reliance on public funding that gives rise to some real challenges, particularly in the current economic climate. That imbalance, combined with below-average employment, means there is a strong and pressing need for increased private investment across the region.
I think that all parties in the House accept that urgent action is needed to help to remedy this problem, and I am pleased that the Government have assembled a working group to assess ways in which such investment can be achieved. Although I obviously do not represent a Northern Ireland constituency, I hope that I can play a small part in trying to ensure that that process bears some fruit. I have no doubt that the Treasury and the Northern Ireland Office, alongside their counterparts in the Northern Ireland Executive, are working very hard to find solutions to these problems. A growing, strong and resilient Northern Irish economy will benefit the whole UK.
As Northern Ireland looks for opportunities to boost its economy, this year presents County Londonderry with a distinctive position to begin to address some of the issues that I have mentioned, by utilising and building upon its historic connection with one of the centres of global business, finance and the arts. It is towards this purpose that the City of London, the Honourable the Irish Society, Derry city council and Coleraine borough council have been working together to mark the anniversary with a lasting economic and cultural impact.
Earlier this month, the City of London hosted a day of activities designed to boost County Derry’s visibility as a place to invest in among businesses and investors here in London. That day included an inward investment seminar, organised under the auspices of Derry city council and Coleraine borough council and their respective chambers of commerce, with valuable help from Invest Northern Ireland. The seminar was addressed by a series of business representatives, as well as by Arlene Foster, Northern Ireland’s Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, and the mayors of both Derry city council and Coleraine borough council. It highlighted the potential of the growing technological and digital sectors in the region, as represented by the dedicated digital development projects of Digital Derry and Digital Causeway in Coleraine.
We only need to look at the evidence. The completion of the Project Kelvin communications link will provide County Londonderry with the fastest data link with north America in the whole of Europe. Derry city council is committed to becoming the first city in the UK with 100% fibre-optic broadband availability, and of course the university of Ulster is an industry-focused university with world-class technology research facilities and a dedicated school of creative arts. The digital sector can act as a key selling point upon which to build a modern vibrant economy for Londonderry and for Northern Ireland as a whole.
As the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell) mentioned, the seminar at the Guildhall was followed by an absolute first for the city of Londonderry: a dinner at the Guildhall hosted by the City of London corporation and facilitated by Invest NI, on the theme of inward investment. At that dinner, Northern Ireland’s First Minister, the Deputy First Minister, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, the lord mayor of the City of London and the governor of the Honourable the Irish Society all spoke. As someone who was there, I was glad that the speeches were relatively short and the toasts commensurately long, which is the right way round. It was an occasion that should not be underplayed, and it signalled the intention of all those involved in the Northern Ireland Executive, the City of London and—I hope—here in Westminster to move forward and foster a strong working partnership between County Londonderry, Northern Ireland as a whole and the City of London at the highest possible levels.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate. Although I represent a Belfast constituency, I am proud to say that I was born in Londonderry and lived there for the first 11 years of my life, so I want to see it do well and succeed. Does he agree that with the initiatives that he has referred to—the dinner and the special events, particularly this year—it is important that there is follow-up and follow-through on the part of Invest NI and others? I say that because, wearing my hat as a former Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment in Northern Ireland, the thing that I learned very strongly is that the follow-up to any action is absolutely key, as I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would agree.
The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely correct in that regard. Achieving follow-up is an inevitable problem of government, and not just within Northern Ireland. For example, one can look at the important initiatives that the UK Government are making in India. Without following those initiatives through, there is a difficulty. It is not simply a matter of a whole lot of politicians putting on a good dinner and everything else, and thinking that the problem is solved. There needs to be concerted action. I very much hope that all members of all parties in Northern Ireland will play their part in that action, and I also hope that, within the City of London, we ensure that we take on this responsibility, too.
It seems to me that, in recent months, the Honourable the Irish Society has been directly engaging with Digital Derry, Derry city council, Coleraine borough council and other local stakeholders. I am pleased to say that that engagement has resulted in the signing of a unique memorandum of understanding between Digital Derry and the Tech City Investment Organisation in London. It is unique in the sense that it is the very first such agreement to be signed between Tech City and any other UK-based digital cluster. Therefore, it gives a great opportunity, as the right hon. Gentleman correctly suggests, to drive this process forward before other parts of the UK have their chance.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way. Certainly, Londonderry has come a long way since the days of King James. However, to encourage young people to stay within the city of Londonderry and, indeed, within Northern Ireland, we need to encourage the skills side of things. The economy is starting to move forward, but we need to encourage our young people. As my colleague—my right hon. Friend the Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) —has already said, we need to follow up on these activities to ensure that our young people stay in Northern Ireland.
Of course, as I am sure any of the hon. Gentlemen sitting in Westminster Hall today would be keen to point out, Northern Ireland’s education record is actually fantastic; it is the best of any part of the United Kingdom. It is perhaps the flipside of having such a strong public sector that teaching as a profession is rather more highly regarded in Northern Ireland than is possibly the case in other parts of the United Kingdom. As I say, Northern Ireland has a fantastic record on education. However, as the hon. Member rightly points out, ensuring that that education is built upon with skills that are relevant for the 21st century, particularly in the key global industries that I have referred to, is vital.
Following the signing of this memorandum of understanding, a number of angel investors and media outlets have already expressed a serious interest in the development of the cluster to which I have referred. The signing of this agreement is just the first part of a long-term business plan for further development of the tech cluster in County Londonderry. I hope this will culminate in developing deeper connections to funding networks in and around the City of London, with the intention of creating an investment fund for businesses, supported by Digital Derry, and the development of Digital Derry’s Culture Tech festival and the Ebrington creative hub, through closer engagement with the Tech City businesses.
A renewal of this historical relationship would not be complete without reference to the huge potential not only for economic exchange, but for cultural exchange, especially given Derry’s proud record of and status as the UK’s first city of culture. Throughout the year, there will be a huge number of events designed to feed into this, to mark the history of the Honourable the Irish Society and reflect its present role as a cross-community charity.
June will see a joint performance of a specially commissioned anniversary cantata, “At Sixes and Sevens”, which will be performed simultaneously in the two guildhalls of London and Derry-Londonderry. I am a liveryman at the Merchant Taylors, which is one of the sixes and sevens. Hon. Members may be aware that there is a long-standing dispute, going back more than 400 years, between the Merchant Taylors and the Skinners, which has given us this phrase about being at sixes and sevens. That performance links into City history, and it will be a great success in June. The cantata will be performed by Camerata Ireland and the London Symphony Orchestra, in conjunction with the specially formed community ensembles, presenting a musical representation of the shared history of our two cities.
There will also be a programme of lectures, both in the City of London and in Derry, on the history and development of County Londonderry over the last 400 years.
It would be remiss of me to fail to mention the commendable and important work of the Honourable the Irish Society, whose anniversary has provided such a strong impetus for the programmes that I have detailed today. Each year, the society provides around 100 grants to community organisations across Derry, ranging from local sports clubs to youth organisations and senior citizens’ groups. It works closely with a number of schools and has worked with the university of Ulster, to help disadvantaged pupils from local secondary schools to achieve their potential. It also continues to manage and maintain the Bann river system, which contributes so much to the natural beauty of the area.
I am sure that this year will mark a new era for Londonderry and its wider relationship with London. The prospects on which to build an economic and cultural collaboration that benefits all parties are there. Through the hard work and dedication of those involved—at the Honourable the Irish Society, in Derry and in the City of London—I am sure that this anniversary can provide a genuine catalyst for future growth and prosperity.
The hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mark Field) and the Minister have both kindly indicated that they are happy for hon. Members from Northern Ireland to contribute to the debate. I am happy to facilitate that, because I appreciate that they want to do so. However, we need to leave some time for the Minister to respond, in fairness to him and the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster.
Thank you, Mr Davies. I appreciate your urging brevity.
I commend the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mark Field) on his initiative in securing this debate, which provides a timely parliamentary opportunity to acknowledge the unique, although not always perfect or agreed or agreeable, relationship between the city of Derry, or Londonderry, and London and the wider county. Of course, the plantation remit given to the City of London was not just confined to the city, although a bespoke charter was given in respect of the city.
It is not a day to try to do a “Horrible Histories” version of events, suggesting that it was all just raucous fun and we can laugh about it now. Like others, I do not want to dwell on the past. I am not here to assert the restoration of the Gaelic ascendancy, or anything like that. We will do that on another day in a digital form, I am sure. However, it is important to recognise that the City of London has been making positive commitments to and engaging positively with not just my constituency of Foyle, which embraces the city of Derry or Londonderry, but the wider county. It is not just the City of London corporation that is involved, as the hon. Gentleman said, but the Honourable the Irish Society.
This is not a new interest contrived on the back of the 400th anniversary—the series of 400th anniversaries—that we have been celebrating in recent years, and it is not just occurring since the onset of the peace process and the more benign environment. The Honourable the Irish Society has engaged positively during the difficult times of the troubles with the Inner City Trust, for example, which worked to preserve the fabric of buildings, and helped restore some that had been damaged in the mad IRA bombing campaign that destroyed so much of the heart of Derry city. The Honourable the Irish Society was supportive in a discreet and sensitive way.
The society has a strong relationship with a number of schools in the city, not least some girls’ schools, helping them nurture some of their specialisms, including in science, culture and the arts. In the wider arts field, the City of London corporation and the Honourable the Irish Society have supported the Playhouse and other key parts of the cultural infrastructure of the city, including the Verbal arts centre and other amenities, all of which helped to create the pedigree that was part of the successful bid for the city to become the first UK city of culture. The society and the corporation supported the city in that bid and were helpful to many people who supported and contributed to it.
More recently, the City has helped to forge the partnership between the Digital Derry ventures initiative and Tech City. As the hon. Gentleman said, that partnership is full of all sorts of possibilities into the future.
During the 400th anniversary, people are creating and forging a new relationship—not hung up about the historic issues around the original relationship or any of the history or experience relating to that, but focused on the now and the future. That is why the event in the Guildhall earlier this month, which the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell) mentioned, was so important and positive. It was important not just because of the distinguished people who were present —the First Minister and Deputy First Minister, the mayors and the governor—but because there was an inclusive presence, including all sectors in the city and all sections in the larger county, as well. It was positive in that sense and people have gone away with positive ideas and ambitions and a real sense of commitment, which we will, of course, be holding the City of London to. We will be constructive partners who will contribute in a positive way to the City of London, not just by asking for interest and connections, but by encouraging investment and positive engagement by our own businesses in the life of the city and the wider economy here, as reflected in the spirit of remarks at the dinner, and as the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster indicated.
I support the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mark Field) in his debate. Like the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan), I, too, pay tribute to the City of London and the Honourable the Irish Society on the magnificent event, both the inward investment part of it and the evening part in the Guildhall recently. I do not want to pre-empt what might be said, but some announcements are in the pipeline as a result of that, and hopefully those will be the first of many announcements.
This issue unites communities across Londonderry, the county of Londonderry and all of Northern Ireland, because this is a positive legacy for the future. As the economy rises out of the recession we have all had to endure, people want us to build on that 400-year legacy. We have to drive forward the skills base alluded to by my hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds). We have to create end products and jobs. We have to motivate the small and medium-sized sector to ensure our connections with the City of London blossom into something viable and progressive for young people, and there are already emerging economies, particularly in the digital sector.
We are getting there, but we need more progress. We need Invest NI to be very committed, and it is. We need to see the end product. This is a tremendous day, and I thank the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster and others for their contributions, which I am sure will be welcomed at home.
It is a pleasure to work hard under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. It is an honour and a privilege as Minister of State for Northern Ireland to participate in this debate to celebrate 400 years of history. As hon. Members alluded to, the relationship has not been the easiest at times, but we are where we are today, and we can take things forward for young people and the community in Northern Ireland.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mark Field) on securing the debate. In the short time I have been in Northern Ireland, one thing I have witnessed is people’s warmth and enthusiasm for moving on, particularly when I went to Londonderry for the first time. Actually, there was a bit of enthusiasm and warmth for me, which was interesting—people were very welcoming and friendly. More importantly, however, people were saying, “The past is the past. We can’t remove the past. The past is there. But we have to go forward.” The positive way in which Londonderry or Derry/Londonderry—if I get into the semantics, I will get told off again, but there we are—has dealt with the past, and is dealing with the future, could easily be replicated in more parts of the community, and it is important that people do so.
As we have heard, there are 400 years of history. Some of the language early on was interesting. The Honourable the Irish Society got its royal charter in 1613, but some of the language in it would be deemed somewhat inappropriate today. My researchers found a reference to
“the wretched state of the province of Ulster”.
That was 400 years ago; thank goodness we can talk about the Province in a completely different way now. Her Majesty summed things up when she was in Dublin castle. She said:
“With the benefit of historical hindsight we can all see things which we would wish had been done differently or not at all.”
Certainly, in terms of some of the language of the early days, including the plantation, and all that wonderful history—I say “wonderful” in inverted commas—Her Majesty summed things up brilliantly with that short sentence.
Things are very positive in Londonderry and Northern Ireland. We really have to pinch ourselves when we see where we are and how far we have come from the really difficult, dark times Northern Ireland went through. At the same time, as my hon. Friend alluded to, we must not take our finger off the pulse, and we must make sure that we do not drift back into those difficult times. I, too, praise the work of the Police Service of Northern Ireland and our security services in continuing to keep the peace. What we saw on the TV again this morning indicates that we must remain vigilant and move forward.
This is not just about the celebrations; there are so many things being announced this year that we are going forward with. The G8 is coming to Northern Ireland, and that was the Prime Minister’s personal decision. That is a huge fillip for the economy of Northern Ireland, and it says to the rest of the world that Northern Ireland is open for business; it is a place where people can come and do business. Only three weeks ago, I met the seven biggest Japanese business men in the UK, who had come to Northern Ireland with their ambassador to see how they could invest. I do not want to pre-empt some of the announcements that will come from the county of Londonderry and Londonderry itself, but I know investments are coming from that visit—those involved have told me that those investments will go forward. We need to do more of that and to sell the benefits of doing business in Northern Ireland and, in the context of this debate, Derry/Londonderry.
Does the Minister agree that one opportunity, as part of the 400th anniversary this year, relates to the fact that Londonderry is the UK city of culture? We can start, on a straightforward cultural basis, to build inward investment and events such as the one the Minister alluded to with the Japanese business people.
I completely agree, and I will come on to the city of culture in a few moments.
The Northern Ireland Office and the Treasury have been keen to ensure that we invest. The Secretary of State has taken a particular interest in the city’s broadband technology, and funding has come from central Government here in Westminster to help facilitate that. While I praise what is going on in the devolved Assembly, therefore, we are also trying to do our bit, and we are encouraging people to go forward.
Another important event taking place in Northern Ireland in the near future is the police and fire games. For those who do not know just how important those games are—as an ex-fireman, I would say this, wouldn’t I?—I should point out that they are the second-largest athletic event in the world, behind the Olympics. They are taking place in Belfast later this year, and they are a huge event. In that context, I remember, as a young man, standing in admiration of Mary Peters as an athlete; I now stand in admiration of her for driving and doing things in the community. Very early in my time in Northern Ireland, I was standing on the tarmac at Belfast city airport waiting for His Royal Highness the Duke of York to come in. I had about 15 minutes with Mary Peters, who is the most inspiring person; it is no wonder she became such an athlete when she has so much drive and personality.
The Minister talks about how far Northern Ireland and the city of Londonderry have come, and I mentioned the days of King James earlier. The Wolfe Tones have now invited my hon. Friend the Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell) to one of their events, although, unfortunately, he is very busy. However, that shows how things have moved on. Will the Minister congratulate the cultural organisation the Apprentice Boys of Derry on their contribution in terms of the history of Londonderry and, of course, the famous walls of Derry?
I join the hon. Gentleman in congratulating all the groups he mentioned on the work they do in the community. We were talking about how forward-thinking Londonderry is. As the marching season approaches, people can look across the Province at how it has been dealt with sympathetically and with trust and understanding. There are just as many marches, but the community has said, “We want to move on. We want to celebrate our culture and our history, but, at the same time, we want success for our young people and the community.” As the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell) alluded to, it is the young people who matter. We are going to hand things over to them in a very short period; life moves on very fast. However, we must make sure that what we hand over is right and proper for any young generation that comes forward.
My hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster mentioned the society, and I pay tribute to its continuing work, some of which it has carried out over years and in difficult circumstances. That work is not just financial, but involves mentoring in schools and elsewhere. I hope that continues.
The main comment I want to make relates to something that has been touched on several times. It is all well and good having a lovely reception, with lots of nice speeches, and it is all well and good putting the finance together so that such things can take place. That is great: everybody can go out in their bling, and everybody is happy—but then what? Let us make sure that there is truly momentum to take things forward. The momentum we have at the moment can be accelerated. We should not wait for another celebration or centenary to come along, because that will be too late. The announcements the hon. Member for East Londonderry alluded to are coming soon, but let us build on them and go forward as fast as possible, so that we have a better future for everybody across the community. In that respect, I pay tribute to the way in which the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) contributed to the debate. This has nothing to do with divisions; it is about the future, and that is all that matters.
[Annette Brooke in the Chair]
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Brooke.
I requested this debate because of my concern about the growing problems faced by tenants and landlords across the country at the hands of unregulated letting agents. I am concerned that the Government appear to be making no moves to address those problems. We need a regulated sector for the protection of all. I make it clear that I am criticising not all letting agents but a minority who bring the profession into disrepute.
My parents have been in private rented accommodation with the same landlord for the past 30 years. They receive an excellent service, pay a fair rent and have clarity on their position. Increasingly, however, that is not the case for all. I find more and more constituents are being exploited by unscrupulous agents.
With the economy flatlining, we are facing the biggest housing crisis in a generation. The Government’s housing and economic policies are making that worse. House building is down; homelessness and rough sleeping are up. We have a market in which people struggle to get mortgages, and, unfortunately, most of us cannot rely on the bank of mum and dad.
A result of the growing housing crisis is that more and more people are locked out of home ownership and are forced to live in the private rented sector. I have no objection to that per se. In most of Europe, the private rented sector is the norm, but tenants over there do not suffer at the hands of cowboy letting agents, which is the big difference.
In the UK, the private rented sector is now bigger than the social sector. Last year, the private rented sector overtook the social sector for the first time in nearly half a century. Five million people, however, are on local authority waiting lists, and young people are now forced to wait well into their 30s before they can buy their own home, if they can ever afford to do so.
The Government should be building more homes and better supporting tenants and families. The gap between supply and demand is ever increasing. The private rented sector clearly has an important role to play in meeting housing needs, but to do so it must be a market that works for tenants and landlords, with no room for rogue letting agents and rip-off fees.
There are now 3.6 million households in the private rented sector, and a third of those families have children. Private renting is not just for young professionals. The Resolution Foundation predicts that by 2025, if the economy remains weak, 27% of low to middle-income families will be living in private rented accommodation. That is why I urge the Government to act now to impose regulations, because the problem is not going away; it is growing.
What are the issues of private renting? Many of those looking to find a home in the private rented sector, or who already live in the private rented sector, have to use a letting agent. The evidence shows that too many tenants are being ripped off by opportunist letting agents who fail to protect tenants’ money and who charge exorbitant fees that are completely opaque.
A report by Citizens Advice found that 73% of tenants are dissatisfied with the service provided by their letting agent, with a significant number having difficulty contacting their agent and suffering serious delays in getting repairs. There are cases of agencies, even large and well established businesses, running into difficulties because they have no client money protection, with the money of both landlords and tenants being lost. Shockingly, that has not prevented the owners of companies that have gone bust from resuming their activities at a later date.
Ryan Lee, a 24-year-old Cheltenham letting agent, has today been sentenced after pleading guilty to taking £13,500 from 13 customers. Husband and wife Chris and Lucy Mallows were among Lee’s victims. They handed him £900, which they believed would go into a secure deposit scheme. They also discovered that money they had given to Lee to pay their first month’s rent had not reached their landlady. At the time, Lucy and Chris were setting up their own oven-cleaning business, and they could not afford to lose the cash. When they first realised they had been conned and went to the letting agent’s office to investigate, they found the shop stripped of computers and in complete darkness. Lee spent 10 months on the run overseas before being caught. Responding to the case another local agent said:
“There have been incidents recently, all local and reported in the press, of three letting agents disappearing with thousands of pounds of clients’ money.”
Unfortunately that is not only a Cheltenham issue but a national issue.
Individuals who are trying to invest for their future represent the biggest increase in landlords in recent years. That novice group are easy pickings for rogue letting agents. Novice landlords have expressed the pressure that letting agents put on them to raise rents. Shelter finds that one in four landlords has raised their rents because a letting agent had told them to do so. Letting agents put pressure on landlords to issue very short contracts, which benefit only the letting agent as they can charge more fees for re-letting the property.
Letting agents are preventing tenants from directly contacting their landlords. There are no safeguards to protect tenants, landlords or reputable agents. All I request is that the Government create a level playing field in which tenants are treated fairly and landlords have fair competition. Currently, good landlords are being exploited and good letting agents are being undercut by rogues, which cannot be allowed to continue.
More than 4,000 managing and letting agents are estimated to be entirely unregulated. At present, it is still possible to set up a letting or management agency with no qualifications whatsoever. There is no need to conform to requirements of conduct or to provide mandatory safeguards for the consumer. There are no obligations on letting agents, unlike estate agents, to register with a redress scheme enabling awards to be made against agents for quantifiable financial loss to clients. Letting agents, unlike estate agents, operate outside of any legislation. As the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors puts it, letting agents operate in the property market’s “Wild West.”
A local agent commented in the Bristol Post:
“It’s all well and good to seek out an agent who belongs to a voluntary licensing scheme, but the average man in the street would reasonably expect consumer protection from any operator in our industry.”
He is right. People do not start their property search by looking for which letting agents have the most kitemarks; they search online for a property in a certain area that is within their budget. Once a desirable property is found, it is difficult to walk away, and I am certain the letting agent’s track record is not even considered.
Voluntary schemes have obvious drawbacks. The good agents comply with such schemes, and the cowboys ignore them. In 2002, the previous Government established the national approved letting scheme as an independent voluntary regulatory body. Industry-led bodies such as the Association of Residential Letting Agents and the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors have done good work in encouraging a responsible regulatory approach. Although the principles are laudable, however, at no time have the majority of letting agents in England been members of such schemes. Self-regulation has not delivered and we now need something stronger.
Does my hon. Friend agree that it was wrong of the Conservatives on London councils to scupper plans for a pan-London registration scheme for landlords and agents so that tenants could have had assurance that they met minimum standards?
My hon. Friend makes a good point, and I completely agree.
Across the industry, there is a problem with rip-off and opaque fees charged by letting and management agencies. A national survey of letting agents found that 94% impose additional charges on tenants on top of the tenancy bond, rent or rent in advance. The citizens advice bureau in Dorset reported a client who was considering renting a three-bedroom property. He was shocked to find hidden in the tenancy agreement a requirement for him to pay £94 every six months for “search fees.”
The national survey also found huge variations in the size of such charges. Charges for checking references ranged from £10 to £275, and charges for renewing a tenancy ranged from £12 to £220. In some cases, additional charges for a tenancy amounted to more than £600, which is a vast amount of additional money for anyone to find. The fact the fees vary so much shows that those charging the premium are clearly making a huge profit.
Does my hon. Friend agree that letting agents’ charges to landlords are also absolutely extortionate? It is not just tenants who face charges; many landlords, when tenancies are renewed, must pay 10% a year in ongoing charges. I get many complaints in my constituency, as I am sure she does, from landlords who feel that the market needs regulation.
My hon. Friend makes a good point. It is both tenants and landlords who suffer from unscrupulous letting agents, and we must do more to protect them. This cannot continue.
Up-front fees present a significant barrier to low-income people looking to rent, in some cases with serious consequences. The charity Crisis contacted me about Danny, a 34-year-old man who became homeless after a family break-up. Danny was given a list of letting agents who were happy to take housing benefit tenants. He called them daily for several weeks, looking for a property. He was eventually offered a flat and told that he could move in after six weeks.
Danny secured a crisis loan to help him pay rent in advance. The agent asked him for a £250 administration fee, refusing to confirm in writing what the fee was for or to provide a signed tenancy agreement. The agent then told Danny that others were interested in the property and asked for an additional £800 holding fee to keep the flat off the market. He knew Danny’s situation but refused to reduce the fees. Although he tried to scrape together the money, Danny could not take up the tenancy. Having forgone his place in a winter shelter, he slept rough before going to Crisis. He is now living in a hostel and looking to move into private rented accommodation again. I would love to say that Danny’s story is unique, but it is not.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this debate. She is telling a harrowing story about the individual whom she named. Does she agree that regulation must include transparency and clarity about any additional charges, so that potential tenants and landlords can be absolutely clear what they are being charged and why?
I completely agree, and I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. What I am asking for most is a shopping list of fees, so that people can go in with their eyes wide open. What I am finding is that people—whether tenants or landlords—enter a tenancy agreement, and then additional fees are sprung on them, which is unacceptable.
According to Which?, some tenants are being charged up to £90 to renew an existing tenancy: that is, to stay in a property for which they have already undergone checks and been paying rent. Equally insultingly, some letting agents charge £120 to check out of a property; let us hope that the hotels do not catch on to that scam.
I recently encountered a case in Rotherham in which a vulnerable couple with dependent children paid a month’s rent in advance and a £100 administration charge to the letting agent. They were not given receipts. The couple were informed that the property was available and were given a date to move in. However, the house was in a state of disrepair. There were structural problems and exposed wiring and damp, and it was not suitable to live in without work.
The couple did not waive their rights to a seven-day cooling off period, and decided not to move into the property. They telephoned and wrote to the letting agent to cancel the agreement within the designated time limit, but the letting agency made it difficult for the clients to get back their deposit and administration fee. It took considerable time for the letting agent to agree to refund the advance rental payment. No mention was made of refunding the administration fee.
A report by the independent Resolution Foundation found three key areas of concern regarding fees and charges levied by unscrupulous letting agencies. First, there is a substantial disparity in the fees charged by different agents for similar services, but no apparent difference in the quality of the service received. Secondly, moving into the private rented sector generally entails significant up-front costs due to fees and charges. Thirdly, charges are too often hidden in the small print and people are exploited by unfair fees that they were unaware they would face.
All those issues were highlighted in an investigation by the Office of Fair Trading whose findings were released two weeks ago. The OFT found that although the lettings market is a significant part of the UK economy, it generates an extraordinarily high level of complaints. The investigation found that the main areas of concern for tenants were surprising and high charges, confusion about holding deposits, misleading advertising, repairs not being carried out and the non-refund of security deposits. The OFT also found that landlords’ concerns focused, among other things, on agents not doing what was agreed in the contract and not passing on collected rents to landlords.
As a result of its investigation, the OFT has called for better up-front information, including clear tariffs of fees and charges at the start of the process and certainly before any contract is signed, and a redress mechanism so that landlords and tenants can sort out problems when they occur. The OFT has also called on the Government to require agents to sign up to a code of practice or join a redress scheme, and it questions whether the level of consumer protection provided by law is right for the sector.
With such a weight of evidence, why is it that despite the reports from Citizens Advice, the Resolution Foundation, Which? and now the Office of Fair Trading, despite the calls for action and support for change from millions of tenants and landlords and despite calls for change from the industry itself, including the Association of Residential Letting Agents, the Labour party and the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, the Government have so far not been moved to act? They voted against the Labour Opposition motion last month calling for action on the private rented sector, including on letting agents. The Government did not accept Baroness Hayter’s amendment in the Lords to include letting agents in redress schemes, which would have been a small step towards greater protections for tenants and landlords, and one of the first actions of the then Housing Minister, the right hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps), was to scrap the last Labour Government’s proposals to regulate letting agents.
I hope that this Minister for Housing, the hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr Prisk), despite having voted against Labour’s proposals last month, will now consider changing course. Action to regulate letting agents would benefit tenants and landlords, providing protection for their money and appropriate redress mechanisms. It would also benefit the industry as a whole, protecting the reputations of responsible agents, and the economy: a report by the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors found that regulation of the industry could generate more than £20 million in benefits per year to the UK economy. Given that millions of families throughout the country are living through the biggest squeeze on living standards in a generation, action on fees would ease the pressure for tenants.
Will the Government act now to protect tenants and landlords by regulating letting and management agents? It is not a party political request; regulation is supported by the industry itself. Will the Government act now to end letting agents’ confusing, inconsistent and opaque fees and charges by ensuring transparency and comparability? Will they undertake to review the fees that letting and management agents can charge? Labour has repeatedly called on the Government to act now to change the private rented sector so that it works for all. There is no better place to start than with the lettings industry.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Brooke. I congratulate the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) on securing this debate and on her speech. She raised an incredibly important point. For me, one of the interesting things about this debate is why our private market is failing when there are many different agents who charge different fees and many properties available. One might expect that people would shop around in that situation and go to better landlords and agents that charge lower fees, but that does not seem to be happening. My speech will focus on why I think the market is failing and what we can do about it.
The point is well made about the disparity in fees, what they are for and why they are charged. I got someone in my office to conduct a mystery shopper exercise in Folkestone, in my constituency, and was interested in the results. I will not pretend that every agent was asked, but I was amazed by the range of fees charged by different agents.
To give an example, an inquiry was made regarding a standard joint tenancy for two adults in work in a flat in Folkestone. The rent for such a flat might typically be between £500 and £600 a month. One agent, when asked, said that their fee structure included a £220 administration fee, a £50 if there was a guarantor and a £120 additional charge on contract completion, totalling £390. There was then a month’s deposit up front, which is standard for most properties, plus £100. Someone paying all the fees could easily pay nearly £500 in charges apart from the deposit, or more than £1,000 just to move in. That is before they have walked through the door. Many people would find it impossible to raise the kind of money to move into such a property, and there are moving costs on top, so someone could easily be paying more than £1,500 just to move into a property. Someone on a low income would not be able to raise such money.
In that example, the fees for the property were quoted by a company called Evolution Property Lettings, which operates in Ashford and Folkestone. I was interested to see whether its fees were typical: it was charging £390 in fees, plus an additional £100 on the deposit, so £490. Another agent, Fell Reynolds in Folkestone, was charging £60 per person in fees—no other administration charges or renewal fees—and only a month’s deposit, without the additional £100.
Someone would save several hundred pounds in fees simply by using a different agent. I am sure such companies have reasons for their fee structure. Jenny, one of my constituents who is thinking of renting a property through Evolution Property Lettings, asked it why it charges those fees, what they are for and why they are different from other agents’ charges, because there is clearly a massive disparity in fees charged for a similar amount of work.
The challenge is why people do not have the information or the confidence to ask around. Does more guidance need to be given to people to suggest what fee structure different agents charge, that they should shop around and ask, that they should go to a reputable agent and that they should challenge agents on the fees that they charge? We should certainly be suggesting that as elected politicians and local authorities should do the same; with citizens advice bureaux, therefore, we are all people who can give advice and, I hope, shame some organisations into being more transparent about their fees and, where possible, into reducing them.
The culture of fees being charged—as I said, the fact that it might cost someone £1,000 to move into a property—blocks up the private rented sector, and that leads to such market failure. The hon. Lady gave an example of tenants who live in a property in a poor state of repair, and I am sure that Members of Parliament throughout the country could all give plenty of other examples from our constituency casework. People live in run-down properties—perhaps containing a category 1 or 2 hazard, as defined by the Housing Act 2004, which would give the local authority the power to intervene—but why do they not move?
One of the reasons why people do not move out of such properties is that they cannot afford to. The managing agents know that, and they will therefore happily sit there and do little to intervene. By the time the local authority inspects the property and requests that the agent or landlord carries out work, many months will have passed. The landlord might then propose to carry out the work but not do it, and so it would not be atypical for more than a year to go by before any definitive action is taken. We have to look at how to clamp down on that element.
How can we make people do the work that they are supposed to do? How can we empower tenants to exercise their rights? There are two elements to that. First, we should all be concerned that most of the worst cases are paid for by the taxpayer, because most of the people pay their rent out of housing benefit, even though they rent in the private sector. Why are we paying housing benefit through poor letting agents to slum landlords? Why do we allow things to continue for a long period before anything is done?
I sympathise greatly with the case made by the hon. Lady, but we may diverge because I think that registers might not be enough. Registers have to be enforced; people have to inspect the properties. The problem that we face is that the inspection work has not been done. Local authorities have the power to inspect properties to force change, but why is that not being done?
When the subject was debated in the main Chamber last month, it was pointed out that it is sometimes difficult to identify who the landlord is to get them to take action. The one thing that we control, however, is the money supply. If we can turn off the money, we would find that the landlords will act pretty quickly, because most landlords want high occupancy in their properties. If they were told that they will not get their money for a month or two and that the work only costs up to £1,000 or so, they would pretty quickly carry out the work. If the agent did not receive the rent on behalf of the landlord, we can be pretty sure that the landlord would soon want to know what was going on. The best way to police rogue letting agents might be to make landlords more challenging about the way that their money is spent in the fees they pay.
I am asking the Minister whether, in the reforms proposed, we are looking to empower tenants to take control of the housing benefit paid out in their name. Should we consider what additional protection we can give to a tenant who tells a landlord or letting agent, “You are not maintaining this property correctly. It is a hazard to me and my health. I believe you are in breach of our contract. Therefore, I am going to withhold the rent I pay to you—the housing benefit you would receive through me”? I believe that many people would be fearful of taking that course of action—fearful of eviction or legal action taken against them—so should we consider how to empower and protect tenants in that situation, so they can withhold their rent or housing benefit?
The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point about housing benefit recipients and their relationship with landlords. Does he agree that, under universal credit, with the money going to the tenant rather than directly to the landlord, the onus on the tenant to take action against unscrupulous landlords will be even more challenging than in the current climate? Therefore, will he support Opposition amendments to universal credit, so that we keep the system of paying rent direct to the landlord?
I understand the hon. Lady’s point. The mechanism of making direct payments to landlords could be seen as an incentive to landlords to meet their obligations, because it is massively in their interest to have direct payment of housing benefit: they have sitting tenants; there is massive demand for property; and they are given a guaranteed income, which effectively comes from the Government, one way or another, rather than from a tenant. I can understand how that works in the existing system. With the reforms, however, we can tell tenants, “You will receive the benefit. You can make that decision, but perhaps you need more understanding of your rights and what protection in law you have.”
I do not want to use this opportunity to make up Government policy on the hoof, not that I am in a position to do so anyway, but I have a suggestion. If extra protection is needed, should there be a rent order or something that a local authority can issue to say, “We do not believe that any more rent should be paid on this property by the tenant until the work is completed”? It could also state, “We believe that the tenant in this case is protected in law and cannot be evicted. No legal action can be taken against them until the work is completed. We will inspect it.”
Given that we are paying out of our taxes for failure in the private rented sector and that we are paying slum landlords through housing benefits, how can we use the mechanism of the money that we control to encourage them to invest in their properties more promptly? If they do not, they might otherwise risk losing the benefits. If housing benefit was not paid out, I would prefer tenants to be able to use the money instead for a deposit on a new property that they might wish to rent and to pay for some moving costs. They would then be empowered in the market, so that they could pick up and go elsewhere. At the moment, they are restricted from doing that; they cannot afford to move out of their rented property because of the charges.
My question to the Minister is, how can we work with the proposed housing benefit and universal credit Government reforms to empower tenants, so that the private rented sector works as a proper market and so that tenants are in a position genuinely to pick up and move and go somewhere else—to a different property or agent—if they feel that they are being ripped off or being made to live in slum conditions that are not tolerated and that are in breach of the 2004 Act? That could be a more empowering mechanism for the tenant, and much easier to deliver, rather than having an army of local authority inspectors running around after and chasing up letting agents and landlords.
With the best will in the world, that regime was enabled by the Housing Act introduced by the previous Government, but it has not solved the problems, because the scale of enforcement is so great. However, if we can empower tenants to take action and protect them as they take that action, by taking their business elsewhere, that could be a ready solution to the problem. That is the thought that I suggest. We control the money supply, so perhaps we can use that to stand up for tenants in dire straits, in poor housing and on low incomes. We can protect their interests by standing up for them against the landlords who exploit them.
Before I finish, I apologise to the House. I should have referred to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests before I made my speech. I hope that you will accept my apology, Mrs Brooke, and my reference to the register at this point.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) on securing the debate and making such a comprehensive and convincing case for regulation. I am also pleased to follow the hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins), because there seems to be a cross-party consensus on the need for action and the depth of the problem, although we might not be at quite the same point in some of our conclusions.
My hon. Friend made an important point about the growing importance of the private rented sector in a housing market in crisis. She said that 3.6 million households are in the private rented sector, and by the end of the decade about 20% of households will be in that sector.
Crisis, the charity for single homeless people, has said that for many households, including those on low incomes, the private rented sector is not fit for purpose—a devastating criticism. It highlights the conduct of letting agents as a major issue among a range of problems. They charge extortionate fees—typically for reference checks on tenants, contract preparation, deposit handling and tenancy renewal—that are often disproportionate and lack clarity because they may not be charged until after the tenant has signed the contract or paid a deposit, a practice known as “drip pricing”.
Holding deposits are often required from tenants who have decided to rent a property, but it is not always clear in what circumstances and how much of the deposit will not be refunded if the tenant decides not to proceed with the tenancy. In some cases, letting agents have taken holding deposits from two or more tenants for the same property.
Crisis raises a number of other points, which make clear the depth of malpractice by letting agents. That does not apply to all letting agents, but to a significant enough number for Citizens Advice research to come up with the conclusion that 73% of tenants were dissatisfied with the service they were providing. That is a devastating figure.
My city centre constituency has many houses in multiple occupation and faces many of those problems. I am sure that many hon. Members will make points about different sectors of the community that face difficulties; I want to highlight students because I have about 32,000 of them living in my constituency.
Student accommodation has a certain image, perhaps embedded in our memories from the classic images of Neil, Rick, Vyvyan and Mike in “The Young Ones”. However, in reality, students want and deserve a decent standard of accommodation. Some students in Sheffield are fortunate if they have accommodation provided by our two universities. Students voted the Sheffield university accommodation the best in the United Kingdom—
Sheffield beats Manchester in many ways—[Interruption.] Not at football at the moment, but I dream on.
Most students spend some time in the private rented sector, particularly after their first year. Good quality accommodation is available in the private sector, but there are numerous cases of quality not being good enough. The student advice centre at Sheffield Hallam university student union has raised several issues of concern that students are reporting.
First, students are encouraged to sign up for tenancies early and are misled by letting agents into believing that there is a shortage of accommodation and that it is a landlords’ market, when it is not. They are encouraged to sign up for tenancies in October or November in the year prior to the start of the tenancy, which for first-year students is just after they have started their course. They are asked to make choices nine months or so before occupying the accommodation, which leads to a range of issues with disrepair because letting agents, on behalf of landlords, make promises of improvement work to secure the tenancy, but then simply do not carry out the work or, if repairs are done, they may not be done by the time the new tenants move in.
Letting agents encourage students to sign up to tenancies early because students worry about not being able to find somewhere else to live, and that often forces them into joint tenancies with people who may be first-week friends and between whom there is no lasting bond. That can cause real difficulties when people try to get out of contracts but are unable to do so. Some students sign up too early to take account of how their course is going. They may not proceed with the course, or they may transfer to another university or take a year out, but they are still locked into their contract if they sign it within a few weeks to going to university.
Some letting agents and landlords take advantage of students’ transient tenancies. They are usually in a property for only a year and action for remedy may take a long time, so there is often no incentive for students to take action if they will be moving out within a relatively short period. Letting agents and landlords are aware of that and often do only minimal repairs because they think they can get away with it.
Only last Thursday, a group of four women students from Sheffield Hallam university came to see me to share their experience. They had faced a catalogue of problems last July when they collected the keys for their new home, which was unfit to move into. Among a range of issues, the house was filthy and full of rubbish, mattresses had blood and faeces stains, there was no carbon monoxide detector, taps and toilet seats did not fit correctly, blinds were broken and the extractor fan was broken.
When challenged, the letting agent simply said that there had been a busy change-over period with 400 students moving out on 30 June and 400 moving in on 1 July. However, the agent knew that that would be the case; it is like the staff of the refreshment kiosk at Bramall lane complaining that they cannot serve customers at half time because everyone comes in a 15-minute period. Letting agents know when the student change-over will happen, and there is no need for them to organise contracts in that way.
Most contracts for university-provided accommodation are for 42 weeks. Agents know that most students do not want 52-week contracts. The only benefit of a 52-week contract is that landlords get the rent, and that is the wrong driver. There is no reason why tenancy start dates cannot be staggered to allow for inspections and appropriate cleaning and repairs. The house that the young women were expected to move into was uninhabitable for two weeks until they forced basic action to be taken. Not unreasonably, they asked for their rent to be waived for that period, but they were told no, because they had signed their contract and had chosen not to live there.
The problems did not stop there. Sensibly, as young women they wanted individual locks on their room doors, which showed the marks of having had fitted locks previously, but they were told that under the contract they were not allowed to fit locks themselves and that the letting agent would arrange that at a charge of £80 a door. Such scams are unacceptable.
The student advice centre told me about wider problems with tenancy agreements from letting agents. They often do not contain the necessary legal information such as the landlord’s name and address so the students may not know who their landlord is. When they ask the agent, they are often told that they are not allowed to know.
Some agreements contain unfair terms that would not be enforceable in a court of law—for example, that tenants may not have friends or family staying at the property. There is a significant problem with letting agents on behalf of landlords failing to give students 24 hours’ notice that they will be doing repairs or showing prospective tenants round, and they may let themselves in with keys, sometimes without knocking.
The best letting agencies share the aspiration to stamp out bad practice, and the Association of Residential Letting Agents, the largest representative body, has called for statutory regulation. That is the nub of the problem. The absence of legislation governing letting agents is extraordinary.
Agents may voluntarily join a regulation scheme, but it is estimated that only 60% do so. Those who choose to join a scheme are likely to be the better and more responsible agents, but there is little that can be done to restrict the actions of the unscrupulous. It is an extraordinary omission that letting agents are not covered by the same requirement to be part of an approved redress scheme as estate agents under the Estate Agents Act 1979. Professional bodies for letting agents provide complaints procedures, but those agents who are not members are often the ones for whom tenants most need the procedures.
The problem is getting worse. The property ombudsman saw a 26% increase in complaints about letting agents between 2010 and 2011—a 26% increase in one year. There is a real need for a process by which all complaints and concerns can be addressed. An amendment to bring letting agents within the scope of the 1979 Act was tabled to the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill in the House of Lords, and it would have been a positive step if the Government had accepted it.
The point we are all reaching is that greater regulation is needed. There is a consensus across the UK. Scotland has already banned the charging of fees by letting agents. In its upcoming housing Bill, the Welsh Assembly is seeking to require them to register and become accredited. As my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham said, the OFT and Which? have called for action to be taken to tackle bad letting practice. Regulation would benefit tenants, landlords and decent letting agents.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Brooke. I congratulate the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) on introducing this topic. She has kept the pressure on, and she put her points in a very lucid way.
We all acknowledge that there is a problem. For a variety of reasons, there is an increasing number of new landlords in the private rented market. Some people go in for buy to let. Two of my daughters, who are married, are coincidentally temporary landlords by virtue of not being able to sell their houses—one in Wales and one in London—and they could not let them without using a letting agent. There is also increasing demand for rented property as people fail to stump up the deposit and the finance to purchase their first home.
That all leads to an increasing reliance on letting agents, and there is no dispute that that is a problem. In terms of service, a great deal is left to be desired by the letting process and by the way in which repairs are conducted and deposits are handled. People have illustrated quite forcefully that there is not the same transparency in the system as we would expect from a reputable business.
That is reflected in the high level of complaints we get. At the top end of those complaints are issues of downright theft and sharp practice. We are looking at an unregulated market, and everybody—the OFT, Shelter, charities concerned with homelessness and the political parties—acknowledges that. The Liberal Democrat conference passed a motion emphasising its concern.
The Government acknowledge the problem. In a recent debate on the subject in the main Chamber, the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bath (Mr Foster), made it clear that they would keep the regulation of letting agents under review. When he was in opposition, the Housing Minister spoke favourably of such a proposal.
We all agree, therefore, on the problem. There tends to be a difference of opinion, however, when we come to the solution. One solution staring us in the face is simply caveat emptor: basically, let us have a smarter set of customers. However, that is clearly an inadequate solution and an inadequate hope. Many players in the market—landlords and tenants—are novices. They are making critical decisions, they are short of cash and they are often going through the trauma of moving home, which, as we all know, is one of the major traumas in life.
The second solution, which is favoured by some, is voluntary registration. That leaves out what the hon. Lady called the cowboys. Of course, they are not immediately identifiable: they do not all have stetsons and holsters so that people can pick them out straight away. Even if they did, voluntary regulation has been tried, and it has not been found to be a sufficient solution, because complaints have not gone down. It was a laudable move, and we have to support it, but it is obviously not sufficient to deal with the problem.
Then we come to the thorny issue of whether we need more regulation, legislation or compulsory registration of letting agencies. The Government are right to be sceptical about over-regulation, but it is not obvious what such a proposal would result in. It is not obvious that the burden will in any way be increased for good letting agents, who already pay for voluntary schemes of one kind or another and accept the administrative cost of that. Any scheme we embrace will also presumably be self-funding and therefore not a call on the Government’s sorely stretched coffers. It is not clear in any case why regulation is inappropriate. How would we answer the question: why should estate agents be regulated, but not letting agents? There is no really good answer. Furthermore, if we have a better regulated market, we will deliver some sort of social good. Despite the fact that there is a threshold to be crossed, and despite the fact that this environment is not utterly lawless—there are sensible pieces of ordinary civil law legislation that apply to it—there does seem to be a case for effective market intervention, which would presumably start with some sort of compulsory regulation of letting agents.
The decisive issue is this. We all accept that the issue is in the balance: it is not one on which people have dogmatic or doctrinaire ideas, or which they resist out of an ideological preference. Equally, the issue will not go away, and the problems are on the increase. In introducing regulation, the Government will not reduce the supply of property. The more likely market effect is that they will drive landlords, who one assumes will be just as numerous as ever, to use the services of reputable agents, not agents who are unworthy of effective registration.
Of course, regulation is supported by the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors and players in the industry. It is not evident that good markets are unregulated markets. It is also not evident that regulation in this case will necessarily be onerous. I accept the point made by the hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins) that regulation is not necessarily sufficient. Whether or not we have regulation, the elephant in the room is enforcement. We need to draw attention to the fact that most local authorities have quite a lot to do managing their existing budget and delivering the formal commitments the public expect them to deliver, without venturing into a territory where the public may not notice whether they are delivering. Such things would be an easy hit for those who want to reduce council expenditure, and most local authority chief executives are, unfortunately, in that position.
Although regulation is not a sufficient move, therefore, it is the right move; it is a step in the right direction, and I applaud the hon. Lady for having pushed us a little further in that direction.
I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak in the debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) on securing the chance to raise issues that affect increasing numbers of our constituents living in rented accommodation and on setting out the arguments so thoroughly and eloquently.
Like many hon. Members present, I was confronted with something of a dilemma over whether to speak in this debate or the debate in the main Chamber on the bedroom tax. Unfortunately, that highlights the fact that those who are not in a position to own their own home face increasingly serious problems, which this Government seem unwilling to address, because they have failed to build more affordable housing and left tenants and landlords to fend for themselves in an unregulated lettings market. Unfortunately, the Government are willing to make the situation even worse through their unfair and unworkable changes to housing benefit. With more than 6,000 households in Nottingham affected by the bedroom tax, more and more families on low incomes will be forced out of their council or housing association homes and into the private rented sector.
As we have heard, 8.5 million people—16.5% of households in England—live in the private rented sector, and two thirds of those households have children. The numbers are rising. Many of those people do not want to rent privately. Every week, I meet people in Nottingham who would love to buy their own home, but who cannot get a foot on the property ladder, and there are more than 10,000 people in Nottingham waiting for a council home. But the Government are not building enough of those desperately needed affordable homes. If we accept that many households, especially those on low incomes, are going to need the private rented sector, we must ensure that the sector is fit for purpose and that it offers renters the security they need.
My hon. Friend is right, and that is why it is so disappointing that the Government are so far behind their targets for affordable rented housing.
As we have heard, there is no legislation covering letting agent practices. It is still possible to set up as a letting agent with no qualifications. There are no requirements as to conduct or for the safeguarding of consumers as there are for estate agents, and no obligation to register with a redress scheme. Letting agents simply operate outside any legislation. Agents can voluntarily join a regulation scheme, but it is estimated that fewer than 60% do so. There is no shortage of evidence that supports the need for action. As my hon. Friends have said, an investigation by the Office of Fair Trading found that the lettings market generates a high level of complaints, and the main areas of concern for tenants set out in its report published earlier this month included surprising and high charges, confusion about holding deposits, misleading advertising, repairs not being carried out on the property and non-refund of security deposits. Crisis, the charity for homeless single people, reported similar areas of concern. The property ombudsman reported a 26% increase in enquiries or complaints about letting agents between 2010 and 2011 and, as we have heard, Citizens Advice found that 73% of tenants whom it surveyed were dissatisfied with the service.
Experience from my constituency, consistent with those findings, highlights the need for action by the Government to regulate the private rented sector and, specifically, letting agents. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) I represent a constituency with many students. Some neighbourhoods, particularly Dunkirk, Lenton, Radford, the Park, Wollaton Park and Lenton Abbey, which are close to the campuses of the university of Nottingham, have high concentrations of private rented sector accommodation and especially homes in multiple occupation. Some years ago residents established the Nottingham Action Group on HMOs, because they shared a concern about the way their neighbourhood was being affected by the changing use of local housing. The group has vast experience of the impact of the private rented sector in the city. When I asked for views on letting agents I was told that the most common complaint is agents failing to sort out repairs or carry out regular maintenance. Of course that does not affect only the tenants of the property in question; it often affects neighbours and the wider community, either directly or indirectly, because the local environment becomes run down, the street looks uncared for and further problems flow from that.
However, NAG also had regular reports of other problems, such as agents sending prospective tenants round to view a property without making an appointment, or simply telling them to call round on the off chance. When the current tenants complain they are told to put up with it because the sooner the property is let the sooner people will stop dropping round unexpectedly. There are also reports of agents failing to give prospective tenants sufficient time to look at the property, and pressuring them to sign tenancy agreements and property inventories on the spot. It has been found that agents do not return deposits readily. There is evidence of agents who do not know, or wilfully disregard, legislation. One recent example of that in Nottingham was an agent who has now been fined twice for letting HMOs that required a licence but did not have one. NAG also raised concerns about agents hiring contractors to put up “to let” boards without overseeing the work. Boards have been fastened to fences belonging to neighbours’ properties, and to trees. Thanks to the persistence of NAG, working alongside Nottingham city council, and with the support of landlords and tenants, there are now local controls on the use of letting boards. However, some agents are still acting inappropriately and using every means that they can to circumvent the controls.
The university of Nottingham student union echoed similar themes when it submitted evidence to the Select Committee on Communities and Local Government inquiry into the private rented sector. It said:
“We believe that there need to be mechanisms in place to encourage landlords and letting agents to continually improve the standard of their housing stock. Having worked alongside UNIPOL”—
a voluntary accreditation scheme—
“for many years, we have seen the benefit of accreditation schemes. However, we have concerns that voluntary codes will never catch those landlords who continue to provide low quality housing. We believe that additional licensing in addition to properly supported and valued accreditations schemes would result in improved standards”.
On the regulation of landlords and letting agents the student union was equally clear:
“We believe that registration would improve management of properties by landlords and letting agents. To be registered would indicate that a landlord or letting agent were ‘fit and proper’ to manage properties…working to minimum management standards, and exclude those few landlords whose informal practices leave their tenants in a vulnerable situation”.
I recently heard from Ben, a student in Lenton, who provided a detailed account of the problems he and his housemates had faced. He says:
“Neither us nor our neighbours who are also with the same letting agency received an inventory until quite recently, despite the fact that we were pestering the agency since September. We send e-mails to the landlord and property manager often with complaints and he responds by saying he or one of his agents will come and inspect the property and sort the problems. When and if they come they say things will be sorted and leave and the problems persist with nothing being done. Often they don’t come at all. Our concerns are ignored and disregarded and there seems to be no simple and easy way in which we can launch a complaint and get our issues resolved.”
The Government need to act now to protect tenants like Ben and their neighbours, landlords and the reputations of responsible agents. They need to put an end to confusing and inconsistent fees and charges, so that people understand what they are paying for at the outset and can compare different agents. They should introduce measures to promote longer-term tenancies and predictable rents and should introduce a national register of landlords and give local councils the powers they need to raise standards and tackle rogue landlords. The need for action is clear. It is time for the Government to get on with it.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Brooke. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) on securing this important debate. I shall not attempt to repeat any discussion of the many important issues raised so far, particularly about the experiences of tenants in the private rented sector. I just want briefly to focus on that sector in Newcastle.
Since I was elected, housing has been the No. 1 issue, week after week, that constituents have brought to me. They tell heart-rending tales—I will not recount them here. It is clear to me that a secure roof over one’s head is incredibly important not only for the security of family life, but for mental well-being, for being in a fit state to go out to try to get a job and for the quality of life to which we should all have a basic right. That is why I have launched a campaign in Newcastle to improve the availability of affordable housing, focusing on bringing empty private sector homes back into use and encouraging the building of new affordable housing.
It is clear, however, that new affordable housing cannot be built fast enough and that the private rented sector is increasingly important. I should like the Minister to say that he recognises that the private rented and social housing sectors are directed at different markets. Frequently, in response to questions on the bedroom tax, the Conservative party seems to say that, because certain measures may exist in the private rented sector, similar ones are acceptable in the social housing sector. There seems to be no recognition of the fact that there is a key difference, because many of our more vulnerable constituents live in the social housing sector.
It is important that there should be a strong private rented sector. In Newcastle, the average rent in the private rented sector is £120 a week, whereas it is £67 for council housing. That is beyond the reach of many of my constituents. In the last 12 months that data are available from Shelter, 1,055 landlords started the process of removing tenants in Newcastle. In the same period, only about 350 new homes were started, so the importance of a properly regulated and working market in the private rented sector is clear to me as the local MP. That is why I support the measures that we are proposing to regulate private rented sector letting agencies. In addition, it is clear that good letting agents, of which there are many, often support that as well. They do not want to be tarred with the same brush as those whose behaviour, as we have heard today, is invidious and heartless.
Government Members have spoken about the private rented sector as a market, and I was very interested in some of the points that they made supporting the fact that we are seeing market failure. It is therefore incredibly difficult to understand why the Government, recognising that there is market failure in the private rented sector, do not feel that intervention is appropriate. These clear market failures have an impact on many areas of our society. For example, in Newcastle, where we have high deprivation and poverty, unexpected charges can push families in the private sector into debt and into a spiral of credit and loan sharks, with little possibility of escape.
I look forward to hearing from the Minister why he is opposed to improving the sector. We need a strong private rented sector, with tenants who have strong rights and with letting agencies that behave properly and in a regulated fashion.
This is a very important debate, and I want to remind the Minister of the context in which we have it. We can all think back to a period in British history when the vast majority of people were in private accommodation. We had tenements and Rachman-like landlords, and Charles Dickens, for example, was able to illustrate coherently and fantastically just how grim it was for many people, particularly in the capital city. Since then, we have had the welfare state, slum clearance and the Addison Act of 1919. There was a wonderful balance, with subsidised, affordable housing, and where people could afford to buy their own home, as my father did in 1956 for £6,000. People could get easy credit at the bank and could get on to the housing ladder, or they could seek to get private accommodation.
The Minister should be deeply concerned that we have returned, in Britain today, to a context in which the vast majority of people are in private rented accommodation. We are going backwards as a country, not forwards. We are not building sufficient houses. He will know that because of the decision to generate a right-to-buy scheme, while not building housing to replace the right to buy, we have now lost our social housing, and that is leading to a dire state in London. We have come to a new market in which, frankly, many—this does not apply to all—cowboys are operating. They have seen a gap in the market and vulnerable people, and they have rushed in with a whole set of practices that have been well illustrated in this debate.
It is now time for the Minister to deal with a situation in which complaints against the sector have risen by 123% since 2008, and where we recognise that there is conning and fraud by these cowboys. People are losing deposits and extortionate fees are charged that are hard to understand. We need a statutory code and legislation in this area. We need to consolidate fees in one structure and publish clearly what those fees are. We need a compulsory public membership scheme, so that we know who our landlords are and what their practices are. There is market failure in this area. This is something that traditional Conservatives should be concerned about dealing with.
I came here to support my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) rather than to speak, which given the time, is probably just as well, but I am prompted to make three points. First, there is a problem and it is growing. Secondly, there is a solution and wide support. Thirdly, there is really no excuse for the Minister not to act.
First, the problem is clear. This is a field with no legal requirements or legal restraints for people setting up and running a letting agent or a managing agency. There is no legal requirement to belong to a trade association or to conform to standards of conduct; nor is there a legal requirement to offer some sort of redress scheme or safeguards for consumers. The stories of problems with up-front, unjustified, unfair fees are growing, as are the problems with misleading ads, and with repairs not being done or visits not even being made. My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) mentioned the Citizens Advice research and the scale of dissatisfaction with letting agents. Which? has done a similar survey, showing that letting agents, out of 50 different consumer markets, came second bottom for dissatisfaction—below train companies and even insurance providers. Of course, the private rented sector, for the first time in half a century, is larger than that of public and social housing. Some 8.5 million people are renting privately, and 1 million families with kids are in private rented accommodation. This is a growing problem.
Secondly, on the solution, a regulatory framework is in place for estate agents; as suggested by the hon. Member for Southport (John Pugh), why not have it for letting agents and managing agents as well? Following the Rugg review in 2009, proposals are on the stocks, with wide support. The formal consultation that the previous Government held and published in February 2010 confirmed that the majority of respondents were behind a legal, mandatory framework of regulation for letting agents. The chair of the Residential Landlords Association told the Select Committee on Communities and Local Government in evidence this month:
“Landlords are just as likely to suffer from a criminal or fraudulent agent as a tenant is… All the legitimate agents are supporting legislation. We feel that that would be a good thing.”
There is cross-party support in this debate for action. Even the Office of Fair Trading has made recommendations, as my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham has said, and it must be borne in mind that, with its restricted remit confining it principally to competition issues, it is normally constrained from offering a wide-ranging and full set of recommendations, but it has done so in this case.
Thirdly and finally, I say to the Minister that there is no excuse now for not acting. The need is clear; the support is there; and the proposals have been independently recommended by the Rugg review. Public consultation has been formally conducted on those proposals. The legislative vehicle—the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill—is in the other place at the moment. A coherent change to the legislation has been proposed and debated in Committee. The debate on Report, when amendments are normally made in the other place, is about to take place. Five years ago, the Minister, when moving a clause to a Bill in this House, said:
“The new clause would bring residential lettings within the established legal framework.”––[Official Report, Consumers, Estate Agents and Redress Public Bill Committee, 24 April 2007; c. 192.]
He wanted to do that five years ago, and as Housing Minister, he now has the privilege and the position to do so. I hope that he will take that opportunity and confirm to us today in this debate that that is exactly what he intends to do.
It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mrs Brooke. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) on the excellent case that she put forward. It was a bravura performance, making a powerful case for change. She started by referring to the private rented sector and the fact that that is growing rapidly. Various contributions in the debate have made the point that it has now overtaken the social sector in size at a time when home ownership has fallen for the first time since the 1950s. The very powerful report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation talks about generation rent—a whole generation of young professionals who are now locked out of home ownership and end up in the private rented sector.
We heard very powerful contributions from my right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) and my hon. Friends the Members for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood) and for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield). They pointed to experience from their own constituencies of the problems that people face in the private rented sector. Undoubtedly, the sector will have an important role to play in the future, but absolutely not on the current terms. There are problems of security. Letting agents encourage churn, which leads to insecurity in the sector. There are problems of affordability. There are problems of quality: 37% of homes do not meet the decent homes standard. There are too many rogue landlords and too many rogue letting agents.
More generally, we need to transform the private rented sector into a sector that works for both tenants and landlords and in which there is no place for the disreputable, who undercut the reputable. Letting agents do perform an important role, because in a sector in which most landlords are small landlords, they depend on letting agents, but my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham was right, in her forensic exposition, to refer to the overwhelming body of evidence that suggests that the current situation is absolutely unacceptable and must change.
According to the CAB report, 73% of those who dealt with letting agents were expressing dissatisfaction. According to the Which? report, this market is second from bottom of 50 consumer markets. There is also the OFT report. My right hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey) was absolutely right about this. It goes beyond what it would normally say to be critical of the sector and is calling for change, as are many others, from Shelter to the Resolution Foundation. Why is that the case?
In this very powerful debate, we have heard testament from a series of right hon. and hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester Central (Lucy Powell). There is the problem of fees and lack of transparency. Often, exorbitant fees are charged. They vary wildly, and frequently there are exorbitant up-front fees. The hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins) is to be congratulated on his mystery shop exposing that in his own constituency. There is the problem of no client money protection. As a consequence, all too often, both landlords and tenants lose out. There is also the problem of repairs often not being carried out.
It is extraordinary that someone can set themselves up as a letting agent with no qualifications whatever. They have no need to conform to requirements or to provide mandatory safeguards for consumers. It is a ludicrous anomaly that estate agents are regulated, but not letting agents. An excellent phrase was used by the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors. It pointed to the fact that 4,000 letting agents act entirely outside any form of regulation or self-regulation in what it calls the “Wild West”.
In government, my right hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth and Dearne—I am proud to follow in his footsteps—took the initiative over the Rugg report to say then that this was a scandal that had to end. Sadly, when the current Government came to power, the then Housing Minister, who tends to get out the clove of garlic in one hand and the cross in the other at the very mention of regulation, dismissed what Rugg had recommended and what, in the consultative process, had been overwhelmingly supported. He called it red tape; we call it protection for tenants and landlords alike.
I am interested to hear that. It has been mentioned that I put down a probing amendment on the question. If it was so important, why did the Labour Government not put the redress measure into law, which it would have been able to do, in Committee on the basis of the amendment that I presented?
It is of course hard for me to answer for our colleague who would have been in position as Housing Minister or the Minister responsible at the time, but does my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey) agree that it might have been that the case that was put at the time from the Opposition Front Bench was not persuasive enough? It certainly is now.
My right hon. Friend makes a very good point. What the Labour Government did was to establish the Rugg review. The Rugg review made comprehensive proposals, including in respect of regulation of letting agents. We moved decisively down that path.
The hon. Gentleman who is now the Housing Minister, unless he has undergone a damascene conversion and believes the opposite of what he said five years ago in opposition, will no doubt say when he responds, “Yes, this Government now intend to act,” because thus far there has been a lamentable failure to act, despite the chorus of voices calling for change. I am talking about tenants and landlords. The Labour party put forward a very powerful policy proposal, supported by the Association of Residential Letting Agents, the National Landlords Association, the Residential Landlords Association, the British Property Federation, the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors and many other players in the housing field, including registered social landlords, many of which now have private rented portfolios. They all back the proposals that we put forward, calling for change.
I pay tribute to the right hon. and hon. Members who have taken part in today’s debate, including the hon. Member for Southport (John Pugh), for the way in which they have spoken up. It is just like we saw in the Opposition day debate last month: there is a growing cross-party consensus that says, “This has to end.” In relation to how it ends, the hon. Gentleman was right when he said that the idea of a voluntary arrangement will not wash.
I pay tribute to Ian Potter and the work of ARLA. For two decades, it has campaigned for regulation, but in the meantime it has also tried to raise standards in the sector. However, that is on a voluntary basis—the rogues do not sign up. That organisation sometimes takes action against its own members who have acted disreputably, but it has arrived, out of bitter experience, at the clear conclusion that a voluntary scheme will never work; regulation is essential. The case put forward by the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors of the potential benefit to the economy of £20 million further reinforces the case for change.
The case is overwhelming. No more evidence is required. An all-party consensus is emerging. The Government have said that they have an open mind on this issue. An open mind, however, is no longer good enough. I ask the hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr Prisk), who is now the Minister for Housing, to have the courage of his convictions five years ago and to tell the House today that this Government will at last move to regulate letting agents.
May I start by congratulating the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion)? I think that this is the first time that she and I have been in a debate together; she is a new Member of the House. Not only was she able to secure an important debate, but she set out her argument. We will not always agree on the outcomes, but I think that we do agree on the challenge that faces this particular market. There is a strong element of market failure, as I have discussed in debate with the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey), who speaks for the Opposition on this matter.
This has been a useful debate, because there is a substantial question and substantial interest from a much wider group. Of course, the number of complaints may have risen because the market is substantially larger than it was, but it would be foolish to assume that that is the only reason and that is certainly not an assumption that I make or any other member of the Government makes, although I did particularly enjoy the idea that the only reason why the Labour Government did not do anything was that the Opposition spokesman did not make a strong enough argument. That is an entertaining argument. It does not quite wash. Nevertheless, I understand and I have a lot of time for the right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey), which may be very damaging from the point of view of his own personal political future, but there we go.
Before I turn to the specific issues, I would like to set out briefly the context of the Government’s overall approach to the private rented sector, because people naturally have wanted to look beyond just the question of agents. People have talked about the question of supply, the interaction with the housing benefit elements and so on, but let me just look at the private rented sector particularly. As I said in the debate that we had only last month, we are very committed as a Government to ensuring that this is a bigger sector, but also a better sector—one that provides tenants with a genuinely good choice of decent, reasonably priced accommodation. We stand first and foremost on the basis that many—not all—of the problems that we have discussed today, including the difficulties that individual families and tenants have, are a consequence of years of under-supply.
The right hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) gave us an interesting historical perspective, but I do not necessarily wish to go back to Dickens; we will stick with the past 25 years. What we have seen in the past 25 years—something on which we have agreed over many years—is that demand has substantially outstripped supply. As a result, the supply available to tenants, and the quality and standards of accommodation, have simply failed to keep up. That has inevitably led to a worsening of the way in which some letting agents operate.
Expanding the supply of rented homes lies at the heart of our strategy. That is why we have taken the radical step of establishing a debt guarantee scheme of up to £10 billion to encourage institutional investment in the sector.
The Minister makes the case that there needs to be an increase in supply in the private rented sector. In my constituency in Hyndburn, we have nearly 3,000 empty properties, nearly all in the private rented sector. There is a complete over-supply, yet letting agents run rampant. His argument does not succeed in my constituency and in many constituencies like mine, where over-supply is not the answer.
We have a long-standing issue with long-term empty homes, of which there are 278,000. I am pleased to say that we saw a drop of 22,000 in the past full year, which is encouraging. We have put specific funds into our programme to bring those empty homes back into use. With respect, if I may say, it is a programme that we had to put in place, because it was not there when we came into office. The hon. Gentleman is right to highlight empty homes, but we are taking steps to change that.
Boosting supply is not only about financial support. We need to be careful to avoid excessive regulation that can deter the investment in supply that we all agree we need. If supply is stifled and if we go back to the bad old days of rent controls, we would actually see a stifling of investment and a shrinking of supply. The net result would be that tenants would have fewer properties to choose from and higher rents as well.
I am surprised at the Minister’s assertion. I spoke earlier today at the British Property Federation’s conference, where the Minister will be speaking shortly. The unmistakable message from the federation, which represents institutional investors, is that it believes that the time has come for effective regulation of the sector, particularly regulation of letting agents. It does not believe for one moment that that will put future investment decisions at risk.
We are consulting right now on how we move to longer-term tenancies linked to more affordable and predictable rents. We are not convinced by the argument for rent controls, but all those who wish to make contributions can do so. It is to be regretted that the Government have set their face against that, which 1.1 million families badly need in the private rented sector, so that they can plan where they send their kids to school and plan how they manage their household budgets.
People will be encouraged if that is confirmation that the Labour party, were it to be elected in some strange manner in a couple of years’ time, will have rent controls. We will see how that develops, but perhaps I should persist, because other hon. Members have raised questions.
Targeted, effective regulation that is carefully thought through, of a statutory nature or otherwise, has a role to play. That is why we have made a particular effort to crack down on rogue landlords, for example, in the case of beds in sheds, which is a dreadful scourge. Frankly, too little has been done in the past. It is an area where people are genuinely exploited and where we want to use the law. That, in a sense, comes to the second question.
Various people have asserted in this debate that letting agents are completely unregulated, but that is not true. That is a myth, which it is important to dispel. We should not be telling tenants that they have no controls and that there is nothing there to protect them and no one to turn to to help them challenge someone who is behaving badly. Whatever our political perspective might be, there is a genuine interest in getting the message right.
Letting agents are subject to regulation. It is important to flag that up. The hon. Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) highlighted a specific issue around students and the fact that they were being told incorrect things about market conditions. The Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008 offer protection against someone who is deliberately misleading and pulling the wool over people’s eyes, enabling individual tenants the opportunity to challenge them.
Also, the Unfair Terms in Consumer Contracts Regulations 1999 protect tenants from unfair conditions. Several hon. Members mentioned the way in which tenants can find themselves facing unfair restrictions on the way in which they can use a property. We have seen—several hon. Members have mentioned this—that trading standards bodies can and will prosecute letting agents. I mentioned a case in West Bromwich in a previous debate and we have heard about a case in Rotherham. In Oxford, a letting agent had to pay £300,000 in fines and costs for consumer protection-related and money-laundering offences after failing to return tenants’ deposits—which several hon. Members have mentioned—letting properties without the authority of their owners, and not passing on rent. So action can be taken. There was a similar case in Plymouth, where the letting agent was jailed for two years for spending client money on foreign holidays—again, that was mentioned by one hon. Member—and propping up his business. That individual may yet face further action to seize his assets. So, serious sanctions are in place, which our constituents can now use. It is important to flag that up.
That is a statement of fact, not an argument against proper regulation. The overwhelming evidence mentioned by everybody in the debate is that what is in place at the moment is not successful, not sufficient and not satisfactory to protect tenants and landlords. A statement of fact about the general consumer protection that is in place is not sufficient.
It is important to recognise that we need a number of elements to deal with the different problems that have been raised. We need to make sure that we use existing consumer protection legislation now and that enforcement is put in place effectively. I want trading standards bodies to take action not just in the serious cases, such as those that I have flagged up, but in the less serious cases. We have a problem with enforcement. The right hon. Gentleman is right. We cannot mandate trading standards bodies to act in individual cases, but I am determined to encourage those national bodies to ensure that they tackle these issues right across the marketplace. It is not good enough at the moment. We want to make it stronger.
As the hon. Member for Rotherham said, many letting agents who provide services do so quite well and within the law. Several hon. Members have highlighted the Which? report, which showed that one in five tenants are dissatisfied with their agent. That is still too high, but I think that if it is one in five, people will realise that the vast majority—four out of five—seem satisfied with the service that they get. The Which? report is a pretty independent and extensive survey in that context. However, there remain too many agents whose service is poor and unacceptable. Several hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington, mentioned the fact that this is the second lowest of consumer markets.
Our view has been that regulation should not be the first option. Although we recognise that there might be a case for it, the challenge is to make sure that existing law works properly. There is a temptation among all of us as politicians to believe that passing new legislation will deal with people who currently ignore existing regulation. I am sceptical that the changes we make, of a statutory nature or otherwise, will actually catch the rogues that Members of all parties have highlighted. That is the challenge. I am open to consideration. We are looking carefully at what the Office of Fair Trading has said. There are some strong and positive elements there. However, if we are to do this properly—if we are to catch the rogue agents and landlords who perfectly happily flout every other law—we need to make sure that if we change the rules and change the law, we do so in a way that will deal with the individuals in question.
Relations with the Arab World
The highlight of my parliamentary career is undoubtedly the wonder goal that I scored for the House of Commons football team at the Stretford end at Old Trafford—the Manchester United theatre of dreams. The goal has passed into history, but less well known is the fact that the little inside forward who supplied the final pass, in a move involving the legends Pat Crerand and Sir Bobby Charlton, was the Minister whom I face in today’s debate.
The Minister and I have always had civilised—indeed, friendly—relations. I hope that they survive the next 30 minutes, for I am going to say some pretty harsh things about the Government’s policy. As Minister for the middle east, he will have to come in for his share of criticism, but nothing personal is intended, as I am sure he knows.
The Minister is highly qualified as a Minister of the Crown, but the least of his qualifications was the most important in his being made a Minister at the Foreign Office: he was previously a luminary—indeed, a leader—of the Conservative Friends of Israel. That is an indispensible condition in Britain; in the 25 years I have spent in the House, and I suspect for much longer than that, no one has been able to be the Minister for the middle east without being a member, preferably a leading one, of either the Labour or Conservative Friends of Israel. That is the first problem I want to deal with today.
The fact that one has to be a friend of Israel to be the Minister for the middle east speaks volumes about the absolute unwillingness on the part of the British state, the British Government and the British Parliament to face up to their responsibility to the Palestinian people. The entire tragedy of the Palestinian people was authored in this building, when our Foreign Minister, then Mr Balfour, promised on behalf of one people a second people the land that belonged to a third people, when we did not even own the land of Palestine even as an imperial possession.
That is the original sin of Britain—all the blood that has flowed under the bridge since that declaration was made, and the fact that we do not recognise our special responsibility to the Palestinian people. On the contrary, one has to be a friend of Israel to be the Minister for the middle east. That is central to our problems and our credibility in the middle east.
As a result of Mr Balfour’s declaration, the Palestinian people had their country wiped off the map. We hear a lot of talk in the middle east about people threatening to wipe other people’s countries off the map, but the only country that has been wiped off the map in the middle east is Palestine—go to your atlas, Mrs Brooke, and you will see. The Palestinian people were scattered to the four corners of the earth—stateless, paperless and passport-less, hunted from pillar to post and regularly subject to massacre and attack of one kind or another. All the responsibility for that originates here.
Instead of recognising that special responsibility, we do precisely the opposite. If someone is not a known and celebrated supporter of the country that supplanted Palestine and drove the Palestinians out of their country into the four corners of the earth, they will have no chance of becoming the Minister for the middle east.
I could adumbrate the perfidy at great length, but I do not have the time. I shall give only one example: Israel illegally holds hundreds of nuclear weapons, undeclared and subject to no treaty or inspection of any kind. It was a British Government who transferred the heavy water technology that made that illegal acquisition of nuclear weapons possible; it would have been impossible otherwise. We know that Israel has hundreds of nuclear weapons because the brave Jewish whistleblower Mordechai Vanunu told us, for which he was kidnapped in Leicester square and ended up serving 18 years in solitary confinement in an Israeli dungeon. When brought to court, his jaws were wired together, like Hannibal Lecter, in case he told us any more about that illegal mountain of weapons of mass destruction.
Israel has a mountain of weapons of mass destruction. Iran has no weapons of mass destruction. The International Atomic Energy Agency says that Iran has no nuclear weapons and that there is no evidence that it is trying to build them. Yet it is Iran that is subject to endless sanction and threat, while Israel has the red carpet endlessly rolled out before it.
Successive British Governments, both Labour and Conservative—the last one were even worse than this one; Mr Blair is now in almost permanent residence in occupied Jerusalem—have consistently backed Israeli crimes or failed to sanction them properly. Even when our own citizens’ passports were stolen by the Israeli intelligence services to commit murder in Dubai and we called in the Israeli ambassador and deported the Mossad representative from the embassy in London, the new Mossad representative to London flew here on the return flight and is ensconced still.
If this was a debate only about Palestine, I would have much more to say, but the proximate cause of my application for this debate is the ludicrous situation that occurred at Prime Minister’s Question Time a couple of weeks ago. The Minister will have come briefed, I am sure, for this point. I asked the Prime Minister whether he would adumbrate for the House the key differences—just the key ones—between the “hand-chopping, throat-cutting” violent, Islamist and extremist jihadists we were now going to Mali to kill, and the hand-chopping, throat-cutting, violent, Islamist, fanatic and extremist jihadists to whom we were giving money to help kill Christians and other religious minorities in Syria. There was a reply, but it was not an answer; it was a brief ad hominem attack—that if there was a brutal Arab dictator anywhere in the world left standing, he could no doubt count on my support.
As psychologists would say, that is just about as good an example of projection as it is possible to imagine. The Prime Minister projected on to me the sins—indeed, crimes—of which he himself is manifestly guilty.
One of the reasons why I voted against the Iraq war, like the hon. Gentleman, was that I was worried about the fate of Christians in Iraq. They have had a terrible fate since the invasion. Many of them went to Syria, and their lives have been made a misery now; they are the people in between. Does the hon. Gentleman share my view that it is essential that we do not send, or countenance sending, indirectly or directly, any arms into Syria? That would make the situation far worse.
I agree wholeheartedly. The Christians in Iraq have effectively been wiped off the map of Iraq. Most of them are in Syria, where they live in daily terror for their churches and of their clergy and devotees being slaughtered by the hand-chopping and throat-cutting al-Qaeda elements to whom we are giving money.
However, the hon. Gentleman is wrong—we are already giving them weapons, and we are giving them money, which is the same as giving them weapons. If we give al-Qaeda money, what do we think they buy with that money? Are they buying Elastoplasts and other medical supplies? No, they are buying weapons with which to terrorise not just Christians, but Muslims and other ethnicities—Kurdish people, for example—on a daily basis. The Minister and the Foreign Office know that, and they must give an answer, if not to me, then to the British people.
What are the differences between the jihadists we are killing in Mali and the jihadists we are financing in Syria? I know why the Prime Minister did not answer my question; there can surely be no logical answer to it, for there are no differences. Al-Qaeda is al-Qaeda, and the al-Qaeda mindset is the al-Qaeda mindset wherever it is found.
I demand an answer to that question. The people in this country deserve an answer—after all, it is their money that is being given. I put a question to the Prime Minister:
“Has the Prime Minister read ‘Frankenstein’, and did he read it to the end?”—[Official Report, 30 January 2013; Vol. 557, c. 906.]
Does he not know that Dr Frankenstein’s monster broke free and out of control, which is why it is called a monster?
As a case of projection, the Prime Minister’s response is pretty difficult to beat. In The Guardian, an American journalist by the name of Glenn Greenwald—the day after, if not the day after that—wrote:
“Cameron’s attack on George Galloway reflects the west’s self-delusions. In an act of supreme projection, the British PM accuses a critic of lending support ‘wherever there is a brutal…dictator’: the core policy of the US and UK”.
Who can doubt that?
The Prime Minister has travelled with his sales bag and a retinue of arms salesmen to one brutal Arab dictatorship after another. I do not know where he is today, but it will be a red letter day if he is not trying to sell weapons to a brutal Arab dictator. Saudi Arabia is our best friend in the middle east. We sell billions—tens of billions—of pounds of weaponry to the Saudi dictatorship, some of which is used in other countries. In 2009, the Saudi air force used UK-supplied Tornado fighter bombers in attacks in Yemen, which killed hundreds or possibly thousands of civilians.
The Saudi army is in occupation of its neighbour, Bahrain, where the democracy protesters are daily being gunned down with guns bought from us, by soldiers trained by us. We have a military training mission in Saudi Arabia, the darkest tyranny in the entire middle east. The most brutal dictatorship in the entire middle east is in occupation of its neighbour, killing people because they demand the right to vote.
It is important that we work with the Government of Yemen, who came to power as a result of a popular revolution against a dictatorship supported by British Governments—this one and the last one.
Before I leave the subject of Saudi Arabia, I should say that we have sold it £15 billion of weapons a year. According to a report I have, Saudi Arabia, with which we want to broaden and deepen our relationship—the UK-Saudi relationship is already very broad and deep—is the UK’s largest trading partner in the middle east, with annual trade worth £15 billion. How does the Minister think people in Syria feel when they are told that we are giving weapons to jihadists to bring democracy in Syria, given that our best friend in the region is the darkest tyranny of them all?
I will close on the tragicomic, the absurd—the subject of brutal dictatorships. I never met Muammar al-Gaddafi, and I have never met any of his grisly family. I had nothing to do with Gaddafi or his regime, but the British Government did. First he was a mad dog, then he was our new best friend. The then Prime Minister of Britain kissed him several times in the tent. The LSE or Libyan School of Economics—the London School of Economics—was encouraged to take large sums of money from the Gaddafi dictatorship. Gaddafi’s son had help from No. 10 Downing street to complete his PhD thesis, so that he could become Dr Saif al-Islam al-Gaddafi.
We had the closest possible relationship with Gaddafi’s brutal dictatorship. We sold Libya £100 million of weapons. Worse than that, we sent it dissidents to be tortured on Gaddafi’s torture tables. It was not me who sent them; it was the then British Foreign Secretary, the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw), as the courts will soon decide—though perhaps in secret, if the Government get away with their secret courts legislation.
The letters are there: the man who was tortured discovered them in the British embassy, with their gloating at his safe delivery to Gaddafi’s torture tables. It was the British Government who trained Gaddafi’s secret police and his military officers at Sandhurst. It is the British Government who support dictatorship in the middle east, not me.
I wish I had more time for this debate, but I do not want to cheat a Minister whom I personally respect by leaving him too little time to reply. I close with this: Britain’s relationship with the middle east stinks to high heaven. Indeed, in the Muslim world—1.7 billion-strong —we are seen as hypocrites, as occupiers and as people who support and prop up brutal dictators with weapons, with money if they need it, and with diplomatic and political support if they do not. It is a pity that this Foreign Office Minister, fine man as he is, has done nothing to better that reputation; instead, his tenure has seen that reputation get steadily worse.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship in this important debate, Mrs Brooke. I thank the hon. Member for Bradford West (George Galloway) for the way in which he introduced the debate. I place on the record my sense that the Stretford end incident, as we shall call it, was certainly one of the finest amateur goals that I have ever seen and the best that I was ever any part of. The hon. Gentleman’s generous notification of that, in publications or this sort of debate, has always been touching. The relationship forged on that common interest has sustained us over the many years during which we have been in Parliament together.
Of course, that is where it all diverges. Although I have always admired the hon. Gentleman’s passion and his rhetorical ability to hold an audience, the gentlest that I can say is that I think, on occasions, his passion and commitment can cloud his judgment. He said a number of things today that I shall endeavour to correct, as I think that he took a particular point and extrapolated it to a position that is genuinely untrue in terms both of fact and of the United Kingdom’s position.
In the short time available, I want to put on the record our interests and relationships in the Arab world, because they are difficult and complex, before dealing with some of the specific points. As the House knows well, it is complex region. Some of the most difficult foreign policy challenges faced by the world—nuclear proliferation, the middle east peace process, the appalling war waged by the Assad regime against its own people, ungoverned spaces providing havens for terrorists and extremists—are found in the region.
The United Kingdom’s security and prosperity are intertwined with the Arab world. A mere nine miles separate Europe from north Africa at the Mediterranean’s narrowest point. Many countries in the region are important partners in tackling terrorist threats. Hundreds of thousands of British jobs are linked to trade and commerce with the wider middle east. It is fundamentally in our national interest that the region becomes more stable, more open, more free and more prosperous over time, and we have a part to play in that.
Our relations with the middle east are designed to further Britain’s security and prosperity, to deliver opportunities that will create jobs in the UK and to ensure the safety of British nationals overseas and at home. That is the heart of our foreign policy, but we seek to do it in a way that upholds and promotes our values—our belief in universal human rights, in justice, and in equality for women and for minorities—at all times. We do so as a matter of principle, but we also know that it reinforces our other interests.
Over the past two years, the region has seen momentous change with the Arab spring. That change has been led at its core by the region’s people in a demand for dignity, a voice and a fair prospect of employment. That change was always going to be a long process, yet much has already been achieved. Tunisia has its democratically elected parliament; Morocco has its free elections; and Yemen is undergoing a political transition. All those are genuine achievements. In a region where almost 60% of the population is under 25, the Arab spring has demonstrated the aspirations of the region’s citizens for a voice and a right to share in the prosperity of the 21st century. They share that aspiration with their peers in other parts of the world. Arab exceptionalism has gone.
The UK has been clear in its support for those strengthening the building blocks on which inclusive, accountable societies are based. We are supporting those who strive to deliver a strengthened rule of law, a thriving civil society, political systems based on genuine citizen participation and a plural, balanced media. Through our Arab partnership initiative in Egypt and Libya, we have supported free and fair elections by assisting domestic observer missions. In Tunisia, we have strengthened legislative protection for the freedom of expression; and in Morocco, we are supporting anti-corruption initiatives.
The support is based both on our values and a clear understanding that, in the long term, a more inclusive, accountable region is more likely to deliver lasting stability and security for the region and for us all. However, bringing together our values and interests can at times be a difficult balancing act. Conflicts sometimes arise. Although we have many mutual values with countries of the region, there are also differences between us. We have different cultures, histories and traditions and we cannot underestimate the significance of that. All that has been done in the past may not have been good, and we are paying a price in the courts and in public opinion.
Where we do not agree on values, however, we need to work that through, dealing with the differences honestly and frankly. We do not see eye to eye on all our values with countries of the middle east or in any part of the world. In an increasingly interconnected world, security concerns pay no regard to borders. We speak of the global economy and British nationals live in all parts of the world. Although we may be an island, isolation and disengagement is not an option. We need to work with countries, in spite of their different beliefs, faiths and value systems, in a way that upholds human rights and values, and that can be difficult.
Dialogue is the most effective way to find common ground on areas where we can work together, to encourage where necessary and to challenge other Governments to policies that are respectful of human rights, justice and equality. That is the approach that we are taking, but I do not pretend for a minute that it is without conflicts and difficulties. Consistency is not an easy aim, and it is not always possible in practice because of the differences in different places.
I will deal with one or two of the specifics that the hon. Gentleman mentioned. On Israel, yes, I have been a Conservative friend of Israel for all the time I have been in Parliament, but it does not preclude being a friend of others in the region as well. When I was last with the president of the Palestinian Authority, he said that he knew of no other politician who was pursuing the case of the young man killed by a tear gas grenade in Nabi Salih at the hands of the Israeli defence force a couple of years ago and that my visits to the family had meant a great deal. I do my best to ensure that our concern for rights and the needs of those in the occupied territories are represented by the United Kingdom.
I am aware of the tensions, and those who know of my past have been perfectly accommodating of it. It enables me to speak toughly to the Israeli Government. It was I who called in the ambassador recently over settlements. It is in my time as Minister holding this job that we were able to support a motion at the United Nations condemning the settlement building, against both the United States and Israel. If the hon. Gentleman does not mind, I will not accept from him that my background with Israel leads me into a difficult position. I remind him that the right hon. Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw), who held my position some time ago, was no particular noted friend of Israel and was able to do the job as effectively as I am trying to do.
Do not be hurt by what I said, because it is a qualification to be the Minister for the middle east. It is not the Minister’s fault. Why did the British Government cowardly abstain in the overwhelming vote to recognise Palestine as a member of the United Nations? Why will they not bring sanctions to bear on Israel—like the sanctions they brought to bear on Iran—for holding illegal nuclear weapons and occupying other people’s territory and refusing to leave it? Why not?
In my answer, I was indicating that a friendship with Israel is not a requirement for the job, which is what he was indicating. I was pointing out that one of his colleagues had held the job without such a qualification. The reason why we did not support the vote, which was not for membership but to advance the cause of statehood for the Palestinian Authority, was that we had explained that what we believed was most in its interest was not a vote at the United Nations at that time. Our commitment to statehood for the Palestinian people in due course is very clear, however, and I reiterate it again today.
Without wishing to stay on that subject, I will briefly cover the others. On Iran’s nuclear programme, Iran is still acting in defiance of multiple International Atomic Energy Agency resolutions, including the most recent resolution adopted last September, and no fewer than six UN Security Council resolutions. The IAEA has expressed its serious concerns about the possible military dimension to Iran’s programme. Anyone who mistakes what is going on in Iran and believes that it is purely peaceful is missing the point. If it is purely peaceful, that is not difficult for Iran to demonstrate. We still hope that it will take the opportunity to do so this year. The IAEA has made reference to the possible military dimension of that programme.
On Syria, the hon. Gentleman again went too far. It is not true that the United Kingdom is supplying al-Qaeda with either money or weapons. I do not believe that to characterise what is happening in Syria as an attack on the Christian minority is accurate. There are jihadists involved. It is the wish of the United Kingdom and our partners to ensure that they are not supplied with weapons. That is why we are so determined to see the success of the Syrian national opposition coalition, so that it has legitimacy and an opportunity to represent the future of Syria in its political transition. We are more than well aware of the danger of jihadists becoming involved in what was originally a clear expression of reform and opinion against the Assad regime. That has turned into something different, because of the length of time that the situation has been unresolved, which is not through lack of effort by the United Kingdom with the United Nations. We are extremely concerned for the Christian minority and for others, which is why there must be an effective rule of law, but it must cover all.
I can give a categorical assurance that it is not the intention of the United Kingdom, in any efforts being made to support the Syrian people, that any money goes to al-Qaeda or any of its acolytes. It would be logically ridiculous of the United Kingdom to do that, which is why we give our support in the way that we do. No one can be absolutely certain about my hon. Friend’s suggestion, but it is absolutely clear that the United Kingdom has no interest in doing that. It is totally contrary to our interests and is not what we are doing. For him to say that that is clearly what we are doing is simply wrong.
I have to finish, because we are running out of time. It is a complex issue with a complex set of relationships. It is essential that we are able to deal with this issue in a way that examines the facts, and polemics sometimes get in the way. The hon. Member for Bradford West and I share a sense of justice for what must happen in the region. The policy objectives that we have set out are not always simple to achieve, but they are clear. I hope that we can continue to debate in a manner that allows the truth to be got to, even though opinion may vary.
I am delighted to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Brooke. It is so good to see you.
First, I pay tribute to the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon), who I know has just returned from a stunning victory in Europe over fish. I know that he is slightly tired, so I am even more grateful to see him here in Westminster Hall today, fresh from his victory. Today we will try to add a little more triumphalism to his record of achievements.
I also thank my hon. Friend the Minister, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, for this chance to debate the future of the Environment Agency. I certainly applaud their review of the agency and I know that a lot of colleagues are taking it very seriously. As my hon. Friends said at the time, the review is a chance to take a fresh look at how the agency does things. In that open spirit, I want to focus today not so much on what the agency does but on what it fails to do.
Hon. Members may know that the Environment Agency is just 16 years old; in many ways, it is a juvenile. Many of my constituents who are still mopping up after the recent floods regard the agency’s lack of action as—dare I say it?—almost juvenility in itself. There is not the time today to highlight every single human tragedy that has happened or the appalling damage that has been done; I cannot do that. It is also not possible today to give a completely accurate account of the total cost of floods on the levels. However, it is plainly ridiculous to put what has happened down to a quirk of nature, or to an overdose of the “wrong type of rain”, as Lord Smith of Finsbury, the agency’s chairman, informed us all. I am sorry, but I was really rather offended by that.
Much of the overflow of water was manageable, if not preventable. Dare I say that floods are not unusual in Somerset? Flood prevention has been a priority of ours since Roman times, although I was not the MP at the time. Even in the middle ages, a period of history better known for the black death than for engineering excellence, people managed to drain a large part of the moor by building elaborate embankments and causeways. Parliament became heavily involved from 1791, when it needed to pass an Act to dig King’s Sedgemoor drain in order to let excess water flow out into the Bristol channel.
For hundreds of years, we have been fighting battles with floods and holding our own against the old enemy. And for hundreds of years, whatever Lord Smith may think, we have had this stuff called “convective rain”. I hate to disillusion his lordship, who no doubt is a very sensitive soul, with a neatly-furled umbrella and a dislike of getting his feet wet—as we have discovered—but he is no expert on the weather. Convective rain has been gushing down Somerset rivers for centuries. If he examined the historical records, he would find that the floods of 1607 were caused by the very same type of rain.
I noticed that Lord Smith was awarded an academic doctorate for his excellent dissertation on the poetry of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. If Coleridge was alive today, he would be my constituent. The great man was inspired to write his greatest and longest poem while overlooking the harbour in the very beautiful village of Watchet. However, Lord Smith needs to take what Coleridge said in one of his poems more seriously:
“Water, water, every where,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, every where,
Nor any drop to drink.”
Down the A39 at Williton, which is near to where those words were written, the highway turned into an impassable river. Out at Blue Anchor, in my constituency, there was havoc in caravan parks and on Exmoor itself there was very serious flooding in Dulverton. Many Members here today will know that the ancient clapper bridge at Tarr Steps was completely wrecked in the floods, although it has now been rebuilt. Tarr Steps is also known as “the devil’s sunbathing spot”, but, as I say, it was swept away by the floods. This cannot continue.
Rivers overflow, and down on the levels the consequences of what happened in the floods can still be seen today. I obviously do not blame the Environment Agency for the rain, but I wonder what it failed to do before the cloudbursts started. It is surely an essential task of a body such as this one to keep the waterways running freely. Rivers have a nasty habit of silting up—that is why we dredge them. However, the Environment Agency no longer dredges rivers such as the Tone and the Parrett, both of which flow through my constituency and that of the Minister of State, Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Mr Browne), because it says that it cannot afford to. This is something that requires urgent forensic scrutiny by my hon. Friend the Minister’s Department.
If we are seriously in the business of protecting the environment, the cost of regular dredging should never be regarded as a capital expense, because dredging has to be done; it is not an option but a necessity. Moreover, dredging is not even expensive, given the reality of what we are looking at. The Environment Agency itself calculates that the cost of desilting the risky bits of both the River Tone and the River Parrett every year for the next 20 years is less than £5 million. In my view, that is chickenfeed. The Environment Agency’s own calculation of the cost of emergency pumping and road closures during this year’s flooding alone was £4 million, and that was just in my area. The agency has done its homework. The price of flooding over 20 years in Somerset—in Somerton and Frome, in Taunton Deane and in my constituency of Bridgwater and West Somerset—has been worked out at £15 million. It is an absolute no-brainer to dredge, but the agency keeps telling us that it has not got the money to do so. I must say that not only this Government but former Governments have been reluctant to offer additional relief to sort out this problem. I am sorry, but that cannot go on.
I am also slightly worried about the way that the views of my hon. Friend the Minister on this matter have been reported. A recent BBC news report implied—it is the BBC—that he had told them that it was not worth dredging the Tone and the Parrett because they will simply silt up again. Yes, of course that is true; we accept that. However, it is also precisely why we should regularly dredge rivers.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. I regret to tell him that a similar point of view was communicated in a letter in response to an inquiry from one of my constituents. Where would we be if the fact that rivers will just silt up again after dredging was a good enough reason not to dredge in the first place? What if MPs took the same attitude to their own personal hygiene?
I will leave the last part of my hon. Friend’s intervention to himself, but he is absolutely right otherwise. I know that he is doing a sterling job for his constituents and this is a joint effort, because unless we come up with a proper, forward-looking policy on dredging that the Environment Agency must lead—or the Government must order the agency to lead it—we will continue to have this problem and I am afraid that, as Members, we will see it happening again.
Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the significant challenges is the Environment Agency’s lack of authority? In my conversations in connection with the flooding in Britford, which is on the River Avon just south of Salisbury, there seemed to be a lot of confusion about exactly what powers the Environment Agency has and about the conflicting motivations of different landowners in their engagement with Natural England and the Environment Agency—to different degrees—meaning that, at the end of the day, there is a complete lack of ownership of the problem and a lack of clarity about how the problem will be resolved in the future.
I totally agree with my hon. Friend. I must say, first, that one of the issues that I have not touched on today is the role of Natural England; as he knows, there is a review going on. Secondly, this agency that we are discussing is quite simply an “Environment Agency”. One of the debates that we need to have in the future is whether or not it should still be called an “Environment Agency”. Should the “environment” part be split off, and should the “agency” part be reinvented? However, that debate is not for today and I know that my hon. Friend the Minister is aware of my concerns in that regard.
I am ashamed to say that, for 20 years, there has been no dredging of the Tone or the Parrett; silt has piled up on silt. In real terms, almost half the capacity of the River Tone to carry floodwater through Taunton down to Bridgwater has been lost. However, I am glad to say that it has not been lost for ever. The problem can be solved, even though it has been ignored. It is a miracle of nature that floods such as the recent ones have not occurred on a regular basis. I am afraid to say that, at this stage, the name of the game is negligence.
In the proud old days of the Somerset Rivers Catchment Board—similar boards existed elsewhere—local people could pretty well tell the time of the year by the dredging. The board hired a fearsomely efficient engineer called Louis Kelting, who made sure that all the necessary work was done. Mr Kelting even brought in Dutch experts, and the Dutch know a thing or two about water. I am indebted to 83-year-old Bob Heard, one of my senior constituents in Bridgwater, for bringing Mr Kelting to my attention. Mr Kelting was awarded the OBE for his efforts, so he must have been right. The innovations that he introduced probably saved many lives and protected the levels from many disasters. Many of his drainage schemes are still in operation today, but not the dredging schemes.
When the rain fell so hard and fast last year, and at the start of this year, I am afraid that the Government were not of any great help. “We were very concerned”, and that is not my conclusion but that of the National Farmers Union. The NFU points out that the farmers on the moors and the levels lose £900 for every hectare of grassland that is put under water, and that applies to anywhere in the country. Having met a lot of my local farmers, I know that that is true. They are really upset at finding that a lifetime of work is now under water for more and more of the year.
I pay tribute to two villages, Moorland and Fordgate, which have put up with more than any village should have to, in any constituency. They have been stunning. They feel forgotten, in some ways ignored and in other ways expendable. I have heard them use the word “negligence” too, and say some quite rude things about the agency.
The agency is, like all such organisations, perhaps a victim of its own peculiar changed responsibilities. In the days of the Somerset River Catchment Board, everything was so much simpler. It was about water management, land drainage, flood prevention, food production and protecting the communities, which we represent. From 1930 to the 1970s, the people who looked after water management operated under more or less the same strong management structures. They raised money locally through the drainage boards and other organisations and were accountable to local councillors and local people, including Members of Parliament. The efficiency of their operations was consistently improved. To put it crudely, it worked.
Then in 1973 came the creation of the Wessex Water Authority and the culture changed. The WWA was accountable directly to Government and it also had to toe the line, as the Minister will know rather to his cost, to Brussels in the background. Britain became part of Europe. The WWA suddenly found itself having to raise standards for clean drinking water as well as looking after the wildlife habitats of an increasing number of protected species.
The Environment Agency inherited a dog’s breakfast of a portfolio and deserves some sympathy for that, but it seems to have become immune to some of its own illogical behaviour. For example, Steart, near the Hinkley Point nuclear power station, is a small, flat place at the mouth of the river Parrett, where the river trickles into the Bristol channel. We are talking about 1,000 hectares of land, much of which is below high-water level at spring tide. In the 1700s, the Steart peninsula was cut off from the mainland altogether. Even today, the Parrett’s low-water channel regularly shifts. Steart’s defences now rely on what was built back in the 1950s. The system creaks a bit, but it works.
The Environment Agency now wants to spend £31 million of taxpayers’ money on a scheme that will not protect Steart from the sea. It wants to sink the peninsula for habitat creation, saying:
“There is a significant need for additional intertidal habitat on the Severn Estuary to meet the Environment Agency’s international obligations and offset losses due to coastal squeeze.”
This is because Bristol port, which is not that close to me, wants to reclaim some marshland 40 miles away to build a new container port. So Bristol’s birds are to be offered a new nesting place in Steart. We have tried to tell them to come down. The whole process is nonsense. The cost of flooding Steart would pay for dredging the Rivers Parrett and Tone for 30 years. But in an agency with 11,500 people on the payroll and an annual budget of £1 billion, it is probably no wonder that everyone fails to sing from the same hymn sheet.
Criticism of the agency is nothing new. The Public Accounts Committee produced a damning report about its activities some years ago. Even the most moderate body, the Angling Trust, which represents people who go fishing, is currently getting very angry with the agency for not taking proper account of fisheries when it issues licences for hydroelectric power. So the agency is being got at by Europe, bird lovers, fish fanciers and a few politicians like me into the bargain. More pain than gain, perhaps. Or as Lord Smith might put it, the wrong sort of pain.
On the river at Avon, which of course is outside Bristol, is an old mill by a weir at Avoncliff, which was bought for restoration in 2009. The new owners wanted to rebuild it and make it work, producing power from the water wheel. Fabulous. Of course, they had to apply for a licence to extract the water and they paid the fee to the Environment Agency, filled in the forms and waited. Weeks turned into months; no licence came. Then the Environment Agency awarded a water extraction licence to another applicant and told the owners of the mill that there was “no water available”. The owners went to judicial review, went to court, won the case, proved that the Environment Agency had deliberately withheld information and the judges made the agency pay all the costs—our money. A happy ending hon. Members may think, but not quite. It is almost a full year since the judges ruled against the agency and ordered it to issue a water extraction licence, but it still has not done so. This story does not inspire my confidence in an organisation that has become top heavy with responsibilities and seems to be run by people far too light on real substance in the subjects they are meant to cover.
My constituents, and many others throughout the country, have suffered badly in recent floods and they have lost faith in the agency. I ask the Secretary of State, through my hon. Friend the Minister, to visit Bridgwater and West Somerset—he said he would—meet some of those who have had problems and see the situation for himself. While we await the outcome of his important review, this is the only way that any confidence can be restored in what people feel is a failed system. I look forward to my hon. Friend the Minister’s replying and, perhaps, giving us some reassurance and some answers.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset (Mr Liddell-Grainger) for securing this debate on such an important issue. He made his position clear, even to me in my sleep-deprived state. I hope that I can answer some of the points that he made.
The discussion is taking place in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in the context of the current triennial review of the Environment Agency and Natural England. It is clear that the priorities that the Environment Agency deals with are important to society. It is critical that we have a strong, resilient delivery arrangement in place to achieve our ambitions. This review, which is expected to reach conclusions in the spring, is a unique opportunity to look at the work of both bodies and to consider how we can deliver my Department’s priorities effectively and efficiently.
My hon. Friend raised critical issues regarding the agency’s role in relation to flooding, and I shall respond to some specific concerns. First, I should like to emphasise and get on the record how much I sympathise with the distress caused to communities across Somerset by the past year’s extreme weather. I visited the county and met many people when they visited me in DEFRA, as well. I particularly appreciate the hardships experienced by the farming community, as it struggles to cope with exceptionally prolonged periods of heavy rain last year.
The Environment Agency has been active throughout this period, and I pay tribute to its staff for their tireless work and professionalism through difficult times. I visited staff in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (John Glen) at the time of the floods, around Christmas, and saw people who had not had a Christmas and had been working night and day—people taken from all the agency’s departments to try to assist with that difficult job. I appreciate what they did.
The agency has spent more than £1.9 million since last April on maintenance and operational activities specifically to address the impact of flooding on the Somerset moors and levels. I am pleased that Somerset county council has recently announced that it is setting aside £200,000 to help local landowners and residents to tackle the flooding by clearing roadside gullies and ditches.
Agency staff have been out on the ground, meeting local people, keeping them informed and seeking to address their concerns. They are working with local drainage boards and others to assess the costs and benefits of various options to improve the future management of floodwater in the area, including dredging the rivers Tone and Parrett. I understand that the results of this work will be presented to the regional flood and coastal committee in April.
I recognise that there are real concerns in Somerset and elsewhere about dredging and channel maintenance and whether the Environment Agency is doing enough. My hon. Friend and I live in a world where perceptions are reality. I understand his point. The perception in his constituency and neighbouring ones is that more could be done. I want to deal with that point, but I also live in the reality of the financial climate in which we live, and I have to ensure that every penny that we spend on flood defences and flood protection is spent as professionally and with as much value for money as possible, because it is not his money or mine; it is our constituents’ money.
Dredging is one of the options routinely considered by the agency when deciding how best to manage flood risk. However, each area is different and the agency needs to focus its investment on activities that will contribute most to reducing potential flood damage. In some areas, that will mean dredging. In other areas, different options such as maintaining flood barriers or pumping stations will be a more effective use of taxpayers’ money. As my hon. Friend rightly says, we need to look forensically and objectively at the contribution that dredging would make to managing flood risk on the moors and levels compared with other options, and we need to reach conclusions in that light.
The agency is working in partnership with the National Farmers Union to consider what more can be done to help farmers undertake maintenance, gain access to information and advice, and manage their flood risk. The agency is also seeking to gain value for money by delivering multiple objectives.
My hon. Friend mentioned the scheme at Steart, and my information is that the cost is not £30 million but £20 million, which is perhaps a case for another debate— I hope not, because we have already debated it, but I could perhaps discuss it with him in the margins of a vote one night. The scheme at Steart is an example of seeking to gain value for money. I understand that the defences around the peninsula were in poor condition and coming to the end of their effective life. Improving those defences on the old alignment was neither economically viable nor sustainable, and to have done so would have cost some £1 million per property protected. I have to consider people in places such as Morpeth, Sandwich, Exeter and many other parts of the country who have suffered prolonged flooding. We want to ensure that every single penny of the £2.3 billion that we are spending on flood defences in this financial period is spent properly.
The need to create habitat somewhere in the Severn to meet our obligations under the habitats directive presented an opportunity. By realigning the defences on the peninsula, the agency has been able to continue protecting the village and its access from flooding, while meeting our biodiversity objectives, which is a win-win that enables the village to be protected and agricultural use to continue over much of the site.
I am aware of the complex Avoncliff case, and the agency is working actively with the applicants to resolve it as soon as possible.
I understand the concerns of my hon. Friend’s constituents and of many hon. Members who have taken part in this debate. Members on both sides of the House are committed to representing their constituents at times such as those that we experienced last year, which is truly impressive, and I, as the Minister with responsibility for flooding, appreciate that. In conveying those concerns to me, they are conveying the enormous amount of misery and unhappiness that people are experiencing.
A great deal of work is going on to protect local communities from flooding and to improve our environment, and I want to ensure that that continues. The agency plays an important role in that work and constantly monitors its own performance to learn lessons to help to improve how it operates both locally and nationally. The current triennial review of the Environment Agency and Natural England is considering the roles of both agencies, including on flooding, and the wide range of other services that they provide. In a tough fiscal climate, we must strive for better, more efficient outcomes from our delivery bodies, while being conscious of the Environment Agency’s impact on people’s daily lives.
I commiserate with the constituents of my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset (Mr Liddell-Grainger), who have suffered so badly from flooding.
In my constituency of Woking, we are looking forward to the Minister visiting the Hoe valley scheme in April. There is terrific joint working between the Environment Agency, the council and other stakeholders to take several hundred houses out of the floodplain. In some of my smaller villages, such as Pirbright and Normandy, the Environment Agency has helped me to set up flood forums to explore the problems and potential solutions, for which I should like to express my thanks.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that point. I see such examples of good working across the country.
Sir Michael Pitt, in his excellent review following the floods of 2007, said that floods cannot be addressed from my desk in Whitehall or even by some quasi-regional government imposed by previous Governments. Floods must be addressed locally, and the best people to do so are in the lead local flood authorities, which work with the Environment Agency, emergency services and organisations such as the NFU and others that represent key stakeholders. That is the best way to deliver a solution on the ground, close to communities. My hon. Friend points out that involving local communities through flood forums is important because they can give communities superb resilience. I look forward to visiting his constituency and seeing a scheme that I have read about with interest.
My hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury raised an important point about who has the power and responsibility for certain waterways. That is a concern, and I am the first to admit that we have not nailed it yet. My constituency flooded badly in 2007, and in a short distance of about 200 metres, four public bodies, including Network Rail, three landowners and the local parish council were responsible for different bits of land through which waterways ran, as well as water that we wanted to get to a river and out of people’s homes. That is an example of the complexity that we face.
If we need to find a different legislative tool to identify responsibilities more clearly, we must do so. That is not really the case on the Somerset moors, where there is a fair degree of clarity about who is responsible for which watercourses and we just want to get the water away. I have looked at that landscape in recent weeks and seen an inland sea. People have not been able to harvest their crops, feed their stock or drill crops for future years. We have a responsibility to protect people, and we are doing so. We protected 180,000 acres of agricultural land last year, by giving people extra flood protection through flood schemes. We take our responsibilities to farming seriously, and we will work with organisations such as the NFU.
Internal drainage boards are key players, and there is a good internal drainage board in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset; I have met the chairman and other members. I want to ensure that we continue to work with such proven organisations, which have incredible skills and understanding: not just macro-engineering skills but local understanding of which culvert must be opened at a particular time and what flooding can be alleviated as a result.
My hon. Friend mentioned a quote that I apparently made on a BBC programme. The quote was attributed to me, but it may have been taken out of context. I think de-silting rivers may well make a difference; it is just a question of whether we can make that stack up against all the other responsibilities that we and the agency have across the country. I am not an engineer or a hydrologist. There are plenty of people in the agency who are and who do it extremely well, and I will take whatever advice they give me.
The current review provides a unique opportunity to consider how best and most effectively to support and encourage reforms to the organisations involved. I am impressed by how the agency is led. Lord Smith might not come from the same political direction as my hon. Friend and me, but he leads the agency well. We are openly considering how the organisations are run, and it is a transparent exercise. The triennial review is important for the future of the Environment Agency and Natural England, particularly for the outcomes that they deliver, whether flood defences, environmental protection, the improvement of biodiversity or all their other responsibilities.
I will continue to discuss the issue with my hon. Friend and with any hon. Member from whichever party to ensure that we get it right for their constituents.
Question put and agreed to.