House of Commons
Tuesday 23 April 2013
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Business before Questions
London Local Authorities and Transport for London (No. 2) Bill [Lords] (By Order)
Consideration of Bill opposed and deferred until Tuesday 30 April (Standing Order No. 20).
London Local Authorities and Transport for London (No. 2) Bill [Lords]
That the promoters of the London Local Authorities and Transport for London (No. 2) Bill [Lords], which was originally introduced in the House of Lords in Session 2007–08 on 22 January 2008, should have leave to suspend any further proceedings on the Bill in order to proceed with it, if they think fit, in the next Session of Parliament according to the provisions of Standing Order 188A (Suspension of Bills).—(The First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means.)
City of London (Various Powers) Bill [Lords]
That the promoters of the City of London (Various Powers) Bill [Lords], which was originally introduced in the House of Lords in Session 2010–12 on 24 January 2011, should have leave to suspend any further proceedings on the Bill in order to proceed with it, if they think fit, in the next Session of Parliament according to the provisions of Standing Order 188A (Suspension of Bills).—(The First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means.)
Humber Bridge Bill
That the promoters of the Humber Bridge Bill, which was originally introduced in this House in this Session, on 22 January 2013, should have leave to suspend any further proceedings on the Bill in order to proceed with it, if they think fit, in the next Session of Parliament according to the provisions of Standing Order 188A (Suspension of Bills).—(The First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means.)
Oral Answers to Questions
Foreign and Commonwealth Office
The Secretary of State was asked—
EU Free Trade Agreements
The EU has concluded free trade negotiations with Singapore and has launched negotiations with Japan, and EU-Canada negotiations are also in their final stages. An EU-United States free trade agreement would constitute a major contribution to economic growth, and is a top priority for the Government.
Given that the Government were unable to secure significant reform of the common agricultural policy negotiations on the seven-year EU budget deal, what prospect is there is that the Foreign Secretary will be able to make progress on the EU-US free trade agreement?
I think that there is a very real prospect of progress in that regard. There is commitment and real political will on both sides of the Atlantic. The European Commission has published its draft negotiating mandate, and President Obama has spoken about the matter. As an agreement with the United States is potentially worth more than £100 billion a year to European Union economies, we will put an enormous amount of effort into this.
As the Foreign Secretary said, the holy grail of EU free trade agreements is the one with the United States, which would create a world-beating single market and a substantial number of jobs, and would help to increase the EU’s gross domestic product. Does he agree that we would look pretty dumb if we were leaving the EU just as it was signing the free trade agreement with the United States?
My hon. Friend has made his point well, but I do not think that anyone is contemplating leaving the EU before 14 June—if, indeed, ever—when key decisions will be made at the Trade Council in the EU. If that process is successful, it will allow negotiations to be launched during the President’s visit to Europe for the G8 summit a few days later. We are getting on with all these matters now.
I apologise on behalf of the shadow Foreign Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South (Mr Alexander), who regrets that he is unable to be here today. I also thank the Foreign Secretary and you, Mr. Speaker, for acknowledging notification of his absence earlier.
An EU-US free trade agreement will be worth an average of £466 a year to every family in the country. Does the Foreign Secretary agree that if his Back Benchers and some of his ministerial colleagues achieve their dream of leaving the EU, there will be little chance of our securing a similar bilateral UK-US free trade agreement?
I am not going to speculate about that. We are going to make a success of negotiations between all the members of the EU, including the United Kingdom and the United States. That is our objective. As several Members have observed, this would be a transformational trade agreement, and I hope that there is a strong commitment to it in all parts of the House.
I congratulate the Foreign Secretary and, indeed, the Prime Minister on their vision in trying to achieve an EU-US free trade agreement, but does the Foreign Secretary share my concern about the fact that, on occasion, the European Union is very slow to act and to make such agreements? There is still room for bilateral trade agreements through strategic partnerships between countries.
There is no doubt that working with 27 countries on these matters can be ponderous and slow, but when it is successful, it is of enormous importance. Those are the downside and the upside of circumstances in which competence lies with the European Union. When it works, it works well. The free trade agreement with South Korea eliminated nearly 97% of tariffs, and some British businesses are now enjoying a huge increase in exports to South Korea as a result. We want to see the same thing happen on an even greater scale in relation to the United States.
The Foreign Secretary will be aware that the EU has a trade agreement with Israel that allows goods to be imported under preference. He and 16 other EU Foreign Ministers have written to Baroness Ashton asking for guidelines to be drawn up to ensure goods produced in illegal settlements are not imported to the EU labelled “Made in Israel”. What steps are being taken to draw up those guidelines and to bring them into force?
The UK has been advancing the case for such guidelines. That was done under the previous Government, and this Government support it. As the hon. Gentleman says, I have taken this up, along with other Foreign Ministers, with the EU High Representative. We look to the whole of the EU to do this in a co-ordinated and effective way.
I certainly agree with my right hon. Friend that, in view of the fact that we have been members of the Common Market for 40 years, it is certainly true to describe negotiations as “ponderous and slow.” Does he agree that this country might have made more progress towards securing a free trade agreement with the United States if we had not been members of the Common Market, or what is now the European Union?
Like other hon. Members, my hon. Friend is asking me to speculate on areas I do not want to get drawn into speculating about. We make the most of the situation we are dealing with. The fact is that this is a competence of the EU, although our strong political will and support within the EU is required to make the most of such free trade agreements. As I mentioned earlier, working with 26 other countries can mean the process is slow, but it also means that when we succeed, that has an enormous impact. My hon. Friend should bear that trade-off in mind.
The UK is not a member of the CMAG, but we have regular bilateral conversations with its members. We do not expect Sri Lanka to be on the formal CMAG agenda at its next meeting on 26 April, but we expect, and support, it being discussed at some stage in the meeting.
The CMAG is the custodian of the Commonwealth’s fundamental values and principles. Given the allegations of war crimes in Sri Lanka and the impeachment of the Chief Justice, will the Government be calling on CMAG members to take action on Sri Lanka at its Friday meeting?
We have been very clear in a variety of statements, and in direct contact with the Government of Sri Lanka, that they should be upholding the very best of Commonwealth values, particularly in view of their intention to hold the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Colombo later this year. We know from comments by members of the CMAG that they share the concerns and that they will also be expecting Sri Lanka to uphold those values.
Do the Government accept that it is becoming increasingly apparent that great damage will be done to the Commonwealth if the next CHOGM is held in Colombo later this year, given the appalling human rights record in Sri Lanka and its Government’s disregard for the rule of law? Will my hon. Friend assure the House that the Government are taking action, along with many other Commonwealth states, to have this matter ventilated not just at the CMAG, but if necessary between Heads of Government, to ensure that action can be taken over the next few months to find an alternative venue?
The decision to site the next CHOGM in Colombo was taken by consensus in the Commonwealth back in 2009, and we have no indication that the Commonwealth intends to change its view on that, but my right hon. and learned Friend is absolutely right to point out the contrast between Commonwealth values and concerns about what is happening in Sri Lanka. We and other Governments have made that clear, and the recent passing of the Human Rights Council resolution in Geneva, which the UK strongly supported, is evidence of that.
The Minister just referenced the most recent United Nations resolution on Sri Lanka, in which it noted
“the continuing reports of violations of human rights in Sri Lanka, including enforced disappearances, extrajudicial killings, torture, and violations of the rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly”.
Given that Sri Lanka has been judged in those terms by the UN, to what extent does the Minister think the country complies with the principles of the Commonwealth and the recently adopted Commonwealth charter, and should we use CHOGM as a means of leverage to put pressure on Sri Lanka to put its house in order?
The hon. Lady is correct when she says that CHOGM provides the opportunity for us and others to express concerns to Sri Lanka, and to urge it to make good its own promises to fulfil the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission’s recommendations. We have urged it to do so and we will continue to do that.
I was able to speak to the Sri Lankan Foreign Minister yesterday. I made reference to our further concerns, whether they are about the impeachment of the Chief Justice or further attacks on the press in Jaffna, and made it clear that if Colombo is to host CHOGM later this year, the spotlight will be on Sri Lanka and it will need to demonstrate to the world how it has responded to these concerns and made good its own beliefs in reconciliation for the future.
May I again urge on Ministers the idea that the Commonwealth should have a group of people independent of the relevant Government, who can go in and look at human rights issues, so that we can have not just a charter, but a method of reporting back to see whether the charter is upheld in Sri Lanka and other places?
The determination of the Commonwealth to uphold the highest principles, the Lancaster principles, and how that can be ensured in all Commonwealth countries, is a matter of active discussion in the Commonwealth. The situation in Sri Lanka has pointed out very sharply the discrepancy between the concerns and those values in principle. I have no doubt that leaders of the Commonwealth and Heads of State are acutely aware of the concerns that my right hon. Friend raises, and will be addressing them.
Indonesia (Death Penalty)
The British Government strongly oppose the death penalty, as a matter of principle. We continue to make formal representations to the Indonesian authorities and to speak out publicly on this issue, and they are in no doubt as to the seriousness with which we take this issue. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary raised our objections to the use of the death penalty with the Indonesian Foreign Minister in November 2012.
I thank the Minister for the efforts that the Foreign Office is taking on behalf of Lindsay Sandiford. Does he agree that the Indonesian Government should be left in no doubt that the failure to commute the threat of a death sentence would have serious implications for our relationship with Indonesia, and their standing in the world?
My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary discussed the death penalty with the Indonesian Foreign Minister during the November state visit of the Indonesian President. I issued a statement on 15 March, firmly expressing UK concern following the recent execution carried out by Indonesia. We continue to be deeply concerned for both Lindsay Sandiford and Gareth Cashmore, who have been sentenced to death for drug-trafficking offences. We are seeking reassurances that Indonesia will not seek to carry out the death penalty in both cases.
May I also thank the Foreign Office for the support that it has given to my former constituent, Lindsay Sandiford? However, given the concerns about the adequacy of translation in the initial trial and the adequacy of legal representation going forward to the Supreme Court stage, will the Foreign Office reconsider its position and follow Indonesia’s own example, which provides support for translation costs and legal costs for its nationals facing the death penalty abroad, and support Lindsay Sandiford through that process, even though it is not legally obliged to do so?
My hon. Friend is right to voice that concern, but it is true that the Government do not pay for legal representation for British nationals overseas. We have been working extremely closely with Lindsay Sandiford’s lawyers and Reprieve in identifying a lawyer for her, and we are prepared to assist her with anything beyond actually having to meet some of these bills, which we just simply do not do.
Our assessment remains that there is no immediate risk to British nationals living or travelling in the Korean peninsula. But North Korea’s rhetoric and behaviour poses a serious risk to the stability of the region, which includes several of the world’s largest economies. The impact of miscalculation by the North Korean regime could extend well beyond its region. That is why the international response must remain clear, calm and united.
Inevitably and rightly, there has been tremendous focus on the absurd rhetoric of the North Korean regime and the development of its nuclear capability, but last month the United Nations Human Rights Council decided to set up a commission of inquiry into human rights abuses in North Korea. Will the Foreign Secretary give us an indication of how that work might develop?
The hon. Gentleman is quite right about this. The UN Human Rights Council agreed to establish a commission of inquiry. This was a unanimous vote, which is unusual on these issues, and it was proposed in a resolution presented by the European Union and Japan, and co-sponsored by more than 40 countries. This will investigate the most serious human rights violations identified by the UN special rapporteur, including those in political prison camps. It is quite right that we do everything we can to investigate what is known to the world as an appalling record of human rights abuse in North Korea.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that a further missile test by North Korea would be illegal, provocative and dangerous in the current climate? What steps has he taken to persuade the Chinese Government to use their influence to urge the North Koreans not to go down this dangerous path and to return to the negotiation table?
As my hon. Friend rightly says, we work with China on this, and of course with the United States. I was pleased that on Secretary Kerry’s visit to China in the last 10 days, the United States and China presented a strong, united position on this. As I reported to the House last week, we were active in bringing together the G8 nations, including Russia, during our meeting with G8 Foreign Ministers in London two weeks ago, to make it clear to the North Korean Government that they have a choice to make: either continue with this provocative path and face further isolation, or engage constructively with the rest of the world.
Clearly, immense challenges remain in the Korean peninsula, including for British citizens and their representatives. What additional support has been provided through the Foreign Secretary’s office to embassy staff in both North and South Korea during this period of heightened threats and tensions?
The offices function very well. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question because it gives me the opportunity to pay tribute to our embassy staff in Pyongyang. It is not an easy country for the staff of western embassies to work in, but their work is important, particularly as many of our allies, such as Japan, the United States and South Korea, do not have embassies in Pyongyang. Our embassy is important and the small staff there do a great job. We were informed on 5 April by the North Koreans that they could not guarantee the safety of embassies in the event of war, but we are responding in the calm way that I have advocated, and our embassy sees no need to be withdrawn from Pyongyang.
Despite the limited nature of the threat directly posed to Britain by North Korea, does the Secretary of State agree that the speed with which this crisis has arisen indicates how foolish we would be to downgrade our strategic nuclear deterrent in the future?
Yes, I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. That would be a very serious national error. We have to bear in mind that North Korea has paraded, but not tested, a long-range missile with a claimed range of 12,000 km. That is clearly the sort of thing that it is trying to develop, and we must bear that in mind when making the decision that my hon. Friend talks about.
Does not the behaviour of North Korea confirm that vile dictatorships are a threat not only to their own citizens, but to their neighbours? Has the Minister conveyed the full support of the UK to the Governments of South Korea and Japan in the face of outrageous aggression from North Korea? What steps is he taking to ensure that disputes in east Asia are resolved through international law, not military action?
Yes, we are in very close consultation with those countries. I discussed this in detail with Foreign Minister Kishida of Japan when he was here two weeks ago, and last week I telephoned Foreign Minister Yun of South Korea. These countries are very conscious of our support and grateful for the support that we give at the UN Security Council. On other disputes in east Asia, we make it clear to all countries concerned that we wish to see them peacefully resolved and in accordance with international law.
Of course, the goal of international policy is to bring about the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula, which is something the South Korean Government support, but I believe that it is very important for a country, such as ours, which has a nuclear deterrent that adds enormously to the credibility of the western alliance, to keep it.
Colombia (Human Rights)
We recognise the progress made by the Colombian Government to address human rights problems but continue to raise issues of concern when they arise. On 4 March I met Colombia’s Vice-Minister for Defence, Jorge Enrique Bedoya, in London. We discussed various issues, including human rights and military justice reform.
I am grateful to the Minister for that answer. Does he recognise that there can be no real peace in Colombia until the rights of the democratic opposition and mass social movements, such as the Patriotic March, whose leaders will visit Parliament tomorrow, are recognised? Its members are regularly brutally murdered by both the Colombian Government and right-wing paramilitary groups. Will he assure me that the UK Government will do everything possible to stress to the Colombian Government that democratic opposition is part of a civilized society?
Yes, we absolutely will. We recognise the efforts made by President Santos to date. In fact, our 2012 annual human rights report, which was launched on 15 April, gives our assessment of the key areas where the Colombian Government have made progress and the areas where human rights concerns remain. We believe that the President is making the right moves and that he needs greater encouragement. I welcome the interest shown by Members across the House in holding the Colombians to their word.
I am sure the Minister shares my hope that the latest round of peace talks with the FARC will succeed. Can he update the House on his assessment of what progress has been made in those talks and tell us what representations, if any, the UK has made to President Santos regarding his five-point plan, particularly the fifth point, which is on victims’ rights?
As I said, we are hugely supportive of what President Santos has done to date and very much welcome the talks that have been going on in Havana, which we understand are due to restart in May. We stand by to offer any help we can. I think that it is worth paying tribute to his Government for getting to where they are. It has been a long time since Colombia has been as peaceful as it is today, but there is still a long way to go.
South Africa (Sexual Violence)
Levels of gender-based violence in South Africa are among the highest in the world. The UK Government have committed £4 million to working with the South African Government, UN agencies and civil society to tackle the root causes.
I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. Constituents of mine have raised concerns about the levels of sexual violence in South African schools. Has his Department had any contact with the Congress of South African Students to discuss that distressing situation?
We have contact with many organisations in South Africa, including Rape Crisis and the Women’s Legal Centre, which works to improve access to justice for poorer people. Our high commissioner has given a series of radio interviews about the issue. We would be happy to add to that work and to those contacts, so I will look specifically at the organisation to which the hon. Gentleman refers.
As chair of the all-party South Africa group, may I tell my right hon. Friend how pleased we are about the money that the Foreign Office has made available? Will he use his good offices, those of our high commissioner and our role in the Commonwealth to show how unacceptable such behaviour is in South Africa, and indeed in other parts of the Commonwealth?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend and absolutely agree with her. I mentioned how active the British high commissioner has been in highlighting the issue, including during South Africa’s 16 days of activism on gender-based violence in November last year. She also raised awareness of the issue at an international women’s day reception just last month, in March. We will continue that work, with the encouragement of this House.
Much of South Sudan has enjoyed improved security over the past year, but we are concerned about violence in Jonglei, including the recent attack on a UN convoy in which 12 peacekeepers and civilians died. We are supporting community reconciliation efforts and urging the Government to prioritise the protection of civilians.
I thank the Minister for that answer. Have the Government been able to form any reliable assessment of recent events in Eastern Equatoria, particularly the alleged killings by the army in Lorema hospital? Obviously those alleged events follow the recent killing of members of the governor’s bodyguard, but there are divergent accounts and allegations. Have the Government been able to give credence to any side’s version of events?
We are still trying to assess the detail of exactly what happened and to untangle the different stories emanating from that part of southern Sudan. There needs to be recognition that significant progress has been made and that a key part of finding a lasting solution to the tension between South Sudan and North Sudan is the implementation of the agreement that was announced at the United Nations General Assembly last year.
Now that South Sudan and Sudan have resolved their difficulties over oil, South Sudan has the potential to become an extremely prosperous country, but it still has very weak governance. What are Her Majesty’s Government doing to help the Government of South Sudan enhance their machinery of governance and their capacity properly to govern South Sudan?
My hon. Friend makes exactly the right point: the oil now flowing between and through South Sudan and Sudan creates the opportunity for economic stability, development and growth in the southern part of Sudan, so the Government of South Sudan will have to have additional capacity to deal with the income that will, I hope, flow into the South Sudanese exchequer. Support is provided by the Foreign Office and by the work of our colleagues at the Department for International Development. We are assisting the South Sudanese Government in building that relevant capacity.
As noted in our 2012 human rights report, the Colombian Government have made some progress on both issues: 170,000 victims have been provided with reparations under the victims and land restitution law. We continue to press the Colombian Government to speed up the processing of cases and reduce impunity, and support them in their steps to reform the judicial system.
I am sure the House will agree that, despite the law’s success, many human rights activists are still in grave danger from death threats, and the Catholic Fund for Overseas Development and others have campaigned to highlight the issue. Has the Minister met CAFOD and, if not, will he do so?
The UK’s statement on the UN’s 2013 universal periodic review on Colombia, which we are launching today in Geneva, will call for improved access to justice for victims. I have not to date met representatives from CAFOD, but I would be delighted to do so, particularly if they were accompanied by the hon. Gentleman.
Having had the honour of serving as Minister of State for Northern Ireland for two and a half years and of now travelling the world, I know that many countries benefit from what was learned in Northern Ireland. I welcome the interest shown in Colombia by Members from Northern Ireland, because what they know can be of huge use to Colombia as it tries to inch towards peace.
The Minister will be aware that, while the land restitution law is good, when peasant farmers return to their land they are coerced, bullied, injured and murdered. Have the Government held any discussions with the Colombian Government to ensure that peasant farmers are given protection when they return to their land?
The hon. Gentleman is right. We are concerned about the right of indigenous people. We are providing technical assistance to the Colombian Government to work towards effective implementation of the new land and victims law, which aims to do exactly that—to return land to huge numbers of displaced people and to compensate victims.
Indeed; in 2012, President Santos launched Colombia’s national public policy for gender equality, and the British Government will provide support to the Colombian Government to promote women’s rights and address discrimination wherever possible. Equally, the British embassy in Colombia is assisting the Colombian Government in looking at these extremely serious issues.
We have discussions with our counterparts in the Commonwealth on a variety of subjects on a regular basis, including on CHOGM. We make every effort to reiterate our concerns about human rights directly to Sri Lanka, whenever we get the opportunity. I was able to do that most recently in a meeting with the Sri Lankan Foreign Minister just yesterday.
It is obviously not enough, because the Sri Lankans are not listening. They do not listen to the UN or the Commonwealth. It beggars belief that we think that they will listen more if CHOGM goes ahead there and we attend. I ask the UK Government to think carefully about the signal that it will send about their commitment to human rights if they go ahead with that visit.
I understand the concerns of the right hon. Lady, as do all hon. Members. This is a decision for the Commonwealth. It decided by consensus that the Heads of Government meeting should be in Colombo. The Commonwealth recognises the issues of concern in Sri Lanka. There is no doubt that whoever ends up going to CHOGM, from whatever country, Sri Lanka will be in the spotlight. The progress that can be made on a number of the positive recommendations of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission is a key topic that many will want to address. We want Sri Lanka to get to where it professes it wants to go. However, I agree with the right hon. Lady entirely that the evidence of that at present is pretty scant.
21. On human rights abuses, the British and US assessments of the level of torture in Sri Lanka seem to be at variance. The FCO says merely that reports of torture continue, while the US State Department says that there is“widespread impunity for a broad range of human rights abuses, particularly involving police torture”.Why the difference of views? (152367)
We judge the evidence of torture that is brought to us and make our calculations upon it. We have expressed concern about incidents of torture. Our asylum processes take account of the possibility that some people, but not all, could be subject to torture. Cases are dealt with on an individual basis. Part of the overall picture of human rights concerns in Sri Lanka is that the Government appear to be determined to address the issue, but the evidence remains difficult to see in certain cases. We will continue to press the case and we know that this is a matter of great interest to all right hon. and hon. Members.
The UK’s primary goal in Mali is to encourage the transitional authorities to pursue an inclusive political process that supports long-term stability. We welcome the commitment to a road map and the creation of a national commission for dialogue and reconciliation, but rapid progress is required if that is to stay on track.
The French Parliament has just voted to extend France’s military mission to Mali at least until the end of the year. A French colonel is reported in Le Monde as saying that the Malian military remains ill-equipped and ill-trained. How long does the Minister think the UK will contribute by deploying troops to the EU training mission?
Let us be absolutely clear that the UK is offering the French deployment, at the behest of the civilian-led sovereign Government of Mali, limited logistical support. Approximately 40 UK military personnel are deployed as part of the EU training mission, three of whom are specifically related to the Foreign Secretary’s initiative on preventing sexual violence in conflict. They are there to train the Malian army with respect to human rights. Other international and multilateral discussions are taking place on deploying AFISMA—the African-led international support mission to Mali—to replace the French troops and, ultimately, a UN mission.
Indeed, Jeffrey Feltman, the United Nations Under-Secretary General for Political Affairs, said last week that it was vital that the political process be taken forward in Mali. Given our previous military involvement, what specific assistance are the UK Government giving to the political process? Does the Minister envisage the elections taking place by the summer of this year?
My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary visited Bamako recently to support that process. The Prime Minister has appointed a special representative, my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury (Mr O’Brien), who is very involved in the process. The hon. Gentleman is right to focus on the importance of the political process. We are discussing whether we can support the efforts of the African Union as well. We need to ensure that all the groups in the north are involved in the political process, and that mechanisms are put in place to air and resolve the grievances of those who live in the north.
Middle East Peace Process
Progress towards achieving a lasting two-state solution between Israelis and Palestinians remains a top foreign policy priority. I welcome the efforts that Secretary Kerry has put into the middle east peace process since taking office. The UK will make every effort to mobilise the European Union and Arab states behind decisive US-led moves for peace.
With the US Secretary of State rightly attempting to encourage both the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships back to the negotiating table, does the right hon. Gentleman share my concern at the resignation of the Palestinian Prime Minister, Salam Fayyad? Has he conveyed to the Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, the need for Mr Fayyad’s economic reforms to continue?
The hon. Gentleman is quite right that we are concerned about the resignation of Salam Fayyad, who has done a great job of building institutions for Palestinians. He is remaining in office for an interim period of several weeks as consideration is given to a successor. We are certainly always in touch with the Palestinian leadership, and they know that we strongly believe that the economic programme that Salam Fayyad has pursued must be continued.
My right hon. Friend may be aware that Prime Minister Netanyahu has emphasised his new Government’s commitment to an independent Palestinian state through direct negotiations. What assessment has the Foreign Secretary made of reports of Palestinian Authority-sanctioned incitement, which remains an obstacle to a genuine peace settlement?
President Obama’s commitment is very important, and his visit to the region last month was successful. He argued in Jerusalem that peace is necessary, just and possible, and we should strongly welcome the involvement of the United States. There will be many obstacles in the path on both sides, and many forms of behaviour and many things that are said will make the process more difficult. We have to overcome those and work with the leaderships of the Israelis and the Palestinians on the basis that they are willing to come to a negotiated peace.
20. In recent days, rockets have fallen on the Israeli town of Eilat and the Egyptian authorities have intercepted a ship containing arms destined for Gaza and Sinai. In view of that, does the Foreign Secretary agree that the implementation of United Nations resolution 1860, which deals with international arms smuggling, must be an integral part of any peace settlement? (152366)
Yes, the hon. Lady is right. On 17 April at least two rockets hit Eilat, in southern Israel, reportedly fired from Sinai, and militants have fired a number of rockets from Gaza into southern Israel since 26 February. All of that makes pursuing a peace process and securing a two-state solution more difficult. It is very important that every country fulfils its international responsibilities under UN resolutions to intercept arms shipments.
The fact is that both sides have a level of trust first in the United States, and then in many other countries in the world, including the UK, to take forward the process. I will visit the region in the coming weeks to reinforce that and to try to accelerate everything that we are talking about. In general in world affairs, I do not believe that sporting fixtures should be an obstacle to political progress of any form, and I do not think they will be in this case.
Does the Foreign Secretary not realise that any progress between Israel and Palestine is very unlikely to move on at all while the settlement building, the annexation of East Jerusalem and the siege of Gaza continue? Until Israel radically modifies its behaviour towards the Palestinian people, how can there be any progress?
The hon. Gentleman is well aware of our condemnation of settlement activity on occupied land, and I am happy to reiterate that today. It is one reason why carrying the process forward is such an urgent matter. Settlement activity means that within a foreseeable time, a two-state solution will no longer be practical. Secretary Kerry has put that case, and the United States Administration accept it. We have to try to make a success of the process, including by coming to a conclusion on all final status issues.
As believers in democracy we are always in favour of people having their voices heard, and we would be reluctant ever to regard elections as unhelpful. We hope, of course, that in any elections, people who are ready to make peace will be successful so that this long-running conflict can be resolved.
We welcome Ghana’s successful conduct of elections in December 2012, which were internationally recognised as generally free, fair and credible. The Foreign Secretary visited Ghana in March, strengthening further the already excellent Ghana-UK relationship, and I had the pleasure of attending the presidential inauguration in Accra in January.
I am a little bit surprised by the Minister’s answer to be honest. Last week some women from the Ghanaian Parliament came to Westminster, and they emphasised the value of stable institutions. As the Minister knows, a dispute about the presidential election is, fortunately, being pursued in the courts rather than on the street. Will he say a little more about discussions that the Foreign Secretary has had about that episode?
The hon. Lady is right to highlight the petition before the Supreme Court in Ghana. However, Ghana has now had six successful elections since military rule ceased in 1992, and is rightly seen as a beacon of democracy in western Africa. She is also right to say that it is essential that such disputes are delivered through the courts, rather than on the streets. In the legal process, the Supreme Court started looking at the petition on 16 April, and we anticipate a judgment within the next month or two.
15. What discussions he has had on ensuring the representation of women at the upcoming conference on Somalia and ensuring that there is discussion of women’s rights and gender-responsive peace-building at that conference. (152360)
We have encouraged the Somali Government to bring a representative delegation. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development and I will hold an event early next week to hear from prominent Somali women about empowerment, violence against women and forced marriage. Preventing sexual violence in conflict is also a theme of the Somali conference.
In short, I can, not only at the conference but also prior to it. I and officials from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office are reaching out to and meeting not just male, but female representatives of the diaspora throughout the United Kingdom. As I mentioned, a meeting will be focused on Somali women and the preventing sexual violence initiative is a key part of the Somali conference. I reassure the hon. Lady that the key is an end to conflict and insecurity in Somalia, and we sought to insert language into UN Security Council resolution 2093 about the importance of the role of women in all efforts for peace and security going forward.
Sexual Violence in Conflict
Following the adoption of the historic G8 declaration, we will take the campaign to the UN and begin implementation immediately. G8 peacekeeping experts meet next week to discuss commitments on military training, and work begins next month in The Hague, London and Geneva on the development of the protocol.
Now that we have the strong support of the G8 nations in what amounted to an historic declaration, I want to take the campaign to the United Nations and convene during our presidency of the Security Council in June a special session of the Security Council, which I will chair, in order to rally wider global support. I will then take the campaign to the United Nations General Assembly in September. I believe that in this calendar year we can make an enormous difference to global attitudes, action on the ground, and global agreement on combating sexual violence in conflict.
The Foreign Secretary will be aware of ongoing concerns, which have been expressed not least in the Human Rights Watch report published yesterday, on Burma, sexual violence, and what Human Rights Watch says amounts to ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya people. Given the lifting of sanctions, what representations has he made on the profoundly concerning human rights breaches against the people of Burma?
It is important for us to keep up the work and the pressure on those subjects, which I discussed last week with one of the President of Burma’s most senior Ministers and advisers—a Minister of the President’s Office. In particular, we discussed addressing the stateless position of the Rohingya people. The UK and other EU countries have a role to play in offering police training in dealing with ethnic violence. Keeping up the pressure on human rights issues will be part of the EU’s continuing approach.
On Saturday, I met Friends of Syria ministers in Istanbul, where the Syrian National Coalition issued its clearest statement yet of its support for a political solution to the conflict, its commitment to a future for all Syrians, its rejection of all forms of terrorism and extremism, and its responsible approach on chemical and biological weapons. In return, the nations present undertook to strengthen their support for the Syrian opposition.
My hon. Friend makes a good point. Compared with the last year of the previous Government, we have nearly quadrupled the number of ministerial and senior official bilateral visits to Germany each year. We have established joint meetings twice a year of the British-German ministerial committees on the EU. I have made many visits to Germany, and as my hon. Friend knows, the Prime Minister works extremely closely with Chancellor Merkel. I believe it is right to say that we now work more closely with Germany than any previous Government.
As we move towards the final military draw-down in Afghanistan, what steps is the Secretary of State taking to ensure personnel protection for our remaining training forces, and for our brave men and women from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Department for International Development and non-governmental organisations, who are working for a better future for the Afghan people?
Protecting people during the draw-down is extremely important. That is one reason for maintaining a substantial military force. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, our military numbers are coming down from 9,000 to 5,000 this year. We will then decide on the profile of withdrawal from then on. A large part of their job is the protection of the personnel who remain. We also work closely with the Afghan authorities and the very substantial Afghan national security forces to ensure that our hard-working personnel, to whom I pay tribute, are properly protected.
T4. Does my hon. Friend agree that the situation in Kashmir remains a key to lasting peace and security in Asia? What efforts are the Government making to help Pakistan and India to resolve their differences and unlock the great human and economic potential of the region? (152372)
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. Efforts to resolve the issue in Kashmir continue and will be of huge benefit to both countries and the region as a whole. The UK is in contact with both Governments to urge them to do as much as possible to assist that reconciliation. We were particularly engaged after the incidents in January, when, once again, there were killings and shootings. It is important to note that those incidents did not disturb the dialogue that had grown up between India and Pakistan, which is important for the resolution of the issue.
T2. Following the Minister’s answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden), is he aware that Ahava Cosmetics, which produces cosmetics in an illegal settlement, is currently labelled as “Israeli” in the UK? Despite complaints to trading standards, it refused to take up the matter. I welcomed his approach to EU-wide guidelines, but will he talk to his colleagues to ensure that the guidelines we already have are upheld and enforced? (152370)
It is of course essential that guidelines that have been introduced are adhered to, and that products are correctly and properly labelled. I am aware of the concerns about the product that has been mentioned—it is discussed. It is important that the voluntary guidelines are extended, and that settlement produce and Israeli produce are correctly labelled to give people a choice.
T5. A Palestinian news agency has reported that Hamas will seek to petition the EU to remove it from the terrorist list. What assessment has the Foreign Secretary made of those reports, and will he confirm that the British Government will remain steadfast in its position that Hamas is indeed a terrorist organisation? (152373)
Our position on Hamas is well known. We look to it, as we look to everyone in that region, to uphold previous agreements, forswear violence and make credible movement towards all of the Quartet principles that have been long established. There has been no change in our position on Hamas, and we do not, therefore, have direct contact with it.
I am so glad that the right hon. Gentleman raised this point. It has been rather unnoticed in the past few weeks that the ATT was passed. It is one of the most important things the UN has achieved in recent years. Ratification will begin on 3 June, and we will be playing a leading part in encouraging states to sign up and ratify as soon as possible. I appreciate the support of the whole House. This has been a joint effort; it began in 2007 under the previous Government and we have seen it through to its successful conclusion. I would like publicly to congratulate Ambassador Jo Adamson, who has led the team in the United Nations and done a wonderful job.
T6. Last year, Conservatives on Essex county council passed a motion calling for the EU budget to be cut, a reduction in our contributions to the EU and for EU red tape to be slashed. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the good people of Essex should back Essex Conservatives on 2 May—the only party to stand up to Europe? (152374)
I absolutely agree, Mr Speaker. I am very grateful for the robust support of Conservatives on Essex county council on aspects of foreign policy. I am sure that they do a good job outside of foreign policy, too. Their support for a reduction in the EU budget is very important. It is something that people across the country want to see, and the Prime Minister has achieved the first ever reduction in the multiannual financial framework—a major diplomatic achievement for this country.
Human rights organisations were alarmed when sanctions against Burma were lifted. Could the Foreign Secretary use this as a lever to ensure that the United Nations can establish its human rights office in Burma, and to ensure that Burma releases all political prisoners, including Aung Naing?
It is worth pointing out to the hon. Lady that, yes, we agree with what she says, but human rights will be at the heart of the lifting of sanctions in Burma. We did it with the advice of Aung San Suu Kyi, because we believe that engagement with the Burmese Government is the way forward. We are deeply concerned about human rights and we remain deeply concerned about ethnic conflict, but we believe that now is the appropriate time to lift sanctions.
T7. Does the Foreign Secretary agree that the tragic bombing in Boston is a sad reminder of the ongoing threat of global terrorism, and stresses the importance of the United Kingdom having very close links with the intelligence services of our allies, particularly the United States? (152375)
Yes, absolutely. The tragic events in Boston are a reminder of that, as is this morning’s news about the operation in Canada to prevent a terrorist attack. We must always be vigilant about these matters and work closely with other countries. I explained, in my speech to the Royal United Services Institute in February, how we are extending our co-operation on counter-terrorism with many more countries in the world, given the more diffuse nature of the terrorist threat.
Putting pressure on Russia is a constant effort. We discussed it at the G8 Foreign Ministers’ meeting, and I discussed it with Sergei Lavrov when he was in London last month. The Prime Minister speaks regularly, and will shortly speak further, with President Putin. Our diplomatic efforts with Russia are continual, but we have to say clearly that those efforts have not been successful so far and that therefore it is necessary to give greater support, in various ways, to the Syrian National Coalition on the ground in Syria in order to try and save lives and increase the incentive for the Assad regime to come to a political settlement.
T8. My hon. Friend will be aware that this year marks the 25th anniversary of Saddam’s mustard gas attack on Halabja. Will he support the principle of a UN inquiry into those many hundreds of western companies that supplied the chemical weapons that enabled Saddam to carry out his attacks? (152376)
I am aware that my hon. Friend was in Iraq recently for the commemoration on the 25th anniversary of this dreadful massacre, and he also spoke with great passion in a recent debate in the House. Following the incident, there were extensive UN and UK investigations into the use of chemical weapons and any involvement of UK companies. Those inquiries were fairly comprehensive and did not illustrate any UK involvement. From a UK point of view, I am not sure that any further inquiries are necessary.
Recently, the Prime Minister made the very eccentric contention that North Korean missiles could reach the shores of the UK, apparently in an attempt to bolster support for Trident’s renewal. Is it not time to scrap the Trident renewal, save £100 billion, spend it on public services and avoid hitting the vulnerable in society?
To be clear, the Prime Minister said that North Korea claimed that it had missiles that could hit the whole of the United States, and if that was the case, of course, it could also hit the UK. I mentioned earlier that it has paraded, but not yet tested, a 12,000 km-range missile. Looking decades ahead, as we do with these decisions, we have to be aware of the great variety of potential threats to the UK. It is vital, therefore, that we retain the ultimate deterrent in this country, the total cost of which is about 1.5% of the total welfare budget.
I hope my right hon. Friend will excuse me if I return to the question of Syria and the possible supply of arms to the opposition. Does he understand that it appears to many of us that the language being used by the Government is equivocal and delphic? In these circumstances, can we have an assurance that any material change in policy will be subject to the express endorsement of the House?
My right hon. and learned Friend knows that I come regularly to the House with updates on Syria—I think I have given seven or eight oral statements—and that on any major decision the House can express its view. I am sure that the business managers would want to facilitate that—let me put it that way. The next few weeks will be crucial, because we need to decide, with our European Union partners and the United States, the next steps that we can realistically take, and should take, in order to do what I was just talking about—to strengthen the opposition on the ground and increase the incentives for a political settlement in Syria. We have taken no decision about that, but if we do so, I will come to the House and describe that decision.
Will the Secretary of State take this opportunity to set out the UK’s opposition to boycotts, disinvestment campaigns and other attempts to de-legitimise the state of Israel, because the only way we will see peace in the middle east, with a secure Israel living peacefully alongside a viable Palestinian state, is by initiatives that bring people on both sides who believe in peace to work together, not by boycotts and all the rest of it, which just drive people further apart?
The hon. Gentleman puts it very well, and I know he cares passionately about this subject. The United Kingdom has always opposed boycotts and disinvestment. We believe absolutely that the future for peace in the middle east will come through negotiations between the two different sides. President Obama’s recent speech, in which he spoke about the urgency and possibility of peace, but also about the need for justice, provides a good base for both sides to proceed. We believe and hope that those opportunities should be taken as quickly as possible.
Sanctions against Zimbabwe were recently eased and the UK gave £90 million in aid last year, but many British pensioners are being robbed of their pensions, following Mugabe’s decision in 2002 to stop paying pensions to British citizens. Will the Minister meet me to discuss the case of my constituent Mr Scott, who worked for the Zimbabwean police for over 20 years and is being denied his pension, to end this injustice?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise this important issue on behalf of his constituent, but he will also be aware that many others have been affected by the withdrawal of pension payments. Hopefully his concerns will be assuaged by the fact that I have met representatives of civil servants who used to work in Zimbabwe who are not getting their pensions. I have also discussed the issue with the Zimbabwean Finance Minister, as part of the challenge to try to find a satisfactory resolution, but I am happy to meet my hon. Friend and his constituent to discuss the matter further.
Did the Foreign Secretary or the Prime Minister have any discussions with the Prime Minister of Israel on his recent visit to London, or can he say when he last discussed the middle east peace process with the Prime Minister of Israel?
Yes, I had discussions with Prime Minister Netanyahu in the margins of Baroness Thatcher’s funeral and the Prime Minister had a formal bilateral meeting with him that evening. As always, we are in close contact with the Israeli Prime Minister and, as always, we have urged him to make a success of the opportunity now to take forward the middle east peace process and find a lasting and just peace between Israelis and Palestinians.
Points of Order
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Yesterday, Mr Nick Bitel was confirmed as the new chair of Sport England, but Mr Bitel was not the original recommendation for the position. He is an excellent appointment and we wish him well in his post, but it has emerged that the recommendation of Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson for the position was overturned following the intervention of No. 10. It would appear that she has been discriminated against because she had the courage to stand out against the Government’s hated welfare reforms. We need a statement on this shambolic and shabby affair. Did the Sports Minister recommend Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson for the position; what was the role of the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport in changing that recommendation; and did the intervention of No. 10 result in her not being appointed to this position?
I must say to the hon. Gentleman that, important issue though he raises, it is not one for the Chair. His attempted point of order will have been heard on the Treasury Bench and, knowing his terrier-like qualities as I do, I feel sure that this is a subject to which he will return.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. There have been reports that plugs will be installed in the Chamber to help with charging pocket computers and iPads. Could you use your good offices to try to improve the wi-fi in the Chamber, which barely works on most occasions, before we spend a lot of taxpayers’ money putting plugs in the Chamber?
Well, I know that the Clerk feels that wi-fi in the Chamber works extremely well, and he advises me that he has been using it this day. More widely, I think the safest thing I can say to the hon. Gentleman is that these matters are being looked into and I feel sure that he will wish to participate in any investigation or examination that takes place.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. In fact, I wish to make the same point that my hon. Friend the Member for Eltham (Clive Efford) made a few moments ago. There is a great deal of concern about the lack of transparency on that issue, and we look forward to finding a way of getting to the bottom of what happened.
I note the attempted point of order from the hon. Gentleman, who is a former Minister for Sport. I can only reiterate what I said to the hon. Member for Eltham (Clive Efford), which is that I am sure that Members will take such opportunities as the Order Paper provides to raise these concerns, which will have been heard by, among others, the Government Chief Whip.
Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 (Amendment)
Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 to require the Secretary of State to review levels of asylum support annually; to require him to lay before Parliament a draft up-rating order to increase levels of asylum support in line with changes made to mainstream benefits in years when the general level of prices has increased during the previous 12 month period; to replace support provided by the voucher system under subsections (10) and (11) of section 4 of the Act with a single, cash-based support system; and for connected purposes.
As a country, we have a long and proud history of providing support and sanctuary to those who arrive on our shores fleeing persecution and war. I believe, however, that we are now in danger of falling short of the standards that our reputation leads people to expect. Last year, I chaired a cross-party inquiry into the experiences of children and young people in the asylum system. The panel received evidence in writing and in person from about 200 individuals and organisations: from local authorities, from academics, from those working on the front line with asylum seekers, and from the young people and their families themselves. What we heard about the hardship that they endure really shocked the panel.
There is a popular myth that asylum seekers enjoy undeserved riches, gaining access to high-class housing and easy finance that their indigenous neighbours could only dream about. It is just that, however: a myth. In fact, families told us stories of unimaginable difficulty, loneliness and poverty, of going without meals to pay for their children’s clothes, of poor housing and of victimisation. Contrary to the popular cliché, benefits for those in the asylum system have caused people to fall way below the poverty line in recent years, with some surviving on as little as £5 a day.
The problem with the current system is that decisions about whether to uprate the levels of benefit known as section 95 and section 4 support are effectively a matter for the Home Secretary alone. Representations from other Government Departments about the impact on children’s welfare can be, and often are, ignored. There is no requirement for the Home Secretary to come to the House regularly to report on or explain her decisions. As a consequence, no decision was made in the last financial year on whether to uprate section 4 and section 95 levels, leaving them effectively frozen since April 2011. The House rightly expects to have a say on setting the support levels for mainstream benefits, and the same should apply in these cases.
This is a problem not just for the present Government. Successive Governments have let the levels drift, fearful of headlines relating to what is actually a tiny number of people and, in the context of budgetary pressures, a tiny amount of money. Levels for section 95 support were originally pegged by the Labour Government at 90% of income support levels, before being reduced to 70% after deductions for utility bills paid for in provided accommodation.
Some, but not all, benefits for children continue to be pegged at a favourable level in relation to income support levels. Levels for 16 and 17-year-olds, for example, are arbitrarily reduced. No account is taken of the disability of any children who might arrive with complex needs. In any case, the downward drift in the value of adult benefits means that families as a whole are often trying to manage on benefit levels of as little as 60% or 65% of income support levels, in spite of all the data showing that 70% is the bare minimum to avoid absolute poverty, and in spite of the fact that many families arrive on our shores with little more than the clothes on their backs.
If life is tough on section 95 support, life on section 4 support entails devastating hardship. Section 4 support is provided to those whose asylum claims do not meet the strict requirements for refugee status but who might not be able to go home, when the Government recognise that that is the case. The levels are significantly lower than the section 95 levels. This is well illustrated by the way in which we support families who have a new baby. Someone on income support would be eligible for a £500 maternity grant. Someone on section 95 support would be eligible to receive £300, but someone on section 4 support would receive just £250. Everyone knows, however, that the costs of having a baby are the same, regardless of which level of asylum support someone is eligible for.
Furthermore, section 4 support is paid not in cash but on a card, and it is that card that causes much of the hardship. The rules on where the card can be used are highly restrictive, meaning families may have to travel some distance to be able to shop. It cannot be spent on public transport, which exacerbates the difficulties, particularly for those who need appointments with doctors or solicitors. Our inquiry heard of one case where a woman whose maternity grant, which I mentioned a minute ago, did not arrive. Without any money to travel, she was forced to leave hospital and walk home in the snow with her newborn baby in her arms. I think everyone here would accept that that is simply an unacceptable state of affairs.
Furthermore, very little money can be transferred on this card from one week to the next, so families told us they were unable to save for larger items such as winter coats for their children, while the regular moves entailed for many families seeking asylum exacerbate the difficulty of having to pay for uniforms—a larger-priced item for which families need to save up from one week to the next. The families say, too, that this card is downright unreliable. It is often turned down at checkouts and, most painfully of all, the card immediately identifies the holder of it as an asylum seeker, frequently resulting in abuse and stigmatisation. During our inquiry, we heard about some very upsetting examples of that.
This is patently not a system designed for children’s welfare, yet we met families whose children had spent two or three years on this system of support—a large proportion of their lives, then, spent in crippling levels of poverty. It seems baffling to me that such a large and inefficient bureaucracy could possibly be value for money for the 800 or so families for whom the card is currently being used. It would surely be more cost-effective to abolish it and provide one single cash-based system of support.
This Bill is not about treating asylum seekers better than everybody else. It is about applying the same standards of decency to those whose lives have already involved unimaginable hardship. It does not entail spending lots more money; it does, however, entail spending money more wisely. It is not about special rules for one group of people. It is about making Ministers accountable to this House—as, frankly, they would expect to be in any other similar situation. Decency, common sense, accountability, and above all, humanity: that is what the Bill is about, and I commend it to the House.
Question put and agreed to.
That Sarah Teather, Dr Julian Huppert, Nic Dakin, Alex Cunningham, Mr Virendra Sharma, Neil Carmichael, Mr David Ward, Caroline Lucas, Paul Blomfield and Mark Durkan present the Bill.
Sarah Teather accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 3 May, and to be printed (Bill 161).
Growth and Infrastructure Bill
Consideration of Lords message
Before I call the Minister, I have to tell the House that the original message from the Lords was defective, so Commons Bill paper 162 did not include the amendments in lieu proposed by the Lords. This has now been rectified and a revised Bill paper 162 is in the Vote Office. The first motion therefore relates to the Lords amendments in lieu 7B and 7C, as on the revised Bill paper.
After Clause 4
Development orders: development within the curtilage of a dwelling house
I beg to move,
That this House agrees with the Lords in their amendments 7B and 7C in lieu of Lords amendment 7, to which this House has disagreed.
I thank their noble Lordships and Members of the House of Commons for their thorough and thoughtful consideration of the Bill. There are two main issues before us.
Let me begin by introducing the revised approach to the Government’s proposed relaxation of permitted development rights for home owners. During our consideration of Lords amendments in this House last week, the Secretary of State gave a commitment to reflect on the representations made and to adopt a revised approach. We have reflected carefully on the points raised by Members here and by noble Lords in the other place in their detailed deliberations on the issue, and in particular on the concern that adjoining neighbours would not have an opportunity to make representations on such developments.
In expanding the permitted development rights for domestic extension, the Government propose to adjust the balance between home owners and local authorities, to make it easier and cheaper for families to make room for growing teenagers, or indeed for elderly parents who wish to come and live with them. Those changes reflect the Secretary of State’s recognition that a requirement to make a planning application is out of proportion to the wider impact of development. That is an important principle.
However, we have always said that it is important to balance the benefits against the potential impact that extensions can have on neighbours. Having listened to the concerns expressed, we tabled an amendment which was agreed by their Lordships yesterday without a Division, to ensure that adjoining neighbours will be consulted when the new rights are exercised. We drew inspiration for the amendment from the 2007 “Quality of Life” report by my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith).
Yes, I can confirm that.
What we are proposing is a light-touch neighbour consultation scheme. It will work like this. A home owner wishing to build an extension will write to the local planning authority providing plans and a written description of the proposal. The local authority will then notify the adjoining neighbours—for example, the owners or occupiers of properties that share a boundary, including those at the rear. Those neighbours will have 21 days in which to make an objection, the same period as under existing planning rules. If no neighbours object, the home owner will be able to proceed. If any neighbour raises an objection, the local authority will then consider whether the impact of the proposed extension on the amenity of neighbours is acceptable.
I welcome what my right hon. Friend has been saying. Can he clarify the impact of the curtilage rule? Many terraced houses in London have a 10-metre rear garden and a 3-metre front garden, amounting to a 13-metre curtilage. A 50% extension at the rear would be a 65% extension in relation to the rear garden. Would that be reasonable grounds for objection by a neighbour?
That might well turn out to be a reason for one of the adjoining neighbours not to be happy with the proposal and to object to it.
If a neighbour raises an objection, the local authority will consider the impact. It will then be up to individual councils to decide how to handle the procedure, and to determine whether decisions should be delegated to officers or made by the planning committee.
This is an improvement on the previous position, but who will pay for it all? Will there be a planning fee? Will the local authority be expected to pick up the cost of the consultation in the event of an objection, along with the cost of advertising it to local residents?
No planning fee will be levied on the home owner making the notification. If the extension proceeds with no objections, the local authority will benefit from a considerable saving, because it would otherwise have had to bear the costs of a full planning application. However, we shall be happy to discuss with local authorities, in the normal way, whether in the fullness of time the scheme is likely to impose any additional cost on them.
Normally people object to an extension that is beyond the current permitted level. The position is likely to become more contentious, and there is likely to be a large increase in the number of neighbours who complain. Who will fund the local authority’s inspections and the resulting consultation?
The local authorities would have to do that if a planning application were made in the normal way. Under the new relaxed procedure, the costs will be lower. As I have said, however, if it seems likely that there will be a significantly greater burden on local authorities, we will discuss that with them to ensure that it does not happen.
I am pleased that the Government have taken account of Back Benchers’ concern about neighbour notification. Does my right hon. Friend know how many authorities currently believe, or know, that they are operating with a deficit in terms of planning fees? My local authority believes that it subsidises planning, and that the fees recovered do not cover the planning service that is currently provided.
I think that I must make some more progress first.
If approval is not given, the home owner will be able to appeal against a refusal, or may wish to submit a full planning application. As with normal planning consents, neighbours will not be able to appeal against a grant of permission. The approval process will be straightforward, and—I think that this is the answer to my hon. Friend’s question—we do not expect it to impose significant costs on local authorities. It will ensure that uncontroversial improvements are dealt with quickly, it will protect neighbours’ amenity, with the council as an independent arbiter, and it will ultimately make it cheaper for people to extend their homes and will devolve more power to local residents.
I apologise for being slightly late. I was chairing another meeting.
One of the issues that have been raised continually with me is that of developments that overlook neighbours and, for instance, the positioning of windows. What information will be available to neighbours about that?
The applicant will have to send a letter to the local authority notifying it of the proposal and enclosing plans, which will of course have to receive building control consent. There will be a full notification, but it will not go through the normal planning regime process.
If it affected the amenity of the neighbour, that might well be an issue. It is hard for me to speculate on exactly what kind of amenity would be affected by a breeze block, but if a neighbour felt that it was having an effect, that neighbour would be able to object.
We have listened to the concerns that have been expressed, and have responded directly to them. I hope that I have explained to the House how our amendment addresses, in particular, the concern about the impact of our proposals on neighbours.
Can the Minister confirm that places such as conservation areas and areas of outstanding natural beauty will be exempt from this, and that the usual article 4 route will still be available where there are particular concerns—about flooding or run-off, for instance?
Yes, I can confirm that this does not apply to conservation areas, and that the ability of a local authority to use an article 4 direction is not impaired by the changes we are making.
I hope the House will now allow me to turn to the employee shareholder clause.
I thank the Minister for giving way. I have some remaining concerns about situations in which objections are not made, perhaps because of loyalty to neighbours or because of absent landlords. That could result in a building being erected that has long-lasting implications on future householders in an area. Will the Minister address that point in discussions with the Local Government Association?
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way, and he need not look so heavy-hearted, as I am going to say that I greatly welcome the changes, and that many Members on the Government Benches feel the Government have listened and come up with a sensible proposal. Will he just confirm that existing permitted development rights are not in any way affected by this new procedure, and that they are still there in perpetuity for people to use without any hassle?
Yes, I can confirm that, and I can also assure my right hon. Friend that I was not heavy-hearted; I was simply keen to move on to the employee shareholder clause, and I was wondering how long I was going to be occupied in explaining how my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government had fulfilled his commitment last week to listen to the concerns expressed in this House and to come forward with what I suggest is a very reasonable compromise.
Let me now, finally, turn to the employee shareholder clause. It establishes a new employment status between employee and worker. The Government have always been clear that this measure is entirely voluntary, and that it is open to both individuals and companies to use it if they choose to do so. I emphasised that again in our debate a week ago. In response to concerns expressed by my right hon. Friend the Member for Hazel Grove (Andrew Stunell) and peers in the other place, last week I reassured both Houses about the wholly voluntary nature of this new status. I made a commitment that no one can be forced to apply for, or to accept, an employee shareholder job. I announced that the Government had revised and clarified the position for those claiming jobseeker’s allowance. The position now is that jobseekers cannot be compelled to apply for or accept an employee shareholder job if they do not consider it right for them.
The Minister has 977 people claiming jobseeker’s allowance in his constituency, and long-term unemployment is up by 10%. Can he confirm that employers in his constituency will be able to make job offers conditional on JSA recipients accepting employee shareholder status, thus giving up most of their fundamental employment rights at the same time? That is the point of departure for many people with the Minister on the issue of whether or not this is voluntary.
It is not only voluntary, but I made it clear to the House last week that jobseekers cannot be mandated to accept a job in those particular circumstances, and I cannot make it clearer than that.
In addition, I want to reassure the House that we will not allow individuals to use this employment status for tax avoidance. The Finance Bill includes several measures, such as excluding those who already own 25% of a company and connected persons from benefiting from the capital gains tax exemption.
The will of the elected House has now been expressed twice. However, the other place has again rejected this measure. After considering the concerns expressed by noble Lords, we have laid further amendments to ensure that individuals entering into this employment status fully understand the opportunities and risks involved. I will now set them out.
First, the company must give the individual a written statement of particulars, setting out the employment rights that are not associated with this status and detailing the rights attached to the shares. That will include whether the shares being provided as part of the employee shareholder status have any voting or dividend rights, whether there are rights to have the shares bought back or redeemed, and whether an individual may freely sell the shares to anyone, or if there are restrictions. This written statement is separate from that already required under the Employment Rights Act 1996, which sets out the terms and conditions of the job, and which the employee is entitled to receive within two months of starting work with the employer.
This employee shareholder statement of particulars must be provided in writing before the potential employee shareholder starts the job. It means that an individual can only become an employee shareholder if that has taken place and if the other criteria in the clause are met. The clause ensures that potential employee shareholders understand precisely what the new employment status involves.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way again, but I respectfully completely disagree with him. What guarantee is there that the prospective employee shareholders will even understand that statement? It will be explaining dividends, pre-emption rights and other technical and complex matters. What guarantee is there that they will understand the information in the statement, or know whether to seek further legal advice and have a proper discussion about these matters?
I do not think we would know in those circumstances whether that was the exact reason why somebody had not been offered the position, but what I did last week—and I hope my hon. Friend accepted this—was make it absolutely clear that nobody who had jobseeker status could be mandated to have to accept a job.
Our second amendment prevents an employee shareholder contract from taking legal effect until seven days have elapsed from when the offer is made to the individual. The amendment affords an individual a period to consider the risks and rewards of the contract. That removes any question that individuals might be pressurised into accepting a contract.
These amendments mean that an individual who has chosen to apply for, and has been offered, an employee shareholder job has both the information and the time they need to consider whether the job is right for them. Noble Lords, including my noble Friends Lord King and Lord Forsyth, also expressed a concern about the employee shareholder receiving independent advice. I want to reassure them and all noble Lords that the Government are taking that concern seriously and are reflecting on the remarks made in the other place yesterday evening.
This new status gives in particular young and new companies a fresh option that they may use to attract high-calibre employees who can share in the growth potential of the company, and I urge the House to support these amendments.
I shall start with the issues that the Minister raised on permitted development. We welcome the Government’s change of heart. This is a victory not just for Opposition Members but for Members who are sitting behind the Secretary of State who have helped us to protect the gardens of England from inappropriate developments. [Interruption.] The Secretary of State laughs, but he was dragged kicking and screaming to table the amendments.
I still find it puzzling that the honeyed words from the Secretary of State last week were so mysterious and vague when the new arrangements unveiled look very much like the planning permission system. First, the house owner will have to provide plans and details to the planning department, including details of the materials to be used, just as happens now. Secondly, the planning department will have to notify neighbours, just as happens now. If there are objections, the planning authority will take the decision whether to grant planning permission, just as happens now. The only change is that in the absence of objections from the directly adjoining properties, the development will automatically go ahead, notwithstanding any objections from other affected neighbours, or from the council, or from the wider community—and, of course, the absence of the £172 planning fee.
I have a couple of questions for the Minister, which I hope he will answer if he has time to sum up, on how neighbours might be affected by the proposals. First, by limiting the possibility of objecting to an extension to those who share the immediate boundary with the property in question, the Government are taking rights away from other neighbours whose amenity or light may be affected. Remember that we are talking about extensions 26 feet long and 13 feet high, Mr Speaker—about the size of the Speaker’s Chair. Why are the Government not even giving those affected in that way the right to express a view that may be considered material by the planning committee? Secondly, what about neighbours who are away when an application is put in, and who come back 21 days later to discover that work has already started on a structure that will seriously affect their amenity and enjoyment of their back garden? Does the Minister not think that unfair?
The Minister decided to talk for some 15 minutes on permitted developments, on which the Opposition will not be objecting this afternoon, and very little time on shares for rights. I wonder why. Let me tell the House why I think he did so, because it is clear that the Government are in a total shambles with their ill-thought-out shares for rights proposals.
Let us remember the origins of the proposal, dreamt up by the Chancellor at Conservative party conference because he had absolutely nothing to say about the economy, growth or unemployment. He proclaimed, let us remember:
“Workers of the world unite.”
The Chancellor got his wish. The workers of the world did unite, along with businesses and organisations, to tell the Chancellor that his proposals were wrong. And it is not just the workers that have united, but his own Back Benchers and, of course, the noble Lords in the other place. The narrow 27 majority for the proposals last week in this place highlighted the extent of the discontent with the proposals in this House.
The Minister’s concessions on jobseeker’s allowance claimants not being forced to take up the shares for rights proposals were welcome, but if the proposals were truly voluntary in the first instance, it cannot be seen as a concession at all. The question that the Minister just avoided, from my hon. Friend the shadow Business Secretary, is whether an employer can make agreement to such a deal a condition of anyone, let alone a jobseeker’s allowance claimant, taking up a job. He refused to answer that question; perhaps, in his summing-up, he may be able to take that on.
What did the concession manage to achieve in the other place last night? Let us see. An increase in the majority against the proposals in the other place last night from 54 to 69—a triumph for the Minister, and it emphasised that Lord Forsyth was correct when he said that the policy
“has all the trappings of something that was thought up by someone in the bath”.—[Official Report, House of Lords, 20 March 2013; Vol. 744, c. 614.]
I disagree with Lord Forsyth on that. I think it was thought up by someone in the bar, and not at the start of the evening but close to closing time. In fact, if we analyse the figures from last night, we see that Cross Benchers voted 59 to 1 against the proposals, as well as the former Liberal Democrat leaders Ashdown and Steel—and this current Lib Dem leader wants them and so does the Business Secretary. Will the public not ask why?
Yesterday, the Lords sent a powerful message to this House that the Government are wrong on shares for rights. Their message, for the second time, is loud and clear: “Dump this awful policy now.” Or will the Treasury not allow the Minister to dump the policy? The results of the vote give the Minister the out he was looking for. We know that the BIS Department is not keen on the proposals, we know that the Minister is not an enthusiastic supporter and we certainly know that the businesses of this country do not want it, following a consultation exercise.
Let us examine what some of the noble Lords said in the other place yesterday. Lord King said,
“I am not the only Member”
of this House
“who feels some embarrassment at finding ourselves in this situation.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 22 April 2013; Vol. 744, c. 1267.]
Baroness Wheatcroft shared Lord King’s embarrassment when she said:
“My Lords, my noble friend Lord King mentioned a degree of embarrassment at finding himself in this situation, which I certainly share.”
She went on to say that the Financial Times,
“that great bastion of employee rights, ran a leader the day after the last debate in this House in which it said that this legislation contained,
‘little to like and a lot to fear’.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 22 April 2013; Vol. 744, c. 1269.]
That was not all in the other place last night. Lord Deben, on shares for rights, said:
“Frankly, it does not matter much what we decide on this because I do not think anyone is going to take it up and I do not think it is going to happen.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 22 April 2013; Vol. 744, c. 1262.]
Baroness Warnock, a Cross Bencher, said in the other place yesterday that she discussed the proposals with Charlie Mayfield, the chairman of the John Lewis Partnership and said:
“He was consulted about this proposal and simply regarded it as laughable.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 22 April 2013; Vol. 744, c. 1261.]
The chairman of the John Lewis Partnership, the bastion of employee ownership in this country with its much-lauded model, is saying that the proposals are laughable. So the noble Lords have spoken.
Let me emphasise what Lord Forsyth said in the other place. He talked about the £1 billion loss to the Treasury in tax. This is the Chancellor’s pet project that loses the Treasury £1 billion and does absolutely nothing for growth. The Bill is supposed to be a growth Bill; it is nothing like it.
I am delighted to receive the intervention, because it is the Treasury that says that £1 billion will be lost and Lord Deben, a Member with whom the right hon. Gentleman probably shared time in government, who said that perhaps no one will take this up. So it is not we who are saying it but Conservative peers in the other place and the Treasury’s own assessment of what will be lost. Whether someone takes it up or not, the Treasury is saying that there will be £1 billion of lost taxation. Perhaps Ministers in this House might want to go and chat to some of their colleagues in the other place and decide what they are going to do with it.
Critically, there was a hint in the Lords that some kind of deal had been done between the Business Secretary, who incidentally has said nothing on these proposals, and the Treasury. Can the Minister tell the House what that deal is? The public deserve to know what deal has been done between the two senior Government Secretaries of State to push the proposals through. I will take an intervention from the Minister now if he wishes to tell the country what that deal is, but I suspect he will not take up that opportunity.
Let me highlight another comment from the other place last night. The shadow Minister, Lord Adonis, who took the report through the other place yesterday, said:
“Where does this report come from? We all know: it is on the rebound from the Beecroft proposal to do away with certain employment rights in respect of unfair dismissal and instead to substitute a single payment that would have resulted from it. The Business Secretary was not prepared to go along with that. Then, as we have heard from various parts of the House”—
including from the Government side of the House last night in the other place—
“some kind of deal was apparently done between the Chancellor and the Business Secretary to resurrect a version of the Beecroft proposal in return for shares.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 22 April 2013; Vol. 744, c. 1271.]
The House needs to know, before the legislation is passed, what that deal was.
Lord Forsyth emphasised it when he said:
“the Government seem determined just to railroad this through and not deal with the arguments.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 22 April 2013; Vol. 744, c. 1258.]
Those arguments are not diminished by the amendments that the Government tabled this morning—amendments that were only confirmed at 11.27 this morning. They are scurrying around, trying to find solutions, when the best solution is to consign the policy to the dustbin.
Under the scheme, which creates a third type of employment status, as the Minister mentioned, employers may award employees at least £2,000 in shares in exchange for the employee’s giving up a bundle of employment rights, including ordinary unfair dismissal, the right to a statutory redundancy payment, the right to request flexible working, and the right to training. The Government are determined to pursue the scheme, but the list of concessions that they have produced today, and which they hope will get it through the Lords, is completely inadequate and does not address the fundamental issues of the giving up of employee rights for a few worthless shares.
There were many interventions in the House last week. The Opposition wholeheartedly support employee ownership, but there does not have to be a link between employee ownership and giving up one’s employment rights. Many Government Back Benchers who are in their place this afternoon made the point about how wonderful employee ownership was, but the fundamental point is that employee ownership does not have to be increased by giving up fundamental rights at work.
Let me go through some of the concessions that have been presented to the House today. First, there is a provision that the employee cannot accept the offer within seven days of it being made. How that would work in practice is completely unclear. An employer remains free to refuse to offer the job to a prospective employee who does not want to take up employee shareholder status. That is a critical point about whether it is voluntary. With the employment market as depressed as it is, why would an employee want to turn this down? People are desperate to get back into work. That is why the proposal cannot be seen as voluntary. Why would an employer not just say that this has to be accepted or the job offer will be withdrawn? Perhaps the job will be offered to a number of candidates, and the candidate who accepts the shares for rights proposal will ultimately get it.
May I challenge the hon. Gentleman to think about his premise? He said earlier that these are worthless shares. I do not think that any business or entrepreneur in the country who takes such a risk would believe that shares are worthless. That is the big difference on the Government Benches. Does he agree that the fact that the Opposition think the value of the shares is zero colours their judgment of how an employee who wants to take a risk and an opportunity would see great value in having a stake in a business?
There is a misconception among Government Members that no Opposition Member has run their own business. Well, I have run several businesses before I came into the House. At the start, of course the value of shares was high, because we were investing in the businesses, but that is not always the case. Ultimately, when businesses shed staff or employees have to leave, shares will be worth less. That is a fundamental principle of business. When I come on to the concessions that the Government have put together, it will be seen that that is absolutely right.
The hon. Gentleman is talking about the end of a business. When one starts a business—as I am sure he has done, given what he just said—it is to achieve success and growth. That is when the shares offer their greatest opportunity. They will be offered for no cash in return for a stake and the potential of profit later, with a tax-free advantage. It really is a win-win.
I have a lot of respect for the hon. Gentleman, who undoubtedly has a lot of business experience, but he clearly has not read the legislation or understood what it is trying to achieve here. He is right that when the shares are being given out, they will have a high value. But at the very time that employees need to cash in those shares because, for example, they have given up the right to redundancy, their value will be lower than when they were first given, or they will be worthless. The residual value of the shares will be far lower when an employee is effectively being sacked than it was when the employee was being taken on. That is why some of the concessions have been made.
Let me come to the written statement that the Minister has suggested to set out the details of the shares being offered, including whether they are voting or non-voting shares, whether they carry a dividend, whether they carry a right to a share in a company’s assets if it is wound up, whether pre-emption rights are excluded, and details of drag-along and tag-along rights. Most employees will not understand the implications of this information, and there is nothing to prevent employers from issuing pages of gobbledygook about the shares that buries the information somewhere within.
I am struck by the provision about winding up, which is specifically mentioned in the concessions. Surely this is the crux of the matter. [Interruption.] Members are chuntering away, but if they wish to intervene, they may do so. How can it be right to give up the right to a redundancy payment at the same time as the shares may not be worth anything at winding up. The term “winding up” is used in the Government’s amendment to the proposals. Shareholders tend to get nothing in the winding up of any business after the creditors are taken into account. Why would any employee want to do this? We end up with a situation where, at a time when an employee would want to cash in the shares, the company is in real financial trouble and the shares are worth far less than the initial value or nothing at all.
That might be the case, but one does not have to give up one’s fundamental worker’s rights to take the risk in shares in businesses. Many employees take shares in businesses, but they do not give up the rights to redundancy, to request flexible working, to training and to unfair dismissal and maternity rights. Last week, the hon. Gentleman made an impassioned speech about his running of businesses and the fact that his employees are always at the forefront of his mind. The vast majority of those in this country who start a business have employees at the forefront of their minds. But relationships do break down and businesses do run into trouble. I agree with him to a certain extent, but missing from the jigsaw is the fact that fundamental rights at work still have to be given up in order to take on those shares. He fails to recognise that that is part of the overall equation.
Let us examine the issue of tax avoidance that my hon. Friend the shadow Business Secretary mentioned in the House last week. The Treasury says—it is a Treasury document—that this will cost £1 billion, but the true cost may be more than that, as my hon. Friend said. As the Treasury’s December 2012 policy costing document says,
“It is hard to predict how quickly the increased scope for tax planning will be exploited.”
Let me examine this:
“increased scope for tax planning will be exploited.”
That sounds to me like tax avoidance and it was picked up by Paul Johnson, the director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, who said:
“just as government ministers are falling over themselves to condemn such behaviour”—
“that same government is trumpeting a new tax policy that looks like it will foster a whole new avoidance industry.”
The Treasury document, by using the terminology
“increased scope for tax planning will be exploited”,
emphasises what Paul Johnson has said.
Is not the value of shares very much up to those who control the shares? The value can be controlled by the majority shareholders, who often are directors of the company and can devalue a company at a moment’s notice by transferring assets out of the business into another company that they can set up.
The hon. Gentleman makes a valuable point. He voted with the Opposition last week, on which he should be commended. The other issue around the concept of dilution of shares is that when new investment comes into a business, shares can be diluted. There is no provision for employees who are shareholders to be informed of that. Assets can be transferred out of businesses and there is nothing to stop employers, when they wish to make large scale redundancies of employee owners in the business, diluting the shares before they do so.
We are back to the same point from the hon. Gentleman. He still refuses to recognise the equation here. That may all be correct, but at the same time fundamental rights still have to be given up. Indeed, those safeguards in the 2006 Act have been wrapped around by many companies in terms of the dilution of share ownership.
I am interested in the hon. Gentleman’s attack on the idea of some tax privilege in the scheme. I imagine that he is a member of the House of Commons pension scheme, and there is tax relief on all contributions that he makes into the scheme, and full tax relief on gains and income in the fund. That seems perfectly reasonable. How does that differ from the tax advantages of this scheme?
Being a member of the House of Commons pension scheme does not mean that I give up my rights at work. The equation is not there. I am not even sure whether the right hon. Gentleman has spoken in favour of these proposals. Does he support them? I am not sure that he does.
It is a little disingenuous to ask a Member of the House who is at the Dispatch Box whether he practises tax avoidance. That is stretching it a bit far. I am merely quoting from the Treasury’s 2012 policy document, which says that:
“It is hard to predict how quickly the increased scope for tax planning will be exploited”.
The Institute for Fiscal Studies says that there will be a whole new avoidance industry in terms of the capital gains tax on these shares, and in terms of PAYE and national insurance. If Government Members do not believe me, they can listen to what Lord Forsyth—as a Scottish Member of Parliament, I never thought that I would agree so much with him—said last night in the other place:
“I remain concerned as to whether the estimate made that this could result in more than £1 billion disappearing in tax-avoidance schemes is correct. It is not clear to me whether the Treasury has found ways of ring-fencing this scheme, which provides for up to £50,000 of capital gains tax to be relieved, and whether this could not be used as a great tax-avoidance scheme.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 22 April 2013; Vol. 744, c. 1257.]
Finally, there is the new Tory tax bombshell. We all remember that phrase because the Liberal Democrats used it at the last general election to describe the proposed increase in VAT, before voting with their Conservative colleagues to increase it to 20%. In the Budget—this is another concession—the Chancellor announced that the first £2,000 of shares will be PAYE and national insurance-free, but what about values above that? We could have a situation in which new employee shareholders give up their employment rights in return for valueless shares that incur PAYE and national insurance at the point of issue. That would mean that an employee on the basic rate of PAYE and national insurance would have to pay several hundred pounds on the issue of the shares in their first pay. It could cost the employee money.
What are the Government trying to achieve in that measure? Is it that employees will give up their right to protection against unfair dismissal so that they can be given some shares that their employer will tell them are worth a certain value, but they have no idea whether that is right? When they get the shares, will they have to pay tax and national insurance on them if their value is more than £2,000? Then, at the end, employers, if they decide to sack them, can take the shares back at a valuation that might be less. It does not seem to be a scheme that will set the nation alight with people wishing to participate in it.
The proposal is worse than Beecroft and goes to the heart of what this ideologically driven Government are all about. They have no economic strategy, no plan other than austerity and unemployment, and the Minister thinks that the holy grail of economic growth is to make it easier to fire rather than hire. It smacks of a Chancellor who is out of ideas and out of touch. I urge the Minister and Government Members to do the right thing: agree with the Lords and dump this policy.
I wish to speak to amendment 7B. I am delighted that the concerns about neighbour notification and the involvement of local people in decision making have been listened to. That was crucial for many Members of this House. However, I would still like to tease out answers on some of my concerns about amendment 7B.
St Albans, according to the Department for Communities and Local Government’s own figures, handles twice the number of planning applications as a normal planning authority. We are surrounded by green belt, thankfully, but are under direct pressure from many developments, including domestic developments. The fees collected do not cover the planning applications already being made, so we run a subsidy to the planning operations of St Albans district council.
I suggest that the fees for applications are quite modest. They form a very small part of a whole development. For example, they do not include architect fees, which can be substantial, or any of the other land searches that might be needed, for instance when tree protection orders are in place on a site. I do not believe that the fees are what deter people from making applications for a housing development, perhaps for a growing family. What I am concerned about is that we will now have what I call “planning-lite.”
The original amendment in the Lords, which was defeated there, suggested not involving planning officers, neighbour notification or any other work for the council whatsoever. The new amendment, which I welcome as an improvement on the old one, would bring the planning system into the permitted development rights decision-making process and, as a result, mean direct costs for many councils, particularly those, such as mine, that have a significant number of planning applications. I cannot see the savings. I would love to see some sort of spreadsheet showing how that cannot be a burden on the council, as it means taking those applications, because they are above the original permitted development rights figures, out of the current planning system, in which a fee is paid for examination and registration for neighbour notifications and perhaps even a site visit, and moving them so that the officer still does the same work but does not get any of the fee. I urge the Minister to monitor that situation, because in a heavily utilised planning department, such as the one in St Albans, I believe that this will have a negative impact on the council.
I am also concerned that we are effectively introducing a third planning system and that there might be pressure on neighbours not to object or to trigger the process. I can envisage developers going around and reassuring neighbours that a development will not be a problem, and the neighbours might feel reassured, but is money to be put into enforcement if the neighbours, when they see the edifice going up, are unhappy because what was described to them is not what is being delivered on their doorstep?
Those are details, but having served as chair of a planning committee and, like other Members, having a postbag filled with planning issues, I know that they are important details to reassure not only hon. Members in the House, but those of us who will face neighbours who say that they were not really aware what they could object to and that a developer had assured them that they had the permitted development rights. We will not be party to those conversations.
I do share that concern. Obviously, the detail is still very light. For example, will the plans be available on websites? Since councillors do not seem to be involved in the system, someone could potentially go around and advise someone who is not as savvy as hon. Members are on the implications of a structure for them in order to form an objection. There is a very active civic society in St Albans that takes a keen interest in planning. I am disappointed that no one other than an immediate neighbour can form an objection. The people who run the Watercress Wildlife Association in St Albans, for example, take a keen interest in the water run-off from further uphill. Will we have a domino effect of several applications on large permitted development rights that eventually start creating soggy gardens further downhill?
I know that that is all detail and that this is a short debate, and I do not wish to tire the House, but my main concern, if we are to move to the new “planning-lite”, is that we seem to have given additional responsibilities to councils but no additional resources. I urge the Minister to listen to the words of councils, which already feel that they subsidise the planning system. We also do not know whether there will be non-determination periods. I have no idea whether the permitted development right period of determination would be similar. What council would prioritise a determination that has no fees associated with it over a determination that has a determination period and a fee associated with it? Will we have two categories of decision making? That all needs to be teased out, and I look forward to the Minister giving guidelines that ensure that councils are consistent in their approach to those decisions and that it is not simply a question of whether someone happens to have a vocal neighbour who is savvy enough to interpret plans and make objections in the interests of the whole community rather than just in self-interest.