House of Commons
Monday 3 June 2013
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
Communities and Local Government
The Secretary of State was asked—
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State apologises for his absence today; he is at an important trade mission in India. However, his thoughts and those of the whole House will be with the family and friends of Drummer Lee Rigby.
Local authorities have powers under planning, environmental and local government legislation to intervene to bring derelict buildings back into use. Our best practice guidance sets out those powers, and we believe that local authorities should use them proactively.
Will the Minister join me in urging councils to use their full powers, especially section 215 notices, to tackle the problem of derelict buildings, given that many of them are not currently doing so? Will he also publish a full list of English councils showing their use of section 215 notices over the past three years?
I congratulate my hon. Friend on the work he is doing to encourage councils to do more to tackle the blight caused by derelict and empty buildings in town centres such as Wisbech in his constituency. As I said, we have published the best practice guidance relating to section 215 notices, and we will certainly do more, if we can, to encourage councils to use those powers. I will also look at his suggestion.
2. What assessment he has made of the effect of the introduction of the flexible use class of planning permission on the high street. (157159)
The rise of internet shopping and the changes in people’s working patterns pose immense challenges to the traditional high streets. Our recent relaxation of use class restrictions will support innovation and promote imaginative new uses for existing buildings.
We have been working hard in my constituency to improve our town centres by knocking down derelict buildings, encouraging more civic events and attracting new businesses, but we need more powers and tools at our disposal, not fewer. These changes will make it easier for clusters of businesses such as betting shops and payday lenders to open. Why are the Government ignoring public opinion and not allowing local communities to have the powers they need to shape the decisions that affect their local high streets?
First, the relaxation relates to temporary use for only two years, so it is more about innovative models of business than about established businesses that would have substantial start-up costs. Secondly, local authorities already have powers, known as article 4 directions, to set aside any permitted development that they think inappropriate for a particular part of their area, and I encourage them to use them.
High street businesses rely on footfall; indeed, that is their lifeblood. Does my hon. Friend believe that his planning reforms will give sufficient help to the high street businesses in my constituency to increase their foot traffic and ensure that they thrive?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We in this House and the people in the town halls cannot entirely predict what will work in the different town centres of the land. The best way to do this is to make it easy for new businesses to set up and pull in the people who will then benefit the existing businesses in our town centres.
Given what the Minister has just said, will he explain why he has taken away from local councils and local communities the power to shape their high streets? Who does he think will benefit from the deregulation of use classes?
Labour through the ages—including, indeed, the father of the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn)—famously believed that the Government could run the economy and decide how we should be competitive. Government Members believe that it is business and entrepreneurs who can decide how best to achieve thriving high streets and town centres, which is why we are determined to make life easier for them, as Mary Portas recommended in her review.
I am not sure the Minister answered my question, so I will answer it for him. The people who are likely to benefit are payday loan companies, whose presence on our high streets has already increased by about 20% in the past year. Why does he think that those companies need a further helping hand, rather than our communities who are crying out for the powers to diversify their high streets according to local needs determined by them?
It is classic, is it not? “Determined by them” means determined by public servants and councillors, not by entrepreneurs and the people they want to attract as customers. There is still, as there has always been, an ability to suspend a permitted development that is not right for an area. That is why Barking and Dagenham council is consulting on an article 4 direction, which we welcome. That is exactly the right use of the law, which existed under the Government whom the hon. Lady supported.
Council Tax Benefit
The impact assessment for the Government’s policy framework for localising council tax support is available on the Department’s website, but it is very important to note that the design of local schemes, and the assessment of their impact, is the responsibility of the local authorities.
The changes to council tax benefit and the subsequent cuts have come in at the same time as the freezing of child benefit and working tax credit, the linking of benefits to CPI rather than RPI and, of course, the introduction of the bedroom tax. How can the Government justify this multiple attack on low-income working families on the same day as bringing in a tax cut for millionaires?
Unfortunately, we have to bear in mind the background to this, with spending on council tax benefit doubling under Labour and currently costing taxpayers £4 billion a year—around £180 per household. Welfare reform is vital to tackle the deficit left by the last Labour Government. Under the last Administration, more was being spent on this than on defence, education and health combined. That simply has to stop. The reforms we have put in place to localise council tax support give local authorities the power and the incentive to deliver local growth and get people back into work.
Does the Minister accept that many of the families who have to pay extra council tax are the very same families who have to pay the bedroom tax? Many of those families will simply not be able to meet the extra demands placed on them. Given the limits faced by local authorities on the amount of the discretionary housing benefit they can award, does the Minister accept that local authorities and housing associations will eventually be placed in the inevitable position of having to take enforcement action against families whose only crime is that they simply cannot afford to pay?
Actually, I do not accept that. With the greatest respect to the Chairman of the Select Committee on Communities and Local Government, I think that the important point of these changes is that they incentivise local authorities to see economic growth and get more people into work. It is against the local authorities’ interests to penalise people. They should be wanting people to get into work to drive economic growth. This change gives them the incentive to do that, and through the Localism Act 2011we have given them the freedom to do just that.
With £19.5 billion of public and private investment, our affordable homes programme is on track to deliver 170,000 new affordable homes by March 2015. In addition, the introduction of self-financing for local authority housing provides authorities with flexibility to increase supply.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer, but will he consider also instructing the Homes and Communities Agency to allow councils and registered social landlords to switch grant funding from sites where progress has been delayed to other sites where the prospect of an early start on the ground is better, so that we can have the social and council housing that we so desperately need?
I am sure my hon. Friend will welcome the funds made available for 717 new affordable homes in his area. I know he is concerned about the Trumpington Meadows development. The Homes and Communities Agency is in discussion with the developers and we entirely accept my hon. Friend’s suggestion that, in the appropriate circumstances, the HCA could transfer the funding to another developer in the nearby locality.
Stockport Homes is rated as one of the best housing organisations in the country, but it is not going to be allowed to bid for funds from the 2013-17 affordable homes guarantees programme, which I understand will be open only to those classified as being in the private sector, such as independent housing associations. This will adversely affect the building of badly needed affordable homes in Stockport. Will the Minister meet a delegation of all Stockport MPs so that we can discuss our concerns with him?
As a member of Kettering borough council, may I share with the Minister the fact that the council has one of the best records in the whole of the east midlands on the delivery of affordable housing? For seven of the last eight years, it has provided an additional 100 affordable homes a year, and in three of those years, a level twice that.
I am delighted to congratulate people in Kettering and the neighbouring area on that. I hope that the new homes bonus is providing an additional incentive, and we have of course recently brought on stream the £10 billion loan guarantee scheme, which will help to provide funding for further such homes.
The all-party Treasury Select Committee, the Governor of the Bank of England and the International Monetary Fund have all expressed concern that the Government’s policies will not build the homes our country needs. With the comprehensive spending review but three weeks away, the shadow Chancellor persuasively argued this morning that the Government should reject the economic illiteracy of austerity, which is pushing up the costs of failure through additional borrowing and soaring housing benefit bills. Does the Housing Minister agree that the time has come to invest in badly needed social and affordable homes to rent or buy, creating jobs and apprenticeships, bringing down the costs of failure and getting our economy moving?
I think that the whole House will have been somewhat amused by the cheek of the hon. Gentleman, given that under his party’s Administration we saw a reduction of 421,000 in the number of affordable homes. This Government have introduced measures to reverse that trend, and we hope to announce further measures in the near future.
Fire and Rescue Services
The hon. Gentleman may have not realised, or may have forgotten, that the last Government’s Fire and Rescue Services Act 2004 allowed external organisations to become involved in the provision of fire services. For my own part, I am helping fire and rescue authorities to explore the best way of delivering their services to meet the needs of their communities.
What the Minister said in his letter to the Regulatory Reform Committee rather conflicts with the answer he has just given. The fact is that, as part of his drive to make further savings, he wants to remove—as he said in his letter—the legal obstacles to the privatisation of the emergency fire services. Given that West Midlands fire service is already two years into a programme to cut its budget by nearly a quarter, and has lost nearly 10% of its firefighters, my constituents will regard with alarm—
If the hon. Gentleman looks at the Hansard reports of what has been said over the last few months, he will see that I have made clear on more than one occasion that we will not privatise the fire service, notwithstanding the scaremongering of members of his party. He should also note—if he is not already aware of it—that West Midlands fire service is currently advertising for firefighters.
Does my hon. Friend agree that, rather than carping at chimeras and imagined proposals for privatisation, Opposition Members might do better to study seriously a report by Sir Ken Knight—arguably the most distinguished and experienced operational commander of his generation—which sets out serious and important proposals for efficiencies in the organisation?
It is somewhat surprising—although I suppose that it ought not to be—that the Opposition seem to have wanted to create a campaign to prevent something that was never going to happen in the first place.
My hon. Friend is right about Sir Ken Knight’s report. It is very well written, and there is much in it for us to note. I look forward to the responses that we shall receive from the sector itself and from authorities more generally. We have already held a teleconference on the report, and I shall return to the subject more formally later in the year.
20. Given the Minister’s statement to the Communities and Local Government Committee on 15 May that Cleveland fire authority had decided not to proceed with mutualisation, will he confirm that documentation relating to that mutualisation will not be blocked by a section 35 exemption, but will be available to the public via freedom of information requests? (157179)
What I actually said was that the Government supported mutuals and co-operatives. What Cleveland fire authority does is a matter for the authority itself. I note that the Labour party does not support mutuals now, which is surprising given that a Labour authority wants to mutualise. I commend the authority for having looked at new ideas, but it really is for Cleveland fire authority to decide how it should proceed.
It seems from the Minister’s answers that either he is in denial or he does not understand the measures that he is seeking to introduce. As for the Ken Knight review, on page 74 he explicitly recommends privatisation. [Interruption.] I am afraid he does. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) ought to look at the report. [Interruption.] I have read it.
Will the Minister now concede that procurement law requires any fire and rescue authority that opts to mutualise its services to re-tender those services periodically and open them up to the private sector?
I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman was not here for the debate on Cleveland fire authority, when we said explicitly that we were not going to privatise the fire service. We cannot allow something to be introduced that would allow that. We have been categorical about that. To be clear, he should take care to read Sir Ken Knight’s review, which is superb and has given us a lot to discuss but does not make a single recommendation.
This Government believe our high streets need to adapt to changing consumer habits, especially online shopping. The Portas pilots are test-beds for developing new ideas. They are part of a comprehensive approach designed to strengthen local leadership, reform planning and parking policies, help small shops and boost local markets.
Ministers must acknowledge the huge discrepancy between the £20 million Ministers have spent on the Portas pilots and the fact that the Government have increased business rates for retailers by over £500 million in the past two years. With a recent survey showing that the UK has the highest business rates in the European Union, is it not time that the Government stopped treating the high street as a cash cow to milk to exhaustion?
Nothing has changed in rating policy. Ever since 1990, business rates have gone up by the retail prices index—it was the same under the Labour Government. It is right to say, however, that they are fixed overheads. That is why, unlike the Labour party, we have doubled the threshold for small business rate relief and taken a third of a million small businesses out of business rates altogether. I thought that the hon. Gentleman would welcome that.
I am a fan of Mary Portas and her recent TV programme showed that Mary and some traders have great vision. However, all too often, the local authority and some traders could not agree on how to proceed. Can we time-limit grants and, if they are not spent, transfer them to areas that will spend them quickly?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The key—it was referred to by the planning Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles)—is the strength of local civic and business leadership. That is what we are seeing in the pilots. On the grants, the key is ensuring that the money is spent wisely, not quickly, but I take the point about disputes that block activity on the ground.
I very much welcome the Minister’s strong support for the Portas principles and that of the planning Minister. Does he agree that one sure-fire way of wrecking high streets is to allow local authorities to allow out-of-town shopping centres?
The Government have protected pensioners from any change as they have fixed incomes and cannot reasonably be expected to go back to work. Pensioners who have saved and worked hard all their lives deserve dignity and security in retirement, and we are pleased to be able to introduce that protection and to freeze council tax.
Is not keeping council tax down the best help local authorities can give to pensioners? Does the Minister agree that freezing council tax, which some councils, including Kent, which I represent, have done in the past few years, is the best way to help people on fixed incomes?
My hon. Friend is right. Good councils such as Kent county council have worked hard to drive down their core costs while still investing in their communities and freezing council tax. That is good for all residents on all levels and I congratulate councils such as Kent on doing that.
Adult Social Care
In recognition of the pressure that local authorities face, we prioritised adult social care at the last spending review and provided an extra £7.2 billion to protect access to services that support vulnerable people. It is for local authorities to choose how best to use the available funding.
In asking my question, I should point out that I am a vice-president of the Local Government Association.
The LGA believes that local government is facing a financial black hole and that the Government’s severe cuts to local authority budgets are a false economy, as those unable to pay the escalating charges for social care are more likely down the line to require costly hospital or residential care. Before making cuts to local government budgets, did the Secretary of State have any meaningful discussion with the Secretary of State for Health on the potential implications for health service budgets?
There are constant discussions between the Secretary of State and his colleagues in the Department of Health. As a result of those discussions, we have now not only introduced the £7.2 billion, but are encouraging much closer working between health and social care and are putting in an additional £300 million over two years to facilitate that joint working.
I am also a vice-president of the LGA.
Given the pressures that we know are falling very heavily on our councils, particularly along the south coast, what plans does the Minister have to showcase best practice as councils begin to bring health and social care funding together, particularly in terms of early cost-effective interventions?
My hon. Friend raises a very important point. Many local councils are now working much more closely and effectively with the health services in their area. They are providing greater focus on preventive care and a joined-up approach to the commissioning and delivery of services. Colleagues in my Department and the Department of Health will be working closely to make sure we promote the sorts of successes we are seeing around the country.
19. Councils across the country are facing budget cuts of 28%, and my council in Oldham is facing a cut of up to 50%. The impact on social care budgets is devastating, as one quarter of local authority budgets are made up of adult social care. The King’s Fund has said that the amount of money the Government have found for social care is absolutely inadequate. On that basis, will the Government support Labour’s call to use £1.2 billion of the NHS under- spend to invest in social care, and make sure that the people who need care are getting it? (157178)
What we are doing is looking at the great success of those local authorities that are coming together to work more effectively to drive down costs. There are very good examples, including west Cheshire, where integrated health and adult care could save £26 million over a five-year period. This integration is delivering better quality care at lower cost.
Local Authority Budgets
With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to take Questions 10 and 22 together. We have published—
Of course, and apologies, Mr Speaker.
We have published “50 ways to save”, a practical guide to councils on how they can make the most of their budgets through saving money—making sure the pennies get taken care of, so the pounds do as well. We have also developed the transformational challenge award to encourage councils that are looking innovatively at how they can work together, such as St Edmundsbury borough council, which I visited this morning and is saving almost £1 million a year through shared management with its neighbours.
The people of Wirral have had many words to say about the level of cuts to our local authority budget that we have had to face, but “sensible” has not been one of them. May I therefore ask the Minister what conversations he has had with Treasury Ministers about the forthcoming spending review, and what he is going to do to help out areas such as Wirral and the Liverpool city region that took very serious cuts last time?
We will have the spending review in just a few weeks’ time, of course, but the hon. Lady needs to look at the starting point as well and understand that the amount of money spent per household in Liverpool was among the highest in the country. All authorities, however, should be making sure that they have got the right management cost structures and are spending money on front-line services, not back-office costs.
22. In this year’s budget Medway council is using half of its unallocated reserves for a new development fund to support future regeneration. What are the Government doing to encourage local authorities to use their reserves to support local communities? (157182)
My hon. Friend makes a good point. Authorities that are looking carefully at what to do with their reserves are doing the right thing. It is right that they should keep reasonable reserves, but they should not be at too high a level, as they are there to be used. It is absolutely right that authorities look at using their reserves to invest in their communities, to the benefit of their communities both now and in the future.
Since we reinvigorated the right to buy last year, sales have more than doubled, to the highest level in six years. We believe it is vital to ensure that all eligible tenants know exactly how to exercise their right, which is why this month we are writing directly to more than 500,000 households right across England, including in the metropolitan city of Leeds.
Enabling families on the estate I grew up on to be the first generation to own their own home really did open up social mobility. Does my hon. Friend share my concern that certain councils have refused to promote the new right-to-buy scheme to their tenants? Does he think that has something to do with the fact that those councils are run by parties that are against home ownership as an aspiration?
My hon. Friend puts his finger exactly on the point: some Labour councils and, indeed, some trade unions, which, as we know, bankroll the Labour party, are bitterly opposed to the idea that people should be able to buy their own home. I can tell him that this Government are determined to ensure that eligible tenants who want to exercise their right to buy will be able to do so, and never mind the politics on the other side of the House.
The Government said that the proceeds of these right-to-buy sales will be used to build new affordable homes, but the problem surely is that these are not going to be affordable homes and one direct consequence will be a big increase in the housing benefit bill if any houses actually get built for that kind of rent.
I am sorry to disappoint the hon. Lady, but some 844 dwellings have started or been acquired already, and those are affordable homes to rent. So she is wrong on the facts and the Opposition are wrong on their ideology against the principle that people should have the right to buy their own home.
The right to buy is a very important policy that can hugely enhance social mobility but, unfortunately, in some areas of the country that went through stock transfer early it does not reach our constituents and benefit them. May I encourage the Minister to examine ways of improving the right to purchase and the discounts available under the scheme, and to work more closely with registered social landlords to make sure that my constituents can also benefit?
The rise in online shopping means that high streets must change if they are to compete. The Government are actively helping high streets to adapt, but we need councils, landlords and businesses to play their part. That is why we have established the joint future high streets forum so that, together, we can better understand this complex challenge and so reinvigorate our town centres.
Chester is bidding to be the city of culture 2017, and we are using our bid to encourage people to use our culture, heritage and festivals, and thus breathe life back into the high street. Does my hon. Friend agree that making shopping an enjoyable experience that is also informative and entertaining is one way of encouraging shoppers back to the high street?
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend, who points out that town centres have to adapt so that they are about not just shopping, but hospitality and culture. It is terribly important to get that balance right. I wish to put on the record my encouragement for Chester’s bid to be city of culture, for I know the support he is giving to it.
Amid the adverse effects of e-commerce, one positive recent trend has been the growth of click and collect, with Royal Mail now having announced its own version. What can be done to encourage such schemes and bring a bit of footfall back to the high street?
Again, my hon. Friend is right in what he says. We must be careful about assuming that online retailing is wholly negative for town centres, as it can be a great opportunity. That is why we have asked the Post Office to be part of the future high streets forum; it has a tremendous retailing network and we want to tap into that expertise.
Land and Building Reuse
We are investing £235 million to bring back more than 15,000 empty properties into residential use and we have made it easier to convert empty offices into homes. As a result of those and other measures, there are over 40,000 fewer long-term empty homes than there were when the coalition Government formed.
I thank the Minister for that answer. A small number of commercial buildings in the town centres of Selby and Tadcaster have been unoccupied for several years. What are the Government doing to help the local residents and councils to bring those buildings back into use?
I am grateful for the work that my hon. Friend is doing to encourage bringing empty properties back into use. I am sure that he will be delighted with the changes to permitted development that we announced very recently. They will make it much easier for what he wants to be achieved.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that those models are a good vehicle for achieving our objective in this area. We are doing all we can to encourage them, just as we are encouraging other voluntary organisations to become actively involved in the programme that we have introduced.
Residents in Pool in Wharfedale, Yeadon, Otley and Adel are dismayed at proposals to build on green-belt land introduced by Leeds city council. Considering the number of brownfield sites and empty homes in the Leeds area, does the Minister understand that concern? Will he ensure that any housing plan from this Government will concentrate on houses to deal with the affordability crisis, not on expensive houses in greenfield areas?
The national planning policy framework makes it absolutely clear that brownfield sites, unless they are of exceptional environmental value, should be treated as a priority over greenfield sites, but, ultimately, it is for the local authority’s planning department to determine where those houses should go. We are certainly doing all we can to encourage the use of brownfield before greenfield.
On Friday, I met residents around the Barlow Fold site in Rossendale, which is a playing field given to local residents by the Barlow family for recreation. Can the Minister advise me what steps I can take to stop the borough council and Calico Homes acting in concert to develop that greenfield site, which is vital for the local community, when there are more than 30 brownfield sites in a similar area?
I encourage my hon. Friend to make use of the community rights that are available to ensure that that land has been registered as a community asset and encourage residents in the area to make use of the opportunities provided by the neighbourhood planning facilities that we have now made available.
The initial fixed term under an assured shorthold tenancy is usually six months, but there is nothing to stop a landlord and tenant agreeing to a longer tenancy if that suits them both. I am encouraged to see that Build to Rent investors are keen to promote longer tenancies.
In Brighton and Hove, we have an acute housing crisis with a private rented sector that is twice the national average at 21% and a generation of families living in uncertainty with short-term tenancies. Does the Minister agree that longer-term tenancies should be much more widely available and will he consider measures to incentivise landlords to offer longer-term tenancies through changes to capital gains tax and national insurance contributions, which have been proposed by a number of housing charities?
We are already considering the proposals the hon. Lady mentions. May I remind her that only 9% of tenancies are ended by the landlord, and that is usually because they want to live in the property or to sell it? The majority of landlords want to keep their tenants rather than face empty properties, but we need to get the balance right between the rights of landlords and those of tenants while maintaining the confidence of mortgage lenders.
Hackney has more people renting privately than owning homes, so this is a big issue. Mortgage lenders are one of the bars to tenants, so what is the Minister doing to discuss that issue with the Treasury and other interested Departments? I should draw Members’ attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
The hon. Lady is absolutely right to say that we need to increase the availability of privately rented accommodation and that is why the Government have introduced £1 billion of funding through various schemes to provide support for that. I suspect that further announcements will be made in a relatively short time.
Neighbourhood Planning Referendums
In all three referendums, residents have voted overwhelmingly in support of neighbourhood plans. More than 90% of voters said yes in Eden and Exeter St James and 76% in Thame.
I welcome the Government’s use of referendums in neighbourhood plans, which contrasts with the heavy-handed, top-down regional planning strategies of the last Government. Will the Minister confirm that my constituents in Adur, who face excessive house building on our diminishing green spaces—including, often, on floodplains between the downs and the sea—will be able to influence our draft local plan through the use of referendums, and that the planning inspector will be sympathetic to this manifestation of the localism promoted by the Government?
Yes. It does not really matter what state the local plan is in; it is always possible for communities to work on neighbourhood plans and we strongly encourage that. Whether the neighbourhood plan is made before or after the local plan, it simply has to be in conformity with the core needs identified in the local plan; it can move ahead independently of it.
First, I commend the right hon. Gentleman on his clear, common-sense leadership during the recent events in Woolwich.
The Government closely monitor the rate of house building. We are on target to deliver 170,000 affordable homes by 2015, and we completed 58,000 of them in 2011-12. We assess that to be one third higher than the annual average delivered in the 10 years leading up to the last election.
May I draw attention to my interests, and thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind remarks?
The National Audit Office, in a recent report, described the new homes bonus as not only badly modelled, but largely ineffective, yet it is hugely expensive, having already led the Government to commit more than £1 billion, with that commitment rising to over £3 billion in the short term. When will the Government reconsider this measure, which appears to have little or no effect and comes at vast cost?
I think that the right hon. Gentleman knows that the National Audit Office also said that it is too early, in the process of the programme, to tell whether there is an impact. He knows that well from his experience as a Minister. It made some suggestions on how the technical modelling could be improved, and we are always open to such suggestions. On the question of a review, it was always our intention, over the coming year, to look to review the programme, as we do all programmes. I remind him and the House that the programme has enabled councils to be rewarded for delivering in the region of 400,000 more homes.
In support of Government schemes to increase house building, what action is being taken to press Government Departments and public bodies in general to dispose of surplus sites and property? In my experience, the NHS is by far the worst offender.
The hon. Gentleman has been a powerful advocate for the hospital site in Colchester about which he and I had a meeting. We have been able to organise the disposal of land for some 33,000 homes. There is much more to do in the health service, across the defence estate, and elsewhere, but this is an important priority, and I understand the point that he raises.
21. Does the Housing Minister think that there is any connection between my Conservative council spending £860,000 last year on keeping 365 families in bed and breakfast, the fact that it sells off 10% of council homes that become vacant, and the fact that it has planning policies that forbid the construction of any additional social homes? (157180)
The hon. Gentleman is nothing if not parochial. He is one of those people, I am afraid, who cannot see the good side in any affordable housing programme. [Interruption.] I am well aware of his connections with Hammersmith and Fulham; we are constantly reminded of, and excited by, that prospect. We are delivering on the completion of 170,000 more affordable homes; the Labour Government presided over the loss of 421,000 homes.
May I invite my hon. Friend to take a joined-up, common-sense approach to the house building programme, and to invite water companies to be statutory consultees, so that they can assess the automatic right to connect for substantially new housing developments?
In his response to my right hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr Raynsford), the Minister challenged the NAO report. Is he going to do what the NAO report specifically requires, which is to publish urgently accurate ways in which he intends to conduct a review of whether the system works?
T1. If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities. (157183)
My Department has been making progress in accelerating housing supply, supporting local government and introducing new protections for tenants of mobile homes. A detailed written statement is being provided for the benefit of Members.
The whole House will have been shocked by the appalling murder of Drummer Lee Rigby and the impact that this will have had on his family and on the local community. The Prime Minister will shortly outline the Government’s further actions to tackle extremism, but the response to that attack has brought communities and the nation together. The public are firm in their support for the armed forces and we have seen British Muslims stand shoulder to shoulder with other faiths in their condemnation of this brutality. This Department and this Government will continue to challenge the politics of division, for we are stronger as a community and as a nation when we stand together.
I think the whole House will want to associate ourselves with the Minister’s comments.
However, the Minister’s response to my earlier question was disappointing. I am sure I am not alone in that view, and that millions of carers and people who need care will be disappointed. Given that the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services has said that the pressure on adult social care will get much worse with another £800 million being taken out of the system over the next 12 months, why are the Government so complacent, and why are they not prepared to commit to using the underspend from the NHS—£1.2 billion—to invest in social care? That is needed now.
With respect to the hon. Lady, we have, as part of the £7.2 billion funding for adult care services, transferred some £2 billion or more from the health service budget to make sure that that joined-up thinking takes place. When one looks at the evidence, it is clear that 78% of the savings made are not on front-line services, but are efficiency savings.
T3. The localism agenda is welcome, but what can my hon. Friend say to communities in my constituency, such as Collingtree, whose preference for the location of 1,000 new homes is being undermined, or Helmdon and Sulgrave, whose recent judicial review overturned a wind farm proposal, yet the developers are straight away having another go? (157185)
On wind farm developments, the Government will be making announcements shortly. On housing developments, the key is for every local community to produce a plan—either a local plan or, even better, a local plan and a neighbourhood plan. That is the way for local communities to get control over the developments that take place in their area.
May I join the Minister in condemning the cowardly killing of Drummer Lee Rigby, and express from the Opposition Benches our deep condolences to his family and his friends on their terrible loss? I echo the Minister’s remarks about my right hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr Raynsford). I am grateful to the Secretary of State for the phone conversation that we had the following day, and he and the Government have the full support of the Opposition for the efforts that he and all of us must make to counter the causes of that kind of hateful extremism. Will the Minister tell us what steps he and his colleagues in the Department now propose to take to do this?
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for those remarks. When people see the House of Commons in unity in this purpose, it is a very important signal that we can and should send. We, with the rest of Government, have been actively involved from the moment this dreadful news broke, looking specifically at local programmes and we will clearly be working with the new taskforce that the Prime Minister will comment on shortly. That will be not only about looking at radicalisation, but how we strengthen communities further. I cite to the right hon. Gentleman the excellent work of Show Racism the Red Card, which has helped some 9,000 young people learn why inclusiveness is crucial.
I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. Getting people to meet one another is the best way to counter extremism, but, as we know, some people have used this tragedy to try to stir up trouble, and we have seen a number of shameful attacks on mosques that have caused great fear in the Muslim community. This clearly must be one priority for the Government’s extremism taskforce that met for the first time this morning. Will the Minister tell us what specific action was proposed at that meeting to stop such attacks happening?
With respect to the right hon. Gentleman, it would be unwise of me to pre-empt the statement that the Prime Minister is about to make on behalf of the Government, but we are actively engaged in ensuring that communities—those of faith and those not of faith—come together in a range of different activities, so that we can make sure that we bring our communities locally, but also the country, together more closely.
T4. The Government are consulting on the draft environmental statement for HS2, a project that will adversely affect local communities along the proposed route. The Chilterns, a supposedly protected area of outstanding natural beauty, will be adversely affected, both in my constituency and, I believe, in yours, Mr Speaker. Will the Minister therefore outline his Secretary of State’s strategy for defending those communities and their local environment, and tell us what role he will play in the development of the environmental statement? (157186)
As I think my right hon. Friend will know, a consultation is in hand, and this is something that must be dealt with not only by a single Department but right across Whitehall. I would certainly welcome any local comments that she feels would add to that deliberation.
T5. Businesses, newspapers and all local authority leaders are joining forces to launch the NEvolution campaign in a bid to win greater financial freedoms to support the regional economy. In the absence of the Secretary of State, will his Ministers pledge their help and backing to this ground-breaking campaign? (157187)
It was interesting to hear what some of the local authority leaders had to say when I met them. It is great to see anything that is developing more local accountability and, therefore, driving local economic growth. We supported that through the Localism Act 2011 and the changes that we made this year in the business rates retention scheme.
T6. My hon. Friend may be aware that the urban planning design of Milton Keynes is being exported to China, which is looking to model two new cities on our successful design. Will he continue to work with UK Trade & Investment to help us to explore further export possibilities? (157188)
I think that we all want to applaud British design, particularly in the development of new towns and garden cities, especially the great city of Milton Keynes. This is something that we should take pride in, and I am sure that the good people of Milton Keynes will do so.
T7. The Minister may have read my Select Committee’s recent report on greater independence for local government. Ministers and politicians of all parties work hard to devolve power, yet the Whitehall culture always seems to suck power back into the centre. What does he propose to do about that as some good advice for future Governments? (157189)
We have had a number of conversations on the issue since the report, the launch of which I was pleased to attend. It contained many interesting points. A big issue is for local government itself to take advantage of the powers given by the Localism Act, particularly the general power of competence to drive the agenda locally. From the centre, we are working on the whole place community budgets and the new network to make sure that we get government working across the public sector, particularly driven by the local areas and by local people for local people.
T8. Following briefing that new legislation will require private landlords to check the immigration status of tenants, and a reported row between the Communities Secretary and the Prime Minister, in which the latter apparently turned puce, a Whitehall source said that the Government would just be targeting the regulation at high-risk areas. How would the Minister define a high-risk area of private renters? (157190)
I am sorry to disappoint the hon. Gentleman, but all that press speculation is nonsense. The Government are clear. We want to make sure, as good landlords already do, that no one is living in the private rented housing sector in this country illegally. We are going to put forward some straightforward but effective measures. We will of course consult on them, and they will build on the important work that we are doing already to crack down on the minority of rogue landlords who exploit the vulnerable through programmes such as beds in sheds.
Firefighters in Bradford on Avon and Chippenham now expect to work to the normal pension age of 60, but they are concerned that they may fail the VO2 max capability test before that time. Where that is the case, at what age will those firefighters be able to draw their pension?
T9. Do Ministers share my concern about the impact of welfare changes on housing associations? The Wythenshawe community housing group in my constituency estimates that rent arrears will go up by about £1 million this year following the introduction of the bedroom tax. Do Ministers agree that when universal credit comes in, any claimant already in rent arrears should have their housing costs paid directly and immediately to their landlord? (157191)
I do not share the right hon. Gentleman’s fears, but I am always happy to listen to individual circumstances such as the one he refers to. Where we are reducing the spare room subsidy, we are doing it for an important reason—there are currently 1 million spare bedrooms in this country, and we have a quarter of a million people living in overcrowded accommodation. It cannot be fair to allow that situation to persist.
The Planning Minister is aware of an unacceptable planning application in Micklethwaite, in my constituency, which has already been rejected by the local council, the planning inspector and the Secretary of State, but which through legal proceedings has gone back to the Secretary of State for redetermination. A decision was expected by now. Will the Minister tell us when we can expect that decision from the Secretary of State, and, even better, confirm that he will once again reject that unacceptable proposed development?
If a fire brigade is “spun out”, to use the Government’s terms, what procurement route could be taken to prevent tendering to the private sector within a three to nine-year window? If the Minister cannot say, why are he and the Government actively funding the process as a stepping stone from mutualisation to privatisation?
I can only repeat what I said earlier and what I said to the hon. Gentleman in the debate on the matter in the House. We will not allow any change that allows for privatisation of the fire service. I am disappointed that the Labour party seems to be working against the mutuals and co-operatives that the Labour-led Cleveland fire authority is putting forward.
Despite a 3.7% increase in Bury’s council tax, taxpayers were denied a referendum because of the small print in the rules governing when a referendum must be held. Will the Minister confirm that those rules will be looked at again to make them clearer, so that council tax payers know for certain when they will and will not be given a referendum?
We look forward to the Prime Minister’s statement on Woolwich, but when the extremism taskforce is put together, will the Minister look at the lessons learned from Bradford and west Yorkshire following the 7/7 bombings? I know he will be pleased that the whole Bradford community has condemned without fail what happened in Woolwich, and that is a great thing. Some great lessons were learned in Bradford and some great work was carried out, and perhaps we can share some of it with the new taskforce.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that we can always learn from problems that have occurred in the past. The Prime Minister’s statement will make clear the whole Government’s approach, but this Department is absolutely committed to ensuring that we have genuinely inclusive communities.
Will my hon. Friend look again at how inflated claims for compensation in the case of article 4 directions can deter their proper use by local authorities, as in the case of the Porcupine pub in Mottingham, in my constituency?
If the Government are serious about increasing housing supply, will they look again at lifting the current cap on council borrowing for house building, and at providing direct capital spending to allow councils to build a mass programme of affordable housing?
The Minister was right to remind the House that under the previous Government, house building dropped to its lowest level since the 1920s. Given that in Scandinavia, Germany, Austria and Belgium more than 50% of new homes are self-builds, what steps is the Minister taking to remove barriers to self-builders in this country?
One of this Government’s first acts was to get rid of proposals to have a register of private landlords. In many discussions I have had with residents—including at the Hackney housing summit that I hosted recently—it has become clear that there has been a real need to improve landlords, but without knowing who they are we cannot do that. Will the Minister look again at the issue? Again, I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
The simple answer is that no, we will not. The hon. Lady will be well aware that when her party proposed such a register, the impact assessment showed that it would cost £300 million a year, and that money would be put on to the rent of people seeking to live in those properties.
EU Council and Woolwich
With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on the recent European Council, and update the House on the dreadful events in Woolwich.
The European Council was called specifically to discuss energy policy and tax evasion. We also discussed the situation in Syria, prior to the lifting of the arms embargo that was agreed at the Foreign Affairs Council last week. On energy policy, we agreed to continue our efforts to complete the single market in energy, so that we drive competition between suppliers and force prices down. We also put down a marker to get rid of unnecessary regulation in making the most of indigenous resources such as shale gas. Europe has three quarters as much shale as the United States, yet while the Americans are drilling 10,000 wells a year, we in Europe are drilling fewer than 100. We must extract shale in a safe and sustainable manner, but we have to do more to ensure that old rules designed for different technologies do not hold us back today.
On tax, to crack down on tax evasion we need proper exchange of tax information, which in Europe has been stalled for decades because of the selfish actions of a minority of countries. I made tackling tax evasion a headline priority for our chairmanship of the G8, and that has enabled us to ramp up pressure and make real progress. At the European Council we agreed there should be a new international standard of automatic information exchange between tax authorities, and proper information on who really owns and controls each and every company.
In Syria, the situation continues to deteriorate. There is a humanitarian crisis, so Britain is leading the way with humanitarian support. We need diplomatic pressure to force all sides to come to the table, and in recent weeks I have held talks with Presidents Putin and Obama to try and help bring that about. We must be clear: unless we do more to support the official opposition, the humanitarian crisis will continue, the political transition that we want to see will not happen, and the extremists will continue to flourish. That is why I believe it is right to lift the EU arms embargo on the Syrian opposition. There must be a clear sense that Assad cannot fight his way to victory or use the talks to buy more time to slaughter Syrians in their own homes and on their streets.
I regret to say that the EU arms embargo served the extremists on both sides. It did not stop Assad massacring his people, it did not stop the Russians sending him arms, and it did not stop Islamist extremists getting their hands on weapons either. It just sent a signal that for all its words, the EU had no real ability to support the reasonable opposition that could be the basis of an inclusive transition. That is why the Foreign Secretary and the French Foreign Minister secured agreement to lift the arms embargo in Brussels last week.
I believe we should also be clear about the Syrian National Coalition. It has declared its support for democracy, human rights, and an inclusive future for all minorities, and we—not just in Britain but across the EU—have recognised it as a legitimate representative of the Syrian people. The EU has agreed a common framework for those who, in the future, may decide to supply it with military equipment, and there are clear safeguards to ensure that any such equipment would be supplied only for the protection of civilians, and in accordance with international law. That does not mean that we in the UK have made any decision to send arms, but we now have the flexibility to respond if the situation continues to deteriorate. With 80,000 killed, 5 million fled from their homes, rising extremism and major regional instability, those who argue for inaction must realise that it has its consequences too.
Let me turn to the dreadful events in Woolwich. I am sure the whole House will join me in sending our deepest condolences to the friends and family of Drummer Lee Rigby. What happened on the streets of Woolwich shocked and sickened us all. It was a despicable attack on a British soldier who stood for our country and our way of life, and it was a betrayal of Islam and of the Muslim communities who give so much to our country. There is nothing in Islam that justifies acts of terror, and I welcome the spontaneous condemnation of the attack from mosques and Muslim community organisations across our country. We will not be cowed by terror, and terrorists who seek to divide us will only make us stronger and more united in our resolve to defeat them.
Let me update the House on the latest developments in the investigation, on the role of the Intelligence and Security Committee, and on the next steps in our ongoing efforts to fight extremism in all its forms. While the criminal investigation is ongoing, there remains a limit on what I can say. Two men, Michael Adebowale and Michael Adebolajo, have been charged with the murder of Drummer Lee Rigby. Both are appearing in court today. There have been 10 further arrests as part of the ongoing investigation. Two women have been released without charge and eight men have been released on bail.
The police and security services will not rest until they have brought all those responsible to justice. I am sure the whole House will join me in paying tribute to the work of our police and security services for all they do to keep us safe from violent extremists. Already this year, there have been three major counter-terror trials, in which 18 people were found guilty and sentenced to a total of 150 years in prison. Much more of the work of our security services necessarily goes unreported. They are Britain’s silent heroes and heroines, and the whole country owes them an enormous debt of gratitude.
It is important that we learn the lessons of what happened in Woolwich. The Government strengthened the Intelligence and Security Committee and gave it additional powers to investigate the activities of the intelligence agencies. I have agreed with my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington (Sir Malcolm Rifkind) this morning that his Committee will investigate how the suspects were radicalised, what we knew about them, whether any more could have been done to stop them, and the lessons we must learn. The Committee hopes to conclude its work around the end of the year.
To tackle the threat of extremism, we must understand its root causes. Those who carried out this callous and abhorrent crime sought to justify their actions by an extremist ideology that perverts and warps Islam to create a culture of victimhood and justify violence. We must confront that ideology in all its forms. Since coming into government, we have ensured that the Prevent strategy focuses on all forms of extremism, and not just on violent extremism. We have closed down more websites and intervened to help many more people vulnerable to radicalisation.
Since 2011, the Home Secretary has excluded more preachers of hate from this country than ever before through our Prevent work. Some 5,700 items of terrorist material have been taken down from the internet, and almost 1,000 more items have been blocked where they are hosted overseas, but it is clear we need to do more. When young men born and bred in this country are radicalised and turned into killers, we must ask some tough questions about what is happening in our country. For some young people, it is as if there is a conveyor belt to radicalisation that has poisoned their minds with sick and perverted ideas.
We need to dismantle that process at every stage—in schools, colleges and universities, on the internet, in our prisons and wherever it takes place—so, this morning, I chaired the first meeting of the Government’s new taskforce on tackling extremism and radicalisation. I want the taskforce to ask serious questions on whether the rules on charities are too lax and whether they can allow extremists to prosper; whether we are doing enough to disrupt groups that incite hatred, violence or criminal damage; whether we are doing enough to deal with radicalisation on our university campuses, on the internet and in our prisons; whether we need to do more with informal education centres such as madrassahs to prevent radicalisation; and whether we do enough to help mosques to expel extremists and recruit imams who understand Britain. We will also look at new ways to support communities as they come together and take a united stand against all forms of extremism. Just as we will not stand for those who pervert Islam to preach extremism, neither will we stand for groups such as the English Defence League, which try to demonise Islam and stoke up anti-Muslim hatred by bringing disorder and violence to our towns and cities.
Let us be clear: the responsibility for this horrific murder lies with those who committed it. However, we should do all we can to tackle the poisonous ideology that is perverting young minds. This is not just a job for the security services and the police; it is work for us all. I commend this statement to the House.
I welcome the Prime Minister’s statement.
I want to start where he did: on the EU summit and its conclusions on tax avoidance. We need international agreement on transparency, transfer pricing, tax havens and other issues. We welcome the steps forward on transparency. Will he tell us whether he agrees that we need proposals for fundamental reform of the corporate tax system to prevent profits being artificially shifted from one country to another? Does he also agree that while seeking international agreement is undoubtedly the right way forward, measures, including measures on transparency, should still be introduced if international agreement is not reached? Will he confirm that Britain will act if we cannot obtain international consensus?
Let me turn to the devastating violence in Syria that continues unabated. I share and recognise the Prime Minister’s deep concern about what is happening. The number of Syrian refugees who have fled the conflict has now reached 1.5 million, half of them children. As so often happens, the most vulnerable are paying the price of war. This is a situation where there are no good options. The question is this: which is the least worst option?
Despite the enormous obstacles, we believe that a comprehensive peace deal still remains Syria’s best chance of ending the two years of violence; in particular, American and Russian efforts to bring Syria’s warring parties around the negotiating table this month in Geneva. The peace conference is due to take place in the coming weeks, but the Prime Minister did not refer to it in his statement. Will he explain why? The conference remains the best—indeed, at present, the only—immediate hope of limiting the violence and achieving an inclusive political settlement, so its success must not be put at risk. In light of that, will he explain his view of the risks that lifting the EU arms embargo may pose to the prospects for any peace talks?
The Prime Minister says that there are safeguards on the end-use of those weapons. Will he set out to the House what those safeguards are? However well motivated, is not the danger of this course of action that it will lead to further escalation, as has been illustrated by Russia’s response in recent days? The Prime Minister is of course right that the international community cannot continue to stand by while more innocent lives are lost, but in the action we take we must also agree that our primary aim must be to ensure a reduction in the violence. Finally, on using the flexibility of the lifted arms embargo, will he assure us that he will come back to the House before any decision is made by the British Government to arm the opposition in Syria?
Let me now join the Prime Minister in expressing our total revulsion at the vile murder of Drummer Lee Rigby. He served his country with the utmost bravery and was killed in an act of the utmost cowardice. All of our thoughts are with his family and friends. Our thoughts are also with our troops, who serve with incredible courage all around the world and have seen one of their own murdered. I also join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to our police and security services, who do such a vital job.
I would also like to join the Prime Minister in what he said in the days after the murder of Lee Rigby, singling out for special praise the members of the public, including Ingrid Loyau-Kennett, who intervened to try and protect Lee Rigby. They showed the true face of our country, as did the quiet determination of local leaders and residents in Woolwich, which the Prime Minister, Deputy Prime Minister and I have all seen for ourselves, not to allow their communities to be consumed by division and hate. As the Prime Minister said, in the past 10 days we have seen attempts by some to use this evil crime as justification to further their own hate-filled agenda and attempt to ignite violence by pitting community against community. They will fail because the British people know that this attack did not represent the true values of any community, including Muslim communities, who contribute so much to our country.
Governments must do three things after such an attack, and we will support the Government on all of them. First, they must bring the perpetrators to justice, which is why we welcome the swift court appearance of the suspects. Secondly, they must seek to bring people together in the face of attempts to divide us, and thirdly they must learn the lessons of the attack. We therefore welcome the ISC investigation and the taskforce on extremism, which I agree with the Prime Minister should look again at issues of radicalisation and helping communities to take a stand against extremism—issues covered in the original Prevent strategy. Will he confirm whether the taskforce will look into earlier intervention—in other words, not just on university campuses—to prevent young people from being radicalised and whether the taskforce will heed the calls from youth workers to look more carefully at the link between violent extremism and gang-related activity, which was something raised with us when we visited Woolwich last week?
In the light of recent events, will the Prime Minister update the House on his current view on the need for legislation on communications data? Whatever the origin and motive of terrorists, our response will be the same—the British people will never be intimidated. Across every faith and every community, every part of the country is united, not divided, in its abhorrence of the murder of Lee Rigby. We have seen people try to divide us with such acts before. They have failed, and they will always fail.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his comments about the dreadful events in Woolwich and for the strong cross-party support that he has given throughout this period.
The right hon. Gentleman asked about reform of corporate taxes. I agree that we need to take action. It is best if it can be international action, and we should use the G8 summit to drive the agenda, as we have already been doing in the EU, but of course we do not rule out taking action over and above what other countries have done. If possible, however, it is best to pursue it internationally.
On Syria, there is an honest disagreement between us. I agree completely with the right hon. Gentleman that there is no good option and that a negotiated settlement would be best—I have been doing what I can to help bring the parties to the table and look at all the ways we can make it work—but the question for us is this: how do we maximise the chances of a successful political transition and political process? Do we maximise those chances by allowing Assad to dominate militarily and showing that our words of support for the opposition are just that—words and no more? I do not think that that is the right approach, which is why the EU’s decision to lift the embargo—but only, of course, on the official Syrian opposition, not on the regime—is, I think, the right step.
The right hon. Gentleman asked about the Russian response. We should not, for a minute, be naive about the Russian position on Syria; it has been consistent for a very long time: it has always supplied, and continues to supply, arms to Syria. As far as I can see, that has not changed at any point in this process. Finally, he asked whether we would come back to the House. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary regularly updates the House on this matter, and will continue to do so.
On Syria, I would add one final point. Those who argue against amending the arms embargo and doing more to support the opposition are making some of the same arguments used in the Bosnian conflict 20 years ago. We were told then, as we are now, that taking action would have bad consequences, but not taking action is a decision too, and in Bosnia it led to the slaughter of up to 200,000 people and did not stop the growth of extremism and radicalisation, but increased it. We should be clear, however, about the nature of what is happening in Syria today. It is not just a tragedy for Syria; it could end up being a tragedy for us, too, if we do not handle it properly.
I applaud what the right hon. Gentleman said about the Woolwich events and all that needs to be done in response. He was right to praise the community groups that came out strongly and condemned what happened. On the issue of communications data, I think we need a frank debate in the House. There is a problem in that, currently, about 95% of serious crimes involve the use of communications data. This is not about the content of a fixed or mobile telephone call, but about the nature of the call: when it was made, who made it and when they made it. As telephony moves from fixed and mobile telephony on to the internet, our intelligence and police services will have a problem. We need to address that problem, and we should do so sensitively and carefully, looking at all the non-legislative options, but I hope for a measure of cross-party support, on both sides of the House, to try and get this right, because we will suffer if we do not.
The right hon. Gentleman asked some other specific questions. I am pleased that he welcomes the ISC investigation. With its new powers and responsibilities, it is the right body to carry it out.
On the taskforce, let me tell the right hon. Gentleman that there is no monopoly of wisdom on this issue. We will accept ideas from all sides of the House about what needs to be done to prevent radicalisation. We should look at early intervention, and he is right that the connections between gang violence and violent extremism, and between criminal gangs and violent extremism, all need to be looked at. If we can bring the House together to look at these things, we can make real progress in stopping young minds being perverted with this violent extremism.
Order. Before I call hon. Members to ask further questions arising from the Prime Minister’s statement, I remind the House that, as the Prime Minister pointed out, two individuals have been charged in connection with the death of Drummer Lee Rigby. I emphasise to colleagues that the matter is therefore sub judice. Although it is clear that the public interest means that this is a matter that Parliament must discuss, and in respect of which I should indeed exercise my discretion, I am sure that hon. and right hon. Members will take care to frame their remarks appropriately.
On Syria, may I put it to my right hon. Friend, first, that this is fundamentally a religious war between the Shi’a and the Sunni, which has raged within Islam for 1,300 years? Secondly, the Alawites, who are a branch of the Shi’a, will fight to the end, because they believe—and so does the large Christian minority in Syria—that they will be massacred if the Sunni overthrow the present regime. Thirdly, Russia will never allow the regime to be overthrown, because its overthrow would mean a humiliating defeat for President Putin, who made his reputation by crushing the Sunni rebellion in Chechnya.
I always listen carefully to my right hon. Friend. I would just make two points. The first is that when I see the official Syrian opposition, I do not see purely a religious grouping; I see a group of people who have declared that they are in favour of democracy, human rights and a future for minorities, including Christians, in Syria. That is the fact of the matter. Secondly, of course the Russians have long supported the regime, but they can see the damage that is being done to Syria and to their reputation throughout the middle east. That is why it is a good time to push all parties towards the political transition that is so deeply needed in this area.
On Syria, does the Prime Minister accept that that elusive but very necessary comprehensive peace deal requires not only that Russia should be a party to it, but that Iran should be? Whatever the difficulties, will he say what action he has taken to ensure that Iran is a participant in the peace conference and also what action we are taking to bring back full diplomatic relations with the Republic of Iran?
The right hon. Gentleman is right that the role of Iran is something that should be discussed; the point I would make is that Iran is currently playing a role, using its proxies and helping to massacre Syrian civilians. Clearly in the end what is needed more than anything else—more than the engagement of any regional player or indeed any superpower—is for the Syrian people themselves to see a transitional Government in whom they can have confidence. Clearly that has to involve elements of the opposition; it has to involve some elements of the regime, too. That is what a transition would involve.
There was much in what my right hon. Friend said with which I would agree, but in relation to the supposed merits of lifting the embargo and supplying arms to Syria, I regret that I remain increasingly unconvinced. There are many questions to be asked, but perhaps the most fundamental question is this: what evidence is there that Assad would change his course so long as he enjoys the uninhibited and unconditional support of Russia, and the supply of weapons that goes with that?
I very much respect my right hon. and learned Friend and his views. The direct answer to his question is that Assad is most likely to change his view and accept a transition if he believes that he cannot win militarily. If we help to tip the balance in that way, there is a greater chance of political transition succeeding. If we don’t, we won’t.
Exactly a year ago, the Home Secretary said in her introduction to the draft Communications Data Bill:
“Without action there is a serious and growing risk that crimes enabled by email and the internet will go undetected and unpunished, that the vulnerable will not be protected and that terrorists and criminals will not be caught and prosecuted. No responsible Government could allow such a situation to develop unaddressed.”
Does not the absence of any reference to this in the Queen’s Speech suggest that that is exactly what the Government are doing?
I have great respect for the former Home Secretary, and I know that he knows how important the issue of comms data is. I hope that, when we bring forward proposals, we will have support from across the House of Commons for them. Comms data were mentioned in the Queen’s Speech, and we have specifically said that we want to look at how we can match IP addresses, because that is such an important part of what needs to be done. We should look at all the options, including non-legislative approaches, so that we can make some progress on this important issue. I look forward to having the right hon. Gentleman’s support, and to hearing his explanation to others in the House of how important this is.
I welcome the Prime Minister’s efforts to get us cheaper energy through shale gas, but did the EU recognise that its regulations and energy policies are making us completely uncompetitive in world markets, destroying jobs and giving us energy that our elderly cannot afford?
I think it is important that we ensure that Europe does not make the situation worse through new regulation that could stop the exploitation of shale gas. That was part of what we discussed at the European Council. Also, there is an opportunity to get cheaper supplies of energy if we can increase competition within the single market, and that should be the aim of our policy.
I welcome the Prime Minister’s announcement of the taskforce on extremism. I see that as an acknowledgement that more needs to be done on the Prevent strand of the counter-terrorism strategy. Will he confirm that his taskforce will be fully inclusive? In other words, will he make an extra effort to involve women and young people, as well as the traditional voices that have been heard from the community? That will be absolutely essential if the taskforce is to succeed.
The right hon. Lady speaks with immense expertise and experience on this issue. In fact, I was thinking of inviting her on to the taskforce to give us the benefit of her wisdom from the time she spent in office dealing with this difficult problem. Rather than have a formal panel of advisers, we are going to seek advice from different individuals and groups who can bring real expertise. This must not be just another opportunity to discuss Britishness or British identity; it must be a set of actions in our universities, schools and colleges and on the internet—as well as in our prisons; for heaven’s sake, we are supposed to be responsible for those people, yet they are still being radicalised under our very noses—to deal with these problems.
My right hon. Friend makes an important point about one of the positive benefits that we can get out of the single market, which will involve completing the single market in services just as we have completed the single market in products. As an economy that is very reliant on services, we would benefit disproportionately from that. The matter was not discussed at this conference because it was called particularly to deal with energy and with the issues of tax evasion and aggressive tax avoidance, but I will ensure that it is discussed at future European Councils.
Surely the Prime Minister must accept that Britain’s insistence on Europe opening the door to more arms entering that ugly arena in Syria has led to two consequences. The first is the Russian escalation, with its introduction of S-300 missiles into the arena. The second is the near collapse, if not the actual collapse, of the vital international peace conference. The alternative is not inaction, as the Prime Minister has implied; it is serious negotiation to get the conference off the ground without preconditions, without insisting that Assad must go, which would stop the conference, and without insisting that Iran should stay out of the negotiations, which would also render the process stillborn.
I have great respect for the right hon. Gentleman, but on this occasion I have to disagree with him on both counts. First, it is completely wrong to pretend that Russia has changed its view of Syria or its supply of arms to that country because of the European Union’s decision. Russia has been supplying the Syrian regime with arms for decades, and it has done so during this conflict. To suggest otherwise is really quite naive. I fully support the idea of the peace conference, which is why I flew to see President Putin on the Black sea and why I held discussions with Barack Obama. We should do everything we can to bring the parties together at this peace conference, but I would put the question again: are we more likely to get some sort of compliance from President Assad at a peace conference that would result in a transitional government if he believes that he cannot win militarily? That is the question that we have to put to ourselves.
Will Parliament definitely get the opportunity not just to be updated and kept informed, but to vote on the issue of arms supplies from this country to the opposition in Syria, even if that involves recalling Parliament if we wish to take that decision during the recess?
One of the things that this Government have done is allow Parliament to hold votes on issues that Parliament wants to vote on. In the first 10 years during which I was an MP, that was completely impossible. It can now happen, so Parliament has that opportunity whenever it wants to.
Has the Prime Minister noticed during the last few minutes how little enthusiasm there is in the House for lifting the arms embargo? Does he recognise that while we all deplore the terrible bloodshed in Syria, if arms are sent by France and this country, it is obvious that Russia will simply increase the amount of arms being sent? This is not the way to resolve the issue. The killing fields in Syria are bad enough; sending arms would just increase the killing.
The hon. Gentleman should look at the effects of the EU arms embargo. Did it stop Assad getting every weapon he wanted from Russia? No, it did not. Did it stop extremists in Syria getting weapons? No, it did not. But did it stop the countries such France, Britain and America that wanted to engage with the official opposition from working with them and from providing technical assistance, help and advice? Yes, it did. The point is that we have made not a decision to supply the Syrian opposition with arms—that would be a separate decision—but a decision to lift the arms embargo that affected the Syrian opposition in the way we have seen. That was the right thing to do.
I am sure we all welcome the progress that the Prime Minister has made on tackling tax evasion, but I wondered whether he had an opportunity during the European Council to look at the code of conduct group on business taxation, which I understand has recently got bogged down in an increasingly difficult and complex set of assessments. Does he agree that it is important for this code of conduct group to move forward rapidly, and what proposals will he make to improve its effectiveness?
I am very grateful to my right hon. Friend for asking that question. What we have done in the European Union is, I believe, unblock what was previously blocked when a small number of countries were blocking the exchange of technical tax information between countries. Now that that is unblocked, I think there is plenty of opportunity for the body that she talks about and others to do the work necessary to make sure that proper taxes are paid.
I welcome the establishment of the taskforce and the Prime Minister’s commitment this afternoon to making its membership wider than just members of the Cabinet. Does he agree that internet service providers and search engines such as Google are far too laid back about removing extremist content? It is still possible this afternoon to go on to YouTube and see the hateful and inflammatory preachings of Anwar al-Awlaki. A year ago, the Select Committee recommended the establishment of a code of conduct; will the Prime Minister please look at this proposal again, so that the providers and the search engines take effective action?
I have great respect for the right hon. Gentleman and for the work of his Select Committee. The point he makes is a good one. I think we should always ask companies and organisations to behave with a sense of responsibility. Of course there are concerns about freedom and free speech, but there are also issues of proper governance and responsibility, which these companies should also think about. I will look very carefully at the code of conduct that he mentions and see what more can be done.
The Foreign Secretary may well update us on the decisions made, but will the Prime Minister take this opportunity to confirm once and for all that if the decision is made to arm the rebels, he will come before this House so that we can debate it and vote on it before that policy is executed?
As I said, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has regularly updated the House on Syria in statements, and the House of Commons has plenty of ways, if it wants to, to hold debates and votes on this issue. All that has been decided to date is that we should lift the arms embargo on the official Syrian opposition—an opposition that we recognise as legitimate representatives of the Syrian people and as a group that believes in democracy, human rights and standing up for minorities. That is the decision that has been taken to date, and no further decisions have been taken.
On behalf of the people of Woolwich, I thank both the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition not just for what they have said this afternoon, but for their visits to Woolwich in the aftermath of the hideous killing of Drummer Lee Rigby. I thank them for their support, and for the commitment—a cross-party commitment—to take this agenda forward in the coming months and years.
Let me, however, gently remind Members that our own natural instincts often do not allow us to sustain unanimity across the House during periods of division. The agenda of building harmony between different groups and countering extremism is a long-term agenda that will not be won immediately. It will require ongoing commitment, and we will need to demonstrate that cross-party commitment in the long term if we are really to succeed.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for all that he has done in Greenwich and Woolwich to bring people and communities together. There has been such a strong and positive response, and such a powerful condemnation by everyone of what happened to that brave soldier.
The right hon. Gentleman’s point about cross-party work is important. I think that there is quite a strong sense across the House that while we may disagree about individual items on the agenda, we need to do more to prevent young minds from being perverted, to stop this radicalisation and to confront this extremist ideology. I think that there is strong support for those proposals.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s announcement about his taskforce. Does he agree that now—in the aftermath of this appalling incident—is a good time to remind judges considering cases relating to the deportation of preachers of hate that they, too, have a role in upholding the rule of law?
My hon. Friend has made an excellent point. I think that what we can do, through the words that we use, the speeches we make and the debates that we have in the House, is set the context for confrontation of not just the violent extremism, but the extremism and poisonous ideology on which these people thrive. However, it we must be made clear that in too many cases we have home-grown extremists: people who were born and bred here, and then radicalised here. Of course we must do more to kick out the preachers of hate and people who do not have the right to be here, but we have our own domestic, home-grown problem to deal with as well.
I speak on behalf of every single resident of the borough of Rochdale when I say that we are immensely proud of Drummer Lee Rigby, and that all our thoughts are with his family and friends at this very sad time. Rochdale has very strong ties to the armed forces, particularly the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, and those ties will not be diminished by what happened on 22 May; indeed, they have been strengthened. Will the Prime Minister join me, and all Rochdale residents, in pledging to support Lee’s family in whatever way necessary in the coming days and months?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for what he has said on behalf of everyone in Rochdale. It is clear that the whole country wants to reach out to Lee Rigby’s family in respect of the appalling loss that they have suffered. I went to Woolwich barracks after these dreadful events to talk to some of the soldiers and their families, and I was greatly impressed by not just the enormous solidarity but the strength of purpose that they showed. These terrorists who think that they will be able to divide us or scare us actually just bring us together.
May I associate my colleagues, and the other communities in south London, with the Prime Minister’s comments, and with the expressions of condolence and support for the family, comrades and friends of Lee Rigby? I applaud the Prime Minister for making it clear that we should take a considered view of how to deal with this sort of terrible activity, rather than producing knee-jerk legislative responses. The immediate priority must be to support the Muslim leaders who are strong in their denunciation of this sort of behaviour, and to support the whole of our Muslim community, which has suffered extra attacks in recent years. Most people in that community are peaceful and law-abiding, and want nothing to do with the sort of behaviour that we have seen in the last two weeks.
My right hon. Friend is entirely right to say that there should be no knee-jerk reactions. We do not want immediate legislative responses, but on the other hand, I think that we must ask ourselves some pretty searching questions.
All of us in the House condemn this poisonous narrative, condemn this perversion of Islam and condemn this extremist narrative, but are we doing enough to ensure that we snuff it out in our prisons, colleges or university campuses? Are we doing enough to confront it and defeat it, online and elsewhere? I think that the answer to that is no. I think that there is more work to be done, and that we should do it in good order.
When the Prime Minister said that the EU arms embargo has helped extremists on both sides, was he acknowledging that the Syrian opposition also includes extremists? Has he had any discussions with the Turkish Government, and what advice have they given him?
Clearly, parts of the Syrian opposition do include extremists and, regrettably, armed extremists. The point I was making is that the Syrian National Coalition, the official opposition, is a body that we can work with and is a legitimate spokesperson organisation for the Syrian people. Of course we have discussed this issue not just with the Turkish Government but with the Jordanians, the Emiratis, the Qataris, the Saudis and others. We want to do everything we can to channel support to those parts of the Syrian opposition that stand for democracy, freedom, human rights and all the things in which we believe in this House. We are better able to do that if we are engaged—if we are helping to organise these groups. That is what we are now involved in. We are not, as I said, making a separate decision about arming them, but that work is good work and will help to ensure that the Syrian opposition is moderate.
Terrorists hide among, come from and are sustained by groups of people around them. Will the Prime Minister ensure that the taskforce for tackling extremism puts quite a lot of effort into trying to isolate these misguided people away from those who allow them to operate and who sustain them?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right in the way he puts it. It is not enough to target and go after violent extremists after they have become violent. We have to drain the swamp which they inhabit. That means looking at the process of radicalisation on our campuses. It means looking at Islamic centres that have been taken over by extremists and gone wrong. It means looking at those mosques that are struggling to throw out the extremists and helping them in the work that they are doing. It means going through all the elements of the conveyor belt to radicalisation and ensuring that we deal with them. That is what is important. That is the work that needs to be done.
I join the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition in relaying on behalf of my constituents, a sizeable proportion of whom are from the British Muslim community, our deepest condolences to the family of Drummer Lee Rigby after his appalling murder.
As part of the Prevent strategy and the new Prevent programme, will the Prime Minister look at the impact of the rising level of attacks on Muslim communities, including mosques, and the role of the English Defence League? Will the new taskforce look at proscribing such groups if the evidence suggests that their violent intentions will reinforce conflict in our country?
I thank the hon. Lady for what she says about the strength of feeling in the communities that she represents. Yes, I can confirm that the taskforce will look at all forms of extremism, and we should be looking at all the best ways of condemning the hate-filled people who are part of the English Defence League. In terms of proscribing organisations, we have to follow the law and what the law itself sets out before taking action.
What will be the effect of this threat on the safety of the minority Christian population in Syria? They have already fled Iraq because of our misjudged intervention there, which made them the target of extremists. They are seen to be a supporter of Assad because he protects them and they only want a quiet life. They could now be a target for Hezbollah because we would be arming its opponents, and paradoxically, they could be a target for Sunni extremists because we have no control over where the weapons will end up.
How best to ensure a Syria that can protect minorities is an important issue. I would challenge the idea that Assad, in taking on those in the opposition, has shown any respect for people’s religion or ethnicity. His bombs, planes and apparent use of chemical weapons have been quite indiscriminate, so I do not accept the idea that somehow minorities will be better off in Syria under an Assad regime. I do not believe they will be. What we should be doing is supporting a Syria that will look after minorities, and that is what the official Syrian opposition is committed to doing.
Is not the Prime Minister aware that he is playing with fire when he talks about lifting the arms embargo and supplying weapons? Does he not understand history at all? The Americans a few decades ago thought they knew who the real enemy was, and they ended up arming Osama bin Laden and they paid a heavy price. What mechanism will the Prime Minister use to ensure that the weapons do not fall into the hands of the al-Qaeda supporters among the Syrian opposition?
I would make two points to the hon. Gentleman. First, even with the arms embargo in place, arms have been getting to extremist elements of the opposition, and we are more likely to stop that happening by being engaged rather than disengaged. If he wants to go through the history lessons, what about the history lesson of Bosnia? In this House—he was a Member of the House at the time—it was endlessly said that we must not intervene, must not help those who are being slaughtered by Milosevic and must not take any action; to arm them would create a level killing field, we were endlessly told. It was only when the Americans stepped in and helped the Bosnians that we were able to have a peace conference that brought about the peace that that country now enjoys.
My hon. Friend makes the very good point that we need to engage with the Syrian opposition, and we are unlikely to be able to shape and support it in the way we want unless we have that process of engagement. That is what the Foreign Secretary and others have been doing, and that gives the best chance of what I think we all want on both sides of this House: a transition with a political settlement, and a future for Syria that all Syrians can support.
I associate the Scottish National party and Plaid Cymru with the Prime Minister’s words of condolence and the resolve to tackle extremism. Will he update the House on how his taskforce will work with the Scottish Government, which has devolved responsibilities for a range of powers, from justice to education?
On Syria, does the Prime Minister acknowledge the important role the United Nations peacekeepers have played on the Golan Heights for the last 40 years? Does he also accept that one of the unintended consequences of his diplomatic initiative in the European Union is that there is a very real risk that those UN peacekeepers will be withdrawn, and is he not concerned about that?
I would not accept any linkage between UN peacekeepers on the Golan Heights and the change in the EU’s position on the arms embargo. That would be an entirely false analogy to draw and, no matter what individual countries might say, I am sure the UN would not take that view. On the issue of how we can best access the information and expertise of the Scottish Government, obviously they will be able to feed in thoughts to the taskforce that I will be chairing.