House of Commons
Monday 8 July 2013
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
I am sure the House will wish to join me in offering two sets of congratulations—first, to the British and Irish Lions on their magnificent series victory over Australia. Secondly, I feel certain the House will wish to join me in offering our heartfelt congratulations to Andy Murray on becoming the first British man to win the Wimbledon singles championship since Fred Perry last did so in 1936.
Oral Answers to Questions
Communities and Local Government
The Secretary of State was asked—
Among the measures that we have introduced in addition to the powers available to councils, we have provided £235 million in grant and £130 million in new homes bonus, we have revised and are further reviewing permitted development rights, and we have offered councils increased flexibility over council tax levels for empty homes.
High street premises in the Cradley part of my constituency have been allowed to fall into a very poor state of repair, which is not conducive to their being brought back into use. What can my right hon. Friend do to encourage local authorities to use their existing legal powers, such as serving section 215 orders, in order to oblige freeholders and landlords to maintain their properties to an acceptable standard such that they might stand a better chance of being returned to productive use?
I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend on the work that she is doing on this issue and on her support for the Cradley action group. As she rightly says, empty commercial properties such as the 19% in her council area have a corrosive effect, and I urge her council to use its existing extensive powers. I hope that our recent changes to permitted development rights will make it easier to convert disused commercial buildings in her area into homes.
I welcome the steps that the Government are taking in this important direction. In Macclesfield, local businesses and the council are working closely together through the intown living initiative to make more empty space above shops available for residential use. Does my right hon. Friend agree that such steps not only make empty space productive and usable again but breathe new life back into our high streets?
I congratulate my hon. Friend and his local council on the work they are doing to bring empty properties back into use. A reduction of 33% in empty homes since 2010 is a great achievement. He is right—tackling empty spaces above shops will certainly contribute to regenerating town centres. Two weeks ago I announced £450,000 in grant for his council area, and I hope this will help.
I congratulate the Minister on what he is offering to help bring empty properties back into use, but in Castle Point we also have a notable number of derelict smaller sites. What advice or support can the Government give to help councils bring forward these sites as well?
I congratulate my hon. Friend on her successful defence of the local green belt, and her council on a 23% reduction in empty commercial properties. She is right that we need to see small derelict plots developed before there is encroachment on the green belt, and I am confident that together with the vigorous use of existing council powers, the new permitted development rights and the community right to reclaim land will help her achieve that objective.
I certainly do. My hon. Friend is exactly right. Our new homes bonus for bringing empty properties back into use has certainly helped as there are fewer empty homes in her area than in 2010, but I note that Conservative-controlled Wychavon council is using the new powers that we have granted to allow a 50% premium on council tax on long-term empty homes, but that Labour-controlled Redditch council is apparently not doing so. Perhaps she could urge the council to reconsider.
My hon. Friend is right. Notwithstanding the excellent work of communities in Ripon and Bentham and their Portas town teams, it is a frustrating and challenging issue. In some cases, the right to reclaim land will help, but local councils are best placed to compile a public register of high street landlords. Spurred on by him, I will now consider how we can give still further assistance.
My local Labour council is working exceedingly hard to tackle some of the 2,500 empty properties in Hyndburn and also those in Rossendale. Does the Minister think that the introduction of a decent housing standard would make those properties more attractive to people to rent, rather than the dilapidated state that some are in at the moment?
I am enormously grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the positive discussions he and I have had on the matter. I remind him that I have agreed to look at the issues he has raised, and we have already given £1.6 billion in grants to help bring council homes up to a decent standard.
Already there is vigorous use. I remind the House that some two thirds of assets in this country are owned by local councils. We are now consulting on the need to get councils to declare a list of all their assets. We have also given additional powers on the right to reclaim that should enable local communities, and indeed individuals, to put pressure on people who own derelict sites to bring them back into use.
Back in 2011 the Pensions Minister told the House that the bedroom tax would help tackle overcrowding, but research by the National Housing Federation now shows that, as a result of those changes, houses across the country are lying idle. Is that what the Government meant by tackling empty homes: creating more of them?
What the Government intend by what the hon. Gentleman describes as the bedroom tax is a means of ensuring the effective use of existing homes, as over 1 million bedrooms are empty and a quarter of a million families are living in overcrowded homes. That is why we are tackling the issue, together with our plans to provide new affordable homes, something that the Labour party signally failed to do when it was in power.
Further to the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne), is not the problem that no real research was done before the introduction of the bedroom tax? The position is very different up and down the country, and in some areas it is clear that an inadvertent consequence might be more empty homes. If that proves to be the case, will the Government change their mind?
I must say to the hon. Lady that clearly very detailed research was done and we had a number of pilots across the country. It would be very helpful if she would assist the House by indicating whether the Labour party, which has been so opposed to the measure, now intends to reverse it.[Official Report, 18 July 2013, Vol. 566, c. 18MC.]
We have no intention of having a revaluation at the present time. That would cause huge disruption to businesses up and down the land. However, we have doubled the support we give to small businesses. In addition, we have provided financial support to those councils that wish to reduce business rates in their area.
In the early 1990s, when the Government Chief Whip was a most distinguished Housing Minister and I was an insignificant housing officer, the then Government introduced with great fanfare something called LOTS—living over the shop—which had certain similarities to what we have heard about today. It was an unmitigated disaster. There are good reasons why people do not want to live above undertakers, butchers and off-licences. I urge the Minister to look at some of the previous attempts to resolve this and to realise that it is not as simple as it looks.
The hon. Gentleman could never be described, even back in the ’90s, as insignificant. We have indeed looked at all previous attempts to make use of spaces above shops, and all of them have failed, which is why we have now put direct funding in, through our Portas team pilot areas, to look at innovative new ways of dealing with this, and not least, as he will understand, the issue of security.
Extremism and Integration
Like the rest of the House, the Government believe in challenging the forces of hate and the politics of division—from Islamic preachers of hate, to English Defence League thugs, to violent Trotskyite protesters. We are championing what we have in common and what unites us as a British nation across class, colour and creed.
I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. It has been said that
“extremism breeds not within communities, but in their gaps and margins. In places where the webs and safety nets of community that sustain dignity, self-worth, autonomy and solidarities fail.”
What steps are being taken to tackle that?
It is most important for us to concentrate on those things that unite us. Very early on in this Government, we took a decision to separate the Prevent strategy from integration. My Department’s role has been to try to ensure that those parts that we can celebrate, as British citizens together, work together.
In particular, we have carried out a number of initiatives, including working with inter-faith groups, schools and detached youth workers. I have been grateful for the co-operation in individual constituencies from both sides of the House in respect of our ability to recognise that people of good will can celebrate the differences that exist.
A recent report by Teesside university, following the atrocity in Woolwich, showed that between 22 May and 25 June this year there were 241 anti-Muslim attacks. What support are the Government giving to local community groups under the Prevent strategy to deal with that hate?
The most important thing that we did was establish a way of recording anti-Muslim attacks. We took on board what had been happening with anti-Semitic attacks and took some of it across. I have to say to the right hon. Gentleman that those statistics include things being said on Twitter as well as actual attacks against individuals, and it is important that we have a degree of grading.
In the aftermath of the tragic and unjustified recent murder of Drummer Rigby, there were a number of attacks on mosques. I talked to the imams of just about every single one, and they wanted to be clear that the attack was not in their name. They condemned it and were looking towards greater integration within society.
I do not think that it does, and I say that as a sinner repented. I was leader of Bradford council and we did translate. I realised that that attempt to integrate was a process that further isolated. The one thing that does unite us is our language of English. We should do everything we can to ensure that people learn English.
Is the Secretary of State aware that in some areas of the country, including Bradford, extremist groups are targeting young people and offering to keep them safe from on-street grooming, purely as a way of promoting their disgusting, far-right views? Will he tell us what his Department is doing to support local councils to tackle the problem?
I thought it significant that the Friday before last, throughout the country, mosques read a sermon explaining the difficulties of grooming and ways in which we can tackle it. A number of councils right around the country have been helpful in tackling the issue. We have been in close contact to ensure that the true voices of the community are heard, and not that perversion.
Families in Temporary Accommodation
We are talking about this Government’s abysmal record. Some 76,000 families are living in temporary housing. Of those, the number in bed-and-breakfast accommodation has gone up from 630 three years ago to 1,970 at the end of March this year. These figures show that the Government are not even following their own guidance, which says that B and B accommodation is not suitable for families with children. The truth is that this Government are failing families with children up and down the country as regards providing decent housing.
I reject that argument. After all, the number of families in bed and breakfast for more than six weeks, to which he referred directly, has gone down by 14% in the past six months. However, we are not complacent; there is a lot to do. It is appalling for families who find themselves in those circumstances. This Government are determined not to reach the peak, which was treble the current level under the previous Labour Government.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right that the problem is concentrated in certain areas. For example, the numbers in temporary accommodation in the past 12 months halved in Leeds but rose in Birmingham. We need to focus on this. We are therefore putting £1.8 million into the bed-and-breakfast taskforce to really get under the skin of why there are these local variances and to make sure that we tackle the problem at source.
Mr Speaker, may I first echo your congratulations to the British and Irish Lions and to Andy Murray? They are remarkable sportsmen with their team at its very best.
On his appointment, the Housing Minister released a manifesto for housing entitled “Mark’s Manifesto”. In a gripping read, he said that it was wrong that tens of thousands of people should be without a home and that the Government had
“acted to cut the number of households in temporary accommodation.”
Yet only this morning a study for Centrepoint by Cambridge university has pointed to a “severe” shortage of affordable housing, leaving the most vulnerable in the cold, and said that the number of households in temporary accommodation has risen by 10% over the past year. Can the Minister explain why?
There has been a rise in temporary accommodation in the past 12 months, but the numbers as a whole show that the number of families in temporary accommodation is half what it was under the previous Labour Administration. We are trying to tackle this at its root source. That is why we need to be clear about what Labour would do. Labour has a poor record on this, but will not say what its prognosis is.
On facing up to one’s record, the truth is that the only thing that this Government have cut is the budget for affordable homes, as the National Housing Federation has said. Homelessness and rough sleeping are up by a third since the general election, eight times more families are living in bed and breakfasts than three years ago, and the number of affordable housing completions fell by 29% in the past year. Why does the Minister not accept responsibility for presiding over the biggest housing crisis in a generation, forcing thousands of decent families into temporary accommodation and costing the taxpayer £1.8 billion?
We got the lengthy rhetoric, as usual, but no analysis or thought. The reality is that we are building more affordable homes—170,000 in this Parliament, and we plan to build 200,000 in the next Parliament. Labour’s record is that it managed to oversee the loss of 420,000 social homes in 13 years; no wonder Labour Members do not want to talk about it.
On 14 June the Government fulfilled a coalition pledge to provide more protection for the public against aggressive bailiffs and unreasonable charges by publishing guidance to local councils on good practice in the collection of council tax arrears.
Is not the need for this underlined by the experience of my constituent Mr Benvenuti of Deal who had a £65 parking ticket, which he appealed against but heard nothing about, turn into a £524 demand from a bailiff following a phantom visit? Is it not right that the Government are taking action on this matter?
My hon. Friend makes a very good point. I am sure the residents of Lewisham will have been listening carefully to how Lewisham has been spending their money. That is why it is important that councils look carefully at what they spend and how they spend it, and that it is appropriate to the issue they are dealing with at that point.
Following changes to Office of Fair Trading rules, Carmarthenshire county council has, as I understand it, been able to employ bailiffs who have operated without a credit licence. What protection does the Minister believe council tenants should have when faced with unscrupulous debt collectors? If they are not regulated, how are their activities to be policed?
Council Meetings (Reporting)
It is right that journalists and taxpayers are able to use modern media to scrutinise councils. Accordingly, we have legislated to ensure that that happens.
I am grateful for the steps my right hon. Friend is taking to allow local authorities to encourage journalists and bloggers to report council meetings, as they do at Crawley borough council. Will he condemn councils such as Tower Hamlets that still seek to ban such practices?
Frankly, I cannot understand it. Margaret Thatcher introduced a right for the press to be able to scrutinise local authorities, and had modern media existed all those years ago they would have been included in that. Why should councils not show the good things they are doing for their communities?
I fully support the point made by the hon. Member for Crawley (Henry Smith) about Tower Hamlets council meetings being broadcast and reported. However, Mr Speaker, you sometimes have difficulty controlling proceedings here on a Wednesday and they have been broadcast live on television for many years. What evidence does the Secretary of State have that it will improve the conduct in Tower Hamlets, which is what we all want to see?
We have legislated to ensure that cameras should film Tower Hamlets cabinet meetings, but we have not said that they should film the main council or committees. If councils continue to refuse to do this—only a handful are doing so—we will take the necessary measures, because the public have a right to know.
The spending round announcement is a fair deal for councils and taxpayers. We are putting in place powerful incentives to enable local government to transform local services, including £3.8 billion to drive the integration of health and social care, while still helping to pay down Labour’s deficit.
I think that Telford and Wrekin council is acknowledged by the Department as a good council. It has made £50 million of cuts since 2010. The spending review indicates that it will have to make further cuts of £10 million a year for the next two years. We are committed to driving forward and finding efficiencies, but will the Minister issue some further detailed guidance on the pooling of health and social care money? It is really important for care, particularly that of elderly people.
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. This is a very important step forward and a huge opportunity for people to see better care as well as better savings for local authorities. We will continue to work with local authorities and the team at the Department of Health to ensure that the integration is smooth and that we get the benefits experienced in, for example, the tri-borough, which has taken this on and saved hundreds of millions of pounds and, importantly, is giving its residents a better service and a better quality of life.
Following the spending review, is it not obvious that we need a fairer local government settlement? We must close the gap between urban and rural areas and redistribute central Government funding to rural areas, which have suffered for too long with higher costs and lower central Government support.
I thank my hon. Friend for making that point. As Members will recall, in this year’s assessment we recognised sparsity and went further by making available just over £9 million more to cover it. I will continue to talk to the rural authorities group over the summer to ensure another clear and fair settlement when we get to 2014.
Local authorities have a statutory duty to ensure that they balance their budgets, and they have been doing that. It is particularly interesting and impressive that since 2010 public satisfaction with local authorities has increased. It is also important that small district councils in particular, which are working with silo expensive management teams, look at sharing management to make sure that they spend the money on front-line services looking after residents, and not on bureaucracy.
In the Jackanory world of the DCLG, it announced that local government spending would fall by 2.3% after 2015, but will the Minister admit that important resource spending, even on his figures, will fall by 8.5%, rising to 10% when the new homes bonus is top-sliced, and that when predictions for business rates are taken into account, some councils could lose up to 19% of their grant without the compensating growth, hitting the poorest again? Does that not mean that the most vulnerable are paying the price for this Government’s economic failure?
I am sure that the hon. Lady remembers that we have put protections in place for the most vulnerable—councils have a duty to ensure that they look after them. In fact, about 40 authorities actually had an increase this year, because we have moved local government financing from the old Labour style of a begging bowl and “If you do badly, you get more” to a reward-based system whereby if an authority builds houses, it gets money, and if it brings about business growth through business rates retention, it gets more money. Councils can provide better services, work together and be more efficient in that way.
The High Street
Our high streets need to adapt to changing consumer habits. Ministers and officials are therefore working with a wide range of civic and business leaders, including Mary Portas, to strengthen local leadership, reform planning and parking policies, help small shops and boost local markets.
I recognise the Minister’s good intentions in deregulating classes of use for high street shops, but so that high streets like those in Stirchley and Cotteridge in my constituency do not become swamped with bookmakers, payday lenders and fast food outlets, will he look again at the calls of Mary Portas and others for a special restriction on such development?
Even before the credit crunch, many of our high streets had shops that were struggling on the margins. At the moment, communities around the country, but particularly in areas like the north-east of England, are hard-pressed by cuts to local government expenditure, by job losses, the suppression of real incomes, cuts in benefits and fuel price rises, all of which have been sucking disposable income out of local economies. Is it any real surprise that there is a crisis on our high streets when many people have much less to spend in real terms?
Absolutely. It is important to remember that in many of our towns, that job is often the first one that young people get. That is why we are cutting the business rates for the smallest firms and ensuring that from next April, the payroll taxes for many of those firms will be reduced. That will help young people in my hon. Friend’s constituency.
Is the Minister aware that towns such as Huddersfield and cities such as Leeds need massive investment? What is the point of spending more than £50 billion on High Speed 2 at a time when, if there were a poll in all the big cities in this country, people would want to spend the money not on that but on regeneration of our cities and towns?
I thought the Labour party wanted us to invest in infrastructure—that is what it spent most of the spending round debate talking about. I am committed to ensuring that our high streets can compete, which is important. High street innovations, empty properties being brought back into use and helping small shops will all help Huddersfield and elsewhere.
Inspired by the Portas report and supported by the Government, we in my constituency have launched the In Our Towns project, which is encouraging small towns such as Painswick, Stroud and Dursley to support each other in developing high streets successfully. Does the Minister think that is an example of excellent local work, and do the Government support it?
I am well aware of the fantastic work to which my hon. Friend refers, and in which he played a part. Local leadership, a clear plan, understanding how to compete, and Government helping small businesses with the right planning policies will turn these towns around.
Community rights are being promoted through local, national, social and consumer media, ministerial visits, conferences, workshops, and external partners such as Locality, the Campaign for Real Ale and Supporters Direct.
Will the Minister impress on local authorities the importance of their using their new powers and rights to resist unwanted wind farm developments such as the one at Relay Park and that in Kingsbury in North Warwickshire, which will tower over homes in Tamworth and cause property blight?
As my hon. Friend knows, the Government recently announced that they will issue new planning policy guidance stating that the need for renewable energy does not automatically override environmental protections and the planning concerns of local communities. We intend to make pre-application consultations with local communities compulsory for more significant wind applications.
Local authorities can be in an invidious position when it comes to the community right to bid. If they agree a proposal, the owner of the asset may pursue legal action if the bid affects the value of the property. If they turn down a proposal from a community group, that group may pursue legal action. What protections will the Minister offer local councils such as Trafford in such circumstances?
I am delighted that a large number of community rights to bid have registered for local community assets, and I urge more people to do so. The hon. Lady will be aware that the right to bid is just that and should not alter the price because the community are not guaranteed to be able to buy that particular asset. It will go out to public tender, and anybody can apply.
My right hon. Friend had the opportunity to visit St Eval on his recent visit to North Cornwall, and he knows that that community is hoping to bid for assets although it was not able to meet the Ministry of Defence deadline. Will he keep under review the correlation between sources of public funding that are available to such groups, so that the timetables can align and they do not miss the opportunity to bid?
Empty Retail Premises
In addition to the range of tools to tackle this issue that I mentioned earlier, we have cut red tape to help landlords make better use of their empty properties, and we have doubled small business rate relief for three and a half years.
I thank the Minister for his reply and for the initiatives the Government are taking. He will be aware that our provincial towns are scarred with empty shops as a result of changing shopping patterns. Are the Government considering further measures in partnership with the private sector and local authorities to deal with that problem?
Indeed we are, and I am sure the hon. Gentleman will welcome our support for pop-up shops, including in the headquarters of our Department, as well as the financial support we are offering councils. We have set up two bodies—the future high streets forum and the industry-led distressed retail property taskforce—both of which will come forward with new ideas to help us develop the additional measures that he rightly says are needed.
On 3 June the planning Minister said that if local authorities fear that changes to use class orders are linked to more pay-day loan companies than retail on our high streets, they should use article 4 directions to limit the potential impact. On 17 June, he said they should not. Which is it?
The article 4 direction is available to all local councils and has been used successfully on a number of occasions. I remind the hon. Lady of the important review being carried out on betting shops to look at the ridiculously high—in my view—level of stakes and prices that currently exist.
While welcoming the small business rate relief, what discussions has the Minister had—or will he have—with the Treasury and local authorities to introduce more flexibility and try to support our streets that need regeneration, whether they are high streets or out-of-town activities?
Since 1 May 2010, there have been 1,712 appeals in England against local authority decisions on major housing schemes in England. In just under 60% of those cases, the local authority decision was upheld by the inspector.
It has been known for me to stand up and criticise the Government occasionally in the Chamber, but I also believe that credit should be given where it is due. At the risk of you thinking that I am going soft in my old age, Mr Speaker, I want to congratulate the Planning Minister and the Secretary of State on their fantastic decision to reject the planning application at Sty lane in Micklethwaite in my constituency, endorsing the decision by Bradford council planning committee and the inspector. It has been greatly welcomed locally and I want to pass on my thanks to the Minister. Does he agree that the best way to stop this community being put in the same position in the future is for the local authority to remove this site from the local development plan?
Planning law going back decades allows pubs to switch to supermarkets without requiring planning change of use. That allows big developers, such as supermarkets, to muscle in where they are not wanted, such as on Albert parade in Eastbourne, where Sainsbury’s is replacing a local pub. Will the Minister give me an undertaking to revisit this anomaly in the planning laws?
The good news is that there is no need to revisit the issue, because the local authority in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Dr Huppert) has produced an innovative policy for its local plan, which has been held up by the courts as sound and will put in place a process to protect pubs that are under threat from speculative development so that further use as a pub can be properly considered.
We have published “50 ways to save”, an excellent practical guide to councils on how to make sensible savings. We have also provided £27 million through the transformation challenge award and the efficiency support grant to encourage and incentivise authorities to make efficiencies and improve services. That will increase to £100 million as a result of the spending review.
Tory Cheshire West and Chester council and Labour Wirral metropolitan borough council have announced proposals to merge their back-office functions such as IT, legal services, human resources and finance, saving some £69 million. Do not such schemes show that it is possible to make huge savings in local government without impacting front-line services?
My hon. Friend is right, and I was delighted to visit Cheshire West and Chester recently and see some of the plans. It is a really good example of how big authorities can do things. Just last week, I saw at the excellent Staffordshire Moorlands and High Peak councils, small authorities with £10 million budgets, that shared management is saving some 20%, according to the chief executives, so it can be done at all levels.
The problem is that some of the most deprived councils, such as Halton in my constituency, are starting at a massive disadvantage. They are having to make deeper cuts because their cut, in terms of funding per head, is twice that of Cheshire East, and a lot higher than in Cheshire West and Chester. Should not the Minister be looking at fairer funding settlements?
The hon. Gentleman must look at where we start. That is why it is important that all authorities, ranging from £2,800 to £1,600 spending power per household, need to look at what they can do to be efficient, sharing management, services and procurement benefits to ensure that they are giving good service to their residents and spending taxpayers’ money—let us not forget that—well in the first place.
Derby City Council
We published the local government finance settlement for 2013-14 in February. Derby city council has an overall spending power figure of £2,021 per dwelling.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the decision by Labour-run Derby city council to reduce neighbourhood funding to wards with Conservative councillors is irresponsible and shows that that left-wing Labour council is stirring up a class war for politically motivated reasons? Allestree, Mickleover, Littleover, Oakwood and Chellaston have lost up to 90% of their funding, but Labour wards have received increases of up to 54%.
My hon. Friend makes a powerful point. We have devolved power, so it is very much a matter for local authorities how they distribute the money they spend, but I am sure that—with her making such a strong case—residents in Derby will look carefully at what the council has done and take a view on that when it comes to the next elections.
Gypsy and Traveller Pitches
We have taken firm action against unauthorised sites. We believe in fair play and supporting those who play by the rules. The total allocated funds for Traveller sites in England has been approximately £175 million, of which almost £120 million has already been spent. Approximately £3.4 million has been spent in Northamptonshire, including about £850,000 in Kettering.
As the law now stands, Kettering borough council, of which I have the privilege of being a member, has to identity sites for up to 37 Gypsy and Traveller pitches by 2031. The consultation has caused huge and understandable upset and concern throughout the borough. Will the Minister, who has proved both responsive and sensitive to such issues, be kind enough to agree to visit the borough of Kettering to see how these issues might best be resolved?
I thank my hon. Friend, who no doubt will have noted the statement we laid before the House last week. I appreciate that planning for Traveller sites can be contentious and raises a number of complex issues, so I am happy to visit him in Kettering to see them at first hand.
In South Tyneside there are 1,026 households currently living in two-bedroom properties who are affected by the bedroom tax, but just 122 one- bedroom homes are available—more than eight households per vacancy. How can the Minister justify a policy that punishes tenants for under-occupancy when the vast majority are simply unable to move?
May I take the opportunity to welcome the hon. Lady? I think that this is the first chance we have had to debate since she was elected in May. She was a keen fighter on what she calls a bedroom tax. The question Government Members have is this: if the Labour party is so opposed to this measure, why is her party leader refusing to repeal it?
To change the civil service culture of more regulation and more spending, I have today announced a new scheme where civil servants will be rewarded with high street vouchers for saving taxpayers’ money. I am sure the whole House will want to congratulate firefighters on their excellent job of tackling the Smethwick blaze last week. Given its exceptional scale, I can announce that we have activated the emergency response Bellwin scheme, so we can give West Midlands fire service the support it needs.
The new homes bonus is an effective tool in encouraging local communities to create new homes, but it benefits equally authorities that initially opposed new housing, after development consent is granted on appeal. It is important to support communities that, through their local plan, demonstrate a positive attitude towards development, so does the Secretary of State agree that such authorities should receive an enhanced level of new homes bonus?
My hon. Friend introduces a whole new concept of worthy and unworthy councillors, and that is perhaps a step too far. I am comfortable with the thought that when people object to me as Secretary of State, I can point to my hon. Friend who is a much harder man.
I join the Secretary of State in commending the fire service for how they dealt with that very difficult fire.
Thousands of people on low incomes are now getting council tax summonses because of the Secretary of State’s new poll tax. The Sunday Mirror reports that Peterborough city council, for example, has issued double the number of summonses for non-payment compared with last year. Why does he think that so many people are finding it so difficult to pay the bills that he has imposed on them?
Let me be absolutely clear: these are local authority schemes. In some parts of the country, people on low incomes are not receiving anything additional. These are schemes put together by local authorities, and it is up to local authorities to defend them.
It will not quite do for the Secretary of State to introduce the legislation, cut the money, and then attempt to pass the buck to local authorities up and down the country. The truth is that he is out of touch with what is happening to people on low incomes.
Let me try another question. One of those summonsed is a single parent called Charlotte, who has been asked to pay £141.66. She told the newspaper:
“My priority is finding money to get food for my child.”
What choice does the Secretary of State think she should make?
T2. It is good news that East Sussex county council has begun a £6 million investment in Hastings library, bringing in the new children’s library, bringing the registrar down into the library and buying the new building next door. Does that not show that a well-run county council, such as Conservative-led East Sussex county council under Councillor Keith Glazier, can achieve investment in vital libraries where it needs to? (163451)
T4. When asked about the mutualisation of Cleveland fire authority, the fire Minister told the Select Committee on Communities and Local Government on 15 May: “they are not progressing with it.”However, the latest freedom of information request to the authority was refused on the grounds of “commercial interest” and because matters are “still subject to consideration”. Who is telling the truth, and are the Government still funding this process? (163454)
I think the point I was making before the Select Committee was to clarify the fact that this Government will not be doing anything to allow for privatisation of the fire service, despite the claims of the hon. Gentleman’s shadow fire Minister, who is trying to scaremonger.
T3. Independent analysis by Ernst and Young of the four community budgets pilots show that savings of between £9 billion and £20 billion are possible over five years if the scheme is rolled out across the country. What plans does my hon. Friend have to do just that? (163452)
My hon. Friend is quite right: the community budgets pilots have shown huge potential savings to this country and, as I said earlier, better services for residents. We are now rolling out the new network. Last week we announced the first nine authorities to take part. They are looking at bringing together the public sector not just to save money, important though that is, but to give better services in this country—something that the previous Government continually failed to do.
T7. In North Tyneside, the new Labour administration has inherited a £21 million budget deficit from the former Tory mayor. With Government cuts, that comes to £44 million. As the Secretary of State finds his Department £271 million in the red, has he any tips that could help North Tyneside council to balance its books? (163457)
T5. In the spirit of reducing red tape, will my right hon. Friend look again at the rules that the Homes and Communities Agency issues on the minimum size of houses that attract affordable housing finance? Frankly, these houses are rather large. One of two particular cases was that of a property built 6 inches too narrow, which was not allowed to be taken into social housing because of that mistake. (163455)
Let me assure my hon. Friend that we have recently undertaken a review of housing standards, not least to try to reduce the plethora of different standards, which are burdensome and expensive. Space and room size have been considered. We will be consulting on the outcome of the review in the near future.
T8. The Department’s affordable rents policy is putting housing benefit expenditure up. Over at the Department for Work and Pensions, Ministers are trying, unsuccessfully, to cut housing benefit. Meanwhile, the cuts in housing benefit that they are making have resulted in an 86% increase in homelessness applications in my borough of Westminster. Does the Department ever speak to the Department for Work and Pensions, and if so, could they not possibly agree on a single policy, rather than two contradictory ones? (163458)
We have a clear policy, which is to ensure that we reverse the loss of social housing that we saw under the last Labour Government and that the social housing sector is managed better than it was in the past. Labour needs to realise that there are a million spare bedrooms in the social housing sector and a quarter of a million families in overcrowded accommodation. They would love the luxury of a spare bedroom. We are prepared to make those reforms; the hon. Lady’s party is not.
Anything to catch your eye, Mr Speaker. My constituents welcome the scrapping of the last Government’s guidance on diversity and equality in planning, but many residents in places such as Nazeing are concerned that Travellers can apply for retrospective planning permission. Will my hon. Friend come to my constituency, meet with local residents and reassure my residents who feel the planning system is biased against them when it comes to Travellers?
One knows when one has been Tangoed. I will of course be delighted to meet my hon. Friend, but I can give his constituents this reassurance: in the Localism Act 2011 we abolished the ability to have retrospective planning appeals and enforcement at the same time. I think that will help the residents of Nazeing.
T9. Despite the Government’s rhetoric on early intervention, Sunderland council’s early intervention grant is 47% lower than it was in 2010, while the Secretary of State’s council in Essex has had a cut of just 36%. Can the Secretary of State tell us by how much more the Government will cut Sure Start and other early intervention programmes over the next two years, and whether these disparities in cuts will be reversed or entrenched? (163459)
As the Member of Parliament for Smethwick, I welcome and endorse the Secretary of State’s remarks about the superb performance at the Smethwick fire by the West Midlands fire service and its firefighters, and I also welcome the extra payment under the Bellwin scheme, but is the Secretary of State aware of reports that during the first night of the fire only one West Midlands fire engine was available for the whole of the West Midlands county? Will he therefore reconsider the general cuts to West Midlands and other metropolitan authorities?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his question, and the Secretary of State and I both spoke to the chief fire officer last week. The fire service did a fantastic job, but it is very disappointing that the chairman of the fire authority tried to play political games in the aftermath of this tragedy, because it is simply not true to say that only one vehicle was available. The mutual scheme between the different authorities, including Staffordshire, Herefordshire and others, worked extremely well, and a large number of engines were still available for use, and he should be getting on with doing his job instead of playing politics in that fire authority.
May I give the Minister another chance to answer the question put by my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Mrs Lewell-Buck) and give him another example? Fifty-one per cent. of council tenants in my constituency are in rent arrears because they cannot afford to pay the bedroom tax. There are no smaller properties for them to move into, so what are they supposed to do?
Let me repeat to the hon. Lady the information we gave earlier: we have already provided £350 million in discretionary housing payments to local councils. [Interruption.] Hon. Members are saying from a sedentary position that it is all gone, but may I remind them that last year more than £11 million of discretionary housing payment was not used by local councils? They could use it more efficiently.
Sandymoor free school in my constituency has had its planning permission refused by Unite-backed Labour councillors who are acting against the local authority planners’ recommendation for approval. Will my right hon. Friend look into this matter urgently so that the school can continue serving my constituents without local authority and trade union interference?
I may have missed the answer that the Secretary of State gave to my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) about what Charlotte should do, so perhaps he could just tell me: should she feed her child or should she pay her council tax?
We need more social housing and more affordable housing, but does the Secretary of State understand the anger in north Leeds at the fact that Labour-run Leeds city council is bringing forward plans to concrete over much of our green belt with hundreds, if not thousands, of new homes?
The protections in the national planning policy framework for the green belt are very, very clear and very, very strong. Only in exceptional circumstances can development take place on the green belt, and the local authority will need to consult extensively with the local community to gain its support for any proposed change in the green belt.
Abu Qatada (Deportation)
With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on the deportation of Abu Qatada. Yesterday—more than 10 years after this ought to have happened—Abu Qatada was deported from the United Kingdom and sent back to Jordan. On arrival in Amman, he was handed over to the Jordanian authorities and formally charged with the two offences of which he had previously been found guilty in absentia. He is now held in Muwaqqar prison.
As hon. Members know, successive Governments have sought to deport Qatada since 2001. The long delays and significant costs that his case has incurred are down to the many layers of appeal rights that were available to him, and real problems with our human rights laws. I will turn to those issues later, but first I want to make it clear that the Government have succeeded in deporting Qatada by respecting the rule of law at each and every stage of the process. We did not ignore court judgments we did not like. We did not act outside the law. We did what was right. And for a civilised nation, that is something of which we should be immensely proud.
Qatada’s deportation, which took place on Sunday morning, followed my issuing of a fresh deportation decision on 27 June, and my further decision to certify any appeal that Qatada might have brought on human rights grounds as “clearly unfounded”. That meant that the only choice open to Qatada was between challenging my decision through judicial review or conceding that the game was up. Given the strength of the agreement we reached with the Jordanian Government in March, he accepted the inevitable.
It is important to remember that the UK Government already had assurances about Qatada’s treatment in Jordan—assurances that have been upheld in the courts—but in February last year the European Court of Human Rights moved the goalposts and declared that his deportation would be unlawful because of the risk that evidence obtained through the mistreatment of others might be used against him. That was the first time ever Strasbourg had blocked a deportation on that basis. The treaty we agreed with the Jordanian Government puts the answer to that final question beyond any doubt. The treaty guarantees a fair trial for anyone deported from either of our countries. The treaty benefits both countries and I thank hon. Members in this House for ensuring its rapid ratification. It was the key that unlocked the door to deportation.[Official Report, 16 July 2013, Vol. 566, c. 5MC.]
Qatada’s deportation demonstrates both our commitment to abide by the law and our resolve to deport foreign nationals who threaten our safety and security. It also demonstrates the legal validity of our policy of deportation with assurances.
I want to turn now to the lessons we need to learn from the case. The deportation of Abu Qatada has taken 12 years and cost more than £1.7 million in legal fees for both sides. That is not acceptable to the public, and it is not acceptable to me. We must make sure it never happens again.
First, we have to do something about the legal fees spent by defendants and paid by the taxpayer, not to mention the benefits they also claim. Secondly, we have to remove the many layers of appeal that are available to foreign nationals we want to deport. Thirdly, we have to do something about the crazy interpretation of our human rights laws.
The Government are taking action to address all three concerns. First, on legal fees and benefits, in the case of Abu Qatada £220,000 of his legal fees were funded from his own accounts, which were frozen by the authorities, but the rest—some £430,000—was funded by the taxpayer, and in many other cases foreign nationals we ought to be able to remove have their legal costs paid in full by the public. That is something my right hon. Friend the Justice Secretary is addressing in his reforms to the legal aid system, and I can also tell the House that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions is considering how we can curtail the benefits claims made by terror suspects and extremists whose behaviour is not conducive to the public good.
Secondly, we need to do something about appeal rights. Through the Crime and Courts Act 2013, the Government have already legislated for the principle that in national security cases individuals should be able to appeal only following deportation to their home country, except in cases where there is a risk of serious, irreversible harm. But we will do more, and that is why I will introduce the immigration Bill later this year. That Bill will stop illegal immigrants accessing services to which they are not entitled; it will make it easier to remove foreign nationals; it will make it harder for them to prolong their stay with spurious appeals; and it will make clear to the courts once and for all that foreign nationals who commit serious crimes will, other than in exceptional circumstances, be deported. I hope hon. and right hon. Members from all parties will give their support to that Bill.
I can also tell the House that my right hon. Friend the Justice Secretary is considering ways to speed up the pace at which the courts hear national security cases, but those reforms can achieve only so much until we make sense of our human rights laws. The Government are already taking action to address the misinterpretation of article 8 of the European convention on human rights—the right to a private and family life—and we achieved reforms to the way in which the European Court works in the Brighton declaration.
The problems caused by the Human Rights Act and the European Court in Strasbourg remain, and we should remember that Qatada would have been deported long ago had the European Court not moved the goalposts by establishing new, unprecedented legal grounds on which it blocked his deportation. I have made clear my view that in the end the Human Rights Act must be scrapped. We must also consider our relationship with the European Court very carefully, and I believe that all options—including withdrawing from the convention altogether—should remain on the table, but those are issues that will have to wait for the general election. Today we should take quiet satisfaction from the fact that a dangerous man has been deported to face justice in his home country.
I know the whole House will want to join me in paying tribute to all the Home Office officials, lawyers, police officers and members of the Security Service who have worked on this case, as well as Peter Millett, the British ambassador in Amman, and of course, the security Minister, the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (James Brokenshire).
Last year, I said:
“The right place for a terrorist is a prison cell. The right place for a foreign terrorist is a foreign prison cell, far away from Britain.”—[Official Report, 7 February 2012; Vol. 540, c. 166.]
Today, Abu Qatada is indeed in a foreign prison cell, and so I commend this statement to the House.
The entire House should strongly welcome the work that the Home Secretary and her junior Minister have done to get Abu Qatada finally on a plane back to Jordan to stand fair trial. This is a good result for not just the Home Secretary, but the country. In his home country, Abu Qatada stands accused of plotting terror attacks against a school and tourists, and it is right that he should stand trial for those offences and for justice to be done.
After Abu Qatada was granted asylum in this country in 1994, he began preaching hatred and praising terror attacks. He is a dangerous man whose values we in this Parliament condemn, and that is why successive Home Secretaries—Labour and Conservative—have worked to deport him with the cross-party support of the House and that of the country. I strongly welcome the work of the Home Office and the Foreign Office to keep pursuing the case over many years, and we should also welcome the work of the Jordanian Government and Parliament to pass the treaties that were needed.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) agreed the first memorandum of understanding with Jordan in 2005, which led to the agreement of the British courts that Abu Qatada could be deported without the threat of torture, and the Home Secretary rightly built on that agreement after the 2012 European Court judgment. She was also right to pursue the legal route, rather than listening to those who urged her to ignore the law. Without the rule of law, we are not free.
We should be in no doubt, however, that the case has taken far too long, so change is needed to deal with such unacceptable and costly delays. The attempt to deport Abu Qatada started in 2005. It took three years for his case to reach the Court of Appeal, another year for it to reach the Law Lords and a further three years for it to reach the European Court, and it is a further 18 months since then. That is far too long—too long in the British courts and then too long in the European Court.
We will examine the Home Secretary’s proposal that layers of appeal should be removed for immigration cases, because we believe that the process needs to be speeded up and that slow justice is in no one’s interests, but I urge her and the Secretary of State for Justice to consider the practical and administrative reasons why such cases take so long. The European Court now has a backlog of 150,000 cases and badly needs major reform. However, Ministers promised progress while Britain chaired the Council of Europe, yet little of substance was achieved. The borders inspectorate has said that a quarter of foreign criminals are sent home and a third are given leave to remain, but that 40% are not deported simply for administrative and bureaucratic reasons, so those cases need to be tackled.
The Home Secretary referred to the qualified right to a family life under article 8 which can be used in immigration cases, on which we have supported the Government, although that was clearly not the issue in the Abu Qatada case. She concluded by saying that she wanted to abolish the Human Rights Act and to consider withdrawing from the European convention, yet she herself has drawn on the Human Rights Act. She used it to prevent Gary McKinnon from being deported to the USA, but without the Act, she would have had no legal justification for doing so. It is unclear whether she wants no Bill of Rights at all, which would consequently mean that there would be little restriction on what the Home Secretary’s decisions could be, but will she confirm that the Government’s commission on a draft British Bill of Rights has replicated article 3 of the Human Rights Act, on the absolute prohibition of torture? As she knows, the central issue in the Abu Qatada case was always torture, which is something that we in Britain have always abhorred, so ditching the Human Rights Act and replacing it with her British Bill of Rights would have made no difference in that case.
The Home Secretary made much in her statement of the importance for us, as a civilised nation, of not acting outside the law. However, if we were to resile from the European convention, what signal would it send to those countries that we are trying to persuade to adopt higher standards of human rights and to follow the convention, such as Russia, regarding the criminal justice system, and Turkey, regarding the treatment of Kurds?
The Government have done immensely important work in the Abu Qatada case: deporting a dangerous man; delivering new legal deportation agreements so that we can remove people to Jordan and elsewhere, with new protection against torture in Jordan; and showing the British Government’s determination to pursue what is right while respecting the rule of law and having no truck with torture. The Home Secretary rightly claimed credit for all those things in her statement, and reforms are needed to deal with the problems of this case. We are pleased that Abu Qatada has finally been deported and we cannot have such delays in the future, but she should put forward her reforms without ripping up the things that she has just achieved.
I thank the right hon. Lady for the references that she made to the success in deporting Abu Qatada, and for saying that the Labour Opposition will look very seriously at the proposals that we bring forward in the immigration Bill. The Opposition supported changes to the immigration rules in relation to the interpretation of article 8, and we were grateful to them for that. Sadly, a number of judges have not heard Parliament in the way that all of us hoped. I hope that we will have support on the immigration Bill, because I think these changes are important.
The right hon. Lady mentioned the administrative reasons for the lack of deportation, and issues around the speed with which these cases are dealt with in the courts. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Justice is looking at that issue, because we all want to make sure that we can deal with these cases properly—with people having proper rights of appeal, so that we can ensure that their case is heard—but can deport people rather more quickly.
The right hon. Lady then sadly spent quite a bit of her response on the Human Rights Act, my views on it, and what might happen in the future in relation to it. I make two points in response. First, what she fails to appreciate is the concern that Government Members have about the role of Parliament in setting laws that operate in the United Kingdom. That is one of the issues that we are looking at in relation to the European Court and its ability to deal with cases that are taken through the courts in the UK. Secondly, she rather churlishly suggested that nothing happened when we chaired the Council of Europe. A considerable amount of work was put in by the former Justice Secretary, the Attorney-General and others, and it led to the Brighton declaration, which is bringing about change in the way in which the European Court operates, so that is another success for this Government, who took that opportunity to make some changes.
My final point is very simple. Members of the public cannot understand why, under the human rights laws that we currently operate, somebody who is a threat to this country is able to remain in it, year after year, without being deported. Frankly, if the right hon. Lady cannot understand that, she simply does not get it, and will not get an opportunity to be on the Government side of the House.
I warmly welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement and congratulate her and her team on their steadfastness, including in the face of criticism from Opposition Front Benchers in the past. Does she agree that, in the field of human rights, now is the time for a re-examination of the balance between microscopic and extended examination of an individual’s human rights, and the safety and security of the constituents who send us to this place?
My hon. Friend has absolutely put his finger on the problem, which is that in all these cases we are asked to look forensically at the human rights of an individual, but there is no opportunity to balance that with the danger that an individual poses to others in society. There is no opportunity to take into account that balance of the human rights arguments. It is exactly that sort of issue that we need to address.
I congratulate the Home Secretary on the achievement of removing Abu Qatada. It is a personal triumph for her. I know that she has worked extremely hard over the past few years to secure this result; indeed, since becoming Home Secretary, she must have felt, to coin a phrase, that there were three people in her marriage. The critical part of all this has been the relationship with Jordan and securing the agreement of the King of Jordan. Will she look at drawing up treaties with other countries right at the start of the process, rather than at the end, as that is one way of removing people? Will she look at a fast track through the European Court for those cases that involve terrorism, so that they are dealt with more quickly than other cases?
I shall perhaps not refer to some of the right hon. Gentleman’s comments, but I am grateful to him for his kind remarks. This has been the result of a huge amount of effort by a great number of people, including Home Office officials, our ambassador in Amman, and my hon. Friend the security Minister, to make sure that we achieved the deportation of Abu Qatada. The right hon. Gentleman encourages us to enter agreements of a similar nature with other countries. We have, I think, 30 mutual legal assistance treaties with other countries, so we have already gone down that route, and that includes countries such as United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. We have a number of deportation with assurances memorandums of understanding with other countries—I think we have now been able to deport 11 people as a result of those agreements—but of course we seek to increase that number where it is necessary to do so.
May I award my right hon. Friend and her entire team 10 out of 10 for standing up against this man and for British interests? It is deeply offensive to the British people that £1.5 million was spent keeping this man in the country for 12 years. May I encourage my right hon. Friend to carry on with her work and, despite the remarks of the shadow Home Secretary, to look again at repealing the Human Rights Act and Britain’s membership of the European convention on human rights? Can she tell us whether the judges have got it at last? She is doing a fantastic job—keep it up, please.
In relation to the interpretation of article 8, sadly we have seen cases where the interpretation by the judges has not been what the intent of Parliament was when we changed the immigration rules, which is why we are going to put those changes into primary legislation in the immigration Bill later this year. I can assure my hon. Friend that I and others will continue looking at human rights and what the right human rights laws are. As our right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made clear on Sunday morning, the Conservative party will introduce our proposals at the next general election.
I, too, congratulate the Home Secretary and, in particular, the security Minister on the work that they have both done to get this good result. I was just thinking that it has taken 12 years to deport Abu Qatada—I think it took Andy Murray only seven years to win Wimbledon—so the whole country will be very pleased about this.
But it is a very serious matter, and this is a dangerous individual who was a threat to this country. I urge the Home Secretary to say to other countries with which we do not have memorandums of understanding that this is a clear message that the British Government can ensure that someone is deported, that they are not tortured and that they receive a fair trial. We should say to countries that may have been a little reluctant that now is the time to step up their act and get those memorandums agreed.
The right hon. Lady makes an important and valid point. Absolutely, we can send that message. One of the crucial aspects of this case is that the deportation with assurances memorandum of understanding was agreed by the courts as something that worked, so we can indeed build on that.
I join others in congratulating the Home Secretary and her team on achieving what the whole country wanted, which was for Abu Qatada to go home. I thank her very much for saying that one of the issues with the European convention is the backlog of cases, and for the initiatives that the Government have taken. She will know, however, that the Liberal Democrats believe that she is fundamentally wrong to argue that repealing the Human Rights Act or even thinking of pulling out of the European convention would be in Britain’s interest. If we want to set an example of human rights for majorities as well as minorities, in Jordan and around the world, we must not pull out of the best guarantee that Europe has had of them, written by Britons, and working well for the past 70 years.
The right hon. Gentleman should not be surprised that I or indeed any of his Conservative colleagues in the coalition should stand up and talk about repealing the Human Rights Act, because we were all elected to the House on a party manifesto that had exactly that within it. In relation to the European convention, we do, I believe, as a country, have to look at our relationship with the European Court and the operation of the convention. We need to do so because of some of the cases that we have seen, and national security cases are a particular concern when we cannot deport someone for a significant period of time—if at all, potentially—because of the interpretation by the European Court of the convention. It is only sensible when beginning to work on this that we accept that all options should be on the table, and we do not rule anything out before we have done the work.
May I, too, congratulate the Home Secretary and the security Minister on all the work they have done to see Abu Qatada removed to Jordan? In all the ups and downs over the years of dealing with this man, there was a time just a few months ago when it looked as if he might be freed from prison and freed from bail. The only option the Home Secretary would have had at that point would be to put him on a terrorism prevention and investigation measure. Given that at that moment she must have realised the inadequacy of TPIMs, what plans does she have to review them, especially as David Anderson has warned that early next year a number of dangerous individuals on TPIMs will be free to roam the streets?
This is a debate that we have had across the House and that I have had with the right hon. Gentleman on a number of occasions. The Government brought in the Terrorism Prevention and Investigation Measures Act 2011 and we are operating those TPIMs against a number of individuals, as he knows. As he is also aware, when TPIMs were introduced instead of the control orders that his Government had brought in, we also introduced, through some extra funding, measures to enhance the ability of the Security Service and the police to deal with these individuals, and we are confident in the package that was produced.
Many people pay lip service to the concept of having respect for the law, but in cases such as this, which are deeply frustrating, testing and troublesome, the Home Secretary shows real respect for the law, and I congratulate her on her conduct and that of her Ministers throughout this matter. Will she look at the many varied avenues of appeal that are open to people like Abu Qatada, which can be curtailed without any infringement of the overall rights, and will she express the thanks of this House to the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan for its extremely friendly actions in this case?
My hon. Friend is right in referring to the many layers and avenues of appeal that are available. It is precisely that sort of issue that we wish to examine in considering any changes we will introduce in the immigration Bill later this year. We have been co-operating with the Jordanian Government on this matter for some time now, and that co-operation has been very good, but I am pleased that the treaty we signed with them is more general and will apply in other cases as well. There is benefit to both the United Kingdom and Jordan in that mutual legal assistance treaty.
I, too, sincerely congratulate the Home Secretary and the security Minister. No wonder she is talked about as a future Tory leader. The Home Secretary very generously thanked officials and lawyers who had worked on the case, but given what she said about the cost of the case overall—this is no criticism of her—does she think there is an argument for a review of why it took those officials so long to fix on the treaty route as the best way to solve the problem, rather than run up those huge bills?
The reason that large legal bills built up was the time the case took, because of the various stages of appeal that were available to Abu Qatada and the fact that the European Court moved the goalposts in the unprecedented decision that it took early last year. It was because of that that we had to undertake further discussions with the Jordanian Government about the assurances that could be achieved. And of course our own Special Appeals Immigration Commission last autumn decided that despite those further assurances and its view that the Jordanian Government would bend over backwards to make sure that Abu Qatada got a fair trial, this one issue about whether evidence that was allegedly obtained by torture could be used had to be addressed. That is addressed, among other things, in the general treaty that we have signed. It is because there have been so many opportunities to appeal and because of the decisions that have come as a result of those appeals that the legal bills have built up.
May I join all those who have offered their congratulations to the Home Secretary, and may I also thank her for the congratulations that she has offered to others—her officials and officials in other Departments? That is a very proper thing to have done. Does she agree that even before the enactment of the Human Rights Act, we probably would not have deported a terrorist suspect to be tortured or to face trial on the basis of evidence extracted by torture or to a country which might have used the death penalty upon that person? Does she also agree that the core to the success that she has had has been the bilateral agreement with Jordan, and that although we may all have our frustrations about the expense and the difficulties caused by the Strasbourg Court, the central thing that we must concentrate on is ensuring that we have with these other jurisdictions rock-solid, cast-iron treaties which permit deportation?
Indeed, I agree with my hon. and learned Friend. It is important that we have these assurances and agreements with other countries where there is a possibility, or where the courts have suggested that there is a possibility, that it would not be possible to deport an individual because of the situation they would find themselves in once deported. When the European Court made its judgment last year, I think that it failed to appreciate the changes that have taken place in Jordan and the work the Jordanian Government have done, for example to change their constitution in relation to torture. In a sense the judgment was unfair with regard to the Jordanian situation. Nevertheless, as a result of the judgment, we had to undertake further discussions with the Jordanian Government and put in place exactly the sorts of assurances and agreements that my hon. and learned Friend refers to.
We on the left of the Gangway are delighted that this evil man is being sent back where he belongs to stand trial, but I got worried, when I watched him swagger on to the plane with a big smile on his face, that he might have a secret way back. I hope the Home Secretary has all the doors covered.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the support that he and, as he indicates, his hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr Skinner) have given to the action that has been taken—I must say that this is an unusual day for the Home Office, but I suspect that the normal situation will resume fairly soon. We are indeed turning our attention to ensuring that doors are closed.
I join the whole House in congratulating the Home Secretary and the security Minister on their stunning success in deporting Abu Qatada. I am not sure what gave me greater pleasure on Sunday: watching Andy Murray’s victory or the news that Mr Qatada was leaving on a jet plane. What assessment have her officials made of the right of Mr Qatada’s family to remain in the United Kingdom should he be found guilty in Jordan?
I congratulate the Home Secretary, her predecessors and everyone else involved in this long haul. Further to the last question, could Abu Qatada or his family argue, after he has done his time, whatever the sentence might be, that the right to family life allows him to come back to his family in this country?
I add my congratulations to the Home Secretary and the security Minister. We all agree that it is very good that Abu Qatada will face justice without the risk of information derived from torture being used against him. Since the Home Secretary is keen on ensuring that people are deported to face justice, can she confirm her support for a reformed European arrest warrant that does exactly that? She will know that only this weekend we saw yet another arrest of a Briton trying to evade justice in Spain.
My hon. Friend tempts me to comment on a matter that I hope will more properly be the subject of announcements in this House before the summer recess. I am aware of the arguments that have been made about the operation of the European arrest warrant in relation to its usefulness and to some of the problems that apply to it.
As I indicated earlier, in answer to an hon. Friend who asked about the Human Rights Act, it is absolutely no surprise that a Conservative should stand here and talk about scrapping the Human Rights Act, because we were elected to this Parliament having stood in a general election on a manifesto that said exactly that.
Will the Home Secretary accept the thanks of a grateful nation for a job well done?
On the wider issue of deporting foreign nationals who commit crimes in this country, could it not be a condition of entry for everybody when they turn up at the airport or port that they sign to say that if they are found guilty of a criminal offence, they will be required to leave?
I assure my hon. Friend that we understand the public’s concern, which I share, about examples of when we are not able to deport foreign-national offenders. There are a number of reasons why that can happen—most notably, as in cases highlighted in the media, the interpretation of article 8 about the right to a family life.
Of course, the right to a family life was not one of the arguments used at all in the Abu Qatada case, although there are foreign-national offenders who have used that argument. We will look to ensure that we make it absolutely clear in the immigration Bill that, except in exceptional circumstances, foreign-national offenders will be deported.
I join the whole House in congratulating the Home Secretary, the security Minister and all her officials on finally managing to deport Abu Qatada. I particularly welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement that the immigration Bill will include a simplification of the appeals process. What will that simplification do about the introduction of new evidence at a late stage of the appeals process?
We will consider that issue, of course. We have moved already on a different part of the appeals process—that relating to family visas. We have taken away the right of appeal for family visit visas. We saw that evidence was often produced towards the end of the process; had it been there at the beginning, it might have led to a different decision in the first place. My hon. Friend has picked up an important issue that we should consider in other contexts.
Many of my constituents were delighted to see Abu Qatada fly out of Northolt, although they may have been a little disappointed to see the plane so empty. Does the Home Secretary have a view on the family and associates of Abu Qatada? Many of my constituents find it indefensible that they should have been on benefits for so long and think that they would have been better off on the plane with him.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend both on this excellent result and on her commitment to reviewing and, hopefully, reforming human rights legislation. However, we will not get away from what she calls the crazy interpretation of our human rights laws if we allow our judges a completely open-ended clause in the legislation containing an unspecified phrase such as “exceptional circumstances”.
I understand my hon. Friend’s point. We will, of course, need to look at those issues when we come to frame the legislation so that we can be clear as a Parliament about exactly the sort of circumstances we are looking at. However, I am sure that my hon. Friend will appreciate that there may be some circumstances in which it will not be possible to deport somebody, although we want to ensure that we can deport foreign-national prisoners as far as possible. We will set out, as we have already tried to in the immigration rules, the circumstances in which we expect that a foreign-national prisoner will not be allowed to remain in the UK on the basis of article 8 but will be deported.
I congratulate the Home Secretary and welcome Abu Qatada’s removal, but I share her fears about the implications of the case. What estimate has the Home Office made of the number of extra successful deportation challenges that it expects per year as a result of Strasbourg’s novel—and, frankly, dangerous—ruling?
I am not able to give my hon. Friend an answer about the number, but I can say, having looked at a sample of cases, that this case was unusual in that it related to the potential torture of people other than the individual whom we were trying to deport. That is why it was such an unusual and unprecedented judgment from the Strasbourg court; it is also why the case is not likely to be replicated on many occasions.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on joining the ranks of the US Navy SEALs in knowing how to get rid of perpetrators of terrorism, even if by slightly less violent means. Does she agree that the principles of the European convention on human rights are very noble but have been misinterpreted by judges, and that if we have a British Bill of Rights, we can return to a situation where the perpetrators of terrorism are not given precedence over the victims of terrorism?
My hon. Friend makes an extremely valid and important point. It is about the interpretation of human rights laws. We all agree that it is important to have a legislative framework that protects people’s human rights; it is then about how that is interpreted. It is also about the relative balance of responsibilities between this Parliament and another body that is external to it.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend in the strongest terms on behalf of my constituents, who watched with growing disillusionment as the will of the people and Parliament of this country was profoundly defied by a decade of spin and drift costing over £1.7 million in legal fees. I especially welcome her announcement that illegal immigrants and criminals will be deported. Does she agree that nothing fuels disillusionment as much as state-sponsored abuse of protections that are rightly the privilege of British citizens, not foreign criminals?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I share people’s frustrations and concerns when they see foreign national offenders whom we wish to be able to deport unable to be deported. He refers to illegal immigrants. One of the benefits of the change that has been made by scrapping the UK Border Agency and setting up the immigration enforcement part of the Home Office is that we will be able to put a far greater focus on ensuring that we remove illegal immigrants.
I wonder what words my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has for the naysayers and doom-mongers on the Opposition Benches, such as the hon. Member for Walsall North (Mr Winnick), who is no longer in his place, who said on 24 April in this Chamber:
“Is it not obvious that this saga will continue for some time and that all the Home Secretary’s efforts have so far failed miserably to get this preacher of hatred out of Britain?”
The hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Mr Davidson) said:
“This farce makes the Government look incompetent as well as impotent.”—[Official Report, 24 April 2013; Vol. 561, c. 894-897.]
May I add to the bouquets under which my right hon. Friend is being buried and congratulate her and her team on succeeding where her predecessors had failed? Is she aware of the report that, contrary to what my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (John Glen) said, the plane back to Jordan was not quite empty because it had aboard it three security guards, a psychologist, a medical examiner, and, inevitably, a lawyer? Can my right hon. Friend confirm that the costs of those people will not fall on the British taxpayer? If they do, will she change the rules of taxpayer liability as soon as possible?
When I was an intelligence officer in Northern Ireland we spent a lot of time trying to drain the water from terrorists—in other words, the people with whom they lived. However, they were coerced and frightened. Such people may well be replicated on the mainland. What steps is my right hon. Friend taking to try to identify terrorists and get them away from the society which sustains them and allows them to operate in England?
We do of course have a strategy for dealing with terrorism. The officials at the Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism, which is based in the Home Office, work with the police, the Security Service and the other security and intelligence agencies to make sure that we can, where possible, prevent terrorist attacks from taking place in the United Kingdom. Sadly, in the past couple of months we have of course had the incident of the murder of Drummer Lee Rigby in Woolwich. Prior to that, we had seen a number of plots by terrorists to do harm and to kill people here in the United Kingdom thwarted by the very good efforts of officials, police and members of the Security Service.
With permission, Mr Speaker, I should like to make a statement on the future of the national curriculum.
Our children are growing up in a world where the pace of change—economic, social and technological—is constantly accelerating. These changes promise wonderful new opportunities for future generations, but they also create immense challenges.
We are learning more every day about how our world works and how our minds work, how we can develop our civilization and extend opportunity, and how we can improve learning and extend knowledge. At the same time, however, we are also discovering just how competitive the new world is. As other nations modernise their economies and education systems, we cannot afford to be left behind in the global race.
That is why, when the coalition Government was formed, we asked officials in the Department for Education to analyse the best-performing education systems in the world. They examined the curricula used in the world’s most successful school systems, such as Hong Kong, Massachusetts, Singapore and Finland. Informed by that work and in consultation with subject experts and teachers, the Department produced a draft revised national curriculum, which we put out for public consultation five months ago. We received more than 17,000 submissions in our consultation and we have given them careful consideration. Today we are publishing a summary of the comments received and the Government’s response.
The publication of our proposals has provoked a valuable national debate on what is, and what should be, taught in our schools. I have very much enjoyed this debate and the passionate engagement of so many great teachers and concerned parents. It is absolutely right that every member of society should care about the national curriculum. It defines the ambitions that we set for our young people, and I, like the overwhelming majority of parents, want us to be more ambitious than ever before.
That is why we are demanding that children be taught how to write computer code, how to use 3D printers, how to handle more complex mathematical processes, how to appreciate a wider than ever range of literature, and how to speak, read and write in more than one language.
The updated national curriculum framework that we are publishing today features a number of revisions to the drafts published in February. The revisions have been made on the basis of evidence and arguments presented to us during the consultation period. In particular, we have revised the draft programmes of study for design and technology and for history. We have included more detail on modern design processes and more coverage of world history.
Other significant changes include the inclusion of a stronger emphasis on vocabulary development in the programmes of study for English and greater flexibility in the choice of foreign languages, which primary schools will now be required to teach.
Perhaps the most significant change of all is the replacement of ICT with computing. Instead of just learning to use programs created by others, it is vital that children learn to create their own programs. By demanding that children learn computational thinking and Boolean logic, we are determinedly raising the bar, but by equipping our children with the tools to build their own algorithms and applications we are also helping to foster a new level of creativity in our schools.
It is my hope that these changes will reinforce our drive to raise standards in all our schools. I hope that they will ensure that the new national curriculum provides a rigorous basis for teaching and a benchmark for all schools to improve their performance, and I know that it gives children and parents a better guarantee that every student will acquire the knowledge to succeed in the modern world. That is why I commend this statement to the House.
I thank the Secretary of State for notice of his statement. The national curriculum should be a vehicle for raising standards, promoting innovation and strengthening great teaching.
Let me first pay tribute to the teachers, parents and pupils who have campaigned hard for changes to the Secretary of State’s original proposals. When did he come to the conclusion that it might be an idea for pupils to study climate change as part of the geography curriculum? When did he realise that speaking skills should be an integral part of the English curriculum? When did he decide to listen to business leaders, who warned him that the D and T curriculum did not include a focus on computer design and electronics? When did he decide that it might be an idea for children to study the history of China and India as well as that of our own country? Finally, when did he realise that it made no sense to limit the number of foreign languages that could be taught in primary schools? Surely it would have been a lot better if he had got his proposals right the first time round.
The Secretary of State’s new curriculum will apply to fewer than half of all secondary schools. Academies have the freedom to innovate. If that freedom makes sense for academies, surely it makes sense for maintained schools as well.
Why has the Secretary of State decided to abolish the levels by which teachers assess pupils’ progress throughout their school life? The levels system is well used, particularly in primary schools. May I urge him to think again about that?
The Department’s own impact assessment of today’s announcement warns of the risks for lower attainers and pupils with special educational needs or disabilities. How will the Secretary of State ensure that they, too, are challenged and supported and that their progress is measured effectively?
The changes are due to be implemented in just one year’s time. How will the Secretary of State ensure that teachers are qualified to teach to the new curriculum when he is letting unqualified teachers into our classrooms? Is it not time for him to reverse the decision to relax the rules on unqualified teachers? What support will there be for continuing professional development and training on the new curriculum ahead of its introduction in a year’s time?
The curriculum matters, but I am sure the Secretary of State agrees that what matters more is that we have a teaching profession that is high in quality and has high status and high morale. Does he accept that as a result of his policies and his rhetoric, teacher morale is at an all-time low? His divisive approach means that we have curriculum freedom for just some schools. Is not the time right for a reformed national curriculum that allows teachers in all schools the freedom to innovate, and therefore prepares young people for the challenges of the modern economy?