Wednesday 5 February 2014
[Mr George Howarth in the Chair]
Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Nick Boles.)
It is a privilege, Mr Howarth, to have this debate under your chairmanship. It is testament to the crisis in London that several London MPs are here. I will speak about private landlords, many of whom are excellent, professional and responsible; my comments are in their interests and those of my constituents.
The capital has always been a hot spot for housing, but recent policy reforms and cuts in funding by the Government and the Mayor have resulted in Londoners facing a housing crisis. Recent polling from Ipsos MORI showed that four in five people—82%—agree that there is a housing crisis in London. House building is down, and homelessness and rough sleeping are rising. In 31 of 32 London boroughs, less than 10% of available properties for sale are affordable to a couple on average wages, with children. As an MP, I earn a good salary, but if I were starting out now, I would be unable to buy a family home in most areas of London. In addition, the lack of an adequate supply of social and affordable housing means that many people have no choice but to rent privately.
The situation could become even worse. Statistics from the Ministry of Justice show that one in 56 households in London are at risk of mortgage or landlord repossession, compared with one in 105 households nationally. Discussions tend to focus on building affordable and social housing, but neither can be provided overnight. We must focus on what needs to be done to help people now. I initiated this debate to discuss practical steps that should be urgently taken to regulate the private rented sector throughout London.
In the past 10 years, the proportion of families renting in London has increased from one in 10 to one in four. If population growth is taken into account, that is a 119% increase in the number of families renting. In my constituency, almost one fifth of all families live in private rented accommodation. The private rented sector in London has grown by 75% in 10 years, but rented accommodation is not offering people the opportunity to create secure homes and stable families.
The private rented sector is notoriously unstable. Renters typically have short contracts of six or perhaps 12 months. Rent increases are unpredictable. The life of the private renter is typically unstable, insecure and blighted by anxiety. I regularly meet families who tell me that they are living in substandard properties that are damp and overcrowded, and that their accommodation is making their children ill. They tell me that, for all this, they struggle to pay extortionate rent. They tell me they fear eviction. They tell me that they are desperate, and they are.
One of the biggest problems facing families who rent privately is the instability of the market, and the lack of a statutory system of private rented sector regulation to safeguard standards and of any meaningful security of tenure. The assured shorthold tenancy gives tenants just six months’ protection from eviction, after which landlords can evict them or raise their rent by any amount with two months’ notice. Renters have no long-term certainty, and that is no way to raise a family.
I have met families in my constituency with children under 10 who are attending their third primary school due to multiple evictions over their short lifetime. That is not surprising because, according to Shelter, renters are 11 times more likely to have moved in the last year than people with a mortgage. That has a negative impact on children’s education and well-being. Government research found that frequent movers are significantly less likely to obtain five A to C GCSEs, or to be registered with a GP. That is yet another example of children from the poorest background being failed. We must reform the assured shorthold tenancy and increase security of tenure beyond the six-month limit if we are to have stable communities and give children the best chance in life.
There is not just the emotional cost of moving: uprooting is extremely expensive. Letting agencies can charge excessive fees of hundreds of pounds for administration costs, in addition to requiring deposits and advanced rent. The result is further pressure on renters who are already struggling to balance rising rents and living costs. The instability of the private rented sector means renters face these charges more frequently—the more frequent the turnover, the more money the letting agent makes.
It is time for the industry to face regulation, as the informal code of practice has clearly not worked. The extent and level of activities that can be charged for should also be regulated to ensure consistency. Renters should not have to pay disproportionate amounts for basic services, such as swapping, renewing or editing contracts—and all the while rent is out of control: the cost of renting has soared while wages have dropped. Rent inflation in London is 4.8%, and at the same time, the average wage for ordinary Londoners has fallen by 5%. Excessive and unaffordable rent increases can be prevented only by Government intervention.
My constituency is just outside London, and many people believe that it is easier to go outside London for cheaper rent if they want to remain together as a family. However, unreliable transport means that one of my constituents who was the family breadwinner but recently lost their job now finds it impossible to go back to London because of the shortage of housing and extortionate rents. Does the hon. Lady agree that moving out of London is not always the answer that some people think it is?
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention and I agree with her. The Select Committee on Work and Pensions recently visited her constituency, and we heard all about the problems in a rural constituency, such as problems with transport, and people trying to move to London but finding it impossible to obtain properties.
We need rent stabilisation. It is time to protect the consumer while allowing landlords to make a living, but some in my constituency are making a killing. Rent stabilisation is sometimes called second or third generation rent control, and is used in many other countries, including France, Germany, Sweden and Switzerland. Although some critics say that landlords would flee the sector, that has not happened in those countries, nor has it affected the development of large and functioning private sectors. Rent stability is needed to provide people with stability. That is logical, fair and overdue.
Although rents are rising, the same cannot be said about the standard of rental property. According to Shelter, private rented homes are in worse physical condition than homes in all other tenures. My postbag shows an increasing number of families whose physical and mental health is being severely affected by living in overcrowded, damp and unsafe accommodation for which they are paying inflated rent. The lack of regulation means that vulnerable tenants in substandard living conditions can be exploited. We need a fair system of checks and balances, and a national system of landlord accreditation to offer much-needed regulation.
Private properties should be assessed by local authorities to determine whether they are fit for human habitation before they are rented. The Law Commission has called for every tenancy to include the implied term that the dwelling should be fit for human habitation. I support that call. We must grant greater powers to local authorities to root out and strike off rogue landlords. There are many good and reputable professional landlords, but the rogue element shames the whole sector.
Instituting a system requiring landlords to conform to certain standards or face penalties would not only improve the quality of private rented properties, but give private renters the security they are currently denied. It is clear that there is an imbalance of power between tenants and landlords. Tenants will not ask for conditions to be improved because they fear retaliatory eviction, which occurs when a landlord attempts to evict a tenant in response to a reasonable request, such as having health and safety issues addressed. A survey by The Tenants’ Voice in 2013 found that 61% of tenants were worried about complaining to their landlords about anything. It also found that 71% of tenants had paid for repairs themselves rather than asking their landlords.
Legislation protects landlords but not tenants. Section 21 of the Housing Act 1988 provides landlords with a mandatory ground for eviction. They do not have to give any reason and the only requirement is that notice has been served correctly. It is clear that the conditions under which a section 21 notice can be issued should be reviewed urgently.
Does my hon. Friend agree that a growing phenomenon is the number of people who are homeless because of eviction in the private rented sector? That is extremely worrying and one of the main drivers of the increase in homelessness in London and elsewhere.
I completely agree. In my constituency, the people who present to me as homeless have always spent time in private rented accommodation, and they do not want to go back into it because of the insecurities that it creates, particularly for their children and their children’s schooling.
I understand that housing in London is a complex problem, but it must be confronted. We are facing the biggest housing crisis in a generation. For too long, some private landlords have taken the money without accepting the responsibility, while the rest of us have picked up the costs of unstable communities, marriage breakdowns and children who do not have a secure home life. Given that the private rented sector is likely to keep expanding, we must create a reputable industry that protects the vulnerable and ensures that renters are not at the mercy of unscrupulous landlords. Stable homes make stable communities, which is surely is in the interests of society as a whole.
I have eight questions that I would like to ask the Minister. First, does he agree that the private rented sector needs greater regulation and management? Secondly, I understand that the Department for Communities and Local Government has been considering the need for family-friendly tenancies in the private sector. How many families have benefited from increased security of tenure in the private rented sector since the Secretary of State’s announcement on 1 October 2013 of a package of measures to persuade landlords to offer greater security? Thirdly, does the Minister agree that rents have reached the limit of affordability for most ordinary families across the capital? Fourthly, does he support the Law Commission’s call for every tenancy to include an implied term that the dwelling should be fit for human habitation?
Fifthly, the Government promised some movement on a review of conditions in the private rented sector by the end of January 2014, but we have had no news on that. Will the Minister tell us when we might see that review? Sixthly, what new rights does the Secretary of State’s tenants’ charter give to tenants who face retaliatory eviction after making a complaint about their landlord because of dangerous conditions in their home? Seventhly, does the Minister agree that local authorities should declare to Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs the payment of housing benefit to landlords? There are people who profit from the tax and benefit system without paying into it. Eighthly, are all local authorities required by statute to have a published housing strategy as well as a tenancy strategy?
It is a pleasure to participate in this debate, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Thamesmead (Teresa Pearce) on securing it. I am afraid that I cannot stay for the whole debate because I am chairing a meeting at 10.30 am, so I will miss the contributions from the Minister and, sadly, from our Front-Bench spokeswoman, the hon. Member for Wolverhampton North East (Emma Reynolds).
When I sat down yesterday to think about what I might say in this debate, I realised that I have made a similar speech in each of the years I have been a Member of Parliament. I make no apology for that, because the housing crisis in London has a direct impact on my constituents. For many of them, that impact is devastating for their lives and those of their families.
The housing crisis in London is of long standing, but I believe it has been made worse by the policies of the Tory-Liberal Government. If the crisis is not addressed, it will continue to cause misery and unhappiness for many. It will damage our economic competitiveness and place enormous strain on our already overstretched transport system, as the hon. Member for Mid Bedfordshire (Nadine Dorries) has said.
Some may think of London’s housing crisis as a problem that affects only certain people—perhaps those on a particular income or of a particular age—but nothing could be further from the truth. With rocketing house prices and sky-high rents, London’s housing crisis is as much about the young professional couple in their 30s who are unable to buy their first home as about the family of five who rent an overcrowded flat from a slum landlord. The housing crisis is as much about the nurse or the firefighter who cannot afford a shared ownership property as it is about the rough sleeper who can find shelter only in a disused garage or on a bench in a railway station.
The issue affects all of us across London. I do not know whether I have yet shared with my hon. Friend the story of a firefighter and a midwife whom I met, who lived in overcrowded conditions and wanted to part-buy. When I looked into where they might get a part-ownership property, I realised that the only place they could afford to buy was somewhere out near Redbridge, and only after she had qualified as a midwife. Affordable housing in central London is social housing, in my view. Does my hon. Friend agree?
Many moons ago—some in this room may not even have been born—in 1978, as a newly qualified nurse on a newly qualified nurse’s salary, I was able to buy my own home independently without a partner. Compare that with today, when there is absolutely no possibility of a newly qualified nurse buying a home in London.
I have met nurses in my constituency who might be able to afford to buy a flat elsewhere in the country, but in London that is simply impossible. I have not dreamt up the nurse, the rough sleeper on a bench in a railway station or the others whom I have described; they are real people whom I have met and spoken to in the past few years. I am not surprised when I read that 82% of Londoners think that the capital is in the grip of a full-scale housing crisis, or that 27% believe the affordability of housing to be the most important issue facing the capital, because I hear the same thing week in, week out.
One of the most common conversations that I have at my fortnightly advice surgeries is about the huge mismatch between the demand for and the supply of affordable homes in London. I see family after family living in overcrowded conditions who want to move to a suitably sized property at a rent that they can afford. I say “rent”, because the idea of buying a home is completely out of reach for many. Someone on a minimum-wage job lucky enough to be working full time—that is quite a big assumption—earns less than £12,000 a year. The idea that there is any property in London that they could afford to buy is laughable.
The truth is, as my hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Thamesmead said, that if I had not been in the fortunate position of buying a home with my husband, many parts of my constituency—that is Lewisham, not Kensington or Chelsea—would be unaffordable for me as an MP on a salary of £68,000. I do not say that to plead poverty; I recognise that I am very well off. However, my situation demonstrates that the housing market in London is such that people in many different walks of life cannot afford the modest home that they would like.
My hon. Friend says that there are parts of Lewisham that she cannot afford on an MP’s salary. Is she aware that there is nowhere at all in Hackney where I can afford to buy a property on an MP’s salary?
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. I am quite lucky that my husband and I bought a terraced house in Lewisham a few years ago, because if we were buying today, I am not so sure that we could afford it. House prices have gone crazy. The Government are stoking up demand with their Help to Buy scheme, but they are simply not doing enough to increase supply. The result is a potentially massive housing bubble.
With fewer and fewer people able to buy, more people end up living in properties in the private rented sector, even when that would not be their first choice. There is increased demand at both ends of the private rented market, because people are not buying and homes to rent from councils and housing associations are so few and far between. The rents of thousands of working people in London, many of whom rent from private landlords, are subsidised through housing benefit.
Since 2009, the number of people working in London and receiving support from housing benefit has increased by 110%. That has happened on the Government’s watch. Ministers claim that they want to reduce the housing benefit bill, but unless they invest in building significant numbers of homes to be rented at social rents—not so-called affordable rents—that bill will continue to rise.
What needs to change? First, money must be made available in the form of capital grants. The Government’s decision in 2010 to slash the affordable house building programme by 63% was just plain wrong. Housing associations need finance to deliver homes. Councils must be given greater borrowing powers so that they, too, can once again build on a reasonable scale. We must lift the cap on borrowing on the housing revenue account.
I know that the Government have made minor changes, but they do not go far enough. London councils estimate that if the cap was lifted, 14,000 extra homes could be built by 2021. We should also explore the idea of setting up a London housing corporation to build homes directly, as suggested this week by Labour London assembly member Tom Copley. The simple truth is that we need to invest now to save on revenue costs in the longer term. Taxpayers’ money is being used to line the pockets of London’s private landlords on a massive scale. That cannot be right, and the solution is to build more social housing.
Secondly, we must take a more strategic approach to public land. Londoners know only too well that the shape of their public services is changing. Fire stations are closing, changes have been proposed to police stations, and virtually every hospital faces some form of reconfiguration. Such buildings and the land that they sit on are precious public assets and should not be flogged off to the highest bidder simply to end up as expensive flats for overseas investors to leave empty. When there is such housing need in the capital, that is scandalous and should not be allowed to happen.
Thirdly, we must take some difficult decisions about our planning policy, in both London and the areas around it. Do we build up or out? How can we finance comprehensive regeneration schemes on brownfield sites in London? How do we ensure maximum benefit to existing communities? Politicians at all levels have a role to play. If we are to deliver the homes that London needs, there will controversial planning applications time and again. Politicians are going to have to step up to the mark and argue the case as to why something is the right thing to do. It is notable that recent figures from the House of Commons Library show that Labour-run councils in London have built five times as many affordable homes as Tory councils.
Councils need proper powers to deal with developers who sit on land waiting for house prices to rise, and they need to be able to negotiate hard with developers about social rented housing provision. That comes back to my first point: financing mechanisms must be put in place for social housing to be delivered. I do not pretend that solving London’s housing crisis is easy, but we must understand the scale of the challenge and act now to do something about it. I do not want to be stood here in five years’ time making the same speech again.
If we have a Labour Government after 2015, I believe that they will be committed to doing something about the situation; I am afraid that the present Government do not fill me with the same optimism.
Order. I hope that I will not have to impose a time limit. If Members limit their speeches to around five or six minutes, we should be able to fit everyone in. However, if over the next 10 or 15 minutes it looks like we cannot achieve that by voluntary means, I will impose a time limit.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth, although it is a shame that not a single Conservative or Lib Dem MP from London is present. I share all the sentiments that have been expressed so far and congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Thamesmead (Teresa Pearce) on securing this debate.
I am going to talk about Hammersmith, which shares the problems that have been mentioned but where they are more extreme for two reasons. First, the average price of any property in Hammersmith is now £700,000, renting a three-bedroom house on the open market would cost almost £800 a week, and last year Hammersmith saw the largest increase in property prices anywhere in the country—25%. A survey done by London Citizens some years ago showed that the only housing in London that is affordable to anyone on the London living wage—not the minimum wage—is social housing. The myth that new definitions of affordable housing are in some way affordable is simply wrong. We need more social housing to address the housing crisis.
The second reason why Hammersmith is in a particularly pernicious state is that the Conservative-run local authority—David Cameron’s favourite council, although most commentators would agree that it is on the extreme edge of the Conservative party—sets out deliberately to exacerbate the situation. It began as a simple Porterite gerrymandering exercise. An article on the Conservative Home website from 11 February 2009 detailed an analysis by the then leader of the council based on figures supplied by the hon. Member for Chelsea and Fulham (Greg Hands). The article identified the fact that many Conservative target seats for the 2010 election—such as Hammersmith, Westminster North and Birmingham Edgbaston—had high percentages of social housing. It cited figures of 36% for Hammersmith, 30% for Westminster North and 29% for Birmingham Edgbaston, and said that as a consequence of those percentages, such target seats did not fall to the Conservatives in the way that they should.
The article specifically stated:
“Today social housing has become welfare housing where both a dependency culture and a culture of entitlement predominate…Conservative principles of freedom, self-reliance and personal responsibility run counter to this culture. Calling for the state to provide a “hand up instead of a hand out” is unlikely to resonate.”
It then went on to analyse the boroughs across London, finding that those with less than 25% social housing were likely to return Conservative councils and that those with more than 30% were likely to return Labour councils. It was as simple as that at that stage—it was all about fixing the result of elections by not building or reducing the quantum of social housing. It has now gone much further. The new buzz phrase is “sweat the asset,” which means demolishing low-rise affordable social housing and building high-rise luxury flats sold off-plan to developers abroad. That is currently happening across my constituency. We have also heard cod sociology about how any subsidy of housing somehow encourages this thing called dependency culture.
I am not making this up—it is all in a document called “Principles for Social Housing Reform” that asked for four things from an incoming Conservative Government: no capital subsidy, no security of tenure, no duty to house people in need and no subsidised risk. The authors have almost everything that they asked for. They do not have no duty to house people in need, but they do have a duty to discharge people into the private rented sector, and the benefit caps and cuts have meant that, of course, that is often outside London—certainly outside inner London. All the other requests have become true within very few years.
Hammersmith council, however, has gone much further. It is part of Hammersmith’s planning policy that no new social housing units can be created. Where there is any affordable housing—there is a target of 40% on any single development, but it rarely exceeds 10%—it is typically a discount market sale, so it costs 80% of market rent or sale, meaning that it is, of course, completely unaffordable.
Across the borough and my constituency, there is area development of which Albert Speer or Ceausescu would be proud. In the north of the borough—at Old Oak, the Earl’s Court opportunity area or White City—hundreds of acres of land have been redeveloped. Over the next 20 years, 50,000 new homes are to be built in one of the most overcrowded parts of the country. Under Conservative policy, not one will be a new social home. On any particular development, typically 70% to 80% are sold off-plan abroad and will stand empty to hide or put away money, or be used as a profit-generating scheme.
Such matters are not only exacerbating the current housing crisis; we are losing for a generation, possibly for all time, the idea that there will be affordable housing in London. I am getting signs, even from my colleagues, that I should wind up—they know that I could go on for a considerable time. We are seeing whole council blocks and estates being emptied out, demolished and sold to private companies for luxury housing. If that is not social cleansing and social engineering, I do not know what it is. This is an absolute scandal.
The final thing I will say is that the latest thing the council has done is to refuse to answer freedom of information requests from me on housing matters, which of course is contrary to law. That is a matter that I will be taking further. I am at least glad to see that the council is embarrassed about what it is doing. It may just be that, because we have local elections in May, it is concerned about those. I hope that the message will go out loud and clear, not only to my constituents but across London, that Conservative councils are about exacerbating housing need and not about solving the housing crisis.
I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Thamesmead (Teresa Pearce) on securing this important debate. Looking around Westminster Hall, once again we see Labour colleagues—but not, sadly, colleagues from other parties—speaking about the housing crisis in London.
In the Ipsos MORI poll in London a couple of weeks ago, we saw the evidence that, for the first time ever, Londoners rate the housing crisis as the most serious issue facing them, with 82% of those polled agreeing that we are in the grip of a housing crisis. That crisis affects just about every Londoner—certainly every younger Londoner, who faces the challenge of finding a home of their own. We see this crisis as a cost-of-living crisis, with people unable to afford to buy the homes that, until a few years ago, they were able to buy, albeit sometimes with a struggle. We now see that it is necessary to have a salary of around £50,000 to get a mortgage on a first-time property in London, and of course that is not far off double the average income in London.
We also see that the rented sector, which is growing so dramatically, is being squeezed in London, with rents up 7.9% last year to an average of £938 a month. Again, what we are seeing is not only a terrifying squeeze on Londoners’ incomes but an enormous increase in the housing benefit bill as a consequence; I will refer again to that increase in a minute.
The situation has implications for how we live and the nature of our society. We are seeing a record number of young people who are no longer able to leave home because they are unable to afford a home of their own. We are also seeing an impact on the London economy, which London First and other employers are raising as a matter of serious concern.
If people live in a family home where there is an opportunity for them to stay into their twenties and even into their thirties, that is not great for the families or the young people themselves, but at least it is manageable. However, if we are looking at the kind of young people whose families are in the private rented sector or social rented sector, the situation is leading to the explosion of overcrowding. Currently, 24% of all Londoners are living in overcrowded accommodation. Tragically, I often see young people thrown out of their overcrowded family homes drifting into sofa surfing and sometimes into homelessness. We have seen a dramatic rise in homelessness, especially among the young.
The situation has not only had a serious impact on people’s lives but caused an absurd increase in public spending on the consequences of failure. I made a series of freedom of information inquiries to London councils last month and found that London local authorities had spent half a billion pounds on emergency accommodation since 2010. My own local authority is Westminster, which of course has led the charge on so many of the policies that the Government are adopting. It has spent a staggering £111 million on emergency accommodation. That accommodation is bed and breakfasts and the replacement for bed and breakfasts, which is the nightly booked annex accommodation, with no time limit—families are stuck, often on the outskirts of London or even beyond.
I entirely concur with everything that my hon. Friend has said, not only in this debate but in the many others we have had about this issue in the past. I can give an example from my own constituency, where a family has been housed—they have to be housed, because there is a statutory duty on the local authority to house them—in a place that is infested with lice and clearly unfit for human occupation. However, there is virtually nothing else that that local authority can do.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right that some of the conditions that people are living in are shocking in their squalor. That is particularly offensive, given what was in a superb report produced a few weeks ago by Tom Copley of the Greater London authority. It showed that a third of former right-to-buy properties in London are now in the private rented sector.
I have said many times, in Westminster Hall and elsewhere, that it appals me that we can have two households living next door to each other, one in a local authority property where the rent is, say, £110 or £120 a week—allowing people in that household to work and thereby improving their incentive to work—while next door to them is a former right-to-buy property. Many such properties are rented back to the local authority for emergency accommodation, and the rent for them can reach £500 a week. I have been in some of them and seen water pouring down the walls and black fungus growing in the bathroom, including in the toilet. Even for a rent of £500 a week, it is impossible to ensure that such properties are anything other than a slum.
The coalition Government—and, indeed, the Mayor of London—want to see that process intensify; they want to see social housing sold off in central London. They want to see us flogging the last of the family silver, even though these properties are enormously important.
Does my hon. Friend agree that at the moment London’s housing market is being turned into a Klondike for wealthy foreigners to make money? There are examples such as those my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Mr Slaughter) has given; there is also the Ram brewery in Wandsworth, which has just been sold to Chinese developers who will build 600 exclusive high-development houses with no social housing whatever.
I agree. In fact, what we are seeing are two types of new build in London; I simplify, but that is broadly true. One type is high-value properties that are frequently being sold off-plan and internationally. Indeed, last week we heard that only 27% of central London properties are being sold to domestic buyers. As the ITEM Club said of the London housing market:
“Arguably, it would be more appropriate to treat it as an investment market rather than a residential market”.
That is an absolute outrage and a betrayal of Londoners. It also leads to the second type of new build, whereby the affordable social rented housing being built—supposedly to balance the first type of new build—has only Kafkaesque “affordable” rents, charged at up to 80% of market rents, so it is not “social housing” in any sense at all that we have ever understood.
Unsurprisingly, we saw the Office for Budget Responsibility in December uprate its estimate for expenditure on housing benefit by an additional—I stress “additional”—£6 billion. That is the cost of failure: the cost of having to keep families and individuals in private rented and high-rent “affordable” properties, which they cannot afford whether they are working or not.
My hon. Friends have said that there is an alternative, and I completely agree with them. The money being poured into benefits and the pockets of private landlords should instead be spent on building genuinely affordable, decent homes for people to live in and bring their children up in, while maintaining their incentive to work.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Eltham (Clive Efford) said, we also have to do something to tackle the trend of all the other new build properties being sold off-plan and to international investors, so that those young people who want to have a home of their own have a realistic chance of owning one. Everything that the coalition Government are doing is taking us in the wrong direction, whether we are talking about the interests of people’s homes or the interests of the public purse.
I begin by saying what a shame it is that for the past five years the Mayor of London has refused to meet the leader of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers, that we have a strike on today, and how difficult it must have been for London Members to arrive in time for this debate. Presumably—the Hansard writers can put that I am being mildly sarcastic here—that must be why we have no Tories or Liberals in Westminster Hall to speak in this debate.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Thamesmead (Teresa Pearce) on securing this debate, which is on one of the most important issues that any Londoner faces. Indeed, for London and the south-east, this seems to be a pivotal point, in terms of how housing impacts on people’s lives. Politics ought to be about what impacts on people’s lives, so politics in London and the south-east probably starts with housing; I know it does in my constituency. In fact, when I was first selected as a candidate for Islington South and Finsbury, my predecessor, Chris Smith, asked me, “What do you know about housing?” I said, “I don’t know anything.” He said, “Well, you will, because it is your duty to reflect the interests of your constituents, and politics begins and ends with housing in Islington.”
There is the smugness of Islington dinner parties where people sit around and talk about how much their properties have gone up in value; indeed, the property I live in has gone up eight times in value in the 22 years I have lived there. It was nice to start with—people look at the price and think, “Gosh, I’ve made all this money”—but then their children grow up and they wonder, “Where will they live? How will our family be able to ensure that our children live near us?”
We are the privileged ones. Imagine what it must be like to be a third or fourth-generation working-class family from Islington, looking at their children and wondering not whether they will live in Islington, because obviously they will not, but how far away they will have to live. Will they be able to help look after mum at the weekends? Will the family essentially be split up completely? We have seen too many families in Islington split up, and that trend is accelerating. We see the little amounts of land that we do have being used for developments that are sold off-plan and kept empty.
We need to look with clear eyes at what kind of London we want. I accept that London is the best place in the world to live. Of course if someone had any money, they would buy in London, but they should live here as well, and not just invest in London and keep the properties empty. There are plenty of Londoners and London families who want to stay in London. We want to protect the sort of city that we have, and not have an empty shell of a place where there are no lights on in the evenings, no one votes and no one gets involved.
It is not even as though my constituents come out and vote Tory. The gerrymandering that may be happening in my constituency is a hollowing out of engagement in the community. People have a pad in Islington as their second home, whether they normally live in the country or in Singapore, having bought a property for their baby daughter who might do a degree at the School of Oriental and African Studies in 20 years’ time; they keep those properties empty until that time. They might rent them out, but not to people who become engaged in the community.
In the meantime, I have constituents coming to me day after day on these issues. Whenever I speak about housing in Islington, to ensure that I can never be accused of exaggerating, I only ever speak about my last housing case. I suggest that my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham East (Heidi Alexander) does that. My last housing case was a young woman called Sarah. She has two children: a four-year-old and a six-month-old baby. She came with her mum, who lives about a quarter of a mile away and helps look after the four-year-old, because of the baby. Sarah is in temporary accommodation; her rent is £500 a week. She gets a discretionary housing payment of more than £160 a week from the local authority to help pay her rent and to keep body and soul together, but that assistance will run out, and she will be hit by the benefit cap. That means that she will be getting £500 a week in benefits and paying £500 a week in rent. What does she do?
Her family has lived in Islington for generations. Her mum and the rest of the family are up in arms about it. She is on the housing waiting list in Islington, but so are 17,000 other people. Where does she go? How far away is she expected to move? She cannot work. It is all very well for the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions to say, “People like that ought to work.” Sarah said, “If I was working at the moment, Emily, I would be on maternity leave. I’ve got a six-month-old baby.” Can the Minister tell me where she is supposed to go when the money runs out at the end of March?
There used to be almost 12,000 people on the housing waiting list in Hammersmith, but the council abolished the waiting list. That gives a lovely cover for selling off council homes as they become empty. I have a letter from one of my constituents who has been told that the flat next door is being sold by auction by Savills next Monday. Hundreds of empty properties are being sold by the council when there is chronic housing need.
The Mayor of London’s solution to this problem is affordable rents, which gives us all a hollow laugh in areas such as mine, where a three-bedroom flat would be £600 a week. If the rent was genuinely affordable, we would say, “All right then, pay housing benefit on it.” If we paid housing benefit at 80% of market rent in Islington, we would blow the Department for Work and Pensions budget within a few months; that would simply not be affordable, unless someone was a banker or in charge of an investment fund. I looked today on Rightmove, and the cheapest three-bedroom flat has a rent of £370 a week. A family of five living in that three-bedroom flat would have £130 for the entire family to live on.
We must look at having real social housing and real affordable housing in my area, but where will that come from? One place it used to come from was housing associations. They used to build in Islington and across London, and there used to be a proper subsidy from the Government to assist housing associations in building, but the social housing grant has been slashed. I spoke to the chief executive of one of my local housing associations about that last week. He said that he used to have a business plan, under which he knew that for every pound invested, he would get a pound from the Government to build social housing. He now gets about 20% of that, and the Government’s answer is, “Put the rents up to affordable rents.” So it goes on.
People on average and low incomes in Islington are being pushed out. We will simply end up with a society that is rich, semi-detached and not involved in the community, and the community will die. It is dying in front of us and we have to fight that. We appeal to the Government—although the Minister is not listening to me—to listen to what we are saying: invest in real social housing, give up on the nonsense of affordable rent and tell Boris Johnson that that is no solution. We must find a real solution and we must have a plan. The Opposition have a plan: a Labour Government will build 200,000 homes every year. The question is whether the people of Islington can wait until 2015 for that.
There is the outrage of Mount Pleasant, which is the biggest development site in my constituency. It used to be owned by the public, through Royal Mail. It was sold off for a song, and guess what: the developers are not satisfied with having got the land for hardly any money at all. They want the development to be 88% luxury flats. Imagine the killing they will make from that. The developers will provide 12% affordable housing, but who knows what that means. I know what the development means: my constituents yet again sold short by money grabbers who are allowed to get away with it. No one stands up to them, and if Boris Johnson allows that, he will not be forgiven.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Thamesmead (Teresa Pearce) on securing this debate. As colleagues have said, housing is the most important issue facing Londoners. To those on either side of the House who think that the solution to the housing crisis in London is market-based mechanisms like more supply, I say that we have to start from the basis that the housing market in London is broken. Normal market remedies will not fix things.
The housing market is broken because of the limitless flood of non-domiciled buyers who are buying properties in zone 1, where upper middle class or even middle class Londoners once lived. They are being driven out into areas like Hackney, Walthamstow and points beyond. People who would never have dreamt of living in Hackney 30 years ago are buying three-bedroom family houses there for upwards of £1 million, and that means that I could not buy a family house in Hackney on an MP’s salary if I was starting out now.
In some cases, the non-domiciled buyers leave these properties vacant. Last week, we all read about the millions of pounds of unoccupied property in The Bishops avenue, where 12 houses in a row are completely unoccupied. One of the residents said he thinks that only three houses in the avenue, one of the most expensive roads in London, are occupied all the time, all year round. There is a limitless supply of such buyers, but what is the effect of that and why do they want to buy in London? Yes, London is a fantastic place to live, but those buyers know that even if they do not occupy the house or do anything to it, they will make a profit year on year because of increasing land values. Homes in London and in zone 1 are becoming land banks, investment vehicles for overseas buyers who, if we are lucky, come here a few weeks a year, but if we are unlucky, do not come here at all.
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend, but the issue of absentee landlords is not limited to the top end of the market. In my constituency since the right to buy was introduced, many properties originally built as affordable, with a social dimension, have been changing hands again and again. Nine times out of 10, the landlords do not live in this country and have no interest whatever in maintaining the properties, with any responsibility handed over to managing agents. There is also a constant surge in tenants, with the rent going up every time the tenant changes.
I was of course talking about the top end of the market to illustrate how the effect ripples out to the homeless in Hackney or homeless families in Greenwich. There is constant pressure driving up house values in London, and that is what is behind the spiralling cost of rent.
Colleagues have spoken about what is happening in the rental market—my hon. Friends the Members for Eltham (Clive Efford) and for Lewisham East (Heidi Alexander) did so with particular vividness—and about spiralling rents which mean that families do not have security of tenure.
As for the social cost, London is increasingly becoming a city in which people have to be extremely wealthy or quite poor to live. That leads to a society that is inherently unstable. If we leave it to the market, to live in Islington or Hackney people either have to be able to afford a house that is worth upwards of £1 million, or be so poor that they are eligible for what social housing there is. That is an essentially unstable society and one in which it is extremely difficult to recruit public sector workers.
In Hackney, there is a generation of head teachers who originally bought at the end of the 1970s or beginning of the ’80s and who are now approaching retirement. Now, head teachers of that calibre, willing to stay for as long as they have stayed, will be hard to recruit, because no one can now buy a house in Hackney on a teacher’s salary. Young teachers who are very committed to Hackney and similar areas find themselves having to move outside the M25 in order to own a family house.
The housing problem is not only about bricks and mortar or destitution, but about what sort of society we want to see in London. How do we ensure that that society is stable? How do we recruit for the public sector in future, if increasingly people on an average public sector worker’s salary are scarcely able even to rent in the centre of London, let alone buy anything?
What is the answer to the problems that my colleagues and I have set out? We have to begin with what is happening in the private sector and at the high end of it. Something needs to be done about the non-domiciled overseas buyers—by looking at some sort of levy perhaps—and at the same time we need to make it easier for British buyers to buy off plan, although this is not the whole answer, of course. Let us remember that even flats in Dalston are being bought off plan by buyers in Hong Kong, but British buyers who wants to buy off plan two years ahead cannot get a mortgage. We need to look at the availability of mortgages to people here who are prepared to buy off plan one, two or three years in advance; otherwise, they will always be crowded out by foreign buyers who are able to get mortgage finance, which will continually drive prices up.
We need to have a financial levy on the non-domiciled buyers, but we also need to look at private sector landlords and how they are managed. It would be sad indeed if the boom in the right to buy was to turn into a new Rachmanism. Rachmanism gave private rented housing a bad name when I was a child in north Paddington. It would be extraordinary if, half a century later, through an unwillingness to exercise the right controls on the private sector, we went back to the bad old days of Rachman. I am not saying that we are there yet, but that is where the cycle is taking us. Furthermore, although the idea is unpopular, we also need to have rent controls. I do not care what we call them, but we have to bear down on spiralling rents.
My colleagues and I are saying that the crisis in London is a crisis not only for the homeless and for those who are having to rent for longer and later in life than they might otherwise have done, but for perfectly well housed people who are worrying about whether their children will ever be able to afford a house within the M25. Government could do a range of things, and Labour Members are shocked by the unwillingness of Government and of the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, to take effective action to fix for the well-being of ordinary Londoners a London housing market that is broken.
Thank you, Mr Howarth; it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship.
In Hackney, the borough that I represent along with my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott), a little more than half of residents live in social housing, but I will not talk about that today. I associate myself, however, with the comments made and the concerns expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry).
One of the increasing challenges in my constituency has been the growth in the private rented sector. Throughout Hackney, owner-occupation is 23%, and the private rented sector is more than 26% of households, so more people rent privately than become home owners. I pay tribute to the organisation Digs and to Hackney council, which are looking at how there can be better rights for private renters, but there are systemic problems, which I want to bring to the Minister’s attention.
The right to buy has been mentioned, but in Hackney last year the number of right-to-buy purchases doubled as a result of Government policy from 35 to 70. As my hon. Friends have said, the price of housing is now so high that even with discounts and so on from the Government, there is not much opportunity to buy. There is a huge gulf between someone who rents in the social sector, or indeed in the private rented sector now, and the opportunity to buy, because house prices are so high. At March 2013, for example—nearly a year ago—the average terraced house in Hackney was worth more than £500,000 and the average flat £363,000. As colleagues have said, even someone on the generous salary of an MP could not buy a flat in my constituency or neighbouring ones. There is a real challenge and issue there.
The depletion of affordable housing to rent is not an answer to the problem. The extension of the right to buy, which may appeal to some in the Conservative party, does not solve any problems for my constituents. I am delighted that Hackney is building some new social rented homes, but that remains a drop in the ocean. I ask the Minister what the Department is doing to allow more money for that to happen. Sorry, I ought to have said this at the beginning: I draw Members’ attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
Touching on the private rented sector, the army of landlords in Hackney—throughout London, I hear—is largely made up of two groups: overseas investors, who use London property as a cash asset; and private individuals. According to figures from the Residential Landlords Association, 89% of landlords are private individuals. People in Hackney, or elsewhere, sometimes need to relocate outside London. They own a flat or home in Hackney, but the problem is that if they were to sell and move somewhere outside London, but then needed to come back, the difference in property values is so great and so entrenched that there would be no prospect of them returning to the same level of housing. Some therefore hold on to their property, and that contributes to the army of private landlords.
That is one of the reasons why the council in Hackney is setting up a lettings agency of its own—to work with some of those individuals, professionalise them and make an experimental attempt to get longer-term tenancies with reluctant landlords who are nervous about their position. It is crazy when people hold on to assets for the reason I have outlined, rather than just to have a home. That is a challenge. My hon. Friend the Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington summed up very well the challenge posed by overseas landlords. There is a need for disincentives to that approach to housing. We want residents and communities, not absentees.
Interestingly, when Hackney council looked at regulation of landlords, we discovered that we do not have as many rogue landlords as neighbouring boroughs such as Newham; we do not have the “beds in sheds” problem. There are some, but it is not the main problem. For us it is the other issue of overseas individuals that causes many problems. I have questions for the Minister. House prices have gone up, but even with modest borrowing on high-value properties in Hackney, many landlords will not be making a great deal of money. They are tied to certain mortgage commitments; this is because of the army of individuals renting privately in the borough.
Are the Government considering vehicles to encourage more long-term professional landlords, who will want to let for a long time, for whom the question of rental income is tied more to an investment vehicle than to personal financial circumstances, so that rents can remain stable, and tenants can sign up knowing that they can stay in the long term, with clear rent limits? I do not mean rent control as suggested by my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington. There can be problems with that, as there were in New York, where there has been a black market in low-rent properties.
What is the Minister doing to persuade mortgage lenders to allow longer-term tenancies in general? Often, that is where the brake is. Mortgage lenders will not lend on, for example, properties above the fifth floor in a block of flats, or those that are concrete system-built. My hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Glenda Jackson) raised the concern about former right-to-buy properties being sold on repeatedly. Again that is an issue in Hackney, partly because someone who has exercised the right to buy on a high-level property cannot then sell on to anyone with a mortgage, which limits their options. That means that more of the non-resident landlords—businesses that do not need a mortgage—take them on. Is the Minister’s Department thinking about supporting models such as Hackney’s letting agency, which is attempting to improve the situation locally? What it is doing is a drop in the ocean, but we hope that it will lead to other things.
Will the Government examine the impact of rents and house prices on the stability of the work force, particularly in the public sector? A 2001 report from the London assembly on housing for key workers, which I chaired, said that there was a crisis in relation to middle management staying in London. Things are even worse now. We shall lose talented public sector professionals who cannot afford to stay.
Finally, what discussions are the Treasury having on capitalising the huge housing benefit bill, to use that as a fund to allow councils such as Hackney to build properties for social rent, and to pay off the mortgage over 25 years through the rents? That would be a far more productive use of the huge housing benefit bill than chucking money down the drain and into the hands of private landlords.
I am pleased that we are having this debate. There is a great Labour turnout. I admire but am surprised at the solidarity that Conservative Members have shown with the tube workers this morning by not coming to the debate. Obviously, the Liberal Democrats are of the same mind.
Like many of my colleagues, I represent an inner-city constituency; 40% of housing there is social housing, 30% is owner-occupied, although that figure is going down, and 30% is in the private rented sector. That figure is going up. There is a desperate housing shortage, as my hon. Friend the Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) outlined, and we are stuck with planning policies that are the opposite of what is needed in London. A good example is the absurdity of the sale to a property development company, for a very small amount of money, of the Royal Mail site at Mount Pleasant, and the proposal to build large numbers of executive homes on the site, when there is desperate housing need throughout central London—not just in Islington but in Camden, Hackney, Lambeth and Lewisham. All the boroughs in central London have a desperate housing shortage.
Furthermore, the Government have a specific, deliberate policy of putting no social requirement on the conversion of offices to housing developments. The Archway tower in my constituency is a large office block, originally built in 1967 by London Underground and later occupied by the Department of Social Security, the Lord Chancellor’s Department and various others. It is empty and is due to be converted to housing. I do not have a problem with that; it could help a great deal. However, I have a big problem with its being bought by a company that will no doubt do the conversion work very well, but will not provide one flat for anyone in social housing need, and will set rents that are unaffordable to anyone who lives in the area or is on the housing waiting list. The opportunity to provide more than 100 good-quality new flats for people on the housing waiting list is being lost in favour of off-plan buying by wealthy overseas residents, who can occupy those flats right next to a tube station. What message is that giving to the people who work and live in the community, who want somewhere decent to live? I hope that the Minister will explain.
Not far away from Archway, which is at the northern end of my constituency—someone would need to cycle only for 10 or 15 minutes, up a steep hill, admittedly—is somewhere wonderful, The Bishops avenue. The Bishops avenue is apparently the most expensive housing in Britain, if not anywhere in the world. More than a third of it is empty. A large proportion of the property is owned by various Gulf state royal families, and the Saudi Arabian royal family. There are huge mansions there, and they are deliberately kept empty as part of a process of land banking. Some of those properties have become derelict, and there is a danger that English Heritage will decide to preserve them on the ground that they are good centres for wildlife. Owls and bats have taken up residence in some of those extraordinarily valuable properties. I wish the owls and bats well.
As my hon. Friend says, at least someone is occupying them, and no doubt they are having a good life there; but what kind of city are we living in, if we encourage the development or ownership of large, expensive properties for investment and land banking, and for occupation by wealthy people—I understand that some of the properties are used for up to two weeks a year, for summer vacations—while people are sleeping on the streets and hostels are hard to get into, and young people grow into middle age staying with their parents and sleeping on sofas, because they cannot get anywhere to live?
My hon. Friend is right, but does he agree that we must rumble the Mayor of London for constantly making promises on which he has no intention of delivering? In 2008 he promised 50,000 houses by 2011. That figure went up to 55,000 by 2012 and it is now 100,000, but between April and November last year only 2,235 of those houses were started. He missed his targets again. He constantly does it, and he is letting down the people of London.
I was about to refer to one of the briefings for today’s debate: the work of fiction from the Mayor’s office about all he is doing to improve housing in London. The reality is that he and his planning policies support the development of expensive executive housing, which is unaffordable to the people of London. He is not intervening to get social housing, or to support local authorities like mine, which are desperately trying to build housing to solve the housing crisis in London.
I want to refer quickly to what my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) said. I introduced a ten-minute rule Bill in October to regulate the private rented sector. If we are to deal with the housing crisis in London, we have to tackle it in a number of ways. First, we need a planning policy that enforces the need for social housing content on all sites, including office conversions. Secondly, there must be massive investment by local authorities in affordable council housing, with secure tenancies and affordable rents, not the market-level rent model imposed by the Government.
Thirdly, recognising that a third of my constituents live in the private rented sector, and that the proportion nationally, although slightly lower, is rising very fast, we need regulation of agencies, enforced conditions in tenancies so that there are decent-quality homes, and, above all, affordable rents. I therefore seek a default power for London local authorities to impose a rent model across London to ensure that we keep the diversity of our population and work force, and do not go down the desperate road of housing for the wealthy and homelessness for the poor.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Thamesmead (Teresa Pearce) on securing this important debate. She spoke eloquently about the problems faced by tenants in the private rented sector.
There is a housing crisis across England, but it is clear that it is particularly acute here in London. We have heard both passion and anger from Opposition Members about that acute shortage of housing and of affordable homes in London. It is no surprise that four out of five Londoners think that the capital is in the grip of a full-scale housing crisis. Earlier this week the economic forecaster Ernst and Young warned, very worryingly, of “bubble-like” conditions in the London housing market. The average house price in the capital is £437,000 and is predicted to rise to an eye-watering £600,000 by 2018. That is simply unaffordable, not only for people on low incomes in London but for people on middle incomes and decent salaries as well. Many of my hon. Friends have made that point.
Moreover, as many of my hon. Friends have underlined, there are massive problems in the private rented sector. As my hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Thamesmead highlighted, whereas 10 years ago one in 10 Londoners was renting, now it is one in four, and that number is growing rapidly. Rents are at record highs, are rising much faster than wages and consume more than 50% of average family incomes in London.
Homelessness and rough sleeping have both risen sharply since 2010, and the number of families in temporary bed-and-breakfast accommodation is, tragically, at a 10-year high. My hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck) spoke eloquently about the shocking circumstances in which those people have to live. The housing benefit bill is rising and the problem is compounded by the cruel and unfair bedroom tax, which a Labour Government would scrap.
Those facts are symptoms of a wider failure to supply the number of houses that we need. In England we are not building even half the number of homes we need to keep up with demand; in London, we are building barely a third. The Mayor of London does not seem to understand the problem. He keeps talking about numbers, but he is not delivering on any of the targets that he sets himself.
My hon. Friend pre-empts the next section of my speech. The problem is not just about numbers but about affordability. All of my hon. Friends have talked about the distorted notion of affordability that the Government have introduced. The idea that 80% of market rent in London is affordable is plainly ludicrous. It is plain stupid—it just is not the case.
I will give the Minister some figures. In Westminster, to be able to pay 80% of market rent for a three-bedroom home tenants would have to earn an annual income of £109,000. In Southwark, renting a two-bed flat at 80% of market rent would require an income of £44,000. The severe shortage of affordable housing is accelerating what many of my hon. Friends have been talking about, which is social segregation here in the capital and, if we are not careful, a hollowing out not only of central London but of London more generally. My hon. Friends have talked about midwives, nurses, teachers, policemen and firefighters not being able to afford to live in the communities where they work. That was not the case 10 or 20 years ago.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent and passionate speech. Does she agree that we have yet to have an answer from the Mayor or from the Conservative party as to how it can be that affordable rents can be 80% of market rent, yet, for example, in Islington the local housing allowance, which is the amount someone is allowed to get in housing benefit, is a maximum of £370, and the market rent for a three-bedroom flat might be £600? Should the two not be aligned if we really mean to have affordable rents?
The truth is that the housing benefit bill is going up. The Government should try to shift Government subsidy away from benefits to bricks, but when we take into account the bedroom tax and the cap, in London in particular, on the amount of money that families can receive in housing benefit, we see that things are being pushed in the wrong direction and that the housing benefit bill is going up, not coming down.
My hon. Friend may be too young to remember this, but when the Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasury, the right hon. Member for North West Hampshire (Sir George Young), was Housing Minister he said that
“housing benefit will take the strain.”
It would be useful to hear this Minister’s view on housing benefit now that the problem has escalated.
I look forward to the Minister’s response.
I want to mention overseas investment, an issue that many of my hon. Friends talked about. My hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North talked about the housing market in London being more accurately described as an investment market, not a residential one. That is truly shocking and scandalous. As my hon. Friends the Members for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry), for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) and for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) all said, foreign buyers are coming to London and using property here as a sophisticated piggy bank to store their money. That is leading to a huge distortion of the market, with Londoners forced further and further out in London and beyond.
I have set out a number of measures that a Labour Government would take. We would ban the marketing of property overseas first, to give first call to Londoners. That is incredibly important, but it will not solve the whole problem. It is wrong that people living in the UK are denied the chance to buy homes because they are being sold exclusively to overseas buyers.
A Labour Government would also clamp down on empty home loopholes. At the moment, to prove that a home is empty all someone needs to do is provide a table and chair. Councils have to spend two years looking at whether homes are empty before they can increase council tax. Why wait two years? I have said that local councils should be able to charge 50% or more extra council tax after a home has been left empty for less than two years.
I am passionate about the private rented sector. It is an issue in my own constituency in Wolverhampton, but I know what a big issue it is here in London. The difference between Wolverhampton and London is that in Wolverhampton it is an issue for people on low incomes and the most vulnerable, but in London it is an issue for low and middle-income earners.
We are seeing incredibly poor standards in the private rented sector. The Government have talked about a tenants charter. That sounds like a nice idea but seems utterly meaningless. We need longer-term tenancies, so that families can have the long-term stability that they need, and we need to enable councils to introduce licensing schemes. This afternoon I am going to Newham—by taxi, not by tube—to see the licensing scheme that has been introduced there, which is driving up standards in the private rented sector. The problem in London is not low housing demand, which is one of the qualifications for the licensing schemes, but high housing demand. That is what is leading to low standards.
I will not, I am afraid, as I do not have much time left.
The Government really need to get a grip on standards in the private rented sector. I am glad to say that Labour councils are outbuilding Tory councils in terms of affordable homes, but the Government also need to do more centrally to lead the way.
In conclusion, the Government and the Conservative Mayor have not understood the scale of the housing crisis that we face, both here in the capital and across England. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition has announced that a Labour Government would boost house building and build at least 200,000 homes a year by 2020. We know that there are significant problems in the land market and in towns that are constrained because of the amount of land available—that is true for London, as well, given the amount of land available on which to build the number of homes Londoners need.
The housing crisis needs urgent action. The Minister needs to get a grip on the private rented sector and the lack of affordable homes in London, as well as the disastrous standards of some private rented homes. The Government need to take a long, hard look at what is happening with international investors, an example being the situation on The Bishops avenue, which was uncovered by The Guardian over the weekend and which has already been mentioned. That is scandalous. It distorts a market that is already failing to produce the affordable homes that Londoners need.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Erith and Thamesmead (Teresa Pearce) on securing this debate, which is of vital importance to her constituents and the constituents of many Members of Parliament in London.
It makes a great change for me, as Planning Minister, to face a chorus of opposition from Labour Members. Normally in such debates, I face a chorus of opposition from my own colleagues in the Conservative party. The present position, I must say, is the more comfortable one, though that is not to say that the opposition has not been well argued or passionately felt.
The debate was a fascinating insight into how this House’s proceedings would be improved if 70% of Members were women. With, I think, the exception of the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr Slaughter), we heard speeches that were passionate but reasonable and that were inquiring and seeking to find the truth, rather than ones that were just delivering a predictable political rant. No doubt we would all be better off if that happened more often.
I unreservedly withdraw that slight to the hon. Lady’s political passion.
The hon. Member for Erith and Thamesmead asked a number of quite searching questions, but I must be honest: I do not have the time to answer them. Nor am I the Housing Minister, so I do not have the expertise. We shall write to her, however, to give her the full answers she deserves and copy in all hon. Members who have spoken today, but I fear that I will not be able to answer her questions fully right now.
The debate is a fascinating and challenging one. Of course no one in this House, on either side, denies that not just in London but most acutely in London this country faces a housing crisis. It is a subject to which I have given a great deal of attention and energy in the short time that I have been Planning Minister. It is important to understand that houses take a while to build. In our planning system, they take even longer to secure consent for. It is therefore not unfair to say that the seeds of most of what is happening now were laid several years ago.
The one thing that I missed in the excellent speeches of all the Opposition Members was any sense of responsibility for the situation we find ourselves in, or any sense of recognition that the seeds of the current crisis were sown not after May 2010 but decades ago, and they certainly have not been changed since.
I have very little time, and hon. Members all made good speeches, so I hope they will understand if I do not give way further.
I want to remind the House that the number of housing starts in London from 2007 to 2010 was 70,000 units, which was around 15,000 units a year. We all agree that London’s housing need, at a time when the population was expanding quickly, was dramatically higher than that—we might say that it was 40,000 or 60,000 a year. Under the Labour Government, 15,000 units of housing a year, of all tenures and price ranges, were being built. Let us have a little recognition of the previous Government’s responsibility.
Someone listening to the speeches made by Opposition Members would have heard not only anger about the situation, which is totally justifiable, but the implication that there were some easy answers that could make things better. The first such answer one heard, in a number of different forms, was the suggestion that we should have some form of rent control or rent stabilisation. I would point out that rent controls and rent stabilisation were removed altogether by the Housing Act 1988 and were never reintroduced in the 13 years of the previous Government.
Opposition Members protest from a sedentary position, but they need to ask themselves why most of them here today, who were part of the previous Government as Ministers or were elected under that Government, did not persuade their Government to introduce rent controls. I think there is a good reason why they did not persuade their Government to do so: it is unclear from the evidence that rent controls or even rent stabilisation, the arguments in favour of which we all understand, will make happen what we know needs to happen, which is to increase the number of new housing units.
If we say to investors who are going to build houses for rent that the amount they can put up rent by is going to be controlled, their ability to compete with other investors who are going to build houses for sale, which are, after all, a large proportion of the market, will be restricted. Their ability to bid at the same prices as people who are going to build flats for sale will be reduced. Then we would have to start controlling the ability of people who were going to build houses for sale to enable competition with people who would not be able to put rents up.
I am not going to give way, because I have only three minutes left, and the hon. Gentleman spoke for a long time.
That is the first question. If Opposition Members truly believe in rent control, they should say so, and they should say why they were not able to persuade their own Government to implement it for 13 years, and why they think that it is the answer now.
The hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) mentioned the introduction of permitted development for changes of use from offices to residential. He raised a perfectly reasonable concern about the lack of affordable housing achieved by such changes of use. There is the principal argument that people make their contributions to the community when they originally construct a building, but I understand the hon. Gentleman’s argument, and it is a respectable view that many share.
The hon. Gentleman was good enough to say that he has no objection to the particular building he referred to being converted into flats, and he says that that could be a good use. Why was it, then, that the local council, in common with many councils of all political stripes, resisted year after year and decade after decade any proposal to convert that building to residential use?
The hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) was passionate, and I listened to her in silence. It would be great if she was not perhaps silent—I would hate it for her ever to be silent—but could just allow me to speak.
The reason why we introduced the permitted development right was because councils across the country were resisting the conversion of low-value, under-used offices to the houses that all of us agree are desperately needed. Since we introduced the permitted development right, it has been estimated that there were more than 2,000 conversions in less than a year of offices into homes that people are going to live in and enjoy, so that they feel that their housing need has been met. That immensely progressive reform is delivering vitally needed housing in the face of the opposition from local authorities that had no good reason to oppose it.
May I make this clear? I am not giving way.
I want to address the subject of foreign buyers. Listening to Opposition Members’ speeches, one would think they wanted to prevent foreign buyers from buying London properties, which would be entirely logical given the shortage of properties. Then, listening to the hon. Member for Wolverhampton North East, one would think the Opposition were going to make it slightly more difficult to claim, by putting in a table or a chair, that a home was empty—
Betting Shops (Single Staffing)
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth, and to have secured this debate. I refer the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. While at university and for a period afterwards, I worked as a bookmaker.
I have placed several charity bets and secured a donation of £5,000 from Ladbrokes for a charity in my constituency.
Although I have some fond memories of my time as a bookmaker and of some of the characters whom I met, I cannot say that my four years passed without incident. Whether someone was upset with the odds being offered or by losing money that they could not afford, their anger was inevitably directed at the person behind the counter: me. While it could be shrugged off when someone was working with me, I felt particularly vulnerable when working alone, in particular if I had taken large sums of money. I left the betting industry some 14 years ago and had assumed that the practice of single staffing had ended. I was therefore shocked to learn that it is still going on, which I why called for this debate.
Over the past few weeks and months, I have read about an increasing number of cases where betting shop workers have been attacked, assaulted and tragically even murdered. When we discuss the betting trade, whether problem gambling or antisocial behaviour, we rarely focus on betting shop staff, yet 55,000 people work in bookmaking, which is the equivalent of 10% of the leisure industry. The work force is mainly made up of women, some of whom are re-entering the workplace after having children, or students, who need flexible or part-time work while studying, as I did when I was a student.
In recent years, however, we have witnessed a reduction in the number of betting shop employees. From 2008 to 2011, the number of betting shop staff fell from 60,247 to 54,311. In contrast, the number of shops has increased from 8,862 in March 2009 to 9,067 in March 2011. We expect staff to enforce consumer protection measures and to verify the age of gamblers. At the same time, they have to police fixed odds betting terminals. Speak to somebody who works in a betting shop today and they will tell you how difficult it is for staff to oversee FOBT usage if they are on their own. In addition, they have to get on with the job that they are employed to do. When someone works alone in a shop, they are expected to do all that as well as take and settle bets. Ultimately, employees are being asked to work as both cashier and manager at the same time, and often they are not paid any extra for working what are in effect two jobs. Following a meeting with Ladbrokes yesterday, I was pleased to hear that such workers receive a supplement of 30p an hour, which is a promising move in the right direction.
We often talk about problem gambling and I am aware of some good self-exclusion schemes from bookmakers such as William Hill and Ladbrokes. The problem is that staff cannot enforce such schemes and combat problem gambling if they are working alone, which has been highlighted by those working in the industry. One bookmaker spoke to his union, Community, about the problems that single staffing causes when trying to deal with problem gambling. He said:
“There have been many occasions when I have seen customers display signs of problem gambling. As we often lone work, I have been unable to interact with these customers. I have been in the betting industry for over 30 years, and over the past 5 years I have seen more and more customers with gambling problems. Lone working makes these issues hard to deal with.”
Lone-working policies are preventing staff from performing the duties that their employers expect of them.
Most worrying is the way in which single staffing can make betting shop staff vulnerable to incidents of violence. A report by “Panorama” in 2012 reported 26 outbursts of antisocial behaviour being witnessed during visits to 37 betting shops in London and Birmingham. Figures obtained by the same programme show a 9% increase in violent crime in betting shops between 2008 and 2011. In 2012, a survey of Community union members found that 10% of betting shop staff had experienced physical assault in the previous 12 months.
I refer the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, specifically the days at the races donated by bookmakers. I commend the hon. Gentleman, who is knowledgeable about such matters and is always worth listening to. On safety, does he agree that the Safe Bet Alliance, which has been set up to conduct a risk assessment of single manning, has been praised by the police for reducing levels of crime and that, under the scheme, single manning is used only after a risk assessment that is endorsed by the police and others?
I think that the hon. Gentleman and I are the only two Members who have worked in bookmakers and who actually know what it is like on the coalface— to use a Welsh term. He is right about the Safe Bet Alliance, and I spoke extensively with William Hill and Ladbrokes, both of which are signed up, before this debate. I will develop that point later in my speech. I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention and I am glad that someone else with betting shop experience is here today.
According to the 2012 Community survey, some 50% of betting shop workers had been threatened with some form of physical violence and those responding to the survey said that abuse is almost seen as part of the job. If it is true that violence in betting shops is increasing, bookmakers and Ministers have a responsibility to act to protect staff at work. I want to draw attention to several cases that give an indication of the level of violence to which betting shop staff can be vulnerable when working alone. Community recently asked its members to provide their stories and experiences of single manning and I have heard further stories that indicate the risks of working alone. One betting shop worker was fortunate to escape uninjured after his store was robbed while he was single manning. He said:
“I was robbed one evening just after 9.30 pm by a customer who had been in and out of the shop all night. I had spoken with him and he pretended that there was something wrong with the machine. I had to go out from behind the counter to deal with it and he came up behind me with a hammer. Thankfully, I was not physically hurt but following the robbery I could not return to work for over a month.”
Such stories demonstrate the need for a commitment on the part of the betting industry to tackle the issues caused by single staffing and lone working. I want CCTV to be compulsory, so that staff can feel secure in the knowledge that what goes on in a shop is properly monitored, and I am pleased that some steps are being taken in such areas. Community has told me that it has had more engagement with firms like Betfred in recent months and is holding meetings to discuss its current restructuring. I also wrote to William Hill to ask what measures it was taking to combat this problem. It is trialling a system in its shops that will ensure that any shop policy is dictated by how best to protect shop staff. It tells me that shops designated as high risk under their security risk assessment process, as mentioned by the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies), were excluded from the recent lone-working trial. William Hill has assured me that it has also undertaken a shop-by-shop risk assessment. Of particular importance is the fact that it has consulted heavily with staff. William Hill is also drawing together a lone-working policy document to set out clearly the company’s approach to single staffing. There are also some fantastic campaigns that are working to draw attention to the problems caused by lone working. The Sutton Guardian recently launched its “Safe Bet” campaign to fight for safer conditions for betting shop workers. Campaigns such as that are extremely important if we are to get the betting industry to respond positively to the problems.
As I mentioned, yesterday I met representatives of Ladbrokes, who assured me that they are working on ways to improve their situation such as implementing a code of practice, with the aim that it should be in place by 1 March. I was also informed of the new till technology that it is trying to set up whereby if tills become inactive over a certain time, an alarm is sent to the security office who will be alerted to the situation. The code of practice is intended to help gamblers by providing alerts. For example, if a person plays for more than half an hour or spends more than £250, the machine will alert the player. I was pleased to hear of that and wish that such practice was in place right across the industry.
That is the nub of my speech. We need to start with a voluntary code and monitor the situation. If it is working, it should be rolled out across the industry. If it is not working, we need to revisit the matter with legislation. I am asking for a common-sense solution to sometimes volatile situations. I want compulsory double-locking on doors, compulsory CCTV and compulsory panic alarms, so that if people are threatened, they can hit the alarm and help will come.
There is something else in which I would be interested. The Ladbrokes policy is always to send someone out when a panic alarm goes off, even if it is a false alarm, just to be sure—someone might have been hit, or they might be on the floor and cannot be seen, or something like that.
The hon. Gentleman and I both have experience of working in betting shops, and in my case often alone. Does he agree that there is concern about putting too much obligation on betting shops, given that about a third of them are making less than £15,000 a year? Many of them are independent shops, which is my background and my biggest concern. Putting too many requirements on independent betting shops might make them unviable, and we could end up not with single-manned betting shops but with no betting shops and nobody in work.
I have the same background as the hon. Gentleman. I also worked in single-staffed independent betting shops. All I am looking for is simple, common-sense, cheap things such as putting in “bandit glass” areas or cages, as we called them, to ensure that the staff are safe. We need seriously to consider a voluntary code and see how it runs out. If a voluntary code does not work, we can revisit it and have another discussion at another time.
My hon. Friend is making a very good speech. What would he say to a constituent of mine who works in an independent bookmakers and who shall remain anonymous? In her letter to me she raises a deep concern that, on a single staffing, she is cashing up at night and having to take the takings down to the bank’s all-night safe. Does my hon. Friend feel that that practice should be addressed by the bookmaking industry and should not be allowed, particularly in the independent sector?
I agree with my hon. Friend. I used to cash up at night, as I am sure the hon. Member for Shipley did. Sometimes on a Saturday I walked on the street with thousands of pounds in my pocket. Someone could have followed me from the betting shop as I walked to the post office to cash in. I do not know when he left the betting industry, but at that time we had what was known as “amusement with prizes,” which was the forerunner to FOBTs. We had to drop £250 in coins out of the machine every night, and we had to carry that money, too.
The hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) is nodding, and perhaps we are united on wanting to address the issue. My constituent is a young female, so does my hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) feel that the industry recognises that young females who are lone staffing and taking thousands of pounds from the bookmakers to the bank’s all-night safe are at risk and that something ought to be done to protect such individuals?
I agree with my hon. Friend. After I left the betting shop, I worked in a bank. Compared with the level of security that we had at the betting shop, the Securicor van would turn up at the bank and the staff would be wearing armour and helmets to take the money away. The bank had security measures in place, which the betting industry needs to consider. An interesting idea is that the marketplace manager, who looks after three or four shops, should take the takings and have security measures in place.
A lot of people do not realise that the working day in a betting shop does not end when the last race goes off. Staff still have half an hour in which to cash up and settle outstanding bets. If there is any other sport going on, they have to settle that before going out the door. A relief manager, as I was at one point, has to open the shop for the day so that everything is clear when the manager comes in. My hon. Friend is right that the industry needs to consider whether there should be more security measures, which again should be included in a voluntary code.
I will now complete my speech and await the Minister’s response. Yesterday, I discussed the betting safety charter with Ladbrokes. Following our meeting, I plan to send a letter to the chief executives to put the betting safety charter into action. I am pleased that Ladbrokes is open to the idea of such a charter. I hope that bookmakers will respond positively and commit to the idea of a national charter so that workers can feel safe in their place of work. I would like to see betting industry figures and Ministers sit round the table to discuss ways to protect shop workers and to ensure that staff can properly address issues such as problem gambling and antisocial behaviour.
I know the Minister well from our time serving together on the Select Committee on Justice. She takes a level-headed view of things and works collaboratively. I hope she lets us know whether she will take up my round-table idea and meet figures from leading bookmakers to investigate the matter further. I have often spoken in the House about the betting sector’s innovative response to change. The betting industry is one of the great business success stories, but like all industries there is much to improve. I hope that an innovative and creative approach, which characterises the industry, is used properly to address the problems that shop staff face on a day-to-day basis.
It is a pleasure, Mr Howarth, to serve under your chairmanship. I congratulate the hon. Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) on securing this important debate; he speaks from a position of great experience on these issues. I acknowledge the important and thoughtful interventions made by my hon. Friends the Members for Shipley (Philip Davies) and for Bury North (Mr Nuttall) and, of course, by the hon. Member for Hyndburn (Graham Jones), who has just left the Chamber.
Hon. Members have made a number of points about single staffing in betting shops. I should like to set out clearly what controls are already in place and what the Government are doing in this area. I absolutely agree that betting shops should be sufficiently staffed to ensure that the licensing objectives of the Gambling Act 2005 are upheld, and I confirm that local authorities already have powers to ensure that this is the case.
The Gambling Act allows local authorities to attach conditions to betting shop premises licences where there are local concerns, including the compulsory use of CCTV, as mentioned by the hon. Member for Islwyn. There is evidence that local authorities are using these powers to good effect. The London borough of Newham used these powers in November 2013, when it imposed a number of licence conditions on a betting shop because of concerns that it attracted crime, disorder and underage gambling. The conditions include a requirement to have a minimum of two members of staff on duty throughout the whole day.
Westminster city council has been proactive in using powers under the Gambling Act. In response to concerns from residents, Westminster’s licensing service has implemented several new practices for assessing applications for new premises or for extended hours, imposing additional licence conditions where necessary. Westminster council requires betting shops to operate no pre-planned single staffing after 8 pm and to ensure there are a minimum of two staff members after 10 pm.
The examples I have provided show that we do not need new statutory regulations on businesses to enforce minimum staffing levels. It is right that local authorities, which know these areas best, in conjunction with businesses, are responsible for setting appropriate minimum staffing levels, depending on local circumstances. Staff safety was mentioned. The Government have made it clear that staff and customer safety in any workplace is of paramount importance. Employers have a legal duty under the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 to ensure the health, safety and welfare at work of their staff. This applies to the betting industry as much as to anyone else.
The betting industry has taken steps to enhance staff safety in recent years. In 2010, the betting industry formed the Safe Bet Alliance, mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley, to tackle instances of crime against staff, customers and betting operators. The alliance’s principles agree a voluntary minimum standard of workplace safety and security for the industry. Those standards were developed in collaboration with the industry, police and local authorities. Statistics from the Association of British Bookmakers show that the number of robberies in London fell by 60% in the two years following the introduction of the code.
Although the Safe Bet Alliance was launched in London, all those standards have been adopted by the largest betting operators, which means that the vast majority of betting premises in England, Scotland and Wales are covered by those principles. Every employer must consider workplace risks to their employees. I expect all bookmakers to properly assess the appropriateness of single staffing as part of their business operations.
The hon. Member for Islwyn mentioned support for a national charter. The industry is implementing its social responsibility code, which includes points on staff safety, from March. The principles of any charter could perhaps be adopted in the existing code. There is certainly room for further discussions on that.
We have heard that single staffing limits the ability of staff to intervene when customers experience problems. It is essential that all gambling operators, not just betting shops, are able to provide support to customers who appear to be having difficulty. That is why it is already a condition of an operator’s licence granted by the Gambling Commission that licensees define their policies when there are concerns that a customer’s behaviour may indicate problem gambling. Those policies must include training for all staff on their respective responsibilities and how and when any customer intervention should occur. Those procedures must be adhered to as a minimum requirement by gambling operators. The Gambling Commission can take action, up to and including licence revocation, if there is evidence that a betting shop is failing or falling short of its obligations.
In conclusion, the safety of betting shop employees and customers is of paramount importance. Local authorities already have powers to impose licence conditions on betting shops to ensure that this is the case. It is right that these powers remain at local level.
Gaza (Humanitarian Situation)
There is a long list of speakers for this debate, so I may have to impose a time limit. However, if right hon. and hon. Members speak a little more concisely than their enthusiasm would normally lead them to, I might not have to do that. However, I will if I have to.
I initiated this debate because during the last International Development questions I was struck by the comments of my right hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr Duncan), the International Development Minister—he is not here today because he is on a ministerial visit to Nepal—who said:
“The collapse in the supply of fuel and medical supplies entering Gaza in recent months and the rising price of food are exacerbating the already precarious humanitarian situation caused by restrictions on the movement of goods and people and the devastation of the winter storms.”
He went on to say that he had been in the Palestinian Territories the previous week and had spoken
“directly to a number of people in Gaza. The shortage of drugs is a serious issue, and that has been the case since about 2007. DFID is supporting the UN access co-ordination unit to work with the World Health Organisation, Israel, the Palestinian Authority and the agencies to help to facilitate the transfer of medical equipment and supplies, and patient referrals, in and out of Gaza.”
He then made a stark prediction:
“It is no exaggeration to say that, come the autumn, Gaza could be without food, without power and without clean water. One UN report predicts that it could become an unliveable place, meaning that it risks becoming unfit for human habitation.”—[Official Report, 22 January 2014; Vol. 574, c. 279.]
I visited Gaza twice some years ago during the 2001 to 2005 Parliament, when I chaired the Select Committee on International Development. One visit was under the auspices of Christian Aid, and it is worth remembering that there are Christians among the Palestinians. Palestinian Christians are a minority among Palestinians, and Palestinians are a minority in the middle east, so Palestinian Christians often feel that they are twice a minority and consequently doubly powerless at controlling their own lives. My second visit was with the whole Select Committee as part of an inquiry into DFID support for the Palestinian Territories.
During my chairmanship of the International Development Committee and my period as a Foreign and Commonwealth Office Minister, when the FCO still had responsibility for international development and what was then called the Overseas Development Administration, I saw many terrible tragedies—some from acts of nature, some as a consequence of human folly and some as a combination of both. They ranged from witnessing first hand the horrors of the famine in Ethiopia in 1984 to visiting the camps for refugees and internally displaced people in Darfur.
What distinguished Gaza and struck me was the total sense of hopelessness among ordinary people there. One small example struck a chord. My great-grandfather was a market gardener, and Gazan farmers tried to make a living by growing strawberries; they sought to maximise the potential of what little land they had by erecting greenhouses. They were not allowed to export the strawberries as Palestinian strawberries, but at the time they were at least able to export them. Sadly, almost all their greenhouses were destroyed by the Israeli army. After my second visit, I recall returning home and telling my children that I had no fear of death and I had been to hell, or rather that I could not imagine a state of existence or purgatory of such total hopelessness as being trapped in Gaza.
The Chamber may recall that, back in 2012, the Prime Minister urged Israel’s then Prime Minister to “do everything possible” to end the crisis in Gaza. As far back as July 2010, the Prime Minister described Gaza as a “prison camp” and appealed to the Israeli Government to allow the free flow of humanitarian goods and people out of the Palestinian Territories.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman and my near neighbour for giving way, and congratulate him on securing this vital debate. He has experienced those visits and the horrors he is describing so eloquently. Why does he think the international community has proved so ineffective at putting effective pressure on Israel to relax the horrific stranglehold on Gaza? What steps does he think could be taken now?
This is an important debate and I am sorry that I shall have to leave; I am going for a medical. Such a thing is denied to the people of Palestine because of the pressures they are under. The multitude of problems make their lives intolerable. Struggling sewerage facilities and difficulties with the provision of clean water are further undermined by the lack of power affecting health and medical facilities. Does the right hon. Gentleman see any way forward, or are we banging our heads against a brick wall?
The hon. Gentleman accurately summarises some of the challenges facing Gaza, and I will set them out in more detail. The short answer to his question is that throughout this debate we must remember that, under international law, Israel is the occupying power in Gaza.
On 27 July 2010, the Prime Minister observed:
“The situation in Gaza has to change. Humanitarian goods and people must flow in both directions. Gaza cannot and must not be allowed to remain a prison camp.”
Sadly, the situation there has not changed and, as I will explain shortly, the position on humanitarian goods and people has deteriorated significantly in recent times. Gaza today is still a prison camp with 1.7 million inmates. The Prime Minister said that he spoke
“as someone who is a friend of Israel, who desperately wants a secure and safe and stable Israel after the two-state solution has come about”.
That is also my position and, I suspect, that of almost every right hon. and hon. Member of this House.
I went to a Quaker school, so I have always taken an interest in international development and humanitarian affairs. As a lawyer, I have always taken an interest in international law since I was fortunate enough at university to have as my personal tutor Professor Colonel Gerald Draper. He had been a junior prosecuting counsel at the Nuremberg war crimes trial immediately after the second world war. Indeed, he had been part of a team that had been responsible not just for prosecuting, but for tracking down and indicting various Nazi war criminals and bringing them to justice at Nuremberg. I was, and have continued to be, interested as a consequence in how the international community and the world as a whole can establish and maintain norms of civilised behaviour that should be enshrined in concepts of international law.
For that reason, I have taken a particular interest in the work of my immediate predecessor as head of chambers in the Temple, my right hon. and learned friend and brother knight Sir Desmond de Silva QC. With the rank of Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations, he prosecuted war crimes in Sierra Leone and was responsible for establishing the principle that Heads of State do not have sovereign immunity for war crimes and crimes against humanity. That resulted in Charles Taylor, the former President of Liberia, being brought to trial for war crimes at The Hague. More recently, the Government entrusted Sir Desmond to investigate and to report on the Finucane inquiry in Northern Ireland.
In June 2010, the Human Rights Council of the United Nations General Assembly mandated an investigation into
“violations of international law, including international humanitarian law and human rights law, resulting from the interception by Israeli forces of the humanitarian aid flotilla bound for Gaza on 31 May 2010 during which nine people were killed and many others injured.”
The members of the mission appointed to undertake the mandate included Judge Karl Hudson-Phillips QC, a retired judge of the International Criminal Court and former Attorney-General of Trinidad and Tobago, who acted as chairman of the mission, Ms Mary Shanthi Dairiam of Malaysia and Sir Desmond de Silva QC. It is worth reminding the Chamber of the conclusions arrived at by that panel of international jurists appointed by the General Assembly of the United Nations, not least because much of it happened at or about the time of the last general election and the reconvening of a new Parliament, when, understandably, the attention of many right hon. and hon. Members may have been elsewhere.
The UN mission to investigate violations of international law, including international humanitarian and human rights law, resulting from the Israeli attacks on the flotilla of ships carrying humanitarian assistance, came to the following conclusions:
“The Mission has come to the firm conclusion that a humanitarian crisis existed on the 31 May 2010 in Gaza. The preponderance of evidence from impeccable sources is too overwhelming to come to a contrary opinion…One of the consequences flowing from this is that for this reason alone the blockade is unlawful and cannot be sustained in law. This is so regardless of the grounds on which one seeks to justify the legality of the blockade…Israel seeks to justify the blockade on security grounds. The State of Israel is entitled to peace and security like any other. The firing of rockets and other munitions of war into Israeli territory from Gaza constitutes serious violations of international law and of international humanitarian law. But any action in response which constitutes collective punishment of the civilian population in Gaza is not lawful in any circumstances…The conduct of the Israeli military and other personnel towards the flotilla passengers was not only disproportionate to the occasion but demonstrated levels of totally unnecessary and incredible violence. It betrayed an unacceptable level of brutality. Such conduct cannot be justified or condoned on security or any other grounds. It constituted a grave violation of human rights law and international humanitarian law.”
The panel went on:
“there is clear evidence to support prosecutions of the following crimes within the terms of article 147 of the Fourth Geneva Convention…Wilful killing…Torture or inhuman treatment…Wilfully causing great suffering or serious injury to body or health. The Mission also considers that a series of violations of Israel’s obligations under international human rights law have taken place, including…Right to life (art. 6, International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights)…Torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment (art. 7, International Covenant; Convention against Torture)…Right to liberty and security of the person and freedom from arbitrary arrest or detention (art. 9, International Covenant)…Right of detainees to be treated with humanity and respect for the inherent dignity of the human person (art. 10, International Covenant)…Freedom of expression (art. 19, International Covenant).”
The panel also concluded:
“The Mission is not alone in finding that a deplorable situation exists in Gaza. It has been characterized as ‘unsustainable’. This is totally intolerable and unacceptable in the twenty-first century. It is amazing that anyone could characterize the condition of the people there as satisfying the most basic standards. The parties and the international community are urged to find the solution that will address all legitimate security concern of both Israel and the people of Palestine, both of whom are equally entitled to ‘their place under the heavens’.”
Those were the conclusions of a UN General Assembly-mandated mission of respected international jurists in 2010.
Since then, the situation in Gaza has deteriorated significantly, which is causing concern in all parts of both Houses of Parliament. In the House of Lords on 27 January, Baroness Falkner of Margravine, a Liberal Democrat peer, observed:
“The humanitarian aid is terribly important, particularly when the 1.7 million people in Gaza are now living life at breaking point, with 11,000 people displaced by last month’s floods. Fuel shortages are such that donkey carts have replaced cars as a means of transport, the streets are overflowing with raw sewage and, with nearly 50% unemployment, the situation is like a tinderbox. The United Nations has said that Gaza will be unliveable by 2020”.
Lord Warner, a Labour peer, asked what the Government were doing to help with
“lifting this blockade, which is a cause of great humanitarian suffering to the Gaza population, 50% of whom are children”.
Baroness Morris of Bolton spoke as president of Medical Aid for Palestinians and as the UK trade envoy to the Palestinian territories, observing:
“some industrial fuel went into Gaza between 14 and 20 January. However, it is not enough and much below consumption levels. Hospitals have regular power cuts and some families have only 12 hours of power a day. The most vulnerable families are suffering terrible burns from using inadequate heating and cooking utensils.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 27 January 2014; Vol. 751, c. 978-80.]
For my part, I am the Second Church Estates Commissioner, and the Chamber will not be surprised that as a consequence I have stayed closely in contact with Christian Aid. As I mentioned, I previously visited Gaza with Christian Aid on one occasion. In anticipation of this debate, Christian Aid made the following points to me:
“Israel’s prolonged closure of the Gaza Strip, as one of its occupation policies, continues to effectively punish 1.7 million Palestinians for the actions of a minority..., As Gaza moves into its eighth consecutive year of Israeli closure, years of import and export restrictions have seriously impaired its basic infrastructure. The agricultural and manufacturing sectors in Gaza have been particularly affected. Unemployment in Gaza rose to 32.5% during the third quarter of 2013. Stunted economic growth has led to increased and unsustainable levels of dependence on humanitarian aid. The severe storms in December 2013 demonstrated how vulnerable this population is, especially to unexpected events like this.
In four days, 3,000 houses were flooded and according to a joint assessment by PARC and OCHA, 1,000 green houses were totally or partially damaged during the storm. The poultry sector was badly affected by the storm as the low temperature caused 12,000 chicks and chickens to freeze to death. 50 sheep farms in the Bedouin village were affected by the floods. Gaza’s Ministry of Social Affairs estimated the overall losses of the storm at $64 million…Fuel shortages led to the prolonged closure of the only electric power plant in Gaza in late 2013…Particularly worrisome is the situation of medical patients who, due to the lack of adequate capacity in Gaza, need urgent medical treatment in the West Bank or abroad.”
Along with a number of hon. Members present today, I visited Gaza last year, as is detailed in my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. On power supplies, is the right hon. Gentleman as worried as I am about the number of people who are affected by burns because of things that they are trying desperately to do to create their own generators in order to get around the lack of power?
Yes, and I very much hope that there is time for the hon. Lady to contribute in detail to the debate. Baroness Morris of Bolton made that point in the other place: the most vulnerable families are suffering terrible burns from using inadequate heating and cooking utensils.
Christian Aid went on to say:
“In December, the WHO”—
the World Health Organisation—
“reported a shortage of 30% of medicine and 50% of medical disposables and raised concern about the decreasing ability of the fragile health infrastructure to cope with critical shortages. Moreover, patients often encounter protracted delays in attaining permits to exit through the Erez crossing with Israel…In November 2013, a 24-year-old male patient with hearing disorder was arrested during security interview at Erez checkpoint. According to Mezan Center for Human Rights, 11 Palestinians were arrested at Erez checkpoint while trying to seek specialized medical treatment, of whom 5 were patients and 6 accompaniers…Since 2013, 154 Palestinian civilians have been victims of attacks in the Access Restricted Areas or ‘Buffer zone’, 11 of whom were killed, including two children. Most recently, on 24 January 2014, Israeli forces shot and killed a Palestinian civilian protesting near the border…and injured several others. Gazan fishermen are also subject to frequent Israeli attacks. Already in 2014, at least 7 shooting incidents have been recorded against fishing boats within the 6 nautical miles limit.”
Christian Aid further observes:
“Clearly Israel has a duty of self-defence towards its citizens from any attacks, but the indiscriminate and regular use of live ammunition against civilians violates basic principles including the obligation to distinguish between civilians and combatants at all times and constitutes a breach of international human rights and humanitarian law.”
Christian Aid highlights another concern, which is echoed by organisations like Human Rights Watch:
“The explicit and punitive closure policy is entrenching the separation between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, which are considered as one territory under international humanitarian law. This cannot help the cause of peace or foster an atmosphere of optimism for the future.”
Human Rights Watch observes:
“Israeli policies on Palestinian residents have arbitrarily denied thousands of Palestinians the ability to live in and travel to and from the West Bank and Gaza...the list of Palestinians whom it considers to be lawful residents of the West Bank and Gaza territories as separated families cause people to lose jobs and education opportunities bar people from entering the Palestinian Territories, and trapped others inside them...Israel has never put forth any concrete security rationale for blanket policies that have made life a nightmare for Palestinians whom it considers unlawful residents in their own homes...the current policies leave families divided and people trapped on the wrong side of the border in Gaza and the West Bank.”
It is difficult for non-Palestinians nowadays to gain access to Gaza. I understand that when my right hon. Friend the Minister of State was recently in the region, he was able to visit the west bank but was prevented from visiting Gaza, allegedly on security grounds. Of course, Israeli journalists are unable, under Israeli law, to visit Gaza. For contemporary updates we have to rely on journalists who have recently been able to visit Gaza. In The Observer on 26 January Harriet Sherwood, the paper’s middle east correspondent, who has made more than 20 visits to Gaza, wrote:
“The people of Gaza are reeling from a series of blows that have led some analysts to say that it is facing its worst crisis for more than six years, putting its 1.7 million inhabitants under intense material and psychological pressure…Power cuts, fuel shortages, price rises, job losses, Israeli air strikes, untreated sewage in the streets and the sea, internal political repression, the near-impossibility of leaving, the lack of hope or horizon – these have chipped away at the resilience and fortitude of Gazans, crushing their spirit.”
The right hon. Gentleman has already mentioned many of the problems faced by Gazans. Is not one of the worst aspects of the situation the fact that 90% of the water in Gaza is undrinkable? Half the population of Gaza are aged 18 and under, and the Israelis are taking every opportunity to make it difficult to access drinkable water in Gaza. Military action has destroyed a lot of the water facilities. I emphasise the point that 90% of the water in Gaza is undrinkable, which is a scandal in itself.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman that it is intolerable in any part of the world for large numbers of people to be deliberately denied decent drinking water for long periods of time.
Harriet Sherwood went on to observe in her article:
“Gaza is still blockaded and hope is rare. Israel controls most of its borders, deciding who and what can get in and out. Almost all exports are still banned; fishermen are regularly shot at by the Israeli navy; families are still separated.”
I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. He has laid out clearly the appalling situation in Gaza and made the case that what has happened there constitutes a violation of international law, but we have not moved forward over the past five to 10 years. What does he suggest we can do to highlight the situation and put pressure on the Israelis to relent?
I will, of course, come to that.
Harriet Sherwood’s article continued:
“The price of a kilogram of tomatoes has quadrupled, along with steep hikes in the cost of essentials such as flour and sugar. Electricity is rationed, currently eight hours on followed by eight hours off. Some families are cooking indoors on open fires, at considerable risk of injury. Children are forced to study by candlelight. People set alarms for the early hours in order to be able to take a shower or charge their phones or send an email. Mealtimes are now determined by power supply rather than tradition. Gaza’s hospitals have to take into account the vagaries of the power supply when scheduling surgery; pharmacies are running low on medicines…The UN agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, is feeding more than 800,000 Gazans—almost half the population, and a record number. But UNRWA is also facing a catastrophic 20% drop in income while need is rising. ‘So much pressure has built up,’ Robert Turner, UNRWA’s director of operations, told me. ‘How far can Gaza bend before it snaps?’”
I would like to suggest a number of actions that could be taken to make life in Gaza more tolerable. First, people should be allowed to exit Gaza, otherwise it becomes simply a large open prison. It is difficult to think of anywhere else in the world where there is such restriction on the movement of people. As I understand it, Israel is still committed to a two-state solution, but Palestine is a state divided into two, and how does one keep Gaza and the West Bank together as a viable unit and potential state if Palestinian citizens are not allowed even to travel freely between them? Before the blockade, thousands of Gazans went to Israel daily to work, and it was an important source of employment.
Secondly, there is an urgent need for fuel—fuel for power plants, fuel to pump fresh water and fuel to put in cars, which are all essentials for life. I understand that Turkey and Qatar have donated fuel for Gaza but that there are difficulties in the politics, and consequently in the logistics, of delivering it from Qatar. Many would argue that the constant use of diesel for power plants in Gaza is not sustainable in the long term. In any event, continuous power cuts are causing irreparable damage to the Gazan electricity network, which is likely shortly to become inoperable. The Gazans need more electricity, a high-voltage line from Israel in the medium term and the ability to access natural gas for a Gazan power plant in the longer term.
There is an increasing concern among donors, NGOs and the international community that constantly applying sticking-plaster solutions to the humanitarian situation in Gaza does not address the root causes of its problems. The simple fact is that the humanitarian situation in Gaza is getting worse, however much money the international community puts into it. The occupation must end. Gazan business should be allowed to export to Israel, and through Israel to the west bank. It may be possible to export Gazan strawberries for a couple of months a year to the Netherlands, but sustainable exports from Gaza are entirely to Israel and the west bank. There appears to be a total ban on exports from Gaza to either Israel or the west bank, however, which is resulting in mounting unemployment and grinding poverty.
I was on the same delegation to Gaza last year as the hon. Member for Brent Central (Sarah Teather). I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for securing the debate and for drawing attention to the environmental situation in Gaza: the water shortage, the inability to develop solar power because of lack of resources, and the lack of material for creating desalination plants. Does he agree that an environmental catastrophe is fast approaching, and that if it is not addressed, goodness knows what will happen to the people of Gaza?
I entirely agree. Israel, the occupying power, does not seem prepared to allow people or exports to leave Gaza, and it seems equally unwilling to allow construction materials into Gaza. There appears to be an almost total ban on construction materials. There are strict controls even for international projects organised by the donor community: UNRWA can currently take forward only 12 of the 32 construction projects that it considers to be essential in Gaza. There is a need for new housing and to repair damage caused by the recent storms. Construction was one of the only industries in Gaza that used to be growing, and it once employed 20,000 people, but now practically no construction is taking place. The present humanitarian crisis seems to affect every aspect of Gaza. People appear not to be getting permits to travel to hospital. For the past two years there have been serious shortages of medical supplies and drugs, and the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs estimates that 30% to 50% of drugs are at zero stock.
Gazan fishermen and farmers are also having a tough time. Fisherman are allowed to fish up to 6 nautical miles from Gaza’s coastline, but the main fish stocks are 8 nautical miles from the shore and fishing in nearer waters provides no livelihoods. There have been cases of fisherman being shot or their boats being confiscated. The reality is that 95% of Gazan fishermen are now dependent on aid. No new people are fishing, because it is impossible to make a living.
Farmers face the difficulty that there is no clarity about the width of the buffer zone between Gaza and the Israeli border. Officially, it would seem to be 100 metres, but Palestinians have been shot up to 300 metres from the border, and I am even told that one was shot 1 km from the border. Farmers are not clear about whether and where it is safe for them to work and till their land. That has a cumulative effect, because if agricultural land is not properly worked it has little chance of recovery. The hours that farmers can work are also restricted to between 7 am and 3 pm. Many farmers in Gaza, as elsewhere in the world, want to get up at first light—5 am—to work their fields.
I think it is particularly tragic that Gaza, as part of Palestine as well as of Israel, has the potential to benefit from considerable natural gas resources and reserves. There is considerable natural gas in the Gaza marine field. Instead of having to rely on diesel, Gaza could run its energy and water systems on natural gas. Unsurprisingly, the natural gas discussions between Israel and the Palestinians have been complex and appear to be getting nowhere.
Gaza is part of the middle east peace negotiations, and for there to be a viable two-state solution, there must be a viable Palestine. To have a viable Palestine, Gaza must be part of Palestine and a viable part of a Palestinian state. It cannot be right, in the 21st century, that people are suffering as they are. As the UN General Assembly mission concluded, under international law
“collective punishment of the civilian population in Gaza is not lawful in any circumstances.”
Occupation clearly harms those who are occupied, but I would also suggest that long-term occupation is not in the best interests of the occupiers.
I noticed that in this week’s Spectator, Sam Kiley, the foreign affairs editor of Sky News, observes that the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs has
“repeatedly insisted that if there isn’t a deal this year that establishes an independent Palestinian state, then Israel’s own future as both a Jewish state and a democracy is in doubt. If there’s no two-state solution, then Israel will face international isolation as a pariah state that denies rights to up to 2.5 million Arabs.”
He goes on to observe that John Kerry
“has been more circumspect. Still, here’s what he told Israeli TV last year: ‘If we do not find a way to find peace, there will be an increasing campaign of delegitimisation of Israel that’s been taking place on an international basis. I’ve got news for you: today’s status quo will not be tomorrow’s.’”
Kiley reports that the US
“has been clear about what it would like to see: a sovereign Palestinian state alongside Israel. And it has set a deadline for talks to produce something: April this year.”
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way. I apologise because I must shortly leave this debate to go to the main Chamber. I have repeatedly asked the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs how long the two-state solution has to run. My view is that we have months rather than years. This debate is therefore not only timely but must lead to progress. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we are talking in terms of months not years in order to get matters right, not only for Israel but for the people of Palestine?
I agree entirely with my hon. and learned Friend. He has reinforced the point that it appears was made by both our right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and John Kerry. As a lawyer, I think that there is a question under international law as to how long it is possible for part of the world to be occupied without such an occupied territory becoming part of the de jure state that is occupying it. The point that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State made is that Israel cannot continue to be both a Jewish state and a democracy if it denies rights to 2.5 million Palestinians indefinitely. It would appear that we have months rather than years to resolve the issue.
All that any of us can ask is that Israel, as the occupying power, complies with the norms of international law, and that we see some swift and speedy alleviation of the humanitarian crisis in Gaza.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way, and I congratulate him on securing this debate. I share his desire for urgency in bringing about a conclusion, or at least progress in the two-state solution talks. What signs has he seen from Hamas, the political power in Gaza, of willingness to participate in a peaceful settlement?
My hon. Friend, the chair of Conservative Friends of Israel, is of course right to bring Hamas’s role to the attention of the House. However, the state of Israel was created by the United Nations. It owes its whole de jure legitimacy to a UN vote in 1948. I would therefore urge my hon. Friend, before he tries to draw the attention of the House on to Hamas, to focus on the views and opinions of international lawyers whose mandate was also given to them by the UN General Assembly. So long as my hon. Friend and other supporters of the state of Israel—of which I am one—remain deaf to the clear advice that has been given about the illegitimacy of the collective punishment of the people of Gaza for the actions of a few, we are never going to see a resolution of the tragedy that is affecting so many people in Gaza.
I once led a delegation of 60 parliamentarians from 13 European Parliaments to Gaza. I could no longer do that today because Gaza is practically inaccessible. The Israelis try to lay the responsibility on the Egyptians, but although the Egyptians’ closing of the tunnels has caused great hardship, it is the Israelis who have imposed the blockade and are the occupying power. The culpability of the Israelis was demonstrated in the report to the UN by Richard Goldstone following Operation Cast Lead. After his report, he was harassed by Jewish organisations. At the end of a meeting I had with him in New York, his wife said to me, “It is good to meet another self-hating Jew.”
Again and again, Israel seeks to justify the vile injustices that it imposes on the people of Gaza and the west bank on the grounds of the holocaust. Last week, we commemorated the holocaust; 1.7 million Palestinians in Gaza are being penalised with that as the justification. That is unacceptable.
The statistics are appalling. There is fresh water for a few hours every five days. Fishing boats are not allowed to go out—in any case, what is the point, because the waters are so filthy that no fish they catch can be eaten? The Israelis are victimising the children above all. Half the population of this country is under the voting age. What is being done to those children—the lack of nutrition—is damaging not only their bodies and brains; it will go on for generation after generation.
It is totally unacceptable that the Israelis should behave in such a way, but they do not care. Go to Tel Aviv, as I did not long ago, and watch them sitting complacently outside their pavement cafés. They do not give a damn about their fellow human beings perhaps half an hour away. The right hon. Member for Banbury (Sir Tony Baldry) quoted the Prime Minister as saying that Gaza is a prison camp. It is all very well for him to say that, as he did, in Turkey—he was visiting a Muslim country—but what is he doing about it? Nothing, nothing, nothing!
The time when we could condemn and think that that was enough has long passed. The Israelis do not care about condemnation. They are self-righteous and complacent. We must now take action against them. We must impose sanctions. If the spineless Obama will not do it, we must do it—even unilaterally. We must press the European community for it to be done. These people cannot be persuaded. We cannot appeal to their better nature when they do not have one. It is all very well saying, “Wicked, wicked Hamas.” Hamas is dreadful. I have met people from Hamas, but nothing it has done justifies punishing children, women and the sick as the Israelis are doing now. They must be stopped.
As has been pointed out, there is a time limit for what we are talking about. The idea that things can go on, while we wait for a two-state solution, is gone. Sooner or later, the Palestinians will say, “We are dying anyhow, so let us die for something.” Let us stop that: I do not want a war. I do not want violent action, but the action that the international community takes must be imposed, otherwise hell will break loose.
I have visited Israel and the west bank several times, and I occasionally heard Israelis say things about the Palestinians similar to what the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman) has said about the Israelis. I pointed out that they were wrong to say so and that many Palestinians seek a peaceful solution and look forward to working with Israel in future if possible.
I share with my right hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Sir Tony Baldry) the humanitarian wish to improve conditions in Gaza, in a practical way. He spoke at length about the juridical and legal situation, going back to the creation of the state of Israel. He will remember that that UN resolution—in 1947, I think—was accompanied by a proposal for a partition of what was then Palestine, under the British mandate, into an Israeli and a Palestinian part. The Israelis accepted that, but the partition did not come about. As soon as the state of Israel was created, the partition was made redundant through an invasion of Palestine by five Arab armies, for the purpose of attacking Israel. It is necessary to move on from there.
I went back to the founding of the state of Israel, but it is worth putting that on the record.
I do not believe, and will not be persuaded, that the state of Israel has any interest in imposing the present conditions on the people of Gaza for the sake of it.
Hon. Members need to contain themselves. Israel withdrew unilaterally from Gaza in 2005 under the leadership of Ariel Sharon, and it was hoped that that would bring about a solution to Israel’s immediate problems. It did not. Since then—and my right hon. Friend touched on the point—there have been about 8,000 rocket attacks on Israel. There have been many thousands, certainly.
I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman is trotting out the usual Israeli propaganda. I went to Gaza three weeks after Operation Cast Lead, where 1,400 Palestinians and 13 Israelis were killed. That was the ratio—100 Palestinian deaths to one Israeli death. Yes, of course we condemn rocket attacks, but let us remember—
The hon. Gentleman will have his chance. I regret all deaths on both sides, but the hon. Gentleman must face the fact that it was Palestinian—Hamas or Islamic Jihad, whatever it was—rocket attacks that began it. In each case that is what has begun the problems.
Israel has no interest per se in doing such things to Gaza. It is in the same position as any state would be that faced rocket attacks on such a scale—not to mention the other terrorist attacks, the digging of tunnels into Israel and attacks on border crossings, which my right hon. Friend the Member for Banbury mentioned. The situation is not helped by suicide attacks on border crossings, or all the other things that have happened in the recent past. Israel has behaved with restraint on many occasions and I hope it will always do so, and that things will improve. However, we must face the fact that the only way to bring about a material improvement is to make progress in the peace talks.
There is a problem for my right hon. Friend the Member for Banbury and others who talk about how urgent it is to get a two-state solution. I agree, but as I understand the matter Hamas has set its face against a peaceful solution in its charter—[Interruption.] I may be corrected, but hon. Members can see the Hamas charter.
There is some doubt about the responsibility of Hamas for the rocket attacks, but in recent times it has, we know, ordered the withdrawal of its forces preventing rocket fire; that has been interpreted in some quarters as giving a green light to rocket attacks. In January the attacks intensified. They must be brought to an end if there is to be a peaceful solution. No country—certainly not this one—would permit its citizens to live under the threat of rocket attacks. We must have progress towards a peaceful situation, and an improvement in the security situation. My right hon. Friend the Member for Banbury is right to make his case about the conditions in Gaza, but they cannot be seen in isolation.
I join my right hon. Friend in wanting progress on a two-state solution, compromise on both sides and, in the meantime, every possible flexibility and accommodation on the part of Israel. I understand that more construction materials have recently been permitted into Gaza—[Interruption.] Hon. Members may have better statistics than I do, but that is what I understand, and I hope for improvements.
I also hope that medical help will be facilitated. I understand that Israel permits a huge proportion of Palestinians seeking medical treatment to leave Gaza and that many receive medical treatment in Israeli hospitals; in some years, it is as many as half of those people. [Interruption.] My right hon. Friend the Member for Banbury spoke at length about medical matters; if he wants to contradict me on that point I shall give way, but I do not have much time left. He should be fair and put what I have said into the balance.
The real solution will be progress in the peace talks. I agree with the Government’s statements. Progress is urgent and important for both sides, and in their interest, but the security situation in Gaza cannot be detached from peace talks, peaceful negotiations and a peaceful settlement. Two countries cannot live in such a state of conflict, with continual attacks by one on the other. We must have a balanced picture. I look forward to future progress, but we must face the fact that Hamas as it stands is an obstacle to a peaceful solution. It amounts to almost half the Palestinian population.
I do not doubt the good faith of the Palestinian Authority about wanting a peaceful solution. We have been told many times that Hamas is about to make progress towards peace, or a statement, or give a sign that it is interested in peace. None has been forthcoming. I hope that those right hon. and hon. Members who take an interest in such things will use their influence with Hamas and the Palestinian side to turn them towards peace. At the moment they have set their face against peace, and they are the problem.
I associate myself completely with the comments of the right hon. Member for Banbury (Sir Tony Baldry), who secured today’s debate, and with everything said by my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman); and I dissociate myself from virtually all the comments of the hon. Member for Hertsmere (Mr Clappison), the chairman of Conservative Friends of Israel. His remarks showed why there is a problem in getting a resolution for Palestine.
The hon. Gentleman was talking about a small nation that is being persecuted, millions of whose people are refugees, and whose citizens on the west bank have been living with Israeli occupation. In Palestine people are suffering collective punishment. Millions of people do not have decent housing, and as my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall North (Mr Winnick) mentioned, 90% of the water is contaminated. I do not know how the hon. Member for Hertsmere can say that that is justifiable, whatever may be happening.
People cannot fish in the sea or get proper produce to provide food. They cannot build houses, so their economy cannot regenerate. The United Nations has an organisation that builds homes. It is not a private organisation, but because of the blockade it cannot get the equipment and materials to build those homes and create jobs. What is happening in Gaza is intolerable, and if any other country were inflicting that level of punishment on people, the whole United Nations, the Security Council and the whole international community would be up in arms. Yet, what do we have? Yes, there are some good people in this country and even in Israel who campaign against the actions of the Israeli state in not only Gaza but the west bank, but guess what? The leaders of most countries in the world are saying nothing and turning a blind eye.
The situation has been going on for nine years. Everyone, from all parties—this is not a party political issue—and every one of our Foreign Secretaries have said, “Yes, we think this is wrong, and we all believe in the two-state solution. Yes, we are friends of Israel, and we have told Israel that it should not be doing this.” But guess what? Nothing has happened.
What would be the position if 90% of the water in Israel proper was undrinkable? Would there not be an outburst, and rightly so, of indignation and anger, as there should be over the situation in Gaza?
My hon. Friend touched on an issue raised by our right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman). There are people in Israel—a minority, unfortunately—who take the same views as most of us on human rights and share our anger over the denial of justice to the Palestinian people. We should not forget those brave people in Israel who stand up for human rights—
I agree with everything my hon. Friend said. I want to praise the people in Israel and the Jewish people in this country who campaign actively for the rights of Palestinians. Like my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton, I am sure that they are criticised by other Jewish people perhaps for trying to betray the state of Israel. However, the issue is not about a state of Israel, of Jews or of religion; it is about the millions of people who used to live in the state of Israel, who have been made homeless and who have sought refuge in various parts of the world and have not been able to return to their country. Particularly inhumane actions are being carried out in Gaza, causing the suffering that we see.
It is all very well for the Prime Minister to say that Gaza is a prison; others have said that it is like an open prison. Actually, there is a difference: in open prisons, people get clean water, food, medical treatment, and even books or television to watch at times, so even the comparison with open prisons is not accurate. If Palestinians were in that situation, they might think that that was a bit of a rejoicement. Gaza is a real prison in the worst sense of the word.
What has struck me in all this is that the state of Israel was founded because of what happened to the millions and millions of Jews who suffered genocide. Their properties, homes and land—everything—were taken away, and they were deprived of rights. Of course, many millions perished. It is quite strange that some of the people who are running the state of Israel seem to be quite complacent and happy to allow the same to happen in Gaza.
The issue is not just about Gaza; let us think about the west bank and Jerusalem as well. Many Palestinians are being turfed out of their homes in Jerusalem. The Israelis are the occupying power in the west bank, where they have got rid of Palestinian homes and replaced them with hundreds of thousands of settlements, recognised by the United Nations as illegal.
Whether we are talking about the west bank or Gaza, the policy pursued by the state of Israel is not helping to lead to a two-state solution. All it is doing is making Palestinians even more depressed and anxious. They think, “What hope is there for us?”, and they rightly ask, “What is the international community doing about this?” Let us face it: if what is happening to Gaza, done by Israel, were happening to any other nation, the whole world would be up in arms, and rightly so. So why are we not getting the same in Palestine?
We should thank my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Mr Clappison), because this is a debate and both sides of the issue have to be put. I am sure that everyone in this Chamber is totally committed to Israelis being allowed to live in peace and security in their state. Given the appalling oppression that they have suffered historically, how could anyone disagree with that?
Everyone accepts that Hamas is an appalling organisation and that the rocket attacks are appalling. However, I want to focus on humanity. That is what this debate is about. It is not, in a sense, about high politics, the two-state solution, or why the state of Israel was founded, but about the suffering humanity and 1.7 million of our fellow human beings who are living in appalling conditions. It is not just that they are in a vast prison camp; unlike the rest of us, they do not have any right to economic self-determination or to travel—all the normal things we take for granted.
Just listen to this report:
“Daily life is a battle for the deprived residents of one of the world’s most densely populated places on earth.”
We can look just at one person cited by the report:
“The horrific scars disfigure Mona Abu Mraleel’s otherwise strikingly beautiful face. Swathes of bandages cover the injuries the 17-year-old sustained to her arms and legs in a blaze from which she narrowly escaped with her life. Still racked by pain from burns to 40 percent of her body, she goes to hospital on a daily basis to have her dressings changed. Specialist doctors are preparing to carry out a delicate skin graft... Yet the hospital on which her recovery depends is woefully ill-fitted to the task—riddled by equipment failures, power cuts and shortages in a mounting crisis that doctors fear is leading to a ‘health catastrophe’.”
That is daily life for 1.7 million of our fellow citizens. Despite the horrors of Hamas and the rocket attacks, we cannot punish the many because of the sins of a few. That is what this debate is about.
I do not think we should have a sense of hopelessness. We should be indebted to my right hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Sir Tony Baldry) and others who try. We may have inadequate means, but we are parliamentarians, and at least we are trying to do our bit to highlight the issues.
I do not share the general pessimism about the peace process. I was in the west bank recently, visiting a hospital in Bethlehem run by a charity of which I am a part. The hospital helps many young people to have children in good conditions, and we do our best to run it properly, but how can we have a peace process when virtually every month ordinary Palestinians see a new settlement coming on the hillside? I saw for myself, travelling through the checkpoints, how people were humiliated.
Israel has a right to peace and security, but surely the people of Israel and all of us must rise up and say, “There is hope for peace. They must stop these settlements, and they should start dismantling them. They must end the blockade of Gaza for the sake of the people who live there and the fishermen.”
We have heard about the fishermen. How can anyone fish just 6 miles out in filthy water? How can anyone live in a place where 90% of the water is undrinkable? How can farmers be shot just for going within a mile of an electric fence while going about their business? As the hon. Member for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi) asked, would that be tolerated in any other part of the world? Would our Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition and the UN not be stopping it?
Yes, this is only a little debate in Westminster Hall and we are only Back Benchers, but we must do our bit to articulate a sense of outrage that our fellow human beings are being treated like this, and we must spare no effort, as the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman) said in his most passionate speech. I share his passion. We must spare no effort in trying to persuade our Israeli friends that they are losing the battle—to put it that way—of world public opinion. They are not helping their cause.
By all means, if someone is attacked, they should reply strongly in military terms, but not punish a whole people and reduce them to utter poverty and destitution. I say this as a strong supporter of the state of Israel, but there is a real danger that more and more people in the world believe that a people who were formerly oppressed are now becoming the oppressors, and that the state of Israel is thereby losing its soul. What is its soul? It is the soul of an oppressed people who have made a great and wonderful nation. But there are other nations in this world and they must be treated fairly and must have an equal right to health, dignity and freedom.
Thank you, Mr Hood, for calling me to speak; I will do my best to convey my concerns in four minutes.
I have been to Gaza on a number of occasions, most recently as part of a delegation with the hon. Member for Brent Central (Sarah Teather). We visited an awful lot of facilities—health, environmental and agricultural facilities. I was struck by two things. One was the hope, determination and inspiration of many of the people who were trying to provide services and food against appalling odds, using their ingenuity to do so.
Secondly, and at the same time, I was struck by the random nature of bombardments and attacks. In Operation Cast Lead, illegal weapons were used and the most appalling abuse was meted out against people. The abuse has not stopped. Random bombings and air attacks still take place.
In Gaza, I visited the crater made by a bomb that had fallen not long before. I talked to the one survivor of a family whose house had been hit. I went into its remains and it was as if the world had stopped at a certain moment. Remember those old movies where the clock has stopped at a certain moment? It was exactly like that. The house was covered in dust, there was a bomb crater outside and almost everyone inside the house was dead. That family had done nothing—they were just the victims of yet another random attack by an F-16 jet from a first world power, which had been supplied by another first world power, against people living in desperate poverty and under siege the whole time.
I looked with great interest at the environmental problems faced by Gaza. I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Banbury (Sir Tony Baldry) for allowing me to intervene on him about the issue of the environment; I pay tribute to his speech and how he delivered it. The water shortage in Gaza is due, in part, to the fact that it is a dry area; in part to its large population; and in part to the fact that there will always be a problem of water supply in the whole region because of the large population, their needs and so on.
The problem can be dealt with by sharing, co-operation and conservation. Instead, the alluvial rivers that flowed into Gaza no longer do so because Israel stops off the water somewhere else. The aquifer is not being replenished fast enough to deal with the rate of abstraction, so sea water and polluted sewage are seeping into it. In all honesty, the Gaza coastal aquifer should not be used from this moment onwards, because it is too dangerous and too polluted, but what else are the people of Gaza supposed to do? They cannot bring in desalination plants, because they cannot bring in the technology or get the energy to use them. The problem then moves on. How can they possibly sustain any level of agriculture? They cannot, unless there is water.
The right hon. Gentleman also talked about the economic problems of Gaza. He was generous with his words, as there is not really an economy in Gaza. The economy, such as it is, is what the United Nations Relief and Works Agency spends, what the aid community gives and what Qatar spends on capital developments. However, the ability to export food or anything else is so nastily constrained by the Israeli checkpoints that there is just disaster, destruction and waste. It is a humanitarian disaster. It is totally the responsibility of the power that is encircling Gaza and has brought this situation about. It is time that something was done about the situation, and rapidly.
Thank you, Mr Hood, for calling me to speak; I will confine my remarks as much as possible.
I will make a couple of points. First, I have been to Gaza on a couple of occasions. I went after Operation Cast Lead, and the situation was dire although we all know that things have got a lot worse since then. More than 2,000 tunnels have been closed. Although that reduced the number of illegal weapons getting into Gaza, it also stopped the people of Gaza from accessing the everyday things they need to survive. It is totally inhumane to close all those tunnels without easing the blockade. My second point is about the women and children of Gaza, who have suffered for so many years in a situation of conflict and insecurity. They do not deserve to be denied the most basic human rights just because of where they live or the political party that happens to rule them.
So many people are now saying that the situation in Gaza is bad. The right hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr Duncan), the International Development Minister, said:
“Come the autumn, Gaza could be without food, without power and without clean water…an unliveable place”.—[Official Report, 22 January 2014; Vol. 574, c. 280.]
That is telling, because it is not exactly diplomatic language or how you would expect a UK Minister to talk. I hope that the Government will take matters further and call on Israel to end the blockade.
I will put specific questions to the Minister who is here today. The answers may help in the immediate situation, pending the end of the blockade. Will the UK Government insist that Kerem Shalom be opened for exports as well as imports? Will they push for Erez to be reopened for imports and exports, and if necessary fund more security scanners if there is a real need for them? Will they push Israel to organise a “land bridge” between Gaza and the west bank, so that exports can reach west bank markets? A lorry convoy system could be instituted immediately for that purpose.
Will the Government push for the activation of the EU border assistance mission, which was agreed in 2005, to oversee the 2005 access and movement agreement and to address Israel’s security concerns independently? The arrangements should be immediately reinstated and a similar mission put in place at Erez and Kerem Shalom. Finally, as other Members have already asked, will the UK Government push for the fishing limit to be extended to 12 or 15 nautical miles?
Those are some of the questions that should also be put to the Israeli Government in the meantime. As the right hon. Member for Banbury (Sir Tony Baldry) said, they have a responsibility under international law for the position of the Gazan people and the misery they face. I hope that the UK Government will act as urgently as possible to deal with the situation.
The right hon. Member for Banbury (Sir Tony Baldry) has done a great service by securing this debate and setting out so clearly the case for humanitarian intervention in Gaza. There have been many good speeches, not least from my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman), who showed his usual passion on this subject.
I will briefly mention one other supporter of Gaza and its people—my friend, Del Singh. With other hon. Members, I have the sad duty of attending his funeral tomorrow. He was murdered by the Taliban a few weeks ago in Kabul, where he was on a humanitarian mission. I had known him for the past five years as the main organiser of Labour Friends of Palestine and the Middle East, a job that he did brilliantly. The fact that he was killed on humanitarian duty sums up the man. He was a true friend to the Palestinian people. He ran the Gaza marathon two years ago to raise money, and he visited the area often. Del was of Sikh origin, but we have heard today that Muslims, Christians, Jews and those of no religion at all have all strongly supported the people of Gaza’s right to self-determination and their simple right to lead a decent life.
I first visited Gaza shortly after Operation Cast Lead. It was a totally harrowing experience that is completely fresh in my mind five years on. It was the complete evisceration of a society, with the systematic and organised destruction of industry and villages. It was what can only be called murder, including the murder of whole families. There was shelling of hospitals, which was done knowingly, and white phosphorus was used. These were war crimes, just as the occupation itself is a crime against international law. To say that these are not deliberate and knowing acts by the Israeli Government is naivety or worse. What is so distressing—
I understand. Quite right, too.
Since that time—I have been back, and I tried to return in January, but it is impossible, now, to get in—the situation has got worse than in the aftermath of a sustained military assault.
I found out this week that 30% to 35% of all the correspondence to the Foreign Office is about Israel-Palestine. Why cannot our Government, whether through their influence on the United States or their role in the EU, or unilaterally, do more to support the people of Gaza? That issue is clearly uppermost in the minds of the people of this country.
This week, we had the pleasure of a briefing from Sir Vincent Fean, a distinguished diplomat who was retiring after 40 years, having spent his last three years as consul-general in Jerusalem and therefore being responsible for Gaza. He told us about the incredible suffering—the lack of power, the polluted water, the lack of jobs, the complete blockade—and how intolerable it was.
Unfortunately, as well as killing Palestinian civilians, the Israeli defence force is good at propaganda and saying that the Palestinians have only themselves to blame. The Israelis recently refused the offer of a scanner from the Dutch Government to allow goods to go in and out of Gaza. That sums up the fact that they want the blockade to continue and have no intention of helping the Palestinian people under any conditions. It is only through international pressure, brought by Governments such as our own, that the situation is going to be resolved.
Order. It is now time for Front-Bench speeches, but the Front-Bench Members have kindly agreed to give up part of their time. The two hon. Members who have not got their name on the speakers’ list, but have been here for the debate, have a minute and a half each or two minutes maximum. That will allow them both to contribute.
You are a good man, Mr Hood.
I have been to the Gaza strip twice: once with Interpal, with the hon. Members for Brent North (Barry Gardiner) and for Brent Central (Sarah Teather), and once with Caabu and the all-party group on Palestine, with the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden).
My take is that, yes, the humanitarian situation is dire. But there will be no solution to the problem of the Gaza strip unless, first, the security situation is sorted out and, secondly, proper economic links are restored both with the state of Israel and with the state of Egypt.
When the Northamptonshire regiment went into Gaza in the first world war and took part in the three battles of Gaza there was no water, so it built a water pipeline from the River Nile to Gaza. That should be considered today. The problem is the Sinai and the security situation there; Hamas-backed terrorists are just as much of a problem to Egypt as to the state of Israel. If Hamas is taken out of the equation, the security situation begins to be addressed and then the economic links between both sovereign states can be tackled.
All of us want the humanitarian situation in the Gaza strip sorted out, but we simply will not make any progress if all the condemnation is against Israel. Instead, we should be looking at the practical economic realities on the ground, where the Palestinians in the Gaza strip simply want to resume their trading life—as they always did—with both Israelis and Egyptians.
I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Banbury (Sir Tony Baldry) for bringing the debate to this Chamber and to right hon. and hon. Members for their contributions to it. It has been worth while, although I recognise the limitations of Back Benchers.
I want to make a few remarks. I first make my declaration in reference to the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I am concerned, because anyone who speaks up for justice for the Palestinians and speaks out against the abuses of human rights is characterised by the pro-Israeli lobby as anti-Semitic, an apologist for terrorists and a holocaust denier or worse. None of that is true, however, of hon. Members speaking here on humanitarian grounds in favour of a fair deal for the inhabitants of Gaza. I object most strongly to the vilification of hon. Members, including me, when we speak up on these issues.
It is clear that, for 1.7 million people—men, women and children—living on this tiny strip of land, Israel’s military blockade has meant economic collapse, extreme poverty and shortages of food and medical supplies. Gaza is indeed suffering. To suggest that this is a natural disaster simply beggars belief. As the occupying power, Israel should be held to account by the international community. It is important that we Back-Bench MPs hold our Ministers to account and that our Ministers hold the Israelis to account for their actions.
The right hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr Duncan), the International Development Minister, cited an International Monetary Fund report in the House of Commons last year, saying that the blockade and other restrictions imposed by the Israelis cost the Palestinians 78% of their GDP. These people deserve a future and the opportunity to prosper.
I congratulate the right hon. Member for Banbury (Sir Tony Baldry) on securing this debate, to which many hon. Members from all parties have contributed.
I suppose that at the heart of the debate is the point made by the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh): we are called to deal with a humanitarian issue on the basis of humanity. In that spirit, I intend to speak primarily about DFID’s work in Gaza. I appreciate that hon. Members had only a short time to speak, so I am willing to take interventions.
The worsening humanitarian situation in Gaza is of enormous concern. December’s flooding has forced 11,000 people from their homes. That, alongside the ongoing blockade and recent closure of the tunnel network, has forced 1.7 million Palestinians into a daily life of extreme poverty. There is a serious danger that supplies of food, water and fuel—already diminished—will run out later this year. The humanitarian situation in Gaza is deeply troubling, as evidenced by hon. Members in this debate. Aid agencies as well as international organisations, such as the World Bank and the United Nations, have expressed particular concern about the serious and immediate lack of adequate water supplies and sanitation in Gaza.
The conflict in Gaza and the continuing blockade have exacerbated the chronic lack of basic infrastructure. We believe that the Israeli authorities must ease restrictions on humanitarian aid to Gaza. We fully support a negotiated two-state solution that establishes a safe and secure Israel, alongside a viable Palestinian state, with both sides enjoying the respect and recognition of their neighbours and the wider international community. I speculate that that view would be uncontroversial in the House. The previous Labour Government worked tirelessly with our international partners to help achieve that situation, but I appreciate and share the frustration that many people feel about the lack of progress on the issue, during that time and in recent years. The UK has a role to play and is playing it through the work of DFID.
I understand and welcome the International Development Committee inquiry into the effectiveness of DFID’s spend in the Occupied Palestinian Territories and look forward to seeing and debating the conclusions of its report. It is considering the effectiveness of DFID’s programme in the Occupied Palestinian Territories; whether DFID is focusing on the right sectors and working with the right organisations; whether DFID’s funding to the Palestinian Authority aids the twin goals of state-building and achieving a negotiated peace; and whether DFID should consider funding projects involving Israeli-Palestinian joint working. I hope that that will allow us another opportunity to come back in due course and debate these issues. It is important that we also scrutinise DFID’s work in the region right now.
In 2009, the Labour Government responded to the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, giving an additional £15 million at the height of the conflict. While I accept that this Government have increased spend in the Occupied Palestinian Territories since that time, has the Minister considered additional funding to meet the costs of December’s flooding and associated humanitarian issues? Although the immediate need is clear and must be met, Gaza must also be set on the path of sustainability through DFID’s investment. I would welcome a few comments from the Minister about how she is tackling the issue of both the short-term and long-term crisis.
I have two additional thoughts before I allow the Minister to step in and talk about DFID’s work. First, we know that the tunnel clampdown, which began last summer, has had a significant impact on the ability of Palestinians to get the bare necessities of day-to-day living. Food and building resources previously transported through the tunnel system have been stripped back, leaving a growing problem of food insecurity and undeveloped infrastructure. We know that that has had a massive effect on the Palestinian economy, with some £250 million being taken out of key sectors and some 20,000 jobs being lost. The construction industry, previously valued at a quarter of Gaza’s GDP, is among the sectors that have been hit hardest.
Secondly, there are serious, immediate concerns about health. A recent World Health Organisation report concluded that a third of medicines and half of medical disposables are simply out of stock. There are no cancer drugs. At a time when hospitals are trying to deal with the fallout of the floods, hundreds of thousands of gallons of sewage-filled water are washing out entire districts and pressure is being added to areas where disease is already rife. What is the Minister doing to ensure that we can respond to the immediate needs of the situation, which has been exacerbated in recent months?
DFID has committed £94 million of bilateral aid to the Occupied Palestinian Territories over the past financial year. Will the Minister lay out how that spending is split between the territories? Will any spending be shifted in response to the humanitarian situation in Gaza? There is clearly much more work to be done, and Gaza requires immediate assistance, as well as long-term strategy and investment in basic infrastructure, to meet development needs. It is right that the UK Government, alongside other partner nations, should play their part in helping to give the people of the region a chance to build an equitable future free from poverty and disease and truly secure.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hood. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Sir Tony Baldry) on securing this debate and on his incredibly powerful speech. Indeed, I congratulate all Members who have contributed today. Passions clearly run high, but I doubt whether there is anyone in this Chamber who does not want peace and security for Gaza, the west bank and Israel.
The situation in Gaza is untenable. Indeed, the UN has predicted that by 2020, unless we see major changes Gaza will have become unliveable. Obviously, the UK Government are concerned about the crisis, so I welcome today’s debate. A great many points and questions have been raised, and I am undecided as to whether to tell Members what I was going to tell them or to try to answer their questions. I will try to address some of the points first, which may mean that I do not address all the issues that one might expect.
On the points that have been raised, we welcome the modest extension of the opening hours at Kerem Shalom during recent storms. We continue to push for exports, and there is no security argument against exports that we can understand. The Dutch recently funded a scanner at Kerem Shalom that remains unused, so there is currently no case for the UK to provide another scanner, although we understand the frustration. Only the easing of Israeli restrictions will relieve the situation. Conversations are currently ongoing with EU partners on possible border assistance. Exports to the west bank via a land bridge—something that was raised by the hon. Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Sandra Osborne)—would only be possible with peace and better movement and access. Those points are all symptoms of the same problem.
My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Stephen Phillips), who is no longer in his place, mentioned the Foreign Secretary, who has been most clear that there is “no more urgent” priority than the middle east peace process. He continues to support US-led efforts. There is huge frustration with the lack of progress, but at least talks are taking place.
The hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) mentioned drinking water, desalination and the environment. Restrictions on construction materials mean that it is not possible to build the necessary infrastructure. The EU is doing important work on water and sanitation in the area. Water scarcity is a serious problem across the region. There has been a lack of rain and, as well as the political situation, a series of things have led to a water shortage. A division of the water supply is crucial for both countries in any two-state solution.
My hon. Friend the Member for Brent Central (Sarah Teather) mentioned burns acquired from trying to access the power supply, thereby highlighting the need for a long-term power solution. The present situation is unsustainable and extremely dangerous. The right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman) and the hon. Member for Walsall North (Mr Winnick) mentioned sewage, the lack of medical care and the lack of power. The serious sewage spills in December 2013 were due to the severe weather, but the underlying problem is actually the lack of power for sewage pumps. DFID supports the UN access co-ordination unit’s work with the World Health Organisation, Israel, the Palestinian Authority and aid agencies to transfer medical supplies, but obviously restrictions mean that patients cannot always access specialist treatment.
The hon. Member for Hertsmere (Mr Clappison), who chairs the Conservative Friends of Israel, raised the role of Hamas, which has been condemned by both sides of the House as an awful organisation. As hon. and right hon. Members know, Hamas is designated a terrorist organisation, and it has to renounce violence, recognise Israel, prove that it has changed and be willing to make peace, without which it is very difficult to move forward.
No, I will not.
The hon. Member for Easington (Grahame M. Morris) mentioned that a high proportion of correspondence to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is on the Occupied Palestinian Territories. The UK public are hugely interested in the peace process, which must make progress. DFID receives similarly high levels of parliamentary and public interest in that subject.
I hope I have answered some of the points that have been raised. As we have heard today, this is a dark time for the people of Gaza, and I do not exaggerate when I say that they are struggling to survive. The UN has assessed the situation as close to breaking point, and a return to violence is increasingly likely. As hon. Members know, the humanitarian crisis in Gaza is not a new problem. Poverty, unemployment and shortages of food, water, fuel and medical supplies have made life a daily struggle for too long.
Things that we take for granted, such as clean water and jobs, are not a norm for people living in Gaza, and we are concerned about that. Gaza has a chronic and devastating power shortage, and the latest crisis caused by the storms has all too clearly revealed the fundamental weakness of relying on imported fuel, as well as the dangers of using interim measures such as cooking oil. The root of those problems is Israeli movement and access restrictions. We understand Israel’s legitimate security concerns, and we have recently seen increases in the number of rockets fired from Gaza into Israel. We condemn such actions wholeheartedly, but they are the actions of a few and should not automatically mean increased suffering for the many. We continue to push Israel to ease those restrictions.
Forgive me if I do not give way, as I have only two minutes left to conclude my remarks.
A stifled Palestinian economy is not in Israel’s security interests. Poverty and hopelessness drive radicalisation. The restrictions on legitimate trade drove transactions through the tunnels, which benefited Hamas to the tune of some £90 million a year in taxation. The Israeli restrictions on fuel and construction material imports are the root of many problems in the area. Actions by Egypt to close the illegal smuggling tunnels have undoubtedly made the situation worse, but ultimately the responsibility lies with Israel, as the occupying power, to ease the restrictions that make life for Gazans so difficult. We make that point to Israel strongly and regularly.
This is a humanitarian debate, for which DFID is responsible. The UK takes the problem extremely seriously. DFID provides substantial support to Gaza: by supporting UNRWA’s job creation scheme, which provides 52,000 jobs; by contributing to the World Food Programme, which provides food vouchers to 285,000 people; by supporting UNRWA to build 22 schools; and by helping to develop the private sector by supporting more than 340 small companies in Gaza.
To sum up, the humanitarian situation in Gaza is increasingly precarious. Our partners tell us that the situation is close to breaking point, and we need to see peace negotiations and a two-state solution that includes Gaza. We need to see Israel—
Community Infrastructure Levy (West Berkshire)
It is a great delight to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mr Hood. I am delighted that the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Great Yarmouth (Brandon Lewis), will be replying to the debate. [Interruption.]
Sitting suspended for Divisions in the House.
To carry on where we left off, I am extremely grateful for the opportunity to bring before the House a matter of concern to my local authority. I welcome my hon. Friend the Member for Great Yarmouth, the Minister with responsibility for local government, to his place, and recognise that the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles), who is responsible for planning and who was due to respond to the debate, is otherwise engaged on the Committee Corridor. I know that the local government Minister will convey to him the essence of the debate.
In his response, I hope that the local government Minister will be able to address my concerns. The Planning Minister is familiar with my constituency, because he and I were educated at the same primary school. He knows the pressures of development in West Berkshire and probably thinks of an area like it when he articulates his concerns about not only protecting the countryside and green spaces but addressing the needs of development, to allow the right sort of development to happen in the right place.
I am grateful for this opportunity to raise an issue that is of great concern to my local council. As the Planning Minister will know, and as I am sure my hon. Friend the Minister with responsibility for local government will have been briefed, in September 2004 West Berkshire council adopted its then groundbreaking new policy for securing contributions from developers to improve and enhance council services and infrastructure.
I sat on the Bill Committee that considered what is now the Planning Act 2004 and was closely involved in the previous Government’s attempts to produce a meaningful system for developer contributions. I therefore appreciate the current challenges faced by the Department. That said, it is a shame to constrain local authorities to follow a one-size-fits-all system like the community infrastructure levy, which will not achieve the level of simplicity of West Berkshire’s existing scheme or raise the sums that it does. Today I am asking the Minister to allow a degree of flexibility for well run councils like West Berkshire to continue with their tried and tested scheme.
Since 2004, West Berkshire council has sought contributions from residential developments as small as one house and from commercial developments where the number of staff generated is greater than 10. This formulaic approach has meant that even the smallest residential development contributes towards improvements and to the expansion of council services, be that education, highways, libraries, waste disposal, adult social care, open spaces or health care. Other services require contributions, or mitigation measures for larger developments, and the council’s affordable housing policy was recently updated so that developments of more than five dwellings provide much needed affordable housing on a proportional basis.
West Berkshire council’s current system is clear, simple and effective. The Minister will agree that planning is always going to prove contentious, and he will be aware of that in his constituency as much as elsewhere, but I know he will be impressed that the system delivered in West Berkshire for more than a decade has been achieved with relatively few complaints.
Over the past 10 years, West Berkshire council has banked an average of £4.3 million per annum, all secured to improve council services and to mitigate the impact of development. In addition, a reasonable administration fee is paid for running the system, which means that there is no cost to the taxpayer. Rough calculations provided to me by council officials, however, show that if the community infrastructure levy had been in place over that period, the council would have received only about 75% of the amount that it has raised, with about 15% to 20% of that going to parishes.
Under the West Berkshire council scheme, all the contributions directly benefit the communities affected by development. There is no top-slicing for administration and no shortfall in funding. The planning policy and the formulaic approach are easy to understand and they have been regularly updated and improved to ensure that the policy remains relevant and continues to mitigate the impact of development. The council has had challenges from developers through both the courts and planning appeals, but the policy withstood such challenges well.
Where issues have been raised, or shortcomings identified, West Berkshire council has adapted and updated its policy. Indeed, the policy has been praised by the Audit Commission as an example for other authorities to use as best practice. The council has been visited by the Treasury, as well as other councils, all of which wished to learn from its experiences.
West Berkshire council was involved with the previous Government’s proposals for the planning gain supplement and with the early development of its replacement, the community infrastructure levy. The Minister will note that West Berkshire council has consistently sent robust responses to consultations on the issue. The council has experienced no detrimental effects as a result of its developer contributions policy, and its housing build numbers are close to target, with an average of 515 from an annual target of 525. It maintains a housing supply—based on existing planning permissions—for in excess of five years. It cannot therefore be argued that the policy has held back development.
Council members are really frustrated that a highly successful policy is to be replaced by a scheme that will raise less money and is more complicated. As the Minister will note, CIL takes nearly two years to adopt, given the lengthy and onerous adoption processes prescribed by the regulations. It costs somewhere near £50,000, which, replicated across the country, is a substantial sum. By contrast, West Berkshire council’s policy would cost far less to set up and administer.
Regulations for the CIL were initially launched in 2010. Since then there have been amendment regulations in 2011, 2012, 2013 and now this year. Each new set of regulations has served to add intricacies, correct mistakes or provide further benefits to the development industry—for instance, the recent relaxation to exempt self-build housing from paying CIL has been added to other exemptions for affordable housing, for charities, and for large extensions to homes. In addition, CIL would not be payable in converting offices to dwellings. Such developments could be substantial, with resulting impacts on council services; but with no net increase in square metreage, no CIL is payable, and therefore the existing council taxpayers pick up the burden.
West Berkshire council members feel that they have been forced to replace a perfectly acceptable and efficient system with a substandard set of complicated regulations—regulations not of this Government’s making, but of the previous Government’s. As I have myself been where the Minister is sitting, on these occasions I like the Member leading the debate to bring a solution, so that the Minister can then pop a rabbit out of a hat and reassure the constituents of that Member that a solution can be found.
By way of assisting the Minister, therefore, I suggest that he remove the cut-off date of 6 April 2015 from the regulations. That is all that is forcing West Berkshire council to adopt the CIL: it is the date from which the council is prevented from using a formulaic approach to secure contributions. My proposal would not even require an amendment to legislation, something I know that the Department would welcome. I present that as a suggestion to the problem. It works in West Berkshire, and I hope that in his response the Minister will address the council’s concerns.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hood. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon) on securing this debate on West Berkshire council’s community infrastructure levy. I know he campaigns hard on issues that affect West Berkshire—not least among that work is his success in securing significant funding for rural broadband, which will be a big opportunity for people in that community.
I shall start by going through some of the issues about the levy in general, before turning specifically not just to West Berkshire but to the helpful suggestion made by my hon. Friend for a solution to the problem. I would argue that the basic principles behind the levy are right. The levy introduces a set tariff on new development, contributing to the provision of essential supporting infrastructure based on viability and evidence. In that sense, the levy is the best framework not only to provide essential local infrastructure but to unlock land for growth. The levy is fair, fast and more certain and transparent than the system that was there before of individually negotiated section 106 planning agreements. The whole process of developing the levy is subject to public consultation, the development of a robust evidence base and independent examination.
With the levy, developers know up front what they will be charged and when payment will be required. Section 106 agreements, on the other hand, do not offer the kind of transparency that the levy provides, as contributions are determined through often lengthy negotiations between developers and local authorities. The levy enables local authorities to prioritise spending on infrastructure across their area to facilitate local growth and development. Authorities are also able to use levy funds to deliver infrastructure outside their area, by working with other local authorities, so long as it supports development in their area.
Section 106 agreements are site-specific and cannot be used to mitigate wider impacts of development. Individual section 106 agreements may be subject to viability testing, which can cause delays. That is not an issue for the levy, as local economic viability will have been tested at examination prior to adoption of the charging schedule. The levy does not replace section 106 planning obligations, but restricts their use in areas that have adopted the levy to ensure there is no double charging of developers. From April 2015, that restriction will apply everywhere else—I will come on to the specific issue of the cut-off date.
The majority of the levy funds are kept by the authority to contribute not only to the provision of infrastructure for their communities, such as schools and roads, but to its improvement, replacement, operation and maintenance, ensuring that the infrastructure is there for years to come.
We feel strongly that local people should be given a real say over infrastructure priorities in their area. One of the amendments to the regulations required local authorities to pass on 15% of levy receipts from development in local areas to parish or community councils, a figure that increases to 25% where there is an adopted neighbourhood plan. That is good news for local people and ensures that they share in the benefits of development.
Good progress is being made. We now have 30 charging schedules in place. A further 48 are with the Planning Inspectorate for examination, and 12 have been approved. We forecast that levy adoption rates will increase steadily, which will in turn increase the overall levy revenues over the next 10 years. The most recent estimate suggests that average annual levy revenues could be in excess of £300 million.
Authorities are starting to work together locally to develop proposals for implementation of the levy. Some are considering the potential of pooling levy funds to unlock growth and development as part of a strategic investment fund. The Government will seek to encourage and support such developments.
It is still early days, however, as the first set of regulations only came into effect in 2010. We have had to make some changes along the way, and that has so far led to five definite amendments. Those changes have been made to make sure that the system is fair, flexible and clear to local authorities and to developers. To be able to do that we have listened to people who deal with the levy on a daily basis.
Draft amendments to the levy regulations are currently before the House and are due to be debated in Committee on 10 February. The amendments are designed to make the levy fairer, more flexible and transparent. I will outline briefly the five key aspects of those amendments. They are: exempting from the levy those building their own homes, or extending existing ones, to help reduce the disproportionate burden placed on that sector of society; allowing levy rates to be set by scale of development; allowing offsetting of levy liabilities when development is altered prior to completion; lessening levy liabilities for buildings brought back into use; and moving the date from which pooling restrictions on section 106 agreements apply to April 2015, giving authorities enough time to reflect changes to the operation of the levy.
My hon. Friend will be aware of many of those issues, so I shall now turn specifically to West Berkshire council. We welcome the efforts the council has put into developing its charging schedule, which we understand will come into effect in April this year. The draft charging schedule was examined by an independent planning inspector on 23 October last year. A report was issued in early November recommending that the charging schedule be approved. Given that the levy is a charge on local development, it is right that charging schedules are subject to local community engagement and public examination.
Local authorities must provide robust evidence, based on local viability considerations, to justify the rates being set in their draft charging schedules. That includes a requirement to have regard to all responses received as part of the public consultation on the draft charging schedule. Inspectors, in their turn, must take into account all the evidence submitted by local authorities, and that includes any representations from interested parties. I understand that the inspector was satisfied that the draft charging schedule was supported by detailed evidence of levy needs, and that the evidence was robust, proportionate, appropriate and in line with expectations set out in levy guidance.
The inspector raised the issue of funding required for infrastructure throughout West Berkshire and cited £257 million. It was estimated that the levy could contribute around £42 million, making a contribution to the area’s funding gap of some £163 million. It was concluded that the figures provided by the authority clearly demonstrated a need to introduce the levy.
My hon. Friend referred to the fact that the levy will bring in only 75% of the amount currently raised by section 106 agreements. Section 106 contributions will, of course, still be collected, albeit in a more limited form. I hope that his authority has considered the total take from both sources. My officials would be happy to meet representatives from the authority to discuss the figures it has calculated, and any other points about the levy, as well as the solution he suggested.
Local authorities are generally making good progress in bringing forward the levy, which we believe is the best way of delivering infrastructure to meet the needs of local areas. We are always willing to listen to and learn from those bringing forward and working with the levy, such as the local authority. We have seen that in the latest set of regulatory amendments that are before the House.
Does my hon. Friend accept that the issue is about localism? The Government believe in localism, but are requiring a dirigiste, top-down, one-size-fits-all approach, and it could be argued that we are going against what we say about localism. This is an opportunity to trust a local authority that is doing something and getting it right, as opposed to having a one-size-fits-all approach.
In the sense of getting the charge and the levy right, the levy is there to meet local infrastructure need—the limited section 106 agreements will still be negotiated locally—and gives clear, up-front, transparent information about dealing locally. However, we have made amendments following the experience so far, and I encourage local authorities to meet my officials to go through any specific concerns they have and to feed in any suggested solutions to improve matters. The Department would be interested in looking at those. We are always willing to listen and learn, and we will be happy to continue to do so. I encourage my hon. Friend’s local authority to make that appointment and we will facilitate it at the earliest opportunity.
Children’s Toys (Gender–specific Marketing)
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship on such an important topic, Mr Hood. I can think of few questions that occupy parents of young children more than how their children can reach their full potential, and there are few long-term challenges that are more important than having a balanced, sustainable economy with science, engineering and manufacturing at its heart. That is what this debate is really about—or, to quote the name of one of the foremost campaigning groups on the subject, it is about why we need to let toys be toys.
Before entering Parliament, I spent two decades as a professional engineer, working across three continents. Regardless of where I was or the size of the company, it was always a predominantly male, or indeed all-male, environment, but it is only when I walk into a toy shop that I feel I am really experiencing gender segregation. At some point over the past three decades, the toy industry decided that parents and children could not be trusted to figure out what to buy without colour-coded gender labelling—that means Science museum toys being labelled “for boys”, whereas miniature dustpans and brushes are “Girl Stuff”, according to SportsDirect.
I say over the past three decades, because there was a time when toys were toys and blue and pink were just colours. An Argos catalogue page from 1976 shows toy houses, prams and so on all in different colours. Now they only sell them in pink. Recently, a Lego advert from 1981 went viral on the internet because it showed a girl proudly clasping her latest Lego creation. None of the text was gender-specific and the girl was actually wearing blue.
What happened? Did someone dye the Y chromosome blue in the ’80s or force the X chromosome to secrete only pink hormones? No. This aggressive gender segregation is a consequence of big-company marketing tactics. Every successful marketeer knows that differentiation makes for greater profit margins and segmentation gives a bigger overall market, so with three-year-old girls only being able to “choose” pink tricycles, the manufacturer can charge more for that special girly shade of pink and the premium princess saddle. Of course, that trike cannot be handed over to a brother or nephew, ensuring further sales of blue bikes with Action Man handlebars. It has got to the point where it is difficult to buy toys for girls that are not pink, princess-primed and/or fairy-infused.
I go to craft markets, including the excellent ones at Grainger market, the Quayside in Newcastle, and Tynemouth station. At least there people can still find a range of colours for boys and girls, but what may be driving big-company profit margins is limiting our children’s choices and experiences. It is ultimately limiting the UK’s social and economic potential, as well as helping to maintain the gender pay gap.
The lack of women in science and engineering has long been a matter of real concern to me. As a child, I suffered from what I now call Marie Curie syndrome—the inability to name more than one woman scientist. During my career in engineering, I realised that many contributory factors were keeping women out, from old-fashioned sexism to parental preference for what were considered cleaner professions. As an MP, I became aware of organisations such as Pinkstinks, which was founded in 2008 to celebrate the fact that, as it put it,
“there’s more than one way to be a girl”.
In 2011, after a campaign by Laura Nelson, Hamleys on Regent street abandoned its pink girls’ floor and blue boys’ floor. That same year, Peggy Orenstein’s book, “Cinderella Ate My Daughter”, explored princess culture and how it is marketed to young girls. The recent complaints about Disney’s attempts to make over Merida, their one feisty, adventurous princess, into yet another pink replicant highlighted the dearth of non-aristocratic role-playing opportunities for girls.
What really made me focus on this issue was a letter that I received from a constituent about Boots in Eldon Square, Newcastle, where I often shop. She said:
“The children’s toys section…displays signs saying ‘girls’ toys’ and ‘boys’ toys’ above the shelves…This perpetuates gender stereotypes...discourages boys from playing with dolls, and girls from playing with Lego.”
At the same time, the group Let Toys Be Toys published a survey that found that half of stores used explicit “boys” and “girls” signs above shelves. It did a lot of work to highlight the impact of such signs on beliefs, attitudes and career choices, as well as the backlash from children and parents, unhappy that their children’s choices were being constrained. Let me quote a recent example from seven-year-old Charlotte, who wrote to Lego about their girls’ Lego range, Lego Friends:
“All the girls did was sit at home, go to the beach, and shop, and they had no jobs but the boys went on adventures, worked, saved people, and had jobs, even swam with sharks. I want you to make more lego girl people and let them go on adventures and have fun ok!?!”
Yes to that, Charlotte.
I rise to apologise to the hon. Lady and to congratulate her. I apologise because I cannot stay for this debate, because of its new timing; I have a meeting to discuss precisely this issue with someone else in another place. I congratulate her on securing the debate, because this is an immensely important subject. I urge her to resist the criticism that I am sure she is receiving from reactionary voices, who say to her, “This is irrelevant. It is political correctness gone mad.” It is not. Such issues shape girls’ attitudes, particularly to science, technology, engineering and maths, or STEM, subjects, and we must address that if we are to address the serious gender gap in engineering and science subjects. I congratulate her unreservedly on securing the debate.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I appreciate his words of support as well as the campaign that he is leading to encourage girls into engineering. It is true that there has been some suggestion that this is not an important debate for today. I know that the economy is the prime concern of my constituents right now, but this is about our long-term economy, our future society and our ability to compete in decades to come.
The issue is of interest to my constituents; another constituent wrote to complain that in the Gateshead Toys R Us, the Lego police helicopter has a sign in front of it telling people that the girls’ Lego range is round the corner in the girls’ aisle—so police helicopters are not part of the girls’ range. The campaigning group, ScienceGrrl, sent me this post from one of its members:
“Recently I bought my daughter new pyjamas, they were from the ‘boys’ section in M&S. They had robots on. My daughter spent about an hour before bed time pretending to be a robot and we talked about electronics and space”.
As that comment and the hon. Member for Mid Worcestershire (Sir Peter Luff) suggested, there is a link between children’s play, how their imagination is inspired and the careers they choose. Research from many sources, including Argos, interestingly, demonstrates that. Analysis from the Association of Colleges shows markedly different career preferences between girls and boys as young as seven, and that is also one of the reasons for the gender pay gap.
I regret that one of the Government’s first actions on coming to power was to end the funding for the UK Resource Centre for Women in Science, Engineering and Technology, which sought to provide a coherent strategy to promote gender balance in STEM. I got the impression that the Government saw their role as being to step back and let the market deliver, in what might be described as a “rising tide raises all boats” approach. However, when I started my engineering degree, 12% of my peers were women, and 30 years later, I am afraid to say that the proportion of female engineering students has not increased at all, so the market has not delivered. At 6%, the UK has the lowest proportion of female professional engineers in Europe. India, a country that has a significant gender literacy gap, manages to attract more women into STEM than we do.
That imbalance is a question not only of social justice but of UK competitiveness, and it is a key factor in the gender pay gap. Traditionally male jobs traditionally pay more than traditionally female ones. Key political and social questions about climate change, genetically modified food, healthy ageing and an expanding population have science and engineering at their heart, and I do not believe that it is acceptable to lock out 50% of our population from making their contribution on those important questions.
As the Government struggle to rebalance the economy towards engineering and manufacturing and away from short-term, housing-fuelled growth, I believe that there is support for a more proactive view. I welcome the recent strong support from the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills for encouraging girls into STEM, and the hon. Member for Mid Worcestershire’s vigorous campaign for more female engineers. The Under-Secretary of State for Education, the hon. Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss), also recently acknowledged the role of toys in putting girls off maths. With such cross-party consensus, and with active campaigning organisations such as Let Toys Be Toys, Pinkstinks, ScienceGrrl and the Everyday Sexism Project, I hope we will see real change.
The latest survey carried out by Let Toys Be Toys in November gave some grounds for optimism. It found that only a fifth, rather than half, of stores still used explicit gender labels, but 72% use gender cues such as colour coding. The best-performing toy stores were Hobbycraft, Toymaster and Fenwick—from Newcastle, although I am sure that that is coincidental—and the worst-performing store was Morrisons. I should say, however, that when it heard of my debate, Morrisons wrote to me to say that it plans to arrange products based on their cost, and to end the use of pink and blue. Tesco had the most gendered catalogue and Debenhams the most gendered website. Newcastle Boots has taken my constituents’ criticisms on board and no longer uses “girls” and “boys” signs to demark toys.
I hope that the debate helps industry to understand the importance that Parliament places on the matter, and the likely consequences of continued gender stereotyping. I would appreciate it if the Minister could clarify the Government’s position on the gender stereotyping of children’s toys and the impact that it has. What is the Minister doing to encourage more balanced marketing to children? What does she have to say to public sector organisations that may encourage stereotypical views of girls’ play? I am not calling for legislation. However, others have observed that it is illegal to advertise a job as being for men only, but apparently fine to advertise a toy as being for boys only.
Why should girls be brought up in an all-pink environment? That does not reflect the real world. Had anyone attempted to give me a pink soldering iron when I was designing circuit boards, they would have found my use of it not at all in accordance with their health and safety. Just as importantly, why can future fathers not play with dolls?
Yesterday, I became a proud aunt to twins, a girl and a boy. As one might imagine, I did not welcome them into the world with gender-specific or colour-coded toys. I hope that as they grow through childhood, they have the chance to play with toys that are toys, and not colour-coded constraints on their choices.
I thank the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah) for securing a debate on this major issue. As my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Worcestershire (Sir Peter Luff) said earlier, the matter is important and of fundamental significance to our future economy; it is not just a side issue, which is how it can sometimes be portrayed.
As the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central said, those of us with young children cannot help but be aware of how highly gendered children’s toys are. I should declare an interest in that I have two small boys, so my house is full of blue things—very little pink comes through my front door.
One can see at a glance when entering a shop what is intended for girls and what is intended for boys. As the hon. Lady said, that may be blatant—the shelf may say “girls” or “boys” on it—or otherwise girls’ and boys’ toys may be colour-coded or displayed in separate aisles. What message does that send out? What are we telling our children? We are telling them that girls and boys are different, that they like different things and that they have different interests and skills. We are telling them that their gender defines their roles in society and their dreams about the future.
“Pink is for girls and blue is for boys”—such associations are often discussed as though they were fixed, natural and unchanging. As the hon. Lady said, however, it is a recent phenomenon. A couple of years ago, I read an article that referred to advice for new parents from the beginning of the last century—some 100 years ago—that urged parents to dress their boys in pink, because it was such a definite colour, and to leave wishy-washy blue for little girls. That shows quite how much such things can change over time.
The hon. Lady mentioned that if we google images of children’s toys from the 1970s, we find images of a totally different array of toys from those of today. Some toys were certainly intended for girls and some for boys, but plenty were intended for both. We see far less pink and blue and far more bright primary colours, such as orange, yellow, green and red—I appreciate that those are not all technically primary colours—as opposed to pale, pastel colours.
I have with me some images of toys from the ’70s, including an orange toolbox, a blue kitchen and a blue and grey ice cream parlour with girls and boys playing in it. They are from only a couple of decades ago—during my own childhood—but they show a very different image of childhood. If the space hopper were invented today, it would not be iconic orange; there would be a pink version that looked like a cupcake and another version in camouflage khaki. That shows how much things have changed over the years.
Why does the gendering of toys matter? The subject can appear to be something of a fringe interest, but it matters to individuals because it is not fair. Children are actively learning all the time how they are supposed to feel and behave and what will make them acceptable to their social group, family and so on. It is not fair to make little girls feel that they should not be kicking footballs or building with Lego, and it is equally unfair to make little boys feel ashamed of playing netball or of pushing a doll along in a pushchair.
Children should not be made to feel guilty or ashamed about experimenting with different toys and different kinds of play, but that is what we are effectively doing by implicitly labelling toys “not for you”. That process starts at a young age. Children learn through play, and if we want them to explore their skills and interests and to develop to the limits of their potential, we must not restrict that at the age of two, five or 10 by restricting their choices of play.
A boy who has never had a sewing kit may never discover his talent for design. A girl who has never had a Meccano set may never discover that she has real potential as an engineer. Clearly, not every girl who plays with Lego is going to be an architect. I was excellent at designing Lego houses, but my future was obviously not in architecture. Nevertheless, why should we limit girls’ aspirations at so early an age by making things so rigidly defined?
As the hon. Lady said, the issue also matters to society and our economy more broadly. Today, women make an enormous contribution to the UK and there are more women in work than ever before, but they still do not have an equal chance to succeed. Women continue to earn less than men. We are under-represented in senior roles and over-represented in low-paying sectors. More women than men work part time or not at all. Some of that is down to the practical barriers that women face that can stop them getting on in work, and the Government are working with business to remove those barriers wherever we can find them, but some of it comes down to the simple fact that we do not encourage girls to believe in their own potential and explore the full range of their skills.
The way we play as children informs the skills we develop and how we perceive ourselves. Girls and boys take into the classroom assumptions that they develop as part of playing. That has a significant impact on how they then develop, and on their future career aspirations. It is therefore unsurprising that boys who have routinely experienced the sense of accomplishment associated with designing and building something, which can often can come from playing with what would be seen as a boy’s toy, feel more at home with subjects such as maths and science, which utilise such skills more.
If they do not have such experiences when they are younger, girls feel less confident, and it is just a small leap from that to assuming that they are not good at those subjects. That really affects how they progress at school. Assumptions and stereotypes about girls’ abilities and interests—the perception that certain subjects, just like certain toys, just “aren’t for you”—go on to shape the choices girls make at school. Those choices have significant implications.
By the time they get to university level, boys and girls are strongly segregated in some areas with, on the whole, boys dominating in the subjects that can lead to the most financially lucrative careers. In 2013, only 6,600 girls took A-level physics, compared with just over 25,000 boys. That is a massive difference—girls made up just over 20% of the cohort. Of the 13,000 students who took further maths at A-level, only 3,700 were girls. That shows a clear differentiation. Of university places accepted, only 13% of engineering places, 18% of technology places and 22% of mathematics and computer science places are taken by women. Fewer than 9% of engineers in the UK are women, compared with around 20% in Italy and 26% in Sweden. There is no intrinsic reason why we should not be able to make a significant difference to that in the UK.
On the other hand, women made up 89% of students studying nursing and 85% studying education—areas of work that are often poorer paid than those that follow from a science degree. That not only results in women being poorer than men—as the hon. Lady said, 22% of the gender pay gap can be explained by the industries and occupations in which women work—but it also costs our economy significant amounts. There are skills shortages across the science, technology, engineering and maths sector, but as long as girls continue to feel that that world is not for them, our businesses will continue to miss out on vital talent that they need for future development. Put simply, we cannot afford not to allow girls the opportunity to enjoy and pursue the whole range of subjects, starting right at the beginning with their learning through play.
The hon. Lady asked what the Government were doing. They are playing their part. Public pressure on companies helps a lot on this issue, and a number of the organisations she mentioned have been extremely effective. The Government support the Women’s Business Council, which has done excellent work to raise girls’ aspirations. Alongside the council, we are taking action in schools on career advice, apprenticeships, technical colleges, STEM careers, enterprise, child care, equal pay and flexible working, all of which will help girls to reach their full potential in the workplace. In response to the WBC’s recommendation, we are currently developing an online resource for parents of teenage girls that will help them to guide their daughters to make confident and informed career choices independent of gender stereotypes and representations. Hopefully, that will lead girls to make different decisions in future.
My hon. Friend the Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) held two round-table discussions towards the end of last year to look specifically at raising girls’ aspirations. Officials have met retailers, manufacturers and others to discuss the issues we are talking about today.
I can get back to the hon. Lady with more information on that. There has clearly been some progress on the issue—she cited some examples of the moves made by retailers in response to the pressure on them. Some of them are beginning to recognise that there are wider implications to gender-specific marketing. The issue is not just about selling twice as many bikes because pink and blue cannot be used interchangeably; there are broader implications for the economy as well.
There have been some really positive moves from retailers, some of which the hon. Lady talked about. For example, she mentioned Boots, but Debenhams and The Entertainer have also stopped gender-specific labelling of toys, and M&S has committed to making its own-brand toys gender neutral. I find it enormously encouraging that there is starting to be a recognition that things have gone too far and something must be done. I hope that those companies lead the way so that we see such changes emulated more widely.
I recognise that there are some arguments in favour of the gender marketing of toys. For example, science and engineering kits are aimed at girls by using pink and purple to attract them to play with them more, and there are also pink Lego sets, pink globes and so on. It is argued that such products sell well and show girls that science and other potential careers are for them. That might be true, but it raises the issue of whether, in the longer term, that just reinforces the notion that if it is not pink and pretty, it is not for girls. That concerns me. As someone who never wears pink, I feel that we should be able to broaden out. Girls should have wider aspirations, rather than just assuming that they have to play with it if it is pink.
It is often suggested that those of us who oppose gender-specific toys are somehow going against nature and attempting social engineering against children’s perfectly natural and hard-wired preferences, but nothing could be further from the truth. I am not trying to stop boys from playing football or girls from playing with dolls. Nature undoubtedly has a role in how children play and interact with toys. My three-year-old son is completely obsessed with cars, trains and diggers, and he always has been, but he also makes a mean cup of pretend tea and is very good at making pretend cakes. Nature has a role to play, but it is not the be-all and end-all.
The Minister is making an excellent point. Does she agree that the issue is not about saying that boys should be playing with cookery sets or that girls should or must be playing with engineering sets, but about letting them and their parents have the choice, free from external pressures?
I could not agree more. There will be boys who grow up to be fantastic chefs and designers, and there will be girls who will be professional footballers or engineers or scientists. The issue is about ensuring that children have the choice and are able to play with a wide range of toys to develop their skills across the board and decide what is best for them and where their interests and skills lie. That will be different for every child.
The issue is also about ensuring that parents are able to help their children have that choice without feeling completely bound by the marketing that suggests they are supposed to buy only certain types of toys for their child because of the child’s gender. We should free people to make choices based on the interests, skills and desires of the children, rather than on the associated marketing. Surely it makes sense that when children first start to explore the world and discover their interests and skills, they should be completely free to let their imaginations roam and to identify what they want to do with their lives.
I sense that most reasonable people would agree that it is wrong to limit our children’s horizons, particularly at such an early age; wrong to restrict their creative play and, as a result, their occupational opportunities; and wrong to shame them for wanting to explore a wide range of toys. Perhaps where people differ is on how important they think the issue is and how much impact it has. We could do with some rigorous, high-quality research to help guide parents, teachers, manufacturers, retailers and advertisers on the right and responsible way forward. I have looked, and there seems to be little, if any, research in that area. It would be good to see some research on what impact the issue has; that might persuade people to change how they retail or advertise toys and help parents shape the choices that they make on behalf of their children.
Toys are a hugely important part of our children’s learning and development. It is of course for children and their parents to choose the toys they play with, as we were just discussing. They should be able to make those choices freely from a full range of toys. How our children play helps to shape their aspirations for the future, and I want those aspirations to be based on their abilities and interests, not on stereotypes. I value the right of every single child to be treated as a unique individual and to be given the opportunity to explore their own interests and develop their own potential and talents, wherever they may lie. That is important not only for children now playing, but for the future of the economy.
Question put and agreed to.