House of Commons
Monday 7 April 2014
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
Communities and Local Government
The Secretary of State was asked—
Discretionary Social Fund
Crisis loans and community care grants were abolished in the Welfare Reform Act 2012 because they were failing to help those most in need. The Department for Work and Pensions has passed the funding to councils to help provide assistance for vulnerable people in their area, and they have held numerous discussions about this.
Manchester city council has stated that the removal of local welfare allowance funding by the Government in 2015-16 will disproportionately impact on the most deprived. It will also break the new burdens principle for local authorities. What advice would the Minister give to struggling families who rely on this vital lifeline?
Some local authorities are in fact underspending this year. Centrepoint’s research, which is often referred to, shows that many authorities are spending less than half their allocations. The research does not say that anyone has suffered at any time as a result of the current situation.
The Minister rightly points out that many councils are underspending, but I am sure he is aware that in councils such as Blackpool, this measure has driven efficiency and innovation in the provision of services to the most vulnerable. Deleting this line from the local government settlement risks ending that innovation and harming the most vulnerable in my constituency. May I ask him to think again about this change, please?
My hon. Friend makes a good point about how councils are working efficiently to look at new ways of delivering. In doing that, they are transforming services to ensure that the most vulnerable are the most protected, through the wide range of support that is available through local authorities.
Trafford Council’s “Trafford Assist” programme has been very successful in bringing together sources of support and sources of advice, but the council is worried about how it will be able to sustain the service when the funding closes at the end of the year. Will the Minister have urgent conversations with the Department for Work and Pensions to ensure that the two Departments between them can make sure that this lifeline funding will continue?
I have met various local authorities through the consultation on this year’s settlement, and I will meet them again next year. The DWP has also spoken to local authorities. We must ensure that we do not replicate the previous, poorly targeted system. There is a whole range of support out there, and local authorities are doing very well in pulling together that support to ensure that the most vulnerable have the right care for them.
Social Rented Housing
We will deliver 165,000 new affordable homes in the three years from 2015. That will be the fastest rate of delivery of affordable homes for at least 20 years. This is on top of the 170,000 new affordable homes that we are on target to deliver by the end of this Parliament.
I asked the Minister about social rented housing, not just affordable housing. The truth is that this Government do not want to build social housing; they want to decimate it. Will he tell me why the number of social rented homes being built in London last year was roughly one tenth of the number being built in the capital in 2009?
I am afraid that the hon. Lady is completely wrong. The last Government allowed the stock of social housing in both categories to dwindle completely. We will be the first Government to leave office at the end of a Parliament with a greater stock of affordable homes, including council houses, than there was at the start, including in the borough of Lewisham and many other boroughs around the country. Today the Secretary of State and my right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary to the Treasury have published the prospectus allowing for £300 million of extra borrowing capacity for local government to build new homes.
Will my hon. Friend join me in congratulating Crawley borough council which is building hundreds of social and affordable houses in the new Forge Wood neighbourhood? This is in stark contrast to what happened under the previous Labour administration.
I will certainly join my hon. Friend in congratulating Crawley council on its record. I stress yet again that this Government are committed to building new affordable homes, including social homes—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Lewisham East (Heidi Alexander) shakes her head, but I remind her that the latest statement on housing policy from her own party says that it wants 100,000 new affordable homes, of which half would be shared ownership, 35% would be affordable and only 15% would be social rented homes. She should have a word with those on her own Front Bench.
This Government’s first decision on taking office was to cut the affordable homes programme by 60%, and they have also watered down section 106 agreements for social homes. Was it a surprise to the Minister that last year they built the lowest number of homes for social rent for more than 20 years, or was that in fact the Government’s plan?
I do not recognise those figures. This Government are committed to a very ambitious programme of building affordable homes, including social homes, with 170,000 over the course of this Parliament and 165,000 already planned for the first three years of the next Parliament. That represents the fastest rate of building in 20 years. As for section 106 agreements, the hon. Lady well knows that they are a matter for local government to negotiate at local level, subject to local market conditions.
It is a shame that the Minister does not recognise the Government’s own figures. The truth is that this Government are not building social homes: Labour councils across the country are out-building Tory and Lib Dem councils. Those Labour local authorities are being prevented from building even more social homes because one in four tenants affected by the bedroom tax is in arrears for the first time. Does he recognise that the bedroom tax is not only cruel but counter-productive? Is his party now against it? If this Government will not scrap it, we will.
There are several questions wrapped up in one there. The spare room subsidy is not a tax, although clearly there are a range of opinions on that issue. The housing benefit bill had reached £23 billion by the time Labour left office and that was an unaffordable forward commitment for any party, including the hon. Lady’s, which promised in its last manifesto to tackle overspending on housing benefit. All taxpayers would want to make sure that that money is spent wisely and not on subsidising spare bedrooms for people who do not need them.
Revenue Support Grants
Revenue support grant is provided to councils in addition to retained business rates. Authorities now keep nearly £11 billion in business rates, and a share of growth in business rates in their area. This provides a direct financial incentive to help deliver growth, in contrast to the old system.
The Minister likes to talk about these changes in terms of benefiting councils, but the reality on the ground is that many local authorities find themselves losing out. His focus on spending power per dwelling hides the fact that many places have large families living in large occupancy dwellings. Will he explain why Luton borough council is having its spending power cut by a half?
Let us look at the hon. Gentleman’s local authority directly. Average spending power per household in this country is £2,089 whereas in Luton it is £2,211. That is above the average, so I suggest to the residents of Luton that they elect a council that can run things efficiently and effectively.
Despite having higher levels of deprivation, local authorities such as my own are seeing deeper cuts than those in the well-off areas. By 2016, spending per household in the north-east will have fallen by £296 compared with the average of £233. Does the Minister not recognise that that will mean that existing inequalities between the regions will be even worse?
Will my hon. Friend confirm that despite cuts in central Government funding many Conservative-controlled councils, such as my own North West Leicestershire district council, have continued to freeze or indeed cut council tax?
My hon. Friend makes a good point. Some excellent councils across the country have even cut council tax this year, and the council tax freeze means that those areas have, under this Government over the past four years, seen a real-terms cut in council tax of about 11%.
In the north-west, Cheshire West and Chester council is working with Labour councils such as those in Knowsley, Halton and Wirral to share services in order to reduce costs and improve the services offered to local people. Is working with other councils not one way in which some councils that we have heard about today can improve their services and reduce costs?
My hon. Friend gives a very good example of how authorities can work together, and we are seeing that around the country. Another Labour authority in High Peak is sharing with Conservative-led Staffordshire Moorlands, under an arrangement set up under the Conservative administration. That is another one of many examples of authorities sharing management and sharing chief executives, and saving about £600,000 a year. That is a substantial percentage of the money for those local authorities and this is a good way forward. The transformation network and community budgets show that this can be done.
Newcastle has four times as many looked-after children as Wokingham, but because of the unfair way in which this Government have distributed the cuts, even on the Minister’s own measure of spending power per household, Newcastle will have less funding than Wokingham by the end of this Parliament. How can he tell us that that is fair?
I remind the hon. Gentleman that the 10% most deprived authorities have an average spending power of £3,026 whereas the figure for the least deprived 10% is only £1,952. That demonstrates clearly that the areas with the need actually have the money they need to look after their local requirements.
10. What steps he is taking to help shops in England and South Basildon and East Thurrock with their business rate bills. (903548)
We are providing a £1 billion business rates support package. This includes a £1,000 discount for smaller shops, pubs and restaurants, and a 50% discount for businesses taking on long-term empty shops. It also doubles small business rate relief for another year, helping more than 500,000 small businesses.
I very much welcome the Government’s attempts to ease the plight of those shopkeepers and high street businesses, but does the Secretary of State share my disappointment that rather than promote the availability of this scheme when sending out business rate bills, Enfield’s Labour council felt it wise to spend its time issuing press releases, trying to claim credit for the Government’s very welcome policy?
I suppose that is a kind of halfway house, which is a bit of shame because about 2,000 businesses in Enfield should benefit from the scheme. Clearly, if those businesses are not aware of the possibility and do not apply, they are shelling out money unnecessarily, and the people who will suffer will be the people of Enfield.
I, too, welcome the support the Government are giving to small shopping centres such as Corringham in my constituency, which has set up an excellent traders and residents association to help develop local trade. Does my right hon. Friend agree that now that local authorities have some control over local business rates, they can be much more innovative in the way they support small town centres?
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. One reason why it will be possible for more money to go into small shopping centres is the excellent campaign that my hon. Friend has successfully won, after a four-year struggle, for the Visteon pensioners. The whole House is grateful to him for the work that he has done there. We estimate that within South Basildon and East Thurrock, something in the region of 1,500 businesses will benefit from this support. It is a very welcome boost, and I am glad that my hon. Friend is making the point.
I am not sure how similar Wirral is to Basildon and Enfield, but I bet that our small businesses have all suffered similarly over the past three years. Will the Secretary of State therefore go further and properly tackle the burden of business rates, as Labour would?
I am very grateful to the hon. Lady for giving me the opportunity to say this. Labour’s policy has been described as robbing Peter to pay Paul. It has been attacked by the Institute of Directors, which says that the main corporation tax rate is paid by medium-sized businesses. As the hon. Lady is concerned about SMEs, she should not forget that the “M” stands for medium-sized businesses. The institute says that it is a dangerous move for Labour to risk our business-friendly environment in such a way.
Business rates are an important part of encouraging and maintaining shops. One problem is where town centres, such as Runcorn in my constituency, need to be reconfigured. The borough council needs extra resources to be able to do that. What are the Government doing to help local authorities reconfigure town centres and therefore to promote more shops?
As my hon. Friend the Planning Minister has reminded me, we are in the middle of a consultation to help with regard to the designation of certain planning use classes. If the hon. Gentleman wants to invite his council to make a contribution to that, it would be most welcome.
19. Will my right hon. Friend tell me how many businesses in Chelmsford will benefit from this rate reduction? Does he agree that it is a significant step forward in helping to regenerate businesses, cut unemployment by expanding the work force and encourage small businesses to thrive? (903559)
I reflect that truly the lamb will lie down with the lion, Mr Speaker.
About 800 businesses will potentially benefit from the change, which will make a significant difference to employment prospects. My right hon. Friend’s constituency, which borders on mine, is an excellent place to go to shop and this will help that process along.
There is no more innovative local authority than Manchester city council, as I am sure the Secretary of State will agree. As the MP for a city centre with many small businesses, I find that this is the single biggest issue raised with me. Business rates have gone up by more than £1,500 over this Parliament and are set to go up a further £270 this year. Would it not be much better if the Secretary of State were to freeze business rates for small businesses, as the Labour party has pledged to? That will help them stay in business, which many of them are unable to do at the moment.
It was always a matter of regret to me that Labour made rate relief very hard to claim for small businesses, but we have managed to remove some of the complex nature of the claims process. With enormous respect, I remind the hon. Lady that this package for the high street is worth more than £1 billion —and £1 billion, even in today’s money, is a lot of money.
My “block the bookies” campaign in Peterborough, in which I encouraged Peterborough city council to use article 4 to prevent the proliferation of pawnshops and licensed premises used as betting shops, has been very well received. What support will Ministers give local authorities across the country to support independent retailers and prevent the proliferation of even more unwanted betting shops?
Article 4 has been remarkably successful in both protecting local pubs and regulating unwanted additional shops on the high street. I remind my hon. Friend that in the Budget the Chancellor announced that we will review use class and issue a consultation in the not-too-distant future. I hope that my hon. Friend will contribute to that consultation.
Housing Projects (Planning)
Every area of the country needs more housing, and the views of local people are crucial in determining where and how those needs should be met, not least through local plans.
We need new homes in North East Derbyshire. The issue is that local people want to have a say in where those houses go, but their opinions and the decisions of the local planning authority are being overruled by the Government’s planning inspector. This is the opposite of localism, so what is the Minister doing to make sure that local people’s concerns are not being ignored?
The opposite of localism was the situation we inherited in 2010, when only 35% of local authorities even had a published draft local plan. Now 55% of local authorities have a sound local plan and more than 75% have published a draft plan. That is the way for local people to decide locally, rather than the regional strategies that the hon. Lady supported. That is the way to ensure that local decisions inform development.
Although I understand what the Minister is saying, I, like the hon. Member for North East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel), feel that where there is no local plan in place, as is the case in Wiltshire, the Government planning inspectors tend to use the old figures and the old central procedures in such a way that opportunistic developers, such as those who are trying to get 350 houses and a Tesco store outside Royal Wootton Bassett in my constituency, are now lodging applications with them that they would not otherwise be allowed to lodge. Will the Minister therefore allow the emerging core strategy to be used as part of how the inspector decides whether such applications are allowed?
In responding to concerns expressed by my hon. Friend and a range of honourable colleagues, the Government made it clear in the planning guidance that was finalised two weeks ago that when a local plan has been submitted to the Planning Inspectorate for examination, it can absolutely be grounds for refusing an application if that application is substantial in the context of the plan. I hope that that is a power that authorities will be able to make use of.
I am sure that the Minister will agree that local people should be consulted when planning will touch on their lives, but there is a danger, is there not, that in view of the dreadful housing and home shortage in our country, the views coming from Government Members this afternoon suggest a degree of complacency that is quite unbelievable. When will he get rid of the nimby influences in his party and start building homes?
We are, of course, building homes at a faster rate having recovered from the most appalling recession which decimated our housing industry, but the hon. Gentleman is right to say that every area needs homes, and the right way for local people to express their opinions about development is by creating neighbourhood plans and local plans. Neighbourhood plans are the best possible way for local communities to express their views, and I am delighted that all 12 neighbourhood plans that have gone to a referendum have been passed, so local support for development can be won.
18. With large-scale applications for such things as fracking, which presumably will not, by definition, be in local plans, at what point will local people have the chance to give their views, especially if there are to be large-scale lorry movements to take water in and out following the application?
We recently published guidance setting out exactly how and when notification should be given of any proposal for fracking. Such notifications will ensure that local people know when there are proposals for fracking in an area so that they will have the opportunity to respond to the consultation.
It is no surprise that the Planning Minister is getting grief from his Back Benchers about development being approved on greenfield and green-belt land. According to the Department’s figures, the amount of brownfield land changing to residential use has declined dramatically from 70% under Labour to just 53% under his Government. Does the Minister still stand behind his stated policy of using
“every inch of previously developed land to meet…housing need”,
and if so, what is going wrong?
What is so puzzling about the hon. Lady’s question is that she cannot explain why every attempt that we have made to make it easier to convert existing property—offices, shops and agricultural buildings—into housing has been opposed by the Labour party. Labour Members cannot have it both ways: either they want to maximise the number of houses derived from existing property or they do not; but they cannot preach one thing and do the other.
The community in the Headingley and Hyde Park area of Leeds was dismayed last week when councillors disgracefully voted in favour of the development of a supermarket and housing on a playing field, which could have been a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to secure the Olympic legacy. An asset of community value application was in place, so what advice can the Minister give the community on urgently challenging the decision and stopping the development going ahead until the ACV application has been heard?
My hon. Friend will understand that I cannot comment on any particular application. Of course, I do not know precisely where that decision is, but he is always entitled to write to me or the Secretary of State to ask us to call in a decision, especially if it is more than locally controversial or challenges an important national policy area, such as the protection of playing fields.
We do not hold this information centrally, but there are clear opportunities for councils to make money from selling recycled materials. The industry is now worth about £11 billion, and this income could be used to keep council tax down or to support more regular rubbish and recycling collections.
My hon. Friend has rightly run a superb campaign to push this agenda, and she makes a good point. Councils can already declare on their council tax bills how much they make from selling their recyclate. Transparency can incentivise more recycling among residents when they see how their recycling is used, and encourage local authorities to seek better deals on recycling.
Assets of Community Value (Pubs)
We have made it clear through the national planning policy framework that local planning policies and decisions should guard against the unnecessary loss of valued community facilities such as pubs.
The Minister has said that pubs are valued community assets and part of our national heritage, but even if a community has declared its support for a local pub by listing it as an asset of community value, the owners can still demolish it, or convert it to a supermarket or betting shop. What will the Minister do about that, because surely it is at odds with his localism agenda?
Various proposals are in place to give added protection to pubs, such as the scheme for assets of community value. If a pub is to change hands in a sale, that gives the community an opportunity to protect those assets. Local authorities can use the national planning policy framework to supplement their local plans, and Cambridge and the royal borough of Kensington and Chelsea are doing just that.
In my constituency, the Chesham Arms was listed as an asset of community value, but the owner tried to convert it into offices, just as my hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Grahame M. Morris) has described. When is the Department going to make sure that its policies do not clash in that ridiculous way to undermine what was a good policy on assets of community value?
I am glad that the hon. Lady has said that the assets of community value scheme is a good policy. Its purpose is to protect the community when there is a sale of a building of importance to the local community; it is not a planning policy to protect against change of use. Local authorities need to use the planning tools at their disposal for that, such as their own local plan or an article 4 directive, which several local authorities, including Lewisham and Camden in London, have done successfully.
Schools (Brownfield Sites)
The national planning policy framework makes clear the importance of planning for new school development. We have put in place new development rights to make it possible to convert a range of existing buildings into schools without the necessity of applying for planning permission.
I thank the Secretary of State for visiting Commerce road in Brentford and the new ISIS housing development last week. Given that I represent a London constituency and one of the fastest growing boroughs where school places are desperately needed, will the Under-Secretary encourage the working partnership between the developer and Transport for London to try to create a new site for a primary school in Brentford?
I know that my hon. Friend has been tireless in promoting this scheme and, indeed, has managed to secure a visit from one of the Mayor of London’s deputies to discuss the possibility of transferring a site from Transport for London for school use. I will absolutely back her in that, and I am sure that she will quickly make progress.
Kettering Borough Council Budget
11. What assessment he has made of the wider applicability of the key elements of Kettering borough council's budget for 2014-15 which (a) freezes council tax, (b) cuts car parking charges and (c) maintains grants to the voluntary sector. [R] (903549)
I commend Kettering, particularly for freezing council tax for four successive years. It proves that councils can run their services efficiently and encourage growth without increasing taxes on local people. Kettering is providing an example in this for other councils to follow.
In these difficult times, when value for money is more important than ever and people are concerned about how far their household budgets have been stretched, is not Kettering borough council’s response exactly the right one— cutting waste to boost efficiency, cutting car parking charges to boost town centre trade, and freezing the council tax so that people can keep more of their hard earned money?
As I said, I think that Kettering is a splendid council. It is a place we should all pop in to see on any journey that we make, as it shows how local government should be run. May I particularly commend the council for its foresight on parking, not only reducing parking charges but introducing bays so that people can pop in and shop for a very limited sum of money? I should like to see that throughout the rest of the country.
I meet ministerial colleagues regularly to discuss the Government’s policy on housing. The rent-a-room scheme allows hard-working householders to earn an additional £4,250 a year tax free. The average yearly rent for a lodger is below this threshold at £4,168.
I wrote to my hon. Friend recently about the usefulness of the scheme, which was introduced by the previous Conservative Government, in bringing more accommodation into general use. Does he agree that it is disappointing that the threshold has been increased only once from £3,250 in 1992 to £4,250, since when rents have gone up substantially? Will he agree to have a conversation with the Treasury specifically about making it more up to date?
Council Tax Freeze
Our council tax freeze schemes could be worth up to £1,075 for an average band D household in England over the lifetime of this Parliament.
Despite the efforts of the Conservative administration in South Ribble, who have frozen council tax again for the fourth time in five years, my constituents are still facing a rise in council tax because of Labour-controlled Lancashire county council’s decision to increase its part of the council tax by a referendum-dodging 1.99%. Does my right hon. Friend agree that this rise is unjustified and that Labour politicians in county hall are the same old Labour, raising taxes for hard-working local people?
South Ribble deserves a lot of praise for freezing council tax four years on the trot. That is very welcome indeed. It is strange that a number of authorities, the majority of them Labour, have come in at 1.98% or 1.99%. In a way, that undermines their claim that local government funding is inadequate. If it was inadequate, I am confident that they would have gone for a larger increase in council tax.
Does the Secretary of State agree that it is a disgrace that the last authority, with a Conservative administration in county hall, is being investigated by the police? There has perhaps been a misappropriation of funds, which the police are looking into, and serious problems with the accounting at county hall. The Labour administration which has come in is having to pick up the pieces.
I am grateful for that vote of confidence, Mr Speaker. That view might not always be shared throughout the House. Clearly, investigations are taking place, but that in no way undermines the enormous achievement of delivering a low council tax, improving many services and getting a lot of people off the dole during the four years that Conservatives ran that council.
English local authorities receive the public health grant, which is now £2.79 billion for 2014-15. Public health is a key part of the Government’s broader work promoting integrated health and care services, which includes the new £3.8 billion for the better care fund.
I trust the Minister is aware of a recent British Medical Journal report called “Raiding the public budget”. It reported that local authorities are diverting public health funds to meet shortfalls in other council budgets. Has the Minister discussed this with local authorities and with his colleagues in the Department of Health, and does he share the concerns of the former south-west director of public health that this is “robbing Peter to pay Paul”?
Local government accounts for a quarter of all public spending, so it must clearly share the burden of reducing the deficit that this Government are trying to bridge. We expect councils to make sensible savings, such as cutting waste and bureaucracy, not taking the lazy option of cutting front-line services, such as youth work.
I understand that several local authorities are being innovative in their approach to discharging that statutory duty—for instance, placing their youth service in a social enterprise, where it might be provided more efficiently, or working with volunteers. My Department has a multi-million-pound programme in place via Youth United to find many hundreds of volunteers who are needed to run many of the youth services that flourish in all our constituencies.
Private Rented Sector
We are making significant reforms to the private rented sector. These include increasing supply through the £1 billion Build to Rent fund and £10 billion guarantee scheme, and providing £6.7 million to address rogue landlords.
The regulatory regime for private sector housing will go some way to protecting tenants, but also give investors in rented housing the confidence and security to invest. Will he provide an update on the consultation process and confirm that additional protections for landlords and tenants could be included if a well streamlined form of regulation could be found?
First, may I reassure my hon. Friend that the £1 billion Build to Rent fund is over-subscribed by £2.8 billion? There is a confidence to participate in that, but it is right that the Government ensure that we protect both landlords and tenants. There is a redress scheme that will become law soon and a tenants charter, and we are really encouraging councils to go out there and pursue those rogue landlords, a small number of individuals, who are undermining this part of the sector.
As my hon. Friend will know, as a former Minister in this Department, the Government have one of the most ambitious programmes of delivery for affordable and social homes of any Government, and I pay tribute to his party in setting that programme in train.
I thank the Minister for that somewhat disarming answer. Will he join me in congratulating Stockport Homes on opening its 4 millionth social and affordable home for rent? Does he see that as a really stark contrast with the performance of the Labour Government in reducing the housing stock by more than 400,000?
I was delighted to join my right hon. Friend in his constituency just before Christmas to open a street of new social homes in Stockport. It is certainly the case that this Government, at the end of this Parliament in 2015, will be the first for generations to leave more social and affordable homes in stock than we found five years ago in 2010.
We support people who want to build their own homes. This includes £30 million for development finance, making more land available through the planning system, consulting on a new Right to Build, and providing £150 million to create up to 10,000 serviced plots throughout the country.
TV programmes such as Kevin McCloud’s “Grand Designs” have inspired many thousands of people to build their own homes, including me. The problem is that such people have to get their hands on a plot, which is not so easy. How many local authorities is the Minister aware of that have carried out an assessment of need for self-build in their local areas in accordance with the national policy planning framework?
I have seen my hon. Friend’s house; it is quite spectacular, and I congratulate him on it. The Government do not record which authorities have come forward, but the National Self Build Association monitors which authorities have looked at self-build. There are 60 councils at this moment in time and there are lots more considering how to put self-build into their draft plans.
We are providing £200,000 of funding to help communities diversify and own their pubs through Pub is the Hub and the Plunkett Foundation, both of which do fantastic work. The Right to Bid also provides protection for pubs as community assets. We have doubled the small business rate relief until 2015, scrapped the previous Government’s beer and alcohol duty escalators and cider duty proposal, and reduced beer duty in successive Budgets for the first time.
T1. If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities. (903528)
On Friday I instructed inspectors to launch an investigation into the mayoral administration in Tower Hamlets. Local government has a proud record of probity, scrutiny and accountability, and that is a reputation worth protecting. There are allegations of mismanagement of taxpayer-funded resources, divisive community politics, and systematic undermining of vital checks and balances. Serious questions have been asked. Its residents deserve frank and honest answers, and I am determined to get to the truth.
From 2015, there will be no support from Government to local councils to fund their welfare assistance schemes. What advice would the Secretary of State offer to struggling families, women fleeing domestic violence, and homeless young people, who depend on this lifeline?
This fund, which is currently under-claimed, was there to give local authorities time to adjust in making the necessary savings. It is up to local authorities to fund the scheme, and most will do so excellently. As the economy improves as people find jobs, the savings will not only be justified but easy to fulfil.
T3. The Secretary of State will be aware that Bournemouth has been severely affected by river flooding and sea storms. Will he ensure that there are no delays in the funding that has been promised so that new flood defences can be in place before next winter? (903530)
On Tower Hamlets, it is clearly in the public interest to establish the facts, so anyone who has any information should bring it forward, and of course the audit must be open and transparent to command public confidence.
It is reported in The Guardian that this week the Prime Minister intends to announce a clampdown on fixed-odds betting terminals, with a range of regulatory and planning powers to curb the clustering of betting shops. What planning changes is the Secretary of State considering to protect communities from too many betting shops and too many FOBTs?
I am most grateful for the right hon. Gentleman’s support with regard to Tower Hamlets. He is absolutely right: this has to be completely in the open. At a reception relating to flooding this lunchtime, I was approached by someone who had dealings with Tower Hamlets and is indeed handing over information. It is important that we get to the bottom of this.
With regard to fixed-odds terminals, it was announced in the Budget that we would be carrying out a review of use class, and we are about to start the consultation. The right hon. Gentleman, who has considerable experience in planning, is most welcome to make a contribution to that.
I thank the Secretary of State for that reply, but it sounds to me as though, once again, No. 10 has taken over responsibility for his policy. He says that there will be a consultation, but how open will it be? I ask because when we proposed that communities should be given more powers over fixed-odds betting terminals and the proliferation of betting shops, the Planning Minister, the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles), said he was against that, telling the House that
“we need no more planning changes to enable councils to do what they want to do to protect their local communities.”—[Official Report, 8 January 2014; Vol. 573, c. 412.]
Does the Planning Minister still stand by that statement?
The Planning Minister is absolutely right. [Interruption.] I beg your pardon—may I be allowed to reply? Article 4 is pretty adequate, but we have noticed that local authorities seem reluctant to use it. Why should electors suffer because of the inactivity of their local councils? We are looking most carefully at this, and it was in the Budget. The right hon. Gentleman was there—I saw him—and he should have paid attention to what the Chancellor said.
T4. A number of houses in my constituency were built by a small building company where serious breaches of building regulations have recently been discovered. This shoddy building work was signed off by independent building control inspectors over whom my local authority appears to have no influence. Will my right hon. Friend take steps to ensure that local authorities are given powers to force independent building control inspectors to ensure that there is proper compliance with building regulations? (903531)
Approved building inspectors do, of course, have that duty to inspect buildings as they are constructed, often through spot checks. If the hon. Gentleman has a specific allegation, I suggest that he write to me so that my officials can look at it and advise him on the course of action that may be available.
T2. Nine in 10 disabled people are cutting back on household bills in order to pay the bedroom tax, and many are now falling into rent arrears. If the Secretary of State were in their position, would he fall into debt or cut back on heating or even eating? (903529)
There is no evidence of any increase in arrears. A number of things can be considered, including taking in a lodger, obtaining a job and getting help from local authorities, which have, by and large, dealt with the issue in a reasonable way. The Labour party lumbered the taxpayer with an enormous bill as far as the growth in housing benefit was concerned, and it is entirely wrong to pretend that it would not have introduced similar constraints.
T5. Will the Secretary of State look at his policy to give powers to local authorities to help increase the number of family-owned small businesses and reduce the number of nationally owned betting shops and payday lenders in our town centres? (903532)
This question gives me an opportunity to clarify, for the sake of the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn), what the Budget made clear, which is that the Government are going to consult on the creation of a single retail use class in town centres that will not include betting shops or payday lenders. If the consultation is followed through, it will diminish the ability to convert units into betting shops or premises for payday lenders. That would, I hope, produce the kind of effect for which my hon. Friend is looking.
T6. Several weeks ago, I asked the Secretary of State if he was prepared to backdate the changes to the Bellwin scheme, to ensure that those who suffered flooding in the north in 2012 and 2013 are provided with the same support as those affected by flooding in the south this winter. Is he prepared to make those changes and end that double standard, or is there still no support for those in the north? (903533)
T8. Work recently started on a new crematorium in my constituency that was turned down by the local council but approved by the Government inspector. Is it not time to look again at when inspectors should be allowed to overturn local decisions and make it the exception rather than the rule? (903535)
My hon. Friend has been a vocal advocate for his constituents on particular applications in his area. As a result, we have clarified in recent planning guidance the time that a plan can be deemed to be sufficiently advanced but not yet sound, in order to enable a local authority to make a decision to refuse an application even if it does not have a sound plan. We believe that that is a step forward that gives councils the ability to make those decisions in such circumstances.
T7. I recently visited Crownhill fire station and members of its watch would like a Minister to answer a question about the tapering arrangements for their pension scheme. One firefighter has served since he was 18 years old. He is now 39 and will miss out because the scheme starts for those aged 40, so he will have to work for 42 years rather than 30 years. The watch want to know whether any consideration has been given to the scheme in operation for the police, which takes into account length of service rather than age. (903534)
My understanding is that, at the time that arrangement was made with the police, the Fire Brigades Union did not go down that road. More firefighters are protected by the scheme we have put in place than any other scheme in the public sector, and conversations with the FBU remain ongoing.
T9. This winter, my constituents struggled not only with the destruction of river flooding, but with the revolting effects of foul-water flooding and inadequate drainage. We have a severe housing shortage, so it is right that we should be building houses, but this must not make the situation any worse. What steps is the Minister taking to strengthen consultation with water companies during the planning process, and will he meet me and local representatives to discuss the matter? (903536)
I am sure everybody in the House can imagine just how horrible it must be for their own home to be affected by their drains backing up. Of course it is important that every local authority consults, as they are statutorily required to do, with water companies when they draw up their local plans. I would of course be delighted to meet my hon. Friend and any of her constituents to discuss any particular case.
The welcome written statement released today says Ministers “have long been concerned” about Tower Hamlets. Will the Secretary of State agree that Tower Hamlets was an improving and in many ways well-run council between 1994 and 2010, and confirm that the period under inspection is from 2010 and therefore that the concern of Ministers and others is a relatively recent phenomenon?
There have been some worries about the running of the council; the hon. Gentleman has raised them with me privately. Now that the investigation has started, it must be on the basis that everyone is innocent until the allegations are proved, so it is probably not sensible for me or others to speculate about the strength and nature of the claims until we receive the report at the end of June.
A few years ago, Essex county council grabbed highways maintenance from Colchester borough council. Today, we have potholed streets and broken pavements, and the street lights are turned off at midnight. Will the Secretary of State support me in getting highway powers restored to Colchester borough council?
It is always a pleasure to visit Colchester, and it is a double pleasure to visit my hon. Friend. I am sorry that the lights are being turned out in Colchester. If we talk together with our friends at the county council, I am sure that some kind of devolution could take place.
On Tower Hamlets, local residents from all communities are deeply concerned that the actions of those under investigation do not damage the reputation of the area and its diverse communities, and they all want transparency and accountability in the use of public funds. Will the Secretary of State reassure me that swift action will be taken to restore public confidence, and will he explain what led him to decide to bring in investigators and refer files to the police?
I certainly listened very carefully to the views of the two Members of Parliament in Tower Hamlets with regard to what has been going on. A series of dossiers from whistleblowers made me decide that the allegations were so serious that they needed proper investigation. At the end of that process—I notice that the mayor has welcomed this investigation— I hope that we can move on constructively. Nevertheless, we cannot leave such allegations just hanging in the air.
In a written answer, my right hon. Friend stated that 60 local authorities had used the powers available to them under the Localism Act 2011 and granted business rate relief last year. Those authorities included Birmingham city council, which granted relief of £438,000, but none of the four local authorities in the black country—just half a mile away—have used the powers. What can the Minister do to encourage local authorities to use the powers available to them to encourage local businesses?
My hon. Friend makes a very good point, and in directly asking the question she has done a good job in highlighting this issue to such authorities. All local authorities have the power to do this: on top of the £1 billion business rate package put forward in the autumn statement and confirmed in the Budget, it is a good opportunity for local authorities to support local business and to develop local business growth, particularly around high streets and town centres.
If a council gave planning permission for 2,600 homes on sites with a £10 billion development value and not one was an additional home for social rent, while selling off council homes on the open market when they became vacant, with more than 10,000 families in housing need in the borough, would that worry the Secretary of State?
Last week, Malvern Hills district council approved planning for 67 homes adjacent to my constituency, despite objections from me, from Wyre Forest district council, from Stourport town council and from Astley and Dunley parish council. Those homes have a significant impact on resources for Stourport-on-Severn and Wyre Forest, yet section 106 payments and council tax will be going to Malvern Hills district council. Does the Minister share the frustration of Stourport residents? What steps is he taking to ensure that residents are properly heard when decisions are made that have asymmetric cross-border implications?
Does the Secretary of State share my disappointment that, despite North Lincolnshire Homes urging it to change its policy better to support tenants in difficulty, Conservative North Lincolnshire council has spent only 17% of its discretionary housing payments? Consequently, local people who have been hit by the Government’s bedroom tax and are unable to move continue to suffer.
The Minister said earlier that local plans and examinations can be considered as part of any appeal. Constituencies such as mine, however, are not quite at that stage. My council and local neighbourhood forum are still developing their plans, but they are seeing developers use this interim period to get permission on important strategic sites. What assurances can he give my constituents, who have put a considerable number of hours into this work, that their efforts will not be in vain and that they will not see important sites swallowed up on appeal?
I know that my hon. Friend’s authority is working to deliver a very ambitious plan, which takes time and needs to be underpinned by the necessary evidence. No application should be granted if it is in conflict with the sustainability policies in the national planning policy framework. Even in the absence of a local plan, there are all the protections of the national planning policy framework on transport, environment and other sustainability issues to ensure that unsustainable development is not allowed.
Point of Order
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. The Prime Minister said this morning that he is “very open” to suggestions on how to reform the system that some would describe as MPs regulating themselves through the Committee on Standards. I note that there is no ministerial statement so that the House can make suggestions for the Prime Minister and the Government to consider. What opportunities might there be for the House to discuss not the behaviour and actions of any individual Members but the principle of self-regulation of MPs by MPs?
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. Undoubtedly these have been very bad days for the reputation of this House. My hon. Friend’s point on self-regulation is interesting, and of course it has been voiced by other Members and by people outside the House. Before the House rises on Thursday, what mechanism is there for us to discuss this important issue? I do not want to raise the particular case but the general question of how we regulate ourselves and recognise the amount of criticism, justified or otherwise, that has been expressed outside by many people, and by no means just the media, over the past few days.
I am grateful to the hon. Members for their points of order, or attempted points of order. I am obliged to the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) for what he said about not seeking to debate a particular case. I feel sure that he is well familiar with “Erskine May” page 396, which specifically stipulates that there cannot be debate on the conduct of an individual hon. or right hon. Member, other than on a substantive motion. No substantive motion is on the Order Paper, and therefore no such discussion can or should take place.
I simply say to the hon. Gentleman that Governments may make statements to the House when they wish. The Government have not chosen to make a statement today. It is perfectly possible for exchanges on the principles of the issue that concern him and others to take place between now and when we rise later this week. That might take the form of a question or a debate. I am very open to these matters being aired if right hon. and hon. Members wish to air them. However, it must be done in an orderly way. That is the sole responsibility of the Chair in this matter. I know his persistence and that of other right hon. and hon. Members. I am sure that they will use the opportunities that are available to seek to air their concerns at the earliest opportunity—concerns that, as the hon. Member for Walsall North (Mr Winnick) articulated, are shared widely by our constituents.
Justice and Home Affairs Opt-out
[Relevant documents: Twenty-first Report from the European Scrutiny Committee, on the UK’s block opt-out of pre-Lisbon criminal law and policing measures, HC 683, and the Government response, HC 978; Ninth Report from the Home Affairs Committee, on Pre-Lisbon Treaty EU police and criminal justice measures: the UK’s opt-in decision, HC 615, and the Government response, HC 954; Eighth Report from the Justice Committee, on Ministry of Justice measures in the JHA block opt-out, HC 605, and the Government response, HC 972; and First Joint Report from the European Scrutiny, Home Affairs and Justice Committees, on the Government’s response to the Committees’ Reports on the 2014 block opt-out decision, HC 1177.]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the UK’s 2014 justice and home affairs opt-out decision.
We return once more to the important issue of the United Kingdom’s opt-out decision in relation to justice and home affairs matters under the Lisbon treaty—an issue that not only raises important questions about the protection of individual rights, but directly affects our law enforcement agencies’ ability to work with their EU counterparts to keep British citizens safe. It is an issue in which a number of right hon. and hon. Members have taken a keen interest, and the Government are grateful to them for their work in this area so far, not least the Select Committees on Home Affairs and on Justice and the European Scrutiny Committee, before all of which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Justice and I have appeared on a number of occasions.
Those Committees have produced many valuable reports on the 2014 opt-outs. Their most recent was a joint report that was published on 26 March, in which they expressed the view that the Government have not engaged properly with Parliament on this issue. We deeply regret that they take that view and respectfully disagree. The Government have strongly supported and, indeed, encouraged Parliament’s scrutiny of this important matter from the very start of the process. I made an initial statement in October 2012 because the Government considered it important to communicate their proposed direction of travel at an early stage to enable scrutiny of the position to take place. That was in line with standard practice on EU police and criminal justice matters.
Since then, the Government have invited the Committees to play their part in this important work and have supported them in doing so. Well over 12 hours of ministerial time have been committed to giving evidence before the Committees. The Government have also submitted written evidence to inquiries and corresponded with the Committees on a regular basis. In addition, we have answered more than 300 parliamentary questions on this matter.
None the less, we take the Committees’ disappointment seriously. In the light of their disappointment and the views of other right hon. and hon. Members, the Government have allocated time this afternoon for the House to debate this important issue once again.
It is very unusual for three Committees of the House to agree on every single word of a joint report, which is what we did. The point that the three Committees made—the Chairman of the European Scrutiny Committee is here and he can make his own points on this—was that it was important for Parliament to deliberate on this matter before the package was put in place, rather than afterwards, which would give Parliament very little time for proper discussion. That is why we felt that it was important to deal with this matter at the earliest opportunity. We are grateful to the Home Secretary for giving us this time.
I am grateful to the Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee for setting out the reason behind the joint report from the three Committees. I will go on to explain exactly where we are in the process. He talks about the package coming before the House before it is adopted. We have made it very clear that there will be another opportunity for Parliament to debate the matter and vote on it.
I should remind the House of the background and the stage in proceedings we have reached. Under the terms of the Lisbon treaty, which the Labour Government signed in 2007, the UK had a specific and limited period of time to opt out of roughly 130 justice and home affairs measures covered by the treaty. That opt-out—Labour negotiated it, but never made it clear whether it would use it—had to be exercised en bloc, and before 31 May this year. Last July, the Government informed the House that we intended to exercise the UK’s opt-out. After debates in both Houses, Parliament voted for us to do so.
Accordingly, on 24 July 2013, the Prime Minister wrote to the then President of the Council of Ministers, informing her that the UK had exercised its right to opt-out from all pre-Lisbon police and criminal justice measures. That decision is irreversible, and will come into effect on 1 December 2014.
Paragraph 85 of the Home Affairs Committee’s ninth report, which dealt with the matter, states:
“The Government should…be explicit on what would happen if the proposed opt-in could not be agreed”—
in other words, they should be explicit on what would happen if the negotiations failed. That did not get a substantive response. Will the Home Secretary be explicitly clear about what will happen if the Government fail to agree the opt-in terms?
I will refer to one or two specific measures in relation to that, but as I have just indicated to the House, the Government have exercised the block opt-out. It is open to us to seek to rejoin any of the individual measures covered by it. If we do not negotiate to rejoin those measures, we will no longer be part of them from 1 December 2014.
When I came to the House last July, I explained that my ministerial colleagues and I had concluded that a number of the measures subject to the opt-out decision added value in the fight against crime and the pursuit of justice, and that it would therefore be in our national interest to seek to rejoin them. We believe that there are only a limited number of such measures—we set those out in Command Paper 8671 for the House to see before it voted on our decision to exercise the opt-out.
They were always separate decisions, and the Government have always been clear that Parliament and its Committees should have adequate time to scrutinise both. To make that explicit, we listened to the concerns of hon. Members, and particularly to the Chairmen of the Committees to which I have referred, and amended the motion for last July’s debate to invite the European Scrutiny Committee, the Home Affairs Committee and the Justice Committee to submit reports before the Government opened formal discussions with the European Commission, the Council and other member states.
I endorse what the Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee said with one qualification. It is not just a question of whether Parliament is given the opportunity to deliberate before decisions are taken behind closed doors, but a question of whether Parliament is, in effect, being asked to rubber stamp something that has already been decided in negotiations behind those closed doors. The problem is one of the matter therefore being hidden from the searching gaze of the public and Parliament itself.
Of course, by definition, the Government’s role is negotiating with the parties I have just indicated—the Council, the Commission and the member states—on those measures to which they agree it is possible for us to opt back into. That process, which takes some time, has been put in motion. I will describe where we are a little later but, by definition, the process must be undertaken by the Government. We have been clear that we will come back to Parliament, which will have the opportunity to debate and vote on the package of measures.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr Cash) is well aware, we have indicated the measures on which we wish to opt back in. The discussions are in place with the European Commission and the other member states as to their views—whether or not they wish the UK to opt back in—and any other matters they wish to discuss with us as part of that negotiation.
The Government have always seen this clearly as a number of measures, some of which interlink and relate to one another. Therefore, they are part of a package in relation to our ability better to protect the public and ensure that our law enforcement agencies have the powers that we consider they need.
The Government will not bring forward legislation to the House on this matter, because that is not necessary. We will put before the House a package of measures that, following discussions with the European Commission, we believe we should be rejoining.
We responded to the Select Committees when they submitted their reports. I am sure that their work will inform the speeches we will hear in today’s debate.
I said that I would indicate what progress we had made in the negotiations. Everybody will of course understand that the nature of a negotiation is such that it is a poor negotiating strategy to reveal one’s hand in public while a deal is still being done. Detailed and constructive discussions are taking place with the European Commission and other member states. There are a great many processes and technical matters to discuss, but we are all keen to avoid the operational gap for our law enforcement agencies that will ensue if we have not settled the matter before 1 December, when, as I indicated earlier, the UK’s opt-out takes full effect. Our aim is therefore to reach an “in principle” deal well ahead of that date, and, as I have already indicated, to return to Parliament for a further vote before formally seeking to rejoin measures in the national interest.
I am most grateful to the Home Secretary for giving way a second time. Has she seen reference made to a note by the Greek presidency that was published by Statewatch—it was leaked; it was not published by the presidency—that the United Kingdom needs to have its re-opting list agreed by June 2014; in other words, before the parliamentary recess? Has she seen that note and is that the case? Do we have to get all our priorities ready by then?
I am aware of a number of reports in the press in relation to documents that, it is claimed, have been leaked as part of the discussions that have been taking place. The timetable I have set out is very clear. On 1 December, having exercised the opt-out, we will no longer be part of any of the roughly 130 measures covered by the opt-out protocol. If, before that date, we have not negotiated the package, had the parliamentary debate and vote, and been able to agree the formal terms for returning to those measures that we choose to opt back into, then we will be out of those measures. It is that date that sets an end-point for us on when we want to be able to ensure we can opt back in.
The Home Secretary is always very generous to me; I have never complained about her generosity and magnanimity. I just want to go back to the question I asked last time, because I do not think she understood fully what I meant. I understand that the motion before the House will not be legislation—it will not be an Act of Parliament or secondary legislation—so will it just be an amendable motion that the Government can then completely and utterly ignore?
It will be an opportunity for this House to debate on the basis of a motion that the Government will bring forward. By definition, we have not yet put that motion into place, so the hon. Gentleman may just have to wait and see the nature of the motion when it is brought before this House. The Government have been clear that Parliament should be able to exercise the opportunity to give its views on the discussions we have had with the European Commission and member states in relation to the measure that we choose to opt into. We have been clear throughout this process that Parliament will be given a vote on the final list of measures. I am happy to confirm, as I have done already on a number of occasions in the limited time that I have been speaking, that that will be the case.
While the negotiations continue, I realise that hon. Members want to debate and comment on some of the specific measures that the Government identified in Command paper 8671 as being in our national interest to rejoin. Chief among them is the European arrest warrant. I know that this measure arouses particular feeling in the House. We clearly need strong extradition arrangements in place to see criminals convicted and justice done, but when extradition arrangements are wrong, they can cause misery to suspects and their families, and risk miscarriages of justice.
The previous Labour Government had eight years to address the concerns that people raised in respect of the European arrest warrant, but they did nothing. Where they failed to act, this Government have legislated to implement new safeguards to increase the protection offered to those wanted for extradition, particularly British citizens. The concrete steps taken by the Government in the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014 will tackle the operational deficiencies of the arrest warrant head on.
Our changes will protect the fundamental rights of British citizens by allowing arrest warrants that are issued for disproportionate offences to be refused; they will address the understandable concerns that many people had about lengthy pre-trial detention; they will help to ensure that British nationals will not be extradited when the prosecuting authorities are still investigating offences; and they will help to ensure that people cannot be extradited for conduct that takes place in the United Kingdom and is not against the law of this land.
I am grateful to the Home Secretary for many of the changes that are being made, but, as she knows, I have specific knowledge as a result of the experience of my constituent Andrew Symeou, and I feel obliged to make a point that he made recently when being interviewed about the changes. Although steps have been taken to prevent people from being held for unnecessary periods when a case is not trial-ready, he is certain that the Greek authorities lied in his case, and that there is nothing to prevent them from doing so again.
My hon. Friend’s constituent has particular experience of the operation of the European arrest warrant, and my hon. Friend has been assiduous in drawing attention to that case and to the case for change. However, it will be possible for the process that determines whether a case is trial-ready to take place in the courts here in the United Kingdom, and for decisions to be made there. I am confident that proper consideration will be given to evidence given by the authorities in Greece or other member states concerning the preparedness of the case.
My right hon. Friend has set out the safeguards that will apply to the European arrest warrant, which, as she knows, is of huge concern to many people in this country. One of the fears that we all have is that all the measures into which she wishes to opt will be subject to the European Court of Justice. How certain can she be that those safeguards will be upheld by the Court?
It is true that the measures that we opt back into will be subject to the European Court of Justice, but I take some confidence from the fact that other member states have already introduced measures that are similar to a number of the measures that we are introducing in our own legislation. It is noticeable, for instance, that some member states are more able to deal with the proportionality issue than we have been so far. I think it a pity that the last Government did not introduce such measures, but we recognised the extent of the concern that was being expressed and the fact that it was possible for us to act, which we have done. We made changes to the way in which extradition works—in the face of some resistance—in order to protect British citizens in respect of extradition to the United States, and we have now legislated to change the operation of the European arrest warrant in the UK and enhance the protections that British citizens enjoy. The Labour Government dithered, but we have acted to protect British citizens from injustice at home and abroad.
I have made a number of improvements. The most obvious one is the introduction of the forum bar. That was not entirely popular on either side of the Atlantic, but we did it because we felt that it was right. I believe that it is an important safeguard in relation to the extradition of British citizens outside the European Union.
I believe that our reforms will make an important difference to the European arrest warrant. It is, of course, in our national interest to have an effective extradition system, and no other extradition system would be as effective.
Before my right hon. Friend leaves the subject of proportionality, may I ask whether she has seen reports in today’s papers about a meeting of the Council of Ministers at which the French and Germans have indicated that they do not think that the proportionality test meets the requirements of European law?
I am aware of the report in today’s press, but I do not think that it referred to a Council of Ministers meeting. It may have referred to a document that possibly had been leaked from the European Commission. I say to my hon. Friend that, as I have made very clear, there are matters for discussion and matters for negotiation that we have to undertake as we go through this process, but other member states do have within their own systems a greater ability to deal with issues such as proportionality, and I think it is right that we have taken powers ourselves in our own legislation to do that.
Returning to my point, I think it is in our national interest to have an effective extradition system in place and no other extradition system would be as effective. We owe it to the victims of crime, and their families, to return the alleged perpetrators of serious crimes to this country and ensure that they face justice. There are many examples of that, of which I will cite only a few.
The arrest warrant recently helped the British authorities to secure the extradition and conviction of Francis Paul Cullen, a former priest who sexually assaulted seven children before spending more than two decades on the run in Spain. Thanks to the European arrest warrant, he will now swap the Spanish sun for a 15-year term in a British jail.
Our law enforcement agencies are clear that the arrest warrant has helped them to secure the return of dangerous criminals to face justice in the UK—criminals who under the old regime might not have been returned to answer for their crimes, including David Heiss from Germany and Florian Baboi from Romania.
David Heiss viciously murdered a British student, Matthew Pyke—originally from Stowmarket in Suffolk—in Nottingham in September 2008, stabbing him 86 times. Heiss was arrested on a European arrest warrant at his home in Germany a month after the offence and was surrendered to the UK the month after that. He has since been sentenced to a minimum of 18 years in prison. Before the European arrest warrant, Germany did not surrender its own nationals; indeed, there was a constitutional bar to its doing so, so it is clear that in this case the arrest warrant made a real difference.
In how many of the recent cases is the European arrest warrant making extradition quicker, rather than facilitating it when it would not have happened under existing arrangements? The Home Secretary has given one very powerful case, but quantitatively how many cases are we talking about because the argument has been made that actually we would face a cliff edge and just not get fugitives back rather than get them back a little bit slower?
The argument I make in relation to the European arrest warrant is on both those aspects of its operation. I have just cited a case where there was an issue of whether an individual would have been able to be extradited back to the UK had we not had the European arrest warrant. There are other cases where it is a matter of fact that the European arrest warrant has been able to be exercised more quickly on average than extraditions were before the EAW was in place. So it is not just that there are people who would not come back unless we had the EAW; it is that it also smoothes the process and makes this quicker and brings people here to justice quicker.
The Home Secretary has given us a number of indications of concerns that have arisen in some member states. Is she conscious of the fact that the French have said the UK requirements risk imposing an undue burden on other member states, that the Germans raise serious doubts about compatibility with European law, that Spain says the Legal Service should give its opinion and that the Dutch have said that there are a number of fundamental and practical problems? Is it not all rather running into the sand?
No it is not, and I have to say to my hon. Friend that he is not party to the discussions that we are party to, but I am interested that he mentions Germany because it is one of the countries that has a greater ability to deal with the proportionality issue than the United Kingdom. As I say, there are other member states who have themselves already, either automatically because of their constitution or because they have taken powers, taken steps to ensure they can deal with the very issues we are dealing with in the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act I referred to earlier.
Florian Baboi is a Romanian national who was returned to the UK from Romania under an arrest warrant to stand trial for the murder of David McArthur in Birmingham in August 2011. He was found guilty in May 2012 and sentenced to life in prison. That is another case where the EAW has helped to bring dangerous offenders to justice.
So it is unsurprising that the Association of Chief Police Officers’ evidence to the Home Affairs Committee made clear its view that the arrest warrant is an “essential weapon” in the fight against serious criminality. This view was echoed by the outgoing Director of Public Prosecutions, who was clear that the streamlined process of the arrest warrant makes it easier to bring serious criminals back to face justice. I agree wholeheartedly with those assessments.
The Home Secretary is absolutely right to highlight the huge importance of the European arrest warrant. I am constantly surprised by people who are so fanatically anti-European that they would jeopardise our safety by trying to opt out of it. Is she aware that, last Friday, the Daily Mail wrote about a case involving Magdalena Ferkova, who was brought back to this country using the European arrest warrant? If even the Daily Mail is happy about it, there must be something to be said for it.
Today’s debate has probably generated a first in parliamentary history: my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Dr Huppert) praising the Daily Mail in a debate in the House of Commons.
I want to turn now to some of the other important measures that the Government are proposing that we should rejoin. We are seeking to rejoin the European supervision order, which allows British subjects to be bailed back to the UK rather than spending many months abroad awaiting trial. My hon. Friend the Member for Enfield North (Nick de Bois) will be particularly aware of the benefits that this could have brought in the case of Andrew Symeou, to which he alluded earlier. I am sure that the whole House also wants to see foreign national offenders sent back to their own country. The prisoner transfer framework decision provides for non-consent-based transfers throughout the European Union, and the Government want to opt back into that measure and send criminals back home.
We also want our law enforcement agencies to be able to establish joint investigation teams with colleagues in other European countries. Hon. Members might ask why we want this to happen. I cite Operation Rico, the biggest-ever operation against so-called boiler-room fraud, which is precisely the kind of practical co-operation we want to encourage. Thanks to the excellent work of our National Crime Agency and its Spanish colleagues, there have been 83 arrests in Spain alone, and 18 in the UK. It is also quite clear that many other EU member states and their law enforcement agencies rely on measures of this sort to provide the necessary framework for practical co-operation in the fight against crime. In most instances, bilateral agreements would simply not work as effectively and our co-operation would suffer.
We therefore owe it to the victims of crime, both here and abroad, to ensure that such co-operation can continue unhindered. We owe it to the elderly who have been scammed out of their life savings, and to the hard-working people who have been conned into dodgy investments by fraudsters and had their hard-earned money shamefully spent on flashy watches, sharp suits and fast cars. I want to protect victims of crime, and I am determined to give our law enforcement the tools they need to do that.
The Government’s policy is clear. We have exercised the United Kingdom’s opt-out and are negotiating to rejoin a limited number of measures where we believe that it is in the national interest to do so.
I wonder whether the Home Secretary is going to mention any of the other 35 opt-in measures, including the European police college. Will she explain why it is necessary to have such a college when we have separate police forces in each of our sovereign states? What is the purpose behind it?
My hon. Friend is referring to CEPOL, which has been based at Bramshill in the United Kingdom in recent years. CEPOL is an organisation that encourages and facilitates cross-border co-operation between police forces. The European Commission recently proposed a measure to enhance and increase the ability of CEPOL to operate in relation to the training of individual police forces. The United Kingdom resisted that measure, as did other member states, and it is no longer going ahead.
As I was saying, this Government are very clear about the measures that we wish to rejoin, just as we have been clear about the opt-outs that we have exercised. Sadly, however, we are no clearer about the position of the Labour party. Some have called the Opposition’s policy inconsistent and incoherent, but I think it could be more carefully described as involving confusion and chaos. Labour signed up to the Lisbon treaty without giving the people of Britain a vote and without giving this House a say, and we must recall that the former Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown), flew in alone and under the cover of darkness to sign it. That tells us a great deal about his belief in it. That treaty contained an opt-out, but Labour never explained whether it would use it.
All the evidence suggests that Labour does not share the determination of this Government to reduce the control Brussels has on our criminal justice system. Because even after negotiating their opt-out, the last Labour Government signed us up, by way of unanimity, to another 30 or so measures. In fact, virtually all the measures covered by the Lisbon treaty and this opt-out decision were agreed by unanimity by Labour during its time in office. So are we to assume that it would rather we had remained bound by all 130 of them than exercise our opt-out and seek to rejoin the limited number we have identified? If not, why did it agree to the measures in the first place? But if so, why did it negotiate an opt-out? As I say, it is confusion and chaos.
Sadly, the Opposition day debate Labour called in June last year did nothing to clear up the mystery of Labour’s position, because the motion highlighted only seven measures the UK should “remain” part of. It was not clear whether that meant Labour would have exercised the opt-out and left all the measures other than those seven, such as Eurojust, a measure that the police and prosecutors deem vital to continuing our co-operation with our EU partners. Another such measure is the prisoner transfer framework decision, to which I have referred and which allows us to pack foreign national offenders back off home. I suspect that the Labour party would rather we did not know, unless of course the right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) is going to reveal all in her response to this afternoon’s debate. Having negotiated an opt-out from all the measures the Labour Government signed our country up to in the first place, when this Government chose to exercise that opt-out, the right hon. Lady and her party voted against it—again, I say confusion and chaos.
I repeat that the position of this Government is clear: we have exercised the opt-out, we support the return of powers from Brussels to the UK and we support acting in the national interest by rejoining a limited number of measures that protect British citizens and the victims of crime. That is consistent with our approach to the European Union as a whole. The EU needs fundamental change, and under the Conservatives Britain is leading the way in delivering that change. At home, we have made the difficult decisions in the national interest to secure Britain’s economic future—now it is time to protect Britain’s interests in Europe. The Prime Minister has already taken tough action to stand up for Britain in Europe by cutting the EU budget, saving British taxpayers over £8 billion; vetoing a new EU fiscal treaty which did not guarantee a level playing field for British businesses; and refusing to spend British taxes on bailing out the euro.
Only the Conservatives have a credible plan to reshape Britain’s relationship with the European Union and to put this to the British people in an in-out referendum by the end of 2017. [Interruption.] The right hon. Lady may laugh, but the Labour party opposes this plan and will not give the British people their say. Labour has no policies and no ideas, and that is not the sort of leadership the United Kingdom needs in Europe. The leadership it needs in Europe is the leadership we are giving it, with the clarity we are giving to return powers from Brussels to the United Kingdom, but to take other decisions to opt back into measures that are firmly and clearly in our national interest.
Today’s debate is one that the Home Secretary and Justice Secretary did not want to have. They have been forced into it by the three Select Committees because time and again they have tried to avoid coming to Parliament, avoid providing information to Parliament and avoid having a vote. The Select Committee on Home Affairs told them:
“we have been disappointed with the extent and timeliness of the Government’s involvement of Parliament”.
The European Scrutiny Committee described the Government’s approach as
“a serious omission as well as a missed opportunity to inform the debate in Parliament and beyond.”
The Select Committee on Justice summed up its report by saying
“we criticise the ‘cavalier fashion’ in which Parliament has been treated.”
The Home Secretary was in cavalier mode again today, because although she announced the opt-out in July last year and the Select Committees reports came out in October—we can presume that she has been negotiating since then—we had today no update on the progress of the negotiations, no sense of the timetable and no sense of when the vote will be called. We have to wonder what the Home Secretary has to hide. The truth is that she is hiding because this whole opt-out, opt-in is a massive con. She has done a U-turn again on the main measures, and is opting out and opting back in to them again. The only measures she is staying out of are ones that were largely redundant in any case, and what she is doing is a complex negotiation with our European partners, which is playing games with European security co-operation: “We’ll pull the arrest warrant out; we’ll put the arrest warrant back in. We’ll in out, in out, shake it all about. Play the opt-out hokey cokey, and you turn around. That’s what it’s all about.”
I must say to the hon. Lady that we do not think that it is a muddle to have co-operation with European police forces to bring criminals to justice and to provide victims with justice. I know that the Fresh Start group, of which she is a leading member, thought that we should replace all of this with a new international treaty. The Chair of the European Scrutiny Committee and many Government Back Benchers wanted to opt out and stay out of everything. The last time we debated the subject, a queue of Members stood up to say how much they wanted us to opt out and stay out of not just the European arrest warrant but all the major measures.
The Home Secretary has boasted a lot about giving the people a referendum, but up until the last general election, her party refused the British people a referendum, and we are the only political party that ever gave the British people a referendum on Europe.
I hope that the right hon. Lady will agree with me. Does she recall that the former Prime Minister, Tony Blair, in an answer to my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr Lilley) when reporting on the agreement of the Lisbon treaty, said that his reasons for not giving a referendum were that there was an opt-out to justice and home affairs, and an opt out to the charter of fundamental rights. As the latter opt-out is non-existent and the former opt-out is being given up, is it not now time for a referendum?
The hon. Gentleman seemed to be opting out and opting in all over the place there. The problem with the opt-out that he wanted is that, by the time we have opted back in to the main measures, it will not really be there at all. Here is what the Prime Minister said about these measures. He described the European arrest warrant as “highly objectionable” and the Home Secretary’s package, which is before us today, as a massive “transfer of powers”.
The Home Secretary said that it was
“the first time in the history of our membership of the European Union that we have taken such a set of powers back from Brussels.”
She described it as
“something that should be celebrated by anybody who cares about national sovereignty, democracy and the role of this place in making the laws of our country.”—[Official Report, 15 July 2013; Vol. 566, c. 770.]
So what does she want us to celebrate today? The truth is that the Home Secretary now wants us to opt back into the important measures again—thank goodness. Finally she has listened to reason. I was delighted to hear her list many of the cases in which the European arrest warrant has been used—rightly used—and needed; in fact, they were many of the examples that Labour Members were putting to her 12 months ago when she was refusing to listen. Finally, she has listened to the police, who have said that many of the measures, if we opt out and stay out of them, would let criminals run free. She has listened to the victims who feared that they would be denied justice. Finally, she has listened on cases such as that of Jason McKay, who was extradited from Poland within two weeks for murdering his partner. Under the old extradition arrangements, it would have taken several years to get him back to face justice for a murdered woman. So yes, she has rightly done a U-turn on the European arrest warrant, joint investigation teams, Schengen information sharing and co-operation over online child abuse.
The Home Secretary is right to admit that we cannot go back to the days when it took 10 years to extradite a terror suspect to France, or when it took 11 years to get Ronnie Knight back from the costa del crime. She is right to support the deportation of thousands of foreign suspects to their home countries to face charges. I agree that co-operation is needed in a whole series of different areas. We are glad, too, that the Home Secretary has accepted the need for the exchange of criminal records, Eurojust, the co-operation to protect personal data and measures on football hooliganism. We cannot go back to the days when foreign criminal gangs were untouchable and criminals were able to seek sanctuary on the continent. I am glad that the Home Secretary has decided to ignore her Back-Bench colleagues and the Fresh Start group and to listen instead to Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the police and victims of crime.
What is left that the Home Secretary wants us to remain opted out from? What is the massive transfer of powers—the historic transfer, the repatriation—that the Home Secretary wants us to celebrate today? We will not be signed up to some joint proceedings on driving licences, but they are not in force and are out of date. We will not be signed up to a directory on international organised crime, but it was closed down two years ago. We will not sign up to the guidance on the payment of informers, but we will carry on following it. We will not sign up to guidelines on working with other countries on drug trafficking, but we will carry on doing that anyway. We will not sign up to measures on cybercrime and mutual legal assistance, because they have all been superseded by other measures to which we have signed up instead. We will not sign up to minimum standards on bribery, but we will still meet them because the Bribery Act 2010 is still in place. We will not sign up to measures to tackle racism, but we will still meet them because we have hate crime legislation in place. We will not sign up to measures on accession, because they never applied to us in the first place. And we will not sign up to receive a directory of specialist counter-terrorism officers, but someone will probably send it to us in the post.
That is it. That is the historic transfer of powers that the Home Secretary boasted about—the great liberation from Europe and the great cause for celebration that she promised us when we last debated these matters. We have the power not to do a whole series of things we plan to carry on doing anyway, the power not to follow guidance we already follow, the power not to take action we already take, the power not to meet standards we already meet, the power not to do things that everyone else has already stopped doing and the power not to do a whole series of things we want to do anyway. This is her historic moment. She said it would be a first in the history of our membership of the EU; she wanted it to be her Churchill moment. Churchill? Only if it is the nodding dog in the back of the car.
This is a political charade. Now that we are playing charades, will the Home Secretary at least reassure us that she is not doing any lasting damage? Can she assure us that, for the sake of a few opt-outs, the warrants will not be lost?
I must say that I am baffled that the right hon. Gentleman could consider a bit of guidance on this and a bit of a directory on that to be a huge, powerful thing in relation to criminal justice—[Interruption.] Oh, he is talking about the European arrest warrant. On that point, I think that he and I simply disagree. He would like us not to be able swiftly to deport foreign suspects to their home country to stand charge. He would like us not to be able swiftly to bring back to this country those who are suspected of serious crimes and need to face justice. Before we had the European arrest warrant, we waited years to get back the people we needed to have charged with serious crimes.
Unfortunately, the right hon. Gentleman wants us to sign huge numbers of different extradition treaties when the extradition treaties and arrangements we had before the European arrest warrant took years. I do not think that that is fair on the victims of crime who want to see justice done.
On the European arrest warrant, is there not also an obligation on member states to consider their own legislation and ensure that they are not issuing such warrants for trivial matters? Poland, for example, issued 3,809 European arrest warrants, clogging up our courts. That is where we should be negotiating to ensure that member states also understand their responsibilities.
My right hon. Friend makes an important point. We have said that we should argue within Europe for reforms to the way in which the European arrest warrant system works to make sure that it is properly proportionate. We must recognise that this is partly about the people we want to return to this country so that they can stand trial here. It is also about our not harbouring criminals from abroad who have come here and who should go back to their home country to stand trial. He is right that the system needs to work effectively, which means having that debate in Europe with other European countries about the reforms that we hope they will make. There has been considerable interest from many other countries in making such reforms. We need assurances from Ministers that we will have guarantees that we can immediately opt back into the European arrest warrant and important measures on 1 December, when the opt-out is given legal effect, and we want to know whether other member states have agreed to the plan.
The right hon. Lady gave a useful list of the fluff and nonsense that we are opting out of, but one thing that we are not opting back into is the European judicial network, which is an important body that helps to prosecute European arrest warrant cases. Does the Labour party have any view about what we should do about that to ensure that we can opt back in?
The hon. Gentleman points to a series of areas where the Government have proposed opting out or where it is not clear why they want to opt out and what the benefits are of doing so. We gather, too, that the Austrians, the Germans, the Spanish and the French have all called for the UK to opt into other measures as part of the negotiations. In addition to the list of 35 measures that the Home Secretary wants to opt back into, they list a further 13. The Home Secretary and the Justice Secretary should tell us whether they support those 13 measures or whether they will make them a red-line issue and call a halt to the negotiations if other countries insist on them so that a deal can be negotiated by 1 December.
The British head of Europol, Rob Wainwright, is worried about Britain opting out of some of the Europol regulations, because the new ones that the Home Secretary is prepared to support are not ready yet. He told the Select Committee on Home Affairs:
“I don’t think it is likely the new regulation will enter into force before December 2014 so there is likely to be a gap and, if there are not sufficient transitional measures in the meantime, then those accompanying eight measures would leave a gap, frankly, in terms of UK capability to carry out its work against international organised crime and terrorism.”
The Home Secretary should tell the House what she is doing about that, because it sounds serious and concerning. Has she put those measures back on her list to opt back into, and has she drawn up transitional measures?
We need to know, too, how much time and diplomatic resources the negotiation has taken up. For the remainder of the negotiating period, Italy will hold the presidency of the Council, and we understand that the Home Secretary is trying to persuade the Italian Government to make this a major priority and allow time for the European Council to negotiate. She should tell us if she really sees that as the top priority for the Council, and how many of her officials have to work on the issue, as opposed to the more substantial matters on which we should argue for reforms, such as changing the rules so that we do not have to pay child benefit and child tax credit for children abroad; or changing the rules on free movement for new accession states; or revisiting the posting of workers directive to strengthen protection for workers; or other things that would be worthwhile reforms in Europe. Instead, they are working on the power to opt out of a guidance document that we already follow. This is one of the most incredible examples of the gap between rhetoric and reality that the Government have come up with.
We debated this last year when we had the vote. We do not object to the opt-out in principle. We negotiated it so that Britain would have more time to look closely at the measures. We said last year that the most important thing was to be in the European arrest warrant. We said then that we would not exercise the opt-out without guarantees that we could opt back into the European arrest warrant and other measures.
In the end, this is about serious measures. Crime does not stop at the border, and criminals do not stop at the channel. Fighting crime and getting justice for victims depend on co-operation across our borders. Most people in Britain want our police and intelligence services to work with other forces abroad to share information, to track down dangerous offenders, to rescue abducted children and to stop online child abuse.
I want the House to hear the words of Beatrice Jones, who was the mother of Moira Jones, of whom I have spoken before in the House. She said:
“I have been appalled to read that a group of Tory MPs is putting pressure on the Prime Minister to use his right to pull out of EU crime and policing, including the EU arrest warrant. You may remember that my beloved daughter Moira Jones was assaulted, abducted, and savagely raped and murdered by an EU national who was allowed to come here . . . He fled the country but because of the dedication and determination of Strathclyde police, along with the cooperation of the Slovakian police, he was arrested and extradited back to this country. . . there is more cooperation and information between a much greater number of EU states . . . We want it to go much further so that another murder like Moira’s cannot occur . . . EU police cooperation is essential for the safety of all.”
That, in the end, is what this debate should be all about. The Home Secretary should be proud of that co-operation. The hard work of police forces across Europe and the commitment of victims groups working across Europe—that is what we should be celebrating and applauding today.