Thursday 8 May 2014
[Mr Peter Bone in the Chair]
Bedroom Tax (Scotland)
[Relevant documents: The impact of the Bedroom Tax in Scotland: Interim Report, Fourth Report from the Scottish Affairs Committee, HC 288, and the Government response, HC 937.]
Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Greg Hands.)
In speaking on the report and the Government response, it is appropriate that I indicate at the beginning that unusually, the report was not unanimous. It is the product of a Division in the Committee: four Labour members voted for the report, one Liberal and one Conservative voted against, four other members were absent and I as the Chair was unable to vote except in the event of a tie.
It is clear that the bedroom tax is, as we describe it in the report, cruel and unfair, and we remain in favour of its abolition. We believe that the tax was introduced not so much because of anything to do with housing as because of the Government’s desire to cut public expenditure. It has been levied in a way that has hurt the poorest in our society and has placed burdens on them that many have been unable to bear. It has forced many people into deeper poverty. It has forced many people to move house, or to run up debts.
We recognise that in Scotland, the tax has often been levied in circumstances where there are no other homes for people to move to. People are being taxed for having what are described as spare bedrooms and being urged to move, but no alternative accommodation is available.
This report is specifically about Scotland, but the Select Committee on Work and Pensions, in its report on housing costs, said that the victims of the so-called bedroom tax were often not the intended targets—those who could move. Instead, many were people who needed the extra space and who were therefore not over-housed in the first place. Is that the case in Scotland too?
Absolutely. Substantial numbers of disabled people who require an additional bedroom due to their condition have been hit by the bedroom tax. We heard the absurd proposal that people should mitigate the effects of the tax by taking in lodgers, as well as the suggestion that people should earn more by working longer hours when, as most of us are well aware, that is not a realistic option available to many of those affected.
My hon. Friend is being generous in giving way. I congratulate him and his Committee on the excellent work they did preparing the report. On the advice about taking a lodger, I visited a family with children aged two, three, four and five. Does he not think that it is not just stupid but highly risky to suggest that such a family should welcome a stranger into their home?
That is absolutely correct. In our hearings, we had a whole string of witnesses telling us how worried they would be about taking an unknown lodger into their home in circumstances where they would fear that their children might be at risk.
I also want to consider the issue in the context of devolution. I have been a long-time supporter of devolution; I was a member of the campaign for a Scottish Assembly before such things were fashionable. As well as the arguments for devolution because we wanted to move power closer to the people, there was also a strong argument that we wanted a devolved Scottish Parliament as a bulwark and protection against a Tory Government, to mitigate the worst effects of Tory economic and social policy. It is therefore doubly regrettable that right from the beginning, the present Scottish Government failed to use the whole range of their powers to mitigate the impact of the bedroom tax on the people of Scotland.
In our investigations and witness sessions, it became eminently clear to us that discretionary housing payments were inadequate and not an appropriate method of reaching everyone affected by the malignant impacts of the bedroom tax, who included those with mental health issues, learning difficulties and chaotic lives, as well as those too proud to apply for another benefit. It was clear that, despite the best efforts of local authorities of all political persuasions, they were unable to reach all those who were adversely affected by the bedroom tax.
In those circumstances, people who were unable to mitigate the effects themselves or with the assistance of the local authority were left with the alternatives of paying up and suffering, building up arrears and debt, or moving. We discovered that if people were able to move, they were often obliged to move into the private rented sector, which actually cost the public purse more in housing benefit than if they had remained in their existing home.
Perhaps my hon. Friend would not be surprised to know that the real problem is the shortage of homes, which is why people end up in the private rented sector. In Edinburgh this week, out of all council and housing association homes, only 22 one-bedroom properties are advertised, and six of them are in sheltered housing, which by definition does not suit people affected by the bedroom tax because it is for retired people. However, it has also not led to any increase in the number of larger houses available: only five three-bedroom houses and one four-bedroom house are available in the city, which is much the same as before the introduction of the bedroom tax, so it has not solved that problem either. Yet, at the same time, the number of new starts of affordable homes in Scotland has fallen dramatically in the last three years.
That is absolutely correct. I notice that there are numerous other Members here who will undoubtedly want to speak. I did not intend to spend most of my time on the iniquities of the bedroom tax, because that is common ground for the vast majority of us here; I wanted to discuss what is to be done and what should be done. For those reasons, I will turn to the campaigns that have been run and that have sent witnesses to us, which have exerted enormous pressure on public representatives to do something about this.
I regret that from a very early stage, the Scottish Government refused to use the full range of powers available to them to mitigate the effects of the bedroom tax. The Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, who is the appropriate Scotland Office Minister, said that the Scottish Government had powers beyond DHPs; the Chief Secretary to the Treasury said exactly the same thing. We understand from both Ministers that the Scottish Government never made the least effort to contact them to find out what, in their view, might be legally available alternative methods of mitigating the bedroom tax.
There is an explanation; it was given to us by John Swinney himself, no less, when he said that he did not want to let Westminster off the hook. Of course, it was not actually Westminster that was hanging on the hook; it was people in Scotland who were finding themselves in tremendous financial difficulty as a result of the introduction of the bedroom tax.
There has been progress. We have to recognise that the Scottish Government were forced by Labour and other parties in the Scottish Parliament, as well as by outside campaigns, to make available in their budget the full amount of money necessary to mitigate the effect of the bedroom tax. They said that they could not spend it because they could address difficulties only through the DHP mechanism, but I believe, and I note that Ministers and campaigning groups also believe, that that is not true.
The Scottish Government said that the only way they could address the bedroom tax is by DHPs, and I think we have to accept that that is not true, but they chose to rest their case on that position. Why? I think it is because they want a clash between the UK Government and the Scottish Government over the question of powers, and they are quite prepared to see some of the people of Scotland become casualties of that conflict in the hope that they will be able to make a political point about the lack of powers held by the Scottish Parliament, rather than seek ways to mitigate the effect of the bedroom tax on the people of Scotland.
The information that we have from relatively brief discussions is that the Scottish Government may give money to social housing providers to allow them to write off debts. They could do that at any stage, so the debts built up under the bedroom tax could simply be written off.
I am glad to hear that. That could have been done throughout the whole of Scotland. The Scottish Government could have said to social housing providers, “Any arrears you have, you write them off, and we will refund you the money.” That is perfectly legal and could have been done, but they deliberately chose not to do so.
We had a Scottish Government resolutely seeking to make a political point by refusing to fund mitigation of the difficulties caused by the bedroom tax in any way other than by getting the cap on DHPs lifted, and a Conservative and Liberal Government who were, at that stage, resolute in saying that they would not move because the Scottish Government already had powers to deal with the issue if they so desired, and the people of Scotland were potentially caught between the two. In those circumstances, it is difficult for either side to find a way to change their position without appearing weak, or making it look as though they had the wrong solution in the first place, or suggesting that anything they say at any particular moment may be merely transitory and can be changed.
With the debates we are having at the moment about the referendum, I understand that it is much more difficult for anyone to change their adopted stance on any issue. In those circumstances, I think it is to the credit of the Secretary of State for Scotland and the Under-Secretary of State that they have persuaded their colleagues in the Westminster Government to change the line and to give powers to the Scottish Parliament to extend or to increase the amount of money spent on DHPs. We have to recognise that that has been a change in the Government’s policy, and one that I welcome. However, there are still difficulties with it.
First, there will be a delay in the transfer of powers. I hope that the Minister will tell us that every possible step will be taken to make that transfer as speedy as possible. Secondly, the Scottish Affairs Committee does not believe that DHPs are the best way to address the problem because an application is required, and in the categories of people I described earlier, we found many who were either unable or unwilling to make an application. We therefore want to discuss at some stage—I will recommend to the Committee that we explore these issues further—whether the methodologies that local authorities have at the moment are adequate.
In our view, it is legally possible for local authorities to abandon the system of application and simply ask someone whether they want a DHP. If the principle is that everyone who applies for one gets one, presumably the sort of 95-page forms that some local authorities are using are not needed. If the payment is going to be automatic, the equivalent of the Chinese general baptising his troops with a hose could be adopted and anyone who was simply asked whether they wanted DHP could be given one, but that approach has yet to be tested.
We also want to clarify what the position will be regarding last year. If the bedroom tax is evil, malignant, cruel and unfair this year, and the Scottish Government are prepared to make money available to mitigate its effects this year, what are they prepared to do about last year’s effects? Something that is wrong this year was surely equally wrong last year. There are people with arrears of the bedroom tax as a result of non-payment last year. The Committee’s view is clear: those debts should be written off. We believe that the Scottish Government should take steps to write off the arrears of bedroom tax accumulated by Scots last year. They have the power and they have the money; what they possibly lack is the will, but we will no doubt hear about that later on.
I am not going to go into the reasons why we do not participate in the hon. Gentleman’s Committee.
I accept the Labour party’s sincerity about scrapping the bedroom tax—it has said that it will do so at the earliest opportunity—but will the hon. Gentleman direct me to the Labour shadow Minister’s comment that Labour will pay in full any arrears of the bedroom tax built up in the rest of the UK? How much would it cost the rest of the UK? How would the UK Government pay for it?
Regrettably, we are not in power at the moment. We do not have the power either in Scotland or in the UK to take such decisions. However, the SNP is in power in Scotland, and it could do that tomorrow—well, not tomorrow actually, because the Scottish Parliament is closed tomorrow, but it could do so next week. Indeed, I am particularly glad that the hon. Gentleman asked me that question, because yesterday in the Scottish Parliament, Jackie Baillie asked whether the Scottish Government would support a proposal that they cancel out any bedroom tax for 2013-14, but answer from Nicola Sturgeon came there none.
I understand the point being made. The hon. Gentleman wants to play political games, saying, “We are not going to do this, because what have you said about it?” Let us lay aside these games. The question is—
I apologise, Mr Bone. I know that you have opinions on a whole range of matters, some of which I agree with, but this is not one I would want to draw you into.
The Scottish Government have a responsibility to act now, because they have the powers. To do nothing is a choice. The question is whether they will take up the exhortation from the Scottish Affairs Committee and Labour in the Scottish Parliament to pay off arrears now.
A second, related issue—I understand that this point is more difficult, but it is one on which I think we have to agree—is that of moral hazard: that if we write off arrears, we will send out a message that, in many ways, not paying rent is a lifestyle choice or is acceptable. I do not take that view. If we write off bedroom tax arrears, we also have to recognise the position of those who scrimped and scraped, who in many cases used their savings if they have them, or who borrowed from friends and family, in order to pay their bedroom tax. It is simply unfair that some people might have their bedroom tax written off, and others might also have the situation—[Interruption.] The SNP has chosen not to participate in the Committee’s deliberations, and then the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire wants to come along and heckle. I am quite prepared to take interventions. He should stand up like a man and give us his view.
Will the hon. Gentleman either say yes or no to this? I accept that the Labour party will scrap the bedroom tax if it comes to power, but does he believe in principle that a Labour Government should recompense every victim of the bedroom tax? Does he believe that that is what a Labour Government should do?
I do. That is absolutely and completely my view. I cannot be any clearer than that. I persuaded the Committee of that in our report and I hope in due course to persuade the Labour party of it. That is my view, and it is the view of all the bedroom tax campaigners that I have met and of local authorities. It is also the view of the SNP chair of the Dundee housing committee. He wanted to see the Scottish Government not only writing off the arrears, but refunding the amount of money that had already been paid.
Let me be clear about what the Committee is recommending and what it believes. If the bedroom tax is going to be dealt with this year, however inadequately—we have difficulties with the methodology that the SNP Government insist on using—we hope that in the spirit of unity and harmony that so often characterises political debate in Scotland, there will be an understanding that if the DHP methodology does not work successfully, other routes and channels will be found, so that the objective we share can be achieved, which is to have all the effects of the bedroom tax written off for the current year. However, we have to be absolutely clear that what we want is the arrears written off for last year and full refunds for the years coming, as a prelude to the next Labour Government abolishing the bedroom tax altogether, not in 2016 or at some mythical date after independence in the event of a yes vote in the referendum, but when a Labour Government come to power.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. When discussing the report today, the key issue that we should not lose sight of is that the bedroom tax should never have happened in Scotland. There has been a broad cross-party consensus that it is a regressive measure and it should be abolished. However, the truth is that it should never have been introduced in the first place. It was brought to us by a Tory Government—propped up by their Liberal Democrat allies—for whom people in Scotland did not vote, and it reflects the same Tory values that brought us the poll tax 25 years ago, and which have been rejected time and again at the ballot box.
The bedroom tax has caused enormous hardship for some of the most disadvantaged tenants in Scotland, the vast majority of them disabled. It has created problems for social landlords and it has cost more than it has saved. The problems created by the bedroom tax were entirely predictable, and were in fact predicted by local authorities, housing associations and organisations representing tenants, as well as by Members of Parliament here and in Edinburgh.
To a large extent, the report we are debating today has been overtaken by events, given that a few days ago the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland said that the UK Government would provide Scottish Ministers with a power to set the statutory cap on discretionary housing payments in Scotland, using section 63 of the Scotland Act 1998. The Deputy First Minister made a statement in the Scottish Parliament yesterday and, I believe, met the Under-Secretary earlier today to discuss the process from here. That is a very welcome, if belated development, and follows several months of silence from the UK Government on the issue.
Yesterday’s announcement paves the way for discretionary housing payment to be made to everyone affected by the bedroom tax in Scotland. As the law stands, the only legal way to make regular and ongoing payments directly to tenants to make up for their loss of housing benefit is through discretionary housing payments. The UK Government has allocated Scottish local authorities £15 million for discretionary housing payments, but that is less than a third of the £50 million needed to mitigate the penalty for everyone affected.
Does the hon. Lady accept that local authorities in Scotland have found other ways to give money to their tenants and residents to mitigate the impact of the bedroom tax, without using DHP? Can the Scottish Government not also use that, as the UK Government have confirmed?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for raising that point. It is something that parties in Scotland have looked at very closely, and I know that senior Labour MSPs such as Jackie Baillie and Iain Gray have very much been part of discussions with the Scottish Government about those issues. Even they have agreed with the Scottish Government about the way to distribute the extra money, in compliance with the law as it stands. They agree that DHPs are the only clear legal route to provide funding for bedroom tax arrears directly to the people affected on a regular and ongoing basis. We are having to jump through a lot of legal loopholes. It is clear there are some solutions—the Scottish Government, certainly, were looking at them very carefully—but it seems that the clearest way forward is through discretionary housing payments and the challenge for all of us is to make sure that they are made.
I will not give way just now, because I have quite a lot to say and I need to make some progress.
The Scottish Government have made an explicit commitment to mitigate fully the impact by making £35 million available in this year’s budget for councils to distribute through discretionary housing payments. I believe that agreement has been reached with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities to ensure that funding is targeted according to need, and much of the funding has already been allocated. My understanding is that councils in Scotland have been allocated extra funding up to the limit of the Westminster cap on how much an individual local authority is allowed to spend on discretionary housing payments. Across Scotland, however, that still leaves a £15 million shortfall, which can be allocated only once the cap is lifted.
I have raised the issue of the cap on several occasions both with Department for Work and Pensions Ministers and with Scotland Office Ministers. The Deputy First Minister wrote six letters, and I raised the issue personally with the Deputy Prime Minister. COSLA wrote, as did the Scottish Parliament’s Welfare Reform Committee. It has taken much longer than it should have. It is also worth making the point that the UK Government have not committed to lifting the cap, but will transfer powers to Scottish Ministers to allow them to do so. Inevitably, that two-stage process will take longer than if the UK Government had agreed simply to raise the cap.
By no means. I commend the work that has happened in some local authority areas and with some housing associations, but that is perhaps a more feasible option for some than for others. The agreement that has been reached among the parties in Scotland, on a cross-party basis, is that the discretionary housing payment system offers the clearest legal route to do that in a way that can be regular and ongoing. It is a bit of a legal quagmire, as far as I understand it, and it is not as straightforward as it might first appear. It is also not always easy to disentangle what are bedroom tax arrears and what are arrears due to another financial hardship such as losing one’s job, other welfare reforms or other loss of income. It is not entirely straightforward. Nevertheless, it is a very serious issue and I absolutely share the hon. Lady’s concerns.
I am glad that we have a commitment to proceed under section 63 of the Scotland Act. I pay tribute to the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, who has succeeded where the DWP has failed over the past five months. I hope that the Minister will use this opportunity today to outline a speedy timetable for that process to be enacted. It means that local authorities can plan ahead on the basis that the shortfall will be met in full and that they will have funding to ensure that every single tenant subject to the under-occupancy penalty can receive a discretionary housing payment. Twelve of our local authorities already have a full funding allocation to mitigate the bedroom tax in their areas. The rest have extra funding up to the level of the cap and can now be assured that the rest is coming, just as soon as the relevant orders can be laid in Parliament.
The challenge for all of us is to make sure that tenants apply for their discretionary housing payment. I will certainly be going back to every constituent who has been in touch with me about the bedroom tax, including those who applied unsuccessfully for DHPs in the past, and urging them to reapply. I will also ask my local authority what it will be doing proactively to ensure that everyone who is entitled to discretionary housing payments gets them, now that the policy has been fully funded and there is no excuse for anyone who is subject to the bedroom tax to be left without the support that they need.
The hon. Lady will be aware that different local authorities are taking very different approaches. For example, in Renfrewshire, which is adjacent to my constituency, staff are employed to go around proactively and get people to apply for discretionary payments. In my area of North Ayrshire, that does not happen. Does she think that the resources need to be put in to ensure that that happens, if we are going to follow the path that she is suggesting?
The hon. Lady makes a really important point, because there are a range of practices across local authorities. However, this is very much their responsibility, and I hope that they will be putting in place a more proactive approach across the board. I know that some have already done that in dealing with other aspects of welfare reform, but I also know that the Scottish Government have made it very clear to every local authority that that money is to be used for the purpose for which it is intended—to mitigate the effects of the bedroom tax—and they need to ensure that everyone gets it. It is incumbent on us all to ensure that our constituents know that and to encourage them to get their forms in. After all, it is in the interest of local authorities to ensure that people do not fall into arrears, because that just creates further problems for them down the line. I am confident that most local authorities in Scotland will be keen to ensure that that policy is properly implemented.
The mitigation measures mean that no one should fall into arrears or face eviction because of the bedroom tax, but we cannot ignore the fact that it is still on the statute book. The Scottish Parliament does not have the power to abolish it. That means that tenants are still legally responsible for the shortfall in their rent caused by the cut to housing benefit. We should not lose sight of the fact that in order to mitigate the worst impacts of Westminster’s bedroom tax, money has had to be diverted from other devolved spending priorities.
The bedroom tax and the other changes to housing benefit are only one aspect of the UK Government’s assault on people in low-income households. By the end of this financial year, about £4.5 billion will have been taken out of the pockets of people on low and middle incomes in Scotland through welfare reforms and other changes to the tax and benefits system. The figure will rise to £6 billion by 2015-16. Apart from in the bedroom tax itself, that is most evident in the changes to tax credits, which have cost 110,000 households in Scotland an average of £700 each, and of course the uprating of working-age benefits at a level substantially below inflation, which has meant real-term cuts in the value of support. The freezing of child benefit means that, cumulatively, a family with two children will be more than £1,000 worse off by next year. In many cases, the people who have been hit by the bedroom tax are the same people being affected by those other changes. It is those people whom the mitigation measures will help, but we must recognise that we cannot fill a black hole of £6 billion without the powers and the budgets to do so.
The Scottish Government have invested £258 million to temper the worst aspects of welfare reform, but we need to be clear that it is a damage limitation exercise, not a solution. As well as the extra £50 million for the bedroom tax, the Scottish Government have put in place arrangements to ensure that 500,000 people in Scotland still get council tax benefit, and have introduced the Scottish welfare fund, which so far has helped 35,000 people.
However, the Scottish Government do not at the moment have the powers or the budget to plug a £6 billion cut in public spending. People would think, listening to the earlier comments today, that the bedroom tax was dreamt up in Scotland and was being imposed by the Scottish Government. The truth is that the bedroom tax is the brainchild of a callous Tory-Liberal coalition Government whom people in Scotland simply did not elect. Responsibility for the bedroom tax rests right here in Westminster. The fact is that housing benefit is a reserved issue and this House has the power to scrap the bedroom tax.
Does the hon. Lady not believe that the Scottish Parliament should be looking to raise the amount of money that it receives through taxation? Can she explain why her party will not support measures such as raising the higher rate of income tax to ensure that we have more money to spend on welfare?
I am very much looking forward to the referendum in September, when people in Scotland will have a say on whether they want control of their own affairs and responsibility for setting income tax levels. I led an Opposition day debate on this issue back in February last year, when I called on the Government to end the policy, but we have had a number of opportunities in the House since then to voice our opposition, which includes opposition on the Government’s own Back Benches. The best chance we had to get rid of the bedroom tax was in November last year, when the Government came tantalisingly close to being defeated in the Commons in a vote following a Labour Opposition day debate. A defeat in the Commons would have forced the Government to rethink their approach, because it would have shown that even their own Back Benchers in the coalition—
I said that I would not take any more interventions, so I will not. [Interruption.] Well, I did say that earlier.
A defeat in the Commons would have forced the Government to rethink their approach, because it would have shown that even their own Back Benchers in the coalition recognised the manifest injustice of the bedroom tax, but that vote was lost by a margin of 26 votes, and 47 Labour MPs did not vote for their own motion. They included 10 Scottish Labour MPs, who apparently were in cosy pairing arrangements with their Tory counterparts. That was the best real chance we had at Westminster to sink the bedroom tax, and it was wasted.
I am well aware that there are often very legitimate reasons why Members of the House of Commons cannot attend votes. At times, all of us will have to deal with illness, bereavement, caring responsibilities or competing demands from our constituencies, but for matters of importance, most of us will move heaven and earth to be in the Lobby when we need to be. Those who missed that vote need to ask themselves whether what they were doing was really more important than voting down the bedroom tax.
I am winding up my speech, so I will not give way. The bedroom tax and the other changes to our tax and benefits system that are fuelling poverty and hardship in communities across Scotland are the price that we pay for being governed by people we did not vote for. Scottish MPs overwhelmingly opposed the bedroom tax, but we have it anyway, and even now we cannot get rid of it; we can only seek to limit the damage that it is causing. The bedroom tax illustrates perfectly why Scotland needs decision-making powers on these issues. I am looking forward to the day when the people of Scotland have a Parliament with the normal powers of a normal state, a Parliament that is elected by us, responsive to us and accountable to us and that can consign the bedroom tax to history once and for all.
On a point of order, Mr Bone. Could you advise me on whether it is in order for the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Dr Whiteford) to attack Labour Members for not being present for votes on the bedroom tax when in fact members of her own party have missed several votes on—
Order. That is clearly not a point of order. While I am on my feet, it might help right hon. and hon. Members to know that the winding-up speeches will start at 20 minutes to 3. I do not wish to impose a time limit on speeches, so I hope that Members are aware that a number wish to speak.
It is a pleasure to have the opportunity to speak in this debate. I congratulate the Scottish Affairs Committee on the work that it has done on this issue and, in particular, some of the recommendations in the report, which I believe will be significant in moving the debate on the issue further forward.
It must be said very clearly that the responsibility for this policy and the impact that it has had on so many millions of people throughout the United Kingdom lies with the coalition Government. In Scotland, the policy has caused misery for many thousands, indeed hundreds of thousands—perhaps millions—of people. According to the UK Government’s own estimates in the Department for Work and Pensions impact assessment, 33% of people of working age who receive housing benefit are affected by the policy. In my constituency, as in most of Scotland, the policy has caused not only huge distress to individuals, but significant problems for those who provide social housing, whether they are local authorities or housing associations. Out of the almost 3,000 tenants affected by the bedroom tax in North Ayrshire, only 139 were able to downsize last year. Of course, that is because of the mismatch between the types of housing that social housing providers have and the Department’s determination of the size of housing that people need.
The proposals in the report are important because they recognise clearly where the problem is. It is quite easy to work out who is affected by the bedroom tax, because the social housing provider calculates who will be impacted by the discount, so I have to disagree with the spokesperson for the Scottish National party, the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Dr Whiteford), on this issue.
It is clear, however, that the funding has not been available from the Department for Work and Pensions to mitigate and deal with the problems that its policy has caused. Let me consider my own area, North Ayrshire. The Department provided £309,823 last year. The Scottish Government provided £460,000, and the local authority put in £4,676 to bring the discretionary housing payment funding up to the maximum that was required. Despite that, many of my constituents who have applied for a discretionary housing payment have not received one. On some occasions, they are refused the first time, but when they go back they may receive one. In other cases, they may be granted a discretionary housing payment on the first occasion, but when they go back to reapply, they are refused on that occasion. Quite often, they are refused because they are deemed to have coped adequately and budgeted well, so they have not been able to show the required level of hardship.
The report is absolutely correct to highlight the fact that many who have been impacted—many of whom are among the most needy—have not been helped under the regime that has existed until now. The impact is felt disproportionately by people with disabilities, their carers and those whose personal circumstances genuinely require them to have extra rooms in their properties for medical equipment, carers’ accommodation or other purposes.
The way in which the matter has been dealt with in Scotland is incredibly unfortunate. The majority of parliamentarians in Scotland did not support the policy, and it is very unfortunate that the issue has become so politically contested. However, action to ensure that those affected by the bedroom tax receive the mitigation that they were promised, after the Scottish Parliament voted in favour of providing full mitigation in February, has been far from consistent. Some of the reasons that the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan gave for that—I fully appreciate that she is merely putting forward a position that has been created by other people—were frankly inadequate. Mitigation can be provided in many ways other than through discretionary housing payments, and others have described how some organisations have written off arrears accrued as a result of the bedroom tax, or used other mechanisms to provide help to those who need it.
I want to say clearly that I agree with the approach outlined in the report. We must look at all who have been affected by the bedroom tax since its introduction in April 2013, and we must say clearly that we expect their representatives to take action to ensure that they are not worse off as a result. Members of Parliament have met many individuals who have suffered greatly as a result of the policy. The Scottish Labour party wants housing benefit to be fully devolved to the Scottish Parliament. I have absolutely no doubt that if it was, all parties would work together to ensure that this situation did not occur again. We need to take steps now to put in place the mitigation for which the Scottish Parliament voted in February this year. I therefore call on those in the Scottish Government and Westminster Ministers to do everything they can to ensure that that policy is implemented as soon as possible, so that everybody who has been affected by the bedroom tax in Scotland can get full mitigation.
It is, as always, a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South West (Mr Davidson), the Chair of the Select Committee on Scottish Affairs, of which I, too, am a member, on securing this debate on one of the most important but depressing subjects that I have had to consider since my election to the House.
The bedroom tax—I will refer to it as a tax, because our evidence has shown that the vast majority of those who are affected have absolutely no option but to pay it, and are totally unable to change their circumstances to avoid it—is one of the worst pieces of legislation that I have ever encountered. I therefore fully endorse the conclusions of the Committee’s report. As a member of the Committee, I have heard overwhelming evidence from every corner of Scotland that the policy is completely failing our constituents, our housing providers and even each of the Government’s stated outcomes. It does not make the social housing system fairer or more efficient, and it will not save the Government money in the long run. The bedroom tax succeeds only in punishing those with the smallest stake in society at a time when they are being assaulted from multiple directions by the Government, who refuse to prioritise their day-to-day struggle.
Ironically, the policy came into effect in the same month that the Prime Minister announced tax cuts for the privileged few who earn in excess of £150,000 a year. Nothing that I heard in evidence to the Committee came close to justifying why, although ripping off some of the poorest and most vulnerable citizens is an absolute necessity, somehow it is economically and morally proper to pay for tax breaks for the super-rich.
When we took evidence in West Lothian, where my constituency is located, we were told by the local authority that more than 50% of tenants are now in arrears, and that 500 households have tried to downsize to avoid the bedroom tax, but that because of pressures on the housing stock, only a small number have been successfully rehoused. To put the problem into perspective, West Lothian council estimates that at the present rate of transfer, it could take between 10 and 15 years to allow all the tenants who want to downsize to do so. That does not take into account new applicants who join the waiting list over that period. Alison Kerr, chair of the West Lothian council tenants’ panel, told the Committee of the urgency of acting now, saying that the longer the bedroom tax was allowed to exist unmitigated, the greater the number of West Lothian tenants who would have to make the impossible choice between eating and heating.
Of course, it is not only the UK Government who are to blame for the debacle. The Scottish Government could have acted much sooner to mitigate fully the effects of the bedroom tax in Scotland. I find it strange that the Scottish Government have not once approached the Committee to challenge statements made in evidence that they have had the powers necessary to mitigate those effects from the start.
We have just committed to mitigating fully the impact of the bedroom tax. While the hon. Gentleman is going on his tour of Governments throughout the UK, what does he make of his Welsh Labour colleagues in the Welsh Government, who have done absolutely nothing to mitigate the impact of the bedroom tax in their jurisdiction?
I am not qualified to respond on the situation in Wales. Today’s debate is about Scotland, so if the hon. Gentleman does not mind, I will continue to focus on that.
The point that I was making before the hon. Gentleman intervened was confirmed by the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland in oral evidence to the Committee on Tuesday, and by the Chief Secretary to the Treasury in the past. After months of posturing, the Scottish Government this week ended their ridiculous game of brinkmanship with the UK Government when an agreement was finally reached to lift the spending cap, allowing the bedroom tax to be effectively ended in Scotland. I think I speak for many when I say that that should have happened much earlier. It is thanks to the Labour Members of the Scottish Parliament that a solution has finally been arrived at, after a year of attempts by Scottish Labour to drag the SNP into accepting that action could be taken in Scotland to bin this iniquitous tax. Late action is better than no action, and it will come as a relief to many Scots that the bedroom tax can and, I hope, will be fully mitigated.
I find it incredible that the Scottish Government did not even contact the UK Government until recently to try to find a way to end the bedroom tax in Scotland, just over a year before it was introduced and more than two years since the law was first enacted. People can draw their own conclusions about the reason why, but political posturing and blaming others hardly demonstrates responsibility or maturity; moreover, it lets down those who need our help the most.
To return to the report, witness after witness from London to the Western Isles told the Committee that they wanted the tax to be scrapped. Many felt abandoned by both Governments, who have had the power but not, until the eleventh hour, the political will or inclination to do something about it. However, although I welcome yesterday’s announcement on Scotland, more must be done throughout the rest of the UK. We have heard in several testimonies that the fail-safes to protect the most vulnerable are inadequate and largely do not reach those most in need, to the despair of housing providers. We heard from those on the front line that, despite repeated contact, a sizeable number of affected tenants do not engage, or are unable to engage sufficiently, with housing suppliers in order even to apply for a discretionary housing payment.
When the Select Committee visited my Livingston constituency, Donald Forrest, head of finance and estates at West Lothian council, told us that, despite considerable efforts since April last year to contact and engage with 2,195 tenants who are affected by the bedroom tax, between 500 and 600 tenants had still not applied. Craig Martin, leader of Falkirk council, told the Select Committee that 50% of tenants applying for DHPs in his locality had some form of recognised mental health problem. Such responses were not untypical of the evidence we heard from a range of witnesses from across Scotland and beyond. If DHPs are not reaching those most in need, then simply expanding the scheme’s eligibility to catch everyone is no guarantee of protecting anyone. The simplest way to protect all tenants is to either alter the scheme drastically or scrap it altogether, which is the Select Committee’s preferred option.
Simply put, at the heart of the bedroom tax debate is the worst kind of politics, with Scottish social tenants finding themselves stuck between two Governments: one distracted by a referendum on separation, who acted only when forced to do so by the Scottish Labour party and grass-roots campaigners; and another who want to look tough on welfare and spending, despite every indicator telling them that they are failing. The Scottish local authority body, the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, has released figures showing that this year alone the bedroom tax will actually cost an additional £60 million to implement in Scotland.
Even after yesterday’s announcement, my message to the decision makers in both the Scottish and UK Governments is simple: they must stop the bickering, stop the finger-pointing, stop using some of the most vulnerable people in society as political pawns and stand behind the Select Committee to sort out the problem using the power that the Scottish people have granted them. The Labour party in Scotland has forced the SNP Scottish Government to this point, and has offered bipartisan support to help to find the money in the Scottish budget to sort things out. I sincerely hope that, now that we have a clear course of action and offers of help from almost every side, we will be able to get on with our day job of helping our constituents.
Of course, whatever happens, in May next year, Labour will repeal the bedroom tax as one of its first acts of national Government.
I hoped to take some time to discuss the experiences of some individuals in my constituency, but since time is limited, I will not do so; I will simply say that I have had the same experience in my constituency that other Members have described.
The Government’s claim that the bedroom tax will free up more housing flies in the face of reality, certainly in my constituency and city. For example, the latest council figures for the end of March showed that some 3,300 tenants were over-occupying, according to the Government’s definition. However, at that same time there was a total of only 22 one-bedroom properties available in the social rented sector, from Edinburgh council and the housing association combined.
The Government’s solution to the problems with the bedroom tax has been to say that people can apply for discretionary housing payments. They have increased the sums available for such payments, but the very fact that they have had to do so more than once underlines how badly the policy has been working.
To introduce a complicated and bureaucratic system, with means-testing, different criteria applied in different areas, and no reasonable certainty that applications will be successful—a system no doubt costing millions to operate throughout the UK, which is the reality of the discretionary housing payments now used to deal with the bedroom tax—is certainly not an advertisement of successful Government policy; to do so by releasing cash to local authorities in a piecemeal way causes extra complications. It has meant that local authorities have had to change their criteria for DHP applications during the course of a financial year in an attempt to ensure that cash is paid out in cases that previously had been refused. No wonder some local authorities have found they cannot use up all of the funds that became available during the course of the year. That does not show that the policy is right or the Government generous; it is yet another example of a bankrupt policy that has caused immense distress and financial loss to people throughout the country.
The Labour party believes that the answer to problems caused by the bedroom tax is clear: abolish it and provide a real increase in the amount of affordable housing available to rent throughout the UK. That is certainly an urgent priority in my constituency, and both the UK and Scottish Governments are not doing enough; more must be done.
The focus of today’s debate is of course on the recent decision by the UK Government to allow the Scottish Government to lift the cap and spend more of their resources to deal with the effect of the bedroom tax in Scotland. The UK Government’s decision has come very late in the day, on top of an approach by the Scottish Government that, as many of my hon. Friends have pointed out, seems to have been motivated more by other political objectives than the interests of those in Scotland hit by the bedroom tax.
I am glad that my Labour colleagues in the Scottish Parliament, along with many community organisations, pressed the Scottish Government to change their stance, and that they eventually did so. It is good to see that parliamentarians in the Scottish Parliament can work together in the common interests of Scotland—I mean that with all sincerity, because that is what they have done on this occasion.
Nevertheless, as the Select Committee report points out, lifting the spending cap is by no means a complete solution. I suspect that some of those most affected by the bedroom tax will be precisely those people who are least likely to apply for discretionary housing payments—we all know about the problems with benefit take-up in other areas of welfare. Nevertheless, we must work with the UK Government’s concession.
The task now must be to ensure that the new power is devolved to the Scottish Government and Parliament as quickly as possible and the necessary legislation passed by the Scottish Parliament. Thereafter, the Scottish Government and local councils should work together to put in place a system for discretionary housing payments in Scotland that is as simplified and streamlined as possible, in order to ensure that decisions on discretionary housing payments are made speedily and with the minimum of bureaucracy, and that no one in Scotland suffers because of the bedroom tax until it is finally abolished.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South West (Mr Davidson) on securing this debate and his tenacity in opposing the bedroom tax. Indeed, he has been an ambassador for nullifying its impact, particularly in Scotland but throughout the rest of the UK as well.
The imposition of the hated bedroom tax is one of the most vile, abhorrent pieces of legislation ever passed by Parliament. The timing of this debate could not be better, because, thankfully, Labour and the SNP have come together to put pressure on the Government to ensure funding through the devolved budget. I pay tribute to all those who worked together to achieved that. I will say more on the matter at the end of my speech.
The bedroom tax been nothing more than an unwarranted and vicious attack on the most vulnerable, disabled and disadvantaged people in our society who have experienced the most disgraceful and punitive financial penalties at a time when the coalition Government insult our intelligence with their disingenuous claims that, in a time of financial restraint, “We’re all in this together.” So much for the oft-quoted slogan, “Those with the broadest shoulders will bear the heaviest burden.” In effect, this is the politics of mirage and fantasy. The coalition partners believe that if something is said often enough, people will believe it. Thankfully, those who live in the real world are not so gullible and do not share the same self-delusion. The coalition’s hypocrisy is no better exemplified than in their almost simultaneous tax break for millionaires and their lack of the missionary zeal so evident when imposing the pernicious bedroom tax when dealing with widespread tax evasion and tax avoidance and the energy companies’ exorbitant profits.
This gross injustice was initially perpetrated by a small core of ideologically bankrupt Tories, who are completely insensitive and uncaring to their fellow citizens. Yes, there are housing capacity and benefit issues in our society, but this simplistic approach is symptomatic of a Secretary of State and ministerial team who adopted a rigid dogma, with very little research or basic homework to assess the implications for hundreds of thousands of decent people in our society who have been trying to make ends meet in challenging circumstances, and sometimes in vain.
Even more worryingly, the DWP warlords have been actively supported in this gross injustice by other political zealots, which has rightly regained them the infamy of being “the nasty party”. Along with the spineless Liberal Democrats, with a few notable exceptions, they have railroaded and sustained this offensive legislation, despite accurate warnings and predictions of the dire consequences. If that was not bad enough, the anguish, despair and anxiety caused by this cruel tax, the bureaucracy associated with it and the overall budget shortfall have become patently obvious throughout Scotland and the rest of the UK. So uncaring were the Government that not only did they block loopholes, but they brazenly carried on regardless, ignoring the overwhelming evidence for repeal. Not willing to repeal the measure, they have dismissed positive proposals for exemptions that make eminent sense.
The Scottish Affairs Committee has been conducting inquiries into the damaging impact that this vile tax has had in Scotland, and it has challenged the Government on their unworkable policy that is putting thousands of Scots in financial hardship, debt and indignity. Indeed, people are having to resort to food banks to feed their families. We have carefully considered how local councils and the Scottish Government have worked together, and I pay tribute to my council, Fife council, for the way it has dealt with the situation by encouraging people to take up discretionary housing payments and going above and beyond the call of duty so to do.
I conclude by returning to the point I made at the beginning. I welcome the introduction of a system whereby the Scottish Government will provide funding, but I have to ask this basic question: why was that not done last year? Was it because of an obsession with independence? Or was it a cruel approach to allow people to suffer before playing the blame game by blaming Westminster for political advantage? It strikes me that people will have to make that decision for themselves when they vote, but yet again it seems to be a game of self-helplessness and blaming other people, rather than taking advantage of the opportunities provided by the available budget to mitigate the circumstances last year as well as this year.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone.
It is good for Scottish Members of Parliament to have an opportunity to debate the bedroom tax and its impact on Scottish constituents and constituencies. As well as examining the specific problems and effects in Scotland, the report considers what should be done to mitigate those problems. We were inspired to produce our report by the policy’s impact on our constituents and the constituents of colleagues across Scotland—across parties, Members were concerned. I was delighted to welcome the Committee to my hometown of Airdrie to see the impact of the bedroom tax and what is being done in Airdrie and throughout north Lanarkshire.
Before the inquiry started, I campaigned on the bedroom tax in my constituency. At the beginning of my campaign I started a joint campaign with the local Scottish National party. That had not been done before, but we came together as two local political parties because we were united in our anger at the UK Government—the Tories and the Lib Dems—for introducing the policy, which was doing so much harm in our local area. Unfortunately, it quickly became clear to us in Scotland that the Scottish Government were not doing everything they could have done, and with regret the happy partnership ended rather quickly.
When the Chair of the Select Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South West (Mr Davidson), spoke earlier, the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) was chuntering as usual, and I want to get it on the record. What he said—please correct me if I am wrong—is that it was ridiculous that the Chair of the Select Committee dared to mention that the Scottish Government had played politics on this issue by announcing that the bedroom tax has now been fully mitigated.
The Scottish Government let people suffer for more than a year. Some 82,000 households across Scotland have suffered, losing, on average, £50 a week. By definition, those are the poorest households: they are claiming housing benefit because they are low-income families and low-income households, and 80% of those households have a disabled member. Perhaps the Scottish National party should have spent more time considering what it could do, rather than pointing the finger at us and at the Labour party as a whole.
I was not going to spend time on this, but I feel that I have to defend myself and the Labour party. The hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Dr Whiteford) mentioned the Opposition day vote on the bedroom tax. I asked to intervene, but she was in full flow. I agree that that number of Labour MPs should not have been paired, and I am already on the record as having said that—I have said it publicly and I have said it locally. But it is misleading to say, I assume accidentally, that those pairings changed the outcome of the vote. Every single Labour MP was paired with a Government MP, as was confirmed by the parties at the time. It is not true that there would have been a difference in the outcome of the vote. We have to put that on the record, and it is nothing short of hypocritical for the SNP to say that when every single SNP Member of Parliament has missed a vote on bedroom tax legislation.
I have had it checked by the House of Commons Library. I voted against the bedroom tax seven times, which is all the votes on legislation, and I supported a private Member’s Bill, yet the SNP choose continually to mention the Opposition day debate on which some Labour MPs were paired and therefore did not attend. I am sorry to labour that point, but it is important to get on the record the facts of who represented Scotland by voting against the bedroom tax and who did not.
I unequivocally agree with all Members who have said today that, as the report clearly states, the bedroom tax should never have come into fruition and should never have been introduced by this UK Government. I think the bedroom tax should be abolished immediately, but that does not let the Scottish Government off the hook. In my hometown, people still remember the impact that Strathclyde regional council made during the miners’ strikes. That was part of the inspiration for devolution and for the Scottish Parliament: when a local authority could protect its local people, imagine what we could do for all of Scotland. That has been used as an argument for independence, too, but it is an argument for devolution. Devolution was designed to get the best out of the UK and to protect it when something goes wrong and there is a policy with which we do not agree. The SNP has remained anti-devolution and uses the Scottish Parliament only when it suits the SNP.
I hope the Minister will announce the abolition of the bedroom tax today. I will not hold my breath, but I hope she will at least tell us whether the Government are doing an analysis. If that analysis shows that the Government’s aims for the policy are not coming to fruition, will they consider abolishing the bedroom tax not just for Scotland but for all the UK? I am relieved that my constituents will not have to suffer from the bedroom tax in future, although they have already incurred debts. I look forward to a Labour Government abolishing the bedroom tax for the entire UK in 2015.
I am delighted to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I congratulate the Scottish Affairs Committee on its report and my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South West (Mr Davidson) on his introduction of the debate this afternoon.
It is refreshing to see an official document—the two reports from the Scottish Affairs Committee—that finally calls a spade a spade and uses the term “bedroom tax”. My hon. Friend the Member for Livingston (Graeme Morrice) drew attention to that as well. I was disheartened and my heart sank when I started to read the Government’s response to the report. Their very first point states:
“The Government has noted with some dismay the title of the Scottish Affairs Committee’s current inquiry”.
The complaint is about using the term “bedroom tax”, but everybody uses that term. Both parties that have spoken in this debate have used that term. The Minister for Welfare Reform in the other place used the term “bedroom tax” on more than one occasion. It is sometimes claimed that the term was invented by the Labour party, but I can reassure the House that that certainly was not the case. In fact, it is what the people call this hated measure. The Committee is absolutely right to reject specious arguments from Ministers that some other convoluted form of words should be used. I noticed in the Government response to the report that there is a long-winded phrase, which I cannot recall, but it has 10 syllables instead of the three in the phrase “bedroom tax”, and that is what it is absolutely right to call it.
My hon. Friend the Member for Glenrothes (Lindsay Roy) is right to say that the measure reflects straightforward Tory ideology. It is not a surprise that the Government’s housing benefit changes have hit the most vulnerable in our society the hardest. This has been explored to some extent, but it is disappointing to hear that the Scottish Government held back from protecting vulnerable claimants on the grounds that to do so would be to let Westminster off the hook. I welcome the progress that has been made in the past few days in overcoming that constraint.
The bedroom tax is the most hated of all the changes that the Government have introduced. The report is absolutely right to say that it is cruel and unfair, and is making a big contribution to the cost of living crisis faced by families in Scotland. Research by Sheffield university shows that it is the poorest who are picking up the tab, when we have seen tax cuts for the highest paid and a huge increase in bankers’ bonuses since the Government were elected. One of the biggest drivers of the loss in household income for ordinary families in Scotland is the bedroom tax.
The uniquely dreadful feature of this measure is that it cuts the income of people who are already hard up, without giving them any realistic options for making up the loss. We know that only 6% of those affected across the UK have been able to move, so 94% are taking the hit. The smaller social rented homes that would be needed to make the policy work—as we pointed out in the Welfare Reform Bill debates three years ago, and as Ministers must have known when they introduced the policy—are simply not available in many areas. We have heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Mark Lazarowicz) that in Edinburgh 3,300 people are affected by the tax and 22 one-bedroom homes are available—less than 1%—and that is not an uncommon percentage being reported from cities around the UK.
There are also particular difficulties in rural areas. In some of them, there is almost no one-bedroom accommodation available at all. I noticed the submission made by the Orkney Islands council on the Scottish Affairs Committee’s website that made a strong case for a derogation from the bedroom tax for remote and rural island areas. But the truth is, whether we are talking about cities, towns or rural areas, the bedroom tax needs to be scrapped.
Given that there are not smaller homes to move to, many people simply have to take the hit. Many are now in rent arrears, and those who simply cannot afford the extra and cannot find anywhere to move to are going to lose their homes.
Does my right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham—my party’s spokesman—accept the recommendation of the report that all bedroom tax should be written off and all payments made refunded? Would he, like me, welcome the opportunity to go into a general election with the slogan, “Vote Labour and get your bedroom tax back”?
That sounds a very good slogan, but, sadly, I cannot give my hon. Friend the assurance that he seeks. I agree with him about the distinction between the Scottish Government currently in power in Scotland and the position that would face a newly elected—hopefully, Labour— Government.
The point has also been made in this debate—absolutely rightly—that across the UK two thirds of the households affected include someone with a disability. My hon. Friend the Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Pamela Nash) indicated that the proportion is even higher than two thirds in Scotland. It seems particularly ridiculous that homes on which public money has been spent specifically to provide adaptations for families living with disabilities should be affected by the bedroom tax, and some people are being forced to leave them, even though public money has been spent to adapt them specifically to their needs.
We had a debate last week about the impact of the bedroom tax in Wales. The Committee’s interim report acknowledged that Wales was the part of the UK worst affected by the tax. The Government’s response to the report by the Welsh Affairs Committee once again rejects the idea of an exemption for adapted homes. That is very disappointing, and it is another aspect of the wastefulness of this measure. It contributes to the likelihood, as pointed out by researchers at York university and elsewhere, that the bedroom tax will end up costing more than it saves. Without smaller homes to move to, the measure is simply a tax on the poor. As my hon. Friends have said, the right thing to do is to scrap it.
I welcome the agreement that will enable the effects of the bedroom tax to be nullified in Scotland. Can the Minister tell us why the same provision cannot be made for Wales? Why are the Welsh Government not allowed to offset the effects of the bedroom tax? And what about the Greater London Assembly, so that my constituents could also be spared this pernicious measure?
Last week, my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Alison Seabeck) rightly brought to the attention of the House the issue of panic rooms, which are not exempted from the bedroom tax.
We have long argued that the hated bedroom tax was a mistake. Even the Conservative Chair of the Welsh Affairs Committee has recognised that it is a mistake in Wales. Our policy is that it should be scrapped. We will continue to press the Government to scrap it. That was the aim of the private Member’s Bill moved recently by my hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery). If our efforts do not succeed and the bedroom tax is not scrapped by this Government, we have made it absolutely clear that it will be scrapped by the next Labour Government.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I thank the Liaison Committee for securing this debate and I welcome the attention that the Scottish Affairs Committee is giving to welfare reform generally and to housing benefit reform specifically. I appreciate the opportunity to put the Government’s position in this debate. The Committee produced both this report and the subsequent report without seeking any input from the Department or its Ministers.
It may be helpful to discuss why this policy was introduced in the first place. The issue is difficult and complex. It has taken up a lot of time on all sides of the House, as well as the Government’s time. However, people have to understand what we are looking to solve, because we were delivered a huge problem by the Labour party, now in Opposition: a housing bill spiralling out of control, going up from £13 billion in 2002-03 to £24 billion in 2012-13—as it would have been—and increasing. What were we going to do? This was unaffordable. How was it going to be affordable, not just now but in the future, for future generations? Who was going to pick up that debt and solve this issue, and get as fair a solution as possible?
Of course, we are listening to what is said about people today who will end up having to pay a certain amount of money for extra rooms in their houses, but what about the people in the private rented sector who are still getting paid housing benefit? They do not have the luxury of a spare room in their houses. The Labour party introduced this very same change in housing benefit—
I will not give way just yet.
Since I am talking about people who have to afford their homes, what about people who have bought their own home on a low income but cannot have a spare room because they cannot afford it? We have to look at fairness to the taxpayer and to people in private rented homes, and those in social rented homes, as well as at a bill spiralling out of control. As I said, I am afraid that this problem was handed to us. It is not an easy problem; it is a complex one. It is a difficult problem to solve, but we are solving it.
Talking about the extra support, which is key, we trebled discretionary housing payments for the complex cases; that is the money that we have handed out. We recognise the rural issue and have provided an extra £5 million for that, and we recognise significantly adapted homes, whether with a room for those affected by domestic violence or with specific adaptations for disabled people, for example. We have put an extra £25 million into that. All those things have been acknowledged.
At the same time, claimants or their partners who receive frequent overnight care from someone not in their household were exempt. Parents of disabled children who could not share a room were also exempt. Foster carers had an extra room. Parents with adult children in the armed forces who remained at home when not on operations had exemptions, too. All those people were recognised.
The Minister mentioned a few numbers relating to money given in mitigation. Exactly how much have the Government saved as a result of this policy? Which organisations have come to the Government, during their analysis of the policy, before and after implementation, and said, “This is a good idea”?
I am not just talking numbers; I am talking lives of people right across the country who are affected by this. We are looking to save £500 million per year. That is what is being rolled out and what is being saved, because at the moment people are moving into other homes. At the moment, that is the amount being saved.
I have always made it clear that this is not merely about saving money. It is about the use of housing stock, going forward, and about fairness for all those people paying into the system and all those needing homes. It is not just about money, but money is part of that, too.
Before I give way again—
Order. It might help hon. Members—there is clearly still quite a lot of interest in this debate—to know that a vote is scheduled at 3.5 pm, which might be a convenient time to end the debate, so the Minister might have a little more time than she thinks.
Thank you, Mr Bone.
As we look at the question, it comes into sharper focus. I need to remind all hon. Members, particularly those on the Opposition Benches, that Labour Members fully supported and voted for an overall welfare cap—[Interruption.] Some Scottish National party Members did not vote for it. My question for the Opposition and Committee members is this: if savings are not to come from housing benefit, which aspects of welfare spending and the welfare bill—potentially £500 million a year—are they going to cut? Will it be disability benefits or support to children, or will pensioners be affected? All this is rather complex, because I am afraid that the Opposition voted for an overall welfare cap.
The right hon. Lady talks about the cost. Does she not accept that the evidence provided to the Committee by various witnesses from Scotland and beyond—all the housing providers, welfare rights organisations, tenants, local authorities and even the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities—says that the cap is costing everybody more money than it is saving? How does the Minister respond to that, and particularly to the COSLA figure, supported by all political parties in Scotland, that in Scotland it is costing an additional £60 million to administer?
I do not agree with that. We are seeing people moving round. The debate never considers the people in overcrowded accommodation. There is an issue in Scotland in that regard, too, although the problem is not as big there as in the rest of Britain. What about people living in overcrowded accommodation? What are we to do with people who do not have the right-sized room for their children, whether disabled or otherwise? What about people on housing waiting lists? We are forgetting about all these other people who have issues, too.
I am afraid that, in opposition, the Labour party has forgotten about those people. We are dealing with those people. I should like to state some facts about arrears, which were mentioned by the hon. Members for Glasgow South West (Mr Davidson), and for East Lothian (Fiona O'Donnell). The regular Scottish household survey found that arrears in December 2013 were lower than at the same point in both 2012 and 2011, and 55% of Scottish social landlords reported a fall in the percentage of their rent arrears between March and December 2013. These are the figures that we are looking at. The Chair of the Committee asked about support for disabled people. I have talked about that and the extra money in that regard.
The right hon. Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) talked about the difference between a tax and a subsidy. He is a mathematician—he went to university with a friend of mine—so I know that he knows the difference between a subsidy and a tax. However, I wonder whether it is because the Opposition do not know the difference between the two that we are in incredible debt at the moment. They do not understand the ins and outs of money and how it is best spent; that is why they left us with a £150-billion-a-year deficit.
We have, in our latest discussion—this is why we are here today—asked how we could best deal with this situation and what to do. We have put extra money on the table, and the Scottish Government were paying in as well. We have now allowed the matter to be devolved to Scotland, for it to consider what it can do. Although the proposal in Scotland might be an immediate answer to Scotland’s issues and problems in this regard, it does not solve the underlying problem about what people are doing, how Scotland will change its housing stock, how it will get the right people in the right houses, and how it will pay the bills, with an ageing population and more people going into social housing.
Although money might be put towards this issue, we are dealing with other issues too, not only in England but in Wales; we are looking at the stock and getting the right people in the right houses—something that Labour has kicked down the road. It is not dealing with those issues now, and did not deal with them in office.
Given that the Minister has mentioned the solution that the Government are putting forward, will she say when the necessary order will go through the House of Commons? We may prorogue next week; can she guarantee that it will be put in place before we prorogue? Otherwise, the Scottish Parliament will not be able to take the necessary action until several months have passed.
I hope that the hon. Gentleman appreciates that the announcement was made only on Friday. It is very much early days. We are working through the detail of how the policy will work, and we have to make sure that the solution works. I want to check the debate timings with you, Mr Bone, because I know that the Chair of the Select Committee wants to reply. How much longer has the debate got?
We will get the actual figure as it works through. That figure is the one we are working to. I have always made it clear, and I make it clear today, that it is about getting the correct use of the housing stock and fairness for those paying for their own home, those in the social rented sector, and those in the private rented sector. It is about stopping the spiralling increase in the housing budget, which Labour allowed to run out of control. That budget doubled in monetary terms in 10 years. How best can we tackle that problem? We are dealing with it and solving it, and we are getting it right.
When we look at the changes that have taken effect, we see that, so far, 9% of people in the UK, and 7% of people in Scotland, have moved. The changes that we were hoping for when we put that into effect were that people would downsize, and that larger houses would be freed up for those in overcrowded accommodation on the waiting list. That has happened, but there is still a way to go.
I am running out of time. If I have only 20 more seconds, I had better not take an intervention. [Interruption.] I feel I have given way many times to Members. It is important that the issue is tackled. It is difficult and sensitive, and it has kept a lot of us up late at night, trying to get it right, and that is what we are doing. The issue is very complex.
It is true that much of what we reported on has been overtaken by events. The movement that we sought has to a great extent been achieved. It is fair to place on the record my thanks, and those of the Committee, to those Scotland Office Ministers who pursued and ensured the increase in the discretionary housing payment. It is also fair to recognise that the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish Government have also moved. They told us unequivocally that they could not find the money to increase DHPs, but they have done so. We offered to help them find the money, but they found it themselves.
What happens now? In the Scottish Parliament, Iain Gray asked the Deputy First Minister if she would
“categorically confirm that any tenant affected by the bedroom tax who applies for DHP support will automatically get it”—[Scottish Parliament Official Report, 7 May 2014; c. 30617.]
Many tenants in those circumstances will have difficulty clarifying whether they should be making part-payments at the moment, if it will take some time for the DHP cap to be lifted. I hope that the Scottish Government will agree that anyone who has made or continues to make part-payments should get those refunded. It would be iniquitous if anyone who paid part of the bedroom tax during the current year did not get that money back, while someone who had not paid any of it did not have to pay anything. If the Scottish Government can pay back a certain amount of money paid this year, there is no reason why they cannot pay back the amount paid through the bedroom tax last year. We have to look for the Scottish Government to refund the money that has already been paid, and to write off any accumulated debts.
I look forward to the Scottish Affairs Committee meeting a series of groups—we have already met some—to continue to ask how best we can mitigate the entire effect of the bedroom tax in Scotland, as a prelude to the next Labour Government abolishing it entirely.
Overseas Territories (Sustainability)
[Relevant documents: Sustainability in the UK overseas territories, Tenth Report from the Environmental Audit Committee, HC 332, and the Government response, HC 1167.]
I start by thanking the Liaison Committee for making it possible for this debate to take place in Westminster Hall. The background to it is the Rio+20 conference, all the work being done on climate change and the importance of Her Majesty’s Government embedding sustainability into all policies, right the way across government. It is important that the overseas territories are not excluded.
This is the tenth report by the Environmental Audit Committee in this Session, and I thank the members of the Committee, many of whom are here today, for their tremendous work ethic. I also thank the Officers of our Committee, who work so hard behind the scenes on so many different cross-cutting reports, not least this one on the overseas territories.
Our report was launched in March 2013, following up on an earlier report, “Halting biodiversity loss”, which we published in 2008. The feedback that I have had from so many people in so many ways about the importance of the 2008 report and the difference it made makes me absolutely certain that the follow-up to it is critical. I hope that this report—I will come on to the detail of our recommendations in a moment—can make as much difference as the previous one.
We had four oral evidence sessions, with witnesses including non-governmental organisations, civil servants, those working in the United Kingdom overseas territories, developers with an interest in the overseas territories, a Minister from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, a Minister from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and civil servants from the Department for International Development. By the time we finally published our report, we had taken extensive evidence.
In a way, the purpose of today’s debate is not only to take the Government to task for their response to our recommendations, but to impress upon Parliament that the work we are doing is part of an ongoing process. I refer to the work that many NGOs have done, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds among them—it has done an audit—the continuing discussion taking place among those from the overseas territories involved in the Joint Nature Conservation Committee, and the further work going on with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the RSPB. With today’s debate, we want to get up a head of steam, to get some kind of momentum, so that the follow-up to our report will truly make a difference. That is so important. I am pleased that the BBC is taking an interest in this matter, through the World Service. Like many, I look forward to the report due out, I think, on 20 May, on the collaborative work with the BBC. Public awareness of the work of the overseas territories is important for us all.
Why is sustainability in the overseas territories so crucial? There are at least 517 globally threatened species in the overseas territories, compared with 194 in the UK. The overseas territories also contain undisturbed habitats of international significance. Those habitats and species are threatened by development. The hon. Member for Hendon (Dr Offord) and I saw that when we were in the Cayman Islands. I have no doubt that there are many examples, right across the overseas territories, of unconstrained development because of a lack of the kind of baseline environment laws that we take for granted in the United Kingdom. Overall, the overseas territories hold more than 90% of British diversity. The RSPB reliably tells us that DEFRA does not have a single staff member dedicated to working with the charity full time, and that DEFRA spends only 0.3% of its biodiversity conservation budget—something like £1.6 million per annum—in the territories. It is no exaggeration to say that our overseas territories contain some of the richest remaining biodiversity on the planet and that we have a duty of care to safeguard it.
The Environmental Audit Committee is particularly interested in overseas territories because all 14 of them are under UK sovereignty; Parliament has unlimited power to legislate for them as matter of constitutional law and has a responsibility to ensure good governance. The hon. Member for Hendon will expand on some of those issues when he comes to speak. It is important to say that our Select Committee was keen to scrutinise sustainability in the overseas territories, but we are mindful of our moral responsibilities. It is important to note that we cannot impose what should and should not happen on other elected Governments, but at the same time, Parliament does have sovereignty and cannot abdicate its responsibilities towards the overseas territories. A fine balance must be struck that leads to protection of the environment and biodiversity while taking sustainability and how to achieve it on board.
The Environmental Audit Committee’s report contained 15 constructive—I would say that—recommendations. I will not give the Government’s response all that many points out of 10, because only three recommendations were wholly and unreservedly taken on board, but three is better than none. I also welcome the greater priority given to sustainability issues at the most recent Joint Nature Conservation Committee meeting, held this year. If nothing else, the report will help to ensure that environmental issues regularly get on to the agenda, which could make an important difference. I am also pleased that the Government agreed with the Environmental Audit Committee’s recommendation that they should seek, where possible, EU environment funding for overseas territories under the LIFE+ scheme. Will the Minister provide an update on that?
I want to concentrate on some of the recommendations that the Government rejected and to explore why they were rejected. I start with the Government’s comments on paragraphs 22 to 25 of the report about the Aarhus convention, as they are almost indicative of the Government’s response to that and of Parliament’s role in sustainable development. The Aarhus convention is the bottom line. If it is not properly ratified, the work of NGOs and elected Governments in the territories to deal with the weaknesses that the Environmental Audit Committee identified in planning, development and control will be undermined. The Aarhus convention, with the right to information and the opportunity for consultation that it provides, is the starting point for many of the necessary safeguards.
The evidence that the Select Committee received from both the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office summed up the lack of clarity around how the Government are seeking to ratify and extend the Aarhus convention. The Government response contained inaccuracies and I am pleased that they have now corrected the record and have made it quite clear that they have not sought to extend the Aarhus convention to the overseas territories, which is progress. The Select Committee wants that extension.
I compliment my hon. Friend on her work and that of the Environmental Audit Committee. As I understand it, the Aarhus convention suggests that the local population should be included in discussions about protected areas and environmental protection, but that clearly did not happen in the case of the British Indian Ocean Territory’s marine protected area. Does the Committee have a view on that?
We believe that the Aarhus convention is the starting point and should apply. We hope that our recommendations will help the Government to work with the overseas territories to find a way to do that. We want clarity, which is necessary above all else.
A key strategic recommendation in the Environmental Audit Committee report is about the overseas territories’ relationship with the United Nations. The overseas territories are not sovereign states, so they are not members of the United Nations, but they are represented by the UK. Given the small populations of the overseas territories—those that are inhabited—that is a sensible arrangement. It is also an opportunity for the UK to fulfil its historical and critical responsibility to the overseas territories by facilitating their engagement with UN treaties and projects.
The UN convention on biological diversity is the flagship treaty to protect biodiversity. The UK has not extended the ratification of the treaty to most overseas territories, so the Select Committee recommended that
“the FCO must agree a timetable to extend ratification of the CBD with all inhabited UKOTs where this has not yet taken place.”
The Government rejected that recommendation, referring to “capacity constraints” and other reasons why overseas territories could not easily do it themselves. They also stated that they have
“no intention of imposing obligations that the UKOTs are ill-equipped to fulfil.”
However, many small independent nations—I could name many—that are not backed by the environmental expertise, support and guidance of the UK have ratified the convention on biological diversity. Is the Minister aware of any overseas territories Government who have stated that they do not want to engage with the convention on biological diversity, which is a flagship UN treaty? If there is no dissent, we should be doing everything possible to get overseas territories included in this biological protection.
The Environmental Audit Committee also recommended in paragraph 19 that
“the FCO immediately extend ratification of the CBD to all uninhabited UKOTs.”
I am a bit puzzled by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office response, which neither accepted nor rejected this recommendation. Will the Minister provide a little more clarity on that? The Government did refer to ongoing projects on South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands which will
“put the territory in a very strong position to have the CBD extended.”
However, that is not quite the same as stating the Government’s position. Will the Minister explain the barriers to extending the ratification of the CBD to all uninhabited overseas territories?
On biodiversity monitoring, the Environmental Audit Committee heard throughout the evidence sessions that the rich biodiversity of the overseas territories has not been effectively catalogued. Unsurprisingly, we recommended that
“Defra must draw together UKOTs Governments, NGOs such as the RSPB, civil society and research institutions to agree a comprehensive research programme to catalogue the full extent of biodiversity in the UKOTs.”
We see that as a precursor to all kinds of other protection. In their response, the Government stated that
“there is no single group responsible for overseeing biodiversity survey, monitoring, research and data management”
and pledged to
“consider whether such a group would add value”.
I wonder whether the Minister has considered whether cataloguing the biodiversity of the overseas territories would add value, and agrees with us that it is important to do it. Perhaps he will also anticipate in his remarks the launch of a report about the collaboration of the RSPB with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
I mentioned how struck we were by lack of resources in the overseas territories, and in the UK Government. Much more could be done with all the expertise already available within Government and in local authorities. Perhaps under twinning or other arrangements existing expertise could be used for the benefit of the overseas territories. We think that would be a way forward.
On the question of lack of resources, I was struck by the capacity of non-governmental organisations: the UK Overseas Territories Conservation Forum appears to operate on a shoestring, and has had its funding reduced. Should the Government be looking for ways to ensure that the NGOs with which they must have a working relationship are properly funded?
I agree. There is an important issue here: we may be in a time of austerity, as everyone reminds us at every opportunity, but that does not mean that the only cuts to be made, or the first ones, should be those that affect the environment. Our report is intended to highlight the fact that there would be many dividends for the overseas territories, and for the UK as a whole, from investing in and safeguarding our natural resources, and valuing them properly. That means resources for NGOs as well as Governments, as my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Mark Lazarowicz) said.
It is clear—we certainly saw it in the Cayman Islands—that many NGOs operate on good will, on a shoestring. It is not a decision for us to impose on overseas territories Governments, but there may be all kinds of ways in which they could adopt best practice with a view to funding some of the work that is needed. All kinds of suggestions were made to us, including a sustainability tax. There is almost a case for a Joint Nature Conservation Committee agenda on ways of identifying sources of finance to ensure that much-needed, urgent work gets done.
The Government might well ask why we made our recommendation on national lottery funding, but we felt that the environments of the overseas territories could be given protection through grants from the national lottery. The Heritage Lottery Fund currently funds conservation projects in the UK. I am sure that we can all think of constituency examples. It is legally permitted to fund conservation projects in the overseas territories, but that has never happened, because the Department for Culture, Media and Sport directed the fund to prioritise accessibility for UK residents in making grants; this is another example of the cross-cutting nature of the agenda and how it involves all Departments.
We recommended that the DCMS should extend the right to play the national lottery to overseas territories residents, which would allow it to direct the Heritage Lottery Fund to accord equal priority to applications for projects in the overseas territories and applications for projects in the UK. At a time when not much money is available, and where to look for it is an issue, we felt that our proposal might be a way forward, and were disappointed when the Government rejected it, citing a number of barriers, including
“installing and running lottery terminals in such distant and disparate areas”
“the need to change legislation”.
I gently suggest to the Minister that so far the arguments against our suggestion have not been powerful enough, and I ask him to re-examine it. Perhaps he will in particular consider our recommendation about the internet.
The extension of the right to play the national lottery in the UK overseas territories would require a statutory instrument, not primary legislation, so the legislative burden would not be excessive. Where there’s a will, there’s a way. I am by no means suggesting that national lottery funding would be the one way of resolving all the underfunding issues of environmental projects and operations; but it is one small way of providing some much-needed investment for specific projects. I hope that the Government will consider that, and tell us why they have so far resisted that approach.
The hon. Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith) will raise maritime issues in some detail, but I wanted to mention that the best biodiversity in most of the overseas territories is on the coast and under water. We want marine and coastal protection to be given special priority. I wonder how we can have sovereignty over the fifth largest exclusive maritime area in the world without having strategic plans in place. I would like the Minister to respond to our recommendations about a marine protected area in the Pitcairn Islands. The UK has signed up to the UN Aichi biodiversity targets. Target 11 is to protect 10% of the world’s oceans by 2020, and the Pitcairn Islands have asked the UK to establish a fully protected marine protected area around them. We believe that that would make a substantial contribution to achieving that significant world target. We therefore recommended the creation of such a marine protected area.
The Government gave reasons why they could not do that. We would like to know what things they could do. Is the Minister aware that our recommendations refer to satellite tracking as a practical and cost-effective enforcement tool? Has he made any assessment of the use of satellite technology in that way? We heard that a line on a map would be worth a great deal for marine protection, because it would set legal boundaries that responsible operators would respect, and provide a basis for future enforcement action. What is the Minister’s response to that argument?
There are 14 overseas territories, each with a wealth of biodiversity and many challenges, so it is impossible in this afternoon’s short debate to cover all the issues referred to in our report. Hon. Members will be able to expand on some of those issues in depth. I want to pay tribute to the inspirational work of the director of the Cayman Islands Department of Environment, Gina Ebanks-Petrie, whom the hon. Member for Hendon and I met. We felt humbled to see the work that she does, alongside many volunteers and the newly elected Cayman Islands Government, whose changing approach to the environment and adoption of new environmental legislation since our visit is paying dividends.
I could talk in detail about the waste tip that we saw there and the urgent need for action on that, and about the need for the same kind of standards that we have in the UK. I could talk about the need for expertise to make it possible to establish safeguards and standards, so that waste will not be burned and residue will not leach into the ocean. I could talk at length about various visits that we made. There were students from Aberystwyth university, and seeing them in action made us all the more determined to think about opportunities for twinning and sharing business expertise. The JNCC needs to be able to provide the machinery and framework to promote best practice.
I briefly want to mention our visit to the turtle farm. I stress that policy on and the operation of the farm are entirely a matter for the Cayman Islands Government. Any Government, however, whether a UK overseas territory or not, must take account of the importance of safeguarding biodiversity. I welcome the Cayman Islands Government’s intention to enter into dialogue with the World Society for the Protection of Animals about certain continuing concerns. If our report has helped to facilitate dialogue between the interested parties, so much the better.
I could also mention other details, including some about the Turks and Caicos Islands, where scheduling of the debt is causing issues that need to be looked at closely. In other islands, there are problems with invasive species and biosecurity, which we could help to resolve by providing expertise.
In conclusion, with such a wealth of biodiversity in our overseas territories, we require a step change in how the Government relate to them. The change of approach should involve addressing, rather than dismissing, the individual recommendations of our report; building on the work of the JNCC, individual Governments and NGOs; and bringing the combined expertise and resources of all relevant Departments to support the UK Government’s strategic role for the UK overseas territories, as well as the role of the UKOT Governments. In the Minister’s reply, I hope that he will engage with us on the issues, which between us we will raise, and give real cause for optimism that the sentiments of the 2012 White Paper will be translated into real action.
I thank all the passionate people who have assisted us with our inquiry, including Alistair Gammell, Heather Bradner, Josh Kaile, Gina Ebanks-Petrie, Tim Austin, Croy McCoy, Stuart Mailer, Wayne Panton, Fred Burton, Patricia Bradley, Ian Orr, Jay Esterman and Nick Beech. We are also indebted to many other people.
I would have liked to mention a number of matters —transparency, resources, biodiversity conservation, sustainability and many others—but time will prevent me from doing so. This afternoon, therefore, I will focus on one area, which is good governance, or rather the lack of it.
Many issues covered in the report are not simply to do with environmental policies, but involve standards of governance on the part of the UK Government and Governments in the overseas territories. The remit of the Committee in the report is to hold the UK Government to account for their overall responsibility for the good environmental practices of the overseas territories. When, for example, there is evidence that planning systems in many territories are not open, and that procedures for carrying out objective environmental impact assessments are either ignored or subverted, there is a role for the UK Government, through governors and ministerial engagement with the overseas territories, to encourage and provide support to improve standards of governance.
The result of failure to take early action and to address matters adequately was seen most recently in 2009 in the Turks and Caicos Islands, when the Government had to introduce direct rule. Given that action, it is a great pity that in the initial paragraph of the Government’s response to the Committee’s report, the Government make it clear that they do not regard the report, nor the wealth of evidence presented to them, as in any way worth addressing.
The Government talk of powers being devolved to the Governments of the UK overseas territories, whether the territory has locally elected politicians or Government-appointed officials, including governors and administrators. Through the UK Parliament, certain policy areas have been designated the responsibility of devolved administrations, such as locally elected governments and assemblies. Devolution means that the UK Government no longer have the legal authority to determine policy on some matters in the devolved administrations, except through subsequent parliamentary votes at Westminster. We can see this most notably in local government in the UK. The devolved administrations, which are the councils, are provided with financial resources to carry out work in the devolved areas. There is, however, no such parliamentary devolution to the overseas territories, whether of legal authority or budgetary resources.
The crucial concept for the UK overseas territories is not devolution. Indeed, that term does not appear in the index to Hendry and Dickson’s authoritative “British Overseas Territories Law” of 2011. The key constitutional concept is that of reserved powers, which are, uniformly, defence, foreign affairs and public order. As the same index reveals, however, a key non-parliamentary constitutional concept is that of the Government’s reserved general power to legislate by Order in Council.
Even if the constitutions of individual overseas territories have been modernised in certain respects during the late 20th and early 21st centuries, they still rely on colonial legal structures developed in the 18th and 19th centuries, and on the ability to govern by exercising the royal prerogative through Orders in Council. Constitutionally, the good governance of the territories is the responsibility of the UK Government.
The Government decide how to secure such good governance through departmental, ministerial and bureaucratic decisions. Generally, for territories with locally elected Governments, it is desirable for that to be achieved through local legislation, which takes account of local conditions, but respects standards that are often formulated to be observed in all territories over which the UK exercises effective sovereignty. Where Ministers deem it necessary, however, Orders in Council, without parliamentary debate in either the territory or the Westminster legislatures, can be used to impose new laws, including the suspension of a territory’s constitution.
Let me be clear: I am in no way opposed to proper delegation to the UK overseas territories, but as I said a few minutes ago, the Government’s arrangements do not achieve that, and they certainly do not justify the Government’s repeated attempts to claim that they have no responsibility for environmental issues in the overseas territories.
The Government assert in their response that it would be inappropriate to take greater ownership of environmental issues, as that approach would be in stark contrast to the objective, set out in the 2012 White Paper, of working in partnership with the territories to help them meet their environmental obligations. The idea of working in partnership, however, was set out in the 2001 environment charters, in which both sides made commitments that reflected their differentiated responsibilities for environmental good governance. The Government’s comment is in conflict with the Environmental Audit Committee and Foreign Affairs Committee reports of 2008, as well as our present report.
It needs to be clearly stated that there is no suggestion that the Government should take over managing environmental issues in the overseas territories, but the Government should introduce support for proper management. It is all very well for them to assert that they encourage territory Governments to join in the UK’s instrument of ratification of core multilateral environmental agreements, but the Government undermine their own assertion by making the erroneous comment that
“we have no intention of imposing on the Territories obligations that they are ill-equipped to fulfil.”
That is an attempt to set up an informal fallacy. The role of the UK, as recognised in the standard environment charters, is not to impose obligations, but to
“Facilitate the extension of the UK’s ratification of Multilateral Environmental Agreements of benefit to [the territory] and which [the territory] has the capacity to implement”,
“Keep [the territory] informed regarding new developments in relevant Multilateral Environmental Agreements and invite [the territory] to participate where appropriate in the UK’s delegation to international environmental negotiations and conferences.”
The Government response to the Committee’s report also ignores international responsibility to help equip parts of sovereign UK territory to fulfil such commitments. Imposing treaties on unwilling UK overseas territories is not something that the Government have shied away from—we need only consider the case of the Turks and Caicos Islands in 2009, and the fiscal and financial framework in the Cayman Islands a couple of years ago. There is, however, a middle course between imposition and a purely reactive response to requests from UK overseas territories, as the Government have developed mechanisms to seek the changes needed in overseas territories—that is, to encourage and to assist.
In general, treaties that the UK ratifies reflect values and priorities that apply to all sovereign UK territory. If that is not the case, will the Minister provide examples of environmental treaties that it would be wrong in principle to extend to all or some UK overseas territories, although they are appropriate to the UK mainland? The core obligations under the convention on biological diversity are not onerous. Having legislation to create protected areas is fundamental, but effective implementation is also important.
In all countries and territories where the convention on biological diversity has been ratified, or to which a mainland country’s ratification has been extended, a great deal has been left to be put in place after that ratification or extension. Judged by some standards—when it comes, for example, to the creation of marine protected areas—the UK has not been a leader in meeting its CBD commitments. It therefore seems perverse to demand higher standards before extension to many of our overseas territories when they are specifically excluded from policy discussions and treaty negotiations. It would not have impressed the other states with whom the CBD was being negotiated had the UK announced, on ratification in 1992, that it was likely that 22 years later it would still be unable to extend the CBD’s principles to most of the UK overseas territories, including those with no residents.
The Government state that most of the territories are small islands or island groups that face resource and capacity constraints affecting their ability to consider or implement treaties. Although I can accept that view, will the Minister explain why the UK Government have not provided more resources to address those constraints—for example, staff from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, assistance in an environmental drafting capacity, or any other form of help? If the Minister believes that multilateral environmental agreements have no value when applied to areas of high biodiversity, will he argue his case in public for not extending such treaties to those areas, and for devoting large sums of UK taxpayers’ money to biodiversity on the UK mainland?
As a consequence of the inquiry, some overseas territories have introduced conservation measures and legislation; that is an achievement of the Committee, but I must ask why the UK Government are prepared to exercise hard and soft power in the UK overseas territories on financial matters, but not protect biodiversity and promote environmental sustainability.
The Foreign and Commonwealth Office cannot abnegate its constitutional responsibility to ensure that good governance arrangements are introduced in the UK overseas territories. Sustainable development in the territories is contingent on their Governments’ implementing effective development controls, such as statutory environmental impact assessments for major developments and strategic infrastructure plans.
I urge the Government to consider investing to prevent biodiversity loss in the overseas territories, as it would make a direct and cost-effective contribution to meeting the UK’s international commitments under the CBD. The UK could make a significant contribution to achieving Aichi biodiversity target 11 by declaring new marine protected areas around the Pitcairn Islands, Tristan da Cunha, and South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands. The Government have missed a significant opportunity in their response to the Committee’s report, but there is still time to take the action we have set out.
I am pleased that we are having this debate today. As chair of the all-party group on the Chagos islands, I will address the issues surrounding the British Indian Ocean Territory. Although there are not a massive amount of references to the Chagos islanders in the report, it quite rightly discusses the need to protect all environments in British overseas territories, which I welcome.
As the House will be aware, the Chagos islands were finally depopulated in the early 1970s after a secret agreement between Britain and the US to do so in order to build a US base on Diego Garcia. The way that depopulation took place and the way that the islanders have been treated, frankly, are a source of shame for this country. Ever since, the islanders have been concerned about the environment that they left behind, the environment of Diego Garcia, and their right to return.
I recognise that this debate is not about the politics of the decision that was taken at that time, but we should place that decision in the context of the issues we are debating today. The islands represent a significant chunk of the Indian ocean. The archipelago is some distance from Diego Garcia, yet even though it is nowhere near the US base, it was depopulated apparently for reasons of security. There have been many court cases and actions about the depopulation, and the Foreign Office is at last undertaking a feasibility study on the right of return. Will the Minister clarify exactly when that feasibility study will report to us?
A marine protected area was introduced around the islands on 1 April 2010 in a statement to the House by the then Foreign Secretary, David Miliband. It was introduced without any consultation with either the all-party group on the Chagos islands, any of the Chagos islands organisations or, as far as I can work out, anybody else at all—it was simply announced. As chair of the all-party group, I was extremely annoyed, and tabled an urgent question, which Mr Speaker granted. Many Members expressed similar views. The proposal, which has now been carried out, was that there should be a no-take fishing zone around the archipelago. It is envisaged that there will be no return to the islands at all for the population.
I want to put it clearly on the record that the Chagos islanders were very angry at not being consulted on that proposal. I quote from a letter from Olivier Bancoult, the chair of the Chagos Refugee Group:
“We cited the unilateral declaration of the Chagos Archipelago as a Marine Protected Area as the perfect example of our views and interests being disregarded despite the fact that we voiced out our concerns and opposition loud and clear.”
In the same letter, written in July 2013, he goes on to discuss a meeting
“conducted in an honest manner during which both parties have had the opportunity to freely express their positions”
and asks for more such meetings.
David Snoxell, the former British high commissioner to Mauritius, who is the voluntary co-ordinator of the all-party group on the Chagos islands and chair of the Marine Education Trust, said at the time—he is quoted in the 2013 Library briefing paper on the islands—that
“Everyone would have been happy with the creation of a marine protection area providing it had made provision for the interests of Chagossians and Mauritius, which it could so easily have done”.
That remains the position of the Chagos islanders, including those in Crawley who have opted to take residence in this country and have become British passport holders—well, most of them did—as a result of the British Overseas Territories Act 2002.
The Chagos islanders support the principle of a marine protected area. That is clear. As I said in my intervention on my hon. Friend the Chair of the Committee, it is clear that, in practical terms, a conservation process that we want to work has to be undertaken with the co-operation of the local population. They are most interested and affected and are most likely to look after the place. Instead, there was no consultation whatever with the Chagos islanders, who live as a community in Mauritius, the Seychelles and this country. We now have a rather ineffective naval presence that is supposed to be able to monitor what is going on throughout 630,000 sq km of ocean and protect those waters.
The only people who go to the islands are passing yachtspeople who have the money to spend their lives sailing around the world on expensive yachts, and people fishing illegally, who manage to enter the area because it is insufficiently protected. We should bear in mind that a population returning to inhabit the archipelago sustainably with licensed, limited and sustainable fishing would provide much better protection for an undeniably beautiful and pristine environment that has become an important haven for swordfish, sharks and other large sea mammals that have taken refuge there and whose populations are being protected as a result. Instead, the Foreign Office maintains an obdurate position of non-return of people to the islands—unless the feasibility study brings about a change of heart. I sincerely hope it does.
I also want to raise the issue of pollution of the waters around Diego Garcia. It is the largest island of the Chagos group and, as I explained, is some considerable distance from the archipelago. It became a base from which the United States has launched military operations to Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, and so on. The US lease on the base runs until 2016. We are told that the base is well run, yet there are reports of considerable and disturbing levels of pollution caused by activities there. I will give an example. On 15 March this year, The Independent said:
“The American military has poured hundreds of tonnes of human sewage and waste water into a protected coral lagoon on the British-owned base of Diego Garcia over three decades in breach of environmental rules…According to scientific advisers, elevated levels of nutrients caused by the waste—which have resulted in nitrogen and phosphate readings up to four times higher than normal—may be damaging the coral.”
On 28 March, The Independent revealed that the scientific adviser to the Foreign Office had criticised the British Government’s failure to protect those pristine waters. Russia Today reported on the issue at some length in an article entitled “US Navy pollutes islands cleared of natives in order to ‘protect environment’”. Even more seriously, there are concerns about radioactive pollution from nuclear-powered submarines that have been using the base there. I believe those reports to be credible, and it is important that the Foreign Office recognises that despite the fact that only the base and not the whole island is leased to the United States, the US has a responsibility to protect the environment there. The commissioner for the British Indian Ocean Territory also has responsibility, and that responsibility has clearly not been carried out if such pollution has taken place.
The issue, then, is what happens to the islands now. I received a letter from the Foreign Secretary on 14 February this year. The all-party parliamentary group on the Chagos islands asked that the feasibility study being undertaken in response to the many legal processes that have taken place be concluded as quickly as possible. I have a copy of the original feasibility study on the possibility of return, which was prepared in the early 2000s. It is in three very large volumes in my bookcase at home and was too heavy for me to carry in to show Members, but it concluded that the islands exist and that they sustained a small population through fishing and copra production. One hopes that a population can be supported there again.
The issue is really about the principle of the right of return. There are some well-thought-out positions on how the islands might be repopulated, how many people would go there and the sustainability of what would happen as a result. The principle must surely be that repopulating the islands would involve bringing in people who love the place—people who lived there and were heartbroken at being forcibly removed from the islands. They are the people best able to protect the environment. We have a rather strange situation in which a population was forcibly—and, in my view, illegally—removed to make way for an American base, and now we spend money on security to keep them out and prevent other people from going in and illegally fishing. Why not make a virtuous circle of it and allow those people to return, so that they can protect a pristine and valuable environment?
The issue is not going to go away. Every time the Foreign Office thinks that it is over and done with, it comes back, because the islanders have an amazingly steadfast determination to ensure that their case is heard. The Environmental Audit Committee report calls on the UK and US forces to
“work constructively to minimise the environmental impacts of military presence and to conserve the island”
of Diego Garcia, and refers to the problem of nutrient discharges by US ships there.
I hope that the Minister will be able to confirm in his response that the Government are aware of the pollution occurring in Diego Garcia, that we are on track for the feasibility study to be undertaken on the possibility of return, and that the issue can be concluded within this Parliament—that is, that we will receive the report before the end of this year, so it can be properly debated in the House in January or February next year, before this Parliament is dissolved to make way for the general election in a year’s time. The islanders protected those islands for many years. They should have a right to return and continue that protection.
Before I call the next speaker, may I indicate that because there was no vote in the main Chamber as anticipated, we must conclude proceedings by 4.30 pm? I therefore propose to start the winding-up speeches at 10 past 4. There are three people who want to speak before then, and I want to fit in the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Joan Walley), who led the debate.
It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Benton. I will be quick. I congratulate the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Joan Walley) on her opening remarks and her brilliant chairmanship of the Committee, of which I am proud to be a member. I will focus briefly on marine protected areas, which were a significant part of the report that we put together.
As Members will know, the oceans are under unprecedented pressure. It is estimated that 90% of all large fish are gone and that 15 of the world’s 17 large fisheries either have collapsed or are on the brink of collapse. A recent study published in Science magazine predicted that all the world’s fisheries will collapse by 2048 if current trends are allowed to continue. That matters for many different reasons—for biodiversity reasons, clearly, but also from a human point of view. One billion people depend on fish as their primary source of protein and 200 million depend indirectly on fishing as a source of livelihood, yet we continue to ravage the systems that provide fish, including one third of all mangroves, which we must not forget are the breeding ground for 85% of commercial fish. Only 5%—the true figure is probably less—of coral reefs are considered pristine nowadays. There is a lot that we need to do.
I will skip through the issues, such as the lawlessness of the high seas, the fact that 1% of the world’s fleets are responsible for catching 50% of the world’s fish, and the fact that there are fishing lines that would stretch all the way from Westminster to Brighton and 10 billion hooks floating around the oceans. I will assume that Members agree that it is impossible to reconcile those tools of destruction with any hope of a sustainable future for our oceans.
I will focus on marine protected areas, because notwithstanding the remarks made by the hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn), they are the easiest, quickest and least controversial way of protecting the oceans. We know that marine protected areas work. During world war two, when fishing was prevented in the Atlantic, fish populations soared incredibly quickly. Spain has a terrible record on fishing around the world, but catches close to the famous Tabarca marine reserve, the country’s first, are 85% higher than elsewhere after just six years of protection. There are many other examples, which I am afraid I will not be able to mention.
Governments have agreed, as the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North mentioned, an international target of protecting 10% of coastal and marine areas by 2020, but progress has been incredibly slow, with less than 3% being given any protection at all and only 1% any real protection. That is depressing, but the good news is that we do not have to wait for international action or international agreement. The UK is in a position to show leadership, with or without our international partners. We have the fifth largest and the most diverse marine zone in the world—6.8 million sq km, comprising nearly 2% of the world’s oceans—and the vast majority of it is in the UK overseas territories, which between them harbour 90% of UK biodiversity.
Our report makes it clear that UK overseas territories are calling on the UK Government to help them to establish marine protected areas, and of course we must. Notwithstanding some of the comments that we just heard, we have made some progress, including the designation in 2010 of the British Indian Ocean Territory as the world’s largest fully protected marine reserve. However, we must consider three more hugely important territories: Pitcairn, Ascension and South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands.
The Pitcairn Islands are, as many hon. Members will know, remote and neither polluted nor overfished. Their fish populations, including of top predators such as sharks, are healthy, and they have some of the best coral reefs in the world. They have intact deep-sea habitats and many species new to science. At present, they are totally unprotected and unpoliced, and it is only a matter of time before the area is devastated. A marine sanctuary there would be celebrated globally as one of the most significant conservation measures ever taken by any Government. The Pitcairns submitted a proposal to the Foreign Office last year for a highly protected marine reserve, which was supported unanimously by their population.
The second obvious opportunity is South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, which are uninhabited, so we would struggle to get the lottery machines there, although we could probably put a symbolic one there, just to get through the ridiculous legalistic response by the Government to that proposal. The islands have a vast marine area that is recognised worldwide for the importance of its wildlife. Home to more than 100 million seabirds and half the world’s population of southern elephant seals, it is one of the world’s most diverse and scientifically significant regions on the planet. The islands have already been identified as a priority for protection by the convention on the conservation of Antarctic marine living resources. A large-scale, fully protected marine reserve could be implemented with only a minor impact on current fishing or fishery income.
The third opportunity—I would go so far as to say that it is a golden opportunity—is Ascension Island, which lies in the middle of the rich equatorial waters of the south Atlantic. It is the peak of a gigantic undersea volcano. It holds the second largest green turtle nesting site in the Atlantic and is one of the most important tropical seabird breeding stations in the world. Its waters are full of significant populations of big ocean predators, including tuna, dolphins, sharks and marlin. A review of management options for Ascension’s maritime area is already under way, so the UK Government have an opportunity right now to declare a large and highly protected marine conservation area.
Politically, those steps are relatively easy and can happen incredibly quickly. The difficulty is, of course, in policing and enforcement, which inevitably come with some cost, but it is not clear how much. I believe that Pew told the Select Committee that the cost of policing Pitcairn would be around £600,000 per annum. South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands already have enforcement capability provided through a dedicated patrol ship, periodic visits from the Royal Navy, and occasional overflights by the Royal Air Force, while UK Government vessels regularly visit Ascension. Clearly we need a step change to improve monitoring, with proper vessel monitoring systems as mentioned earlier, and advances in remote sensing and satellite technology. That can come in time. To use a cliché, we cannot allow the best to become the enemy of the good.
Given their importance to nature and human livelihoods, the proven and unarguable benefits of MPAs, the fact that we have it in our power today to create the world’s largest fully protected marine reserves, and that even the more extravagant costs associated with protecting those sites represent only the tiniest fraction of the annual funding of the Department for International Development, that surely represents good value for money. Here is a golden opportunity for the Government; they just have to stop dragging their feet and take the opportunity.
I will make three brief points.
First, I fully support the comments made by the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith) and the report’s recommendations about the need for urgent action to declare marine protected areas around the Pitcairns, South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, as well as Tristan da Cunha, as identified in the report. I should declare an interest: I understand that the principal settlement of Tristan da Cunha is called Edinburgh of the Seven Seas and one of the former settlements on South Georgia is called Leith Harbour, so as the Member of Parliament for Edinburgh North and Leith, I feel that I have a particular interest. I make that point to emphasise our historical role and responsibility for these areas. We chose to take them on as colonial possessions over the centuries, and we now have a responsibility to those communities and areas, and to the wider world community, to recognise their importance to the environment of the world. That is why I support the declaration of MPAs. I hope that the Minister will ensure that the Department moves with more speed on MPAs, and take up the interesting proposals circulated to us by Pew and National Geographic, which indicate some possible ways forward.
Secondly, I want to elaborate briefly on the intervention I made on the Chair of the Select Committee regarding support for the United Kingdom Overseas Territories Conservation Forum. I do not have a particular reason to single it out, except that it struck me when we, as members of the Select Committee, met with it that the forum was performing a vital role with limited resources. Certainly, if there is to be a proper relationship with the UK Government, with some degree of equality, we need to ensure that NGOs in particular are able to network among themselves across the overseas territories and to have a presence in the UK, which would allow them to ensure that their voices are put strongly to the UK Government.
My final point is that it is absolutely clear from the discussions and evidence we heard in the Committee, that there is a major gap in the parliamentary oversight of what the Government do in relation to the overseas territories and, where relevant, oversight and scrutiny of what the overseas territories do themselves. We have Select Committees for Northern Ireland, Welsh and Scottish affairs, but there is no equivalent parliamentary mechanism for the overseas territories. Clearly, I am not talking about setting up the same type of Committee for the overseas territories, but there needs to be some way in which Parliament fulfils its responsibility to the territories and their populations. I hope that, at some stage in the future, the parliamentary authorities will examine ways we can ensure that we provide that type of scrutiny and oversight as MPs, and that we monitor and scrutinise what the Government do. The example provided by my hon. Friend the Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) in relation to the British Indian Ocean Territory and the Chagos islanders illustrates the need for us to examine that issue and to put in place proper mechanisms for parliamentary scrutiny.
I want to commend the Environmental Audit Committee’s report, which carefully drew a line between the United Kingdom’s responsibilities for environmental stewardship and sustainability in relation to its overseas territories and the interests, concerns and devolved rights and responsibilities of the populations of those territories. The Committee carefully drew that distinction in its report, but I am afraid that the Government’s response to the report did not.
In the introduction to the 2012 White Paper, the Prime Minister said:
“We see an important opportunity to set world standards in our stewardship of the extraordinary natural environment we have inherited.”
The White Paper itself set out principles of maximum devolution, where possible, of decision making to the populations of the UK overseas territories and assumed a continuing reduction in calls upon UK resources in that regard. It also set out the possibility of independence, with the wholehearted support of the populations of those territories if that is what they wished.
The White Paper also made a distinction between inhabited and uninhabited overseas territories. As we have already heard, that distinction is, shall we say, a little blurred, at least in the case of one overseas territory, which appears to be uninhabited, but in fact probably cannot be so regarded in the longer term.
In their response to the Select Committee’s report, however, the Government made a rather different point. They said:
“It would be inappropriate for the Government to take greater ownership of environmental issues”,
while at the same time saying that, while
“we encourage Territories to extend the UK instruments of ratification of MEAs and recognise the benefits they can bring, this should only be done when Territories are certain that they have the capacity and—where necessary—the provisions in place to meet the obligations under those agreements. The Government recognises that most of the Territories are small islands or island groups that face resource and capacity constraints which affect their ability to consider or implement treaties.”
That, of course, is true, but what about the difference in how those overseas territories themselves are situated in terms of resources and population? There is enormous diversity in our overseas territories, ranging from the Cayman Islands, with a population of 54,000, and Bermuda, with a population of 64,000—both arguably with substantial resources to meet the requirements regarding sustainability and to implement treaties suggested in the Government’s response to the Select Committee—down to islands such as Pitcairn, with a population of 51. It is clear that a number of those overseas territories would never be in a position to accord with the sort of considerations that the Government set out in their response to the Committee.
In terms of marine conversation zones and fully operating marine protected areas, such as those mentioned by the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith)—I fully support what he said about the ambition for the UK and for those overseas territories to have those zones—it will inevitably turn out that the territories relating to those zones cannot fulfill the sort of obligations that the Government suggest in their response. Therefore, there is no alternative. The UK simply has to face up to the fact that those need to be properly resourced from the UK, with UK intervention and UK oversight of those zones in future. I am particularly—
As ever, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Benton. I congratulate the Committee on yet another thoughtful and agenda-setting report. I must admit that I was a little surprised to see the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the hon. Member for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice) in his seat, given that this was listed as a Foreign Office debate, which is why I am here. I hope that does not suggest that Foreign Office Ministers are not interested in environmental sustainability in the overseas territories, and I hope that the Minister reports back to his Foreign Office colleagues on how today’s debate went.
In a debate on the White Paper back in December 2012, the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, the hon. Member for Boston and Skegness (Mark Simmonds), who has responsibility for the overseas territories, said that building stronger links with the OTs should not just be a matter for the FCO; it had to be “a cross-Whitehall effort”—so perhaps that is why the Minister is here. As we have heard, the Committee has noted that, although FCO civil servants are encouraged to visit the overseas territories, DEFRA staff are discouraged from doing so. DEFRA does not have a single staff member dedicated to working with them full time and spends only 0.3% of its biodiversity conservation budget in the territories, so I think discussion is needed between DEFRA Ministers and Foreign Office Ministers about how we can take some of these really important issues forward.
As the report sets out, the total population of the territories combined is just 250,000, but the countries account for some 90% of the biodiversity for which the UK Government have responsibility. There is an amazing range of biodiversity, encompassing vast expanses of ocean, thousands of coral atolls, tropical forests and polar areas. As we have heard, the OTs support unique and sensitive ecosystems and habitats of international importance, and are subject to significant threats. The report highlights how the UK still lacks a basic overview of these environments. The RSPB has set out how that lack of knowledge means that extinctions of species, such as the St Helena olive tree in 2003, which was the last global extinction, continue. The RSPB said that that was largely due to a lack of attention.
The report makes it clear that environmental protection of the territories is the UK’s responsibility, and that the constitutional responsibility of territory Governments for environmental protection of their natural environments does not subcontract
“the UK’s ultimate responsibility under international law.”
In signing the UN convention on biological diversity and other multilateral environmental treaties, the UK Government did so on behalf of the overseas territories. It should now negotiate the extension of the convention to the overseas territories where that has not yet taken place. As these countries
“have no international legal personality or treaty-making capacity”,
only the UK Government can co-ordinate ratification on their behalf. As we have heard, that is absolutely crucial for protecting their threatened environments.
If the UK Government are genuine in their belief that, as the Foreign Secretary said:
“We are stewards of these assets for future generations”,
and, in many respects,
“the Territories are more vulnerable than the UK”,
they need to live up to those responsibilities and take them seriously.
It is absolutely right that the UK puts pressure on the overseas territories to make them more financially transparent and democratically accountable. We know that work is going on on that front, but it is somewhat incongruous that, while the UK Government are prepared to broker an agreement with the territories with financial services industries to join a multilateral convention on enhanced tax transparency, they are not prepared to exercise similar powers to protect biodiversity. I get the impression that environmental issues were very much a side issue at the last joint ministerial council meeting in November, with overwhelming priority given to developing opportunities for trade and investment. Clearly, there is a need for economic development in the territories, but as the report sets out, that development must be sustainable.
The example was given of the British company, Crown Acquisitions, which has received planning permission for residential developments on the three Cayman islands. Two of the three islands have no development plans at all and minimal planning controls. Environmental impact assessments are not a statutory requirement for developments, and as I understand it, the company now owns 200 residential plots on Little Cayman, which is only 10 miles long and one mile wide, with a population of less than 170, a limited road network, limited fresh water and power, and inadequate waste management. It is also home to the largest population of red-footed boobies in the Caribbean, which live and breed in an area designated a wetland of international importance. Given the active role that the FCO is taking in assisting UK companies to develop business opportunities and invest in the overseas territories, it is important that the UK Government also see it as their duty to stop those companies profiting from a lack of environmental safeguards or effective development controls in some of those territories.
May I also take this opportunity to press the Minister about the turtle farm? I know that it has been said that the responsibility lies with the islands and not with the UK Government, but the Minister recently answered a question I asked him about shark finning, for example. He was very prepared to take a public stand condemning that and DEFRA is very prepared to take a stand condemning the ivory trade, yet it does not seem willing to take a stand on the protection of endangered green turtles.
I have heard reports that a few companies may be prospecting around the continental shelves of a few of the isolated islands in the south Pacific and south Atlantic, with a view to possible deep-sea mining. Are the Government aware of any interest in deep-sea mining in the overseas territories, have they had any discussions with companies considering that, and how do they see deep-sea mining working sustainably—or not—in parallel with marine environments?
It is a shame that the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith) was cut short in his remarks on marine protected areas. I think he knows that we share very similar views on the topic. With regard to Pitcairn, I had the pleasure of meeting two of the islanders—Simon Young and Melva Warren Evans—when they were over in Parliament a while ago. We were shown an absolutely fantastic film demonstrating just how pristine and unexplored much of the marine environment is around the islands. As was said, the islanders unanimously want a marine protected area. That is their decision. It would make Pitcairn the largest fully protected marine reserve in the world and would contribute 2.5% towards achieving the global commitment made under the convention on biological diversity—Aichi target 11, which was mentioned. Will the Minister at least advise us whether there is likely to be a decision on that before the next election? I will not talk more generally about marine protected areas, as my hon. Friends have already done so, but I flag up the calls for marine protected areas around Ascension Island and Tristan da Cunha, and for better protection around South Georgia and the Sandwich Islands.
Finally, I want to say that the Government are full of warm words—the overseas territories White Paper was full of fine words—but very little action is being taken. The Government need to be more ambitious in their vision for the overseas territories and take seriously their stewardship of these extraordinary natural environments. It is important that we continue to ask more of ourselves on these important issues if, as the Committee argues, we are to maintain the UK’s international reputation as an environmentally responsible nation state. I hope that we see from the Minister’s response today that he is prepared to do that.
I am grateful to the Liaison Committee and to the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Joan Walley) for securing the debate. I should also say that I am disappointed that, in a way, our debate has been undermined by the previous one. Let me reassure the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy), that although I am giving the Government response to the debate, we take this issue seriously across Government. The Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Boston and Skegness (Mark Simmonds), gave evidence when the Environmental Audit Committee was considering the issue, and we work closely on it.
It is clear from today’s debate that people are very passionate about our overseas territories and the rich natural flora and fauna that they support. The UK has 14 very diverse overseas territories, 11 of which are inhabited, and between them they contain, as the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North said, about 90% of the biodiversity found in the UK and its overseas territories combined.
I shall start by talking about some of the constitutional issues, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Dr Offord) dedicated most of his contribution. Many of the recommendations made by the Committee and raised again today pertain to that aspect. The constitutional position was set out very clearly in the 2012 White Paper, “The Overseas Territories: Security, Success and Sustainability”, published by the Foreign Office. It made it clear that although the Government have a fundamental objective and responsibility for the security and good governance of the territories, each has its own constitution and local laws, and powers are therefore devolved to the maximum extent possible.
The inhabited territories are constitutionally responsible for the protection and conservation of their natural environments and for developing appropriate environmental policies and legislation. There is no appetite in the territories for the UK Government to take a greater role in managing environmental issues on their behalf, but that is not to say that we cannot provide considerable support. I want to come on to that issue later.
There is, and I will come back to that point, because I want to talk about some of the international aspects.
The second issue that I want to touch on is that of staff, because several hon. Members have suggested that DEFRA has no one dedicated to this subject. In fact, there are four DEFRA staff working on overseas territories issues, and they include the head of our international biodiversity policy unit. The report suggested that there should be more visits by DEFRA staff to the overseas territories. I am sure that there would be no shortage of volunteers to undertake those visits to see the wonderful specimens of wildlife that we have there, but I question the value of spending money on air fares when we could be spending money on projects that will deliver and will enhance the biodiversity of these areas. Also, not carrying out physical visits to these areas does not mean that they are not in regular contact with their counterparts in the territories. They certainly are. For instance, earlier this week we were speaking to officials from Tristan da Cunha about the islands’ biosecurity needs and the exciting news that a new bird species may have been identified on one of the islands. I am told that it is a prion and similar to a kiwi. We await peer review of that new discovery.
We also organise workshops and training for the territories. For example, in March, officials organised a practical workshop on how to implement the convention on international trade in endangered species. It brought territory officials together with representatives from DEFRA, the Animal Health and Veterinary Laboratories Agency, the JNCC, Kew gardens, Border Force and the Government Legal Service. We also offer access to expertise and a range of services, including a plant pest identification service provided through the Food and Environment Research Agency which helps to protect both biodiversity and agriculture in the territories. That service has helped the territories to put in place measures to combat invasive invertebrate pests, and has to date identified 16 species new to science.
There is also, of course, regular discussion at ministerial level. We have the Joint Ministerial Council, which brings together UK Ministers and territory leaders and representatives and is organised collaboratively. The Environmental Audit Committee recommended that we should prioritise greater involvement of the territories in setting the agenda for those meetings, but I assure hon. Members that we already do that. We already have regular meetings with the UK-based representatives of the territory Governments in the run-up to Joint Ministerial Council meetings and, following discussions with them, we held Minister-led plenary sessions on the environment in 2012 and on renewable energy in 2013. Responding to specific territory requests, we also held in 2013 a technical discussion in which territory representatives were able to speak to UK experts on a range of environmental issues.
International agreements were mentioned by a number of speakers. As the Select Committee rightly pointed out, protection of the environments of the territories is relevant to the goals and targets set out in the convention on biological diversity’s strategic plan, which 193 countries around the world, including the UK, have already committed to implementing. As the Committee also pointed out, the convention has so far been extended only to four of the UK’s 14 overseas territories.
The Government recognise that most of the territories are small islands or island groups that face capacity constraints, which may affect their ability to consider or implement treaties. In such circumstances, we do not believe that it would be in the best interests of the territories, the UK or the wider environment to impose on the territories obligations that they are ill equipped to fulfil. We do, however, encourage territory Governments to join in the UK’s instrument of ratification of core multilateral environmental agreements. That includes working with them to ensure that they have the necessary measures in place to fulfil their obligations, providing technical advice and building capacity before extension of ratification takes place. As the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North made clear, the Select Committee recommended that the CBD be extended to other overseas territories. Although we believe that that is a matter for the territories themselves, I am pleased to be able to inform hon. Members today that my officials are currently working with a further three territories on just such an extension of the CBD.
Funding is important. The Committee’s own report acknowledged that DEFRA spending on the UK overseas territories has increased since 2007-08, and increased sixfold between 2010-11 and 2012-13. We do that mainly through mechanisms such as Darwin Plus. That cross-Government grant scheme, co-funded by DEFRA, the FCO and the Department for International Development, funds environmental projects in many of the territories. In the past two years, Darwin Plus has committed nearly £3.7 million to 29 projects in the territories. Returning to the issue of international agreements, it is important to note that in many cases the grants that are offered help to deliver and advance the objectives that were set out by the territories in the environmental charters, when those were put together and agreed on in 2001.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way at such short notice. In the Cayman Islands, there is a conservation fund, which comes from a tax levied on people when they leave the islands. That has allowed a pot of money—£40 million—to accumulate, but the authorities are not able to spend it, because there are not governance arrangements in effect. Does the Minister think it wise to be spending UK taxpayers’ money overseas when they already have their own resources but they do not have the governance measures to allow them to spend it?
I was going to come on to the issue of the Cayman Islands. I am not familiar with the particular point that my hon. Friend has raised, but, consistent with the charters, I am able to say that, with UK Government support, the Cayman Islands’ long-awaited National Conservation Bill was passed on 13 December 2013. The law will, for the first time, give legal protection to Cayman’s unique and diverse land and marine-based natural resources. Although this is a delegated area of responsibility, the UK Government provided political support for the passing of the law, including through visits by the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Boston and Skegness.
My hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith) spoke about marine protected areas. The Government have been enthusiastic supporters of MPAs, having established the largest no-take MPA in the world in the British Indian Ocean Territory in 2010. We have also established a 1 million sq km sustainable use MPA around South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, 20,000 sq km of which is a no-take zone. I am sure that the House will be pleased to hear that in 2009 the UK provided the science that underpinned the declaration of the first Antarctic marine protected area.
I want to mention a couple of other points that were raised. One was about EU funding and LIFE+. I can confirm that the Government worked with NGOs to allow that European fund to be used on these projects, and we continue to work with them on that. An issue relating to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport was raised. On that, one of the obstacles is that, in some of these countries, gambling is illegal. Nevertheless, certain organisations can already claim money.
We are running out of time, but let me say in conclusion that I think we have had a very good debate. I hope that I have managed to persuade hon. Members about our commitment to these issues, and we will be publishing on Monday—
Sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(13)).