House of Commons
Monday 30 June 2014
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
Communities and Local Government
The Secretary of State was asked—
Waste and Inefficiency
With permission, Mr Speaker, I will answer question 1—
Will the Secretary of State commend Central Bedfordshire councillors who, while taking out £60 million of costs, have transformed all 12 libraries, brought back into use a leisure centre and greatly improved it, set up a reablement service and provided extra care housing for the frail elderly. Does that not show what a relentless focus on front-line service and value for money can achieve?
It is some time since I visited Central Bedfordshire council. I hope that I can visit very soon. The work is very impressive and clearly demonstrates how a good council, looking carefully at what it spends, can protect and enhance local services. I look forward to an early visit.
I call the hon. Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell)—[Interruption.] After the initiative of the right hon. Gentleman in bringing about the grouping and then in so graciously recollecting the fact that he had done so, the hon. Member for Romford is sadly not with us.
Yes, the right hon. Gentleman might have been prescient. I am sure the hon. Member for Romford was told by the Department. If he was not, we are sorry. If he was, he should be here and we are sorry that he is not. No doubt further and better information will become available in due course.
Development (Brownfield Land)
The Government are determined to make the best use of brownfield land and meet as much of our housing need as possible on brownfield sites. Earlier this month, the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Secretary of State announced an ambitious package of reforms to accelerate development on brownfield sites and deliver up to 200,000 homes by 2020.
Residential development on brownfield land in town centres is a key way to protect small and medium-sized town centres from the structural change in retailing while alleviating the demand for residential development on countryside land. Will my hon. Friend set out what more can be done to encourage councils, when putting in place their local plans—they are doing that now—to develop more on brownfield sites?
My hon. Friend makes an extremely important argument that one of the ways to revive town centres is to bring more people to live right in the heart of them. That is why we have introduced a permitted development right to make it easier to convert offices into residential property. It is also why, in the recently published planning guidance, we made it clear that councils should be looking to incentivise development on brownfield sites and reflect the cost of developing those sites.
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. She has done a lot of work recently on the interests of the next generation—the growing generation—of people in our country. Housing need is one of those key interests. It is one of the reasons why we brought forward planning reforms, and help to buy is helping people get on the housing ladder.
Cheshire West and Chester strategic housing land availability assessment shows enough brownfield land to cater for west Cheshire’s housing need for the next 30 years, yet the council is proposing to build on green-belt land outside Chester. Will my hon. Friend reassure my constituents that the intention of the Government’s planning reforms is to encourage brownfield development ahead of green-belt development?
Our policies are clear that brownfield development is supported unless the brownfield site in question has a very high environmental value. In order to bring forward proposals for development on green-belt land, councils have to satisfy a high policy test of exceptional circumstances and they also have to go through a process of intensive consultation through a local plan process before they can change green-belt boundaries.
In a recent Civitas pamphlet, Peter Haslehurst from Macclesfield highlighted the importance of brownfield development and the need to learn lessons from other countries, particularly the United States, in taking that forward. What steps are being taken by my hon. Friend’s Department to learn from international case studies to help further accelerate this important work?
We should always be willing to learn from other countries, but we should also not talk down our own achievements. More than two thirds of all new houses are built on brownfield sites, but we can always do more and that is why my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has proposed housing zones, with a package of £400 million, to help put in place local development orders on brownfield land so that development comes through more quickly.
I have referred previously to paragraphs 47 onwards of the national planning policy framework, which mean that sites have to be deliverable and viable to be included in a local plan. Many developers are objecting to brownfield sites being included and want greenfield sites to be substituted instead because of this requirement. As a result of the package to which the Minister has just referred, how many of the sites excluded from local plans by paragraph 47 requirements will now be able to be included by local authorities?
I do not apologise for what I said, but I apologise for referring to the hon. Gentleman.
To answer his question, of course we do not collect a central database of every single brownfield site in the land and how they are affected by very recent policy announcements. It is very clear that local authorities need to do everything they can to make sure that sites are viable by setting section 106 agreements and the community infrastructure levy at an appropriate level. Secondly, there is no way that a developer can argue that a site is not viable for development unless they have clear public evidence to demonstrate why it is financially unviable.
The Minister has made much in the House of accelerating development on brownfield land and the Secretary of State has said a lot about speeding up planning. Why has the development for Spurs, which is currently with the Department with regard to a compulsory purchase order, been with the Department for 14 months? Might we reach a decision shortly and will he confirm that the Secretary of State is not an Arsenal supporter?
I would never dare to tread into the question of people’s football loyalties, particularly not at this time. I understand the right hon. Gentleman’s frustrations, but the matter has not entirely been with the Department as we have had to refer back to parties on some complex questions. I am keen to make a decision as soon as possible, but I know that he will want that decision to hold up in court and it is therefore important to ensure that it is robust.
Surely the planning Minister understands that there has been an increasing trend, particularly in urban areas, to use greenfield sites while land banking brownfield sites, often leaving them derelict in the heart of our towns and city centres. What is he doing to ensure that that land-banked land is brought into active use to provide regeneration benefits for our towns and cities?
There is absolutely no evidence of what the hon. Gentleman has just claimed and in answer to about six questions I have just explained the multiple policies of this Government to bring brownfield land forward for use through guidance, policy, housing zones and new pots of money.
How will the new local development orders on brownfield sites work in practice? For example, will the Minister say how local people will be involved in deciding which sites should be included in development orders and confirm that that will not undermine localism?
I am grateful for the opportunity to confirm that it absolutely will not undermine localism, as local development orders have to go through the same local consultation as any other local planning permission. The fundamental difference with local development orders is that the local council effectively determines up front the broad parameters of development that will be acceptable. Any proposal that meets those broad conditions can then go ahead. It is a bit like a zoning system rather than our traditional system of submitting a particular planning application for every site. It is absolutely something that is driven locally and led by local councils.
The Minister referred to the fact that there was a multiplicity of ideas relating to local government and brownfield sites. Does he really think that people will want to build on a brownfield site if they know that fracking is likely to take place there in the future?
It is not my belief that fracking is likely to take place in the centre of towns and cities, which is where most of these brownfield sites are. There is of course a question about the various uses that might be made of any site, but most of the brownfield land that should come forward for development, particularly housing development, is unlikely also to be used for fracking.
Troubled Families Programme
The troubled families programme is performing strongly, and my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has announced that, two years into the three-year programme, over 97,000 of the 120,000 families who will be helped by the programme are being worked with, and that nearly 40,000 have already been turned around.
Has the Secretary of State had the opportunity to consider the impact of temporary accommodation on the families being looked after by troubled families units? Many of those families live in private rented accommodation. In my part of south London and, I am sure, in other parts of London and the south-east, large numbers of people are being placed in temporary accommodation as a result of eviction, some of which is quite distant from their home borough. Every Friday, I see families going from south-west London to Wembley, Tottenham and other parts of London. As I see them leave, I am troubled about the future for their children.
In preparation for answering the hon. Lady’s question, I asked what concerns she might have about her own authority, Merton, and I was told that she had not had a specific discussion with the authority on this subject. I should like to give her the very good news that Merton, with 337 troubled families, is ranked 120th among the local authorities. It has done an extremely good job and had worked with 86% of those families by the end of March, turning round nearly half of them. Merton has now put itself forward to work closely with the expanded programme, and I think the hon. Lady has reason to be proud of the way in which her local authority has handled this matter.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that it makes sense to target resources on troubled families, who cost the public purse an average of £75,000 a year? Am I right in thinking that the Government are about to commit £200 million more to this programme, so that more troubled families can be helped and so that we can target help and resources on the 400,000 families in the greatest need?
It is probably a good thing that we have kept this reasonably simple. It is about getting people back into work, reducing the amount of antisocial behaviour and getting children back into school. My right hon. Friend is right to suggest that the programme has been a success, and I am also grateful for the support of the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) in this regard. We will expand it, and we hope that it will change the lives of lots of people.
The troubled families programme should be aimed at families who are facing multiple challenges and who have the most complex needs. That is something that we would support. The Secretary of State asserts that the programme is succeeding, but how can he justify that when, even on his own tests, many of the families he claims to have “turned round” are still committing crimes, their children are still missing school and their family members are not working? Indeed, some of the families he claims to have turned round have been nowhere near the programme.
I do not understand the hon. Lady’s hostility. This has been a very successful programme, and we have worked closely with Labour authorities. There is a lagging authority, however. I understand that her experience might be different, in that Newham has identified 985 families and is working with 90% of them, but has turned round only 14% of them, compared with the national average of 33%. Let us be clear: we are not turning these good folks into model citizens—these are very difficult families—but if we can get the children into school for three successive terms, get other family members into work for three months and reduce the amount of antisocial behaviour, it is better for those people and for their neighbours. It is also a lot better than the rather smug attitude being taken by some Opposition Members.
This Government have already delivered 445,000 new homes since 2010. Housing starts on new homes in the past year increased by 31%, the highest increase since 2007, and we have created new dedicated housing zones to support housing development on brownfield sites.
I thank the Minister for that answer and for the progress made to date. To take that forward, is not the key to go further in strengthening local democratic control over both the planning policy and the tax revenue derived from new homes? That would incentivise new builds, while giving communities with high density or lots of green belt or greenfield sites more genuine choice and control over the pace of development.
The key thing for me is that we trust local authorities to devise a five-year plan, to know their community, to know their place, and to have that dialogue with the community. With respect to incentives, every new house will bring money into the local authority to support those communities through the new homes bonus. We recognise that we need to grow small and medium-sized businesses, which is reflected in the fact that the Chancellor announced a £500 million package to support them. That is about jobs and apprenticeships. Those are the incentives that a local community can gain as a consequence of building homes.
Hackney council is one of the two largest builders of council housing in the country, yet week in, week out at my surgeries, I see people in desperate situations, unable to access that council housing or to afford the very high rent levels that we now see in my constituency. Is the Secretary of State getting some serious work done to look at how housing benefit can be recycled to make sure that it provides capital for housing, rather than the ongoing revenue support for those very expensive rents?
First, we have to recognise that the Labour Administration failed to deliver sufficient numbers of council houses. In four years of this Government we have delivered nearly twice as many council houses as they did in 13 years. In addition, an affordable homes programme has delivered 200,000 houses already and in the next three years will deliver another 165,000 houses. Some £300 million has been made available for housing revenue account borrowing to deliver another 10,000 council houses. This Government recognise the role of social housing and are delivering where the previous Government clearly failed.
There are hundreds of acres of surplus land still in public ownership—land that could be providing thousands of homes. May I therefore urge the Minister to redouble his efforts and the efforts of the Government as a whole to unlock the land and, in particular, to forge stronger long-term development partnerships between the public and private sectors so that we can turn these idle assets into family homes?
I recognise the work that my hon. Friend did in delivering that land. As a consequence of his work, we have pledged that we will deliver 100,000 houses. Some 76,000 houses have been delivered on that land and we expect more to be built. A strategic review has taken place to identify some £5 billion worth of land. My hon. Friend is right: this is about encouraging local authorities, with partners, to come forward. I know that the local enterprise partnerships are in conversation about delivering homes and making sure that the transport infrastructure is there to open up housing opportunities. Every Member of the House has an opportunity to build a strong relationship with their authority, to understand housing need and to bring about some of those partnership opportunities that my hon. Friend talks about.
In a recent press release the Minister said that the Government’s affordable house building efforts are a clear success story, but in the same press release the figures show that the number of affordable homes built over the past year is the lowest for five years, and the number of homes built for social rent has fallen to a 20-year low. If that is a success story, what does failure look like?
Failure looks like the collapse of the housing market in 2008, the 250,000 jobs that were lost, the fall from 12,000 to 3,000 in the number of small and medium-sized businesses building houses, and the failure to deliver council houses at the required level. This Government have taken responsibility for delivering affordable and social housing and picking up the failed and collapsed housing market left by Labour.
I will take our record over the Minister’s any day. The Labour Government’s decent homes programme transformed the homes and lives of millions of people across our country. In 2009 we built four times as many homes for social rent as his Government did last year. When it comes to affordable homes, I will take no lectures from him. Labour councils are outbuilding Tory councils by 2:1. Will he now admit that, whether they are in power in Whitehall or in town halls, the Tories simply cannot be trusted to tackle the housing crisis?
The record will show that in four years we have delivered—this is despite the dismal housing market we were left, the fact that people could not get loans from banks and the fact that individuals had lost their jobs as a direct consequence of Labour’s failed housing policy—200,000 affordable homes, twice as many council houses as Labour delivered in 13 years and a clear vision to deliver more houses through Help to Buy, which will deliver 120,000 houses for first-time buyers. Our desire to build housing is clearly on the record and we are delivering.
Social Housing (Rent Arrears)
According to the Homes and Communities Agency, at the end of 2013-14, the average level of rent arrears among larger housing associations was 3.6%, an improvement from 4.1% over the previous quarter.
Bolton at Home tells me that its arrears stand at £1.9 million, even though it has a 97% collection rate and has employed an additional 11 people to increase collection and support tenants in financial difficulty. The Minister’s policies are jeopardising his business model on social housing and the ability to build new houses and improve current stock. Can he honestly say that his policies are working?
Across Stockton borough, arrears for Tristar Homes are up by 25%, to nearly £1.2 million, on the year prior to the introduction of the bedroom tax, and they would be up by 60% if both Tristar Homes and the local authority were not helping with some discretionary aid. Several hundred people, many of them disabled, are in arrears for the first time in their lives, causing unseen misery and even shame. Was it really the Secretary of State’s intention to grind such people into the ground?
It is not the intention of either the Secretary of State or me to grind anyone into the ground. The whole point of applying size criteria to the social sector is to match the criteria that already exist in the private rented sector, and they existed throughout the entire 13-years period that the hon. Gentleman’s party was in government. The policy is about fairness to taxpayers as well as to tenants. For those tenants who have difficulty moving, Stockton council, like all local authorities, has discretionary housing payments in order to help them through the process.
Local Welfare Assistance Schemes
During the consultation for the local government finance settlement, I met a range of local authorities and, indeed, the Local Government Association. More poignantly for this question, the Department for Work and Pensions held numerous discussions when it abolished the poorly targeted crisis loans and community care grants in 2012 and passed funding to councils. It is continuing to discuss local provision with councils in the review that it will publish later this year.
Trafford Assist has been quite successful, but its funding is for only one year and is not ring-fenced, and now the council has revealed a shocking £6 million discrepancy in its adult social care budget. Given the pressure that the council will be under to plug that spending gap, it is likely that Trafford Assist will not be able to continue after the coming year. What can the Government do to ensure that such successful schemes can continue into the future?
The hon. Lady is right; local authorities are running a range of really good schemes. That is why they have been passed to local authorities. What has been highlighted is that many authorities are running good, efficient schemes and spending way below the amount of money originally put forward. That is also why the Department for Work and Pensions is carrying out the review, which it will be reporting on some time this autumn.
We are supporting more than 30 projects to break down barriers, encourage community cohesion and celebrate what we have in common. During this holy month of Ramadan, it is appropriate to single out the Big Iftar 2014, when British mosques and community groups host non-Muslims as they share iftar after sunset. This demonstration of community integration in action has expanded from 30 events last year to well over 100 this year.
I am not aware of any slashing of budgets for community integration groups. I visit projects up and down the country, including in Ealing, where a great many community projects are undertaken, including the teaching of the English language and the Near Neighbours programme—a major £8 million investment, announced by the Secretary of State, the Archbishop of Canterbury and me, that is operating in several boroughs in London.
One such example of community cohesion is in Luton. This coming Sunday, I will be in Luton visiting a Remembering Srebrenica event and a Big Iftar event. That will celebrate the bringing together of people in Luton and I hope to see the hon. Gentleman there.
Council Tax Freeze
Council tax freeze funding has thus far helped cut council tax in real terms by 11% since 2010. Forest of Dean is one of the excellent authorities; it is now in its fourth year of a council tax freeze. The Government have made £5.2 billion available to support councils that freeze and have built the funding into the spending review baseline.
The situation is even better than the Minister set out: all three Conservative-led councils in my area have frozen council tax, in contrast to the Independent police and crime commissioner, who put council tax up without making a real effort at savings. I urge the Minister to continue with the programme because freezing council tax makes a real difference to the budgets of families and helps make ends meet in difficult times. Please will he continue that policy?
My hon. Friend makes a good point. What the Government have been able to do with the council tax freeze has shown a real saving for families across the country in keeping council tax down. That is in the context of the fact that council tax roughly doubled under the Labour Government.
Far from there being a freeze, the Government have hit more than 2 million of the poorest households with large council tax increases. In the light of the recent evidence from Citizens Advice, which shows that council tax arrears have become the biggest debt problem reported to it, will the Minister commit to carrying out a full review of the real impact of the policy before the end of the Parliament?
I am not surprised at the hon. Gentleman’s question. As I said, his party presided over the near doubling of council tax until 2010. I see why it would resist this Government’s work to freeze council tax and help hard-working families. Local authorities could go even further and follow some good councils that have reduced council tax by cracking down on not just fraud and error but uncollected council tax. Uncollected council tax in Liverpool, for example, is costing every council tax paying household there £500 a year.
Will the Minister congratulate Councillor Steven North, leader of East Northamptonshire council, not only on freezing council tax yet again but on achieving a £50 million investment called Rushden Lakes, which is entirely in my constituency and is creating 2,000 jobs?
I am happy to join my hon. Friend in congratulating the councillor. I thank him for giving us the chance to highlight the really good work that councils and councillors can do when they focus on delivering good, efficient, value-for-money front-line services for their residents.
Since 2010 we have invested over £1 billion to tackle homelessness and support vulnerable households affected by welfare reform. Last year, the number of households found to be homeless but not in priority need was less than a third of the 2003 peak of over 67,000.
Last year in Rochdale, the number of households that were homeless but not in priority need increased by 40%. There are now 320 households in this category in Rochdale with little access to assistance. Will the Minister consider reviewing the law on homelessness to ensure that all homeless people get the help they need?
The hon. Gentleman is right. A total of 323 households were found to be homeless but not in priority need—just over a quarter of the peak figure of 1,276 in 2005. That is a disgraceful figure, and I agree that we do not want to be in this position. Over £12 billion-worth of investment through Crisis is helping single homeless people, and in Rochdale this has supported a successful Bond Board scheme that has helped 125 single homeless people. I respect the hon. Gentleman and would like to work with him to try to solve some of those issues in Rochdale. I look forward to receiving a note from him about this.
The number of families with children living in bed-and-breakfast accommodation is at a 10-year high, with all the consequences for the education, health and well-being of the children concerned. Does the Minister think that that is a creditable record on homelessness since the Government came to power in 2010?
Homelessness overall is currently down by 7%; I am not sure where the hon. Gentleman has got his figures from. The number of families in temporary accommodation—bed and breakfast—has dropped by 37% in the past year. That is a direct consequence of this Government’s intervention to make sure that vulnerable families, in particular, are not in the position they were in under his party’s Administration.
We are providing £200,000 to Pub is The Hub and the Plunkett Foundation to help communities and community pubs to diversify and take over their local pubs. We have also doubled small business rate relief until 2015 and cut national insurance. In addition, the Chancellor scrapped the previous Government’s beer and alcohol duty escalator and reduced beer duty in two successive Budgets, for the first time in many decades.
In rural constituencies such as Weaver Vale, pubs are at the heart of community life. Does my hon. Friend therefore welcome the outstanding work done by the Pub is The Hub programme to ensure that our rural pubs can provide more services, and will he ensure that its good work can continue?
My hon. Friend makes a good point. Pub is The Hub is an excellent organisation. I was delighted to be able to put funding into it and to see it help pubs to diversify, whether it is through local libraries being part of the pub, or pubs offering school meals or providing lots of other services for their local community and making themselves the absolute heart of that community. It is a good organisation and long may it prosper.
In 1992, there were four pubs in the village of Gisburn and we are now down to one. Sadly, it closed a few months ago. The Star brewery wants to reopen the pub and more than 20 residents of Gisburn are very keen to see it reopen, but it is a listed building and there seems to be stalling of some sort of by the local authority. Will the Minister encourage local authorities and brewers to work together to look for compromises in order to ensure that local communities have the very heart of the community—their local pub—reopened?
Absolutely. A pub like that can be the absolute heart of the community, providing a range of services. Pub is The Hub and the Plunkett Foundation may be able to help. I am certainly happy to meet my hon. Friend if that would be helpful. I encourage his local authority to look at authorities such as Norfolk, which has just announced a specific local scheme for Norfolk to help local pubs to stay open as a key part of these communities.
Out-of-town Retail Development
We have maintained strong planning policies requiring a town centre-first approach, including the sequential test. This ensures that out-of-town development goes ahead only where there are no suitable sites in an existing town centre.
I thank the Minister for that response, but we are being given some conflicting evidence: research by the Association of Convenience Stores shows unabated expansion. Will the Minister conduct some further independent research into supermarket out-of-town expansion?
My hon. Friend and I debated this subject at some length in Westminster Hall last week. I committed then, and am happy to repeat that commitment now, to look closely at the research produced by that organisation. We do not have any evidence that the policy is not working. It is, of course, worth remembering that out-of-town development can go ahead—this is happening in Rushden Lakes, as mentioned earlier by my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone)—where the impact on town centres will not undermine their vitality or viability.
Private Rented Sector
17. What steps he is taking to give greater certainty of tenure and to improve affordability in the private rented sector. (904520)
We are supporting investment to develop a high-quality, professionally managed private rented sector. Our £1 billion Build to Rent fund is on track to deliver up to 10,000 houses for rent. We are committed to promoting a sustainable private rented sector, which is why this summer we will publish a model tenancy agreement, giving landlords and tenants the choice to agree longer-term fixed tenancies.
The model tenancy agreement will be published shortly. I am grateful for the opportunity to say what we will do, including a document on how to rent and a redress scheme to protect landlords and tenants, in addition to the Consumer Rights Bill, which insists on forcing agents to publish their fees on websites and to put them on display. We also want to make sure that individuals who fail to look after the needs of others face not a maximum fine of £5,000, but a limitless fine. We want to protect the rights of tenants and we are putting in place the opportunities to do so.
I know that the Minister is working on the model tenancy agreement and, in particular, the tenants charter, to set out clearly rights for those in private rented accommodation. Last week I met agents and landlords in my constituency of Rossendale and Darwen who are looking forward to and welcome that change, but will the Minister confirm that it will not include rent controls, which would mean that landlords would be unable to invest in their property?
I know that my hon. Friend takes much interest in this subject and I can confirm that there will be no rent controls. This is about encouraging the growth of the private rented sector, to make sure that we have very high standards, the checks in place to protect tenants and the opportunity to expand the length of a tenancy through a voluntary process. An agreement between a landlord and a tenant is the right way forward.
Does my hon. Friend agree that we need to bear down on malpractice in the private rented sector? The Hackney Gazette reports that a councillor who has set up a charity for the homeless refers them to his own estate agency and then places them in properties that he owns in my constituency. Is that not an abuse of our housing system?
I know the details involved, because my hon. Friend has written to me, and we have forwarded them to the appropriate authorities. The Charity Commission is now examining what my hon. Friend has alleged, and I will not comment any further until after the investigation.
Local Development Frameworks
I welcome the fact that King’s Lynn and West Norfolk council is one of the 55% of local authorities that have an adopted local plan. My hon. Friend and I met last year, and I would be happy to arrange another meeting with him and local council representatives, if he would like that.
I thank my hon. Friend for that very helpful reply. Does he agree that, given the importance of localism and local authority autonomy, councils such as King’s Lynn and West Norfolk, which has plans in place plus a five-year-plus supply of housing, should have a very good chance indeed of not being overridden on appeal when it comes to speculative, opportunistic developments?
Many of my constituents in the market town of Garstang are currently under siege from developers, who are trying to bypass the local core development plan process and using their might to force through planning permission. Other than what the Minister has just said in answer to my hon. Friend the Member for North West Norfolk (Mr Bellingham), what extra steps might he put in place to ensure that local authorities keep control of where they want developments to happen and how they want them to proceed?
My hon. Friend knows that the most important thing is that his local authority produce a plan. We are happy to support the process of getting that plan in place in any way we can. I can meet him and his local authority; I have officials who can help his local authority; and it can also get some help from the Planning Advisory Service. The key is to get that plan in place, and then the local authority will be in charge.
We have provided a £1 billion business rates package for 2014-15, including the £1,000 discount that will benefit smaller shops, pubs and restaurants, of which there are about 280 in Tamworth and 540 in Lichfield. We have also introduced a 50% discount for businesses taking on long-term empty shops, and as I said earlier, we have doubled small business rate relief for another year, helping more than 500,000 businesses.
Order. I am sure that the Minister’s views on Labour party policy would be of great interest and possibly a source of edification, but they are not relevant now, because this is about Ministers’ responsibility for Ministers’ policies and those of the Government. The wry smile of the hon. Member for Tamworth (Christopher Pincher) suggests that he is well aware of that fact.
I wish to make a short statement about the London borough of Tower Hamlets. In April, I instructed inspectors to launch an investigation into the mayoral administration of Tower Hamlets and to report by the end of June, or such later date as I agreed. The investigators, PricewaterhouseCoopers, have informed me that the council has considerably delayed the investigation by delaying the provision of key information or by simply not providing it at all. This is not acceptable. I am consequently extending the period for PwC to report. The costs will be met by the council. Whether the council likes it or not, this investigation will be thorough and comprehensive. I will update the House in due course.
I share the right hon. Gentleman’s concerns about the situation that he has set out.
I invite the Secretary of State to join Opposition Members in condemning companies, such as Wonga, that are sending people fake solicitors’ letters. What is he doing to ensure that no local authority is using debt collection agencies that are doing the same?
I do condemn that; it is an outrageous idea that people should be frightened in this way. I cannot imagine local authorities, which by and large always behave responsibly, doing something similar, but I will certainly make investigations to ensure that it does not happen.
T2. Does the Secretary of State agree with me about the importance of co-ordinated responses? This year in Gloucestershire—including in my constituency—we had significant troubles with flooding and damage to roads, which necessitated responses from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Department for Communities and Local Government and the Department for Transport. May I ask him to make sure that his Department helps to co-ordinate that work to best support local authorities and the people affected by those difficulties? (904544)
I am pleased to report to the House that we were so impressed by what those in Gloucestershire did that we invited them to appear before the co-ordinating committee. There were many fine examples of working with all the various agencies of the state for the betterment of residents.
Last year, the Secretary of State told the “Today” programme that he was going to stop CCTV being used around schools to prevent illegal and dangerous parking. He said:
“No, they can’t use a camera…I think it’s kind of the easy answer…to say ‘it’s all to protect the children’”.
What on earth led the right hon. Gentleman to suggest that protecting the safety of our children was a bad idea?
There seems to be a bit of a delay; that was some time ago. We consulted, we listened to the consultation and where it is not possible to have an enforcement officer present at the school, we have no objection at all to cameras being used. What we have done is to stop councils going out and patrolling the streets with cameras in order to make money, rather than to protect children. I think we have passed the test of protecting children; what we have to do is to ensure that we pass the test of not persecuting the motorist.
As usual, there was a lot of bluster there. The fact is that the Secretary of State wanted to ban the use of cameras outside schools, but was forced to change his mind. He knew it was unworkable because the response to the consultation said:
“Schools…were opposed to a camera ban.”
Schools also said that cameras had a useful deterrent effect, that where they were not used dangerous parking was reported to increase and that parking was a significant safety issue. After two U-turns in a week, when is the Secretary of State going to realise that gimmicks in search of a headline are no substitute for policy that can actually be implemented?
The House always enjoys the right hon. Gentleman’s Lady Bracknell impersonation. He is saying that I am guilty of consulting on this issue, listening to the consultation and implementing what it wanted, but that seems to me to be a fairly reasonable way for a democrat to behave.
T5. Will my hon. Friend join me in condemning the incoming Labour administration of Crawley borough council, which with a complete lack of vision and aspiration has cancelled the town centre regeneration project? Will he say what the Government are doing to help regenerate our high streets and municipal centres? (904547)
My hon. Friend makes a good point. That decision is disappointing. A good town centre shows vitality and is the heartbeat of a community; it is good for the local authority, as well, as there are successful businesses paying business rates, something that local authorities should be keen on. Cheaper car parking to get more footfall is one way of achieving that. The Government have brought in the biggest discounted package in business rates for a generation—the £1 billion package that the Chancellor announced in the autumn statement—as well as town teams and the Portas pilots. Where Labour has not tried to stop them developing, as it has in Crawley, many people can now celebrate having good town centres through the Great British high streets campaign.
T3. May I draw the Secretary of State’s attention to the recent report on child sexual abuse by the all-party group on child protection? That report found that the information-sharing guidelines issued by the Department in 2009 are now out of step with the “Working Together” information from the Department for Education. Given that sharing of information is usually one of the things that has gone wrong when children die or are seriously injured, will he commit to reviewing the guidelines now, in line with the recommendations? (904545)
The hon. Lady makes a very reasonable point. In this area, and also with Troubled Families programme and the better care fund, the ability to share information has bedevilled everything. I know that this issue is a high priority for my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General.
T6. What action can my right hon. Friend take to ensure that local authorities are able to move Travellers who are illegally pitched on to authorised sites in hours or days, and not weeks, as it is taking in south Gloucestershire? (904548)
As the House will know, we have made a number of changes, particularly on enforcement, on stopping duplication and on ensuring that enforcement action can be taken on caravans. Local authorities and the police have a lot of powers, but they have to act promptly. It is certainly my experience that, if action is taken promptly, the law is adequate.
T7. What is the Secretary of State going to do about providing the housing that is needed for people desperate to get on the housing ladder through either buying themselves a house or renting one? Is he aware that the public policy institute of the London School of Economics produced a report recently that said that the current situation was madness and that using 2.5% to 5% of the green belt could solve the housing shortage? (904549)
This Government are still picking up the pieces left by the previous Administration when it comes to housing. Whether it is by building affordable housing—and some 200,000 such houses have been delivered to date; through the new spend of some £23 billion, public and private, to deliver 165,000 houses; by building twice as many council houses as the hon. Gentleman’s Government did in 13 years; or, to pick up his point about brownfield and the green belt, through our £400 million package to promote the building of some 200,000 houses on brownfield land, this Government are responding to the needs of the people of this country.
T8. Stratford-on-Avon district council is about to submit its core strategy to the Planning Inspectorate for approval. Will the Minister confirm that, after submission but before adoption, the strategy will be given weight in planning decisions and provide protection for my constituents, while delivering much-needed housing? (904550)
I congratulate Stratford-on-Avon district council on reaching that important point and thank my hon. Friend for everything that he has done to help it get there. We recently clarified in guidance, not least as a result of his interventions and advice, that once a plan has been submitted to the inspectorate for examination, it can carry material weight in any decision about planning applications, even before it has formally been found to be sound.
T9. Story Homes has applied for planning permission to build 151 houses on a greenfield site outside the boundary of Lanchester village in my constituency. It is attempting to use the gap before the County Durham plan is approved to force the application through. The Minister kindly agreed to meet a Government Member and his local authority on this very issue. Will he extend the same courtesy to me? (904552)
Businesses on Worcester’s High street were outraged when, shortly after the floods, Labour hiked the parking charges, harming local businesses. Will the Secretary of State join me in congratulating the new Conservative administration on Worcester city council on reversing those hikes as soon as it took power?
Can the little Liberal answer the questions that were asked by my hon. Friends the Members for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma) and for Luton North (Kelvin Hopkins), which he failed to do earlier? While he is running around the country trying to reinforce integration, there are people in charge of free schools—Christian and Muslim fundamentalists—who are trying to push their communities in the opposite direction. While I am at it, can I welcome him to the Dispatch Box? It just goes to show where unmitigated grovelling can get people.
It is right that an investigation takes place into what happened in Birmingham. However, whatever the governing structures and whatever the ethos of the school, some of the things that were said there were fundamentally wrong. Surely everyone in the House would agree with that.
Not only has Labour-run Northumberland county council not frozen its council tax; it has cancelled its monthly full council meetings on the premise of saving money. We know that it is to avoid protest about the teenage transport tax and the lack of a local plan. Does the Secretary of State agree that democracy, debate and scrutiny are key pillars of a council that should not be scrapped?
May I clarify what I said? It is not appropriate for a landlord to remove somebody just because they are on housing benefit, but an individual can make a commercial choice about who they want to live in their accommodation. It seems that the Labour party, in its forthcoming manifesto, will prescribe who can live in an individual’s house. A private investor who has purchased a house should have the opportunity to choose who lives in that house.
At 2 o’clock this afternoon, Essex county council issued a statement saying that its audit committee will take no further action against Lord Hanningfield, the council’s former leader who spent £450,000 using the council’s credit card. Does the Secretary of State agree that there should be an independent inquiry into who knew what and when?
The planning Minister is well aware of the problems in North East Lincolnshire council with delays in producing a local plan, and last week it lost yet another appeal, imposing unwanted development on the village of Humberston. Will the Minister meet me and representatives from the council to see what can be done to overcome my constituents’ concerns?
Of course I would be delighted to meet my hon. Friend again. He is right to say that North East Lincolnshire council is in the process of failing its local residents again and again in producing a plan, unlike North Lincolnshire, which has done so in very good time.
One stated objective of the Homes and Communities Agency’s programme for the allocation of economic assets is to
“align the assets with local economic ambitions and thereby to create more effective local economic development strategies”.
However, for Hythe marine park in New Forest East, the HCA seems minded to appoint a preferred bidder on the basis of just a moderately higher bid, without regard to those other important elements. Will the Minister comment on the need for the HCA to follow its own guidelines when appointing preferred bidders for something that will have such a major impact throughout the constituency?
I have had the opportunity to visit HCA departments around the country, and there is some tremendous work delivering the houses that are needed. I take the point that my hon. Friend has raised. I will see the chief executive of the HCA this afternoon, so I will take a note with me.
The people of Micklethwaite in my constituency are grateful to the Secretary of State for twice rejecting an inappropriate planning development there. Unfortunately, the Labour council has now approved a very similar development, with grave concerns from local residents about the planning process, and what appeared to be a whipped vote. Will the Secretary of State look into that to see whether he can intervene, and whether any rules can be brought in to stop repeat applications for the same site?
Mr Speaker, I know my place; regrettably, you appear to know it too.
Will the Secretary of State rule out levying business rates on farmland—as some have suggested—because that will hit farmers and will also hike the price of food for hard-working families?
With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on last week’s European Council.
Before turning to the appointment of the next Commission President, let me briefly report back on two other points. First, the Council began in Ypres with a moving ceremony at the Menin Gate to mark the 100th anniversary of the gunshots in Sarajevo that led to the first world war. It is right that we should take special steps to commemorate the centenary of this conflict and remember the extraordinary sacrifice of a generation who gave their lives for our freedom.
The Government are determined to ensure that Britain has fitting national commemorations, including the re-opening of the newly refurbished Imperial War museum next month. Secondly, the Council signed association agreements with Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. These reflect our commitment to supporting those countries as they undertake difficult reforms that will strengthen their economies, bolster their democracies and improve the stability of the whole continent.
President Poroshenko joined the Council to discuss the immediate situation in Ukraine. The Council welcomed his peace plan and the extension of the ceasefire until this evening. The onus is now on Russia to respond positively by pressing the separatists to respect a genuine ceasefire, release hostages and return occupied border posts to the Ukrainian authorities. The Council agreed that, if we do not see concrete progress very soon, we remain willing to impose further sanctions on Russia. That would not necessarily require a further meeting of the Council, but the Council will return to the issue at its next meeting, which has now been arranged for 16 July.
Turning to the appointment of the next Commission President, I firmly believe that it should be for the European Council—the elected Heads of national Governments—to propose the President of the European Commission. It should not be for the European Parliament to try and dictate that choice to the Council. That is a point of principle on which I was not prepared to budge. In taking that position, I welcomed the support of the Leader of the Opposition as well as that of the Deputy Prime Minister in opposing the imposition of Jean-Claude Juncker on the Council. I believe that the Council could have found a candidate who commanded the support of every member state. That has been the practice on every previous occasion, and I think it was a mistake to abandon that approach this time.
Of course, there is a reason why no veto is available when it comes to the decision—the reason is that the previous Government signed the Nice treaty, which gave up our veto over the nomination of the Commission President, as well as the Lisbon treaty, which gave the Parliament stronger rights to elect the Commission President. Therefore, once it was clear that the Council was determined to proceed, I insisted that it took a formal vote, which does not usually happen. Facing the prospect of being outvoted, some might have swallowed their misgivings and gone with the flow, but I believed it was important to push the principle and our deep misgivings about this issue right to the end. If the European Council was going to let the European Parliament choose the next President of the Commission in that way, I at least wanted to put Britain’s opposition to the decision firmly on the record.
I believe that it was a bad day for Europe because the decision of the Council risks undermining the position of national Governments, and it risks undermining the power of national Parliaments by handing further power to the European Parliament. Although the nomination has been decided and must be accepted, it is important that the Council at least agreed to review and reconsider how to handle the next appointment of a Commission President. That is set out in the Council conclusions.
Turning to the future, we must work with the new Commission President, as we always do, to secure our national interest. I spoke to him last night and he repeated—[Interruption.]
Thank you, Mr Speaker.
The new Commission President repeated his commitment in his manifesto to address British concerns about the EU. The whole process only underlines my conviction that Europe needs to change. Some progress—some modest progress—was made in arguing for reform at this Council. The Council conclusions make it absolutely clear that the focus of the Commission’s mandate for the next five years must be on building stronger economies and creating jobs, exactly as agreed with the leaders of Sweden, Germany and the Netherlands at the Harpsund summit earlier this month.
The Council underlined the need to address concerns about immigration arising from misuse of, or fraudulent claims on, the right of freedom of movement. We agreed that national Parliaments must have a stronger role, and that the EU should act only where it makes a real difference. We broke new ground, with the Council conclusions stating explicitly that ever closer union must allow for different paths of integration for different countries and, crucially, respect the wishes of those such as Britain that do not want further integration. For the first time, all my fellow 27 Heads of Government have agreed explicitly, in the Council conclusions, that they need to address Britain’s concerns about the European Union. That has not been said before. Therefore, although Europe has taken a big step backwards in respect of the nomination of the Commission President, we did secure some small steps forward for Britain in its relationship with the EU.
Last week’s outcome will make renegotiation of Britain’s relationship with the European Union harder, and it certainly makes the stakes higher. There will always be huge challenges in the long campaign to reform the European Union, but with determination, I believe we can deliver. We cut the EU Budget. We got Britain out of the bail-out schemes. We have achieved a fundamental reform of the disastrous common fisheries policy and made a start on cutting EU red tape. We are making real progress on the single market, and on the free trade deals that are vital for new growth and jobs in Britain.
My colleagues on the European Council know that Britain wants and needs reform, and they know that Britain sticks to its position. In the European elections people cried out for change across the continent. They are intensely frustrated and they deserve a voice. Britain will be the voice of those people. We will always stand up for our principles, we will always defend our national interest and we will fight with all we have to reform the EU over the next few years. At the end of 2017, it will not be me, this Parliament or Brussels that decides Britain’s future in the European Union. It will be the British people. I commend this statement to the House.
I start by joining the Prime Minister in remembering all those who lost their lives in the first world war, and it is right that we will mark their sacrifice and those events throughout this year.
I also welcome the association agreements with Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine, and I endorse the Prime Minister’s sentiments about the situation in Ukraine and the responsibilities of the Russian Government. The truth is that the Prime Minister returned to Britain on Friday having failed—not some small, mild failure, but an appalling failure of relationship building, winning support and delivering for Britain. I know it is inconvenient to remind him, but he lost by 26 votes to two. Now he comes to the Chamber and seems to claim that failure as a complete vindication of his tactics. His party may think it represents splendid isolation, but it is utter humiliation.
The Prime Minister said that with a mandate from all major parties, including Labour, he could build an alliance to stop Mr Juncker. So why did he fail? He started with a divided Europe over the Juncker candidacy, and he ended with a united Europe—against him. He did not say in his statement, so how does he think he pulled off that remarkable achievement?
At the start of the process, the German Chancellor said,
of the next European Commission—
“can be handled by him”—
“but also by many others. At the end, there will be a fairly broad tableau of names on the table.”
How did we end up with only one name? How did she and 25 others end up supporting Mr Juncker? Is not the answer that the Prime Minister’s combination of threats, insults and disengagement turned out to be a master class in how to alienate your allies and lose the argument for Britain? That includes his threat to leave the European Union if Mr Juncker was chosen.
We all remember that he went rowing in a boat with Chancellor Merkel and other centre-right leaders on a Swedish lake in order to win support. But afterwards she said:
“Threats are not part and parcel of the”—
“spirit. This is not part of the way in which we usually proceed”.
We know who she was talking about—the Prime Minister.
What happened to the Prime Minister’s great allies in Europe? He wrote in the Daily Telegraph this morning that
“it has been suggested we now lack allies.”
All he needed to do to block Mr Juncker was persuade those people in the boat, but everyone in the boat voted against him. The Swedish Prime Minister voted against him. The Dutch Prime Minister voted against him. The German Chancellor voted against him.
Now, the Prime Minister wants to imply that all of this shows that every other European leader is just deeply unprincipled. Indeed, the Health Secretary went as far as to say it showed everyone else was a “coward”. Is that how the Prime Minister would describe his fellow European leaders? Is not a more plausible explanation that the problem for the anti-Juncker cause was that it had a toxic supporter—the Prime Minister? And is not the reality that he could not attract any allies because the rest of Europe simply lost patience as a result of his actions not just in the last few weeks, but in the last few years? It comes down to this: when he comes calling, they believe he is doing so to help solve the problems of the Conservative party, not those of the European Union.
Let us take the Polish Foreign Minister, who is an Anglophile. This is what he said about the Prime Minister:
“"He is not interested, he does not get it...his whole strategy of feeding”
his Back Benchers
“scraps in order to satisfy them is…turning against him…he ceded the field to those that are now embarrassing him”.
Perhaps the Prime Minister will now tell us whether he agrees with the assessment of the Polish Foreign Minister—and who can blame him for thinking in that way, because every time this Prime Minister has had a major decision to make, he has put party interest before national interest. He walked out of the European People’s party nine years ago, and earlier this month threw in his hand with the German equivalent of UKIP. Perhaps he can tell us how that went down with Chancellor Merkel? Was not his decision on the EPP a parable of his failure to lead for Britain—short-term party management at huge long-term loss to Britain’s national interest?
Three years ago, the Prime Minister walked out of a European Council announcing that he had vetoed a treaty, but it went ahead anyway and he just looked absurd. Now, he wants to negotiate a new treaty when he cannot say what he wants in it. All the time, this is driven by a party whose centre of gravity is drifting towards exit. Does he not accept that, with Mr Juncker, the strategy of threatening exit was put to the test and failed? [Interruption.] I know Government Members do not want to hear about his failure, but they are going to hear it.
Does the Prime Minister not agree that the great irony—the thing that makes this even worse—is that he claims to be a great supporter of Britain’s membership of the European Union? We agree that we should be in the European Union. Does he not agree that his problem is the gap between what people behind him are demanding and what sensible European reform amounts to? Europe is not unreformable; it is just that the Prime Minister cannot do it. [Interruption.]
The Prime Minister could not get four countries to support him over Mr Juncker, and if he cannot get four countries to block the appointment of a President, how on earth is he going to get 27 countries to support a new treaty? This weekend has shown conclusively to everyone but this Prime Minister that his renegotiation strategy is in tatters. We know where it would end: he would be caught in the gulf between his Back Benchers who want to leave and what he can negotiate. The Prime Minister failed over Mr Juncker. He was outwitted—[Interruption.]
We have heard yet another performance worthy of Neil Kinnock—endless words, endless wind, endless rhetoric, but no questions, no grit and no ability to stand up for Britain. I have to say that I will not take lectures on negotiation from the people who gave away the veto, gave away the rebate and who backed down on the budget every year and even signed us up to euro bail-outs. We will not take any lectures from them. The fact is that we did not have a veto in this situation because the Opposition signed the Lisbon treaty and they signed the Nice treaty. That was always opposed by Conservative Members.
The right hon. Gentleman talks about the ability to bring allies together. Where were his allies in the socialist party? They were at a meeting in Paris. All the key socialist leaders were there. They all decided to support Jean-Claude Juncker. Where was the Leader of the Opposition? He was not even invited. That is how much influence he has.
Not once did the right hon. Gentleman actually say that he did not support Jean-Claude Juncker either. To support the Government over opposing this principle and opposing this individual, only to criticise and complain, is typical of the right hon. Gentleman’s approach: weak, opportunistic and wrong.
May I express to our Prime Minister my admiration for his determined opposition to the election to the presidency of the European Union of a man who is wedded to the idea of closer political and economic union, and to the freedom of movement of peoples, which would siphon huge numbers of further immigrants into this country? May I also deplore the provocative decision of the European Union to move its economic frontier to within 300 miles of Moscow, which will certainly be regarded by Russia as a strategic threat to which it will respond?
I completely agree with my right hon. Friend about the importance of recognising that freedom of movement is not an unqualified right. It is very important for it to be properly qualified, particularly in respect of benefit abuse. However, I am afraid that I do not agree with the other point made by the Father of the House. I think that the eastern partnerships that the EU has entered into can help to embed market economics and democracies in those countries. I think it important to stress in respect of, for instance, Ukraine or Moldova that this is not about asking countries which orbit they want to fit into, and whether they want to choose between a good relationship with Russia and a good relationship with the EU. They should be able to have good relationships with both.
I always prefer it when we succeed in, for instance, cutting the EU budget or reinforcing the need for deregulation, but what matters—and the right hon. Gentleman, as a former Europe Minister, should know this—is that there are times when it is important to stand up for a principle and not to give in, no matter what the pressure may be. It does not matter how many countries were ranged against me. I think that Jean-Claude Juncker was the wrong candidate, I think that it was the wrong principle, and there are times when you should stick to your guns.
Does the Prime Minister agree that the conclusions of the European Council were both unprecedented and very helpful? Instead of simply referring to a two-speed Europe, which implies that we all end up at the same destination, the Council stated—for the first time, as far as I am aware—that we must allow
“those that want to deepen integration”
to do so, but we must also respect
“the wish of those who do not want to deepen any further.”
Does that not represent real progress with regard to one of the main objectives of the United Kingdom?
I agree with my right hon. and learned Friend. There is no doubt that seeking changes in the concept of ever closer union is one of the toughest things that we are asking for in our renegotiation. This is the first time that European Council conclusions have ever included anything like this:
“In this context, the European Council noted that the concept of ever closer union allows for different paths of integration for different countries, allowing those that want to deepen integration to move ahead, while respecting the wish of those who do not want to deepen any further.”
The Council also concluded:
“The UK raised some concerns related to the future development of the EU. These concerns will need to be addressed.”
Those words have not previously appeared in European Council conclusions.
I welcome the Prime Minister’s further support for enlargement of the EU, with the announcement that Albania has become the sixth candidate country to join. Does he agree it is important that we work with these countries now on the huge challenges facing them, rather than wait until the last minute, just before they become full members?
I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that the enlargement process has been successful in driving the development and improving the democracy and governance of many of these countries. I further agree with him about engaging with them now, because a country like Albania has huge challenges in terms of tackling corruption, embedding its democracy and developing its economy. In that context it is very important that when new countries get to join—Albania is a long way from that process—there will have to be a totally new approach to transitional controls.
Do not the antecedents of this problem go back to the fateful decision of the Prime Minister when he was running for his party leadership to approve the withdrawal of the British Conservatives from the European People’s party? Mr Juncker was the candidate of the EPP. Had the Prime Minister’s party been a member of it, it could have had influence in private, instead of impotence in public. That would have been good for the Prime Minister, good for his party, good for the Government and, my goodness, far better for Britain.
I have great respect for the right hon. Gentleman and it is good to see him in his place today, but I think he is profoundly wrong about this. Let me give two examples of why I think that. The Liberal Democrats are members of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe, yet he was not able to stop the leading candidate process in that group; and the Labour party is a leading member of the Socialist Group, yet it was completely incapable of stopping the leading candidate process in that group. There were members of the EPP who did not approve of this but still could not stop it, so the idea that we would have been able to stop it within the EPP is complete nonsense.
Twenty-six to two is not just the score for the Prime Minister’s—very successful—negotiations to stop the Commission President; it is also the score for the countries that are either in the euro or under treaty obligation to be in the euro. There are only two countries that have got an opt-out, and we are one. If the Prime Minister wants to stand up for Britain’s interests, will he update the House on just what negotiations he has had to ensure that our interests are reflected as the eurozone requires deeper political integration?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right. What we need to secure is a European Union where the eurozone members who need to integrate further can integrate further, but the members of the single market, particularly those like Britain that do not want to join the euro, can stay out of that integration and, indeed, in some cases, powers can be returned to member states. I explained that in these detailed negotiations at the European Council we made some progress on ever closer union and on setting out specific concerns that Britain had, but we have got a long way to go—and, frankly, as I said on Friday, the job has got harder. However, I think there are many in Europe who understand that we need a totally different approach for the eurozone members than for the non-eurozone members.
I commend my right hon. Friend for the stand he took on the overriding Bloomberg speech principle, which was that national Parliaments are the root of our democracy, for which, as we have commemorated recently, people have over the past 100 years fought and died—not only to save this country, but to save Europe as well. Does my right hon. Friend recall that the European Commission, which is now headed by Mr Juncker, recently asserted through Mr Barroso that the European Parliament is the only effective Parliament for the European Union? Does my right hon. Friend therefore agree with me that we must assert our national Parliament—it must prevail—and that he was completely right to do what he did this weekend?
My hon. Friend makes an important point, which is that there are those in Europe—frankly, there are too many of them—who say that the only democratic legitimacy in Europe is the European Parliament, and that somehow the Parliament is the essence of democracy whereas the European Council is an organisation that meets in a darkened room. That is completely wrong. The European Council consists of Prime Ministers and Presidents, who have a much greater democratic mandate than the European Parliament. One of the points that needs to be thought about for the future is that if there is another election like this, we could have a candidate for the Commission presidency who was deeply against the interests of other member states—perhaps a candidate who wanted to kick Greece out of the euro or who did not believe the Baltic states belonged in the European Union. That is why the principle at stake is so important.
The most significant thing that happened is that all these countries, in one way or another, signed up to the Spitzenkandidat—the leading candidate—process. The European political families, starting with the socialists, decided to appoint a candidate they wanted for the Commission; the EPP and the liberals followed suit; and leader after leader found themselves strapped to a conveyor belt of their own making which they could not get off—that is what happened. We did not do that, which is why we rightly opposed this to the end.
But may I encourage the Prime Minister to return to the issue of reform, because long after the indignation is spent, reform will be fundamental to the future of the European Union and our relationship with it? Notwithstanding his disappointment, the Prime Minister has been very pragmatic in the past two or three days, particularly with his telephone call of congratulation to Mr Juncker. Much can be done to reform Europe without treaty change, so is it not time for the rigorous application of the principles of subsidiarity and proportionality, which do not need treaty change, only political will?
I agree with a lot of what my right hon. and learned Friend has said. There are changes that can be made in Europe without treaty change, but my view is that to secure the sort of renegotiation that Britain needs, we should be accompanying some of the treaty changes that the eurozone, in time, will need with treaty changes that will also suit Britain, in the way that the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart) pointed out—as a country that wants to be in the single market but does not want to join the euro.
It advances Britain’s interests if people know that a British Prime Minister and a British Government will set out a principle and stick to it. The problem all too often under the Labour Government was that they did not stick to their principle. That is why they gave away part of our rebate, they caved in on the budget year after year, and they signed up to eurozone bail-outs. If they had stuck to their principles, they might have been more respected.
Much has been made of so-called divisions inside the Conservative party over this issue, but does the Prime Minister agree that the opposite is true? As a one-nation Tory who believes in our membership of the European Union, I was proud of the way he stood up for British interests last week. Does he agree that the Socialist Group’s candidate for the job— and, by implication, the Labour party’s—a Mr Martin Schulz, makes Mr Juncker look like an arch Eurosceptic?
I do not have a candidate for the job, because as a political party leader I think it is wrong to elect the head of the Commission in this way—that is the whole problem. I have to say that the position Labour would have been in if Martin Schulz had ended up as the Commission President would have been even more embarrassing for you.
Well, that is not the outcome that I seek; I want to secure a reformed European Union, and I want Britain to be part of that reformed European Union. I have to say that the problem with the hon. Gentleman’s position is that the Opposition do not seem to see anything wrong with the status quo. It is only those on this side of the House and in my party who know that we need serious change in Europe before we hold that referendum.
I congratulate the Prime Minister on—[Interruption.] It is now time for all sensible political leaders to argue for the UK. We are not in the euro and we do not want to join the political union. Only with strong leadership can we have a relationship that makes sense for Britain.
May I associate myself fully with what the Prime Minister said about the fallen of the first world war? I am proud to say that I will be present in mid-August for the unveiling of the memorial to the Welsh fallen.
If and when the Prime Minister needs the assistance of other states on important issues to come, does he think that his behaviour last week has made his job easier or more difficult?
Let me echo what the right hon. Gentleman said about the first world war memorial. When one stands under the Menin Gate in Ypres, it is very striking to note just how many Welshmen fell in that conflict. I was able to see the name of my great-great uncle who fought bravely for the Canadian Scottish Battalion in 1915 and fell.
As for how Britain approached this issue, I think everyone will be able to see that we were making a serious argument of principle about the wrong decision and the wrong path that Europe is taking by having leading candidates appointed by political parties and then foisted on to the European Union as Commission Presidents. We now know who will be the Commission President for the next five years. Let us think forward: if we continue with this process, we might have as the leading candidate of one of the leading parties someone who has views that are completely antipathetic to one or more member states. That is a very dangerous principle. The democratic legitimacy in Europe should flow through the European Council, which is where the elected Heads of Government and heads of state sit.
Since his principled stand at the weekend, is the Prime Minister aware that there is quite clearly support from our European partners for a large element of reform? Will he now commit himself to the painstaking and difficult work of building the alliances necessary to help us get those reforms so that he can deliver what he promised to the country?
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his remarks. That is exactly what I will do. There are countries and leaders in Europe who are clear about the need for reform. They want to see greater flexibility and competitiveness. They are willing to look at the British agenda of completing the single market, signing trade deals, having a flexible European Union, not forcing everyone into the single currency, and imposing safeguards for the single market. Even difficult issues such as ensuring that freedom of movement is a qualified right and addressing benefit tourism are things that leaders on both the right and the left in Europe are willing to change, and that is what we need to build on.
The Prime Minister said in his article this morning and in his statement today that it does not matter if he is isolated as long as he is in the correct position. The difference is that in the negotiation on which he is now embarking, he needs the support not of one other member state but of all other member states. How does he intend to move from a position of not so splendid isolation to securing the support that he says he wants? If he cannot secure it, he will end up recommending withdrawal, which is precisely the outcome he says he does not want.
The right hon. Gentleman makes an important point. Britain will build alliances with the leaders and countries that want to see change in Europe. For instance, the Swedish Prime Minister said yesterday that the UK
“has friends in the EU…Just look into what we have written in our conclusions.”
The Danish Prime Minister said that the EU
“should not occupy itself with some of the things that member states can handle better themselves.”
The Finnish Prime Minister said that
“for a country like Finland, British membership is very important.”
The fact is that when it comes to this renegotiation, there are many countries in the EU that want to keep Britain in and recognise that real change will have to come.
Well, I have set out my approach, which is always to follow the national interest. It is in the national interest to renegotiate our position in Europe to secure the changes that I have set out. I do not start a negotiation believing that we will not achieve those things; I set out wanting to achieve them and to come back to this country, but I will always do what is in the national interest.
I, too, congratulate my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister on his sterling leadership this weekend, which stands in stark contrast to the behaviour of the sell-out merchants on the Opposition Benches over the past two decades. May I encourage my right hon. Friend to continue to stand up for British interests, which are best served not by ever closer union but by returning real powers to this sovereign Parliament?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his support. During what will be, as I have described it, a long and difficult campaign to reform the European Union and our membership of it, it is important to recognise that people need to see clearly that when Britain stands for a principle, it sticks to it.
If the Prime Minister wants to strengthen Britain’s hand in any future renegotiation, it is important that he should be able to say that he represents the national consensus and that he has consulted other parties, business and the CBI, as well as the TUC, to set out clearly what changes he is after. What plans does he have to play this in the national interest rather than from a party political standpoint?
First, on this specific issue there were detailed cross-party discussions to ensure that we all did everything we could to try to stop the conveyor belt of the leading candidates. We should build on that. I set out a very clear agenda in the Bloomberg speech, including deep engagement with business. The British Chambers of Commerce and the Institute of Directors supported what I did at the weekend, and we will go on talking to British businesses to ensure that we deliver what they also think is right, which is reform of the European Union.
Given that my right hon. Friend’s position had the support of the Labour party and the Liberal Democrats as well as of the Conservatives, was he not right to ignore the advice of those who urged him to turn tail as soon as some of our allies turned coat? He was right to stand his ground, and by so doing he has made it more likely that we will win real reform in future. I congratulate him above all on stating the British position with such conviction. As Mrs Thatcher said, the half-hearted always lose; those with conviction ultimately win.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for what he has said. This is always important, because in the European Council there is always a temptation simply to go with the flow, to sign up to whatever is being proposed and to try to seek some sort of bauble or extra bit of leverage on the way. Indeed, I suspect that that is what happened in a number of cases. I was very clear that this was an important principle, that I thought Europe was taking a wrong turn, and that I was not going to turn away and do anything but oppose it.
Does the Prime Minister not agree that any real attempts to get radical reform of the European Union will come up against a brick wall made up of people who lead Europe and who, whatever they say publicly, want ever closer union and a federal structure? Is that not the real issue? What the British people want has to be decided by a referendum as soon as possible.
The hon. Lady is absolutely right that a referendum is required, because people have to see that Britain is absolutely serious about requiring reform in the EU. I totally agree with the premise of her question, which is that there have been and to some extent still are people who sit around the table and say endlessly that the euro is the currency of the European Union, forgetting that there are countries such as Britain with a permanent opt-out from the euro. We must get away from that thinking and from the idea of ever closer union and move towards the idea that this is not just about going at different speeds in the same direction, but that for some countries, Britain included, it is about going at different speeds in a slightly different direction. We are not going to join the euro, we are not going to join the Schengen no-borders agreement, and real flexibility needs to be hard-wired into the European Union if Britain is going to stay.