House of Commons
Tuesday 3 March 2015
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
Foreign and Commonwealth Office
The Secretary of State was asked—
1. What criteria the Government will use to determine the right time for the UK to recognise Palestine as a state. 
We want to see the establishment of a sovereign and independent Palestinian state, living in peace and security alongside Israel. We have been clear that the UK will recognise a Palestinian state bilaterally at a time when we judge it best to help bring about peace.
I thank the Minister for his answer, but does he not see that constantly saying that the UK recognition of the state of Palestine should be conditional on negotiations between Israel and Palestine in effect gives Mr Netanyahu or his successor a veto over the UK’s sovereign decision to recognise Palestine, especially as that Prime Minister is making a very divisive speech in Washington today? How can this be right?
Although I understand the hon. Lady’s passion—we have debated this matter in the House on a number of occasions—I hope she appreciates that such recognition is not simply a tick-box exercise but a strategic tool, which will have consequences when implemented, and which is therefore best used at a time when it will advance the process and leverage positive change.
The previous Foreign Secretary said that we were in the last chance saloon for the two-state solution. If the Government wait long enough, there will be no opportunity for a two-state solution and the question will then be completely irrelevant.
I am sad to say that I agree with my hon. Friend, as many of the ingredients that we witnessed in the build-up to last summer’s conflict are beginning to re-emerge. If we are to avoid another significant and punishing conflict, all parties must come together immediately after the Israeli elections are complete and a new Government are formed, to address these grave challenges.
There is no legalistic or bureaucratic route to Palestinian statehood and it cannot be imposed from outside. We will see a viable Palestinian state—the two-state solution that we all want—only as a result of proper negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians, which Britain should be doing everything it can to foster. We need to see the demilitarisation of Gaza, Iran no longer sending rockets to Hezbollah and Hamas, and Britain promoting organisations such as Project Cherish, the Parents Circle-Families Forum and Middle East Education Through Technology to bring together people on both sides who want peace.
I am not sure that was a question, but I certainly agree with the spirit of the hon. Gentleman’s comments. We want the Palestinian Authority to assert itself in Gaza, not just have a technocratic Government. We want the Palestinians to end the political stalemate with Hamas, as he implies, but we also want Israel to allow the free movement of people, particularly the politicians, into Gaza, and to increase trade between Gaza and the west bank.
The Minister is right—we have debated the subject a number of times. The House also voted by an overwhelming margin in favour of recognising a Palestinian state. Under what circumstances does he consider that the timing of such an announcement should be at odds with the sovereign will of the House?
As I said in my initial reply, this is not just a tick-box exercise. It is not something that we debate in Parliament and then move on to the next subject. There are real consequences of when we choose to recognise the Palestinian state. We want to be part of that process and to advance it. When we can leverage positive change, we will do so.
2. What recent discussions he has had with his counterparts in North Africa on the political and security situation in Libya. 
The political and security situation in Libya remains a concern. We call on all parties to agree to a ceasefire, to engage with the UN dialogue process to find a lasting solution, and to unite to defeat the Islamist extremism which is establishing a foothold in that country. I speak regularly to my Egyptian counterpart. I visited Algeria on 19 and 20 February for discussions which were dominated by the situation in Libya.
I welcome the Egyptian Government’s response to the terrible murder of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians in Libya and especially the bridge building shown by President Sisi and religious leaders to the Coptic community. What more can the UK do to support Egypt in its vital role in working for stability in Libya?
My hon. Friend is right that Egypt will play a vital role in the solution in Libya, as all European countries, many of which are very concerned about the situation there, and the United States recognise. Similarly, there are still significant challenges in the human rights situation in Egypt. We were very pleased with the clear statement that President Sisi made on the rights of religious minorities in Egypt. However, as with many other elements of the Egyptian constitution, we now need to see that being delivered on the ground.
Following engagement with ourselves, the Prime Minister appointed the National Security Adviser to engage with the Libyan authorities on reconciliation and finding ways forward for compensation for victims of IRA terrorism that was sponsored by the Gaddafi regime. Will the Foreign Secretary update the House on what progress the National Security Adviser has made in that work?
I regret to have to tell the right hon. Gentleman that the reality on the ground in Libya is that there is no authority to engage with. I am afraid that at the moment I can report no progress on those measures. The urgent need now is to see a Government of national unity created and for the Libyan people to deal collectively with the threat to their society that is posed by the establishment of ISIL cells. Once we have such an authority in place, we will of course re-engage with that agenda.
As the United Kingdom was one of the leading countries that helped the Libyan people overthrow Colonel Gaddafi, do we not have both a political obligation and a political interest to help all the democratic forces in Libya trying to create a new, decent country? While I recognise that the Government do indeed have a priority in that respect, I urge my right hon. Friend to ensure that the British Government do all within their power—perhaps even more than they are doing at the moment—over the crucial weeks and months that will determine whether Libya does indeed become a moderate, secular force or continues to be a hotbed of anarchy and potential terrorism.
I agree with my right hon. and learned Friend that the next few weeks and months will be crucial for Libya. Would that it was as simple as getting behind the democratic authority in Libya—it is not clear that there is a democratic authority behind which we can get. We need a coming together. I do not want to overplay the prospects, but the UN Secretary-General’s special representative, Bernardino León, is making some progress, and the Prime Minister’s envoy, Jonathan Powell, is also working hard. We will continue to engage, because having a stable Government in Libya is vital to our security.
The Tobruk-based Government have agreed to return to the UN talks, but on the condition that they are recognised as the only authority that can take part in those negotiations. What is the view of Her Majesty’s Government? Do they support the Tobruk-based Government?
Our view is that both the Tobruk regime and the Misratans, and indeed the regime in Tripoli, must attend the talks with the UN Secretary-General’s special representative on a no-preconditions basis and on the terms he proposes in order to discuss how they can form a Government of national unity of some kind so that we can begin to rebuild Libya, which could be a prosperous and successful country, and one whose stability is vital to our own interests.
Middle East Peace Process
3. What recent assessment he has made of progress with the middle east peace process. 
I have to be candid with my hon. Friend: progress has stalled pending the Israeli general election on 17 March. The British Government strongly supported US Secretary of State John Kerry’s efforts to reach a final status agreement and were disappointed that the parties did not make more progress in 2014. I have discussed many times with Secretary Kerry, most recently when we met in London on 21 February, what the next steps will be. We will press the US to revive the initiative and all the parties to resume serious negotiations as soon as possible after the Israeli elections, and I urge them to be ready then to step up and show the bold political leadership that will be necessary to achieve peace.
I am glad to hear that my right hon. Friend will join me in asking for renewed international pressure on Hamas to disarm and renounce violence. Does he agree that unless that happens it is difficult to envisage a unified and prosperous Palestinian state existing alongside Israel?
My hon. Friend is right that for an enduring solution Hamas must disarm and be prepared to accept Israel’s right to live in peace, but Israel must also stop making illegal settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. We need to keep up the pressure on both sides if we are to get a sustainable solution.
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that one of the most positive possibilities for advancing peace in the middle east would be the success of the international negotiations with Iran on its nuclear projects? Will he take this opportunity to make it clear that any attempt to disrupt those talks by the Israeli Prime Minister when he addresses the United States Congress later today would be bad for the whole of the middle east and bad for Israel too?
My reading of the US Congress is that it probably does not need much encouragement to instinctively be very sceptical about the process of dialogue with Iran on the nuclear dossier. However, some small progress is being made there, and I would very much regret any attempts to destabilise or derail that process. On the wider question, settling the Israel-Palestine issue is the big roadblock to a more enduring peace in the middle east.
Does the Foreign Secretary think that peace will not be forthcoming until Hamas renounces violence and can speak with a single voice? In Israel, we have seen the emergence of a moderate centre ground. Does he think that either condition is going to happen?
I am going to be slightly careful about the second part of my right hon. Friend’s question because Israel is two weeks away from a general election, so I do not want to speculate about different parts of the political spectrum. What is clear is that there needs to be a broad-based movement within Israel that seeks peace, understands that trade-offs are required in order to achieve peace, and places the greatest premium on getting an acknowledgement of Israel’s right to live inside peaceful pre-’67 borders in perpetuity.
Is it true that Tony Blair is still a so-called middle east peace envoy? What progress has he secured on the ground, and do the UK Government still have confidence in his efforts?
It is true that Tony Blair remains the Quad envoy to the middle east. Mr Blair has made a large number of visits to the region; most recently he has been in Gaza. He continues to engage, and I have no doubt that his role will be kept under constant review.
May I take my right hon. Friend back to the question of settlements, which it is accepted throughout this House are wholly contrary to international law? More to the point, the continual encroachment by the Israeli Government makes it impossible for East Jerusalem to become the capital of a Palestinian state. Can he conceive of any circumstances where a leader of the Palestinians would be able to accept a peace arrangement based on giving up East Jerusalem?
I think that is highly unlikely. As my right hon. and learned Friend knows, the Government’s position is that that should not be the case. I have said in this House before and I will say again that settlements are just buildings. Buildings can be built and buildings can be removed, and we must not allow illegal building to stand in the way of a sustainable solution if it can otherwise be found.
I am sure that the Foreign Secretary agrees that the middle east peace process will be more difficult to restart if reconstruction in Gaza continues to proceed as slowly as it is currently. What further efforts, if any, will Ministers be making to speed up the delivery of aid, including British aid, that was promised by the international community at the Cairo conference, before they hand over the challenge to this Front Bench on 8 May?
If I may say so, I think that the hon. Gentleman is getting a little bit ahead of himself there.
We have a good track record on the delivery of our aid pledges in respect of Gaza. A number of other countries have made very forward-leaning aid pledges but they have not yet been followed through. So there is a problem with money, but there is also a physical problem of being able to get materials into Gaza and get works progressed. That is caused partly by the security situation in Sinai and the Egyptian response to that, and partly by the situation between Israel and the Palestinians in Gaza. I do not think, honestly, that we are going to get much progress before the Israeli general election, but as soon as that election is out of the way, this has to be a major priority.
4. Whether he has had discussions with the Argentinian Government on the future of the Falkland Islands; and if he will make a statement. 
There have been no discussions between the UK and Argentina on the future of the Falkland Islands during the course of this Government. Any such discussions will take place only when the Falkland Islanders wish them to, and they have made it clear that they do not.
My right hon. Friend will be aware that the Argentinian Government have brought out new bank notes showing the Falkland Islands as part of Argentina. I think that we have all received a letter from the Argentinian ambassador and a book, “Malvinas Matters”, complaining that there has not been any dialogue. May I reiterate what the Minister has just said? We should not have any negotiations with Argentina on sovereignty until the Falkland islanders want to leave the United Kingdom.
I am aware that a number of right hon. and hon. Members have received that book, which seeks to discredit the Falkland islanders’ right to their own future. It ignores the inconvenient truth that some people on the islands can trace their Falklands ancestry back through nine generations, which is longer than the current borders of Argentina have existed. On the issue of the 50 peso bank note, we cannot stop the Argentinian Government doing these stunts. It is worth a whopping £3.72, according to today’s exchange rate—I think it probably has the equivalent political value.
Patagonia (Welsh Community)
5. What plans officials of his Department in Argentina have to mark the 150th anniversary of the founding of the Welsh community in Patagonia. 
Our embassy in Buenos Aires, in co-ordination with the British Council in Argentina and Wales, will facilitate official visits to Argentina for the celebrations in July to mark the 150th anniversary of the arrival of Welsh settlers in Patagonia. It will also work hard to promote Wales in Argentina through cultural and other events.
The Minister will surely be aware that the 25,000 Welsh speakers in Argentina have a very special place in the hearts of everyone living in Wales. Does he agree that this important anniversary—notwithstanding other matters that, with amazing timing, have just been raised—perhaps offers the opportunity to rebuild a more friendly relationship? Will he come to a photographic exhibition on the Welsh colonies in Argentina, which I hope to organise in the House later this year if all kinds of other events allow?
I would be delighted to continue in this role after the May election, but that is up to the Prime Minister. We should all celebrate the great story of the arrival of 153 Welsh settlers in Chubut in 1865. I am pleased that the First Minister of Wales will go to Argentina, and I am delighted that the National Youth Choir of Wales, the London Welsh choir and the National Orchestra of Wales will all visit Patagonia this year. I hope that they will concentrate on Welsh relations with Argentina, rather than anything else.
The history of the Welsh settlement in Patagonia is an incredible story of tenacity, innovation, fortitude and triumph over adversity, with a thriving Welsh-language community in Chubut province today. Will the Minister ensure that the FCO Argentine mission has an obligation to strengthen relations between Patagonia and Wales?
We have absolutely no problem with the people of Argentina. We enjoy extraordinarily good relations with them, and the Welsh factor is enormously important. When the Welsh Affairs Committee visited last year, it was presented with a declaration on the Falklands, and I expect similar stunts this year. I hope that right hon. and hon. Members and the Argentinians will remember that the members of the Welsh community chose to emigrate and have become Argentine citizens by choice. By comparison, the Falkland islanders have exercised their own right of self-determination and, frankly, it is hypocritical for Argentina selectively to ignore that.
6. What assessment he has made of the success of recent diplomatic initiatives relating to peace and security in eastern Ukraine. 
10. What steps his Department is taking to ensure a lasting ceasefire between Russia and Ukraine. 
We support all diplomatic efforts that aim to bring about a peaceful resolution to the crisis in Ukraine. Since the latest Minsk agreement was signed on 12 February, Russian-backed separatists have seized control of the strategically important town of Debaltseve. It is not yet clear that Russia has any intention of honouring the commitments it made in Minsk. I held talks with Secretary Kerry last weekend, and I will discuss Ukraine with EU Foreign Ministers on Friday in Riga. In all such discussions, we will continue to argue for a strong and united response to Russia’s actions until such time as we see full compliance on the ground.
I am sure that the House will want to take this opportunity to send its condolences to the friends and supporters of Boris Nemtsov, following his horrific murder last weekend.
The death toll in eastern Ukraine has reached 6,000 according to the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. It also detects an escalation in hostilities, despite the signing of the ceasefire agreement. Does the Secretary of State agree that the EU standing together on tougher sanctions is the only way we can make it clear to President Putin that Russia’s actions in Ukraine are unacceptable?
I of course share the hon. Gentleman’s view on the appalling murder of Nemtsov in Moscow.
The hon. Gentleman asked about stepping up sanctions in response to Russia’s failure to comply with Minsk. The Minsk agenda runs until the end of this year, so it will not be until the end of December that Ukraine will regain control of its border with Russia, even if all the milestones are complied with. We believe that the tier 3 sanctions should be extended to last until the end of the year, so that we have a tool with which to ensure compliance. We can always suspend or partially suspend the sanctions if the milestones are being met, but we need to have the tool in place right the way through the programme.
Many of my constituents have asked me why, when President Hollande and Chancellor Merkel met Putin, there was no senior British political presence or representation. When will Britain play its full part in protecting the sovereign nations of Europe?
I do not recognise the premise of the hon. Gentleman’s question. We are playing our part. While Mrs Merkel and President Hollande have done a good job of negotiating the Minsk implementation agreement under the Normandy process, which always involved the four countries of Germany, France, Ukraine and Russia, our role has been, is and will remain to stiffen the resolve of all 28 EU members to be united and aligned with the United States in deploying what has proved to be a powerful sanctions weapon.
I certainly echo the sentiment of the Foreign Secretary’s final remarks. At this difficult and dangerous moment, it is vital that Europe and NATO stand united in ensuring that the Minsk agreement is implemented in full. However, may I bring him back to his remarks about tier 3 sanctions? Does he believe that new EU restrictive measures should be on the table at the next European Council meeting, as opposed simply to the roll-over and extension of existing measures that he described in his answer?
The European Commission has been tasked to look at a menu of possible additional measures that could be taken. As I have indicated, I think that we need two tools. We need an extension of the existing tier 3 measures through to the end of December. Putin has been telling oligarchs around Moscow that the sanctions will be over by the end of July: “Just hold your breath and it’ll all be fine.” We need to show him that that will not be the case. Alongside that, we need a credible set of options that we can implement immediately if there is a failure to comply with milestones in the Minsk implementation agreement or a serious further outbreak of conflict in the region.
I welcome the Foreign Secretary’s answer, but let me return to the appalling murder of Boris Nemtsov on Saturday in Moscow, to which he has referred. Clearly, the priority needs to be a thorough and impartial investigation into the murder. President Putin has a personal responsibility to show that the Russian authorities are willing and able to identify Mr Nemtsov’s killers and to bring them to justice. Will the Foreign Secretary confirm whether he has raised this matter with the Russian authorities, and give his assessment of the steps that have been taken by the Russian authorities to begin investigating the case?
We have heard a lot of noise from Moscow, but we have not yet seen any serious action. The omens are not promising. I heard just this morning that some countries’ intended high-level delegations to the funeral have not been able to obtain Russian visas. That probably tells us all we need to know.
The intransigence of the Russians is exemplified by the fact that they still hold in custody two Members of the Ukrainian Parliament, both of whom are members of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. When will my right hon. Friend get tough and insist on expelling Russia from the Parliamentary Assembly and the Council of Europe itself?
We do not have plans to take that step at this stage, but I assure my hon. Friend that we raise the matter regularly—indeed, the Minister for Europe raised it with the Russian ambassador only last week. I am going to Kiev later this week, and we will continue to work with the Ukrainians to try to secure the release of those two Ukrainians, as well as the Estonian border guard who was captured by the Russians six months ago.
7. What reports he has received on displacement of Bedouin in southern Israel. 
9. What representations he has made on the potential demolition of the village of Umm al-Hiran in Negev. 
We are deeply concerned about proposals to demolish Bedouin villages. We are monitoring the situation closely, including talking regularly to organisations that work with those communities.
In an earlier answer to an Opposition Member, the Foreign Secretary said that we were talking only about buildings in relation to the peace process. He forgot to say that in order to facilitate the peace process, we have to get people out of those buildings, and that is the big issue. May I push the Minister a little further? There are a number of impending demolitions of villages to make way for Israeli settlements. Will the Minister discuss that issue with the Israeli Government, urge them to reconsider the upcoming evictions and demolitions due for next month, and instead consider villages co-existing side by side in the spirit of peace?
I agree with the hon. Gentleman, but the displacement issues in southern Israel, and the potential demolition of the Umm al-Hiran villages, are not in the occupied Palestinian territories but in green line Israel. That is a slightly separate debate or concern—if I can put it that way—to the illegal settlements that have been put forward, but nevertheless we are concerned and are having a dialogue with Israel about that.
I welcome the Minister’s words, but may I urge on him a sense of urgency and purpose—urgency because the demolition order for Umm al-Hiran may be given in two weeks’ time, and purpose in the sense that action is needed? Will he ask the British ambassador to visit the village, and will he invoke the EU-Israeli association agreement that makes favourable trade relations dependent on Israel’s respect for human rights?
As I clarified, that is a different matter from the debate about the occupied Palestinian territories, but nevertheless we want a robust planning process that adequately addresses the needs of the Bedouin communities. We must keep pushing for that dialogue.
Will the Minister confirm that the displacement of the Bedouin constitutes ethnic cleansing?
Again, I reiterate the difference between the two issues: one concerns the illegal settlements, and the other is a planning matter that we have raised concerns about. I visited the E1 area, which is where much of the attention is currently focused, and we have discouraged the growth of settlements in that area. Were the plans to go ahead, we would have a break between the Hebron and Bethlehem conurbations, and that would effectively end the middle east peace process.
Is the displacement of the Bedouin from the E1 area contrary to international humanitarian law—yes or no?
It is contrary to international law in that sense, and any nation has obligations when dealing with occupied territories and their occupants. We are discouraging Israel from further build, but the land swaps will be integral to any future long-term peace agreement. That is why we are in this quagmire.
8. What recent assessment he has made of the extent of Iran’s financial and material support for Hamas and Hezbollah. 
We have serious concerns about Iran’s support for militant groups, including Hezbollah and Hamas. That includes financial resources and training, as well as the supply of military equipment.
I thank the Minister for that answer. As part of our talks with Iran on its nuclear programme, will there be a specific condition on Iran to stop sponsoring and harbouring terrorism, whether that is supporting the Houthis in Yemen, interfering in Syria, interfering in Iraq with its militias against the Sunnis, or supporting Hezbollah, to ensure that we have a long-term solution, not a short-term fix?
Discussions around a nuclear solution are separate to those other matters, but my hon. Friend is right to raise the issue. Iran is having a destabilising effect in the region, and that is a violation of UN resolution 1747 which makes illegal the export of weapon systems and armaments from Iran.
Iran arms Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza, and it now threatens to arm Palestinians on the west bank who currently support President Abbas. In view of the Minister’s previous reply, what specific representations have the Government made to the United Nations about that flagrant breach of UN resolutions?
The hon. Lady will be aware that the Prime Minister had his first meeting with the Prime Minister of Iran at the United Nations General Assembly and very much put those points down. She is right that Iran must question its role in the region. It must ask itself whether it wants to be a part of the problem or a part of the solution. We have spoken about Hamas and Hezbollah. Hezbollah is effectively propping up the Assad regime, because he is losing the officer class, which is depleted because of the war.
Next week, as chair of the British Group of the Inter-Parliamentary Union, I will be welcoming the first delegation of Iranian parliamentarians to visit this country for some time. Will my hon. Friend welcome that development? He knows not only that the House will give full and appropriate courtesy to parliamentarians from Iran, but that it will take the opportunity to engage them in the full and frank discussion of matters between us, which is the only basis on which parliamentarians can build a relationship.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is through full and frank engagement that we can get our message across. Dialogue with Iran has increased. We must ensure that Iran not only talks the talk, but that its actions speak as loud as its words.
EU Membership (Renegotiation)
11. What assessment he has made of the level of public demand for a renegotiated settlement between the UK and the EU. 
I assess that mainstream opinion in the UK is that the EU is not currently delivering for Britain. We need to fix that problem, and only the Conservatives have a clear plan to do so. We will negotiate a new settlement with our EU neighbours, and one that works for Britain. We will then put that new settlement to the British people in an in/out referendum before the end of 2017. Only a Conservative Government will make that commitment. Labour and the Liberal Democrats do not want change, and UKIP cannot deliver it.
The Conservative party is the only sane and significant party to guarantee, following a renegotiation, an in/out referendum on our membership of the EU. How many countries has the Foreign Secretary visited to discuss that renegotiation, what levels of engagement has he had, and is there a positive desire for change in other states that matches ours?
I am grateful for the right hon. Lady’s three questions. The Foreign Secretary is a specialist in providing a pithy answer on a postcard.
Thank you, Mr Speaker, for that vote of confidence.
I have currently visited 23 of our partners in the European Union. In a nutshell, there is a very strong view that all member states want Britain to remain in the EU, an understanding that that can happen only if there is significant change in the EU, and a clear willingness to engage with us, particularly on our demands for improved competitiveness in the EU, which all member states want.
19. The Conservative manifesto at the last general election states:“European countries need to work together to boost global economic growth, fight global poverty, and combat global climate change. The European Union has a crucial part to play…A Conservative government will play an active and energetic role in the European Union to advance these causes.”Will that be the Conservative party’s policy in the next Parliament? 
That is exactly what we are doing. The hon. Gentleman seems to subscribe to the view of the world in which Britain sits isolated on the edge. We are a major player in Europe. We have the second largest economy in Europe. We are leading the way in so many areas within the European Union. We have to seize this opportunity to shape the European Union in a way that works for Britain. It went off the rails somewhere over the past 20 years, and we must take this opportunity of reform and renegotiation to get it back on the rails. Crucially, we must then let the British people have the final say on whether the package we have negotiated is good enough or not.
16. Like you, Mr Speaker, I have complete confidence in the Foreign Secretary. I am sure he has sensed not only that there is increased public demand for renegotiation, but that there is absolutely no movement in public demand for that referendum. Is that his assessment, and will he commit to a referendum prior to the end of 2017? 
I reiterate the commitment that the Prime Minister has already made that there will be a referendum by the end of 2017 if there is a Conservative Government. There is virtually no movement in polling evidence in the demand for a referendum. I will say something else to my hon. Friend: by creating the referendum we have—I will use the phrase again—lit a fire under our partners in Europe. They now know that they have to deliver change that is substantive and meaningful; not some backroom political deal, but something that will satisfy the British people in a referendum. That is what is driving the debate.
It is clear that the European Union needs to reform to create more growth, more jobs and more competitiveness, so what is the Minister’s reaction to the warning issued this morning from the executive vice-president of Ford, Mr Jim Farley, who said, on the prospects of “Brexit”,
“We really hope that doesn’t happen and we believe that the UK being part of the EU is critical for business”?
Why does the Conservative party call for the march of the makers in one breath, yet pursue a policy that poses a direct threat to manufacturing jobs, manufacturing investment and trade? Is it that the Foreign Secretary does not see the contradiction, or is it instead a complete and utter absence of leadership when it comes to the European Union?
It is that we need to resolve this issue. Of course, most people in this country recognise the value of the single market to Britain’s economy, but that comes at a price and it is a price we pay in loss of sovereignty and loss of control over many of our own affairs, including some that we do not need to lose control of. The debate will be on the correct balance between what is done at national level and what is done at European level, on the accountability of the European Union institutions to the people of the European Union, and on the European Union’s ability to drive economic growth across all our economies. That is what people in this country want resolved, and by resolving it we will create a more certain climate for business in the future.
The Foreign Secretary has kindly shared with us that he has spoken to 23 other member states and that they all support the United Kingdom’s remaining in the European Union. Can he tell us whether he supports Britain remaining in the European Union? Does he understand the damage that his policy is doing to British business and British interests in order to maintain a temporary peace in his party?
What would cause continuing damage to British industry is not resolving this issue once and for all. The only way to do that is to have a frank and open discussion about the problems in the European Union, to renegotiate the package and to put it to the British people—and then we have settled it for a generation.
MV Seaman Guard Ohio (UK Citizens)
12. What steps he is taking to secure the return of the UK citizens who were aboard the MV Seaman Guard Ohio when she was detained by the Indian authorities. 
We have regularly raised this case at the most senior levels of Government, and have pressed for the legal process to be resolved as soon as possible. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary will be raising the issue yet again when he visits India next week. Last month, following requests from three of the men, we issued emergency travel documents. The men will still require permission from the Indian authorities before they are able to leave the country.
I thank the Minister for that answer, but it is now eight months since an Indian court quashed the charges against my constituent Billy Irving. He, and the other UK citizens, are still unable to leave India because the legal process has ground to a halt. Will the Foreign Office redouble its efforts to persuade the Indian authorities to conclude the legal process quickly and get these men home?
The hon. Gentleman knows that we have raised this again and again at the highest possible level. Indeed, I am meeting him, and other Members who have been assiduous in raising this with us, in the next couple of days to update him. What we cannot do, however, is simply ignore the Indian judicial process or interfere with it. That is not to say that we do not share hon. Members’ frustrations about the pace of progress.
These six British soldiers all fought for the British Army on the front. They feel utterly betrayed by the Government because of what they see as a lack of assistance in their hour of need. They were all acquitted and freed on 10 July last year. We must be able to do something to get these people home. We must redouble our efforts.
My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister raised this with Prime Minister Modi in November 2014. The Deputy Prime Minister did so on his visit to India in August, as did the Foreign Secretary when he met his counterpart in October. I have done so numerous times at ministerial level and with the high commissioner here, and most recently British officials in Delhi raised concerns with the Ministry of External Affairs on 16 and 23 February. Members have been right to raise this again and again and we have kept Members informed. This has taken up a huge amount of time, but, in the management of expectation, I say again to the hon. Gentleman—I say it slowly and clearly—that we cannot ignore the Indian judicial process. We are dealing with a sovereign country, but we share the frustrations about the pace of progress.
UN Human Rights Council
13. What his priorities are for the 28th session of the UN Human Rights Council in March 2015. 
Our priorities include the renewal of UN mandates on Syria, Burma and Iran, increasing international attention on Libya, Ukraine and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, responding to UN reports on Gaza and ISIL activity in Iraq, and thematic resolutions on freedom of religion or belief, combating religious intolerance, and privacy. My right hon. and noble Friend Baroness Anelay is representing us at the session.
I am grateful to the Minister for his answer, but does he not see that Government attempts to undermine the European convention on human rights damage our international reputation on this issue and diminish our influence on human rights?
No, and if the hon. Lady looks at our record, particularly when this Government held the chairmanship of the Council of Europe, she will see that, on the contrary, we upheld the standards and values embodied in the convention and successfully negotiated sensible, pragmatic reforms to the way in which the convention is implemented that are in the interests of all states.
22. What does the Minister think this session’s high-level panel on the death penalty can achieve, particularly when so many Human Rights Council members use the death penalty? 
It is true, of course, that many of the members of the Human Rights Council, who have been elected by the membership of the United Nations generally, still have the death penalty. The United Kingdom, both at the UN Human Rights Council and in our bilateral and multilateral relationships of all kinds, continues to stress that we regard the death penalty as completely unacceptable.
Will the Minister use the opportunity of the Human Rights Council to raise the human rights crisis in central America, in particular in Mexico? Will he also raise these matters with President Peña Nieto during his visit and tie any future trade developments with Mexico to improvements in its human rights record and dealing with those who killed, probably, the 43 students—but also thousands of others who have died—and the forces that have acted with impunity in that country?
The hon. Gentleman will recall from the recent debate in Westminster Hall, in which he and I spoke, that we have a strong relationship with Mexico. We use that to seek improvements to Mexico’s human rights record and to give Mexico practical help in trying to improve its judicial and police systems in particular. That work will continue.
British Influence in the World
14. What steps the Government have taken since 2010 to increase British influence around the world. 
Despite the very tight spending environment, this Government have since 2010 opened nine new diplomatic missions in emerging countries and fast-growing economies and upgraded a further six posts. We have opened an FCO language centre and a diplomatic academy, and shaped the international agenda, including through groundbreaking conferences on the preventing sexual violence initiative, cyber-security and Somalia, and hosting successful summits of NATO and the G8.
My constituents certainly recognise the increased standing of this country across the world under this Government. The Government have rightly made a priority of ending the practice of rape and sexual conflict as a tactic of war and addressing the shameful failure to bring perpetrators to justice. Will the Minister update us on this important initiative?
It is a cause of pride for this Government and this country that the FCO, particularly under the leadership of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, has for the first time got the international community to take seriously the scandal of the sexual abuse during war and conflict of countless numbers of women and, let us not forget, many men as well. We are now seeing the fruits of that, in the way in which countries such as Nepal, Bosnia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Kosovo are taking up the challenge to put right the wrongs of the past and amend their practices for the future.
When this question was handed out, I was not sure that the Government would be aware that US General Ray Odierno would express concern about our defence capability, following Government cuts, or that the British General Sir Richard Shirreff would describe the Prime Minister as “a bit player” in the Ukraine crisis. When will the Minister recognise how much this Government have marginalised Britain?
I wish the right hon. Gentleman could talk to the leaders of countries such as Poland, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, who have been grateful for the resolute political leadership this Government have given, and for the very practical contribution we have made to Baltic air policing and NATO training exercises to defend their security. The—[Interruption.]
I think the right hon. Gentleman is in the middle of his sentence.
I think that the right hon. Gentleman should reflect on the record of his Government and the state of decay in which they left the Foreign Office after their stewardship.
T1. If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities. 
This week, we are delighted to welcome the President of Mexico and Senora Rivera on their state visit to the United Kingdom. Indeed, right about now, they should be being received by Her Majesty on Horse Guards parade. The UK and Mexico enjoy an excellent bilateral relationship, and we look forward to broadening and deepening that partnership this week.
My three key priorities continue to be Russia and Ukraine, the struggle against violent Islamist extremism and our plans for the reform of the European Union. Later this week, I will visit Ukraine to discuss the situation on the ground and to assess implementation of the latest Minsk agreement. I will then travel to Warsaw and on to Riga to meet my EU counterparts over the weekend.
As part of the Mexican state visit, it is good to see the flags of the British overseas territories flying in Parliament square today. I am encouraged to hear that London and Madrid are talking about better relations over Gibraltar. I seek assurances from my right hon. Friend, however, that there will never be any discussions over the future of Gibraltar’s sovereignty so long as the people of Gibraltar wish to remain loyal to this country.
That is our position, and I confirm that it will remain our position so long as there is a Conservative Government.
Last year, 2014, was dominated by news of horrendous violence against those of different faiths, from Boko Haram abducting Christian girls in Nigeria to the attacks by ISIL against Christians, Yazidis and other religious minorities within Iraq. In the light of those developments, does the Foreign Secretary agree that a global envoy for religious freedom, reporting to the Foreign Secretary should be appointed? If this Government choose to act, we will support them; if they do not, a Labour Government will act.
Our general approach is to try to get things done using the mechanisms we have. We have an extensive diplomatic network around the world, and we have large amounts of soft power at our disposal, including the leverage that our large aid budget gives us. I do not think simply creating new posts and ticking a box delivers in the way the right hon. Gentleman and the previous Government seem to think it will.
T4. The Minister will know that the UN has delayed by six months its report on human rights in Sri Lanka. A number of Sri Lankan constituents in my constituency are waiting for this report and are actively contacting their MP about it. Will the Minister push for the urgent release of this document, and will he please update us? 
We have worked closely. I have been to Sri Lanka and met the new President, the new Foreign Minister and the new Prime Minister, and the new Foreign Minister has been here. We recognise the concern of all the victims. We remain firmly committed to the Geneva process. This will not be an indefinite deferral; the report is due by September. The extra time recognises the changed political context in Sri Lanka, and it will allow the new Government to deliver on their commitment to engage with the high commissioner and establish their own credible accountancy process.
T2. The persecution of the Rohingya by the Burmese Government still continues, and the appalling humanitarian situation they, and especially the refugees, face continues, too. Will the Foreign Secretary speak to Ban Ki-moon and ask him to go to Burma and personally to negotiate unrestricted humanitarian access for the Rohingya in the Rakhine state? 
Ban Ki-moon chairs a Friends of Myanmar meeting in New York, which I have attended. He is fully aware of what is going on in Burma. We remain extremely concerned about the plight of the Rohingya, not least the white card issue that has just emerged, and we continue to lobby the Government in Burma on that basis.
T6. The ongoing crisis in Ukraine and our relationship with Russia have real implications for the United Kingdom’s energy security. Many might say that, had energy security been a more key component of strategic foreign policy for successive European Union Governments, we might now have more room for manoeuvre with Putin. Can the Foreign Secretary assure us that full consideration of our long-term energy security is currently at the forefront of, and central to, our response to the evolving situation in Ukraine? 
Yes, it is a key agenda item. I can reassure my hon. Friend that the United Kingdom is in a much better energy security position than many of our European Union partners. However, as our non-military response to Russia essentially depends on EU unity, we often find that we are as weak as the weakest link in that chain. There is an urgent need to ensure that the European Union as a whole improves its energy security over the coming years, both for reasons of competitiveness and for the sake of our own national security.
T3. What work will the Foreign Secretary do with his international counterparts to build on the progress that was made at the United Nations climate change conference in Lima last December? What role does he think that the Commonwealth has in that regard, given the vulnerability of a number of small island states? 
We are strongly committed to seeing a successful outcome to this year’s Paris meeting, and we played a leading role in the EU discussions on securing a forward-looking EU position. We will use our Commonwealth membership and our bilateral relationship with the Commonwealth countries to reach out to the nations to which the hon. Gentleman refers, so that we can seek the ambitious global agreement that I think Members on both sides of the House would like to see.
T9. There is another country in Europe that has been occupied and divided for not just one year, but 40. What priority are the Government giving to solving the Cyprus problem? 
We continue to give strong support to the efforts of the United Nations envoy, Espen Barth Eide, to bring the two communities in Cyprus together. A settlement would be in the interests of all communities there. I was very pleased that yesterday the Foreign Office re-hosted a meeting at which the chambers of commerce of both Greek and Turkish Cypriot communities were represented by their presidents, both of whom spoke eloquently about the way in which a settlement would increase the prosperity of everyone on the island.
T5. There is huge frustration among my many constituents who have roots and family ties in the disputed territory of Kashmir. Little progress has been made for decades, and the region still suffers as a result of militarisation, violence and human rights abuses. What recent discussions has the Secretary of State had with India and Pakistan, and what hopes has he for a better future for Kashmir in which account will be taken of the views of Kashmiri people? 
My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary raised the issue with Nawaz Sharif when he was here recently, and will raise it again when he travels to India. We are encouraged to note that some talks appear to be taking place between India and Pakistan, because we know how much concern there is throughout the country.
Given our admission that we were unsighted over Russia and Crimea, and given that we were short of Arabists following the Arab spring, is there not a case for spending more on our foreign policy capabilities? Would that not only ensure that we were better sighted, but reduce costs in the longer term because we would be able to avoid making further mistakes?
The Foreign Office makes a huge effort, in difficult fiscal times, to focus our resources on key elements of policy analysis and capability, including those involving the middle east and Russia, which, as my hon. Friend suggests, are particularly important. About 170 of our officers are now registered as having ability in Arabic, and a similar number are registered as having ability in Russian.
T7. We know that 163 Palestinian children are being held in Israeli military detention, and that many are being held inside Israel in direct violation of the fourth Geneva convention. What representations is the Secretary of State making to the Israeli authorities with a view to ending that brutal aspect of the illegal occupation? 
We routinely make representations to the Israelis on all aspects of illegal conduct—of which that is just one example—and we will continue to do so.
As the Government prepare for renegotiating the European treaties, will they give their full support to the Swiss in their efforts to change their terms of free movement of people as a sign of their sincerity and a symbol that free movement of people is not an unchallengeable part of the European state?
As everybody knows, Switzerland is outside the European Union and has negotiated terms for access to the single European market, as has Norway, but those terms require the Swiss and Norwegians to accept wholesale the body of EU law without having any say in the making of it, to contribute financially and to abide by the principles of free movement. The Swiss have sought unilaterally to change that arrangement and they have been firmly rebuffed by the EU.
T8. Does the Secretary of State agree with his fellow Conservative and counterpart in Norway Vidar Helgesen that with the single market needing bold leadership for its completion and with Europe facing its biggest security crisis since the cold war, it would be a disaster for Britain to sleepwalk out of the EU? 
I had another very good meeting with Vidar Helgesen when he was in London last week, and he is quite open in saying, as my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has just said to the House, that Norway has access to the single market but has to contribute to the EU budget, implement EU law and accept freedom of movement without any say in how those decisions are made, which is why my view is that this country is better off in a reformed EU, rather than adopting the kind of status Norway has.
Is the Foreign Secretary able to update the House on any progress in the Syrian peace talks and in particular, if it remains the Government’s ambition to remove President Assad, what progress we have made in building up an alternative Government capable of taking on IS?
I have to tell my right hon. Friend candidly that the co-ordination between the civilian Syrian opposition and the moderate armed opposition is still disappointing. It is one of the areas on which we and our allies are working. We are committed to taking part in the programme of training and equipping members of the moderate Syrian opposition outside Syria, and that programme is beginning to gather pace now.
Was it the UK that first offered, or was it Ukraine that first requested, the presence of British military advisers, and can the Foreign Secretary assure us that their presence is more likely to lead to a peaceful settlement, rather than an escalation of the process?
There has been a discussion between the Ukrainian Government and ourselves and a number of other European Governments and the United States about various types of assistance, including non-lethal military assistance, and there was agreement among those different allied Governments to supply help to Ukraine. We think that the training will enable the Ukrainian army to operate more effectively than it has been able to do up until now, and that that offer of training would have been justified irrespective of the Russian intervention in the east.
Recent reports emerging from Iran say the regime has been secretly enriching uranium since 2008 at an underground plant in suburban Tehran named as Lavizan-3. What assessment has the Foreign Secretary made of this concerning news, and does he agree that no deal should be signed with Iran until the International Atomic Energy Agency has unfettered access to all the nuclear programme?
My hon. Friend is right that this is a new piece of information. We have no corroboration of that report at the moment, but he is absolutely right that we will need to look into it and be clear before we reach any conclusion with Iran in the nuclear negotiations.
The Minister, the hon. Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), earlier said that he did not feel it was right to do anything about the Israel-Palestine situation until after the Israeli election, yet given that none of the major parties in that election is committed to withdrawal from the occupied territories, is not now the time to say that Britain intends to recognise Palestine?
If only it were that simple. I understand that the hon. Lady’s point is well made, but I can tell her exactly what any such statements now will do: they will play to the hard right in the Israeli elections. That will not make a settlement more likely; it will make it less likely.
Several hon. Members
Order. Foreign Office questions are a box office hit, and demand always exceeds supply. Last but not least, I call Mr Andrew Stephenson.
Pendle is home to a number of Pakistani Christian families, whose concerns I raise in the House. Given our long-standing cultural and economic ties, and the support that we provide to Pakistan via the Department for International Development, what more can my ministerial colleagues do to ensure religious freedom and tolerance there?
My hon. Friend raises an important issue. The Pakistani diaspora in this country is a large one and we have a very strong relationship with Pakistan, but we are concerned about the misuse of blasphemy laws there. I have raised the issue with the Prime Minister and through the parliamentary delegation that went to Pakistan only last week.
I have to notify the House, in accordance with the Royal Assent Act 1967, that Her Majesty has signified her Royal Assent to the following Acts:
Pension Schemes Act 2015
Serious Crime Act 2015.
Child Sexual Exploitation (Oxfordshire)
(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State if she will make a statement on the serious case review into child sexual exploitation in Oxfordshire.
I thank the right hon. Member for Oxford East (Mr Smith) for his question. No child should have to suffer what the victims of child sexual exploitation in Oxfordshire have suffered. The serious case review published today by Oxfordshire’s local safeguarding children board is an indictment of the failure of front-line workers to protect extremely vulnerable young people over a number of years. Reading the details of what happened to them has been truly sickening.
The serious case review makes it clear that numerous opportunities to intervene to protect those girls were missed, as police and social workers failed to look beyond what they saw as troubled teenagers to the frightened child within. I welcome the publication of the serious case review. It is only by publishing such in-depth accounts of what happened, and what went wrong and why, that children’s social care systems locally and nationally can address the failings that have betrayed some of our most vulnerable children. That is why this Government have insisted that serious case reviews be published, and in full.
The children’s Minister, the Under-Secretary of State for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mr Timpson), has also written today, with Ministers from the Home Office and the Department of Health, to the Oxfordshire safeguarding children board requesting a further assessment of the progress being made, and we will send an expert in child sexual exploitation to support the board this month.
Sadly, Oxfordshire was not alone in failing to address the dangers of child sexual exploitation. We now know from Professor Alexis Jay’s and Louise Casey’s reports into Rotherham and the report by the hon. Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey) in Manchester that child sexual exploitation has been a scourge in many communities around the country. This Government have been determined to do everything within their power to tackle child sexual exploitation, and that is why we are today publishing an action plan setting out the action we have already taken to strengthen our approach to safeguarding children from sexual exploitation, along with the further steps that we think are necessary to address the culture of denial; improve joint working; stop offenders; support victims; and strengthen accountability and leadership.
We are setting up a national centre of expertise into tackling child sexual exploitation, to support local areas around the country, and there will be a new whistleblowing portal so that anyone can report their concerns. We have also prioritised child sexual exploitation as a national threat, so that police forces will now be under a duty to collaborate across force boundaries, and we will consult on extending the criminal offence of wilful neglect to children’s social care, education professionals and elected members.
This afternoon, I will be joining the Prime Minister, the Home Secretary and other Secretaries of State in Downing street to discuss with local and police leaders how we will collectively take forward the actions set out in today’s plan. The experiences of the children set out in this serious case review should never have happened. We are determined to do everything in our power to stamp out this horrific abuse and to bring the perpetrators to justice.
I thank the Secretary of State for her response. Does she agree that the victims, the 370 other children identified as at risk, their families and the public, who are horrified that these sickening crimes were allowed to continue for so many years, are owed answers to crucial questions which the serious case review could not address? How was it that there was a culture in the county council and the police whereby such serious incidents were not escalated to senior officers? How was it that a professional tolerance of under-age sexual activity developed, as the report says, to the extent that it contributed to the failure to stop the abuse?
Who takes responsibility for the catastrophic failings? The chief constable and the council chief executive have apologised, but they did not know what was happening. The chief constable is moving on; the former directors of social services and of children and families have left; the former leader of the council retired; the lead member for children’s services was reshuffled; and the chief executive of Oxfordshire council saw her position made redundant at the end of January, only for the council leader last week to admit that they had made a hash of it and so the situation has to be reviewed.
Does the Secretary of State agree that the highly commendable work done by the council, the police and other agencies to improve protection and prosecution since Operation Bullfinch cannot distract from the horrors of what went wrong? We saw failure to act on clear evidence of organised sexual exploitation; failure to provide protection to children; failure to draw serious issues to the attention of senior management; failure to heed the concerns of junior staff; chaotic arrangements for child protection; unminuted meetings; and a professional disregard for the illegality of young girls being forced to have sex with older men.
Should there not be wider, independent scrutiny of the internal management reviews which underpinned this serious case review? Do the public interest and redress for victims not dictate that those responsible for these failings should be fully held to account? Will the Government set up an independent inquiry into what went wrong and who made the mistakes that enabled this depraved exploitation of vulnerable girls to go on for so long, so that the lessons are learned from these awful crimes and from the failure of public bodies to provide the protection that it was their duty to provide to children who were suffering such unspeakable abuse?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman very much for his questions, and I fully respect the emotion and passion with which he and other Members will be discussing these matters—these very serious matters, as he has set out. He talks about failures and he is right to do so. He is also absolutely right to say that at the heart of this are the young people who have been utterly let down by the system and whose lives have been blighted. It is important that we think about all the victims and their families, and I am pleased to confirm that part of today’s summit and the announcements thereof is a £7 million fund to support those who have been victims. Clearly, however, there is much more that we all need to do.
The right hon. Gentleman asks how the culture arose and why things were not escalated. He also mentions the so-called professional tolerance of these crimes and asked who takes responsibility. On accountability, he set out the position of various people working within Oxfordshire, some of whom are still in their positions and some of whom have moved on. It is not for me to apportion blame—that is a matter for Oxfordshire county council, the police and the health agencies locally—and the purpose of this serious case review is to understand what went wrong and why, and to ensure that we learn the lessons for the future. He is absolutely right to highlight another point, which Maggie Blyth, the independent reviewer, talked about this morning when she said that although
“there was no disregard of clear warnings at top level and no denial by those in charge, their lack of understanding of what was happening on the front line caused unacceptable delays. This allowed offenders to get away with their crimes. The review describes a culture in Oxfordshire where the value of escalation to the top was not understood.”
The review also contains some heart-rending comments from the victims. One that particularly stands out was:
“If a perpetrator can spot the vulnerable children, why can’t professionals?”
The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to say that many more questions will need to be answered.
The right hon. Gentleman asks about future reviews and inquiries, and the letter signed today by Ministers from my Department, the Home Office and the Department of Health makes it clear that we are proposing that the local safeguarding children board leads a specific piece of work on the impact of the multi-agency approach to tackling child sexual exploitation in Oxfordshire. We have appointed Sophie Humphreys to work alongside Oxfordshire county council to gather the evidence on the effect of its reforms to front-line practice.
The right hon. Gentleman correctly highlights the fact that the council has taken action since these allegations all first came to light. As has been recognised by the serious case review, there has been tremendous investment in services to support children at risk of sexual exploitation, including the establishment of the specialist Kingfisher team, a multi-agency front-line service for victims of child sexual exploitation; the training of thousands of front-line staff in raising awareness; and an increase in the number of front-line staff as a whole. The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to highlight the fact that lives have been blighted by these crimes. Questions need to be answered, some of which will be addressed this afternoon in the Prime Minister’s summit in Downing street.
The right hon. Gentleman says that lessons need to be learned, which is a phrase that is often used in these sorts of cases. But that is not enough. We want action. It was very clear that those who came across this information, not just in Oxfordshire but in other authorities, did not act on it—and that is unacceptable.
Nothing more distressingly demonstrates how completely local agencies failed in this area than the words of survivors. One victim said, “I turned up at a police station at 2 am or 3 am with blood all over me, soaked through my trousers to the crotch. They dismissed me as being naughty and a nuisance. I was bruised and bloody.” Another victim said, “Social services washed their hands. ‘It is your choice’, I was told.”
We must not only pay tribute to the victims for their bravery in coming forward, but recognise that such serious abuse has long-term and complex consequences. I ask the Education Secretary today to make it a personal priority to ensure that these survivors get the long-term and sustainable support that they need.
I thank my hon. Friend for her remarks. I know that she, as an Oxfordshire MP, has been deeply involved in these matters, and I pay tribute to her for her work. I can assure her that my Department and all relevant Departments will do all we can to help and support the victims of these crimes. She is absolutely right to talk about the culture of denial, and the unwillingness to look at the signs of physical and mental abuse inflicted on the victims, which will undoubtedly affect them for the long term. That is why dealing with these issues and ensuring that the front-line professionals take action is so important.
After Rochdale and Rotherham comes an account of the horrific events in Oxford. Let us be clear that it is the heinous crimes and the callous wickedness of Mohammed and Bassam Karrar, Akhtar and Anjum Dogar, Kamar Jamil, Assad Hussain and Zeeshan Ahmed that needs to be condemned again today. They are the ones responsible for the sadism, the grooming, the abuse and the torture that was inflicted on vulnerable girls in Oxford, robbing them of their adolescence, their health and their sense of worth. The serious case review report also reveals that both Thames Valley police and Oxfordshire county council completely let down those victims. In the words of one victim,
“The police never asked me why”
I went missing;
“I made a complaint about a man who trafficked me from a children’s home. He was arrested, released and trafficked me again.”
As we saw in Rochdale, the voice of victims was not listened to and prejudicial thinking around lifestyle choices blocked detailed investigation. These were young girls, exploited teenagers, suffering terrible abuse. Once again, we need to ensure that care homes, the police, social workers and health workers eradicate any cultural tolerance of the abuse of young girls. As Maggie Blyth from the Oxfordshire safeguarding children board said, there were “repeated missed opportunities” that could have been “identified or prevented earlier.”
Government have a role to play, so let me put these questions to the Secretary of State. Is she satisfied that the safeguarding arrangements in place for children in Oxfordshire today are right and proper and will prevent more children from being vulnerable to child sexual exploitation? Do the Government now intend to establish an independent inquiry into Oxfordshire county council to see whether it has the capacity to safeguard its children? We know that the work of Alexis Jay and Louise Casey in Rotherham was instrumental in sorting out that council in its approach to child sexual exploitation. Will the same approach be taken with Oxfordshire? Will further action be taken against those agencies and individuals who are found to have failed these children?
The Prime Minister is today setting out new measures to end “wilful neglect”. What is the Government’s definition of “wilful neglect”? Is the Secretary of State satisfied that the definition places sufficient onus on individuals who come into contact with children to report signs of abuse? Will she and the Home Secretary now support stronger laws on child exploitation and abduction? Will she look again at child abduction warning orders and the specific offence of child exploitation?
Finally, will the Secretary of State now join the cross-party consensus—the Labour party, the Liberal Democrats, the Education Committee and all professionals in the field—and support age-appropriate statutory sex and relationship education to teach young people about consent and healthy relationships? We need to give young people the armoury and the education to know that this kind of sexual abuse is wrong and needs to be stripped out of British society?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his statement and his questions. I agree with his analysis that voices were not listened to. He points out that prosecutions have already taken place for crimes that have been committed. He is right to say that there should be no holding back on prosecutions because of the perpetrators’ background. As the Prime Minister rightly said this morning, that relates not just to Oxfordshire. There have been other terrible cases, as we have seen in the past few months, if not years. The Prime Minister said that a warped sense of political correctness had potentially prevented some investigations from taking place.
The hon. Gentleman asks about inspections. Ofsted inspected Oxfordshire children’s services last year and highlighted, as he did, the steps that had been taken in relation to Oxfordshire children’s services. I have already mentioned the letter sent by my right hon. Friends this morning in relation to the appointment of a senior children’s services expert to go back into Oxfordshire to look into the points raised in the serious case review.
The hon. Gentleman mentions the Louise Casey report. That was a wider report on council governance in Rotherham, in particular. In Oxfordshire we are looking specifically at the children’s services departments, but clearly this is an ongoing issue. He mentions the offence of wilful neglect, which we have said we will consult on. That concept is set out in the Mental Capacity Act 2005 and has been proposed by my right hon. Friend the Health Secretary in relation to the lessons and the consequences of the Mid Staffs issues. It is a failure to act by a person who has a duty of care, in this case to children and young people.
The hon. Gentleman refers to the offence of child sexual exploitation. There are already many offences under which the perpetrators have been prosecuted, including, clearly, sexual relations with children and child rape. He mentions the education of young people in schools. I am fully in favour of excellent PSHE, sex and relationship education and education on consent, but it must be excellent. It cannot just be about ticking boxes. He talks about young people perhaps not knowing that what was happening to them was wrong. I think he knows that that is not the case, given the quotes from the victims in the serious case review. They knew that what was happening to them was wrong. They asked for help but they did not get it.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that every police officer, council official and social worker should consider whether a youngster is a child, and if they may be a child, they should be regarded as a child, listened to as a child and protected as a child, and that any professional who fails to provide that protection should risk disciplinary and criminal proceedings?
My right hon. Friend is right. The offences in this case and in many others were committed against children. There can be no doubt that children of the age involved cannot give their consent to what was perpetrated against them. That should have made it much clearer to those who received reports or should have taken action that they needed to do so, and they were professionally incompetent for not doing so.
Does the Secretary of State agree that these ghastly crimes against children are a blight on any civilised society and that we must stop them occurring? Does she further agree that it is too often too easy to provide a fast knee-jerk response and get it wrong? Let us look very carefully at the evidence and consider how to respond. Let us look also at the way in which we are shrinking childhood in this country. Personally, I would like to see the age of consent raised. I oppose votes at 16 because that will bring the end of childhood closer. There is too much pressure on childhood and we as a society must look carefully at the preciousness of the childhood years.
The hon. Gentleman is right that what we have seen in Oxfordshire and elsewhere are abhorrent, sickening crimes, and they are crimes. He is right to say that any of us in any position of authority feels that those are a stain on our society and must be eradicated. He is right to say that we do not want to rush into responding, but where immediate action must be taken, it is important that it is taken. That is what we have seen in Rotherham, for example, with the appointment of the commissioners. The Secretaries of State have been meeting since last autumn to discuss the Government’s response to Rotherham in particular, which will be announced at Downing street this afternoon. We have taken time and there will be further consultations coming out of the response. We have already announced reforms to children’s social work practice, and that is a long-term response about improving training. He will understand that there needs to be a mixture of responses to something as sickening as this.
We must do everything we can to reduce the vulnerability of the young people we have heard about today. Further to the question from the Opposition spokesman and the Secretary of State’s response, my Committee agrees about the need for excellent sex and relationship education in schools precisely to give resilience to young people, to enable them to talk about consent in a meaningful way, as one witness put it, and to tell them about age gaps and predatory behaviours so that they start to recognise those. We wrestled with how we would get the curriculum time and the investment in teacher quality if we do not make such education statutory—reluctantly, because we do not want to impose further duties on schools. We came to the conclusion that that had to be made statutory if we are to deliver it. If the Secretary of State thinks it should not be statutory, will she tell us why, or tell us what else could be done in lieu of what we suggested to make these things happen?
I thank my hon. Friend the Chairman of the Select Committee for his remarks. The Committee produced an interesting report and I know that the Minister of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr Gibb), gave evidence to the Committee. We will consider the conclusions carefully. In relation to consent, it is important to know that the victims in these cases knew that they had not given consent. There was no question about consent being given. They knew that what was happening to them was absolutely wrong. Sex and relationship education is already compulsory in secondary maintained schools. Most academies and free schools also teach it, and I suspect that many primaries do so in an age-appropriate way. I was at Eastbourne academy last week talking to the students there about what they call SPHERE, which is like PSHE. The academy taught it in a fantastic way. It did not need to be told to do so; it did not need such teaching to be statutory. It was doing it because, exactly as the Chairman of the Select Committee said, it was preparing young people to be resilient.
The whole House will be appalled at what has happened in Oxfordshire, but does the Secretary of State understand that we are appalled also that individuals who preside over these failing systems are not held to account? If there was a council where junior social workers have not referred these things up the system, where senior officers and senior councillors were unaware of them, that is a sign of a failing system within a council, and a proper independent outside inquiry is needed to get to the heart of why that system failed and to put it right, as was rightly done in Rotherham. Will the right hon. Lady explain to us why that is not happening now?
The serious case review is an important step in what the hon. Lady calls for. It identifies the fact that, as she said, in Oxfordshire’s case there were junior people who were producing reports but those did not reach a senior enough level. There are other councils, as we know, one of which is Rotherham, where junior people did put in reports which were raised at a senior level, and the people at a senior level chose not to act on them. I have sympathy for the hon. Lady’s point about accountability and people taking responsibility. It will clearly be a matter for Oxfordshire county council, the police and others to think about who needs to take responsibility for these matters. We have already seen that in Rotherham my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government has appointed a whole new set of commissioners to run that council. There are other councils where those in charge have taken responsibility and have resigned.
I welcome the measures announced today and the Secretary of State’s indication that child sexual exploitation is now seen as a national threat, which shows the scale of abuse that I think is suspected. Thames Valley police suffered from many failings, but they have made some progress since 2013—I believe that 47 offenders have been successfully charged with 201 child sexual exploitation offences. What can she say at this stage about the support that she and her colleague in the Home Office, the Minister for Policing, Criminal Justice and Victims, will give to police officers and those on the front line who have to deal with these terrible offences?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right that child sexual abuse will now be prioritised by every police force in England and Wales as a national threat, just like serious and organised crime, which means forces will now have a duty to collaborate to safeguard children, including through more efficient sharing of resources, intelligence and best practice. They will also be supported by specialist regional CSE police co-ordinators. I think that the national policing lead will be at this afternoon’s summit, where I expect to hear about much better training for all police officers.
Sadly, this report echoes many of the examples of child abuse we have heard about in my own borough of Rotherham and elsewhere. I have two things to say to the Secretary of State. First, Ofsted also carried out an inspection in Rotherham and gave it a clean bill of health when that clearly was not the case. Secondly, she is right to say that Louise Casey’s report on governance went wider than child protection, but it was set up specifically because of the child abuse taking place in Rotherham. Is the Secretary of State satisfied that the scrutiny by elected members in Oxfordshire is up to the standard necessary to protect our young children? It clearly was not in my borough, and people are rightly having to take responsibility for that. Is she happy that that is being done in the elected Oxfordshire county council as well?
The right hon. Gentleman is right to say that Ofsted inspected Rotherham before the issues came to light. The Ofsted framework has since changed, so the inspection carried out in Rotherham was based on a different framework and asked different questions from those of the inspection that we see today and the one that was carried out in Oxfordshire last summer. He is right to raise the issue of elected members, which is one of the questions that we will continue to go back to in Oxfordshire. He will be aware that the proposals on wilful neglect that the Prime Minister announced this morning will also apply to elected members.
I, too, pay tribute to the victims of these appalling crimes. Has the Secretary of State taken into account the fact that Operation Bullfinch, which brought the perpetrators to justice, has transformed the legal landscape in which cases can be heard? Have the good points that were brought out from Operation Bullfinch been taken into account across the country?
I thank my hon. Friend, who is absolutely right to put support for the victims at the heart of all this. He is right that things have moved on as a result partly of Operation Bullfinch and partly of other operations and lessons learned from other cases. It is a different landscape but, as he will appreciate, that does not take away from the harm done to the victims.
I called for the immediate removal and resignation of the Labour leadership of Rotherham council. Will the Secretary of State join me in calling for the resignation of the political leadership of Oxfordshire county council?
I think that is a matter for the leaders and elected members of Oxfordshire county council to consider. The serious case review obviously covers failings from 2004 to 2011. We have today asked for a further locally led assessment of child sexual exploitation in Oxfordshire and for Sophie Humphreys to continue that work. Let me say to the hon. Gentleman that this work is ongoing.
Two weeks ago I was with the Metropolitan police jigsaw unit and paedophile unit, and they will be delighted to a degree to hear her statement on education, because they feel that that is the answer, but they want it to be slanted more towards prevention. Teach what is normally taught, but also teach children about prevention, particularly on the internet. The Metropolitan police used to have a very good scheme that certainly worked for children and teachers, but it seems to have disappeared.
My hon. Friend is right about the importance of education. It is all about the quality of the teaching materials and of the teaching that goes on in schools. There is no point having some sort of lip service paid to lessons about consent or anything else if the lessons do not sink in. The Government have invested in the PSHE Association, supporting improved teaching materials and improved guidance on consent.
May I press the Secretary of State on the need for an independent inquiry? If the cultural issues that led to complaints and concerns not being escalated have not been addressed, why should there not be an independent inquiry?
As I said earlier, the serious case review is an independent inquiry and, under this Government, it will be published in full so that we can all see what has been said. As I have said, we propose that there should be a specific piece of work led by Oxfordshire’s safeguarding children board on the impact of the multi-agency approach to tackling CSE, and we are appointing a children’s services expert to work alongside the council and gather evidence of the reforms it has already made to front-line practice.
I know that many police officers at all levels of the service are appalled at the policing failures that led to the wider failures in this terrible set of cases. I appreciate that this does not fall within the Secretary of State’s ministerial responsibility, but does she share my view that the key thing in the training of police officers now is to change the culture of disbelief so that they treat vulnerable young women no longer as a problem but as victims of crime?
My right hon. Friend is right to point to the culture of denial and disbelief. As we heard from the right hon. Member for Oxford East (Mr Smith), there was sometimes a reluctance to believe allegations, even when victims presented themselves in a state at a police station. The Minister for Policing, Criminal Justice and Victims is sitting alongside me, and I know that he is as appalled as we all are about this. As we have learned, there are lessons for the police that will be picked up at today’s summit.
The Secretary of State earlier said, “We on this side of the House are concerned”. May I take this opportunity to remind her that all Members on both sides of the House are united in their determination to drive out child sexual exploitation? I ask her to look at two particular proposals to increase resilience to such exploitation among children: first, to feed into the Home Office review of child advocates the lessons from this review; and secondly, to take up a suggestion made by worried mums in my constituency for parents’ PSHE so that they can better protect their children.
The hon. Lady will appreciate that I cannot speak for Opposition Members, but I think that the tone of remarks from the shadow Education Secretary and others has shown that Members on both sides of the House are appalled by what has happened to the victims, and sadly not only in Oxfordshire, but in other local authorities. She will be well aware of what has happened to Slough’s children’s services and of the work that has been done there to set up the trust over the years. I understand her point about child advocates, which has already been taken up, and what she says about parents, whether in relation to PSHE or anything else. In this case, however, looking again at the serious case review, there were parents of victims also saying that they needed help, but they were not believed. That makes this case even more appalling.
As my right hon. Friend has said, child sexual exploitation has been a scourge in many communities across the UK. I am pleased that Lancashire police have taken a lead on those issues for a number of years now and regularly update me on local prosecutions. Will she say more about the level of support she can provide for the charities and non-statutory bodies that are doing such fantastic work to support victims but find themselves under increasing pressure at this time?
Although many statutory agencies will be responsible for dealing with these issues in supporting victims and their families, my hon. Friend is absolutely right to pay tribute to the charities and the voluntary and community sector, which provide that support as well. This afternoon, for example, representatives from the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, Barnardo’s and Rape Crisis are attending a summit on this. I know from my role as Minister for Women and Equalities—the policing Minister will appreciate this too—that smaller organisations often find very valuable support in communities. We absolutely want to help them to do their job.
When the Education Committee carried out a year-long inquiry into child protection, we found that more needed to be done to support professionals in responding effectively and consistently to the early signs of neglect. Neglect causes long-term damage to thousands of young people every year. Therefore, should not prevention of neglect be as much of a priority as finding the perpetrators and supporting the victims, which the Secretary of State has talked about, and should that not include support for professionals, as recommended by the Committee and accepted by the Government two years ago in their response to our report?
The hon. Gentleman talks about the need to deal with neglect, and I entirely agree. Sadly, there are many vulnerable children across our country. I am sure that we see them in our role as constituency Members of Parliament and work with them and their families. I mention to him the work that this Government have undertaken through the troubled families programme, which is turning round the lives of thousands of children. We also have the new knowledge and skills statement for children’s social workers that has been prepared by the chief children’s social worker, Isabelle Trowler, who does a fantastic job in my Department, and the wider reforms that I have announced in training for children’s social work. It all very well to have lots of children’s social workers, but it is also very important to ensure the quality of their training and of the work that they do in supporting vulnerable children and families.
(Urgent Question): To ask the Home Secretary to make a statement on Yarl’s Wood immigration detention centre.
Detention is an important part of a firm but fair immigration system. It is right that those with no right to remain in the UK are returned to their home country if they will not leave voluntarily, but a sense of fairness must always be at the heart of our immigration system, including for those we are removing from the UK. That is why the allegations made by Channel 4 about Serco staff at Yarl’s Wood are serious and deeply concerning, it is why they required an immediate response to address them, and it is why the Government have ensured that that is being done.
All immigration removal centres are subject to the detention centre rules approved by this House in 2001. Those rules, and further operational guidance, set out the standards that we all expect to ensure that the safety and dignity of detainees is upheld. No form of discrimination is tolerated. In addition to the rules, removal centres are subject to regular independent inspections by Her Majesty’s inspectorate of prisons and by independent monitoring boards that publish their findings. The chairman of the independent monitoring board for Yarl’s Wood is Mary Coussey, the former independent race monitor. The most recent inspection by Her Majesty’s chief inspector of prisons found Yarl’s Wood to be a safe and respectful centre that is continuing to improve. The last annual report of the independent monitoring board commented positively on the emphasis placed on purposeful activities within the centre and the expansion of welfare provision, and raised no concerns about safety. None the less, the Home Office expects the highest levels of integrity and professionalism from all its contractors and takes any allegations of misconduct extremely seriously. As soon as we were made aware of the recent allegations, Home Office officials visited Yarl’s Wood to secure assurances that all detainees were being treated in a safe and dignified manner.
The director general of immigration enforcement has written to Serco making our expectations about its response to these allegations very clear. We told Serco that it must act quickly and decisively to eradicate the kinds of attitudes that appear to have been displayed by its staff. Serco immediately suspended one member of staff who could be identified from information available before the broadcast, and has suspended another having seen the footage. The company has also commissioned an independent review of its culture and staffing at Yarl’s Wood. This will be conducted for Serco by Kate Lampard, who, as the House will be aware, recently produced the “lessons learned” review of the Jimmy Savile inquiries for the Department of Health. However, more needs to be done. The Home Office has made it clear that we expect to see the swift and comprehensive introduction of body-worn cameras for staff at Yarl’s Wood. In addition, we have discussed with Her Majesty’s chief inspector of prisons how he might provide further independent assurance.
This Government have a proud record of working to protect vulnerable people in detention. We have reviewed the Mental Health Act 1983 and set out proposals for legislative change as a result; held a summit on policing and mental health, highlighting in particular the concerns of black and ethnic minority people; and commissioned Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary to undertake a review of vulnerable people in police custody that will be published shortly. Before these allegations were made, the Home Secretary commissioned Stephen Shaw, the former prisons and probation ombudsman for England and Wales, to lead an independent review of welfare in the whole immigration detention estate. We will of course invite him to consider these allegations as part of that overarching review.
This country has a long tradition of tolerance and respect for human rights. Detaining those with no right to remain here and who refuse to leave voluntarily is key to maintaining an effective immigration system. But we are clear that all detainees must be treated with dignity and respect. We will accept nothing but the highest standards from those to whom we entrust the responsibility of their care.
I thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting the urgent question and the Minister for her answer and her explanation of why the Minister for Security and Immigration is not here today. I am very pleased to see the two local MPs, the right hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) and the hon. Member for Bedford (Richard Fuller).
Channel 4’s film on Yarl’s Wood, shown last night, revealed shocking footage about the detention centre, which has been under heavy criticism for the treatment of its 400 detainees since 2001. What was uncovered was deeply disturbing. Serious questions were raised over standards of health care in Yarl’s Wood. What was detailed included examples of self-harm by detainees, including three women who jumped from the stairs and people slashing their wrists in an attempt not to be removed. It took a freedom of information request to reveal that there were 74 separate incidents of self-harm needing medical treatment at the centre in 2013. Guards who appeared in the footage merely dismissed information about people harming themselves as “attention seeking”. Will the Minister explain why her ministerial colleague, Lord Bates, told Parliament on 24 February that there had been no serious incidents of self-harm taking place in the past two years?
Arguably the most concerning element was the contempt that was shown for detainees through the use of racist, sexist and generally abusive and degrading language. We saw a guard advocating violence towards a person who was detained there. One guard said:
“Headbutt the bitch…I’d beat her up.”
Another was recorded as saying:
“They’re animals. They’re beasties. They’re all animals. Caged animals. Take a stick with you and beat them up.”
These are appalling statements that should never be tolerated by anybody, particularly from employees of a company in receipt of millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money. Yarl’s Wood is not a prison but an immigration centre that has a duty to protect some of the most vulnerable, who are in most cases escaping violence and instability in their countries of origin in search of a better life. Frankly, some are there because the Home Office has taken such a long time to deal with their cases. Instead of being protected, detainees are verbally abused and poorly treated.
This is not the first time that Yarl’s Wood has been the subject of parliamentary criticism. The Home Affairs Committee has been highly critical of the centre’s performance following damning reports of sexual misconduct and excessively long detentions. Of course I welcome the suspension of one of the people involved, and the fact that an independent inquiry is to be established, but the Minister is absolutely right that more needs to be done. We need a timetable for that inquiry. Will she send in her inspectors not just to visit but to write a report having spoken to detainees?
Has the Minister spoken to Rupert Soames, the chief executive of Serco, to express the Government’s concern? Serco’s right to bid for other contracts should be suspended pending any review. Despite reports of catastrophic failings in November last year, Serco was awarded an eight-year, £70 million contract at Yarl’s Wood. Will the Minister look at her procurement processes? All of Serco’s contracts should be reviewed immediately. The Select Committee has recommended in the past that those who fail the taxpayer should be put on a register and should not be given any other contracts. Only a few months ago, the Lord Chancellor sent in the Serious Fraud Office in order to discover why Serco had overcharged the taxpayer by £70 million.
I agree with the Minister that this treatment is inhumane. The United Kingdom has a reputation as a world leader in human rights—that is clear from the number of people who risk their lives to come here—and we simply cannot allow this behaviour to continue in a centre that has a duty to protect them.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman, the Chair of the Home Affairs Committee, for all that he and his Committee have done over many years to highlight problems in immigration detention centres. In 2009, his Committee reported specifically on UK Border Agency immigration detention centres, and this Government legislated to implement its recommendations.
The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. We are all shocked and appalled by the evidence we have seen, and action must be taken. Hon. Members should be under no illusions: this Government are breathing down the neck of Serco, and we want to see action swiftly.
The right hon. Gentleman said that one person has been suspended. In fact, one person was suspended before the broadcast. We were unable to see the programme before it was broadcast, but on the basis of evidence available before the broadcast, one person was suspended. Another has since been suspended, and I know that Serco will shortly look at whether to suspend others.
The right hon. Gentleman referred to a comment about self-harm by my colleague the noble Lord Bates in the other place. In fact, Lord Bates said that there were no cases of suicide or attempted suicide in Yarl’s Wood, and that is correct. There is evidence of self-harm, which we take extremely seriously, but there have been no suicides or attempted suicides.
The right hon. Gentleman said that the language and behaviour of the staff is completely and totally inappropriate. Hon. Members should be in no doubt that this Government and this House take that very seriously. The message to Serco is that this needs to be sorted out and needs to be sorted out quickly.
I spoke this morning to the chair of the independent monitoring board at Yarl’s Wood, and she is shocked and horrified about what was shown on television last night. There is no justification for what we saw, and the action taken by the Government and Serco is quite right. What bothers me is that we are here again: this is not new. I am also bothered by the disparity. The Minister was quite right to refer to a series of reports from the chief inspector of prisons, Nick Hardwick, whom we all know, and to the report of Mary Coussey of the independent monitoring board, but those reports are at odds and at variance with such individual incidents. These incidents keep happening, and I do not know who is missing what.
As the review takes place, as it must, I urge the Minister to look at this point in particular. Over a period of time, I have pleaded with the Government to allow proper journalistic access to and transparency in Yarl’s Wood—if the press cannot get in one way, they will get in another. There is also the refusal to allow the UN rapporteur the opportunity to go in. The regime in Yarl’s Wood is completely different from the one originally set up by the previous Government. I have seen it change over many years, but there is no way to convince people of that unless they can get in. As well as dealing with this incident, will she look at the disparity between the reports and such incidents, because we should not have to meet in the Chamber and discuss this again in future?
I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend for all his work, as the local constituency MP for Yarl’s Wood, in highlighting problems in the past. I am sure he agrees that to have a fair immigration system, there comes a point at which some form of detention is needed for people who refuse to leave the country voluntarily, but they must be detained with dignity and fairness to ensure that they are treated with respect.
My right hon. Friend will know that Stephen Shaw is carrying out a review of the whole immigration detention estate, and I look forward to that report. He will also know that the independent monitoring board has the keys to Yarl’s Wood: it can access Yarl’s Wood at any time. Knowing that, and given the review that is taking place, we will look at everything to make sure we have certainty and can be confident that detainees are treated with dignity.
The revelations on Channel 4 were shocking, but they were not at all new or even surprising for many of us who have worked with people in Yarl’s Wood over the years. It is eight years since I worked with a 13-year-old girl who attempted suicide in Yarl’s Wood and was taken to Bedford hospital, where she was shackled to her bed by prison guards. Since then, we have had numerous reports from charities and independent monitors about sexual abuse, sexual exploitation, self-harm and mental health problems left untreated. This is not just about isolated individuals.
I would say to the Minister that a system run for profit and to targets leaves very little room for compassion or humanity. Although it is absolutely right that individuals are prosecuted and brought to justice for the shocking things that we saw on Channel 4 last night, it is about time that we got a grip on the system. Will she make sure that the review of detention includes the impacts of private sector, for-profit involvement in detention on some of the most vulnerable people in this country?
The hon. Lady talks about having worked in this area for many years, including things she saw eight years ago. I agree that things were wrong and that they need to improve. This Government are proud of the measures we have taken—for example, on stop-and-search and mental health in custody—and the review we have instigated from Stephen Shaw is the next step in a natural progression to ensuring we safeguard people while treating detainees with appropriate dignity. I do not think that the question is about whether that is done through the public sector or the private sector; the question is about how we make sure that people in detention are treated with the dignity that they should rightly have. We are all shocked by what we have seen, and we need to make sure that it is rectified.
I have chaired a cross-party inquiry on the issue of immigration detention, and our report was published this morning. The panel’s concern is that if the response to the scandal at Yarl’s Wood focuses only on conditions, it is likely to tackle just symptoms, rather than the underlying causes. The Minister says that the question is about how people are treated in detention, but our question is why some of these people are in detention in the first place. Our evidence suggests that most of the problems arise because we detain too many people for far too long and inappropriately.
Will the Minister commit the Government to responding in full to our inquiry? In particular, will she look at the international evidence we have presented, which suggests that there is a cheaper, more humane and more effective way of operating by making better use of community alternatives?
My hon. Friend has worked tirelessly and ceaselessly on this issue, and I pay tribute to her and her committee for the report. I have a copy of it, and I have to say that it is quite lengthy. I have not had a chance to get through all its points, but I assure her that I will look at it, and I will make sure that we respond to it.
My hon. Friend talks about the fact that more people are detained. It is important to make it clear that we have taken measures so that when people arrive clandestinely in the UK, we can be certain who they are—their nationality and identity—and ensure that they pose no risk to the British public. I do not apologise for putting the safety and security of the British public first and foremost when someone arrives clandestinely by making sure that they are who they say they are, while treating them appropriately.
Women in Yarl’s Wood are detained on the instruction of the Home Office, and the Home Secretary is therefore responsible for ensuring that they are treated humanely. There is a history of problems at Yarl’s Wood going back many years, but we were told that it had been dealt with.
Yet in September 2013 it was reported that women at Yarl’s Wood had been sexually assaulted by guards from Serco, which the Home Secretary had contracted to manage the centre. I called on her to set up an independent inquiry, but she did not. In March 2014, a woman died in Yarl’s Wood. I asked an urgent question in the House, and again called on the Home Secretary to set up an independent inquiry. She would not come to the House, and she did not set up an inquiry. In May, more allegations came out, including that another vulnerable woman was sexually assaulted, and that a woman who poured boiling water over herself was left for hours in a state of shock. I called on the Home Secretary to set up a proper independent inquiry, and I again called on her to do so at the end of last year.
The Home Secretary has repeatedly refused to establish an independent inquiry, refused to investigate allegations of rape and sexual abuse, refused to let even the UN rapporteur visit and refused to come to this House to answer for it.
Instead, in November, the Home Secretary renewed Serco’s contract. She gave the company whose guards stand accused of abuse a contract for another eight years. We called on her to have an inquiry before she renewed the contract and she refused. Last month, she said that she would review the policies and procedures in detention centres. Again, that should have been done before the contract was renewed.
Here we are again with even more serious allegations. A pregnant woman was left to have a miscarriage without getting all the medical support she needed. Guards are calling women “animals”, with one saying,
“Take a stick with you and beat them up.”
Those are the Serco guards to whom the Home Secretary gave the contract just a few months ago. There is no point in Ministers pretending to be shocked at the news of abuse—it is not news. Even now, Ministers have not set up an independent inquiry; Serco has. We are leaving it to the company to set up the independent inquiry that should have been set up by the Home Office.
The Home Secretary should have come to the House today to answer this question. What has been happening is an utter disgrace, as is the continued failure to look into it. The Minister has been sent out to defend the indefensible. She should go back and tell the Home Secretary to take some responsibility for a change, to stop pregnant women and victims of sexual violence being held in Yarl’s Wood, and to hold a proper independent inquiry, because this is state-sanctioned abuse of women on the Home Secretary’s watch, and it needs to end now.
It is very disappointing that the right hon. Lady comes to this House, not having called for the urgent question, and makes comments about the Home Secretary not being here. She knows that the Home Secretary is at No. 10 at the moment dealing with child abuse—something that we all agree is an incredibly important, urgent matter that needs to be dealt with.
It is also disappointing that the right hon. Lady talks about abuses at Yarl’s Wood. Let us remember what the report on the announced inspection of Yarl’s Wood immigration removal centre in 2008 said. Let us remember who was in government at that time. The report stated:
“we were dismayed to find cases of disabled children being detained and some children spending large amounts of time incarcerated.”
“Escort vehicles with caged compartments were inappropriately used to transport children.”
It is this Government who have legislated to end the detention of children for immigration purposes.
In 2008, just 68% of detainees said that most staff treated them with respect. The figure is now 84%. The report said:
“Not enough was done to communicate with detainees who spoke little English”.
“Women complained about the food. Healthcare needed further improvement, particularly to address mental health and child health needs.”
That was the report in 2008 under the right hon. Lady’s Government. It is this Government who have looked to ensure that those things are dealt with.
We have set up the review. We have set up the review into the whole immigration detention estate that is being led by Stephen Shaw. I am confident that he will uncover the abuse.
The right hon. Lady asked about the renewal of Serco’s contract. Let us remember what the policy is. The rules that determine the renewal of contracts were drawn up by Parliament in 2001. That is a rigorous and robust process, and it was set up by her Government. We will take no lessons on this matter from the Labour party. We have a proud record and we will root out the abuse.
The individual employees at Yarl’s Wood let down their colleagues, their company and their country with their vile comments, which were exposed on Channel 4. However, the issue is not just individual people; it is the policy of the overuse of detention in managing immigration. That policy was introduced by the last Labour Government and has been continued by the coalition Government. When will the two Front Benches wake up and smell the coffee? Immigration detention is costly, ineffective and unjust. It costs millions of pounds a year. Some 70% of people who go into immigration detention go back into the community. These experiences in Yarl’s Wood are a stain on the conscience of this country.
I thank my hon. Friend for his question and for the work that he has done as the constituency Member of Parliament for Yarl’s Wood. He is right that the individuals in question have let down many people. He is also right that it is not just about the individuals. We need to get to the bottom of what is going on there and to understand it exactly. The measures that we have insisted that Serco undertake urgently, including the use of body-worn cameras by all staff, will make a difference by exposing where there is abuse.
My hon. Friend talked about people being in detention for too long. I agree that people have been kept in detention for too long. That has happened because the previous Government’s immigration system allowed up to 17 appeals. The Immigration Act 2014, which we brought in, brings that number down to four. I hope that we will see a difference in the length of time people spend in detention. It is not something that any of us want to see, but it is a necessary evil if we are to have a fair, robust immigration system.
I am disappointed that the Minister is reacting in the way that she is. This is a very important issue. It is a stain on our country’s reputation for human rights. Does she agree that we all have to learn from the tradition of using these big, monopolistic companies? G4S let us down at the Olympics, Serco is involved in this case, Capita was involved in the tagging of individuals and now the Government are putting our probation service out to one of these companies. When will we learn that these companies have poor management, the wrong ethic, the wrong culture and the wrong priorities? It is about time we changed all that.
I think it was the previous Government who used private contracts. Private companies are not necessarily bad; they just have to be properly managed.
Yarl’s Wood has been a disgrace for well over a decade. It was a disgrace under the last Government and it is a disgrace under this Government. When children were detained there, they were left at serious risk of harm. We now have adults being left at serious risk of harm. That is completely unacceptable. Yes, the individual employees were at fault; yes, the company is at fault, but changing that will not fix the system. Getting in a new company, a new organisation and new employees will not solve the problem. What we have to do, as is suggested in the report by the panel that was chaired so well by my hon. Friend the Member for Brent Central (Sarah Teather), is completely rethink the system. No other country in Europe has indefinite detention and holds people for years on end. I hope that the Minister will look at that again. I hope that the Minister and the shadow Secretary of State will look at the report and change their policy.
My hon. Friend referred to children being treated badly in Yarl’s Wood. He will know that this Government have taken action and stopped that. I will look at the report, as I have said. I look forward to seeing what suggestions have been made. It is worth repeating that we have reduced from 17 to four the number of appeals a detainee can make against their removal. It is also worth saying that 63% of detainees are released within 28 days. We need to get that percentage up, but we also need to ensure that the system is fair for those who play by the rules.
I have been sickened by and ashamed at the reports about the treatment of detainees at Yarl’s Wood that we have seen this week and on so many previous occasions. I am also ashamed of some of the partisan comments that have been made in the discussion this afternoon. They are of absolutely no interest to the women I have met who have spent time in Yarl’s Wood and who have emerged incredibly distressed. I ask that we all think about the tone in which we conduct this discussion.
May I ask the Minister a specific question about the investigations and reviews that are taking place? In the past, there have been reports that women who have evidence to give or victims of abuse have been deported before their cases could be properly investigated. What assurances will she give that that will not happen, that all the evidence will be gathered in, and that those who have a story to tell will be heard and will remain in this country to tell it?
The hon. Lady is right to say that this is about the people—I absolutely agree with her about that. It is the victims of abuse that we really need to think about and put at the forefront of what we are doing. She will know that, through the Modern Slavery Bill, we are introducing new protections for victims of trafficking, including those who come to light in detention. I heard a horrific story recently about somebody who had been treated as a victim of domestic abuse, but it was only when her immigration status began to be questioned and she ended up in an immigration detention centre that she came forward and said that she was a victim of trafficking as well. It is absolutely paramount that front-line staff receive training to make sure that they can identify those victims so that we can get them into the national referral mechanism, give them the support they need and catch the evil perpetrators of those crimes. I totally agree with the hon. Lady that that must be at the forefront of what we are doing.
Detention is part of the immigration system, but we must ensure that all detainees are treated in a safe and dignified manner. On Sunday, I met a local family who are very concerned that a family member with mental health issues will shortly be detained before being deported. Although I appreciate that the Minister cannot comment on individual cases, will she say more about what is being done to ensure that those with mental health issues are safely detained if they need to be detained?
As my hon. Friend says, I cannot comment on the specifics of that case, but it clearly sounds like a heart-rending situation. We have taken action to make sure that those suffering from mental health conditions are not detained in police custody, and we are taking steps to ensure that they are not detained in immigration detention.
The Minister has said that about two thirds of the women in Yarl’s Wood are there for more than a month. Overwhelmingly, these are people who have not been convicted, or even accused, of any crime, but who are put in administrative detention for extended periods. What is the Minister doing to make sure that they have the high-quality legal advice and representation they require to make sure that their case is properly heard before she organises their removal?
To correct the hon. Lady, she said that two thirds are held for more than a month, but 63% are discharged within 28 days and either removed or released. The issue with the length of time for which people are detained is that the system that we inherited had too many layers, too many procedures and too many appeals, which meant that we could not get to the bottom of whether somebody was right to claim asylum or whether they should be returned to their home. By reducing the number of appeals to four, I hope we will see a shorter time period.
The managing director of Serco’s home affairs business has said that an independent review was required because the
“public will want to be confident that Yarl’s Wood is doing its difficult task with professionalism, care and humanity”.
Given the catalogue of shame and controversy over many years, is not the only way to regain public confidence to strip Serco of its responsibility for running Yarl’s Wood?
I do not think that the answer is to strip Serco of its responsibility; the answer is to make sure that we get to the bottom of what has happened. My hon. Friend is right to say that any form of abuse is an embarrassment. We need the public not just to see that there are no problems, but to believe that there are no problems. We need them to be happy that detainees are being treated in an appropriate and acceptable way. We are holding Serco’s feet to the fire: I want to see action, we are making sure that it takes action, and we will take action against it if we need to.
In her opening remarks, the Minister said that a recent inspection had found Yarl’s Wood to be safe. Clearly, it is not. Could she explain the discrepancy between the reality and the inspection report, and what is she doing about it?
As I said in my opening comments, there have been a number of inspections of Yarl’s Wood by Her Majesty’s chief inspector of prisons and the independent monitoring board, which, as I have said, has the keys to Yarl’s Wood and can go in any time it wants. We have found no evidence that anybody is at risk. However, the allegations made in last night’s programme are very serious and we need to get to the bottom of them and take action.
The recent footage was disturbing, but, unfortunately, allegations of sexual abuse of vulnerable women and abuse at the centre are not new. Given the apparent gulf between official reports, what the Minister has said today and life at Yarl’s Wood, and given that we have seen so many repeated failures over such a long time and the reluctance of Ministers to act so far, can we be confident that change will really happen?
It is not fair to say that Ministers have been reluctant to take action—we have taken significant action. This urgent question follows an urgent question about Oxfordshire county council, and a summit on child sexual abuse is taking place at Downing street today. There needs to be a sea change in how all people in authority and all bodies treat allegations and victims. We all have a responsibility to take this seriously.
Maternity Services (Morecambe Bay)
With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on the independent investigation into the care of mothers and babies at the University Hospitals of Morecambe Bay NHS Foundation Trust, which is being published today.
I commissioned this report in September 2013 because I believed there were vital issues that needed to be addressed following serious incidents in maternity services provided by the trust dating back to 2004.
There is no greater pain for a parent than to lose a child, and to do so knowing it was because of mistakes that we now know were covered up makes the agony even worse. Nothing we say or do today can take away that pain, but we can at least provide the answers to the families’ questions about what happened and why, and in doing so try to prevent a similar tragedy in the future.
We can do something else, too, which should have happened much earlier—and that is, on behalf of the Government and the NHS, to apologise to every family who have suffered as a result of these terrible failures. The courage of those families in constantly reliving their sadness in a long and bitter search for the truth means that lessons will now be learned so that other families do not have to go through the same nightmare. We pay tribute to those brave families today.
I would especially like to thank Dr Bill Kirkup and his expert panel members. This will have been a particularly difficult report to research and write, but the thoroughness and fairness of their analysis will allow us to move forward with practical actions to improve safety, not just at Morecambe Bay, but across the NHS.
I know that before we discuss the report in detail the whole House will want to recognise that what we hear today is not typical of NHS maternity services as a whole, where 97% of new mothers report the highest levels of satisfaction. Our dedicated midwives, nurses, obstetricians and paediatricians work extremely long hours providing excellent care in the vast majority of cases. Today’s report is no reflection on their dedication and commitment, but we owe it to all of them to get to the bottom of what happened so we can make sure it never happens again.
The report found 20 instances of significant or major failings of care at Furness general hospital, associated with three maternal deaths and the deaths of 16 babies. It concludes that different clinical care would have been expected to prevent the death of one mother and 11 babies.
The report describes major failures at almost every level. There were mistakes by midwives and doctors, a failure to investigate and learn from those mistakes and repeated failures to be honest with patients and families, including the possible destruction of medical notes.
The report says that the dysfunctional nature of the maternity unit should have become obvious in early 2009, but regulatory bodies including the North West strategic health authority, the primary care trusts, the Care Quality Commission, Monitor and the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman failed to work together and missed numerous opportunities to address the issue.
The result was not just the tragedy of lives lost, but indescribable anguish for the families left behind. James Titcombe speaks of being haunted by “feelings of personal guilt” about his nine-day-old son who died. “If only”, he says, “I had done more to help Joshua when he still had a chance”. Carl Hendrickson, who worked at the hospital and lost his wife and baby son, told me that he was asked to work in the same unit where they had died and even with the same equipment that had been connected to his late wife. Simon Davey and Liza Brady told me that the doctor who might have saved their son Alex was shooed away by a midwife, with no one taking responsibility when he was tragically born dead.
In short, it was a second Mid Staffs, where the problems—albeit on a smaller scale—occurred largely over the same period. In both cases perceived pressure to achieve foundation trust status led to poor care being ignored and patient safety being compromised, and in both cases the regulatory system failed to address the problems quickly. In both cases families faced delay, denial and obfuscation in their search for the truth, which in this case meant that at least nine significant opportunities to intervene and save lives were missed. To those who have maintained that Mid Staffs was a one-off “local failure”, today’s report will give serious cause for reflection.
As a result of the new inspection regime introduced by this Government, the trust was put into special measures in June 2014. The report acknowledges improvements made since then, which include more doctors and nurses, better record keeping and incident reporting, and action to stabilise and improve maternity services, including a major programme of work to reduce stillbirths. The trust will be re-inspected this summer when an independent decision will be made about whether to remove it from special measures. Patients who use the trust will be encouraged that the report says it
“now has the capability to recover and that the regulatory framework has the capacity to ensure that it happens”.
The whole House will want to support front-line staff in their commitment and dedication during this difficult period.
More broadly, the report points to important improvements to the regulatory framework, particularly at the Care Quality Commission which it says is now
“capable of effectively carrying out its role as principal quality regulator for the first time…central to this has been the introduction of a new inspection regime under a new Chief Inspector of Hospitals”.
As a result of that regime, which is recognised as the toughest and most transparent in the world, 20 hospitals—more than 10% of all NHS acute trusts—have so far been put into special measures. Most have seen encouraging signs of progress, with documented falls in mortality rates. There remain many areas where improvements in practice and culture are still needed. Dr Kirkup makes 44 recommendations—18 for the trust to address directly, and 26 for the wider system. The Government received the report yesterday and will examine the excellent recommendations in detail before providing a full response to the House.
There are, however, some actions that I intend to implement immediately. First, the NHS is still much too slow at investigating serious incidents involving severe harm or death. The Francis inquiry was published nine years after the first problems at Mid Staffs, and today’s report is being published 11 years after the first tragedy at Furness general hospital. The report recommends much clearer guidelines for standardised incident reporting, which I am today asking Dr Mike Durkin, director of patient safety at NHS England, to draw up and publish. I also believe that the NHS could benefit from a service similar to the air accidents investigation branch of the Department for Transport. Serious medical incidents should continue to be investigated and carried out locally, but where trusts feel that they would benefit from an expert independent national team to establish facts rapidly on a no-blame basis, they should be able to do so. Dr Durkin will therefore look at the possibility of setting up such a service for the NHS.
Secondly, although we have made good progress in encouraging a culture of openness and transparency in the NHS, the report makes it clear that there is a long way to go. It seems that medical notes were destroyed and mistakes covered up at Morecambe Bay, quite possibly because of a defensive culture where the individuals involved thought that they would lose their jobs if they were discovered to have been responsible for a death. Within sensible professional boundaries, however, no one should lose their job for an honest mistake made with the best of intentions; the only cardinal offence is not to report that mistake openly so that the correct lessons can be learned.
Recent recommendations from Sir Robert Francis on creating an open and honest reporting culture in the NHS will begin to improve that, and I have today asked Professor Sir Bruce Keogh, medical director of NHS England, to review the professional codes of both doctors and nurses, and to ensure that the right incentives are in place to prevent people from covering up instead of reporting and learning from mistakes. Sir Bruce led the seminal Keogh inquiry into hospitals with high death rates two years ago that led to a lasting improvement in hospital safety standards and has long championed openness and transparency in health care. For this vital work he will lead a team that will include the Professional Standards Authority for Health and Social Care, the General Medical Council, the Nursing and Midwifery Council, and Health Education England, and he will report back to the Health Secretary later this year.
The report also exposed systemic issues about the quality of midwifery supervision. While the investigation was under way, the King’s Fund conducted a review of midwifery regulation for the NMC, which recommended that effective local supervision needs to be carried out by individuals wholly independent from the trust they are supervising. The Government will work closely with stakeholders to agree a more effective oversight arrangement, and will legislate accordingly. I have asked for proposals on the new system by the end of July this year.
For too long the NMC had the wrong culture and was too slow to take action, but I am encouraged that it has recently made improvements. Today it has apologised to the families affected by events at Morecambe Bay, and it is investigating the fitness to practise of seven midwives who worked at the trust during that time. It will now forensically go through any further evidence gathered by the investigation, to ensure that any wrongdoing or malpractice is investigated. Anyone who is found to have practised unsafely or who covered up mistakes will be held to account, which for the most serious offences includes being struck off. The NMC also has the power to pass information to the police if it feels that a criminal offence may have been committed, and it will not hesitate to do so if its investigations find evidence to warrant that. The Government remain committed to legislation for further reform of the NMC at the earliest opportunity.
The report expresses a “degree of disquiet” over the initial decision of the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman not to investigate the death of Joshua Titcombe. I know the Public Administration Committee is already considering these issues, and will want to reflect carefully on the report as it considers improvements that can be made as part of its current inquiry.
Finally, I expect the trust to implement all 18 of the recommendations assigned to it in the report. I have asked Monitor to ensure that that happens within the designated time scale, as I want to give maximum reassurance to patients and families who are using the hospital that no time is being wasted in learning necessary lessons. We should recognise that despite many challenges, NHS staff have made excellent progress recently in improving the quality of care, with the highest ever ratings from the public for safety and compassionate care. The tragedy we hear about today must strengthen our resolve to deliver real and lasting culture change so that these mistakes are never repeated. That is the most important commitment we can make to the memory of the 19 mothers and babies who lost their lives at Morecambe Bay, including those named in today’s report: Elleanor Bennett, Joshua Titcombe, Alex Brady-Davey, Nittaya Hendrickson and Chester Hendrickson. This statement is their legacy, and I commend it to the House.
I thank the Secretary of State for his well-judged statement, and echo entirely the sentiments he expressed. Families in Barrow and the wider Cumbria area were badly let down by their local hospital and by the NHS as a whole. The Secretary of State was right to apologise to them on behalf of the Government and the NHS, and today I do the same on behalf of the previous Government.
It is hard to imagine what it must be like to lose a child or partner in such circumstances, but to have that suffering intensified by the actions of the NHS is inexcusable. Bereaved families should never again have to fight in the way that these families have had to fight to get answers. The fact that they have found the strength and courage to do so will benefit others in years to come, and I pay tribute to them all, and particularly to James Titcombe.
This report finally gives the families the answers that they should have received many years ago. It explains in detail what went wrong, the appalling scale of the failings and, as the Secretary of State said, the opportunities missed to identify those failings and put them right.
I echo the Secretary of State’s praise for Dr Bill Kirkup, his investigation team and the panel that assisted them. The report’s analysis is thorough, and its recommendations are powerful but proportionate. The Opposition support all the recommendations made today. I understand that the Secretary of State will want to take time to consider each individually, but he can rely on our full support in introducing them at the earliest opportunity.
People’s first concern will be whether local services are safe today. The report identifies the root cause of the failures as a dysfunctional local culture and a failure to follow national clinical guidance. There are suggestions in the report that that culture has not entirely disappeared. The report finds:
“we…heard from some of the long-standing clinicians that relations with midwives had not improved and had possibly deteriorated over the last two to three years…we saw and heard evidence that untoward incidents with worryingly similar features to those seen previously had occurred as recently as mid-2014.”
I am sure the fact that problems have been acknowledged means that there has already been significant improvement, but will the Secretary of State say more about those findings, and about what steps he is taking to ensure that the trust now has the right staff and safety culture?
After safety, people will rightly want accountability, as the Secretary of State said, not just for the care failings, but for the fact that the problem was kept hidden from the regulators and the public for so long. When information came to light, it was not acted on. Lessons were not learned, and problems were not corrected. The investigation recommends that the trust formally apologises to those affected. The whole House will endorse that call, and will want it done both appropriately and immediately. Further, will the Secretary of State ensure that any further referrals to the GMC and NMC are made without delay? Will he also ensure that any managerial or administrative staff found guilty of wrongdoing are subject to appropriate action? A number of staff have left the trust in recent years, many with pay-offs. Will he review those decisions in the light of the report and take whatever steps he can to ensure that those who have failed are not rewarded?
One of the central findings of the investigation is on the challenges faced by geographically remote and isolated communities in providing health services. The investigation warns of the risks of a closed clinical culture in which
“practice can ‘drift’ away from standards and procedures found elsewhere”.
Is not the report right to recommend a national review of maternity care and paediatrics in rural and isolated areas, and will the Secretary of State take that forward? Alongside that, there are concerns about the sustainability of the Cumbrian health economy. My hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Mr Reed) has today written to the chief executive of NHS England to call for a review of the specific challenges it faces. I hope the Secretary of State will be sympathetic to that call.
On the CQC, the role of the regulator has always been to oppose poor care and challenge practice, but it is clear that it failed in its duty in this case. Given what was known, the decision to register the trust without conditions in April 2010 was inexplicable, as was the decision to award foundation trust status later in 2010, as was the decision to inspect emergency care pathways but not maternity services—in so doing, it failed to act on specific warnings. As the report states, there was and remains confusion in the system over who has overall responsibility for monitoring standards, with overlapping regulatory responsibilities. The Opposition support moves to make the CQC more independent, but does the Secretary of State agree that the journey of improvement at the regulator needs to continue, and that there is a need for further reform? Will he ensure that NHS England draws up the recommended protocol on the roles and responsibilities for all parts of the oversight system without delay, and does he agree that the CQC should take prime responsibility?
I want to close by focusing on two proposals that I believe get to the heart of the matter before us. I have thought carefully about how we truly do justice to the families’ campaign and learn the lessons of both this investigation and the Francis report. In my view, the answer is a much more rigorous system of the review of all deaths in the community and in hospitals than currently exists.
First, is the reform of death certification and the introduction of a new system of independent medical examination well overdue? The Kirkup report echoes findings that go back as far as Dame Janet Smith’s inquiry into the Shipman murders, which were repeated recently by Sir Robert Francis in his two reports on Mid Staffordshire. The previous Government legislated for those reforms and made provision for the independent scrutiny by a medical examiner of all deaths that are not referred to a coroner. That has been piloted and proven to be effective. The investigation says that those reforms could have raised concerns at Morecambe Bay before they eventually became evident.
The second point is that we need a better system for scrutinising deaths in hospital. The report recommends mandatory reporting and investigation of serious incidents of all maternal deaths, stillbirths and unexpected neonatal deaths. Is there not a case to go further, including by looking at moving to a mandatory review of case notes for every death in hospital, and at how we can use a standardised system of case note review to support learning and improvement at every trust?
To help to guide the Opposition’s new approach to quality improvement, Professor Nick Black has agreed to advise us and inform the review, which will be concluded by the end of the month. In our view, that reform is much needed, because rather than looking at a sample of deaths to avoid harm, we would look at every single death to learn lessons, which means that every single person matters. Ideally, the review should be cross-party. I hope the Secretary of State feels able to endorse the review I have announced, which will make recommendations that the next Government can act on immediately. Is that not the best way to do justice to the issues that the families have fought to raise, and to ensure that the legacy of their campaign is to ensure that no others go through what they have gone through?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his measured tone. I am sure he is absolutely sincere in wanting to learn from this tragedy. I thank him for his moving words and for his apology. He will understand that there is nervousness among the families because, in the past, when the Government have talked about rooting out poor care, we have been accused of running down the NHS. We have had a different tone today, and I welcome it.
To answer the right hon. Gentleman’s specific points on the quality of care at the hospital currently, the best person and people to make that judgment are the new CQC and chief inspector of hospitals, Professor Sir Mike Richards. He has said that, in his view, the care at the maternity unity in Furness general hospital is good, and indeed safe—it is more than safe; it is good. That should reassure many people who are using the hospital. He is also very clear that there are many, many improvements to make, and his overall rating for the trust is not good. The report highlights many areas that still need to be addressed, but it is important to give that reassurance.
On death certification, I assure the right hon. Gentleman that we fully support that policy. As he knows, it was recommended in January 2005, so it has taken a long time for both Governments to address. We fully support the policy and have had successful trials. We are committed to introducing it as soon as possible and we want to go further. There may be some common ground, because we, too, have been talking to Professor Nick Black about case note reviews. The latest advice I have had is that it would be technically very difficult to review the case notes of all the 250,000 deaths every year in NHS hospitals, because of the resource implications and the doctors’ time it would take. I asked whether it would be possible to do that. I was advised that, if we looked at case notes hospital by hospital, there would be a risk of trusts getting into big disputes about whether or not a death was avoidable. I asked Professor Black to help me to devise a methodology so that we can assess the level of avoidable deaths by hospital trust. We would be the first health economy in the world to do that. I hope we will have his full support as we take that forward.
On the decision to give the trust foundation trust status, the report makes it clear that Ministers were advised that they had no locus to intervene, because the process had already been set in train—the decision had been deferred but not stopped, so they were not able to intervene. It is clear that the level of knowledge in the Department of Health, as in the rest of the system, was wholly inadequate given what was happening in that hospital.
I should like to make one other point, on a comment made by Labour this morning that the report would say that the failings were very localised. In fact, the report says the opposite. I want to read what Dr Kirkup says in the introduction to the report:
“It is vital that the lessons, now plain to see, are learnt and acted upon, not least by other Trusts, which must not believe that ‘it could not happen here’.”
It is important that we take that lesson from the report extremely seriously.
I would like to finish on a note of consensus. I appreciate that it is not always easy for Oppositions to support the Government publicly as they put right policy mistakes that they have inherited, but I think there is one thing where we can make common ground: the need for culture change in the NHS. Policies can be changed over one Parliament, but culture change takes a generation. What the families who have suffered so much want to know more than anything else is that Members on all sides of the House are committed to that, so that we never again go back to the closed ranks and institutional self-defence that piled agony on to their tragedies, and that, once and for all, we all make the commitment that patients will always come first.
As a Member of Parliament for an area covered by the trust, I assure the Secretary of State that many thousands of workers in the NHS in my area do a really good job in very difficult geographical circumstances.
I was newly elected to Parliament in 2010. My experience, alongside that of colleagues whom I see in the House, as a constituency MP dealing with the huge institution that is the NHS has been that it is difficult to find out who is responsible, where and for what. Like everybody else, my heart goes out to the parents. I do not know how they have struggled on, with their loss and with being confronted with what almost seems like a professional or administrative closing of ranks and doors to their pleas for some information on what happened. It is just unbelievable.
My constituents do not understand why—this is mentioned in the report—a major incident in 2004 was not looked at. There were five more major incidents in 2006-07 and another five in 2008, yet still nothing was done. What will the Secretary of State do to reassure my constituents that when a major incident happens again—as presumably it could in any NHS hospital across the country—it will be acted on?
I am happy to do that. In fact, I can not only tell my hon. Friend what we are going to do, I can tell him what we have done. The main purpose of the new CQC inspection regime, with a chief inspector of hospitals and a special measures regime, is to make sure that these issues come to light much more quickly. The new regime has been very active: 20 trusts—more than 10% of all trusts in the NHS—have gone into special measures. We have seen dramatic improvements.
I would like to make a broader point to my hon. Friend’s constituents. He speaks very wisely when he says that this is not about the dedication and commitment of front-line staff. He is absolutely right. The Royal Lancaster infirmary is not the main focus of the Kirkup report, but of course as part of the same trust it suffered from the same management failings. There are Members of this House who have had problems at the Royal Lancaster infirmary and found that they were not listened to when they made complaints, because proper management was not in place. That will have affected his constituents. I hope they will take encouragement from the changes that have happened recently in that regard.
I thank the Secretary of State for the dignified and fitting way in which he was able to name some of the grieving parents and the babies they lost. We cannot escape the painful conclusion from the report that our hospital was compromised by some shocking failures in care and a deeply inappropriate defensiveness from certain individuals. Does he agree that the scale of failure laid out in the report may well serve to reopen the criminal investigation? Will he support the healing process that is now needed in our community, with resources if necessary, so that we can move on from this? Finally, will he set out a timetable by which he will look through all the recommendations and report back to the House on whether the Government will accept them? Will that be before the election?
I do not know the answer to the last question because we have received the report only very recently, but we will do this work as soon as possible. Indeed, if we have cross-party support, it may be that we can expedite the process. The hon. Gentleman worked very closely with James Titcombe and is absolutely right to talk about the seriousness of what happened. As with the Francis report, however, I would caution against the idea that this problem will be solved if a few more nurses are struck off. We need accountability—that is incredibly important—and where there is wrongdoing, people must be fully held to account. The big lesson is the lack of openness, transparency and trust. It is quite possible that the reason some people did not speak out about poor care is that they were frightened of the consequences of doing so. They thought they would not be listened to. Other industries, such as the nuclear industry in which James Titcombe worked or the airline industry, have managed to create a culture of trust where people on the front line who make mistakes feel able to speak out and be supported if they do so. That is the most important lesson we need to learn from today’s report.
I, too, want to the thank the Secretary of State and the shadow Secretary of State for their entirely appropriate contributions, both the statement and the response, on this immensely sensitive and deeply personally upsetting series of circumstances. I want especially to pay tribute to the families who lost loved ones as a result of what Dr Kirkup referred to as
“serious failures of clinical care”.
He refers to the report as a damning indictment.
The dignity and determination of parents such as James Titcombe and Carl Hendrickson have led to this awful truth being laid bare today. Those parents are an inspiration to me, and they should be to all of us. I want to pick up on one point in particular that was raised during the Secretary of State’s statement. Dr Kirkup expresses disquiet that the NHS and the parliamentary ombudsman chose not even to investigate what has now been shown to be the needless deaths of at least 11 babies and at least one mother. May I press the Secretary of State to go further than he has in his statement and do everything in his power to ensure that the watchdog for patients is not a lapdog for senior managers? Patients need a powerful, effective independent investigator who listens to those who grieve, like the Morecambe Bay families, and not one who dismisses them without even an investigation.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. There were, clearly, very serious flaws in the way the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman operated, particularly in the case of Joshua Titcombe. My hon. Friend will know that the PHSO is accountable to this House through the Public Administration Committee, and not through the Government and the Department of Health. The Public Administration Committee is considering this issue in a great deal of detail to see what lessons need to be learned. I think one of the issues is the level of expertise within the PHSO and, with the greatest of respect, a certain lack of confidence in its ability to understand when there has been a clinical failure. I think everyone agrees that one of the things we need to do is to ensure that it can draw on medical expertise. It needs to make sure that its culture is as open and transparent as the culture it would like to see inside the NHS.
The Secretary of State said that the fitness to practise of seven midwives is currently being considered by the National Midwifery Council. Given that this matter goes back over a decade, were any health professionals, either doctors or nurses, referred to their regulatory bodies during any of the incidents he outlined earlier?
I am not aware that they were. If that turns out to be the case, that would be extremely worrying. Since Dr Kirkup started his investigation, he has been in touch with the regulatory bodies throughout the process. He has not waited until today to refer back to them any names of people where he thinks there may be a concern.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his deep and meaningful statement. In my constituency, the effects of what has happened in our trust have been deeply felt. I would also like to reach out to my hon. Friend outside the Chamber, the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock). We have to put everything behind us. In my constituency, there is a campaign which says that the hospital is closing. The staff and the new management are beside themselves on this particular issue. Does my right hon. Friend agree that this has now got to stop? Hospitals and A and Es were never going to close down. At the end of the day, the staff are the only people who are going to suffer in all this.
I think this is a time when the whole House needs to unite behind the staff in that trust, who are working very hard to turn the situation around; indeed, they have made great progress. I had to call Nicola Adam of The Visitor to reaffirm the point that there are absolutely no plans to close the hospital. I hope the whole House will recognise that statement for what it is and that hon. Members will reiterate it in all their communications with their constituents.
I thank the Secretary of State and my right hon. Friend the Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham) for the tone of the statement and the Opposition’s response. I want to ask the Secretary of State about the point he made in his statement about the relationship between clinicians and midwives, which Dr Kirkup identified as having deteriorated over the last two or three years. He said that there was evidence of untoward incidents, with worryingly similar features to those that had previously occurred, as recently as last year. The Secretary of State mentioned extra numbers, but is he confident that the relationship between midwives and doctors is now resolved and that we have safe care at that hospital and elsewhere?
I think we can trust the CQC’s view that the care in the maternity unit is safe, but the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to draw attention to the issue of the barriers between doctors and midwives, which is striking. That goes back a very long time: there seemed to be a kind of macho culture among the midwives to do with not letting the doctors in, which probably led to babies needlessly dying, which is the great tragedy. Making sure that that culture is changed, so that the patient’s needs are always put first, is obviously a massive priority. I know that the trust has made great strides in that area, but we all understand too that it takes time to change culture, and we need to support it as it goes on that journey.
I join the Secretary of State in paying tribute to James Titcombe and all the families who have fought so long for answers. I also thank Dr Kirkup for his excellent report. I welcome the action that the Secretary of State has announced today, but can he add to that list by saying whether we can bring forward having medical examiners to look into the cause of death before the end of this Parliament and, if not, say what the barriers to introducing that much overdue reform are? Will he also touch on recommendations 20 and 21 in the report, which refer to the need for a national review of maternity and paediatric services in areas that are remote, isolated and hard to recruit to? Indeed, the report goes further and says that the problem extends beyond those services. This is an issue we need to address to improve safety without deterring recruitment in these areas.
I am afraid I can only commit now to us introducing independent medical examiners as soon as possible. We are wholeheartedly committed to this. It is incredibly important for relatives, because where they have a concern about a death and possibly a mistake being made in someone’s care in their final hours, the availability of an independent examiner has been shown in the trials we have run to be very effective, so we are committed to doing that.
I should have answered the shadow Health Secretary on the point about a review of maternity services, because he raised it as well. NHS England is doing that review; we have already announced that to this House. Today it is publishing the terms of reference of that review. That is important, because there has been a big debate inside the health service—a debate with which many people will be familiar—about what the minimum appropriate size for maternity and birthing units is, and we need to get to the bottom of the latest international evidence.
During the period when I was writing the report on complaints in hospitals, I met Mr Titcombe. I was impressed by his persistence, because persistence is what anyone who is trying to tackle a complaint needs. I understand what he means when he says he is haunted by personal grief: I think of all those parents and relatives who have waited all this time to try to get some answers to their questions. The length of time it takes to answer people’s complaints is still not satisfactory. I myself have waited over two years and three months and I still do not have answers—I know that is not in his bag, but it is generally true of the whole of the United Kingdom. I support what my right hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State said in calling for the medical scrutiny of all deaths that are not referred to a coroner. That is an important point. I want to ask the Secretary of State again: will he ensure that achieving the highest standard of complaints handling is included in the next NHS mandate?
No one has done more than the right hon. Lady to try to improve the standard for complaints, with the excellent work she did with Professor Tricia Hart. We are in the process of implementing her recommendations, but as the right hon. Lady knows, with the fifth largest organisation in the world, it is one thing to make a commitment in this place, but another to make it happen on the ground. There is definitely much work to do.
I also agree with the right hon. Lady’s comments about James Titcombe. This is a man who gave up his job working in the nuclear industry to come down to London and work in the CQC so that he could actively be part of the culture change that he wanted to see in the NHS. I do not think anyone could have done more than that. It is truly remarkable.
As the right hon. Lady has mentioned Wales, let me say that we have put 20 trusts into special measures in England and it is inconceivable that there will not be trusts with similar problems in Wales. I urge her to encourage the Labour party in Wales to look at introducing a special measures regime and a chief inspector of hospitals in Wales, because that has had such a powerful effect on improving standards of care in England.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement and Dr Bill Kirkup for his excellent report. Let me reassure him and the House that the Public Administration Committee is also preoccupied with the failings of the parliamentary and health service ombudsman in the conduct of these cases. I, too, have met James Titcombe on many occasions and have been extremely impressed by his extraordinary commitment to making sure that he is heard so that so many others can be heard.
May I also point out that the report reeks of the confusion that exists between CQC and the PHSO about what their respective responsibilities are? If we are talking about accountability, what we need is an organisation that is accountable for investigating clinical incidents in the NHS, whether they are down to particular local problems or broader systemic problems—by which we mean not that that is an excuse for what goes wrong; rather, it is so those systemic problems can be put right. I therefore very much welcome what my right hon. Friend has mooted will be the task of Sir Mike Durkin: to look at how that capacity can be developed, in the same manner, perhaps, as the air accidents investigation branch of the Department for Transport.
Dr Mike Durkin will be delighted that he has been promoted and given a knighthood for his wonderful work on patient safety, but it has not happened yet, even though he certainly deserves it. I thank my hon. Friend for his understanding of the complexity of these issues and the importance of the need for culture change. The work of his Committee has not been to scratch around the surface; it has tried to think hard about the solution. He is absolutely right that we need to end regulatory confusion. We now have a strong CQC, which is doing incredible inspections and is trusted across the system. However, we need a system in which people can get independent external advice quickly, which is why he was right to alert me to the potential of an air accidents investigation branch equivalent. I hope that is something that could be helpful for the ombudsman as well.
I am pleased that the Secretary of State has declared his intention to implement the medical examination review. The president of the Royal College of Pathologists, Dr Suzy Lishman, has said that introducing such a system would
“improve patient care whilst reducing harm and saving money”.
She went on:
“If bereaved relatives get the answers that they need around the time of death, if all their questions are answered then, then they don’t feel the need to sue the NHS to get the answers they deserve.”
She has also said that it is “incomprehensible” that the recommended changes have not been implemented. Will the Secretary of State explain why there has been so much delay? From his answer to a previous question, I understand that he is not able to commit to implementing the reforms during the time of this Government.
With the greatest respect, I say to the hon. Lady that if she is suggesting that we have done nothing on this important issue over the last few years, nothing could be further from the truth. We have been trialling the right system; we think the trials have worked; and we want to make sure that we implement this in a way that is consistent with the many other things we are doing to improve patient safety, including proper case-note reviews of deaths in order to understand the level of avoidable hospital deaths and what we can do to bring the rates down. This is a priority for the Government, and we remain wholly committed to it.
Hon. Members will be aware of the Government’s ambition to create a new garden city at Ebbsfleet and of our intention to establish an urban development corporation to drive forward its development and delivery. I would like to take this opportunity to update hon. Members on the progress we have made.
This country has faced a shortfall in housing for many years, with young people and families struggling to find the homes they want and need, particularly in the south-east. We are committed to increasing their chances, and our programmes to accelerate house building are already seeing results. Our £1.5 billion large sites programme is expected to unlock 100,000 homes by the end of this month, and a further 200,000 homes could be unlocked as we take the programme forward. This is in addition to the plans in place to create housing zones on brownfield sites across the country.
Last year, we published our prospectus for locally led garden cities, and we are now working closely to support the development of a new garden town at Bicester, with a capacity to deliver up to 13,000 new homes. Our approach is locally led. We invite local areas to come forward, without any top-down, centrally imposed requirements. This approach will help make new garden cities acceptable locally—and, as such, to make them a reality.
With close transport links and large areas of brownfield land, the Ebbsfleet area has huge potential as a place to deliver a substantial number of new homes. It has long been identified—in fact, as far back as the last Government’s sustainable communities plan—as an ideal location for major development. Despite these ambitions, progress has been slow, and Ebbsfleet remains largely undeveloped. Our plans for Ebbsfleet aim to change that and to drive forward this historic development opportunity.
In last year’s Budget, the Government announced plans to create a new locally led garden city at Ebbsfleet, Kent, capable of providing up to 15,000 new homes predominantly on brownfield land or former quarries. The Government are seeking not only to increase the pace of development, but to create high-quality development. We want to build homes that are supported by local employment opportunities, green space and the necessary infrastructure, so that Ebbsfleet becomes a place where people want to live, work and raise their families.
To help realise this vision, the Government have announced that up to £200 million of infrastructure funding will be made available to support delivery. We also announced that a new statutory body—an urban development corporation—would be formed to bring real focus on driving forward delivery. Since then, we have been working closely with each of the three local authorities and other partners on the preparatory work to establish the urban development corporation and to set the scene for the future garden city. I put on record the fact that I welcome the cross-party support that the Opposition have given to these proposals.
I am pleased to report that house building is already under way in some parts of the proposed garden city. Last October, I opened the first phase of housing being led by Ward Homes at Castle Hill. Just today, Land Securities exchanged contracts with Persimmon Homes for the next phase of 170 homes at Castle Hill. Much remains to be done to increase the rate of development at Ebbsfleet, but this is welcome progress none the less.
In August last year, we consulted on the proposal to set up an urban development corporation. We set out the powers that we propose the corporation should have, including compulsory purchase powers, the transfer of the planning management powers that are currently exercised by the local authorities and, of course, the ability to invest money to secure the regeneration of the area.
In our consultation, we asked for views on the area in which the urban development corporation would operate, on the planning powers it would be granted, and on the composition of the board. The consultation was supported by an active engagement campaign, and the results demonstrated overall support for the proposal to create a development corporation for Ebbsfleet. In December last year, we published our response to the consultation, which confirmed our intention to continue with the proposal to establish a development corporation at Ebbsfleet.
Although supportive, the consultation did highlight some areas of concern, such as the impact of development on existing infrastructure. These issues were not unanticipated, and we announced in the autumn statement that there would be a review of the transport provision for the Ebbsfleet area. The Government also announced in the autumn statement the provision of the first £100 million to fund infrastructure and land remediation to kick-start development—obviously subject to due diligence. We are working closely with local partners to understand the scale of the infrastructure required and how best to accelerate delivery.
We want to ensure that, on establishment, the urban development corporation has in place the tools necessary to enable it to hit the ground running. It is crucial that the urban development corporation is able to pick up the reins from the local authorities and deliver its objectives seamlessly, without causing any unnecessary uncertainty among local communities and local businesses.
In August last year, we appointed Michael Cassidy as the chairman designate. He was the chairman of the City of London property investment board, and has extensive experience in a range of roles across the business and industry sectors. Since his appointment, he has actively engaged with local partners and the major landowners to develop a shared understanding of the work required to drive forward development.
More recently, we launched the recruitment process for a permanent chief executive. However, as this post will take some months to fill, we are appointing key interim personnel to maintain momentum and continuity. These interim posts will, in the meantime, continue to drive forward not only the set-up of the urban development corporation, but progress on the work to develop a shared strategy for the garden city.
We have made progress, too, on the process to recruit, through open competition, the remainder of the urban development corporation’s board members. Some 90 applications were received and interviews are under way. These will be in addition to the local authority representatives from Dartford, Gravesham and Kent who, as we have already made clear, will have a seat on the board.
The urban development corporation will develop a shared vision and master-plan for the locally led garden city that reflects the views of the local people. Much can be done in the meantime to set in place the foundations for this work, and to provide a platform from which the urban development corporation can work. We are progressing with the production of a development framework for the area. This will provide critical baseline data and act as the starting-point for the design of the future Ebbsfleet garden city.
In parallel, we are preparing the procurement process for a full master plan, which can then be taken forward by the urban development corporation. We want the design of the garden city to be as collaborative as possible. We will therefore use this preparatory work to make sure that future master planning is carried out in a way that encourages the full participation of the local communities and local businesses.
We recognise that there is likely to be a transition period between the establishment of the urban development corporation and the point at which it will be fully resourced to operate as the local planning authority. We are therefore working closely with the local authorities to agree and put in place a service level agreement, which will enable the local authorities to administer the planning service for the urban development corporation for a transitional period to ensure a smooth handover and to develop a partnership to deliver a locally led garden city. We are pushing forward with the final key stages of the physical set-up of the urban development corporation, putting in place the accommodation and technical facilities needed to ensure that the UDC is fully resourced and equipped to undertake its objectives.
Hon. Members will be aware that the Government tabled in the other place an amendment to the Deregulation Bill to change the parliamentary approval procedure from affirmative to negative for the establishment of urban development areas and urban development corporations. This amendment was accepted, and is now part of the Deregulation Bill. I should like to place on record my thanks to the hon. Members for City of Durham (Roberta Blackman-Woods) and for Wolverhampton North East (Emma Reynolds) and the shadow Secretary of State for their participation in discussions about how to proceed on this matter. I know that they share my wish to see this proposal make progress. The Government intend, subject to parliamentary approval, to lay a negative statutory instrument immediately following Royal Assent to establish the urban development corporation. A separate order to grant the corporation planning functions, making it the local planning authority responsible for the development of the area, will be laid at the same time.
I trust that that update will reassure Members of the Government’s commitment to creating a locally led garden city at Ebbsfleet that will be fit for the 21st century.
I thank the Minister for his statement, and for giving me advance sight of it. As he said, there is cross-party support for the development at Ebbsfleet, and Labour Members support it strongly. I agree with him that Ebbsfleet has huge potential to deliver a substantial number of homes and an outstanding new community.
Having been to Ebbsfleet, I have seen with my own eyes not just the opportunities that it offers but its terrain, which presents significant challenges. We want to see a new generation of garden cities and new towns, and we believe that Ebbsfleet could make an important contribution to such a programme. That is why, as the Minister said, we have sought to work with the Government constructively and on a cross-party basis to deliver the UDC. As the Minister also said, my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham (Roberta Blackman-Woods) participated actively in the discussions with the Government, and is strongly committed to the delivery of a new generation of garden cities. She has spoken about the subject eloquently, in the House and elsewhere.
We naturally welcome the forming of an urban development corporation to drive this development forward, but we are concerned about the use of UDCs to deliver a full programme of garden cities. As the Minister knows, they are not set up to deliver garden city principles, which is why we pressed for the inclusion of a sunset clause. I am pleased that agreement was reached on that.
Although I welcome the Government’s initiative in establishing the UDC over the past five years, it would be remiss of me not to mention the number of mixed messages that we have received in regard to both Ebbsfleet and garden cities more broadly. In 2011 the then Housing Minister, the right hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps), spoke of rebooting garden cities, and in 2012 the Prime Minister announced that he would publish a consultation on garden cities by the end of the year. Six months later, the Deputy Prime Minister said that some lively debate was taking place within the Government, but promised incentives that would deliver projects that were “big and bold”. In December 2012, the Government announced that Ebbsfleet would be the site for a large-scale development of 20,000 new homes.
Subsequently, however, rather than seeing the “big and bold” projects that had been promised, we saw reports in the newspapers that the Prime Minister was suppressing a document and had gone cold on the idea. Later that year, the Housing Minister said that he was not aware of a report that was supposed to have been published, but the Deputy Prime Minister said that there was a prospectus, and that the Government should be honest about their intentions. The Secretary of State then contradicted his own Housing Minister, saying that his Department had told him that there was a report, but not a report from the Department for Communities and Local Government. We were a little bemused by all that. However, a prospectus for garden cities was finally published, and in last year’s Budget statement the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced that there would be a new garden city at Ebbsfleet containing 15,000 homes—5,000 fewer than had been promised in 2012.
Given the scale of the housing crisis and the evident cross-party support for garden cities, I should like to know what is behind the Government’s stops and starts on the Ebbsfleet initiative and on garden cities more generally. I should also like to know where the additional 5,000 new homes have gone. That seems to be something of a mystery.
I welcomed what the Minister said about infrastructure. The Government said last year that, once established, the Ebbsfleet UDC would be expected to identify sources of additional funding, further to the funding for basic infrastructure that had already been announced. Will the Minister tell us how much additional funding he and his Department think might be necessary to get the Ebbsfleet project moving, and whether its source in either the private or the public sector has been identified?
The garden city movement, which was founded by Ebenezer Howard, has a long and proud history of promoting and providing outstanding places for people to live in. Although I support what the Minister has said today, I am anxious for the founding principles of the movement to be respected, albeit in a modern setting. Perhaps the Minister will explain why he did not mention affordable housing, and why his predecessor told my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham in a written parliamentary answer that
“The Government do not impose a particular level of affordable housing for housing schemes.”—[Official Report, 9 April 2014; Vol. 579, c. 239W.]
Can the Minister reassure us that the master plan will include a commitment to a significant proportion of affordable homes? If it does not, I fear that there will not be much garden to the garden city. The Government’s garden city prospectus invited communities to come up with proposals, or “big and bold” projects, as the Deputy Prime Minister called them. Will the Minister tell us how many bids have been submitted so far?
Let me end by echoing what the Minister said about securing the Ebbsfleet development. This is a long-term project that presents significant challenges but also has huge potential, and, as such, it requires a long-term approach from Members in all parts of the House. On that basis, I welcome the fact that we have reached cross-party agreement.
I thank the hon. Member for Wolverhampton North East (Emma Reynolds) for expressing what could broadly be described as cross-party support. She did, however, ask a couple of questions, and mentioned the pace at which the garden city programme had proceeded. She was absolutely right to refer to the terrain at Ebbsfleet. I think that anyone who watches our exchanges, or reads the Hansard report, and wonders why it has taken so long for us to reach this point needs to be aware of a couple of facts. I shall explain in a moment how the programme has been structured in the past, but there is no doubt that the terrain is an important element. Ebbsfleet is an astonishing place to visit: a map simply does not do justice to its contours and topography.
At one point, the hon. Lady asked how much garden there would be in a garden city. We want to deliver something of which we can all be proud. We need to have a vision of the way in which not just community housing but real communities should be built. That means ensuring that there is the right mix of residential, retail, commercial and open space for people to enjoy, so that they can get to know their neighbours and be part of a strong community. The community must be at the forefront of this project.
We opted for an urban development corporation in this case—with Opposition support—because three local authorities and various landowners were involved. In fact, the Government have a small landholding interest. That makes the position very complex.
The hon. Lady said that it had taken several years for us to make progress. As she knows, we have been dealing with a legislative process over the past few months, since last year’s Budget statement. I found her comments slightly ironic. Let me politely suggest that she might like to stand up and name some of the eco-towns that have not been built since they were announced by the last Government.
We are now able to deliver on the garden city principles, at Ebbsfleet, at Bicester—which I visited again just last week—and in other areas because ours is not a top-down approach. We are not making decisions from on high; local authorities are coming to us and saying that they want to develop on the basis of those principles. It takes time for authorities to get organised and prepare to submit their proposals to the Government, but I think that that is right. The longevity of delivery that the hon. Lady rightly mentioned enables long-term plans to be developed properly, and to be locally designed, locally supported and locally proposed.
The hon. Lady referred to funding more generally, and to affordable housing. I repeat that ours is not a top-down approach. Once the urban development corporation has been set up, it will become the planning authority, and levels of affordable housing and section 106 agreements are a matter for planning authorities. On the basis of localism, we let the local authorities deal with such matters, and I trust them to do so. Some agreements are already in place, and are delivering substantial infrastructure and section 106 agreements for the area.
In terms of the total cost of development at Ebbsfleet, developing a prioritised infrastructure list will be one of the first tasks the development corporation will be taking forward. In advance of it even being established, we have been working with partners to identify the key items of infrastructure needed to support development. We do not yet have a total cost for the infrastructure because there will be many items that partners would want us to consider and include, and the development corporation needs to be the body that looks carefully both at what infrastructure is needed to support the garden city development and who should pay for it. Of course, much of the infrastructure building work will be paid for by developers, not by the Government or the development corporation directly. That is where the section 106 agreements that are already in place, and those that are developed for the major developments with outline planning consent, will take us forward.
Ebbsfleet in my Dartford constituency is home to some very ambitious housing projects. The full potential of the area will not be realised without proper investment and commitment to the infrastructure, not just of the garden city but the surrounding area. The Minister mentioned that the Chancellor announced £200 million of investment at the last Budget. Will the Minister give my constituents a guarantee that the Government are still committed to that and that local people will have an input into how that money will be spent? It appears that the Opposition want another 5,000 homes in the garden city. Does the Minister agree that we do not judge a good housing project on the number of homes we are able to cram into a particular area?
My hon. Friend has been a strong proponent not just of Ebbsfleet more generally but, as I saw on a couple of visits with him to his area, of making sure that this development is done in a way that is conducive to, works with and delivers for, the local community, recognising not just the community we want to build, but the communities and local authorities that are already in the area within the constituencies of my hon. Friends the Members for Gravesham (Mr Holloway) and for Dartford (Gareth Johnson). My hon. Friend the Member for Dartford has also worked closely with the local authorities who have their own affordable housing policies, which will be what govern the development of that area. Both of those authorities are clearly looking to secure a level of 30% of affordable housing, and I can assure my hon. Friend that today’s statement does not change what was said at the Budget last year or the finances announced in the autumn statement—I know that he has worked hard on that with his local residents and authorities. It stays in place, as was. What we are doing today is giving an update, in particular on the development and the incorporation of that corporation.
In welcoming the statement as the MP for Letchworth garden city, the world’s first, may I wish Ebbsfleet well? Does the Minister agree that the principles of garden cities—mixed tenure, a scheme of building that maintains garden city features over time, the features themselves, with allotments, space, commons, an agricultural area nearby, and separation of areas between residential, employment land and retail—can be applied not just to larger communities of 15,000 or 20,000, but to smaller communities too? In Hertfordshire we are looking at—the MPs are anyway—possibly pushing North Herts district council to go for a garden city or town that might be smaller than 10,000. Does the Minister agree that almost any size of community can be planned on garden city lines?
My hon. and learned Friend makes a very good point. One point I have made at various recent events is that we must make sure as we move forward that we build good-quality design, not just lots and lots of housing estates. There are two reasons for that. If we want people to be more accepting of development, not only have we got to make sure that people are involved in that through local plans and neighbourhood planning, but the development they see in their area must be of good quality. That requires good-quality design not just of the properties but the overall master plan. My hon. and learned Friend is absolutely right that having even small areas developed where, when possible and appropriate, there is a good mix of retail, commercial and residential, with good open space and good community areas, bringing people together, does not just deliver good-quality homes for people to live in and good-quality places for people to raise their families, but also builds good, strong, long-lasting communities, and that is something I wholeheartedly support.
Ebbsfleet is blessed in that there is already a Bishop of Ebbsfleet, which must be the first time that the bishop has come before the city, rather than a city creating a bishop. I want to raise two points. We will not need an urban development corporation for Bicester. All the land for it lies within the area of Cherwell district council, and we are determined to make a success of it, and to make a garden town for the 21st century of which the country can be proud. What we will need, however, is the Ministry of Defence to surrender every square foot of MOD land that it does not need as speedily as possible. As evidence that Cherwell district council is determined to get on with this as speedily as possible, as my hon. Friend the Minister will know but the House may not know, Cherwell had acquired land to build 1,900 self-build homes. This is an incredibly popular project. Local development orders are now in place. Queues of people are coming, wanting to acquire these plots for self-build homes. May I suggest that this project, witnessed by the Prime Minister yesterday, could be rolled out to other parts of the country, because there is clearly a large appetite among the public for building their own homes, as we have seen in Bicester?
My right hon. Friend has been a loud and strong proponent of the fantastic work being done in Bicester and of development on those garden city principles, and he is absolutely right. I visited Bicester last year and I visited again last week to see the excellent work done in just a few months, and the progress made to deliver the development in a good, strong, community-built way. He is right that this shows it does not have to be just one type of tenure. We can also develop the custom and self-build opportunities, which the hon. Member for Wolverhampton North East (Emma Reynolds) and I have agreed on in the House—there is cross-party agreement—in the last few months.
I would say, however, that we do not do well enough in this country in sharing best practice. I advise people across local government who are looking at developments and how to develop to look at what is happening in places like Bicester and to talk to those involved. They are strong proponents, they are happy to talk to people, and they have done some excellent work that they can share with others about how good-quality development can help build strong communities of which we can all be proud.
Housing Ombudsman (Power to Settle Disputes between Neighbours and Tenants)
Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to provide for a discretionary power to enable the Housing Ombudsman to attempt to resolve disputes between occupants of neighbouring properties in cases where nuisance is caused by tenants; and for connected purposes.
Members will know that houses in multiple occupation —so-called HMOs—are a growing feature of our towns and cities. Last year there were almost 200,000 in London alone, which was a growth of over 10,000 on the previous 12 months. There are now more than 1,000 HMOs in my borough of Enfield. Why have we seen this growth? Often HMOs offer cheaper and flexible accommodation. They are already a key component of our housing tapestry. HMOs are also an attractive prospect for private landlords. As the website of one property management firm puts it:
“If you have a large property and are renting it out to just one tenant, consider transforming it into a HMO or hostel. This gives you the ability to take on more tenants and thus increase your potential for profit.”
However, as the website also says:
“If you want to turn your property into a hostel or HMO, there are certain responsibilities you need to consider”,
most of which relate to the condition and safety of the premises. My Bill seeks to add to those responsibilities, particularly in the field of antisocial behaviour, without the heavy hand of regulation imposing greater burdens.
Some weeks ago a constituent came to me who lives next to one of the HMOs managed by the property management firm to which I have referred. Some of the tenants, who admitted that they smoked too much marijuana which made them behave erratically, made my constituent’s life a nightmare: scratching their car; constantly playing loud music; knocking on the doors well beyond midnight; and on one occasion smashing up their property. The police and the council batted the problem between them. My constituent could not, of course, over a period of time even build any relationships with the HMO residents, as they are often transient. The constituent, who prefers to remain anonymous for reasons the House will understand, has attempted to resolve the matter themselves. My constituent and their family are responsible, decent and hard-working, and do not immediately look to others, including the state, to solve their problems, but after weeks of discussion with the occupants and the landlord agent, they saw no progress. The state failed to solve the behavioural issues, and the agent simply recycled the tenants.
In a final attempt to resolve the problem, my constituent tried to contact the landlord. The agent would not disclose the landlord’s details. As far as we can tell, they made no effort to arrange a meeting between the neighbours and the landlords. In desperation, my constituent turned to their local MP, and I turned to this Bill. Clearly, the standard rules surrounding antisocial behaviour in private rented accommodation are simply not enough when dealing with packed HMOs. For example, the lengthy process for a neighbour to get a noise abatement notice against a single tenant is often too little, too late. Indeed, Mr Deputy Speaker, you will appreciate better than anyone the difficulty of controlling antisocial behaviour in a crowded House with many unruly occupants, but at least the boundaries here are clear.
Selective licensing of houses in multiple occupation acknowledges the unique issues and allows local authorities to crack down on antisocial areas, but as we have heard, many have failed to do so. However, authority-wide licence zones mean more costs for all landlords, not just the rogues. We need to give neighbours themselves the tools to hold landlords responsible, when appropriate. Put simply, when other steps fail to deal with the problem, or when landlord agents simply remove tenants and replace them with other challenging occupants, there is at present no recourse to the landlord. Landlords do not answer to neighbours for the consequences of contracts they have entered into with agents and tenants.
As we know only too well, antisocial behaviour is often treated as a problem for the victim, and there is no workable process to deal with the negative externalities that result from contracts being formed. However, the mediation that I propose, initiated by the ombudsman, would offer another solution. The Bill sets out a means of giving neighbours the right to seek mediation with the landlord, if the housing ombudsman agrees. At present, the ombudsman can instruct mediation only between a landlord and a tenant. Indeed, the advice from the ombudsman states:
“The first person to tell about a problem with housing is the landlord. They might be able to put things right.”
I could not agree more. I think that the same applies to antisocial behaviour next door, but at the moment, it is extremely difficult to locate and identify a landlord. Indeed, it is almost impossible when a landlord wishes to protect their identity.
The Bill would provide a means of dealing with the disturbing practice of recycling antisocial behaviour, which frankly takes too long for local authorities to sort out. I want to put a stop to the practice by giving neighbours who are the victims of antisocial behaviour the right to deal with the landlord of the property in question. I believe that that will help to resolve the problem in a timely fashion. The vast majority of landlords are good landlords, and they will want to stop bad behaviour when they are made aware of it. If there are landlords who do not care, the Bill will force them to take action. In many cases, the neighbours believe that the landlord is not even aware of the problems in the property that they have let out.
This change must be made, however, without getting the ombudsman involved in more generic neighbourhood disputes. This is not about disputes over high hedges, parking or planning. The Bill is not about interfering with the growth in HMOs. It does not confer rights on neighbours to object to the use of premises as HMOs. Rather, it is about easing the path of reconciliation by setting out clearly the right to take concerns directly to landlords when other reasonable steps taken by the victims have failed. The Bill would hold absentee landlords responsible for antisocial behaviour without having to introduce a special licence or blocking the HMO.
Who has not had constituents in their surgeries telling them that they are facing intolerable quality-of-life issues because of neighbours from hell? The House should seek to remedy that situation and make it easier for our constituents who do the right thing, the decent thing, and who wish to try to solve the problem for themselves. If we can facilitate that for them, we will be taking a great step forward. I commend the Bill to the House.
Question put and agreed to.
That Nick de Bois, Mr David Burrowes, Jim Fitzpatrick, Sarah Newton, Bob Blackman, Sir Bob Russell, Mike Freer, Mr Lee Scott, Mrs Mary Glindon, Sir Roger Gale, Graham Stringer and Ms Gisela Stuart present the Bill.
Nick de Bois accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 27 March, and to be printed (Bill 179).
[3rd Allotted Day]
DEPARTMENT FOR WORK AND PENSIONS
Housing Costs (Reformed Welfare System)
[Relevant Documents: Fourth Report from the Work and Pensions Committee, Session 2013-14, Support for housing costs in the reformed welfare system, HC 720.]
Motion made, and Question proposed,
That, for the year ending with 31 March 2015, for expenditure by the Department for Work and Pensions:
(1) further resources, not exceeding £910,407,000 be authorised for use for current purposes as set out in HC 1019,
(2) the resources authorised for use for capital purposes be reduced by £6,689,000 as so set out, and
(3) a further sum, not exceeding £2,183,111,000 be granted to Her Majesty to be issued by the Treasury out of the Consolidated Fund and applied for expenditure on the use of resources authorised by Parliament.—(Dr Thérèse Coffey.)
I shall continue the theme of housing: we have had a statement and a ten-minute rule Bill on housing, and this debate is about the Work and Pensions Select Committee’s report on support for housing costs in the reformed welfare system. There are two important debates scheduled for this afternoon, but given that we have had two urgent questions and two statements, our deliberations might have to be somewhat curtailed.
Our report dealt with the series of reforms to housing benefit and other support to meet housing costs that the Government have introduced since 2010. The report was published in April last year, and strangely we have been granted a debate on the Floor of the House today without having received the Government’s response to it. Normally, we would expect a Government response to a Select Committee report to be published before any such debate is granted. We have been waiting for almost a year to receive the Government response.
As I have said, our report was published in April 2014. We have still not received the Government response almost a year later, but that is not for want of trying. In September last year, the Minister for Welfare Reform, Lord Freud, wrote to me to apologise for the delay, saying that although the response had been prepared, the Department for Work and Pensions was still in the process of seeking “cross-government clearance” for it. I do not know whether that means there is a major split in the coalition over the report; perhaps the Minister could fill us in on why the Government’s response has still not made it out of the DWP and into the light of day.
As we still had not received a response by December, I wrote, with the Committee’s agreement, to the same Minister to ask that a response be submitted as a matter of urgency, but I have still not received a reply to that letter. As you know, Madam Deputy Speaker, effective Select Committee scrutiny is hampered if the Government fail to abide by the agreed process. I appreciate that today’s Minister is not the one I have been writing to, but I hope he will engage fully with the detailed and specific recommendations in our report—the Government have failed to do that for nearly a year. The recommendations are important and we hope the Government are taking them seriously.
The report covered a wide range of issues relating to housing costs and the welfare system, but perhaps the most controversial was “social sector size criteria”. We called it that to try to make it sound more neutral; any other form of words can be emotive, because it is called the bedroom tax, the removal of the spare room subsidy or the under-occupancy penalty, depending on one’s political view. However, it is the charge that has meant that social tenants deemed to have more bedrooms than they need have had their housing benefit reduced. The Government said that the aims of the reform were to reduce benefit expenditure, make use of the social housing stock and incentivise people to enter work. We actually agreed that using housing stock more effectively and reducing overcrowding were understandable goals. The question was: were the Government achieving them?
Although it is true that some reduction in housing benefit has resulted, it is not because people have moved house and are now more appropriately housed; it is because many people caught by the bedroom tax—the social sector size criteria—have merely had to subsidise their housing costs from other benefit or other income, and so of course it has saved the Government some money. However, we found that many people whom we genuinely believe the Government did not want to be caught by the bedroom tax were being affected by it, and many of them are vulnerable people. As many as 60% to 70% of households in England affected by the bedroom tax contain somebody with a disability.
The whole idea was that tenants would move to smaller houses, but we found that not enough smaller houses were available across the country. Some people might have been able to move into the private rented sector, which might have been more expensive for them, but even in that sector not enough suitable accommodation was available. Others of the vulnerable group were not able to respond by finding work, because of their illness and their disabilities. We also found that a significant number of people caught by the bedroom tax had specifically adapted homes, which means that it is difficult and expensive for them to move to smaller accommodation. Whoever came up with the idea that they could do so clearly has not been through the process, as I have, of trying to find a home that is easily adapted or has been adapted.
The only option for many people was to remain in their homes and so have their housing benefit reduced. All they could do was make up the shortfall. DWP research has shown that that often meant cutting down on household essentials or borrowing money from family and friends. The reduction in housing benefit was not insignificant for those who had no choice but to pay up—a 14% cut where the tenant was deemed to be under-occupying by one bedroom and a 25% cut where under-occupation was deemed to be by two or more bedrooms. In addition, the deduction is made on the basis of the total rent paid, without regard to the level of housing benefit actually received. Therefore, those in partial receipt of housing benefit would have to pay more proportionately.
The Government’s statistics show that by the end of November 2014 the reduction had been applied to nearly half a million claimants and that the average reduction was nearly £15 per week. We found that this reform was having a particular impact on people with disabilities, including those I have mentioned already: those who have adapted homes; and people who need a room to hold medical equipment or to accommodate a carer—often a family carer. We recommended that anybody living in a home that has been significantly adapted for them should be exempt from having their benefit reduced. We also called on the Government to exempt all households that contain a person in receipt of higher level disability benefits—disability living allowance or the new personal independence payment.
Hon. Members should note our use of the word “exempt”; we wanted those groups of people to be exempt. The Government’s response is to say, “Oh, but they don’t have to pay in any case because they have access to discretionary housing payments.” Given the number of people who are reliant on DHPs, there must be something wrong with the original policy if so many people have to rely on some kind of “transitional” arrangement. But it is not transitional, simply because there are not the houses for these people to move to or they cannot move because of the kind of accommodation they require which does not fit the criteria set down by the Government.
The Government say, as they have been saying for the whole year we have been waiting on their response, that the protection is available through the DHPs. It is true that the Government have substantially increased the funding for DHPs, but those payments are awarded by local authorities to people facing hardship in paying their rent, including tenants affected by the bedroom tax and by the benefit cap, and they are still discretionary. Of course, they are also not meant to be long term, as this is a transitional protection. The other problem is that DHPs are awarded on the basis of eligibility criteria, which each local authority can set itself. That can create a postcode lottery, and we felt it was important that the granting of a DHP should be based on access to the help needed, rather than being dependent on where a claimant lived. As we often say, any benefit or award should be based on need, not on somebody’s postcode.
We were also concerned that some local authorities are taking income from disability benefits into account in the means tests they apply for determining eligibility for DHPs. It may be that individual households would qualify normally for a DHP based on just the raw criteria, but when the means test is taken into account they do not get it. Members in this House have said that it did not matter whether an individual or a family was subject to the bedroom tax because they would always get the money reimbursed or they would be helped out by a DHP, but for a large number of families that did not happen because of the application of this second means test. The benefits that were being taken into account were things such as disability living allowance and personal independence payments, but they are paid to people who are long-term sick and to disabled people to help them meet the extra costs of their disability. They are not meant to subsidise their housing costs. Those extra costs do not go away just because someone has to contribute something towards their rent because their housing benefit no longer covers the full amount.
We recommended that the Government should issue revised guidance to local authorities, making it clear that disability benefits should be disregarded in any means tests for DHPs. As yet, we do not know whether that has happened, and I hope that the Minister can tell us whether that sensible and modest request by my Select Committee has been put in place.
There is also the problem that DHPs were meant to be temporary and transitional. They were never intended to provide a long-term solution, which is why we hoped that certain categories of claimants would be exempt. That makes far more sense than having claimants apply every six months, or every year, for a DHP, or for help towards their housing costs. We are talking about long-term problems. If a claimant cannot move house or find work, why is it that they still have to apply for a DHP?
Local authorities seem unwilling to make longer term awards, so claimants often end up having to re-apply every six or 12 months. Each time a family has to apply for a DHP, they go through anxiety and uncertainty, and they never know whether they will get the award this time round.
We concluded that if DHPs are to continue to be used as the main way of mitigating the hardship that the reforms are causing, substantial levels of funding will be needed for the foreseeable future. Claimants need to be given certainty that long-term awards are available. During our inquiry, we visited some people who were caught in that particular Catch-22 situation and they really were worried about the future.
There is also the question whether there is sufficient funding for DHPs. Although central funding was increased to £165 million in 2014-15, it will go down again to £125 million in the next financial year—a drop of £40 million. During our inquiry, the Government argued that DHPs were sufficient because local authorities had not bid for the full amount of funding that was available, but we believed—this has been borne out by later evidence—that that was because the reforms were at an early stage. Local authorities were still trying to adjust to the changes, and claimants were often not aware that DHPs were available. The DWP’s own research found that 56% of people who had not applied for DHPs were not aware that they existed, but they were as likely as other claimants to report difficulty in paying the rent or being in arrears.
We recommended that the Government should review the whole DHP provision when more detail was available, which it must be by now, and increase the funding, but we now know that that will be reduced. Obviously, there has not been a proper review and, as a result, it will be harder and harder for local authorities to continue to meet the costs of the DHPs that their own criteria say they should be paying out.
I would be interested to hear from the Minister what the evidential basis is for reducing DHP funding next year. Does the funding level take account of actual assessed levels of hardship arising from reduced housing benefit, or is it based only on the amount of DHP that local authorities have been able to distribute so far? What steps are the Government and local authorities taking to inform vulnerable claimants that they can apply for DHPs to help them make up their rent shortfalls?
Another aspect that has arisen as a result of the changes to housing benefit is the introduction of a cap on the total amount of benefits that a household can receive. The current limit is £26,000 a year. It is relevant to housing costs because it is the claimant’s housing benefit that is reduced when they hit the cap.
It is worth noting that almost everybody affected by the cap either lives in an area of the country with expensive rented accommodation, such as London, or are being placed in temporary accommodation because they are homeless. Local authorities often have no option other than to put homeless people in temporary accommodation because of the lack of other rented housing in the area. That problem is getting more and more acute in a number of areas, but temporary housing is normally more expensive than permanent accommodation and claimants can then fall within the scope of the benefit cap.
Local authorities often end up paying the shortfall between rent levels and housing benefit for those affected by the cap through DHPs, so there is in fact no overall saving to public funds. We recommended that the Government should exempt all households in temporary accommodation from the benefit cap, because it seems particularly unjust for those claimants to be affected when they had no choice over where they were housed. We also found that the benefit cap was having an adverse impact on disabled persons and their carers, and that is a particular problem when the carer lives with the disabled person—usually as the parent of a child, but it could be as the adult child of a disabled parent—but they are not considered, for benefit reasons, to be part of the same household. We recommended that the Government should exempt from the benefit cap all recipients of carers allowance in that situation. The Government said that the benefit cap was not intended to push carers into work, but that may well be the effect unless the recipients of carer’s allowance are exempted from the cap. I do not think that the Government anticipated that carers would be caught by the bedroom tax.
We also looked at the local housing allowance, which is the former housing benefit for tenants in the private rented sector. The Government announced reforms to the LHA in the June 2010 Budget, and the Committee published a report that year highlighting our concerns about the implication of the changes. Our 2014 report assessed the impact of the reforms. We concluded that there was a growing discrepancy between average rents and the amount of local housing allowance that households can claim. We found that, as a result, private sector landlords are increasingly reluctant to rent to LHA recipients. Evictions and non-renewals of tenancies are increasing, and the properties that do remain available to claimants are increasingly of poor quality and there are fewer and fewer of them.
We also looked at the impact on homelessness. We noted that, despite homeless statistics being down overall, rises are occurring in areas where demand for housing is high, and that homelessness among those not deemed to be “in priority need” had increased by 9% between 2012 and 2013. In order to qualify as priority need, households need to be vulnerable in some way. We are talking about single mothers or victims of special circumstances, such as a fire or flood, so many homeless people are excluded from the definition. It is therefore not surprising that many people who are homeless are not necessarily showing up in the figures.
We were also concerned about younger people affected by the changes to the shared accommodation rate, which is the housing benefit paid to claimants without dependants who live in private rented accommodation. Basically, it means that they cannot rent a complete flat or house of their own; they can afford to rent only a room. The benefit had previously applied to claimants under 25, but from April 2012, as part of the LHA reforms, the Government extended the SAR to any single claimant under the age of 35 without dependent children. We found that in many areas insufficient accommodation at this level of rent was available. We heard evidence of possible adverse impacts on people with mental health problems and on parents with non-resident children, who would no longer have room to accommodate their children when they came to stay.
We concluded that the extension of the shared accommodation rate to single claimants up to the age of 35 might well have reduced the availability of safe, appropriate accommodation for younger people, some of whom may be vulnerable. We recommended that the Government should assess the impact of this change to the shared accommodation rate. If there was evidence that the change was resulting in some vulnerable young people having to live in situations which were inappropriate or put them at risk, we thought that the Government should consider introducing exemptions for vulnerable people and doing more to increase the provision of appropriate accommodation.
On the face of it, the introduction of universal credit may seem unlikely to affect housing costs, but housing benefit is one of the six benefits that will form part of universal credit. The biggest change in respect of housing benefit is that it will be administered by the DWP directly as part of universal credit, rather than by local authorities, as is the case at present. Universal credit, including the housing costs element, will generally be paid direct to claimants once a month, although exceptions can be made.
For some time now most claimants in the private rented sector have received their housing benefit direct and paid rent to their landlords. However, for social housing tenants, this represents a huge change, as their housing benefit has always previously been paid to their landlords and they have not been faced with handling the significant sums that housing benefit sometimes involves, especially when it is paid once a month.
In a report that we published in 2012 we looked at how universal credit would affect vulnerable claimants. One of the key issues that we considered was the challenge that some vulnerable people would face in coping with direct monthly payments of UC which included their housing costs. To test the impact of direct payment of housing costs on social sector tenants, the Government set up direct payment demonstration projects in six local authority areas in 2012. The findings from the research showed a distinct and significant drop in rent payment rates when tenants first migrated to direct payment. As a result, rent arrears increased, as did the number of tenants falling into arrears. Although tenants adjusted to the new system over time, much of the arrears that had built up in the early stages were not repaid, so total arrears continued to rise. Overall, tenants who went on to direct payment paid 95.5% of all the rent owed, compared with 99.1% who were not on direct payment.
The Public Accounts Committee last week published a report on universal credit that concluded that these findings show that the DWP needs to reflect on how it will tackle the potential problems of paying the housing benefit element of universal credit directly to claimants. As we said about universal credit in 2012, it may work well for the majority of claimants, but it is the vulnerable minority who need special attention and extra support. This is particularly the case when it comes to housing costs because they often represent the largest proportion of a household’s benefit payments. If people fall into arrears and lose their homes, there can be all sorts of dire consequences, particularly for children.
What I have said so far applies predominantly to England and Wales. Since we published our report there has been a referendum in Scotland and the setting up of the Smith commission to look into further devolved powers. My Select Committee has not had time to look at the implications of the Smith agreement and how that might impact on the way in which housing benefit is administered and paid in Scotland. Nevertheless, our report was wide ranging. I have not touched on all the important issues that it covered, but colleagues from the Committee are in the Chamber and they may do so.
In conclusion, we continue to be disappointed that the Government have not been able to provide a response to the very important matters that we raised nearly a year ago. Many of the issues that we identified in April 2014 still exist in the system and some have been exacerbated with the passage of time. I look forward to the Minister’s update on the progress that has been made in addressing some of the concerns that I have raised.
I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for Aberdeen South (Dame Anne Begg), the Chair of the Select Committee. She raises a number of interesting points that were debated in the private Member’s Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives (Andrew George), the Affordable Homes Bill, which proposed a number of changes to the social sector criteria—the bedroom tax, spare room rent or whatever one wants to call it. One of those changes would, under certain circumstances, automatically exempt people with disabilities from being required to pay for a spare room.
In law as it currently stands, under article 14 of the European convention on human rights, there is a legally enforceable right to get hold of discretionary housing payments. I have achieved that in Birmingham in a couple of cases, by using the threat of it rather than making the application to court. My constituency experience is that in the cases in which we should get DHP, in general we have got it. I agree that we should have an automatic exemption from paying for spare rooms for those people who need them because they have a disability, which is obvious, and those whose homes have been adapted. However, we have managed to get DHP in those cases, and we are getting longer DHP awards following the changes that defined the budget for two-year periods, so some progress is being made.
The other change proposed in the Affordable Homes Bill was that people who said that they wanted to move would not have to pay. Of course, that is between 10% and 20% of people. In fact, I think that the figures for Birmingham show that roughly half those who were originally having to pay for spare rooms no longer have to, although obviously people are flowing in and out of the system. I find it rather sad—perhaps the Minister will take note of this point—that although the Department gets monthly statistics from all local authorities on what is going on with awards of DHP and the like, spare room rent and so on, we do not get up-to-date figures on the situation.
One of the changes introduced in April 2013 was to enable people in the social rented sector to benefit in the same way as those who own their own homes if they want to let out a spare room to a lodger or boarder. Not only would they not have to pay for the spare room, but they could keep up to £20 a week of the additional money. Given that the applicable amount for a 25-year-old is currently around £71.70, £20 a week is quite a lot of money. I believe that only a handful of people in Birmingham have taken that up, but I think that is because people do not know that they can benefit.
I had a meeting last night with care leavers, during which we discussed housing, because it is absolutely critical for them. We discussed how tight their budgets are when they have to live on means-tested benefits, because they have to pay water, gas and electricity bills, so there are great merits in people sharing property in certain circumstances. I advise young people to consider sharing, rather than trying to live alone. They raised a concern that even though they got some priority as care leavers, they were still given only one choice of property—take it or leave it. I think that varies from local authority to local authority, but perhaps more could be done in that regard.
In my constituency advice bureau I get people who are very upset. The last person who was in tears was a constituent who was in overcrowded accommodation; they could not live comfortably in the two-bedroom flat they had. I find it sad that we are still not managing to deal with those who are under-occupying and those who are over-occupying in such a way that councils can resolve the issue. I recently had a case in which a pensioner wanted to downsize from a house but the council was being exceedingly difficult about it, saying, “When you took the house, certain adaptations were made, so we want you to reinstate them before we move you.” Obviously he is not paying the spare room rent, but he is still occupying a house that could be occupied by a family. I do not think that there is the urgency that there should be in local authorities to try to deal with overcrowding.
Actually, there is a need to ensure that people are appropriately housed and that they move, but very little of that responsibility lies with local authorities. The wrong way to go about it is just to take money from people who are over-occupying and would love to move but are not in a position to do so.
I personally think that it would be harsh to go around evicting everybody who is under-occupying, although that happens when people try to succeed to a tenancy; they are told that they cannot do so because the property is too big. I do not think that overcrowding is taken sufficiently seriously. Malcolm Wicks highlighted in his memoirs how he argued, when a Labour Housing Minister, for the need to bring in something akin to the current situation.
The hon. Gentleman should acknowledge that the proposals from the late Malcolm Wicks involved incentives to move, not financial penalties to be applied immediately whether or not houses are available.
I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention, but my reading of all the documents, including those memoirs, is different from hers. It was not about an incentive to move, which I do not think anyone would criticise. I think that his proposals were very similar to those that have been adopted by this Government, as seen in the written parliamentary questions.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who is being generous in giving way. Does he also recognise that it is wrong to distinguish between individuals on the basis of who their landlords are? Whether their landlord happens to be in the private sector or the public sector should make no difference to the level of support they get.
The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. The scheme for working out how much space people need and paying them for it was introduced in the private sector many years ago. The Opposition will make the valid point that they did not make it retrospective, but the Government then say that if we want to deal with overcrowding and the like, this is one of the difficulties. Speaking personally, I would rather not do any of these things, but we do not have the finances for that. If we had chosen to take the Greek approach and said, “Can’t pay, won’t pay”, and then run out of money, we would not have had to do a lot of these things, but sadly we have to try to bring the books into balance over time.
The fundamental problem with this whole policy—I think the hon. Gentleman is taking this position as well—is whether it is about saving money or making better use of houses. The amount being saved even on the Government’s own initial estimates was not enormous, and when we factor in discretionary housing payments and all the other things that have to be taken into account, the savings diminish even further. This is not really something that will save a lot of money. [Interruption.]
From a sedentary position, the Minister says, “£1 million a day”, which is about the order of magnitude that we were talking about. A policy can have more than one objective. It can be designed to save money and also to deal with overcrowding. This year, I have not had anyone in my office complaining about social services criteria, but I often get people complaining about being overcrowded.
Is the hon. Gentleman aware that when the bedroom tax was introduced, 19,000 people in his constituency were already on the waiting list, of whom 8,000 wanted one-bedroom flats? There was already a long queue of people before the bedroom tax was introduced,
In my constituency, I was aware of a family of four living in a one-bedroom flat who wanted to transfer out of that into better accommodation.
I am not familiar with Birmingham, Yardley, but I wonder whether the fact that the lists were so long is a symptom of the legacy of the previous Government’s inability to build single-bedroom accommodation for the hon. Gentleman’s constituents to move into.
The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. Social landlords have had a relatively simplistic approach to designing property to suit the demands of the market. That creates a difficulty, in as much as one should recognise that there are real difficulties in the financial costs of living alone, including paying rent. The hon. Member for Aberdeen South said that the changes to universal credit mean that people have to keep money aside for rent in a social housing property in the same way as they have had to in a private rented property, the logic being that it makes for a seamless move into work and therefore they are not frightened about getting a job.
In my constituency, I have worked with 6 Towns credit union, which is based in West Bromwich, to extend its service to Yardley, as it has done. It allows someone to be a preferred creditor. Basically, the housing element of universal credit or housing benefit is put to one side and made available for the landlord, be that a social housing landlord or a private landlord. It is important to do that, because we need to make sure that people do not end up in a mess. The idea is that budgeting is done through the bank account rather than the housing benefits system. That creates a situation in which people do not find themselves in great difficulty with budgeting as soon as they get into a monthly paid job.
There have been proposals to cash limit housing benefit by giving it all to the local authorities. I think that the Institute for Public Policy Research proposed something along those lines. That would lead to a situation where potentially many more tenants in social housing would have to pay towards the rent for their accommodation. I would be concerned about that, because it would put them in a situation that they could do little about. I favour the current process, which supports people with the housing costs they need to pay so that they can cope on a day-to-day basis.
This is a difficult area, and the Government have done many things that I would have preferred them not to do, one of which is the change to housing benefit, which it would have been nice to do gradually. However, we have to bring the books into balance, because if we do not, the interest rates on sovereign debt will go up and the amount of interest that we would then have to pay means that the cuts or tax rises that are necessary would become a lot greater than would have otherwise been the case.
Several hon. Members
Order. I appreciate that there is a feeling the House is not very busy and that the whole afternoon and evening stretches before us, but another debate is scheduled to take place after this one. If everyone follows the example of the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (John Hemming) and speaks for approximately 10 minutes, all Members who have indicated that they wish to speak will have the opportunity to do so. I will not impose a time limit at the moment. The hon. Gentleman has set a good example, and I hope that everyone will follow it.
I am pleased to have the opportunity to participate in this debate. It was very well opened by my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen South (Dame Anne Begg), who is a dedicated and inspirational Chair of the Work and Pensions Committee. I want to put on the record my thanks to her for the way in which she has chaired the Committee and for all the things I have learned from her. She is the epitome of the iron fist in a velvet glove, and she manages to be both reasonable and radical at the same time.
I am speaking in this debate because I am a member of the Select Committee, and the Chair has already gone through some of the recommendations in our report. Given the importance of the report, it is disappointing that, a year on, we are still waiting for the Government response. I hope that the Minister will address that matter.
It is indisputable that we are the middle of a housing crisis. House building is down, homelessness and rough sleeping are rising, and houses are unaffordable for many people. The lack of social housing means that those with legitimate claims and in desperate need are deemed ineligible or not in priority need as local authorities try to implement housing strategies to manage demand with a only very few houses to allocate.
The private rented sector has filled the vacuum caused by the lack of affordable and social housing. As a result, the private rented sector in London has grown by 75% in the past 10 years. In my constituency, it is now common for families to live in private rented accommodation, although they previously either owned their own home or lived in social housing. Yet the ever-growing private rented sector is still failing to meet the demands of renters. It is easy to reduce discussions about housing costs to an evaluation of numbers and statistics, but the truth is that covering housing costs is crucial to securing a stable home life and a stable society. Affordable housing costs give families certainty and freedom from the fear of eviction, and help to foster communities.
Costs are spiralling out of control. The cost of renting has soared while wages have dropped. The lack of regulation in the private rented sector and the limited supply of housing in comparison with demand mean that private landlords are currently free to set their own prices. The cost of renting privately has increased consistently since 2009, and rents reportedly increased in London in 2012-13 by nearly 8%.
It is not surprising that so many people, both in and out of work, require help with paying their housing costs and have to resort to housing benefit. The number of in-work housing benefit claimants rose from 439,000 at the end of 2008 to more than 1 million in May 2014. The latest statistics also show that there were just under 4.9 million housing benefit claimants at the end of November 2014—increased from 4.2 million in November 2008—of whom 67% were in the social rented sector, but the rest were in the private rented sector.
The Committee’s report illustrated that the cost of housing benefit is rising, while the most vulnerable are failed when they rent privately. Over the past year, as a constituency MP, I have seen a spike in the number of people contacting my office who have been told that they are ineligible for social housing, but cannot secure private rented accommodation. That is due to a combination of factors, but one that has made things very difficult for people is the change in local housing allowance. Constituents tell me that when they go to the local authority, they are just given a list of private letting agents. The problem is that nearly all those on the list say that they do not take any tenants on benefits. Constituents are spending time and resources searching for suitable properties only to be told that they cannot be helped. That means that a large section of the private rented sector is unavailable to claimants, and that they are often forced to take poor, substandard property that fails to meet their needs.
We have found in the west midlands that private landlords are often willing to take people on housing benefit if they have a 6 Towns type of account that reserves the funds. There is a solution in the system as it stands. Perhaps that needs to be investigated. Obviously, 6 Towns does not operate across the country, but perhaps there are solutions that can be found within the current policy.
It is true that solutions can be found. Sadly, no one seems to have found them yet in my part of south-east London.
The Work and Pensions Committee looked at the problems that are faced by people on housing benefit. They are discriminated against when looking for private rented accommodation. For families, that makes trying to find a roof over their heads an uphill struggle. Given that tenancies typically last for six to 12 months, private renters often have to move just as they have settled in. Children who live in such places have their life chances restricted and their education disrupted, and are often not registered with a doctor. That cannot be acceptable.
Private landlords may be reluctant to rent accommodation or provide temporary accommodation to claimants for a number of reasons. It might not just be general discrimination, but might be due to constraints that are imposed by mortgage lenders, who say that they are not allowed to provide longer tenancies, or due to fears that local authorities will fail to allocate housing benefit in a timely manner. Giving private renters the option of allowing the housing benefit component of their universal credit payment to go directly to their landlord might allay those fears and enable private renters to control their finances more easily. The Government must work with private sector landlords to address their concerns about universal credit and offer greater support to those who rent property to housing benefit claimants. That work must start now.
I grateful to my colleague on the Work and Pensions Committee for giving way. I met my key local social housing provider on Friday. It said that there was a 15% gap in rent collection between those on universal credit and those not on universal credit. That is manageable over a year or so, but over the longer term it will create huge problems. I wonder whether my hon. Friend wants to comment on that point.
That is a valid point. It is something that we all encounter locally when we talk to housing providers. It needs to be addressed, so I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention.
Another problem for private renters is that the change to local housing allowance is further restricting their access to the widest selection of available properties. Local housing allowance rates match only the 30th per- centile of homes within a broad rental market area. The Government reduced that from the 50th percentile. I believe that that needs to be re-evaluated urgently, especially in London. Rents have risen, but the local housing allowance was frozen in 2012-13 and uprated by 1% in 2014. There has been a reduction in the number of homes that can be rented out at that rate.
An analysis by Crisis shows that across Britain, one in 10 local housing allowance rates for 2015-16 is 5% or more lower than the estimated 30th percentile of local rents. Those include 77 rates that have already benefited from an additional increase due to the targeted affordability fund. As was outlined in the Select Committee’s report, analysis by the Institute for Fiscal Studies shows that rent levels did not decline as a result of the cap. In fact, the most recent rental figures show a 1.8% rise across the stock in England and a rise of 2.4% in London. That is well above the recent 1% cap and means that additional properties will fall out of the reach of those on benefit.
Private renters should not have to choose between having a roof over their heads and eating, but increasingly that is becoming a daily choice for many people in my constituency. The Government should consider increasing LHA rates by more than 1% annually in more pressured areas. Although the Committee welcomed the introduction of the targeted affordability fund as a means of increasing LHA levels in areas of higher rents, some areas may see rents rising by more than the maximum of 4% a year. The Government should amend the targeted affordability fund so that it can be paid at higher levels in areas where rent increases are greater than 4%. It should also use available rents rather than stock rents as a measure for the rental increase.
Rents are currently unaffordable across the private sector. In 2012, the Money Advice Trust stated that rent arrears were the fastest growing debt problem it had encountered and that the number of calls it received on the issue had risen by 37% on the previous year. At the end of 2014, the National Landlords Association reported that almost a third of private landlords had seen arrears that year. There were a record number of evictions of renters across the social and private sector in 2014 as a result of a combination of factors, including the bedroom tax, benefit sanctions, increased numbers renting with the reduced LHA rate, and rising private sector rents.
Recent figures from Crisis have also shown that the No. 1 leading cause of homelessness now is eviction from a private tenancy. The figures highlight not just the lack of affordability for renters when having to manage competing living costs, but how unsustainable rising rents will be for the private rented sector without Government intervention.
The Government must continue to monitor homelessness levels and take action to mitigate the impact on households and local authorities. The Department for Communities and Local Government reported that rough sleeping increased by 14% in autumn 2014. I am regularly contacted by constituents who tell me that they cannot be housed by their local council because they are not in priority need and that they have no option but to live in overcrowded accommodation with family members or to couch-surf, which is code for sleeping on the floor of a friend’s house. If they can be housed, they have been told that their only option is temporary accommodation. In my local area of Bexley, people are often temporarily accommodated in Manchester and Bolton, which means having to uproot their children from school and leave their support networks behind.
It always worries me greatly that, while a number of landlords are reputable, a number of others are not. There are private landlords in my constituency who line their pockets while renters struggle to pay their rent. I wrote to Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and the Treasury in November to ask about the Let Property campaign, which was launched in September 2013 to target the residential property letting market. Specifically, I wanted to know whether it had been successful in closing the tax gap on let properties, but the responses I received were not encouraging. They said it was too early to tell, but one of the figures they did give me was an estimate that the tax gap on letting income was just over £500 million. It is absolutely disgraceful that public money is going to landlords who do not then pay their way or their tax. We need to address that urgently.
Order. Before the hon. Lady addresses any further points. She may have been able to count, but she has now spoken for 12 minutes. I trusted her to speak for 10 minutes, so I trust that she is going to wind up very soon.
I will finish by saying that I think this is a most urgent issue. I do not usually quote from Conservative manifestos, but the 1951 Conservative manifesto said:
“Housing is the first of the social services. It is also one of the keys to increased productivity. Work, family life, health and education are all undermined by overcrowded homes.”
That was true then, and it is true now.
It is a pleasure to take part in this debate. I am sorry that I missed the first couple of minutes of the speech by the hon. Member for Aberdeen South (Dame Anne Begg), because she speaks very sensibly on this issue and many Government Members listen to what she has to say about it. I will pick up on a couple of points she made.
The hon. Lady has spoken in the past about the amount that we spend on housing benefit. It was a matter of concern to us all that the housing benefit budget seemed to be getting out of control in the run-up to the last general election. In fact, the housing benefit bill was forecast to rise over the current Parliament from £21 billion to more than £26 billion. This Government’s reforms have only pegged back that increase by about £2 billion a year, which, given the potential growth in the budget, is not very much at all.
The hon. Lady spoke about how the spare room subsidy has been working in practice. Like the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (John Hemming), my constituency surgeries were visited by many people when the policy was first mooted, perhaps because they were scared by stories that were being circulated at the time about how it would affect them. There was a general lack of knowledge about discretionary housing payments and who can receive them for. I am pleased that we were able to help every person who came through the door of my constituency surgery advice centre seeking help in that area, and all received discretionary housing payments.
Interestingly, Daventry and District Housing, which serves a huge area of my constituency, saw the policy change coming down the line. It is a good housing association in many ways because it talks to its tenants on a regular basis and gets to know them, and it therefore made sure that they were ready for the change. Most tenants in Daventry and District Housing accommodation knew that the change was coming, and knew that discretionary housing payments were available and how to access them.
I sit on the Public Accounts Committee, which discusses these matters—I will mention the report that the hon. Member for Aberdeen South spoke about in moment—and it is fairly obvious that different parts of the country, different housing associations, and different councils have acted in completely different ways over this change. They have probably acted in their best local interests, which is fine, but it has led to different outcomes in various parts of the country that all have remarkably significant and different pressures on them.
In one of my first years on the Committee, its Chair, the right hon. Member for Barking (Margaret Hodge), took us to see a primary school and surrounding housing estate in her constituency. We had been talking about health and housing inequalities, and the trip was to see how primary education was working. I acknowledge that the pressures on housing in Erith and Thamesmead, or in Barking and Dagenham, are completely different from those in my constituency, and that is why local experts and housing associations in that area know their tenants well.
The interesting background to this debate concerns an area of spending that was constantly growing and needed to be brought under control—however we paint the picture, the Government’s moneybags were not particularly full when they came to office in May 2010, and although they are a bit better now, there are still tough decisions to be made. Such decisions must be based on fairness—I know that some Opposition Members do not consider this measure to be fair at all—and we must consider how we change a policy that is already enacted for those in the private rental housing sector but not for those in the public rental sector.
At this point I should say that I rent out a house. My private property in Lincoln is noted in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests and I rent it to a private sector tenant who to my knowledge is not on any type of benefit. There is a proper debate to be had about this issue, which was started in no uncertain terms by the previous Government.
This Government brought forward their proposals with the safety net of discretionary housing payments. I do not want to disagree with the hon. Member for Erith and Thamesmead (Teresa Pearce) because she will know her local area much better than I will, but perhaps I misheard her. She was talking about warrants for evictions, and perhaps she meant from the private rental sector.
She did. I know from Ministry of Justice figures that warrants for evictions for public sector rental tenants were down over the period in question by 6%. An issue in the private rental sector might well need to be addressed, and that is probably in the south-east of the country rather than elsewhere, given the housing pressures that London might have.
My concern was the treatment of carers and those who are disabled. As the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley said, it would have been wonderful to exempt everybody from the change, but it was impossible to do so, and therefore discretionary housing payments were introduced. In my experience in my constituency, DHP has been granted for disability and caring in every single case it has been asked for. I pay tribute to Daventry and District Housing, the citizens advice bureau and the local council for the way in which they have dealt with those cases. The patch—I admit that it is a patch, and that I would much rather have seen it done in a much more solid way—seems to work. The extension of the term of DHP seems to have given people a better sense that they will be able to live in their property for a long period.
I conclude with comments on the Public Accounts Committee report on universal credit, which was published only a couple of weeks ago, and which the hon. Member for Aberdeen South mentioned. As she outlined, an interesting part of universal credit and one of the benefits that it will eventually wrap in—for many new claimants, that has started—is housing benefit. Housing associations up and down the country have had concerns about how that might affect them and how they will get their rents from tenants. However, the report shows how a change in the Department for Work and Pensions has been introduced—it has been seen as controversial by many, although a universal credit that aims to get as many people as possible into work and to make work pay better than benefits ever will is in fact policy on both sides of the House—how the programme has improved things and how it is now beginning to deliver what it was meant to deliver, and on scale across the country.
The report was groundbreaking in many ways. The Public Accounts Committee is very critical of all Departments that come before us where money is spent. We raised some issues, as detailed by the hon. Member for Aberdeen South, but if Members read the report they will see for themselves that we are much more comfortable with how the universal credit programme is going—that it is now delivering on scale and will deliver the savings expected. No matter on which side of the House hon. Members sit, they will welcome it in future, because it does exactly what it says on the tin.
The interesting paragraph is paragraph 6. The hon. Lady mentioned the potential problems of paying housing benefit elements of universal credit directly to claimants—the question was whether housing associations and others could maintain their incomes. I know from initial reports that her statistics are correct, but I would like to hear from the Minister, because I am pretty sure that new stats prove that there is not as much of a problem as she says.
I had better sit down and shut up, otherwise I will get the stare from Madam Deputy Speaker, which I never want to receive.
Things are improving. We would expect that because when something changes, there is always upset at the beginning. Things are on the right track, but I would like to hear about it from the Minister.
Hon. Members agree that there are serious problems when payments of housing benefit rise so high. We disagree on our analysis of how it came about and what we should do about it. Unless we tackle the underlying issues, we will simply trim the edges, to the detriment of many households and families. As the Office for Budget Responsibility says in its review of spending on benefits and pensions, the main drivers for the increase in housing benefit are increases in rents and the number of people on low wages who have to claim housing benefit to make ends meet. The OBR was concerned that those two things would continue to be drivers in the coming decade unless action was taken. There is very little—I would say virtually nothing—in the steps that the Government have taken since 2010 to tackle those problems. Indeed, they may have made them worse.
We were told by Ministers during the passage of the Welfare Reform Bill that the private rented sector had become so intrinsically dependent on the housing benefit market that rents would fall as a result of the changes. Rents have not fallen. In many places, they have risen considerably above inflation. That is certainly true in my city, in the city represented by the Chair of the Select Committee and in London. The DWP accepts that this is the case. For the private rented sector, it has introduced additional payments in some areas to top up the local housing allowance—after it previously made reductions—because it accepts there is a growing gap between the actual rents available to people who want to rent and need housing benefit, and the payments they would otherwise receive. The promises that rent would fall as a result of the policy have not come about. I hope that in looking to see what savings are supposed to have been made, those additional payments will be factored in.
We are repeatedly told that this policy is about saving money. I think the Minister from a sedentary position said, “Oh, it’s about £1 million a day,” but that was based on the Government’s original statement that the policy would save about £500 million a year. Other experts said, at a very early date, that it would be lucky to be somewhere nearer £350 million, and that does not take into account the very high cost of discretionary housing payments, which are a cost to Government and so detract from any savings made. It is therefore not correct for the Government to say what they say.
For individuals, households and families, the impact is extremely serious. This is not the same, as is often said, as what happened previously in the private rented sector, dating back to about 1998 when size was taken into account. This is an impost on people now, whether they can move or not and whether there is anywhere for them to move to or not. One of the amendments tabled during the course of the Welfare Reform Bill by the Opposition—it was followed up through the House of Lords and incorporated into a private Member’s Bill that was not allowed to progress in this House recently—proposed that if people were offered a suitable alternative house and did not take it, then the cut in their benefit could apply. For many people, however, that just is not practical. I have just checked yet again, as I do constantly, the number of houses available for social rent in my city. This week, there were 54 in the whole city. Of those, 31 were one-bedroom, but eight were sheltered. The people affected by the bedroom tax are by definition under pension and retirement age, and so would not qualify for those eight.
That is not just the case in my hon. Friend’s city. In Oldham in my constituency, 2,048 people are affected by the bedroom tax and there are only 50 properties for them to move into.
I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention.
In Scotland, the priority given to people who are homeless—a much wider definition of homelessness has been adopted by the Scottish Government—means that there is real competition for smaller houses. The majority of people who present as homeless are single people, so they too need the small houses that other people are trying to fit into.
I refer the hon. Lady to the answer that the then housing Minister, the late Malcolm Wicks, gave to a question from the hon. Member for The Cotswolds (Geoffrey Clifton-Brown):
“We hope to implement a flat rate housing benefit system in the social sector, similar to that anticipated in the private rented sector to enable people in that sector to benefit from the choice and flexibility that the reforms can provide.”—[Official Report, 19 January 2004; Vol. 416, c. 1075W.]
If he said that then, why is it now such a bad idea?
It is interesting that the flat-rate housing allowance for the private rented sector should be raised. What the hon. Gentleman mentions was discussed as a possibility during the Labour Government. I was very much involved in housing, as the convenor of a housing committee in my council, and I remember that being discussed, but it was not implemented and there was a lot of opposition to the idea of doing that for the social rented sector, for all sorts of reasons. However, what the bedroom tax does is immediately say to people, whether they can move or not and whatever their circumstances are: “You may have to pay this extra money.”
To argue that discretionary housing payments are sufficient is not good enough. Even in Scotland, where the Scottish Government eventually agreed that extra money for the discretionary housing pot should kick in, there are still people who either do not know about making a claim or make a claim and do not get it, and who have to keep making claims. What the Select Committee said—I do not think this was unreasonable; we are a cross-party Committee—was that if we take the view that disabled people who have substantially adapted houses will receive long-term discretionary housing payments, which is what is always said, it would be simpler to exempt them. It would be administratively simpler, because there must be administrative costs in taking forms from people, processing them and working out whether they are still eligible. I do not think that was an unreasonable proposition. As the Government have taken so long to read our report—presumably considering it and working out whether it is workable—I hope that the Minister will stand up today and tell us that they have accepted that reasonable proposition. If he did that, we would all be extremely glad.
I want briefly to say something about the housing benefit cap. If a lot of people—this was the evidence to our Committee—are in temporary accommodation, it is utterly unreasonable to stop their benefit suddenly because they find themselves in that position. The Government are fond of saying that, as a result of the cap, people have moved out of temporary accommodation, but I suggest that it is likely that they are moving from temporary accommodation to permanent accommodation. There is a movement of people in and out of the scope of the household benefit cap, but the amount that some people are losing is very significant indeed. Again, I fear that the legislation was more symbolic than something that seriously addressed the underlying issues. If we have a lot of people receiving high amounts of benefits overall—because, for example, they are living in very expensive temporary accommodation—we need to build more affordable houses.
This is an issue north and south of the border. The Scottish Government have not been building sufficient low-cost affordable homes. The number completed in my city last year was the same as it was in 2007, which was the year that the current Scottish Administration took office. They have not been building low-rent affordable homes at an increased rate, even though they may sometimes try to say that they are. Without those homes, people will be paying excessive rents in the private rented sector, and not just in temporary accommodation. That is the issue we need to tackle.
I begin by congratulating the Select Committee, in particular the Chair, on an excellent and extremely useful report. It is a thoughtful and well-informed cross-party report, so I hope that the Minister will be able to explain why, after a whole year, the Government have not been able to respond to it.
As the report points out, the Government set themselves three targets for their welfare reform programme and changes to housing benefit: reducing benefit expenditure, improving incentives to work and making the situation fairer. It is quite clear that the first test has been failed. The Office for Budget Responsibility shows that expenditure on housing benefit in 2009-10 was £20 billion. In 2013-14, the last year for which we have full statistics, it was £24 billion; and the OBR is predicting that by 2018-19, the spend will be £27 billion.
I was particularly struck by the table at the beginning of chapter 2 on the local housing allowance, which sets out the maximum amounts payable. For a one-bedroom flat or shared accommodation, the maximum amount payable is £250 a week. Everybody here will know, however, that a £1,000 monthly payment sustains a mortgage of £200,000. In my constituency, that would buy a four-bedroom house. The average cost of a new social housing unit is £120,000. How much better it would be if we could shift the finance from benefits to bricks and spend the money on building new homes.
The problem with this Government’s policy is that it has made life more difficult for many people, while the benefits bill has continued to rise. As my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh East (Sheila Gilmore) said, that has happened because the Government have not addressed the underlying issues. The OBR shows that while housing benefit to unemployed people has fallen and is projected to continue to fall, housing benefit to those in work will rise steadily between 2012 and 2019. This is yet another indication of the cost of living crisis that people face, and it demonstrates that the new poverty is in-work poverty.
The Select Committee quotes Lord Freud as saying that the case load in the private rented sector is up
“by around 8% nationally and by around 5% in London”.
That is because rents are going up, even though the quality of housing is going down. I hope the Minister will be able to clarify the position on rents, since the Select Committee reported before the Office for National Statistics admitted that mistakes were made in the assessment of rents in London. In other words, more people are in the private rented sector today, and more of them are on housing benefit.
I am aware of the proposal to transfer housing benefit money to local authorities with a view to building more properties. Let me ask this: what pays the rent of the people who are already in tenanted accommodation while the new properties are being built with that money?
That, of course, is the great conundrum. I hope to come on to demonstrate to the hon. Gentleman how the Government have intensified the housing crisis rather than eased it by bringing about the happy day when we have enough homes. What is happening is that people are renting because they cannot afford to buy, and they cannot afford to buy because house prices are rising faster than they can save. Today, the average house price is eight times the average income.
Under this Government, we have had record lows for house building, which is now down at 1920s levels, as well as record lows for home ownership. No action has been taken to protect people from rip-off rent rises. That is why the Labour Opposition propose to address these problems, give security to renters and build five times as many homes as the Prime Minister promised yesterday. It is equally clear that something needs to be done about raising low incomes. I shall not detain the House with our proposals to strengthen the minimum wage, but it is absolutely clear that that is part of the equation.
The Select Committee made a number of sharp criticism