House of Commons
Tuesday 12 January 2016
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—
Before I answer, let me take a few seconds to update the House on the breaking news from Istanbul, where an explosion has occurred in the Sultanahmet area, killing at least 10 people, with many more injured. This is a tourist area of the city and we already know that some tourists are involved in this incident. We are seeking to verify whether any British nationals are involved, and if we get any news on that in the course of the next hour, I will update the House accordingly. In the meantime, I offer my sympathies to the victims, their families and everyone else affected by the attack. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”]
The Government are negotiating reform of the European Union and a new relationship for Britain with the European Union to fix the aspects of our membership that cause so much frustration in Britain. Following a substantive and constructive discussion at the December European Council, member states agreed to work towards mutually satisfactory solutions at the February European Council.
I echo the Secretary of State’s sentiments regarding the situation in Istanbul. Does he accept that the Government’s failing negotiations will put at risk British jobs, employments rights, opportunities for my constituents to work abroad and ultimately the economic growth that the Government have promised? If the Prime Minister is getting nowhere in these talks, how on earth will he get on in the negotiation that he is really thinking about—the one with his own Back Benchers?
On the contrary—a successful negotiation will set the EU on a clear course to create jobs and economic growth and to ensure Europe’s competitiveness in the future, and a referendum settling the question of Britain’s membership of a reformed European Union for the future will allow Britain to exploit to the full the opportunities that membership of such a Union will offer.
The letter of 10 November is clear. It is also clear that whatever the outcome of the discussions on that letter, none of the situations set out in that letter are deal-breakers for the Prime Minister. At the end of the day he will recommend a yes vote and a referendum. Why does he not get on and do it now, set a date, face up to his Back Benchers and promote the European Union for the good of Britain?
Many people are suspicious about the seriousness of this renegotiation when three of the so-called demands were accepted without any negotiation at all. Why, for example, did the Government bother to ask for a cut in red tape and for more competitiveness when the European Council has made it clear—in European Council after European Council in recent years—that that is exactly what it intended to do anyway?
It is true that we have seen, particularly under the present Commission, some very welcome moves to address some of the measures that make the European Union increasingly uncompetitive in the global market. But we are not seeking to get a political fix by one Commission: we are looking for an institutional restructuring that cements these arrangements for the future to ensure that the direction of travel remains one that the British people can be comfortable with and that will benefit the British economy and this country for the future. That is what we are going to do.
All four of the Prime Minister’s demands in these negotiations are important, but making sure that we as a country continue to enjoy the full benefits of the single market without being a member of the eurozone is clearly vital for millions of British jobs. Does my right hon. Friend agree that this is the key area for measuring the success of the negotiations, and can he update us on progress on that?
My right hon. Friend will know, and opinion polling shows, that many people in this country regard the question of migration and access to welfare benefits as the key area, but my right hon. Friend makes an extremely important point. All our European Union partners, inside the eurozone and outside, recognise that that issue has to be addressed. As the eurozone integrates, as we believe it will have to do to be a success—and we very much want it to be a success—the interests of those European Union members not inside the eurozone must be protected. Only if we can be confident that those interests will be protected can we welcome the integration of the eurozone countries to protect their interests and the interests of the euro in a way that will not damage ours. So I agree that it is an absolutely vital area.
The thoughts of everyone on these Benches will obviously be with those caught up in the incident in Istanbul.
As I understand it, the Prime Minister has called for a “united, harmonious and mutually respectful” debate within the Conservative party on the issue of Europe. In a united, harmonious and mutually respectful way, may I ask the Foreign Secretary to confirm that a referendum could not be held within six weeks of the date of the Scottish, Northern Irish, London and Welsh elections? If it were, that would be disrespectful to both the decision of this House and the people engaging in those elections.
As the right hon. Gentleman knows, that is not what the Bill provides for. But given the timescales involved and the fact that we now expect the conclusion to be reached at the February European Council, I think he can be confident that it will not be possible to hold a referendum before the date of the Scottish elections that he referred to.
I put it to the Foreign Secretary that if the referendum were held within six weeks after the date of the elections, the two campaign periods would intersect, with all the complications that would arise. Therefore I ask him again: will the date of the referendum be at least six weeks after the date of the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish elections?
What I am trying to convey to the right hon. Gentleman is that that is not what the Bill provides for; the Bill does not place any prohibition on a referendum being held in that period. Ultimately, however, the decision will be made by this House because the date will be decided by a statutory instrument brought before the House.
I hope that the Foreign Secretary is aware that the overwhelming majority of the 800,000 Poles working in this country have come to work. They pay miles more in income tax than they claim in benefits. Can we get back to real, constitutional renegotiations that affect the sovereignty of this country rather than the fixation of the media on in-work benefits?
We are elected to, and have to, address the concerns of the British people, and there are four areas on which we need to make progress with our European Union partners. One is migration and access to welfare benefits, but the others—ensuring that the EU is competitive, that there is a proper mechanism for the repatriation of powers to the member states, and that the relationship between the euro and non-euro countries is properly regulated to protect the interests of the non-euro countries—are also very important. I agree with my hon. Friend that we have to make progress on all four.
May I, through the Secretary of State, thank the Europe Minister for meeting an MPs’ delegation yesterday on the plight in Portugal of Paramjeet Singh, and for his efforts to date? As the case in Portugal moves to the political, ministerial stage, will the Foreign Secretary say how our Government hope to take the matter forward?
We are following the case closely and we have already made the Portuguese authorities aware of Mr Singh’s asylum status in the UK. India has not yet presented Portugal with a formal request for extradition, and as such we are not aware of the full details of the charges that he faces in India. We will continue to monitor Mr Singh’s case and will make a decision on further action when all the facts are available. Ultimately, however, it is the Portuguese authorities that have jurisdiction in Mr Singh’s case and will decide whether or not to extradite him to India.
One area not raised in the letter of 10 November was that of national security. Would the Foreign Secretary like to tell us a little about that issue and how important ensuring that proper national security is maintained will be in relation to our remaining a member of the European Union?
As my right hon. Friend knows, national security is reserved to the member states and we regard it as very important that that should remain the case. However, there is a tension because national security interacts with many other agendas where the European Union does have competence—for example, around the regulation of telecommunications. Ensuring that that balance is maintained correctly, and that the crucial national security interests of the member states cannot be interfered with by the European Union, remains one of our priorities in the negotiations.
May I first thank the Secretary of State for the update on the situation in Istanbul? Of course, our thoughts are with anyone caught up in this awful situation.
Those campaigning to leave the European Union have made much of the unrealistic argument that Britain can simply walk away and magically retain trade agreements that are in place precisely because we are a member of the EU. What assessment has the Secretary of State made of the impact on British industry and British business of Britain having no say in future EU regulations that we will almost invariably be required to comply with? In other words, what will “out” look like for British industry and British jobs?
Let me first welcome the hon. Lady to her position on the Front Bench. Indeed, let me welcome all the new members of Labour’s Front Bench team, across the party. Let me also pay tribute to the former shadow Minister for Europe, the right hon. Member for Wolverhampton South East (Mr McFadden). It is a sad indictment of today’s Labour party that people get sacked for refusing to excuse the actions of terrorists who murder innocent people and threaten our way of life.
We are clear that Britain benefits from access to the single market. If Britain voted to leave the European Union, we could not be guaranteed continued access to the single market. Britain benefits from the free trade agreements that have been negotiated by the European Union with third countries. We could not guarantee that renegotiating such agreements with the United Kingdom would be a priority for all those third countries if we were outside the European Union. But in the end, this is a balancing act. A proper calculation has to be made between the costs and the benefits of membership. What we are trying to do in this negotiation is decisively to alter the balance in favour of British membership so that we can convince the British people that that is the right future for Britain.
As my hon. Friend is aware, Iran does not recognise dual nationality, so we have not been granted the normal consular access to Kamal Foroughi. We continue to raise the case of Mr Foroughi’s detention at the highest levels, including representations from me and the Foreign Secretary, as well as the Prime Minister.
Mr Foroughi is now 76 years of age, and there are serious concerns about his health, including the possibility that he may be suffering from cancer. Will the Minister update the House on what steps the Foreign Office has taken to promote Mr Foroughi’s wellbeing during his detention at Evin prison?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for organising a meeting in December with his constituent, Mr Foroughi’s son. We certainly share the family’s concerns for Mr Foroughi’s health. The case was raised most recently on 22 December by our chargé d’affaires with the deputy secretary-general of the Iranian High Council for Human Rights. I hope to visit the country soon. The Foreign Secretary and I will continue to make the case for clemency, but also for consular access.
The UK has provided £559 million to help the 4.6 million Syrian refugees in neighbouring countries. I will visit Turkey later this week, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development will visit Jordan and Lebanon, in both cases to discuss the conference on supporting Syria and the region that we will co-host with Kuwait, Germany, Norway and the United Nations in London early next month. The purpose of that conference is to secure significantly greater international support for Syria and for the refugee host countries.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the UK can be proud of the response to the UN appeal for aid for those suffering in Syria? That includes, if I may say so with you in the Chair, Mr Speaker, the response of many Members of this House, including you, to my own Singing for Syrians initiative—
Yes, and I very much welcome my hon. Friend’s Singing for Syrians initiative. That and initiatives like it show an extraordinary solidarity with the Syrian refugees. Yes, other countries should do more. The UK is the second largest donor to the Syrian humanitarian crisis, after the United States. We can be incredibly proud of that record. I am also proud that the Syrian conference we will hold on 4 February will not just ask people to pledge additional money. We will go to the conference with innovative ideas, worked out with the Governments of Jordan and Turkey, to allow refugees proper access to the workplace in their host countries and to healthcare and education in a way that provides holistic support for those refugees, not just a UN handout.
Of course, there would be fewer displaced people to Syria’s neighbours if Russia stopped its despicable bombing of civilians. Has the Foreign Secretary had a chance to confirm reports that on Saturday the Syrian Emergency Task Force’s humanitarian headquarters in the city of Idlib were bombed by Russia, and what representations can the UK make on that?
We make regular representations to the Russians, first about the indiscriminate nature of their bombing, including the bombing of civilian areas, and secondly about the fact that they are still, for the overwhelming majority of their airstrikes, targeting the moderate opposition fighting the Syrian regime, not Daesh.
Stability in Syria and the region requires the removal of Daesh. Will the Secretary of State join me in congratulating the Iraqi forces on the recent liberation of Ramadi, and when will he hold the next counter-ISIL/Daesh coalition meeting?
I join in the congratulations to the Iraqi armed forces on their achievement in liberating Ramadi. It is but one step in a challenging process of ridding Syria of the evil of Daesh, but we will support the Iraqi Government and the Iraqi armed forces in that endeavour.
Yesterday the Secretary of State for International Development confirmed that yesterday marked the first time that food aid could be provided via convoy to the people of Madaya, as agreed with the Syrian regime. I have read newspaper reports today that there was a food aid delivery last October. Could the Foreign Secretary confirm the number of occasions the United Nations has requested humanitarian aid from the UK Government in relation to Madaya and how many times we have responded positively to such a request?
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development made a statement on that issue yesterday. The specific question asked is properly an issue for her Department, so I will ask her to write to the hon. Lady. What I can say to the House is that the use of starvation as a tool of warfare is illegal in international law—it is a breach of international humanitarian law—and we have made that point repeatedly to the Syrian regime and to the Russians.
There are currently some 16,000 refugees on the Syrian side of the Jordanian border, and Jordan has offered to help with their dispersal. Could the Foreign Secretary update us on what support we are giving to the Jordanians?
We are helping and supporting the Jordanians with the Zaatari refugee camp. As I have said, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development will be in Jordan later this week, discussing that, among other issues. There has been an upsurge in fighting in the southern area of Syria, with Syrian Government troops, supported by Russian airstrikes, becoming active in a part of the theatre that has been quiet for quite a long time. That is deeply destabilising for Jordan and puts at risk the possibility of supporting the refugees to whom the right hon. Lady refers.
Ukraine is facing multiple challenges, both over domestic reform and the security situation in the east. We believe that the full implementation of the Minsk agreement remains the best chance of achieving a peaceful solution in Donbass, and we will continue to press all parties, especially Russia, to do more to meet those commitments.
I celebrated Ukrainian Christmas with Huddersfield and Colne Valley’s Ukrainian community over the weekend. We enjoyed holubchi, varenyky and borscht. Understandably, the community is very concerned about the situation in Ukraine. Will the Minister continue to do everything he can to implement the ceasefire, the withdrawal of heavy weapons and the return of democracy to Ukraine?
The need for the implementation of the ceasefire and the withdrawal of weapons were among the issues on which I pressed the Russian authorities in my meetings with First Deputy Foreign Minister Titov in Moscow just before Christmas 2015. I reiterated in my meeting yesterday with the Mayor of Lviv, Mr Sadovy, the United Kingdom’s commitment to the independent sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine.
Under the Minsk agreement, the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe is charged with monitoring ceasefire arrangements and weapons withdrawal. When did the Minister last meet the OSCE on this issue, and what is his assessment of its most recent report?
I last discussed those points directly with Michael Link, the director of the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, at the OSCE ministerial meeting in mid-December. The OSCE is doing a heroic job, with its monitors sometimes under direct personal threat from the continued fighting in the Donbass. It does not yet have access, to which it is entitled, to the whole of the Donbass, and we continue to press the Russians to use their influence over the separatists to allow the OSCE to carry out its mission fully.
Will my right hon. Friend confirm that, in any discussions the Government have with Russia in relation to Syria, Ukraine will not be used as a bargaining chip and our desire to see Russia and its arms out of Ukraine will remain undiminished?
I can give my hon. Friend an unqualified assurance on that point. We will continue to talk to Russia about Syria and other matters, but we are absolutely clear that there is no trade-off between any agreement over Syria and our resolute support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.
I am grateful to you, Mr Speaker. As my right hon. Friend knows, corruption is a major problem in Ukraine, and one that is continuing to undermine the economic recovery of that country. What efforts are the British Government making to impress on the Ukrainian Government that they must end the practice of corruption if they want our continued support?
My hon. Friend puts his finger on one of the central challenges facing the Ukrainian Government and political parties in carrying out domestic reform. I do not think the House should underestimate how challenging that is in a country where corruption has been endemic for so long. We are doing what we can—not just through words, but with United Kingdom technical assistance—to enable the Ukrainians to move towards fighting corruption and establishing genuinely independent and impartial judicial and legal systems. The first projects under the good governance fund, which the Prime Minister announced last March, are now up and running in Ukraine.
6. What progress has been made on reaching an international agreement on terror financing. (902968)
A key strand of the strategy to defeat Daesh is to cut off its financing. A series of international agreements restricting Daesh’s income streams has come into force, including UN Security Council resolution 2170, which restricts Daesh’s trade networks and sanctions individuals who are financially supporting Daesh, and UN Security Council resolution 2253, adopted in December—it was recently agreed by all Finance Ministers, including the Chancellor—which reorientates the UN al-Qaeda sanctions regime to target Daesh.
The hon. Lady is right to highlight the importance of oil sales to Daesh, which account for about half of its revenues. It receives between $2.5 million and $4 million a day across all sources, but oil is very much the highest of them. Most of that is in fact sold to the Assad regime. We are making an impact—taxes in Mosul and Raqqa have been forced to go up; the salaries of the foreign fighters there have gone down; and smuggling routes are being closed off—so we are defeating Daesh using financial means.
The international convention for the suppression of the financing of terrorism has received widespread ratification across the world, but it has not been ratified by some major actors, in particular Iran and Somalia. What steps can my hon. Friend take to ensure that it is universally adopted, so that terrorist financing is shut off across the world?
Currency is clearly flowing out of ISIL towards Afghanistan to fund its huge operations there. As with any criminal organisation, currency will be flowing out of ISIL into foreign and western bank accounts to secure a future that it foresees. What success have we had in stemming that flow and capturing the people who are involved in the transfer of currency from ISIL as it exists as a state to wherever else it is going?
The hon. Gentleman is correct. It is not only finances that are moving out of Iraq and Syria, but people. The fighters are moving to other parts of the world to promote their extremist cause. Afghanistan is one of those places and Libya is another. We are closing in on the individuals who are providing the accounts and we now have the legislative means to close them. It will be difficult, but we need to work with those countries outside Iraq and Syria if we are to defeat extremism and close the financial channels it uses.
One hundred and eighty-seven countries have ratified the international convention for the suppression of the financing of terrorism. What confidence can we have in, and what action can we take against, any of those signatories that are dealing in some of the oil that is funding Daesh?
My hon. Friend is right to articulate that point. This is the main funding source that is keeping Daesh alive. It is able to use those funds to pay for the fighters who are causing so many of the problems in Iraq and Syria. It is hoped that the Vienna talks will lock down those countries—Iran has already been named—to ensure that they honour their commitments so that we can close down the financial channels.
Following on from the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier), an estimate by Associated Press at the end of October 2015 was that between 40,000 and 50,000 barrels of oil a day were being produced to finance Daesh in Iraq and Syria to the tune of $40 million a month. In the light of the agreement on terrorist financing that was reached in December, which the Minister mentioned, and the coalition military action, what is his current estimate of the finances available to Daesh?
I made it clear that there is an estimate that Daesh is receiving between $2.5 million and $4 million a day. This matter is very difficult to understand because it does not keep accounts and it certainly does not share its accounts. There is not the transparency that we would like to see from any country. We are fully aware that its main source of income is the illegal sale of oil to the Assad regime. We have closed off other avenues, but the main one is sales to the Assad regime.
The Commonwealth: Trade and Diplomatic Connections
The United Kingdom is committed to strengthening its engagement with the Commonwealth. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister led a strong delegation to the Commonwealth summit in Valletta in November, where my noble Friend the Minister for Trade and Investment, Lord Maude, and I promoted trade opportunities.
I am grateful for that answer. Given that three quarters of UK-Commonwealth trade is with India, Australia, Canada, Singapore, South Africa and Malaysia, how does my right hon. Friend propose that the UK can broaden its trading links with the other 46 Commonwealth nations?
My hon. Friend makes a good point. This question affords me the opportunity to pay tribute to the noble Baroness Scotland and to congratulate her on her appointment as the next secretary-general of the Commonwealth. We hope that she will refocus it. I am sure that Members from all parts of the House will want to work closely with her in the coming months and years.
At Valletta, we had the biggest ever Commonwealth business forum, which was organised by my noble Friend Lord Marland and the Commonwealth Enterprise and Investment Council. Lord Marland, the Minister for Trade and Investment and I are working very closely together on having more regular meetings of Commonwealth Trade Ministers, so as to expand Commonwealth trade both bilaterally between the UK and other Commonwealth members and within the Commonwealth.
The Africa all-party group, which I chair, recently met governmental and non-governmental representatives from African Commonwealth countries who expressed real concern that the European economic partnership agreements, which were negotiated in haste, under pressure, and often with many negotiators on one side and few on the other, will do real damage to Africa’s emerging service and manufacturing industries. What is the Minister doing to redress the balance of power?
The EU has trade deals involving 17 Commonwealth countries, and it is currently negotiating further agreements with Canada, Singapore and regional blocs in Africa. Africa is an area of huge potential for the Commonwealth—in fact, one of our recent successes is the east Africa oil and gas high value opportunity, which will support UK businesses in gaining access to local markets. One should look at the opportunities presented by potential investment in Africa, rather than the negatives.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. We are a key member of the Commonwealth, and we know that trade between two Commonwealth countries is on the whole 19% cheaper than trade outside the Commonwealth. We should concentrate on growing trade in the Commonwealth, and I am sure that like me my hon. Friend believes in the good Conservative philosophy that a rising tide lifts all ships. [Hon. Members: “What?”]
I am slightly thrown by the Minister’s last words, Mr Speaker.
At the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in November, the first ever women’s forum agreed 36 points of action. In any discussions that the Minister has with other Commonwealth heads, will he take on board those 36 points to ensure that women are not left behind?
Indeed, and the hon. Lady will know, as I do, that the Commonwealth charter focuses on such matters. We have an opportunity, and I am happy to meet her to discuss those issues in the run-up to the next Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in the United Kingdom in spring 2018. We have the opportunity to shape the agenda.
The Minister will know that Commonwealth countries represent some of the most important future emerging markets for the United Kingdom. Would it not be better if we could sign our own free trade agreements directly with Commonwealth countries, and not depend on Brussels to do it on our behalf?
Trade between Commonwealth member Rwanda and the UK has grown steadily since the end of the genocide and the election of Paul Kagame as the country’s President in 2000, but there are worrying signs of intolerance, dissent, and repression of the media, and a recent referendum agreed to lift the two-term limit on holding presidential office. Does the Minister have any concerns about President Kagame’s increasing grip on power and associated reports of human rights abuses in Rwanda?
I welcome the hon. Gentleman to his position on the Front Bench. The Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (James Duddridge), who has responsibility for Africa, visited Rwanda as recently as a month ago. I am sure he would be happy to meet the hon. Gentleman to discuss the findings of his trip.
China: Diplomatic and Economic Relations
Our diplomatic and economic relationships with China are stronger than ever. Last year’s state visit by President Xi Jinping delivered substantial benefits for the UK economy and established a new global partnership. Last week in Beijing I launched a new visa service to boost tourism and business, announced plans to build a new embassy to better serve our interests and reflect the level of our bilateral relationship, and reaffirmed the common approach with a common statement on the Syria crisis. Those are all achievements.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s recent visit to China. Does he agree that with China set to become the world’s largest economy in the first half of the century we should be using every opportunity to boost our exports to the Chinese market of 1.3 billion people to help secure jobs in my constituency and across the United Kingdom?
China is a vital trade partner. It is also an important investment partner, with a huge willingness to invest in UK infrastructure and a huge ability to absorb investment by UK companies in China. Our relationship with China is about more than just trade and investment, however. As the relationship grows, we will have increasing opportunities to engage with the Chinese on other key interests and to make our voice heard.
What opportunities will arise for those who wish to export food produce from the United Kingdom to China? What further discussions have taken place with the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, following her visit to that country in November?
The hon. Lady puts her finger on a very topical subject. I discussed it again with the Chinese Foreign Minister during my visit. We look forward to Chinese customers being able to buy excellent British beef and lamb in their supermarkets in the very near future. The Chinese have assured us that they will make progress towards the necessary regulatory amendments to allow that to happen.
Our strategic partnership with China is incredibly important, not least to trade and investment. My right hon. Friend will know that the all-party group I chair has promised to help 50 parliamentarians organise China seminars in their constituencies during this Parliament. Upholding the rule of law is also important, particularly to British business confidence in Hong Kong at the moment. Will my right hon. Friend update the House on the disappearance of British citizen Mr Lee Bo?
Yes. My hon. Friend is absolutely right that a proper rule of law system is vital for the economic, as well as the social, development of China. The Chinese Communist party is committed to implementing the full rule of law in China by 2020 and we are committed to supporting it in that endeavour. On the question of Mr Lee Bo, I raised the case with the Chinese Foreign Minister last week. The joint declaration and the basic law are clear that law enforcement in Hong Kong is a matter for the Hong Kong authorities, and that offences committed in Hong Kong should be tried in Hong Kong courts. As I said while I was in Beijing, if it turns out, as some have speculated, that Chinese state security entities have spirited Mr Bo out of Hong Kong, that would be an egregious breach of the basic law of the joint declaration, and of the principle of one country, two systems, which we very much support.
It is of course right for the Government to pursue a stronger relationship with China, but it is also true that they should tackle unfair trading practices when they come across them. Will the Secretary of State update the House on the contribution he is making to tackle the Chinese Government over the unfair dumping of Chinese steel imports on the UK market?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right. We raised this issue with President Xi when he was here in October. We were given a commitment that China intends to address its overproduction of steel. The problem is not only China, of course; this is a global problem. The Chinese said they were going to close some of their more polluting steel plants. I pressed them on that in Beijing last week and emphasised to them that it is through the prism of steel that their claims to be treated as a market economy are likely to be judged in the European Union. If they want a fair hearing on market economy status, they must address the steel issue. It is in their interests to do so.
I congratulate the Secretary of State on the common statement, between the UK and China, on Syria. What action will he take to express concern at recent reports that Chinese police have arrested worker activists in the manufacturing centre of Guangdong? Does he agree that the current crackdown on labour rights NGOs in China does nothing to calm jitters in the context of the current economic downturn?
Regrettably, such incidents do occur in China, but we have a forum for raising concerns, through a formal human rights dialogue with China. We expect the next human rights summit to be in March or April, and we have a list of issues we will raise with the Chinese, including the question of how they operate around labour activists.
I always used to wonder why Foreign Office questions took longer. A senior Clerk said to me, “Mr Speaker, the reason they tend to take longer is that Ministers, perhaps understandably, feel they are addressing not merely the House but the world.” I think that probably explains it, but I would like to make a bit of progress.
The UK Government take child safeguarding in the overseas territories extremely seriously. We and the St Helena Government accept all the recommendations in the report, and a senior UK official has been appointed to be based in St Helena to oversee and implement all the recommendations.
The Wass report notes, at paragraph 1.48, that
“it should be recognised that Claire Gannon was not properly briefed for the task that confronted her when she arrived on St Helena in February 2013.”
Was it the responsibility of the Foreign Office, the Department for International Development, the governor or other staff in St Helena to provide the briefing?
Prior to all governors going out to overseas territories, the Foreign Office organises extensive briefings in all policy areas, and I can assure the House that, in addition to the normal briefings, we now provide specialist briefings on child safeguarding. This subject was central to the Joint Ministerial Council only last month; in fact, it was the main issue we discussed.
Occupied Palestinian Territories
Incidents of violence have slowed, but we remain concerned about the situation and encourage both sides to de-escalate tensions. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and I have called on all sides to restore calm.
I made a statement at the weekend about Israel’s announcement on settlements. The hon. Lady is absolutely right. We are an important friend—an ally—of Israel, but the issue of settlements makes it much harder to achieve, and takes us further away from, the two-state solution we seek.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. During this Parliament, we mark a series of events and decisions that took place during and after world war one, including the Balfour declaration, the then Foreign Secretary’s letter to the leader of the British Jewish community, Lord Rothschild. We are proud of the role that Britain played in supporting the birth of the state of Israel, but the incompletion of the Oslo accords reminds us that there is still work to do to honour the declaration in full. But, yes, we will mark the Balfour declaration anniversary this year.
We continue to press both sides to come together. John Kerry said not long ago that the middle east peace process must not become a tired old slogan or some throwaway phrase we use to appease our consciences. We need to get both sides back to the table. That is what the Palestinian and Israeli people want.
As I say, we call on both parties to resume talks as soon as possible. Prime Minister Netanyahu, on his visit to London and when he was in Washington, and President Abbas have made it clear that they are committed to the two-state solution, but we should also make it clear that the status quo is not acceptable. We currently have a 1.5-state solution, not a two-state solution or a one-state solution, which I do not think is what Israel wants, because the Jewish community would be the minority. We need to get the parties together to work towards that two-state solution, because the status quo is not acceptable.
Has the Minister made representations about the current Palestinian campaign of inciting violence, which has led to 40 young Palestinians committing acts of terrorism, including shootings and stabbings of Israeli civilians on the streets of Israel?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right to raise that point. Both sides need to refrain from rhetoric and from taking actions that clearly inflame the situation rather than take us where we want to be. Some of the acts of violence are not incited, although some are. It shows the frustration of some individuals who have lost faith in their own leadership. The fact that youngsters can get out a knife and go off and kill an Israeli, knowing the consequences, reflects the dire situation we face. That makes it all the more urgent that the leaders come together and move towards a two-state solution.
T1. If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities. (902953)
I am very happy to update the entire universe on my priorities for 2016. They remain: Syria and the EU negotiation. Our priority in Syria includes humanitarian support focused on the London conference on 4 February, working through the Vienna process to achieve a negotiated political settlement to the civil war and continuing coalition military action against Daesh. In 2016, we will also seek to conclude our renegotiation of Britain’s relationship with the European Union, and then hold the referendum that the Conservative party promised at the general election and that this Conservative Government will deliver.
May I update the House? While we have been sitting, President Erdogan has confirmed that the attack in Istanbul was an attack by a Syrian suicide bomber and an act of terrorism.
I am grateful for that update, and I am sure that the whole House will be thinking of events in Istanbul this morning.
There were two bombings and a series of killings last week in Bujumbura. Given the failure of the latest round of talks in Arusha to resolve the ongoing conflict in Burundi and the increased risk of civil war—and, potentially, genocide—will my right hon. Friend update us on the present position and on the steps that the Government propose to take with the United States and our other allies to facilitate a peaceful solution in this part of Africa?
I was in Bujumbura last month and urged the country’s Foreign Minister to attend talks in Entebbe, so it is disappointing that the Burundian Government have not followed up and continued the talks in Arusha either on 6 January or this Friday. While in Bujumbura, I met the US ambassador, and my US opposite number was there only the day before. The international community speaks with one voice in saying that the Burundians should come and discuss the issues with all parties to develop a dialogue about what can be done to bring Burundi back from the brink of civil war.
All our thoughts are with those killed and injured in what the Foreign Secretary has just reported as a terrorist attack in Istanbul.
The conflict in Yemen between the Houthis and the Saudi-led coalition has so far claimed over 7,000 lives and created, in the words of the UN Humanitarian Co-ordinator, Johannes van der Klaauw, a “humanitarian catastrophe”, with more than 2.5 million people internally displaced and 7.5 million people without enough food. Last week, Sky News reported that six British personnel are advising the Saudis on targeting in connection with the conflict. Will the Foreign Secretary tell us exactly what assistance these individuals are giving, and, if it is related to targeting, whether they have reported any potential breaches of international humanitarian law?
The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. I cannot tell him whether it is six people, but we do have a military presence in Saudi Arabia, and we are working with the Saudi Arabians to ensure the following of correct procedures to avoid breaches of international humanitarian law—to ensure that target sets are correctly identified and processes correctly followed and that only legitimate military targets are struck. It is important that we ensure Saudi Arabia has that capability.
We also use the personnel who are present as a quick check—it can only be a quick first check—when we receive reports, as we have recently, of breaches of international humanitarian law that would, for example, involve the deliberate striking of civilian targets. So far, in every case, our people on the ground have reported that there is no evidence of deliberate breaches of international humanitarian law.
Last week, the Minister of State told the House that he wanted to see “genuine intelligence evidence”. However, we know that human rights organisations have already reported what they regard as potential breaches. For instance, a hospital supported by Médecins Sans Frontières in northern Yemen was hit by a missile recently, and another MSF hospital in Sadaa was destroyed last October.
In the light of those reports, and given that the Government’s own policy is not to grant arms export licences if
“there is a clear risk that the items might be used in the commission of a serious violation of IHL”
—international humanitarian law—will the Foreign Secretary launch an immediate review of arms export licences for Saudi Arabia relating to the use of British-supplied weapons?
We need to be careful here. The MSF hospital attack in Sadaa is still being investigated, but so far there is no evidence that it was hit by a missile, although it clearly came under attack. We are looking urgently at the situation on the ground.
We have a very robust export licensing process. There is a series of questions against which any export licence application must be tested, and we apply it rigorously. When a conflict is under way, whether we are talking about Yemen today or Operation Protective Edge in Gaza in the summer of 2014, we take particular care to apply the criteria diligently. That is what has been done, and that is what will be done in relation to any future arms licensing applications that are received.
T3. My former constituent Ahmad Zeidan, who is a British national, is currently serving a nine-year custodial sentence in the United Arab Emirates. Mr Zeidan’s family have informed me that, while in prison, he has been subjected to brutal beatings and threats of physical and sexual violence by police officers. Mr Zeidan maintains that he is innocent, and that he was coerced into signing a confession written in Arabic, a language that he cannot read. Will the Minister meet me, and representatives of Mr Zeidan’s family, to see what can be done to help secure his early release? (902956)
I should be happy to meet my hon. Friend, and the family as well. We are aware of the situation, and, as my hon. Friend knows, we have been providing consular assistance for Mr Zeidan and his family, but we stand ready to provide further support.
T2. What representations has the Foreign Secretary made about the Baha’i, who continue to be persecuted in Iran? (902954)
In our meetings—including meetings held during my visit to Iran last August, and my subsequent meetings with Foreign Minister Zarif, whom I see fairly often because he is involved in the International Syria Support Group—we regularly raise the issue of the persecution of minorities in Iran, which is one of many human rights concerns that we have about that country.
The UK has announced a two-year, £240 million package to support Sierra Leone’s long-term recovery, which includes boosting capability to respond to future Ebola outbreaks and other emergencies. We are also working closely with the Government of Sierra Leone, the World Health Organisation and other partners to reduce the risk of further outbreaks, and to prevent them from growing into epidemics.
T6. I commend Ministers for their prompt and proactive response to the dreadful news from Chennai yesterday morning that my constituent Ray Tindall and the other men on the Seaman Guard Ohio had been sentenced to five years in prison. May I suggest, however, that it would be proactive now for the highest level of the British Government to contact the highest level of the Indian Government to find a political solution to bring the lads home, given that the legal processes have not necessarily worked well? (902959)
As the hon. Gentleman knows, as soon as we heard the news yesterday morning I called a meeting of all the local Members of Parliament, which he attended. Since then I have spoken to Samir Farajalla, the chief executive officer of AdvanFort, and I have just come from an introductory meeting with the new Indian high commissioner, at which I raised the issue. As the hon. Gentleman will know, there is now to be a 90-day appeal period. We are seeking clarification on a number of fronts, and I am committed to keeping Members informed of developments, but at the forefront of our thoughts at the moment are the safety and wellbeing of the men and their families.
T5. Increased diplomatic and political co-operation is vital in settling international and regional disputes in the Asia-Pacific region. What steps are the Government taking to progress the strategic partnership between Japan and the UK? (902958)
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her question. Fortuitously, I was in Japan on Friday conducting a strategic dialogue with my Japanese counterpart. The strategic defence and security review published last autumn identified Japan as Britain’s principal security partner in Asia. That will continue to be the case and we are building that security partnership while strengthening our trade and investment partnership.
T8. Ahead of his visit to Sri Lanka shortly, will the Minister give an undertaking to the House to raise with the Sri Lankan Government, notwithstanding the progress they are making, the recent allegations of human rights abuses, the demilitarisation of the north, political detainees and, crucially, the international involvement of judges and prosecutors to give everyone the confidence we need that people will be brought to justice for human rights violations and war crimes? (902961)
Southampton airport has regular flights to Amsterdam that access about 55 different African destinations. This drives bilateral trade, increases tourism and helps grow Africa out of poverty. I hope London Southend airport in my constituency does what Southampton’s has done, and develops a strong link with KLM. I would be keen to visit my hon. Friend’s constituency to learn from the work she has done.
I have spoken about my constituent William Irving in this place on a number of occasions and have written to the Secretary of State and his colleagues urging the UK Government to assist, but, as we have heard, yesterday Billy and his colleagues from the Seaman Guard Ohio were sentenced to five years’ hard imprisonment in an Indian jail, despite their consistently protesting their innocence. Can the Secretary of State please assure me that the UK Government will leave absolutely no stone unturned in getting Billy and his colleagues back home as soon as possible?
Indeed, and the hon. Lady is absolutely right to raise her constituency issue. We discussed this yesterday in the meeting. I would just say to the House that there have been over 30 ministerial contacts over this ongoing case, from the Prime Minister and Prime Minister Modi down. We are in a judicial process. There is a 90-day appeal process and—believe you me—we are doing everything we can to ensure the best possible outcome.
T9. Last year’s elections in Burma were an important step towards greater democracy. Can the Minister update the House on measures the Government are taking to ensure that religious minorities, such as the Muslim Rohingya community, are protected following these landmark elections? (902962)
I am grateful for the hon. Lady’s question, and this affords me an opportunity to congratulate Daw Aung San Suu Kyi on her staggering victory in the recent elections. We are, and remain, the biggest bilateral donor to Rakhine. We are disappointed of course—we have said this repeatedly—that the Rohingya were debarred from taking part in the election. I raised this most recently with the Burmese Foreign Minister when I was in New York. Daw Suu has many things on her plate—not least only eight out of a possible 16 ceasefires with some of the ethnic groups—but dealing with the problem in Rakhine and dealing with the Rohingya people in a fair and inclusive way must be at the top of that agenda, and we will continue to assist her in any way we can to that end.
Does the Foreign Secretary think it would be in the UK’s national interest to have the “fax democracy” of Norway, whereby we would be sent the rules and regulations of the single market, abide by the freedom of movement principle, and pay into the EU budget but have no seat around the negotiating table?
That model has never seemed very attractive to me. Some people have talked about the Norwegian model in the domestic debate here, but perhaps they have failed to understand how it works. As the hon. Lady has just said, it involves accepting all the rules and paying all the subs but getting no vote and no seat at the table. That does not look like a good plan to me.
Birmingham airport has recently initiated regular flights to China, but France, Holland and Germany all have more such flights than the United Kingdom. What can the Secretary of State do with the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the Department for Transport to encourage more regular flights to China in order to promote trade and tourism?
My hon. Friend did not mention airport capacity in the south-east, but it is of course intimately linked with his question. As he will know, the Government are now urgently carrying out further studies around the Davies report on airport capacity in the south-east and we will make a decision as soon as possible on that matter.
On new year’s day, Nashat Melhem murdered two Israelis in a bar in Tel Aviv and wounded eight others. He then killed a taxi driver, a Bedouin Israeli, while escaping. He himself was killed a week later in a shoot-out with the police. The Palestinian Authority’s Ministry of Health has described him as
“one of the dearest martyrs”,
and the Fatah Facebook page has commented:
“Congratulations and may Allah receive you in Heaven”.
What pressure will the Government bring to bear on the Palestinian Authority to ensure that this kind of encouragement to violence is stopped?
The right hon. Lady is absolutely right. This is the sort of rhetoric I was referring to earlier, and it takes us into a very dark place. It is the sort of rhetoric that President Abbas should be condemning straight away. I will visit Israel and the west bank shortly, and I will certainly raise these matters to ensure that this kind of encouragement and incitement to violence is stopped.
The Foreign Secretary’s update on the evolving situation in Istanbul reminds us of the dangers posed by violent fundamentalism. What lessons does he think we can learn from countries such as Morocco, which act as a beacon of hope within the Islamic world?
Morocco is one of the countries that has moved forward since the Arab spring, and it is an exemplar of how the democratic process can succeed. My hon. Friend and I have both visited the Mohammed VI imam training institute, which has done much to train imams to ensure that the moderate message of Islam is promoted. I would like to see that work spread out across the Maghreb and elsewhere, because Morocco is an excellent model for other countries to follow.
Criminal Driving (Justice for Victims)
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 make provision to strengthen penalties related to serious criminal driving offences that lead to serious injury or death; to redefine such offences and amend bail conditions for those charged with them; to enhance the standards of investigation, both by the police and in the Courts, into such offences; to improve the treatment of victims of such offences and their families within the justice system; and for connected purposes.
In 2014-15, 389 people were killed in England and Wales alone due to dangerous driving. In too many of those cases—and in even more in which lesser charges have been brought—victims of those serious crimes and their families have been badly let down. We therefore need a number of changes to ensure that proper justice can be delivered in the future.
I was pleased to meet the Justice Secretary yesterday, along with 22 other colleagues. I also thank the Minister for Policing, Crime and Criminal Justice, the right hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning), for his personal interest in this matter. However, my colleagues and I were somewhat surprised and disappointed to be told that there is to be a further consultation which will not produce a document until later this year, given that the Minister had suggested in a previous answer that the consultation would be completed by spring 2015. The message today is to encourage them to continue to work with us to ensure that we get comprehensive legislation by 2017 at the latest.
I am today speaking on behalf of many families across the country. I have had two awful cases in my constituency: that of 16-year-old Jamie Still, who was killed by a reckless criminal driver on new year’s eve in 2010, and that of David and Dorothy Metcalf from Cookridge, who were killed in January 2012. I dedicate this Bill to the memories of Jamie, David and Dorothy, and all who have lost their lives as a result of these serious crimes. It is 18 years ago today that Livia Galli-Atkinson was killed in Enfield, and I wish to pay tribute to the tireless campaigning by her parents, George and Giulietta, as well as by Karen and Rebecca Strong, and Clive Metcalf and his family.
I also wish briefly to mention a number of hon. Members and cases that they have been involved in. Livia’s family have been supported by the hon. Members for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes), for Rugby (Mark Pawsey) and for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg). In the awful case of what happened to Sean Morley, support has been given by the hon. Member for North Warwickshire (Craig Tracey) and his predecessor. The case of John Morland and Kris Jarvis has been supported by the hon. Member for Reading West (Alok Sharma). The case of Ross and Clare Simons has been supported by the hon. Member for Kingswood (Chris Skidmore). The case of Jamie Butcher has been supported by the hon. Member for North East Cambridgeshire (Stephen Barclay). The case of Joseph Brown-Lartey has been supported by the hon. Member for Heywood and Middleton (Liz McInnes) and Manchester’s Key 103 radio station. The hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Heidi Allen) has supported the family of Alex Jeffery. The hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr Turner) has supported the family of Evey Staley. There have been many other cases, including that of the right hon. Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms), whose own father was killed by a careless driver in 1991. I pay tribute to all the families who are campaigning tirelessly to try to get justice, and we will support them here until we get a change in the system.
The changes being proposed today come from a meeting of those families and fellow Members back in December 2014 and the manifesto we produced as a result, which has been backed by Brake, the road safety charity—I pay tribute to its amazing work. Our manifesto “Better Justice for Victims of Criminal Driving and Their Families” suggested a number of changes, which I will briefly list. First, the distinction between “careless” and “dangerous” driving is false and unhelpful, often coming down to the slight and subjective difference between someone’s driving falling below or well below what is expected of a careful and competent driver. The problem is that in too many cases people are simply given the lesser charge of causing death or injury by careless driving rather than by dangerous driving because it is easier for prosecutors to seek a conviction. The difference in penalties between these charges is huge: it is a maximum of a five years for causing death by careless driving, compared with up to 14 years for causing death by dangerous driving.
The simple reality is that “careless” is an inappropriate and offensive term to use for criminally bad driving, particularly where it has resulted in horrendous suffering. Even driving that falls only slightly below the standards—a momentary lapse of concentration—may be careless, but it is still dangerous. Careless driving, a charge that was opposed by Brake in the first place, has institutionalised dishonesty in our justice system, and that needs to be rectified. The use of the term “careless” makes a value judgment about the intention of the perpetrator—it is not factual. Calling driving that falls below any standard “dangerous” is factual, because such driving is dangerous. The Bill is not calling for us to get rid of a lesser sentence only for a higher one; it is calling for us to scrap both charges for a system where all dangerous driving is regarded as a category of offence that can have the minimum or the maximum sentence. That would give judges the discretion; at the moment, their hands are tied once a lesser charge has been brought to the courts, and families are being failed up and down the country.
We also need to examine sentencing and the fact that too few high sentences are given out. Last year, the Government rightly introduced a new offence of causing serious injury while dangerous driving—in the past, that had been missed out—but this new charge should carry a maximum penalty of 14 years. The cost of care as well as the devastation for people who are seriously injured and can never work again, and in some cases can never speak or operate normally again, needs to be taken just as seriously as causing death by dangerous driving.
Drivers who kill while under the influence of drugs or drink can face up to 14 years in jail. However, there is a perversity, which is that if the driver flees a scene to sober up, that crime can be impossible to prove, leaving only a hit-and-run offence. That has the absurdity of incentivising drink and drug drivers to flee the scene and obstruct justice. Hit-and-run drivers should face the same maximum penalties as other drivers who kill and seriously injure, with an assumption that if they flee the scene they must have a reason to do so, which suggests guilt.
We also need to look at the automatic suspension of a driving licence—or, at the very least, a presumption of suspension of a driving licence—as a condition of bail in cases of dangerous and careless drivers who seriously injure or kill. In the case of Jamie Still, the perpetrator of that crime was driving for nine months in the very town in which he killed the 16-year-old. What must it have felt like for the family to see him driving along the same road on which Jamie was killed? That is happening in too many cases.
In cases where charges of criminal driving are brought, the victims must be treated by all parts of the judicial system as victims of crime. Currently, that is not the case, and they are often not given the same support as victims of other crimes, even though the devastation is exactly the same as that of any case of manslaughter.
More work needs to be done in a number of areas. I understand that this can be complicated, and I ask the Minister to work with his former colleagues in the Department for Transport to improve the system. For example, we need to have more appropriate investigation of collisions, better guidance and better advice in terms of releasing evidence to victims’ families. That has not happened adequately in a number of cases that I have mentioned. Victims and their families are not always given access to all the evidence and end up having to trust the Crown Prosecution Service to do its job properly, but I am afraid that too many cases show that they cannot always do so.
The Department for Transport must, in all cases, stop describing as “accidents” incidents of criminal driving where someone has been killed or seriously injured. The CPS and traffic police already do not use the word “accident” to refer to criminal driving offences, but the Department for Transport continues to do so. That is yet another way of exacerbating the suffering of victims and their families. There is a sense that somehow these are not real or serious crimes, despite the devastation that they have caused.
We need changes throughout the system—from investigations through to prosecutions, sentencing and to the very charges themselves—to give justice to families who suffer from these awful crimes, and to deter people from behaving so recklessly behind the wheel of a vehicle. I welcome the attention of the Secretary of State. I will work with him and his Department on this matter. If they wish to support this Bill, we can talk about its content. In the end, we must see, by next year, a change across the board so that we can at last deliver justice for victims and their families.
Question put and agreed to.
That Greg Mulholland, John Pugh, Ian C. Lucas, Jason McCartney, Susan Elan Jones, Liz Mclnnes, Heidi Allen, Hywel Williams, Mr Andrew Turner, Ms Margaret Ritchie, Dr Sarah Wollaston and Sammy Wilson present the Bill.
Greg Mulholland accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 11 March, and to be printed (Bill 117).
Housing and Planning Bill
[2nd Allocated Day]
Further consideration of Bill, as amended in the Public Bill Committee
Payments to Secretary of State
I beg to move amendment 131, page 29, line 14, leave out clause 67.
This amendment, together with other amendments leaving out all the clauses in this chapter, would prevent vacant high value housing from being compulsory sold.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
Amendment 92, page 29, line 21, at end insert
‘that shall include—
(i) the repayment of capital debt on any high value properties sold
(ii) the cost of replacing any high value properties sold on a one for one basis within the same local authority.’
The amendment would ensure the replacement of property locally and it would also ensure appropriate deductions are included in legislation.
Amendment 51, page 29, line 21, at end insert—
‘(2A) The total payment required from all affected local authorities in any financial year shall not exceed the total grant paid in that year to private registered providers in respect of right to buy discounts.’
The amendment would avoid powers being used a general means of taxing councils and tenants for the benefit of the Exchequer.
Amendment 93, page 29, line 32, leave out from ‘regulations’ to ‘for’ and insert
‘require a local housing authority in England to define “high value” in its area’.
The amendment would enable local housing authorities to define high value property in line with local housing market conditions.
Amendment 94, page 29, line 33, at end insert
‘that will not apply to more than 10% of the total authority properties in the local housing authority area’.
The amendment would safeguard a proportion of local authority housing stock in high value areas.
Amendment 53, page 29, line 35, at end insert—
‘(10) Regulations under subsection (8) may not define a dwelling as “high value” if its sale value is less than the cost of rebuilding it and providing a replacement dwelling with the same number of bedrooms in the same local authority area.’
The amendment would ensure that the cost of replacement dwellings is not specified as one of the costs and deductions to be made as required by sub-section 67(2) and would allow for one-for-one local replacement.
Amendment 132, page 29, line 36, leave out clause 68.
See explanatory statement for amendment 131.
Amendment 55, in clause 68, page 30, line 11, at end insert—
‘(5) Regulations under subsection (2)(b) shall specify that housing shall be excluded where it forms part of a housing regeneration scheme or consists of specialist housing or recently improved housing.
(6) In this section—
“housing regeneration scheme” means a programme of regeneration or development of an area which includes the provision or improvement of housing and for which finance may be available under section 126 of the Housing Grants, Construction and Regeneration Act 1996;
“specialist housing” means any housing designed for or intended for occupation by older persons or persons needing care or support or persons with mental health problems or learning disabilities, or which has features which are designed to make it suitable for occupation by a physically disabled person, or which it is the practice of the landlord to let for occupation by persons with special needs;
“recently improved housing” means housing where there has been substantial works of repair or improvement carried out on the relevant dwelling or group of dwellings within the previous two years.’
The amendment would exclude certain types of property from inclusion in the high value homes determination.
Amendment 133, page 30, line 12, leave out clause 69.
See explanatory statement for amendment 131.
Amendment 134, page 30, line 28, leave out clause 70.
See explanatory statement for amendment 131.
Amendment 135, page 31, line 2, leave out clause 71.
See explanatory statement for amendment 131.
Amendment 136, page 31, line 12, leave out clause 72.
See explanatory statement for amendment 131.
Government amendment 112.
Amendment 137, page 31, line 20, leave out clause 73.
See explanatory statement for amendment 131.
Amendment 138, page 31, line 28, leave out clause 74.
See explanatory statement for amendment 131.
Amendment 139, page 32, line 2, leave out clause 75.
See explanatory statement for amendment 131.
Amendment 140, page 32, line 16, leave out clause 76.
See explanatory statement for amendment 131.
Amendment 141, page 32, line 28, leave out clause 77.
See explanatory statement for amendment 131.
Government amendments 130, 9 and 11.
Government new clause 59—Reverting to original rent levels.
Government new clause 60—Private providers: policies for high income social tenants.
Government new clause 61—HMRC information for private registered providers.
New clause 39—Living Rent Commission—
‘(1) The Secretary of State shall appoint a body, to be known as “the Living Rent Commission”, to discharge the functions conferred under this section.
(2) The Secretary of State shall refer to the Living Rent Commission to determine a definition of “affordability”, based on which it shall make recommendations on rent levels for all housing provided by local authorities and private registered providers in England, at a level of locality considered appropriate and practicable by the Commission.
(3) Before arriving at the recommendations to be included in the report produced under subsection (4), the Living Rent Commission shall consult—
(a) such organisations representative of providers of affordable housing as they think fit;
(b) such organisations representative of affordable housing occupants as they think fit; and
(c) if they think fit, any other body or person.
(4) The Living Rent Commission shall, after considering the matter referred to it under subsection (2), make a report to the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State which shall contain the Commission’s recommendations regarding affordable rents.
(5) The Secretary of State may by regulations implement the Commission’s recommendations on affordable rents for private registered providers and local authority provided housing.
(6) If, following the report of the Living Rent Commission under subsection (4) above, the Secretary of State decides—
(a) not to make any regulations implementing the Commission’s recommendation, or
(b) to make regulations which do not relate to a recommendation of the Commission,
the Secretary of State shall lay a report before each House of Parliament containing a statement of the reasons for the decision.
(7) The definitions determined and recommendations made under subsection (2) shall be reviewed annually by the Living Rent Commission.’
This new clause would set up a Living Rent Commission to define and determine affordable rents.
Amendment 144, page 33, line 12, leave out clause 79.
This amendment, together with amendments 145 to 153, would leave out Chapter 4 of Part 4.
Government amendment 113.
Amendment 95, in clause 79, page 33, line 15, at end insert—
‘(1A) Any regulations made by the Secretary of State under this section will not apply—
(a) to people aged over 65;
(b) to people who have a registered disability;
(c) to people on zero hours contracts;
(d) to people with seasonal contracts of employment;
(e) to households where one or more members is in receipt of ESA;
(f) where a household member is in receipt of care
(g) where a member of the household is a carer for another household member;
(h) to those living in supported housing; and
(i) to households in receipt of housing benefit.’
The amendment would establish exemptions from the application of high income rents system.
Amendment 57, page 33, line 19, at end insert—
‘(d) to be increased on a tapered system relating to income and level of rent charged.’
The amendment would introduce a taper scheme into the application of high income rents to prevent huge jumps in the rent level being charged with only modest increases in income.
Amendment 58, page 33, line 19, at end insert—
‘(d) to take into account the need to promote socially cohesive and mixed communities.’
The amendment would enable local authorities and social housing providers to take into account the need to promote and encourage a degree of diversity in their communities.
Amendment 59, page 33, line 19, at end insert—
‘(d) take into account local affordability.’
The amendment would establish that rent levels should reflect local affordability.
Amendment 60, page 33, line 22, at end insert—
‘(3A) The Secretary of State must make regulations to provide for the external valuation of high income rents.’
The amendment would establish that the application of a higher income rent should be subject to external valuation.
Amendment 96, page 33, line 22, at end insert—
‘(3A) Any regulations made by the Secretary of State under this section must include provisions for—
(a) a notice period of one year before the new rent becomes payable; and
(b) transitional protection and arrangements as the tenant moves to the higher rent.’
The amendment would make it appropriate for tenants deemed to have a high income to be given time and a degree of transitional protection to enable them to relocate to another property or increase their income further
Government amendment 114.
Amendment 61, page 33, line 27, at end insert—
‘(6) All provisions in this section shall only apply—
(a) for new tenancies commenced after 30 April 2017; and
(b) where the tenant has been provided with a new tenancy agreement.’
The amendment would establish that the high income rent regime would only apply to new tenants from April 2017 and where they have been given a new tenancy agreement.
Amendment 145, page 33, line 29, leave out clause 80.
See statement for amendment 144.
Amendment 97, in clause 80, page 33, line 30, at beginning insert ‘subject to subsection (1A)’.
See amendment 98.
Amendment 98, page 33, line 32, at end insert—
‘(1A) High income” must be set with reference to average incomes in the area with high incomes being defined by income falling in the top quartile of incomes in the area.’
The amendment would establish that high incomes will reflect the top quartile of income levels.
Amendment 62, page 33, line 32, at end insert—
‘(1A) For the purposes of this Chapter high income cannot be set at a level lower than median income.’
The amendment would establish that the high income level cannot be set a level lower than average/median salaries.
Government amendment 115.
Amendment 146, page 34, line 6, leave out clause 81.
See statement for amendment 144.
Government amendments 116 to 120.
Amendment 147, page 34, line 19, leave out clause 82.
See statement for amendment 144.
Government amendments 121 to 123.
Amendment 63, in clause 82, page 34, line 27, leave out subsection (c).
The amendment would establish that the creation of a public body to transfer information from the HMRC to a local authority or registered provider of social housing is not necessary.
Government amendments 124 to 126.
Amendment 148, page 35, line 15, leave out clause 83.
See statement for amendment 144.
Government amendments 127 and 128.
Amendment 149, page 35, line 28, leave out clause 84.
See statement for amendment 144.
Amendment 64, in clause 84. page 35, line 30, leave out ‘estimated’.
The amendment would establish that payments to the Secretary of State would not be made on an estimation of income receipts.
Amendment 65, page 35, line 38, leave out subsection (5).
The amendment would establish that it will not be possible for payments to be made to the Secretary of State based on assumptions that are not borne out by reality.
Amendment 150, page 36, line 1, leave out clause 85.
See statement for amendment 144.
Government amendment 129.
Amendment 152, page 36, line 31, leave out clause 87.
See statement for amendment 144.
Amendment 153, page 37, line 7, leave out clause 88.
See statement for amendment 144.
Amendment 142, page 37, line 20, leave out clause 89.
This amendment, together with amendment 143, would enable councils to be free to manage flexibly tenancies in a way that drives best value from stock whilst supporting strong local communities.
Amendment 143, page 37, line 32, leave out clause 90.
See statement for amendment 142.
Amendment 105, page 86, line 1, leave out schedule 4.
To remove this schedule from the Bill.
Amendment 106, page 99, line 20, leave out schedule 5.
To remove this schedule from the Bill.
Amendment 107, page 27, line 21, leave out clause 61.
This amendment would remove the ability of the Secretary of State to make grants with respect to Right to Buy discounts to private registered providers including housing associations.
Amendment 88, in clause 61, page 27, line 23, at end insert
‘with the exclusion of—
(a) supported housing for older people;
(b) supported housing units (including self-contained homes where floating support is provided for vulnerable people);
(c) key worker housing (which includes self-contained flats subject to nomination agreements with third parties);
(d) units that form part of major regeneration schemes planned or already under way;
(e) rural settlements;
(f) homes built for charitable purposes without Government grant and homes provided through S.106 agreements requiring stock to be kept as social housing in perpetuity;
(g) cooperative housing;
(h) ALMOS (arm’s length management organisations); and
(i) Alms houses.’
The amendment would exclude the listed categories of specialised housing from being subject to the Right to Buy provisions of the Bill.
Amendment 89, page 27, line 25, at end insert—
‘(2A) The conditions at subsection (2) must include a condition that money equivalent to the market value (disregarding any discount) of a dwelling sold under right to buy and to which the grant applies is spent by the private registered provider on the provision of affordable housing in the same local authority area or London, including at least one new home replacing that sold which is—
(a) of the same tenure,
(b) located in the same local authority area or London borough, and
(c) in accordance with assessed local housing need.’
The amendment would require housing associations offering the Right to Buy to their tenants in London and elsewhere to re-invest all the money received as a result of the sale in replacement affordable housing, including a guaranteed like-for-like home in the same local authority area or London borough.
Amendment 50, page 27, line 28, at end insert—
‘(4) Grants must not be payable on properties bought and turned into buy-to-let dwellings within ten years.”
The amendment would prevent property sold under Right to Buy from being converted into buy to let dwellings for a period of ten years.
Amendment 108, page 27, line 29, leave out clause 62.
This amendment would remove the ability of the Greater London Authority to make grants with respect to Right to Buy discounts to private registered providers including housing associations in London.
Government amendment 111.
Amendment 90, in clause 64, page 28, line 24, at end insert—
‘( ) The discount should remain in perpetuity’
The amendment would ensure that homes sold under the Right to Buy remain as discounted housing in perpetuity.
Amendment 91, page 28, line 24, at end insert—
‘( ) A dwelling must not be sold under the Right to Buy without the Housing Association having the ability to—
(a) verify the source of funding for purchase,
(b) establish who is occupying the property,
(c) check that the person/s seeking to purchase the property under Right to Buy has no interest in another property,
(d) has sufficient time to carry out checks for fraudulent activity, and
(e) be able to prepare reports on (a)-(d) for the Housing Association Board of Trustees to consider.’
The amendment would ensure that housing associations are able to carry out proper checks before proceeding with the Right to Buy offer.
Amendment 109, page 28, line 24, at end insert—
‘( ) A dwelling must not be sold under the Right to Buy without the Housing Association having first—
(a) identified the dwelling that will become the replacement for the dwelling sold, where—
(i) the replacement dwelling may be an existing dwelling or a planned new-build,
(ii) the tenure of the replacement property is presumed to be the same as that of the dwelling sold under Right to Buy, unless a different tenure can be justified on the basis of local needs, and
(iii) the replacement dwelling is located in the same local authority area as the dwelling sold; and
(b) communicated the replacement plan to the Regulator.’
This amendment would ensure that a home cannot be sold under Right to Buy until a suitable replacement home has first been found or planned.
It is a pity that we are dealing with the four most contentious aspects of the Bill in one two-hour session, and that the Government did not accept our alterations to the programme motion, which would have made it a bit more sensible.
I shall begin by considering the forced sale of high-value social housing, covered in chapter 2 of part 4 of the Bill. As the Government will be aware, we tabled a number of amendments to chapter 2 on a range of issues relating to the forced sale of such housing. Amendment 92 would ensure that the replacement of property locally with appropriate resourcing was included in legislation. Amendments 93 and 94 would give local authorities more agency over defining “high value” and would limit the number of houses sold in a particular area to 10% of the stock.
I thank the hon. Lady for giving way so early. I wanted gently to challenge her comments about today’s debate bearing in mind that the programme motion was agreed with the Opposition and that we agreed to the changes they asked for.
I remind the Minister that we voted against the programme motion.
Amendment 53 safeguards the replacement of like-for-like housing; homes cannot be sold if their sale value is less than the cost of replacing the original property. Amendment 55 seeks to exempt certain types of specialist housing from “high value” determination. Owing to the extremely limited time available today, I will not speak in detail on those amendments. I will focus instead on amendments 131 to 141, which leave out all the clauses in chapter 2 of part 4, effectively removing the chapter from the Bill.
Labour Members are not against local authorities making sensible decisions about their assets, but that is not what the clauses in this chapter of the Bill would enable. They will force local authorities to sell off much-needed council housing, even when they have huge waiting lists. Glyn Robbins, estate manager of Quaker Court, stated that many council homes in London in places such as Quaker Court are likely to be deemed high value, and that is where the Government’s legislation will have the most severe impact.
Of course, this is not just about the loss of council properties in high-value areas. The impact of the policy would surely be that those properties would move into the privately rented sector, meaning that the housing benefit bill is likely to increase to enable the same properties to be rented out.
My hon. Friend makes an additional point about how truly appalling and nonsensical the policy is. I hope to come to that a bit later.
Glyn Robbins said:
“This is about as high-value an area as you’re going to find. So every time we get an empty council flat, instead of that home going to the next person on a waiting list in Islington that has 18,000 people on it, it’s going to be sold into the private market.”
The Chartered Institute of Housing, among others, has also expressed concern that the Government’s expectation of the number of houses to be built as a result of forcing the selling off of so-called high-value housing is much, much too high. It says that the Government appear to have vastly overestimated the number of homes that will become vacant in the category of high value that might be defined within any local authority area, which in turn will have a negative impact on the replacement of sold-off homes by housing associations. The chief executive of the Chartered Institute of Housing stressed that more funding needs to be made available for affordable housing and that
“full compensation for housing associations will be absolutely vital if they are going to be able to build more affordable homes for people who can’t afford to buy”.
As far as commentators are concerned, the provisions of this chapter of the Bill are likely to lead to less council housing being available and to any replacement housing that does materialise being out of the financial reach of many people. We know that housing waiting lists will become longer and people will be forced to stay in temporary accommodation for longer, which of course will mean a greater cost to local taxpayers. Councils will have less of an incentive to invest in stock, as it might push the value above the arbitrary thresholds for forced sale. Moreover, the reduction in the number of social rented homes available will intensify competition for private rented sector homes at the bottom of the market, driving up rents.
Is not the concern that we should see this in the overall context of Government policy? Not only will these council homes be sold off, with the opportunity to replace them on a like-for-like basis almost certainly not being available, but it will be very difficult for most housing associations to replace their sold properties on a like-for-like basis. As was confirmed in the Select Committee yesterday, there is no new money at all in the comprehensive spending review for any new social rented housing. At the end of this Parliament, there will almost certainly be fewer council homes to rent than there are now.
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point, and one that we want to emphasise this afternoon. Most commentators are now saying that there is no additional money to provide the replacement affordable housing and there are no provisions in the Bill to allow a like-for-like replacement in the same local authority for homes that are sold off.
This chapter of the Bill is not only damaging to social housing but will have a negative knock-on effect in the private sector that will mean there is simply no respite for low income families and no housing that they will be able to rent at a level that they can afford. The Government must reconsider this part of the Bill and must take this chapter out of it.
My hon. Friend talks about the impact on homelessness. Across the country, there are probably millions of families in housing need who are waiting for appropriate accommodation in the social sector. A constituent I met last week has two children and lives in a one-bedroom flat. One of the children has skin cancer and they are waiting desperately for a two-bedroom home. Who should get a property—a family with that housing need or someone who can buy on the open market for £500,000 or more?
My hon. Friend makes a truly brilliant point that we should reflect on in the Chamber this afternoon. Many councils are telling us that they have thousands of people on their waiting lists, yet this measure will reduce further the number of homes that will be available.
Again, as the Minister is aware, we have tabled a number of amendments to try to make the pay-to-stay provisions more palatable. Amendment 95 would establish exemptions from the application of the high income rents system, while amendment 57 would ensure that the system was tapered to avoid a sudden jump in rents when an increase would apply. Amendment 58 looks to ensure that local authorities and housing associations take into account the need to promote and encourage a degree of diversity and social cohesion in their communities, and amendment 59 makes sure that rents reflect affordability on a local basis.
Amendment 60 would establish that the application of a higher income rent should be subject to external valuation and not the whim of the Secretary of State. Amendments 96 and 61 both look to give some notice and protection should tenants be moved on to higher rents, with amendment 96 giving tenants who have been determined to have a high income transitional protection and time to enable them to relocate to another property if that is at all possible. Amendment 61 would establish that the high income rent regime would apply only to new tenants and that they would be given a new tenancy agreement.
Amendments 97, 98 and 62 are designed to ensure that what is considered to be a high income is based on local realities and a multiple of median income, but again the lack of time that the Bill has been afforded together with the incredibly unfair nature of these clauses means that I will be focusing on amendments 144 to 150 and 152 to 153, which seek to remove all the clauses, and therefore the complete chapter, from the Bill.
We are not necessarily against a gradation in rent paid, but we do not think the pay-to-stay proposals that remain in the Bill are in any way acceptable. The proposals will hit people on modest incomes hardest, and this section of the Bill is seemingly a continuation of the Government’s assault on council tenants and a cash grab by the Chancellor, and it is entirely anti-localist as local authorities, and indeed housing associations, already have the discretion to charge high income tenants higher rents.
Did not Westminster council let the cat out of the bag on pay to stay with a leaflet that it distributed last week, “A guide to the Right to Buy Social Mobility Fund”, which stated:
“Under Government proposals, households with an income greater than £40,000 will pay a substantially increased rent. This is an opportunity to avoid this and become a home owner”?
Is not pay to stay about driving home ownership, rather than reflecting income in rent policy?
My hon. Friend makes a relevant point about the proposals.
So why are the Government now imposing this scheme on councils, if not to punish council tenants? What have they done to deserve this unique vitriol from the Minister? I remind the House that the threshold for high income, as it stands, is £40,000 per household in London and £30,000 outside London. This would hit people who earn the Chancellor’s new minimum wage. Most people would think that is disgraceful. The policy will hit hardest those who are working in low paid jobs, and that is where it is going to have the most devastating effect.
One of the examples that has been given to me is that of a tenant who has been offered a promotion at work but has decided to turn it down because of the consequential increase in rent under the proposals. Is that not an attack on aspiration?
I could not agree more. The proposals are an attack on aspiration, leaving some families with impossible choices.
As Tony Stacey, chair of PlaceShapers, which represents 100 housing associations, said, this policy conflicts with the Government’s desire to get people into better paid work. He said that it was a bit perverse, compared with the Government’s other policies to make work pay. If the policy goes ahead, it seems that people who are paid more for additional work undertaken or for promotion could face a sudden increase in rent or eviction.
It is interesting to see that the Government caved into pressure from housing associations and removed the element of compulsion from them, but that only means that council tenants are now being singled out for the application of these extraordinary measures. As councils say that the provisions are unworkable in any case, will the Minister explain to us why he has insisted that they should remain for council tenants?
As we did our best to explain to the hon. Gentleman in Committee, such housing is often not subsidised. The point that we are making is that councils already have the discretion to set higher rents for people with higher incomes if they choose to do so. What we are querying this afternoon is why the Government are introducing an element of compulsion and why this will apply to council tenants only.
We should kill the myth of subsidised council housing. Under the rules that this Government changed following the proposals from the previous Government, housing revenue accounts are self-funding. There is no subsidy. The only subsidies that I can see are right to buy discounts and starter home discounts that the Government are proposing.
My hon. Friend has won that round of the debate.
So shocking is chapter 5 of part 4 that we have tabled amendments to remove all of it from the Bill. We have tabled amendments to leave out clauses 89 and 90 and the schedules relating to them. We saw no value in amending these elements of the Bill as the ending of security of tenure for council tenants would be one of the greatest travesties for the future of affordable housing in this country. The only position we can adopt is to ask for it to be removed from the Bill entirely.
Three decades from now, when our grandchildren look back on the decisions of our generation concerning housing, their social mobility will have declined compared with that of previous generations, despite what David Cameron may think, as a result of the instability that this Government’s policy creates. Having a stable home to grow up in is crucial for working families whose income barely affords them an adequate standard of living. Children should not be faced with the threat of having to change schools every two to five years when the council is forced to review the tenancy contracts of their parents. This could have disastrous effects on their education. Like a number of colleagues, I was brought up in a council house and thus was able to acquire better educational opportunities than my parents as a result of growing up in a stable home with security of tenure. We want to ensure that that option exists for families who need it today.
However, the Government are removing the most basic protection for tenants that has existed in our country for decades—that council housing would be provided by local authorities to secure rented homes for people on low incomes, and that those homes would be of good quality. The Government need to stop attacking council tenants. I thought that we had cross-party agreement not only that the council housing sector should be valued, but that measures should be put in place to enhance its attractiveness and availability, rather than it being attacked in the way that it is in this Bill.
In 1979, 42% of Britons lived in council houses. Now, that figure is less than 8%. Government investment in social rented housing was cut by two-thirds when the coalition Government came to power. While the Government pledged a one-to-one replacement for every home that was sold under the right to buy, the latest figures show that for every nine homes sold, only one is being replaced.
The Government are wrong in their assumption that council tenants with security of tenure can afford to buy a home or live elsewhere. A recent study found that 91% of homes in England and Wales were unaffordable to homebuyers even in some areas where they had the national average income of £26,500. Local authorities, under the Localism Act 2011, already have the ability to offer flexible tenancies if they so choose. Why are the Government introducing this degree of compulsion and why do they attack council housing tenants in this way?
Recently a woman living in a council house in London told The Guardian:
“In the long run, London needs us service workers more than we need London. Most of us will not be able to survive with the current rental prices. We are no longer children, to be able to share a flat with 10 other people. This is a shift of the goalposts and will leave people in desperate conditions.”
My hon. Friend mentions a lady working in London who was concerned about people like her for economic reasons. Is my hon. Friend aware of the concerns about the housing crisis as iterated by the London chamber of commerce and industry? It said that the housing crisis in London is affecting London’s economy, as well having a human cost, as we all know.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful case. She rightly mentions London, as do a number of colleagues, because it is an acute issue, but is she not concerned that the issue exists throughout the country and that the Government’s approach makes a sham of their promise to support localism, as they are riding roughshod over the ability of local councils to use discretion in this important area?
I totally agree; I am really pleased that my hon. Friend has reminded me that we need to consider how this area of the Bill affects council tenants and local authorities up and down the country.
Labour has tabled amendments to chapter 1 of part 4 to try to limit the negative impact of the right-to-buy provisions. Amendment 88 seeks to protect certain types of specialised housing and amendment 89 would require housing associations offering the right to buy to their tenants in London and elsewhere to reinvest all the money in replacement affordable housing, including a guaranteed like-for-like home in the same local authority area or London borough. My right hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Sadiq Khan) was among those who tabled that amendment.
We have also tabled amendments that would prevent property sold under the right to buy from being converted into buy-to-let dwellings for a period of 10 years; amendments that would ensure that the discount for homes sold under the right to buy remained in perpetuity; and amendments that would ensure that housing associations were able to carry out proper checks before proceeding with the right-to-buy offer. Yet again, we find ourselves stretched for time. We are facing a chapter that has the potential to decimate the social housing sector, so I will speak to the amendments as one group.
Shelter has estimated that about 113,000 homes could be lost immediately through the provisions in the Bill. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has said that owing to the scheme’s current vagueness and the
“coalition’s less-than-impressive record in delivering replacement housing under the existing right-to-buy…There is a risk that these policies would lead to a further depletion of the social housing stock”.
What seems to have complete consensus across the housing sector is that there is no guarantee of like-for-like replacement for homes sold under the right to buy. Of course, the Minister will tell me that the Government are guaranteeing a two-for-one replacement of affordable housing, but that measure needs closer inspection. The Government’s new definition of “affordable” housing in new clause 31 includes starter homes, which can be up to £250,000 outside London and up to £450,000 in the capital. That means that a housing association home sold under the right to buy can be considered to have been replaced by another house or even another two houses that will be for sale at up to a quarter of a million pounds or almost half a million in London. That is not a replacement of like for like by any stretch of the imagination.
The definition of “affordable homes” has been described by one hon. Member of this House as “elastic and misleading”. Does my hon. Friend agree with that characterisation from the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith), whom I congratulate, by the way, on becoming a dad again this week?
My right hon. Friend makes an excellent point. What we are trying to say in this debate is that the Government’s right-to-buy proposals do not bring about like-for-like replacements. To have two very expensive homes replacing one home for social rent does not add up to a sensible policy for most people. The Government want to push up the rates of home ownership and we agree that there should be measures to promote that. However, we do not think that those should come at the expense of the social rented or local authority sectors.
My hon. Friend and my right hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Sadiq Khan) are making exactly the right point. The idea that £450,000 homes for sale can replace socially rented homes, and when they are not in the same area, is what I understand the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith) told the Camden New Journal last week; if he is here, he may wish to clarify. Getting rid of council homes in inner London and replacing them with homes for sale at vastly inflated prices in outer London and beyond is not acceptable.
I totally agree. We are attempting to show how unappealing the measures put forward by the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith) are and how they simply will not tackle the problem for Londoners.
Part 4 of the Bill is nothing but an attack on council housing and council tenants, who have already suffered under the Government’s bedroom tax and cuts to council services. Adding the pay-to-stay provisions and reducing the stock available for rent amounts to a full blown attack on the council housing sector. Housing associations do not fare much better, as the right to buy could deplete their stock without adequate replacement. This is a further attack on people on low incomes and, most worryingly of all, will do almost nothing to tackle the housing crisis that so many people are facing.
We would like to remove most of part 4 of the Bill but simply do not have the time for the necessary votes. As an indicator of our great displeasure, we are going to press clause 142 to a vote, when appropriate. My right hon. Friend the Member for Tooting will press amendment 89. We call on the whole House to reject this awful Bill later today.
I shall not detain the House for long, as I am not sure that anyone would hear me. However, my constituents would expect me to raise the exceptional challenges of the central Oxfordshire housing market. Many of the Bill’s measures will be welcomed locally: more stringent measures to tackle rogue landlords, the brownfield register and measures such as Help to Buy, starter homes and the Prime Minister’s commitment to commission thousands more affordable homes directly.
Although commendable, the raft of policies to build more affordable houses is not in itself enough. Houses need to be built in areas that need them most. High-cost areas are either where growth is the highest or where markets are sclerotic because sites are hard to come by, infrastructure is at capacity and planning authorities are weak. In some areas such as Oxford, both those factors apply. High growth is becoming constrained by failing local housing markets. Many colleagues have local difficulties with housing, and I wish to explain briefly what our challenges are.
Median full-time earnings in Oxford are now £26,500; median house prices are £427,210. That means that house prices are 16 times the earnings of the average worker. The Centre for Cities analysis has found Oxford to be the least affordable city in England when prices are set against local incomes. The number of people owning their own home in the city is well below the national average, and median private rent for a three-bedroom house is £300 a week, more than half of median earnings. Some 30% of residents rent compared with 25% in London. The House of Commons Library has found that Oxford City Council delivered zero affordable homes in 2013-14 and only 20 in 2014-15; it is ranked as the fourth worst in the country for delivering housing of any tenure. Yet Oxford requires 1,400 homes to be delivered each year until 2031.
There are lots of specific local problems. To give the council its due, I should say that we have relatively few brownfield sites and all sorts of challenges, given that two thirds of land is in private ownership. That complicates active public management. The city has a relatively low density and development is highly restricted due to the amount of protected and listed buildings. It also has 400 hectares of green-belt land within its local authority. Nevertheless, if we compare Oxford with Cambridge—a reasonable comparison—we see that Cambridge provided 550 affordable homes in 2013-14 and 320 in 2014-15.
It is reasonable for us to call for more to be done because the issue is obviously causing significant problems for our local private and public sectors. One in two senior academic appointments fails because of house prices. Oxford University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust spends more than £100,000 a week on agency staff: it cannot recruit permanent staff because of local housing affordability. Some 30% of local businesses cite housing costs as their top barrier to recruitment. The failure to build homes where they are needed in cities constrains growth. The issue matters to the national economy as well, as such cities are the most productive and have the most jobs. If people cannot afford to live in these cities, they cannot access those jobs and businesses cannot sell to them. The economy suffers.
We are not yet getting this issue right. Between 2008 and 2013, in respect of local incomes, relatively more homes were built in Barnsley—the second most affordable city in Great Britain—than were built in London or Oxford, which are the least affordable cities. More of these homes need to be built in our most successful cities, where affordability is lowest and demand is highest.
In justifying Government amendment 112, and acknowledging the exceptionalism of the London housing market, the Minister has accepted that housing in Britain’s most economically successful cities is the least affordable and that we need policies that target our affordable house building efforts towards our least affordable areas. That is little more than common sense, but we have all known too many occasions when common sense has fallen by the wayside in our legislative process.
Amendment 112 will ensure that enough receipts from the sale of high-value homes go to the Greater London Authority for it to build two affordable homes for every one sold. Obviously, the receipts left with the GLA would have to be sufficiently high to allow that. I am of course very pleased for Londoners that this important measure has been secured for them, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith) on the efforts that he has gone through to do so. This is possible for Londoners largely because house prices are so high that huge amounts of money are generated from sales, so it is reasonably easy to fund two for one without putting too big a dent in the revenue stream going to central Government.
In my view, unsurprisingly given my bias towards Oxford, this should also apply to other high-value areas such as Oxford, Bath and St Albans. I will set out how it might work in practice in our case. About 12% of council homes in Oxford would be deemed to be of high value and so the council would be under a duty to consider selling them when they become vacant. Given vacancy rates, this works out at 29 homes a year being sold rather than going to the next person on the waiting list. Our estimates suggest that 29 council homes sold on the open market in Oxford each year would generate about £8.6 million in receipts, so a similar two-for-one provision would ensure that £8.6 million stays with the council for it to provide two extra units of affordable homes for every one sold. If, say, each high-value council home sold for £293,385 each—£8.9 million divided by 29—that would ensure that enough was still going to central Government for them to do as they plan, but we would be able to provide two for one for Oxford.
Amendment 112 gives the Secretary of State the power to create exceptions to subsection (4) for other local authorities along the lines of the two-for-one provision that my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park has so valiantly provided for London, so that is written explicitly into the Bill. Such an exception would be essential for Oxford to ensure that we have sufficient social and affordable housing. However, I remain to be convinced that the power will be sufficient to ensure that this is delivered, following the challenges that we have faced.
My hon. Friend is making a valiant charge on behalf of all of us who have very expensive houses in our constituencies. The median house price in St Albans is £392,000, and we are ringed by green belt. I share her concern about how deliverable this is, but we are right to push for it in areas that suffer similarly with high prices, such as London. I hope that the Minister takes that into account.
I thank my hon. Friend, and I agree with her.
The Minister has been very generous in the time that he has taken to discuss this with us. I am grateful to him for offering to have meetings with us about how we can implement the measures in amendment 112 to deliver for Oxford and other high-cost areas. We need to ensure that this commitment will be implemented as a matter of urgency and works in practice for areas such as mine where residents face a genuine housing crisis and genuine hardship on a daily basis. My colleagues from high-cost areas such as Bath, Cambridge and St Albans and I will, if necessary, look to the Lords to ensure that these measures deliver for our constituents, because affordable housing needs to be targeted towards high-cost areas where we face the biggest challenges in the country.
I rise to speak in favour of amendment 89, tabled in my name and that of my right hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey) and other hon. Friends. I hope that colleagues will understand and forgive me if I focus my comments on London.
The Bill before us will do nothing to help solve the housing crisis facing London.
The Member who has heckled describes the Bill as I would—rubbish.
In fact, on balance, the likelihood is that the Bill will make the crisis even worse. As a result, London’s famed social mix is under threat. Many parts of inner London could be hollowed out, with the city becoming the preserve of the very rich. Do not just take my word for it. When the Government published this Bill, the heading on an Evening Standard editorial was “Don’t lose social houses to fund right-to-buy”. I kept a copy of the newspaper from that day. The editorial said:
“The most serious objection to the Government’s proposal to allow housing association tenants to buy their homes at a discount is that its effect would actually be to diminish the amount of social housing in London at a time when demand is increasing. To fund the discount, councils would be obliged to sell off higher-priced council homes—and given the level of property prices in London, this could, potentially, be disastrous in its effects.”
My right hon. Friend is right to quote the Evening Standard saying that this will be disastrous. For many inner-London authorities, it means that the majority of their council stock will be sold. It is, in effect, the end of security of tenure of council housing in inner London. That is what the Government intend.
My hon. Friend will know that I spend a lot of time visiting all 32 London boroughs. This morning I was in Camden, where people think that more than 40% of their family homes could be sold off as a consequence of this Government’s Bill.
Nobody is against the aspiration of home ownership, but changes to the Bill are required, even at this late stage, to minimise the impact on London. That is why I have tabled and supported amendments all of which, to date, the Government have opposed. I hope, for the sake of Londoners, that that changes today. Amendment 89 is the “like-for-like replacement” amendment. It would say to housing associations across the country, “If you’re going to go ahead with right to buy, you have to spend the money raised from the sale locally on replacement affordable housing.” It has been estimated that the sell-off could lead to over £800 million a year being lost from London unless there are proper guarantees put in place to keep these receipts in the city.
The House should be wary of imitations, because other hon. Members are trying to fool Londoners by saying that their amendment will protect the city’s affordable homes. I refer, of course, to amendment 112, which is in the name of the Secretary of State, but which, rather cosily, the Prime Minister and the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith) announced last week. Let me pause to congratulate the hon. Member for Richmond Park on, as I said, becoming a father again this week. I am sure that the whole House sends him and his family our very best wishes.
I say this to hon. Members and to Londoners outside this Chamber: do not be tricked by the spin and hot air coming from the hon. Member for Richmond Park and the Government; do not allow the wool to be pulled over your eyes, because all is not as the Tories would have you believe. It is a con. For a start, amendment 112 tries to make palatable the Government’s plan to sell off council homes in London. The editorial in the Evening Standard set out three useful tests to judge the impact of this Bill. Let us look at how both amendments measure up to those tests. Under the first test,
“it is absolutely necessary to keep money raised by the sale of London council houses in London.”
The amendment announced with great fanfare last week clearly fails on this front. It fails to ring-fence the money for London, which means that money raised by selling off London’s council homes will still flood out of the capital to subsidise the Government’s national right to buy scheme. This contrasts with my amendment 89, which would ring-fence all the money from London housing association homes sold under right to buy for new affordable homes.
On the second test, the Evening Standard stated:
“It could be a mixed blessing if some central London boroughs lost most of their housing-association stock even if it meant more council houses being built in outer London.”
Again, amendment 112 fails on that front. It opens the door for homes to be replaced outside the borough where they are sold off. If there is any doubt that that is the case, the hon. Member for Richmond Park admitted to the Camden New Journal just last week the truth about the Government’s and his own amendment. He owned up to the fact that inner London would be hollowed out under his amendment. He said that, under his proposals, it was a “mathematical obstacle” to replace social housing in Camden and other inner London boroughs such as Westminster and Kensington and Chelsea. There we have it: an admission that the hon. Gentleman’s amendment will let London be hollowed out.
By comparison, amendment 89 guarantees a replacement, like-for-like home in the borough where the original home is sold, before the rest of the money is spent on more affordable housing across the capital. My amendment will do exactly what it says on the tin.
The third test set out by the Evening Standard reads:
“A healthy housing sector is a mix of private ownership, private rentals and social housing: the Government, in its attempt to promote home-ownership, should not forget the rest.”
Under amendment 112, the reality is that the so-called affordable homes the Government promise to build could all be for sale for nearly £500,000. I politely tell the hon. Gentleman that in few people’s eyes are homes that cost £450,000 affordable.
We know just how interested the Prime Minister is in getting hung up on what is and what is not truly affordable. His response last week to those who dared to suggest that £450,000 was not really affordable was remarkable. He said that
“people get too hung up on these definitions…the definition of affordable housing is a house that someone can afford to buy or afford to rent”.
Let us think about that for a moment. On that measure, some of the most expensive homes in London, such as the £26.5 million Holland Park mansion sold last year, are affordable, because someone has been able to buy them. That shows just how far from reality and out of touch the hon. Member for Richmond Park and this Government are with the housing crisis. Last week, the hon. Member for Richmond Park told the Camden New Journal that the term “affordable” has become “elastic and misleading”.
I am sure the right hon. Gentleman would never heckle from a sedentary position. The starter home provisions give a 20% price cut to every first-time buyer, which is very welcome. In my borough of Croydon, the average 20% discount means that a starter home would be only about £220,000 or £250,000, which I am sure even he would agree is extremely affordable.
It usually takes a parliamentarian years to become out of touch, but the hon. Gentleman has done it in six months. Shelter says that for someone to be able to afford a £450,000 starter home, they will have to earn an annual salary of £77,000 and have a deposit of £98,000. Let us put aside for the moment the nurse, the junior doctor and the bus driver—people who get a starter job in a top FTSE 100 company in the City of London will not be able afford one of the Government’s starter homes. That is how out of touch the Conservative mayoral candidate and the Government are.
The right hon. Gentleman makes a good case. I understand entirely why he is focusing on London, but we must not allow the Government to pretend that London is a specific and solitary special case. There are many parts of the country, particularly the Lake district, the Yorkshire dales and many rural parts of the United Kingdom, where house prices are incredibly expensive, wages are low and the availability of social rented housing is essential to the social mix of those communities. Does he agree that that is not just a problem in London?
I agree completely with the hon. Gentleman, but I would go a step further. I do not think that the Government are making a special case for London; I think that the combined effect of the Chancellor’s autumn statement and this Bill shows that the Government have it in for London.
As I have said, I visited Camden today, where the average cost of a property to rent is 73% of the average income there. So much for the Conservative mayoral candidate being in touch with Londoners. We also discovered last week that the Government are watering down the definition of what is affordable to include starter homes that cost 17 times the average British salary. By comparison, my amendment 89 would guarantee a new home for social rent to replace one that has been sold.
In short, amendment 112 is, to quote once more the hon. Member for Richmond Park, “elastic and misleading”. My amendment is clear and firm. It meets the tests that Londoners expect and I urge Members, especially anyone who claims to understand the housing crisis in London and who wants to help fix it, to ignore the overblown claims about amendment 112 and instead support my amendment 89.
I will be brief, because we do not have a lot of time. Clearly, we are discussing a national issue and concern, but there can be no doubt that housing is the No. 1 issue for London. Last year, prices rose by about 10% on average. The average price for a first-time buyer in London is now more than £400,000. No one can argue that Londoners today are not being priced out of their own city. It is no longer just a social problem—that point has already been made in relation to another city—because it jeopardises London’s economy as well.
The bottom line is that we need to build more and we need to build for people across the entire income spectrum. It is no good taking a polarised approach with a zero-subsidy option on the one hand and social housing on the other. We need to ensure that the market can accommodate young professionals, key workers and the like—people who perhaps do not qualify for social housing.
I was pleased with the Government’s interventions last week, with an emphasis on shared ownership, which will work around the country and have a particular impact in London. There is also going to be a London version of Help to Buy, which has been a very successful scheme nationally, but less successful in London, because we live in a different world here. The prices are so out of kilter with the rest of the country that that bespoke offer will have an impact. Finally, we have the two-for-one amendment under discussion.
I have a few questions for my hon. Friend the Minister. Amendment 112 requires that two new affordable homes be built for every single high-value council home sold as a consequence of the extension of the right to buy. That is based on my amendment, as has been acknowledged, and I sincerely thank my hon. Friend the Minister for his diligence in making it work.
Just give me a moment, please.
When my hon. Friend the Minister wraps up on this group of amendments, will he update the House on his discussions with London’s local authorities about how they will be able to work together to deliver the homes that London needs? I know that he has been having discussions with council leaders from all the different parties in both inner and outer London. It would be good to have an update.
May I ask my hon. Friend about housing associations? They are absolutely essential to the delivery of the next generation of homes. I believe that the G15, the group of 15 London housing associations, has already committed to delivering a one-for-one replacement of any home that is sold, but it has also said—it has told me this—that it could deliver a great deal more.
In just one moment, if the hon. Lady does not mind.
The G15 would even be able to replace each home sold with two new homes, provided that the Government give it the flexibilities it is asking for and, even more importantly, access to public sector land. Will the Minister commit to looking carefully at the flexibilities for which housing associations are asking, and will he look at the most critical issue, which is access to public sector land?
As my hon. Friend knows—he can take some credit for it, along with my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson)—the London Land Commission is now live. It will provide a complete inventory of all publicly owned brownfield land in London, and we will have the figures shortly. We do not have all the details yet, but we know that an enormous amount of publicly owned brownfield land could be developed. We know that to build the homes we need, such land absolutely must be released, so it would be useful to hear from the Minister, when he wraps up the debate, whether he has a likely timetable. When will we have the full picture, and what will be the process for releasing that land both to housing associations and to developers?
Will the hon. Gentleman make it clear whether he agrees that the forced sale of empty council properties is a good idea or a bad idea? If it goes ahead, does he agree that those properties should be replaced with like-for-like in the same local authority area? Is that his position?
As the hon. Gentleman knows, I stood on a manifesto that included a commitment to extending the right to buy to housing association tenants. That is the right policy: it will enable hundreds of thousands of people to achieve home ownership who would otherwise not be able to do so.
In a second: I am just answering the previous intervention.
That achievement would not be possible without the sale of empty high-value council homes. If, as a consequence of amendment 112, each sale leads to two new affordable homes being built, I would regard that as a good thing for London.
I am not going to take any more interventions. [Interruption.] I did take an intervention.
Finally, will the Minister commit to ensuring that public bodies can take the widest possible and longest term view of best value when releasing land? That point has been raised with me time and again by great and small developers, as well as by housing associations. We need a redefinition or an expanded definition.
The National Audit Office study of the disposal of public land showed that, in the last tranche, enough land was sold off for 109,500 potential homes. Does my hon. Friend agree that people do not live in potential homes, but actual homes, and that it is essential for the public interest to make sure, when a sale takes place, that there is a plan to ensure that something happens in a timely manner?
My hon. Friend makes my point for me. That is absolutely essential. We will not get best value out of the available public land with a rapid fire sale; that will require a much more coherent and strategic view from public bodies. I hope we will see more of that as a consequence of this Government’s intervention.
I thank the Minister again for the work he has put into delivering the two-for-one amendment. I am very grateful to him for amendment 112, which will ensure that the Bill works for London.
Let me first welcome the amendments tabled by the Government, as the Minister announced to the Communities and Local Government Committee before Christmas, to make the pay-to-stay scheme voluntary for housing associations, which is a sensible move. My argument is that what is good enough for housing associations should be good enough for local councils as well, and that councils should have the discretion under the pay-to-stay scheme to operate within their housing revenue accounts, which of course receive no subsidy from the general taxpayer. The Government could easily do that without affecting the general public finances in any way. In the spirit of localism, the Government should do that.
I turn to the sale of high-value local authority houses. In Sheffield, we live in a slightly different world from the prices in London. The Prime Minister got rather alarmed when he saw council houses valued at £1 million, but most of the houses in Sheffield that will be sold under the legislation are good-quality family homes that are promised to be sold for about £100,000 to £150,000. However, the reality of the Government’s proposals is that all vacant houses in certain parts of Sheffield will be sold off under the Bill. High-value houses tend to be in high-value areas, which means that, for people on the council waiting list, there will in future be parts of Sheffield where no vacant properties will come up for people to rent. That is the reality: people can be on the waiting list for such a home, but the wait will be forever, because no vacant properties will ever become available. The chances of properties being replaced on a like-for-like basis in those areas of a city such as Sheffield are non-existent. After the discount for right-to-buy properties has been funded, there simply will not be enough money left to replace one social rented property with another.
I accept that the Government have a mandate to bring in the right to buy for housing association tenants—they were elected on that policy—but it would be much fairer if the policy were funded by general taxpayers as a whole, rather than solely by prospective social housing tenants who, as a result of the policy of councils having to sell off their high-value properties, will not have a home to rent in the future. It is unfair that only one section of the community—a more deprived section—should be the one that has to fund and pay for this Government policy.
It is also totally unfair for councils that have sold off their properties in a stock transfer to have to make no contribution at all towards the policy, and for the totality of a policy funding housing association sales all over the country to be paid for only by some councils or council residents, not by others. Why do the Government think that a policy which is national in nature should not be funded nationally, but should be funded only by councils that happen to have retained their council housing stock? There is no logic in that. There would be a lot more understanding of, and agreement with, the housing association right to buy and its consequences if the Government changed that aspect of how the policy is funded.
I turn to security of tenure and the rather nasty, mean-spirited schedule 4, which the Government introduced in Committee. Why are council tenants deemed to be second class? Why have the Government got it in for council tenants? When, during the last Parliament, the Select Committee looked at the private rented sector, it was pretty obvious that one of the biggest problems people have in the private sector is the lack of security. We should try to give people in the private rented sector greater security. Many people will remain there, probably renting privately for the rest of their lives, so they need great security. Instead of giving private sector tenants greater security, why are the Government doing exactly the opposite by transferring the problems of the private rented sector to the council sector and by giving council tenants insecurity? Just what is the logic of doing that?
Let us look at the impact of the policy on families. This is about not just families having to move home, but their having to uproot and change jobs—finding another one if they can—and kids having to move schools. There is nothing more damaging to kids’ prospects and to their future lives than having their education constantly disrupted by having to move house and having to move from one school to another. That is what the Government are moving towards by bringing in this policy.
My hon. Friend is, as always, making a very powerful speech. This issue will affect not just individual families, but entire communities. If families feel that they may have to move within a very short period, what incentive do they have to get involved in the local community, put down roots or build community ties that will be cut unnecessarily quickly?
My hon. Friend must have been looking over my shoulder. I am sure she cannot read my handwriting—it is very difficult at the best of times—but that is exactly my next point. This is not just about individuals in their own home; individuals who are part of the wider community may join and become active members of their local tenants and residents associations only to be told that their home has suddenly gone, and the community life with it. The community, as well as such individuals, will lose out.
Of course, it is not just families who will be affected. A pensioner in their family home who has retired might decide that they want to move to a bungalow or flat that is more suitable to their immediate needs. I think that this legislation applies to people of retirement age, but perhaps the Minister could confirm that. If that pensioner is in a secure council property, they now face the prospect of moving into pensioner accommodation that does not have a secure tenancy.
We are therefore asking people to take the risk of moving from a family home with a secure tenancy to pensioner accommodation without that security. That will undermine mobility because it will mean that fewer family homes become available and that such pensioners cannot move on to more suitable accommodation. If they do, they will be faced with the prospect of being turfed out of that accommodation in their 80s on the wish of their landlord. It simply cannot be right to put pensioners in that position.
One argument that was put forward in support of the heinous bedroom tax was that it would encourage people to move to smaller properties when the opportunity arose. Is not what my hon. Friend has just described completely inconsistent with the aims of that policy?