House of Commons
Monday 28 November 2016
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
Communities and Local Government
The Secretary of State was asked—
EU Funding: Community Groups
The Government have guaranteed support for projects that have signed agreements for EU funding. This guarantee applies even when those projects continue beyond EU exit. We are considering future arrangements regarding domestic support for local growth.
A key aim of European funding for community groups is to promote skills and employment. Last week’s autumn statement appeared to have no long-term strategy for investment in skills and employment. Given how important this is for the UK to compete globally post-Brexit, does the Secretary of State agree that this shows yet again that the Government simply have no plan for Brexit?
I completely disagree. I have noted that the hon. Lady’s constituency has seen a 49% fall in unemployment since 2010, and I hope that she would welcome that. What we saw in the autumn statement were further measures to keep the strength in our economy, including the announcement of regional allocations of a local growth fund—it will apply to the hon. Lady’s area—that will go on to generate both growth and jobs.
Will my hon. Friend confirm that for every £2 we give to the European Union we get only £1 back? Under our own scheme, we could potentially be more generous than the EU is at the moment and we could give to community groups in line with national priorities rather than EU priorities?
As usual, my hon. Friend makes a very good point. Once we have left the EU, we will be able to design schemes for local growth and offer support through funding that will meet all our national priorities, provide value for money for British taxpayers and lead to more jobs and growth.
On 25 February, the Government announced that they would make an application to the EU solidarity fund to provide extra support to flood-hit communities across the UK, including a number in my own constituency. Given that we have now voted to leave the EU, can the Minister give us an update on the progress of this application, so that communities that are still dealing with the consequences of flooding can be reassured that they will receive this money?
Does my right hon. Friend agree that there is no such thing as EU money—it is taxpayers’ money—and that when business rates are kept locally by local authorities, thanks to this Government, local community groups will be able to benefit from that funding?
That is a very important reminder from my hon. Friend that it is all our money at the end of the day. He reminds us that, when we leave the EU, we can use that money locally as we wish. The connection that my hon. Friend has made to business rates is the right one.
Some 100,900 planning permissions were granted in the quarter April to June 2016. This is a 6% increase on the same quarter in 2015. However, people cannot live or work in planning permissions, so developers need to move ahead to build.
What measures can be brought forward to get developers who are sitting on land with planning permission to get building? When I say “get building”, I do not mean four or five-bedroom detached properties, but two and three-bedroom properties that are affordable to my constituents?
My hon. Friend raises an important point. We are clear that sites with planning permission should move ahead without delay, and we are taking steps to speed up development through our Neighbourhood Planning Bill and the new £3 billion home building fund. In addition, the national planning policy framework expects councils to plan for a mix of housing to meet local needs.
Planning permissions mean absolutely nothing if homes are not actually built. Can the Secretary of State confirm the figures that were released last week, which show that just over 141,000 homes were built in the year to September 2016—20% lower than the 176,000 that were built at the peak under Labour in 2007?
Does the Secretary of State understand the anger and disappointment felt throughout Sutton Coldfield at his decision last week to back Labour’s wholly unnecessary plans to build on Sutton Coldfield’s green belt? Does he realise that this is a breach of the Conservative party’s election manifesto and his own words from just a few weeks ago? Does he now understand that we will seek to oppose his decision by all legal means and amend future legislation to give the protection that he has shown himself unable to provide?
My right hon. Friend has been a passionate and committed campaigner on this issue, and I respect that tremendously. The Government placed a hold on the Birmingham local plan precisely because they value the green belt: it is very, very special. However, when a local community has come forward with a robust plan, has looked at all the alternatives, has considered its housing needs and has prioritised brownfield sites, and when the independent planning inspectorate has said that the plan conforms to all the rules and regulations, the Government have no valid reason to stand in the way.
Where on earth does the Secretary of State get his figures from? According to his Department’s own official figures—I have them here—there were 140,000 fewer permissions last year than in the peak year under Labour. More important is the fact that, as he says, people cannot live in planning permissions; what they really need are decent, affordable homes. Will he tell us how many new affordable homes were built in this country last year?
Unlike the right hon. Gentleman, I get my figures from the Office for National Statistics. According to the ONS, housing supply amounted to 189,650 additional homes in 2015-16, which is an increase of 11%, and the level is the highest for eight years. I believe that when the right hon. Gentleman was the Housing Minister, housing starts fell to their lowest level since the 1920s.
The right hon. Gentleman asked about affordable homes. We have provided more money for affordable homes than any previous Parliament, and there has been an increase of 304,000 since 2010.
Those figures are just not accurate. Even if we include the money that has been announced, the Government’s investment in new affordable homes over the current Parliament is still only half the level of Labour’s investment in its last year in office. The number of new affordable homes built last year was the lowest for 24 years, notwithstanding 750 separate announcements on affordable housing since 2010. This is a disaster for families who are struggling to cope with housing costs. When will we—after six years of failure—see a serious plan to help people on ordinary incomes with housing to rent and buy, and when will we see a proper Government plan to fix the housing crisis?
What was a disaster was a decline of 410,000 in the number of social housing units during the 13 years of the Labour Government. Since then, the number has risen by more than 60,000. If the right hon. Gentleman does not agree with me, perhaps he will agree with his former colleague, now the Mayor of London, who said of the money allocated to affordable housing in last week’s autumn statement:
“This is the largest sum of money ever secured by City Hall for affordable housing.”
I tend to spend more time here these days, Mr Speaker.
Does the Secretary of State agree that if we are to create more opportunities for small and medium-sized house builders, we need to allocate more small sites in local plans?
Yes, I do agree with my hon. Friend. He will be pleased to know that the new accelerated construction fund will ensure that allocations of that kind are more forthcoming, and that the £3 billion home building fund will provide more support for small and medium-sized builders.
The Government are committed to neighbourhood planning, which enables communities to shape the development and growth of their local areas in a positive manner. The Neighbourhood Planning Bill will further strengthen and future-proof the process, while ensuring that communities have the support that they need.
Well-supported neighbourhood plans and agreed local plans are critical to good local planning and housing. How does the Secretary of State aim to hold to account councils that fail to deliver agreed and well-supported local plans by early 2017, and those that fail to support and encourage neighbourhood plans and hence the right mix of local housing?
We expect all authorities to have a plan in place and to keep their plan up to date. We have put that requirement beyond doubt by legislating for it in the Neighbourhood Planning Bill. My hon. Friend’s local council, Eastleigh Borough Council, has not taken the issue seriously and has let down local residents. She is right to stand up for her constituents. Her council should follow her example.
Is the Secretary of State aware that, as part of the neighbourhood plan for Hexthorpe in my constituency, a selective licensing system was introduced for private landlords, which reduced all types of antisocial behaviour by between 20% and 45%? Will he look at how those schemes can be extended? Will he also look at how the planning process can be modified to allow councils to make quicker decisions about houses in multiple occupation, which can often be linked to antisocial behaviour?
The right hon. Lady makes a good point. We should always be looking at what more can be done to combat antisocial behaviour. She has raised an excellent example. I was not aware of it but, now that she has raised it, I will take a closer look to see whether we can extend it.
The Government are committed to supporting high streets. We are cutting business rates for many retailers and developing digital high street pilots in Gloucestershire. In the run-up to Christmas—my hon. Friend’s background is in retail—I hope that we can all take the opportunity to support our local high streets, shop local and support Small Business Saturday this weekend.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. Last week, I chaired my first future high streets forum, where we heard about the excellent work undertaken in the digital pilots across Gloucester, Cheltenham and Stroud. That is an important tool through which we can attract people back to our high streets. We will be doing further work through the forum on these digital roll-outs.
In my constituency, many small towns, such as Flint, Mold and Holywell, have to impose car parking charges because of the financial situation that they are in, yet large, out-of-town retail developments such as Cheshire Oaks, which is just over the border in England, have free parking. Has the Minister had a chance to look at how we can help to support small businesses on the issue of town centre parking?
I would be more than happy to welcome the right hon. Gentleman to North Lincolnshire Council, where, when we took control from the Labour party, we scrapped parking charges, introduced two hours of free parking and all-day free parking on Saturdays and Sundays. It had a wonderful effect: it brought people back to the high street. I would be delighted to see him in Brigg and Goole any time soon to discuss the matter further.
When it comes to supporting our high streets, will the Minister join me in welcoming Small Business Saturday this weekend, because it plays such an important part in helping our smaller, independent retailers on our high streets? Will he join me in congratulating North Devon Council, which has just announced an hour’s free parking in Barnstaple in the run-up to Christmas?
I am more than happy to congratulate North Devon Council on its announcement on free parking. As I have said, free parking has made a huge difference in my area in bringing people back to our town centres. I reiterate that I hope that Members will get out and support Small Business Saturday throughout the country.
At the recent world town centres summit in Edinburgh, many things were on display, including apps that allow people to put entire towns, including high streets and small traders, online. What plans do the UK Government have in that regard?
We are working through the future high streets forum on the issue of connecting people better to their high streets through digital media, including social media. I point to the example of Bishy Road, York, which last year won the Great British High Street award and used its winnings to develop an app with Newcastle University to do just that. A lot of work is going on in that regard.
Fixed odds betting terminals, the crack cocaine of gambling, have led to an explosion in the number of betting shops on our high streets. What are the Government going to do about it? Aside from my amendment, what is in the Neighbourhood Planning Bill to tackle the explosion in betting shops, which no one wants?
I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s comments. It is important that we have a mix of different outlets on our high streets and I know that there are concerns about this in many town centres. It is of course for local councils to make appropriate use of the powers available to them, but I am happy to look into the issue further and discuss this with the hon. Gentleman if required.
The Minister has just referred to alternative uses in our town centres, and one of them can be tourism. Does he agree that a great example is provided by Rugby Borough Council in its development with World Rugby in creating the Hall of Fame, opened earlier this month, in the most appropriate place: the birthplace of the game of rugby?
There can be no better place for such a venue and I congratulate Rugby on that development and my hon. Friend on his support for it. It is true that we need our town centre spaces to include a mix of different uses to attract people back into our towns, to support the retail offer there too.
The Government are investing over £25 billion over this spending review period. Our home building fund will help small builders, our accelerated construction programme will see more homes built faster, and we announced a further £1.4 billion for our affordable homes programme in last week’s autumn statement.
I thank the Secretary of State for his response. He will be aware that communities welcome development all the more if the architecture is sympathetic to the local vernacular, artisan builders are involved in the development, and the environment is respected. In achieving all of those ends, what role do garden villages have to play?
We will be supporting a number of garden villages—those that are committed to being well-designed communities and that will stand out as exemplars of good development for years to come. We will ensure that there are real and important benefits that are rightly secured from the outset: quality, design, cutting-edge technology, local employment opportunities, accessible green space, and fantastic access to public transport.
Will the Secretary of State give a bit more information about last week’s statement? Will the extra money for additional affordable homes be for affordable homes to rent, which have so far been lacking from the Government programme? Will the relaxation of restrictions on Government grant to allow a wider range of housing types mean that the whole of the Homes and Communities Agency’s £8 billion fund can be bid for with packages involving affordable homes for rent? At the same time will the Secretary of State say that, on section 106 agreements, priority will continue to be given to affordable homes for rent?
The Chairman of the Select Committee asks a number of questions. [Interruption.] I will answer most of his questions, but we have a number of opportunities to speak and perhaps I can give more detail then. The high priority the Government place on affordable homes was made clear by the Chancellor last week, and I can confirm that the £1.4 billion he announced is additional money. We estimate that it will lead to about 40,000 additional units. We have given housing associations the flexibility to decide on the types of unit—whether they are to rent or otherwise—which is precisely what they have asked for.
Under Labour, when more homes were built there was not the investment in infrastructure in constituencies such as mine. That has changed under this Government, particularly with last week’s announcement of £2.3 billion in the housing infrastructure fund. Can the Secretary of State confirm to my constituents that they will also see the sort of investment we need to see in roads and rail, particularly on the Wessex route, which is now chronically overcrowded?
My right hon. Friend makes an excellent point about the importance of infrastructure if we are to unlock our housing sites. She rightly referred to the £2.3 billion of additional funding announced last week. There is over £1 billion of new money for transport projects as well, which will also go towards releasing homes and easing congestion, which she can also make use of locally.
The Secretary of State was a bit vague in his answer to the hon. Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts), the Chair of the Select Committee, on the Government’s intention to build and develop homes for social rent, which ought to be a significant part of their intentions to help people who do not want to, or cannot afford to, buy their home. When will he bring forward a plan—such as the Scottish Government plan to build 35,000 social rented houses—for England.
I have referred to this at the Dispatch Box a number of times. We have seen a massive increase in affordable homes in England, involving more than £8 billion during this Parliament and an additional £1.4 billion announced last week. This is leading to thousands of new affordable homes, which is something that Scotland could learn from.
Shelter has said that starter homes “will be a non-starter” for those who are just about managing. People on low incomes simply cannot afford the deposit for those houses. Would the Secretary of State not do better to look at how Scotland is investing in social rented housing and affordable housing for people who are just about managing?
The hon. Lady might be interested to know that Shelter’s chief executive welcomed the autumn statement for increasing the number of affordable homes and for providing some of the flexibility that had been asked for. Shelter is an organisation that we work with and listen to, and we will continue to do so.
Given that half the new homes will be leasehold, and that part of the problem stems from the present and potential abuse of the system, will my right hon. Friend please get together with representatives of The Sunday Times and The Guardian, and others who are covering these abuses, to ensure that ordinary people buying their first home do not find that it is unsaleable and of no value when they decide to leave it?
Local Authority Planning Departments
We have recently consulted on increasing planning fees, and we will be setting out our response in the forthcoming White Paper.
As the Minister might know, I have been pursuing the issue of protecting family homes. I am not against permitted development, but I am against rogue developers who are able to cause untold misery to ordinary homeowners through ruthless exploitation and breaches of permitted development because they are better resourced than local authorities to deal with enforcement. Will the Minister agree to look again at the issue of enforcement in that area?
I share the hon. Gentleman’s concern that local authorities should use their enforcement powers. The Housing and Planning Act 2016 has given local authorities substantial additional powers to tackle rogue landlords through the creation of a database, the use of banning orders, the extension of rent repayment orders and an increase in civil penalties. The powers are there, and I would be happy to meet him to discuss how they should be used.
One of the best ways to ensure that local planning departments have sufficient resources to carry out their duties is to allow local authorities to charge the full cost of planning applications. This is something that the Government promised to introduce a long time ago, and I very much hope that this Minister will bring it in.
I thank my hon. Friend for his comments. As I have said, we are consulting on the issue of greater resourcing for local authority planning departments, and virtually everyone I have met in the four months since I became Housing Minister has said that there is an issue that needs to be addressed. If my hon. Friend bears with us, he will see a solution in the housing White Paper.
The Minister will know that, due to Government cuts, spending on planning in local authorities has fallen by a massive £1 billion since 2010. We have heard warm words from the Government this afternoon about plugging the huge funding gap, particularly in relation to allowing fees to rise, but will he tell us what more he plans to do to resource planning departments properly, so that they can produce local plans and make plans for the new settlements, new towns and garden cities that we so desperately need if we are to solve our housing crisis?
The hon. Lady is quite right to say that local authority planning departments have a crucial role to play in tackling the housing problems that this country faces, but she undersells their record of achievement under this Government. She talked about local plans. When Labour left office, 17% of councils had a local plan; today, the figure is 72%.
Will the Minister also bear in mind that there is great support for local flexibility on planning fees and that many respectable developers and builders would value that flexibility, provided that it was ring-fenced and reinvested in local planning authorities? That is particularly important in areas such as London, where the cost pressures are especially great.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. If we increase the resources raised through planning fees, it is essential that that money is spent on extra resourcing in planning departments. He is quite right to say that both local authorities and developers are pressing the case to solve the issue.
Our guidance is clear that decisions on planning applications, whether by local authorities or by planning inspectors, must be taken in accordance with the development plan unless material considerations indicate otherwise.
I thank the Minister for that answer. Housing developer Wainhomes recently submitted a planning application for 300 homes on a site in St Austell that was not allocated for development in the town framework. The local council consulted widely when producing the framework and found that 95% of local residents who responded did not want the site to be developed. I know that the Minister cannot comment on specific applications, but does he agree that if permissions are granted on sites that are not allocated for development, that does little to promote the public’s confidence in the planning system?
Does the Minister agree that the Secretary of State’s actions last week completely undermined the neighbourhood plan of Newick in my constituency with the overturning of the decision on the Mitchelswood Farm site? Some 89% of people in Newick voted for their neighbourhood plan, which excluded that site. Does that not suggest that neighbourhood plans are not worth the paper they are written on?
Neighbourhood plans are a vital part of an area’s development plan. Where a local authority does not have a five-year land supply in place, my hon. Friend is quite right that that is an alternative consideration. With the White Paper, we want to consider how we can change policy so that the people who work hard to produce such plans have more confidence that they will have an effect on all applications.
I gently remind right hon. and hon. Members that they should not leave the Chamber until all the exchanges on the question to which they have contributed have been concluded. One fellow has just beetled out of the Chamber having popped his question, taking precisely zilch interest in anybody else’s. I am sure that the discourtesy was inadvertent, but it is in breach of a long-standing convention of this House, of which all Members ought to be aware. Modesty and kindness forbid me to mention the name of the offending individual on this occasion.
I note my hon. Friend’s interest as chairman of the all-party beer group. I am happy to work with local authorities to develop community pubs. Listing a pub as an asset of community value gives communities time to bid to buy it should the owner decide to sell. We have supported community buying through the £3.6 million “More than a Pub” programme.
Many pubs will have welcomed the news about rural rate relief in the autumn statement, but they still face an immense challenge on business rates. What further steps could the Minister take with local authorities to help ease the burden of business rates on pubs?
We are permanently doubling the level of small business rate relief from next year, meaning that 600,000 small businesses will pay no business rates at all. In addition, 17,000 pubs may be eligible for small business rate relief from 1 April next year, depending on their rateable value. Around 13,000 are potentially eligible for 100% relief, compared with some 4,000 now.
This is an independent process and it would not be appropriate for Ministers to intervene in it. We have, of course, provided £3.6 billion of transitional relief for those businesses affected by the revaluation, but I refer back to the statistics I gave in an answer a moment ago about the number of businesses that could now qualify for 100% relief.
House Building: Rural Areas
We want to see all areas with an up-to-date plan in place that meets housing need. We are doubling annual capital spending on housing over the course of this Parliament, and we will be announcing further measures, some specific to rural areas, in the forthcoming White Paper.
I thank the Minister for his response, and I am keen to see more local housing. With 75% of my constituency designated as areas of outstanding natural beauty, my district councils are in the midst of delivering a much-needed five-year land supply. Will he assure me that the Government will implement robust measures to prevent opportunist developers from applying to build anywhere in our AONB in the meantime?
I am delighted to hear that my hon. Friend’s local councils are getting their five-year land supply in place, as that is crucial. In the meantime, I can reassure him that the national planning policy framework says that great weight should be given to conserving landscape and scenic beauty in AONBs, so the protection is there in national policy.
Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty: Infrastructure Projects
Any individual or organisation can make representations on planning applications for infrastructure projects, and it is of course for the decision maker to decide what weight, if any, should be given to those representations.
For more than a year, my constituents have been battling to get rid of a 40 mph speed limit on the main motorway to the port of Dover—a road of national strategic importance—yet the infrastructure for this to happen is being held up by the AONB. What measures can be taken by the Department or through legislation to make sure that a better balance is struck?
I am aware of this issue and my hon. Friend’s advocacy on behalf of his constituency. Clearly, legislation does require Highways England to have regard to the AONB’s purpose to conserve and enhance that natural beauty. I am more than happy to meet him or to pass his concerns on to the appropriate Department.
The Minister’s colleague has just confirmed that the NPPF makes it clear that AONBs should have the highest status of protection, yet the Chilterns Conservation Board, the public body set up to protect the Chilterns AONB, had its proposal for a fully bored tunnel under the Chilterns rejected. When it comes to projects such as HS2, it appears that there is one rule for some AONBs and another for the Chilterns AONB. What is the Minister going to do to try, still, to persuade the promoters to have a fully bored tunnel under the Chilterns and to live up to his promise to protect our AONBs?
Troubled Families Programme
Between 2012 and 2015, nearly 120,000 families on the troubled families programme saw their lives improve. In October, we published a report on the programme’s costs and potential fiscal benefits based on local authority data. A first assessment on the cost-effectiveness of the new programme will be available next year.
I am grateful to the Minister, but I am not sure whether he has had a chance to thoroughly read the report commissioned by his own Department on the scheme; it found no evidence of a significant or systematic impact on the key objectives of the programme. Will Ministers set out why the decision was taken to spend hundreds of millions of pounds expanding the programme before they could even know whether that was money well spent?
This party is absolutely focused on outcomes, not process. Nearly 120,000 families have had their lives improved, and I for one am proud that there are more children back at school, that youth crime is down and that more than 18,000 adults involved with the programme are back in work.
Does the Minister accept that the report shows that although this was purportedly designed around the payment by results model, it was no such thing? Local authorities simply delivered the number of families for which there was funding. What do the Government intend to learn from the failure to design an effective contract? How will they ensure that in future taxpayers’ money is well spent?
Adult Social Care
I fully recognise the pressures on adult social care, which provides a vital service to millions of people across the country. That is why the Government have provided extra funding for adult social care, with up to £3.5 billion available during this Parliament.
Yesterday, the former Health Secretary, Stephen Dorrell, commented on the Chancellor’s autumn statement, saying that it was “a mistake” not to provide extra investment in the social care system, which was “inadequately funded”. Last week, directors of social services said social care was “in real jeopardy”, and the Conservative leader of Warwickshire County Council said that
“it is no exaggeration to say that our care and support system is in crisis.”
The Minister says that he is providing extra money, but when are the Government going to wake up and provide the funds needed to prevent the whole system from collapsing?
During the spending review last year, we consulted the sector carefully. We spoke with the Local Government Association, and looked at length at what it said. It said that we should have £2.9 billion of extra funding available for adult social care across this spending period, but we have provided up to £3.5 billion.
Social care should not be a party political matter, and there are concerns on both sides of the House. Would it not be a good idea if the Government worked with the Opposition to see whether we could agree on a way forward so that social care progresses satisfactorily? Perhaps an independent body responsible for social care could be created, rather than the issue being left to local government and the national health service.
My hon. Friend makes a sensible point. These issues are often important, and we need to speak to a wide group of people to make the right decisions. We are certainly interested in speaking to anyone who wants to come up with sensible and practicable solutions in relation to this vital issue.
This is not repackaged money: this is new money for adult social care—up to £3.5 billion across the spending review period. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the report by the LGA, which is absolutely right that the key is better integration of health and social care. The £1.5 billion that we are providing through the better care fund is the best way to continue to promote that.
Thank you, Mr Speaker; you may have caused me some trouble later this evening. In the past six years, the Government have cut social care funding by nearly £5 billion. In my authority of Wirral, there is a £3.5 million hole in the budget only halfway through the year. The system is on its knees, and there has been an 18% increase in emergency admissions to hospital as a result. The Prime Minister did not have an answer to this last Wednesday. When is the Minister responsible going to have an answer?
We have enabled councils to raise additional funding through the adult social care precept, but this is all about priorities and the way in which local government allocates its finance. The hon. Lady might want to have a word with her local council leader and group, as they have sought to spend £270,000 on a propaganda newspaper. Is that good value for money when they say that they need more for social care?
Thank you, Mr Speaker. I am grateful to follow my sister—as I always have.
Liverpool City Council, which covers most of my constituency, raises £146 million in council tax every year from its council tax base. This year it has spent £151 million on adult social care, yet since 2010, this Government and their predecessor have cut 58% of the budget that the council has to fulfil its statutory obligations. Is the Minister really saying that Liverpool City Council is in a position to spend any more on adult social care, which it needs to do, without more money coming from central Government?
I refer the hon. Lady to the indicative allocations that have been made through the better care fund, which takes into account councils’ ability to raise council tax. In terms of its average spending power per dwelling, Liverpool gets £100 more than the national average. She might want to discuss with her council leader how the council can improve its collection of council tax, which in Liverpool is well below the national average.
It has been interesting to listen to the Minister’s responses, which demonstrate that the Government do not accept that there is a crisis in adult social care. That denial leads me to worry about the 1.2 million people who cannot even access a service. Local authorities have had to cut between 40% and 50% of their budget. Blackburn Council raises £900,000 with a 2% precept, but to stand still it needs £1.2 million per year and it already has a £5.8 million black hole. Are we seriously saying that we will wait to have conversations to see how we can take things forward? There is a crisis happening now—we are heading for winter and we are putting old people in danger. Will the Secretary of State find the £2.6 billion that is needed now?
I am not sure that the Secretary of State has that money down the back of the sofa or of the green Benches. We recognise that this is an extremely important issue, and that is why we are giving additional precepting powers, which will have a cumulative effect over time. I note that the hon. Lady is looking for an extra £2.6 billion off the cuff. That is interesting, given the fact that at the last general election, the then shadow Chancellor said that if the Labour party were in power, local government would be subject to cuts.
Property Management Agents
My right hon. Friend is right to raise concerns about the quality of service provided by some managing agents. That is why we are introduced legislation to ensure that property management agents belong to an approved redress scheme.
I am working with constituents who, despite a number of complaints about management services on a relatively newly built estate, find that the management agents are not prepared to meet them as a group. They find that their local parish council has discontinued contact with the management agents, and the management agents have not held an annual general meeting, as they promised in their agreement. If this is in any way familiar to my hon. Friend, will he tell me what more my constituents can do to redress the balance of power between themselves and the people who seem to have them over a barrel?
Sadly, the situation that my right hon. Friend describes is familiar, and something that he has raised before. The Government are looking to address it. Although there are existing legal powers, we are exploring whether further changes are required to address this problem.
Thank you for squeezing me in, Mr Speaker.
Speaking of regulation, the Housing Minister thought two months ago that Labour’s ban on letting fees was a bad idea. Does he agree that, if we want security and affordability in the housing market, he should, in addition to signing up to that ban, sign up to Labour’s other manifesto promises—three-year tenancies and control of inflationary rent increases in the private sector?
It certainly would be good to see longer tenancies in the private rented sector, but in terms of regulating to force all private landlords to let for longer periods and to introduce rent controls, we have only to look at the record in our own country and around the world to see what the result of such policies would be: a smaller private rented sector, which would make our housing problems worse.
I am sure that the whole House will welcome the latest official house building numbers showing housing starts at an eight-year high, but there is still a lot more we need to do. That was why last week’s autumn statement contained billions of pounds of funding to get Britain building, and it is why our White Paper, which is due to be published in January, will set out a range of radical plans to boost the housing supply. I can also confirm that we will start announcing local growth fund allocations later this week, and I hope to have all the deals announced before Christmas.
Further to my recent question to the Leader of the House and a written parliamentary question, I would like to raise once again the importance of protecting ancient woodland from hostile development. In terms of delivering much-needed appropriate housing, do Ministers agree that once we bulldoze ancient woodland, it can never come back, and that options B and C in Eastleigh Borough Council’s emerging local plan are completely inappropriate and will destroy a valued local community landscape?
My hon. Friend is right: ancient woodland is an irreplaceable habitat. The national planning policy framework is clear that
“planning permission should be refused for development resulting in the loss or deterioration of irreplaceable habitats, including ancient woodland”,
unless there are very exceptional circumstances. However, without a local plan, local people do not have the certainty they need. Once again, my hon. Friend has demonstrated that Eastleigh Borough Council is letting its residents down.
Changes to the local government pension scheme that recently came into effect were debated in a statutory instrument Committee last week. During the debate, the Minister indicated that EU directive 41/2003 does not apply to the LGPS, yet a letter I have here from his own Department says that it does. Will he confirm that the directive does apply and that it has been applied?
I can assure the hon. Lady that the directive, we firmly believe, does not apply. If she would like to meet me to discuss the issue further, I would be more than happy to do so.
My hon. Friend raises an important question. When a council’s income is impacted by a successful business rates appeal or other losses in business rates income, there is a safety net, as I am sure he will be aware. However, he will be reassured by the fact that, during the design of the new 100% business rates retention scheme, we are looking at how risks around business rates income will be managed in the future.
We have provided a long-term funding settlement to North East Lincolnshire Council, which will have £592 million to spend over this Parliament. In addition, the two local enterprise partnerships serving the hon. Lady’s area—the Humber LEP and the Greater Lincolnshire LEP—have received £114 million and £126 million respectively, and we will be making further announcements shortly.
I could not agree more. Definitive action is what is required, and that is exactly what the Government are providing. The autumn statement detailed £7.2 billion of investment in housing, which is the biggest dedicated investment in housing in a generation. The Government expect to double in real terms annual capital spending for housing over the course of this Parliament. That is great news for Essex and great news for the country.
Through no fault of its own, Hull has struggled to be part of any devolution deal in Yorkshire and the Humber, despite accepting the elected mayor model and recognising the importance of devolution to economic regeneration for the city. Will the northern powerhouse Minister agree to meet local MPs, councillors and others to discuss what has worked elsewhere in the country and how we can take Hull forward?
I would be delighted to do so. The situation is deeply disappointing. I met Councillor Steve Brady, the Labour leader of Hull City Council, only on Friday, when we discussed devolution. The hon. Lady can of course turn up at this afternoon’s meeting of the all-party parliamentary group on Yorkshire and North Lincolnshire, where she will see a devolution double whammy with the Secretary of State and me talking about Yorkshire devolution.
I absolutely congratulate local leaders in the west of England on their grown-up approach, and my hon. Friend on his work on this deal, which will bring an additional £1 billion of investment in infrastructure, as well as devolving powers from this place to the local community on transport, adult skills, and housing and planning.
Did the Minister see last week’s shocking report from the Alzheimer’s Society showing that only 2% of people affected by dementia feel that their home carers have adequate training in dementia, that only 38% of home care workers have any dementia training at all, and that 71% did not have accredited training, with dreadful consequences for dementia sufferers and their families and carers? Does he accept that until social care is properly funded, this situation will just get worse?
The right hon. Gentleman raises an important issue. By 2020, we expect all social care providers to provide appropriate training on dementia to all relevant staff. Over 100,000 care workers have already received such training. As I said with regard to the funding of adult social care, we have provided a package that will provide up to £3.5 billion of extra funding during this spending review period.
My hon. Friend is right to underline the importance of local authorities having a five-year land supply and an up-to-date local plan, because that ensures that local communities can decide where development should go, what kinds of development should happen, and which sites should be protected. I am looking forward to visiting his constituency shortly, and I hope we can discuss these issues in more detail then.
The amount of money that has been cut from social care since 2010 dwarfs what the Secretary of State’s Department is going to be putting in over the next five years. He might wish to deny it, but there is a crisis in our health and social care services, with too many people stuck in our hospitals because there is no care available to enable them to come out. Why did the Secretary of State fail to make adequate representations to the Chancellor to ensure that funding was allocated in last week’s autumn statement?
The hon. Lady rightly points to a very challenging situation. I am sure she will welcome the additional £3.5 billion of funding that is being provided during this Parliament. The other thing that I know she will welcome—she pointed to it in her question—is the need for more integration between the NHS and adult social care, which we are seeing in parts of the country such as Manchester. We want that to continue and to ensure there is a plan in place in every local region by 2020.
We have only announced regional allocations, so it is not correct to say at this point that the South East LEP will receive £55 million. The final figures will be announced in the coming weeks, and the initial funding allocations given to LEPs for discussion may change somewhat.
In Kirklees, the amount spent on social care has gone down in real terms by 15.7% since 2010, despite demand increasing with a rapidly ageing society. What steps are the Government taking to help local councils with the £1.9 billion funding gap in adult social care this year?
I welcome the hon. Lady to her place. We are taking the situation extremely seriously. We have enabled councils to raise additional funding through the adult social care precept—up to 2% on top of the council tax—and in a few weeks’ time, she will be able to see the allocation for the better care fund, which will come into effect in April 2017 for the next financial year.
That was a great question from my hon. Friend. The Greater London Authority will be launching its affordable housing programme tomorrow. It is worth reiterating what the Mayor has said, which the Secretary of State quoted:
“This is the largest sum of money ever secured by City Hall to deliver affordable housing.”
That is just the beginning, because last week the Chancellor announced another £1.4 billion, and London will get a share of that budget. That is a clear sign of the Government’s commitment to tackling our housing problems.
People who live close to recreational airfields such as Hibaldstow do not have the same protection from noise and nuisance as people who live near to similar recreational activities that involve staying on the ground. Will the Secretary of State have a look into this and see what can be done about it?
Provided that local plans have a five-year land supply, the expectation should be that planning applications are decided in accordance with those local plans, unless clear material considerations suggest otherwise. My message to my hon. Friend is to make sure that his local authority has a local plan in place with a five-year land supply.
The housing waiting lists that apply to my constituency have been growing for a long time. Can the Secretary of State answer earlier questions and tell us what proportion of the much-vaunted new houses will be rented, and what proportion will be for social rent?
What we have done with the affordable housing programme is to give complete flexibility, so I cannot give a specific answer, because it will depend on the bids that housing associations make from the programme. There is complete flexibility in relation to tenure. The Government have had a policy of focusing on affordable rent rather than social rent, because that allows us to deliver far more homes for a given level of public subsidy.
I know that my hon. Friend is a big fan of this deal. Devolution will support jobs in the west of England and many other parts of England. The next step for that deal is for the Government to seek the consent of all three councils involved for the parliamentary order, and we are well down the course with that. I congratulate my hon. Friend on supporting this transformative deal.
We are very proud of the right-to-buy policy, which gives ordinary working people the chance to buy their homes. Where I agree with the hon. Gentleman is that it is absolutely essential that we replace the affordable rented accommodation that is sold, and the Secretary of State and I are absolutely determined to make sure that that happens.
Will the Minister meet me and representatives from the Royal Marsden hospital, the Institute of Cancer Research at my local Epsom and St Helier University Hospitals NHS Trust and Sutton Council to see what more can be done to bring publicly owned land at the Sutton hospital site back into use to deliver a world-class London cancer hub providing 13,000 highly skilled jobs?
The increase in family homelessness has meant that more and more children are in unsuitable temporary accommodation in bed and breakfasts. When did any Minister in the Department last discuss with Education Ministers the impact of homelessness on children’s achievements, and what are they planning to do about it?
I can reassure the right hon. Lady by telling her that we have a ministerial working group that covers a multitude of different issues in relation to homelessness, and one of the Ministers around the table is from the Department for Education. I can also tell her that we are looking to change the way in which the temporary accommodation management fee works, which should lead to a far better situation in which local authorities can plan with regard to temporary accommodation to make sure that people are not in such accommodation for so long.
Over the years, planning has not taken enough notice of local and regional designs, so will Ministers get planning authorities to concentrate on that? A great garden village is being promoted at Cullompton—it has a water park and everything—which will be a very good design.
My hon. Friend makes the very important point that getting good-quality design is key to the acceptability of building more housing. I had the great privilege recently of meeting him and some of his constituents to talk about the contribution that neighbourhood planning can make towards achieving that goal.
Our countryside is not littered with advertising hoardings, unlike in other countries in Europe, because of the action taken by a Labour Government through the Town and Country Planning Act 1947. However, lots of farmers and other landowners are now circumventing the rules by parking great big lorries with hoardings by roads. What are the Government going to do to stop this?
Further to the excellent question asked by my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), the right to manage is a safety valve for leaseholders, but this complex legal issue often thwarts residents, so what more can the Minister do to share best practice and to advise frustrated residents?
Some excellent organisations already exist to provide advice to people dealing with these problems. I can, however, tell my hon. Friend that there is a clear sense on both sides of the House that this issue needs addressing. The Government intend to take action, and I am keen to discuss that with him.
We are appalled by the entirely preventable humanitarian catastrophe now taking place in eastern Aleppo and across other besieged areas in Syria. The UN Under-Secretary General, Stephen O’Brien, has described what is happening in Aleppo as an “annihilation”. Over the weekend, Syrian regime forces captured several opposition-held districts of Aleppo, potentially bisecting the besieged eastern part of the city, and there are reports of further advances today.
The regime’s two-week assault on Aleppo has been backed predominantly by Iranian and Shia militias. There have been unconfirmed reports of Russian airstrikes, but our understanding is that since airstrikes resumed a fortnight ago, the vast majority have been by the regime. During that time, hundreds have been killed and thousands more have been forced to flee. The last functioning hospital was put out of action on 19 November. Humanitarian access has been deliberately blocked by the regime and its allies for over four months now, leading to the 275,000 civilians in eastern Aleppo facing imminent starvation. Across the rest of Syria, there has been almost no progress in delivering the UN humanitarian plan for November. The latest UN plan to deliver humanitarian aid was agreed by armed opposition groups last week, but the regime is still blocking it. This is just the latest of many failed efforts.
I make it clear to Russia that using food as a weapon of war is a war crime. So, too, is attacking civilian infrastructure, such as hospitals and schools—another favoured tool of the regime and its backers. We call upon those with influence on the regime, especially Russia and Iran, to use that influence to end the devastating assault on eastern Aleppo and to ensure that the UN’s humanitarian plan can be implemented in full. As my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary said this morning, that requires an immediate ceasefire and access for impartial humanitarian actors to ensure the protection of vulnerable citizens fleeing the fighting. All those involved in the siege and assault on Aleppo have a responsibility to change course to protect civilians.
Addressing the dire situation in eastern Aleppo and the wider Syrian conflict is a priority for this Government. I spoke to Britain’s ambassador to the UN this morning to discuss what more we can do in the Security Council to bring diplomatic pressure to bear on the conflict. There can be no military solution to this conflict. What is needed is for the regime and its backers to return to diplomacy and negotiations on a political settlement, based on transition away from President Assad.
The Government stand ready to engage fully in discussions and offer whatever support we can in the quest for a political settlement, working in partnership with the international community, including Russia. We need to maintain international pressure to that end. That is why we are strong supporters of the recent EU effort to extend 28 new sanctions designations against the regime in October and November. In the meantime, we continue to work with our key partners to look at every option to alleviate the suffering of millions of Syrians, especially those in Aleppo.
For as long as the regime and its backers deny humanitarian access, whether by land or air, such options, I am afraid, are difficult to come by. By the same token, the real solution is straightforward: the Syrian regime must simply agree to allow UN aid agencies to access those in need. All that is needed is the decision from Damascus, nothing more.
Last week, I and the hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat) welcomed the head of the Syria Civil Defence force, the White Helmets, to Parliament. Raed Saleh told us of the terrible situation in Aleppo: the lack of food, the lack of medical supplies, and the constant bombing by Assad and the Russians. Since then, the situation has worsened. A renewed assault by Assad has recaptured a large part of the city, as the Minister described, forcing thousands to flee with just the clothes on their backs.
This morning, I was sent a statement from the White Helmets, which read:
“Dear Friends in Britain,
Aleppo is in a state of emergency. 279,000 people have been under siege for 94 days. In the last 13 days the Syrian Regime and Russia have launched more than 2,000 airstrikes and unleashed a variety of banned weapons…
We are calling on you, as the friends of the Syrian people to act. The Syrian Regime and Russia are refusing to let aid into the city so we are calling on you to airdrop aid to provide urgent relief to the starving civilians trapped…
We can not believe that one of the world’s most powerful countries, in the full glare of the media, will allow 279,000 people to be starved and bombed to death.”
My question is this: is the counsel of despair that we heard this morning from the Defence Secretary on the radio really all we have left? There is something we can do. We can airdrop aid into the besieged areas, as the White Helmets are calling for and as a cross-party letter signed by 126 Members of this House has demanded. I ask the Minister to respond to that letter to the Prime Minister here. We can renew the push in the UN for the creation of a humanitarian corridor to get help to civilians. Will the Minister confirm that he raised that in his conversations with our ambassador?
The Government have always said that airdrops are a last resort and I understand that, but Gareth Bayley, the UK special representative for Syria, has tweeted about Aleppo today, saying:
“Situation in #Aleppo could not be more dire: every hospital out of service; official food stocks run out; nowhere for civilians to run”.
He called Aleppo “a coffin”. Does the Minister agree that the Government need an urgent strategy to protect civilians? When hundreds of thousands of civilians are being starved and bombed into submission, we must consider airdrops. It is time for the last resort.
What Britain stands for on the world stage is being challenged. This is a test. There is no risk-free course of action left, but I believe there is a right course of action. Let us not stand and watch as one of the great cities of the world is destroyed. Let us not allow 100,000 children to starve in eastern Aleppo.
When Kosovo was under attack, Britain led the response. When people in Sierra Leone cried out for our help, Britain led the way. The people of Syria need us to show that leadership. Jo Cox said that our response to Syria would be “emblematic” of our generation, and “how history judges us”. Her words are ever more true today, so let us not fail.
First, may I say how grateful I am to the hon. Lady for her work in raising this matter in the House through urgent questions and by working with other colleagues as well?
I had the opportunity to meet the head of the White Helmets at the same time as the hon. Lady. He stressed his frustration that the west—indeed, the world—was not doing enough as we saw the annihilation of an historic city. It is a city that goes back to the sixth millennium. It is the financial centre of Syria, its largest city, and now condemned, almost, to ruin.
The hon. Lady touches on the letter, now with 126 signatories. I made it clear in my statement that we are looking at all options, but she must understand that, as has been repeated in this House, unilateral or even multilateral aid drops would place us in harm’s way, in what is already a complicated air environment. The question therefore has to be asked whether that is the best and safest way of getting aid to where we need it to go. We are not ruling out options, but we have to ask ourselves whether introducing British aircraft into that air environment would compound or improve matters, and whether there are other, safer ways of getting the aid in.
The hon. Lady also raises a larger point, namely what Britain and the international community are doing. She also mentioned the work of Jo Cox. We all agree in this House that Britain has the ability and the aspiration to play a significant role on the world stage. In August 2013 we had that opportunity and we blinked. We had an opportunity to hold Assad to account. As a result we have ended up with a situation where both Russia and Daesh have now come in. The question I pose to this House—
The question I pose to this House, and to the right hon. Lady who is screaming from her seat, is that, unless this Parliament gives the Executive the support we need, our hands are tied in terms of what we can do. I therefore turn to the Labour Front-Bench team, who I think are of a different opinion to some behind them, and say that Britain wants to engage on this, but five resolutions have been vetoed at the UN Security Council by Russia, so we need to look at other opportunities. We can do that only if we have the full support of this Parliament. I hope we will get that so the Executive can lean into this challenge in the way Jo Cox would expect.
The whole House will welcome the Minister’s unequivocal statement on behalf of the Government that Russia is committing war crimes in Aleppo and in Syria. The position in Aleppo is unclear today, but there are two things we can surely say. Will the Government put in their undoubted diplomatic efforts and bend every sinew to secure unfettered access for UN and humanitarian support? Secondly, will they also bend every sinew to secure a ceasefire, so that negotiations under UN auspices, through Staffan de Mistura, can begin?
I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend for engaging with this and doing his best to make sure that Parliament is up to date and involved in what is happening in Aleppo. He touches on the issue of war crimes. It is important to understand that it is unlikely that we will be able to hold the perpetrators to account today or tomorrow, but we will hold them to account in the months and years to come. We are keeping lists so as to understand who the military leaders are who are conducting the air attacks, no matter what country they come from, and all those participating in these crimes and supporting the Syrian regime must remember that their day in the international courts will come. We are collecting that evidence to make sure we can hold them to account.
On the important question of airdrops, the UN has tens of thousands of pieces of kit and material that it wishes to get into these areas, but it is being denied access by the Syrian regime. We cannot enter the regime’s airspace, or use its roads, without its permission. If we sought to do so without its permission, we would end up with exactly the situation we had on 19 September, when a UN-led convoy moved into Aleppo and was destroyed from the air by Russian aeroplanes.
Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting the urgent question from my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern). As she made clear, there is no more urgent situation in the world right now than the humanitarian crisis in east Aleppo. With no functioning hospitals to handle the mounting civilian casualties, food supplies exhausted and tens of thousands of people already facing starvation, we truly have reached the point of last resort, and the Government have previously made it clear what that should mean. The former Foreign Secretary said in June:
“While air drops are complex, costly and risky, they are…the last resort to relieve human suffering across many besieged areas.”
To be clear, nobody in the House underestimates the complexity and risks involved, but with no alternatives and thousands facing death if they do not get immediate supplies of food and medical equipment, these are risks that we must be prepared to take. Will the Minister take the urgent steps required today to agree a plan for airdrops by British planes with the UN and our international partners, as has been called for by the White Helmets, whose representatives I too met last week? The UN’s humanitarian adviser, Jan Egeland, was asked at the weekend what plan B was if Russia and Assad kept up their criminal assault on east Aleppo and continued to block supplies of aid by road. He said:
“Plan B is that people starve. And can we allow that to happen? No, we cannot”.
He is quite right, and I hope that the Minister will agree.
Britain’s humanitarian effort should be praised by everyone in the House. We are providing £2.3 billion—that makes us the second-largest donor— £23 million of which is going directly to UN organisations geared to making sure that the aid gets to where it is most urgently required. We are now debating the tactics of how to get the equipment into place, and the hon. Lady is advocating that British aeroplanes—Hercules aircraft or otherwise—go into Syrian airspace and make those drops.
They would be shot down, as my right hon. Friend says. I am not even aware that the UN has requested airdrops. I am not saying that they will be ruled out or who should do them. It may be that we can co-ordinate and make them happen. They are not being dismissed; I am simply telling the House that it is hugely complicated. I have been in the armed forces and involved in several airdrops, so I know that very often, when the drop zone is particularly small, the kit lands in the wrong place and goes to the very people we do not want to receive it. As I touched on before, the scale of the aid required means that an enormous number of sorties would have to be conducted; but with transport trucks, we could get the aid to the exact locations, if they are given the permissions. I am sorry to labour the point, but were we to conduct airstrikes, it would require Syrian support. If we can get that support, it is better that it be for the trucks, which could get through to the exact people requiring the aid.
I think my hon. Friend meant airdrops rather than airstrikes, but he is right that we can be proud of what we have done as a country for those who are in the camps surrounding Syria. Today’s urgent question is about those who are trapped in the most hideous situation in Aleppo.
What I believe Members are trying to convey to the Minister is that we regard this as possibly one of the most urgent issues in global politics today. We think this is an opportunity for the British Government to show leadership, to convene likely partners, to kick-start the peace process and the peace talks, while at the same time coming to the House with some concrete ideas about how we can alleviate the appalling, biblical suffering of the men, women and children in what remains of one of the great cities of Syria.
My right hon. Friend gives me licence to pay tribute to the neighbouring countries of Syria for the work they have done in taking on board literally millions of refugees—Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan in particular. One reason why we organised the Syrian support conference this year was to make sure that there were funds available so that those countries can look after those refugees, ensure that they are educated and have the health services they need and make sure that they can eventually move back to Syria once the guns fall silent.
My right hon. Friend talks about Britain wanting to do more. I hope that what I said earlier is not being misconstrued. My request is that I want and would like to, but we are at the will of Parliament when it comes to ensuring that it happens. [Interruption.] Opposition Members are shouting, but the Leader of the Opposition had five opportunities to vote on Syria, but we ended up not having the opportunity to check Daesh before it had been created and to hold Assad to account. We cannot afford to go down that road again. If there is appetite in this House, I absolutely welcome it.
Order. I entirely understand that passions are running high. It might help the House to know that I intend to call everyone, so there is no need for any hon. Member to speak from her seat, when she will have the opportunity to speak on her feet in due course.
Thank you, Mr Speaker.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern) on securing this urgent question and, indeed, on the work she has done to get cross-party support for calling on the UK Government to authorise the airdropping of aid. A quarter of a million people, including 100,000 children, have been trapped in deteriorating conditions in Aleppo’s eastern district since the summer. There are no functioning hospitals; there is no more food. Independent observers have estimated that yesterday alone, at least 219 civilians were killed.
I understand that finding a practical and political solution to this horrific, almost unimaginable situation is complex and challenging. I say to the Minister, however, that no practical challenge should be too tough and no political obstacles too insurmountable to do the right thing by these people whose suffering is growing day by day. Who could fail to be moved by the seven-year-old Bana al-Abed who was tweeting live from Aleppo, asking for help when bombs were falling on her. That is a serious call for help, and we must act. What discussions have taken place with Russia to demand that it sign up now to the agreement brokered by the UN to provide aid? What practical assistance has been offered by UK forces to support the delivery of aid?
On that last point, as I say, we are doing all our work through the UN agencies, which are best placed and neutral. There is an important difference in that if we start to act as a unilateral operator in this very difficult, complex and multi-sided environment, we could be seen and labelled as some form of antagonist by the Russians and, indeed, the Syrians. That is the main complication. Alternatively, we can do things neutrally through the United Nations and on a humanitarian ticket, which is why we are pushing forward our efforts and our funds to support the work of the UN.
The hon. Lady’s other point has been raised before, and I view it as well summarised by two pictures that I have used before in this House. The first is of Omran Daqneesh, the boy photographed after being bombed. He was alive and hon. Members may recall he was thrown in the back of an ambulance. The other stark image that reminds us of the hell of Syria is that of Alan Kurdi, the poor boy who was washed up on the Turkish beach. Is that the choice that we are leaving the people of Syria? I do not want that. I very much want us to do more, and I hope that—together—we will be able to achieve that.
I have organised airdrops in a benign environment. That is the ideal situation, because airdrops are not high but low, and aircraft carrying them out are very vulnerable. If the House wants airdrops to be carried out in a non-benign environment, it must expect our aircraft to be brought down. If that is the risk that this Parliament wishes to take, let it please, in future, vote for it—and everyone in the House should take responsibility for that vote when an RAF aircraft containing seven or eight people is brought to the ground and everyone is killed: that is the responsibility that the House will have to bear.
My hon. Friend, with the experience that he brings to the House, articulates the challenges that we face. We must work with the United Nations, and receive its advice on how best to get the aid in. I do not rule out the use of airdrops, but it must be a last resort when we are unable to get the trucks in by gaining permissions on the ground.
I think that, in truth, all of us in the House, and in the world, feel ashamed by the fact that we are unable to bring food and medical supplies to the 250,000 people who are trapped in eastern Aleppo, including, as we have heard, 100,000 children. They are in harm’s way today. I understand—we all understand—the difficulties involved in airdrops, such as the one raised by the hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart), but back in the summer—as we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry)—the then Foreign Secretary told the House that agreement had been reached for airdrops to be used if necessary. I simply say to the Minister that if this is not the last resort, given what is being reported every day, what on earth is?
I pay tribute to the right hon. Gentleman and the work that he has done in this regard, and I have listened carefully to what he has said. I spent some time discussing what we could do with Matthew Rycroft, head of the United Kingdom Mission to the United Nations in New York. Unless we have permission for aircraft to enter that space—not necessarily British aircraft; any aircraft—the dangers that those aircraft are likely to face will be considerable. We need to weigh up the options to ensure that we are content for those risks to be taken.
I have immense sympathy for my hon. Friend. The people of Syria could have had no better friend than him and the Government over the past few years, and I fully appreciate the difficulty in which he finds himself. Whatever we may have asked of the Prime Minister—I signed the letter as well—it is important for us to remember that the United Kingdom is not the perpetrator here and that we are seeking to do something good in very difficult circumstances.
May I follow up the question asked by the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn)? In May, the International Syria Support Group, which includes the United States and Russia, agreed that if by 1 June the United Nations had been denied humanitarian access to any of the designated besieged areas, it would call on the World Food Programme to immediately carry out a programme for air bridges and airdrops. If it was possible at that time, in those circumstances, for people to secure the agreement that my hon. Friend is seeking for airdrops, is it not possible—bearing in mind that we are at the last resort—to redouble those efforts to receive the permission that he, and those whom we would be asking to drop the food, require to proceed?
The work of the International Syria Support Group has been difficult, and has been tested. The most recent meeting took place at the United Nations General Assembly, and I attended that meeting with the Foreign Secretary. It was clear that Russia was starting to split away from its intent to provide support and to seek a political settlement, which had been the purpose of bringing the group together. Again, we are left with the problem of gaining the necessary permission for the aircraft. However, I will certainly consider what my right hon. Friend has said, and I will write to him with more details.
I have a lot of time for this Minister, but he should not rewrite the history of what happened in 2013. As one of the Labour MPs who did support action against Assad back then, may I gently point out to him that two of his colleagues who were recently Foreign Office Ministers, a former Secretary of State on his own Benches, the Labour Front-Bench team and Labour Back Benchers are all calling for the Government to bring something back to the House on airdrops, so why does he not just do it?
I will answer that in two parts. First, why do we not just do it? Because of the very challenging issues that we face. We do not have permission to send in aircraft. We saw what happened to the Russian aircraft that wandered into Turkish space. It is a volatile environment and we would need to gain the permissions at this point to make that happen. On the other part, I do not wish to antagonise the House and try to rewrite the history. It is as much the Government’s fault for failing to win across all parliamentarians. For me, that is the biggest error from our Government—we did not take with us Parliament itself. We collectively need to work together to ensure we are all up to date and, in that way, the Executive can be empowered to do such things, whether no-fly zones or airdrops. However, only with the will and support of Parliament can we make that move forward.
Yes. My understanding is that the absolute majority wish to return to Syria. That is their homeland, where they grew up and where they want to return to. That is one of the reasons why—this is debated regularly in the House—the amount of money that we spend in taking on refugees in this country, compared with the amount of money we pour into looking after refugees in the region, is not the same—we cannot offer the same support—but the same amount of money goes 20 times further per number of individuals. That is why we invest so much in supporting Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey. Those people want to stay in the region, where the language is similar and from where they can return as quickly as possible once the fighting stops.
The Minister knows that I respect him and I know that he wants to do more, but I have to say that for a Minister of the Crown to stand at the Dispatch Box and effectively read from a Kremlin press release in saying that any aid mission will be shot down is a poisonous and sickening counsel of despair. He has said that he wants parliamentary backing for us to do more—for a unilateral or multilateral mission. He has that, so why do the Government not have the courage of their convictions and make sure that this can be another Kosovo, rather than another Rwanda?
First, in Kosovo, we had troops on the ground. It was a very different situation there. We had control of the airspace—the environment was very different. I will check what I said in Hansard, but there is the possibility that a British aircraft could be shot down. [Interruption.] If I said anything near that, I correct myself and use this opportunity to say that we would be putting British air personnel in harm’s way. I hope that that is something with which the hon. Gentleman would concur. Therefore, it is a point that colleagues such as my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Armed Forces must consider when they make a recommendation to the Foreign Office on whether or not this is practical.
The Minister’s frustration is both palpable and entirely understandable. It goes back to the August 2013 vote. Times are somewhat changed. The parliamentary Labour party is perhaps of a different complexion and others have come into this Parliament since then. Would he think it sensible for the Foreign Office, the Ministry of Defence and 10 Downing Street perhaps to go away and come back in 10 to 14 days with a proposal to put before the House, so that this matter can be fully considered and debated—all the concerns that my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Armed Forces may have and the concerns that other people with military and other experience may have, which have been spoken about this afternoon—so that we can reach a single answer to what is a hugely complex problem?
I concur with my right hon. and learned Friend. It is important that we are able to move forward on this and be aware of the consequences of our doing nothing. I sit here with the briefings I receive and the responsibility I have as Minister for the middle east, and I am very conscious of the comments, the concerns and the anger expressed here today. We have to work with what is the art of the possible and what is the art of the legal as well, but the Foreign Office is looking at various options, and I hope we will be able to advance this, better understand it ourselves, and—dare I say it?—better understand and better educate the British public, so we take them with us, which was a concern back in 2013 as well. We were all haunted by what happened in Afghanistan and Iraq: was this another situation we were going to get sucked into? Things are different now, as my right hon. and learned Friend says, so, absolutely, we should move forward on that note.
The question of airdrops has been debated with our allies, the Americans, and is raised at the International Syria Support Group, and I raised it this morning with Matthew Rycroft, our UN head of mission, who is discussing it as our representative in New York.
My constituency predecessor, Stephen O’Brien, is head of the Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs and has been working hard to call out these war crimes for what they are. Can the Minister reassure me that British air assets—in particular, eye-in-the-sky assets—are being used to gather evidence that can then be available for the international war crimes tribunal, to make sure that, when these people are held to account, we have the evidence to prove it?