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?
I am happy to tell the hon. Gentleman that we have made an application and that it is now being considered by the European Commission. We hope to update Members as soon as we can.
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?
It is true that under the previous Labour Government, housing starts fell to their lowest level since the 1920s, and I can also confirm that the housing supply numbers for the latest year available are up by 9%.
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.”
The hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) must know something about these matters. He is an estate agent. Let us hear from him.
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.
The Sodbury chamber of commerce is starting a programme to help local businesses to use social media to promote the high street. What are the Government doing to support initiatives such as that being demonstrated so skilfully in Chipping Sodbury?
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.
It is obviously a very remarkable facility if it is situated in the high street; it certainly has to be acknowledged.
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?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. We must ensure that the kind of abuse he mentions is stamped out. We work with a number of stakeholders, and we will certainly see how we can do more.
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?
I share my hon. Friend’s determination that we have a plan-led system. It is vital that local authorities get plans in place, so I was delighted that Cornwall voted to adopt its local plan on 22 November.
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.
Before the review, we agreed a methodology with the industry through which the revaluations would take place, so that is why that mechanism is used.
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.
What will the Minister be doing to ensure that British-made ceramics—tiles and bricks—will be used for rural housing and, for that matter, for all housing?
That is a good question and I am happy to meet the hon. Lady to explore what opportunities exist, as she is a doughty champion for her area and for her industry.
Will my hon. Friend confirm that under the national planning policy framework, unmet housing need does not constitute an exceptional circumstance necessary to warrant building in the green belt?
That is a timely question. The answer is that the NPPF does not define what the exceptional circumstances are that should justify changing green belt boundaries. That is rightly a matter for local communities to decide on.
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?
It is absolutely appropriate that AONBs receive the protection they do in the planning process. I am more than happy to pass on my right hon. Friend’s question and concerns about the tunnel and the Chilterns to the Secretary of State for Transport.
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?
As I said in my previous answer, we are confident that a significant number of families have benefited from the programme, but the new programme will be subject to a more robust evaluation, particularly of its cost-effectiveness.
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.
I am loth to come between sisters, especially twins, but I call Angela Eagle.
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?
I call Maria Eagle.
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.
To speak with exemplary brevity, I feel sure, I call Mr Andrew Slaughter.
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?
The hon. Gentleman can now breathe.
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?
The Minister for Housing and Planning is very happy to meet the hon. Gentleman to discuss those issues.
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.
Will the new White Paper address the fact that under the Government’s flawed right-to-buy proposals, more socially rented houses are currently being sold than are being replaced?
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?
I would be very happy to meet my hon. Friend. I know he supports our accelerated construction programme on public land, which seeks to do just that.
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?
We have made sure that local authorities have the powers to take enforcement action in such places. As I said in response to an earlier question, we are determined to ensure that local authorities are properly resourced to take that enforcement action.
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.
(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will make a statement on the situation in Aleppo.
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—
What are you doing now?
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.
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.
Has any estimate been made of the willingness of refugees to return to Syria if the regime prevails?
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.
Since the critical final phase of the assault on Aleppo started, with which foreign Governments has the Minister discussed the feasibility of airdrops?
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?
My hon. Friend raises an important point. If she will allow me, I will not—especially with the Minister for the Armed Forces sitting next to me—go into the detail of how we are collecting that evidence, as that would probably be operationally unhelpful, but I will say that that is exactly what we are doing. But this may take some time; we are identifying those who are responsible, who are those in leadership positions who are giving the orders for these strikes to take place and for the siege of Aleppo to occur. We will hold these people to account.
I pay tribute to Stephen O’Brien, a former colleague in this House, who is doing a commendable job. We can all be very proud of the work he is doing to highlight the humanitarian plight in what is going on.
I was distressed by the implication in the Minister’s remarks that those of us who voted against airstrikes in Syria were somehow responsible for his decision not to put forward airdrops for aid. Frankly, at that point, we were not convinced that the balance of harms was being sorted in the right way. I think if he was today to call for a vote of this House, those who, like me, opposed military strikes on Syria would strongly support any action that can get humanitarian aid to those starving communities. I know that he is talking about this, but what is he actually going to do to get this aid to the people who are starving?
All actions should be taken through the UN, as it is the conduit that can be deemed as neutral by the Syrian regime and, indeed, by Russia. I hope the right hon. Lady will understand how our turning up and starting to do these airdrops ourselves would change the dynamics of our involvement in the air in a difficult terrain. That is not to say we do not rule it out; I am just saying that it is a more complicated scenario.
The UN does conduct its own airdrops—it has that capability; it has a facility to do so—but it only does that where it has the permission of the Syrian regime for those flights to take place. That is the important point.
On the right hon. Lady’s latter point, I am sorry that this Government did not do more to win people like her across. That was our failure as much as anybody else’s, and that, more than anything, is what we need to learn from what happened in August 2013.
As one of the Members of Parliament who has visited RAF Akrotiri and looked into the eyes of the C-130 crews who would be asked to carry out these missions, I think we should be careful to avoid making a “something must be done” response to a situation that shames humanity and that is on a par with Rwanda, Srebrenica and other events us that have shamed us collectively in the west. Learning from those events, could other actions be taken not only to hold Russia to account but to look at what really hurts that evil regime? London is full of people with connections to that regime who are doing business and educating their children in this country. They need to understand that they cannot behave with impunity and seek to enjoy the benefits that we all take for granted in this country.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s military experience. The role of the C-130 in conducting these airdrops would be exceedingly difficult. As I have said, we do not rule this out, but it would be a huge challenge. He asks what more can be done. At the heart of this is the role of Russia, which is pivotal in being able to exercise influence over Assad, to introduce a ceasefire and to allow access to humanitarian aid. Unfortunately, Russia has vetoed five United Nations Security Council resolutions, thereby preventing even the most basic humanitarian aid from getting through. The Canadians are now seeking to pursue a General Assembly vote, which, if not in an emergency session, would require half the votes. This would be tricky, however, because Russia would use its influence to prevent it from succeeding. We are collectively looking to see what could happen in this dire situation that is reminiscent of Rwanda and Srebrenica. If the UN machine is not working, we have to find ways of circumnavigating it.
Can the Minister confirm that the action taken in Kosovo did not have a UN Security Council resolution? Many of us called on William Hague, when he was Foreign Secretary in 2011 and 2012, to support no-fly zones similar to the ones John Major had established to protect the Kurds in Iraq. Is it not time for us all to recognise that we have allowed Russia to get into this position because we failed to act, not in 2013, but in 2011 and 2012, when Assad started murdering peaceful protesters? Is it not time to recognise that the UN Security Council is hamstrung and that we need to act, even without a Security Council resolution, to save hundreds of thousands of lives?
Following Rwanda, a new international initiative establishing a duty of care was agreed, under which the international community would not stand by when a leader chose to kill his own people. That agreement was introduced so that comments about acts of genocide and other phrases that came out at the time could no longer be used to justify the hesitancy of the international community to step forward. The hon. Gentleman is suggesting that we bypass certain legal processes to move forward. In Kosovo, we had troops on the ground and we had collective international, regional and local support. In Kurdistan, a UN resolution backed the action taken there. He has raised a profound question. Should we go into a situation to do the right thing, even though we do not have international legal cover because such cover has been vetoed by a P5 member at every opportunity?
I am sure that the Minister is right—for the reasons given by my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart)—to rule out unilateral action, but what did he mean by his attacks on the Labour Front Bench and on people like me who refused to support military action in Syria? What could possibly be achieved by more bombs falling on that benighted country? Surely, our priority should be peace. We should condemn violence wherever it comes from, including the terrible violence inflicted by the Assad regime and the attack on a school in western Aleppo, which has not been widely reported. I hope that the Minister will condemn that attack. If our priority is to strive for peace and end violence, we have to accept—whether we like it or not—that the appalling Assad and his Russian backers are going to stay. We must therefore drop our demand for them to go. We have to engage with everyone—Assad, the Russians, the Sunni rebels—to try to get peace, because that is what the people want.
My hon. Friend is familiar with the complex make-up of Syria today given all its history. Once we move forward from this situation, it is likely that there will be a federal model that recognises the country’s differences and groupings. We face a situation today in which Russia is backing and placing all its money on the existing regime. It has a connection and relationship that goes back to 1946, which needs to be honoured and reflected. I say to the Russians—to Bogdanov, to Lavrov and to Putin—that they should have that relationship with the people of Syria, not the Syrian regime. They should have a conversation with Dr Riyad Hijab, the co-ordinator of the free Syrian opposition, and then move forward from there, so that Russia can continue to have a sphere of influence without attaching itself to the tyrant that is President Assad.
Next week, Monzer Aqbiq of the Syria’s Tomorrow Movement should be in London. If the Minister has not already done so, will he undertake to meet him to discuss Syria’s future?
I would be more than happy to look at that if there is an opportunity to meet. I do make an effort to meet any representatives who come through Syria, including when I am in the region—for example, in Istanbul in Turkey, where the free Syrian opposition is based—to try to engage. I would be delighted to speak to the hon. Lady afterwards to discuss things further.
I, too, signed the letter in support of airdrops. As a former RAF serviceman, I fully appreciate the concern for our aircrews from not only the Minister, but my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart). Will the Minister tell us whether the Prime Minister had the opportunity to raise airdrops with Jens Stoltenberg, the Secretary-General of NATO, when he was at 10 Downing Street last week?
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend, who I think was involved in the air campaign in Kurdistan. He brings a huge amount of expertise to the Chamber. I am unaware of the details, but I know that Syria came up. I will write to him with more details of the conversation.
In the letter of the hon. Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern), whom I congratulate on her work on this issue, she points out that the Government said back in May:
“preparations for airdrops will now take place and go forward rapidly because there isn’t a moment to lose”.
The situation has worsened significantly since May, so I do not understand what has happened to that enthusiasm. More importantly, my constituents, and those of other Members, are appalled by what they see on the news and do not understand why there is not the same enthusiasm for airdrops as there was for bombing this time last year.
I do not want to get drawn into discussing the hon. Lady’s latter point, which is an unhelpful comparison. The will of the House has been made clear and the Executive are looking seriously at what we can do to support the concept of airdrops, but they involve all the dangers and caveats that have been discussed. We take the lead from the United Nations personnel who are on the ground. If we are to do this in a neutral manner, it must be done through the UN. If we step in and start doing things ourselves, our involvement in the Syria campaign will take on a very different perspective, for which we would need the permission and support of this House.
I share the concern of my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon) and point out that the airdrops that are being pushed by many in this House come with huge risks. Does the Minister, who is in a difficult situation, agree that if they are to be done unilaterally we would inevitably need aircraft to deliver, fighter cover above, and helicopters and special forces to pick crews up if they get downed and wounded? We risk the awful prospect of seeing our service personnel being dragged through the streets or killed in some horrific manner by people down there who are behaving like barbarians. Does the Minister agree that there is a lot of concern?
My hon. Friend and Dorset neighbour spells out some of the intricacies involved in airdrops. It is not simply about the Hercules transport or C-17 aircraft that would provide that; it is about the air cover required, the emergency operations in case the pilots have to bail out and the rescue missions that may have to take place. We are also left facing the stark challenge of hostages being taken. All those factors need to be taken into consideration, from an operational perspective, in deciding on the best method of getting our aid to where we want it to go. As I say, the UN conducts airdrops, but only when it has clear permission from the Syrian regime.
Putin’s standard modus operandi is the excessive use of force, as we saw in the Beslan massacre, in the siege of the Moscow theatre, in Chechnya, in Georgia and in Crimea, and as we now see in the complete obliteration of Aleppo. Is not the really worrying thing for the future, even beyond the situation in Syria, that the robust facing up to Putin, in so far as it has existed at all, is now fracturing? How are the Government going to make sure we maintain a steady, robust course?
The hon. Gentleman, who has huge experience and knowledge of Russia, spells out the challenge we face in getting the Russians to come to the table, recognising not only the leverage they can provide, but that there is not a threat in respect of Russia’s continued involvement and influence. He touches on some of the previous events that have taken place, but we could also look at what has happened in the Balkans and the Baltics, and prior to the iron curtain. The sphere of influence that Russia had was enormous. Every time one of these countries then moved forward and swung to the west, Russia lost that sphere of influence, and I believe at the heart of this issue is the fact that the Russians do not want to lose a maritime Mediterranean influence which is so critical to them.
I am sure the Minister will agree that the scenes in Aleppo of civilians being targeted and the use of starvation as a weapon of war bring echoes of some dark periods, particularly in the 1930s, which international law was supposed to try to stop. What lessons for the system of enforcement of international law can be taken from this dreadful situation?
We are looking very carefully at where international law is left after this experience in Aleppo and indeed across Syria. The UN in New York, the international body that builds alliances and that is designed to bring together states—192 of them—to solve the world’s problems, is now kyboshed because a single permanent member is able to veto absolutely everything. How we can circumnavigate that is a huge question for us to answer.
All of Aleppo’s hospitals are out of action, meaning that medics are having to amputate children’s limbs without anaesthetic and to deal with the victims of chemical attacks with just water and oxygen. The Minister asks whether there is a safer way to deliver aid, yet he knows that the Syrian regime has bombed the latest humanitarian convoy which went to the city in September. He knows that there will be no political solution while Assad and Putin think they can win the upper hand through military activity. The residents of Aleppo do not want to die and it is in our power to help them—if not now, when?
The hon. Lady, who has shadowed the Department for International Development portfolio and knows these issues well, mentions the 19 September convoy, and I have taken some notes on that. The convoy was approved by the Syrian Foreign Ministry and comprised trucks loaded by the Red Crescent, with enough equipment for 78,000 people. However, it came to a checkpoint, and the UN was told to leave the vehicles and Aleppo residents were told to jump in them. Russian drones were overhead following the convoy all the way until it got into Aleppo territory and then the aeroplanes came in and bombed every single truck. That happened with Syrian permission—it was with approval and they knew exactly what they were doing. I am afraid that this is the regime we are working on, which is why the challenge of looking after those people who are in harm’s way is so difficult indeed.
On a way forward in Syria and Aleppo, our key ally is the United States and its President-elect has said that Syria represents influence for Russia. If that view remains, and in line with our consistent view in challenging the Russian aggression, will we chart our own foreign policy position on Syria and the region?
As we come to the end of the current Administration, may I pay tribute to the work of John Kerry in trying to bring the various stakeholders and parties together? He has worked tirelessly to make that happen, and I am sorry that there has not been greater progress with the international Syria support group. We wait to see the strategy and approach of the new Administration. I simply say that we need to work closely with our international partners, not least America, to make sure that we can exert greater pressure and influence on Russia.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (Ms Ahmed-Sheikh) alluded to the words of seven-year-old Bana al-Abed, who said on Twitter last Sunday that her home in Aleppo had been bombed. She went on to say:
“Under heavy bombardments now—in between life and death. Please keep praying for us.”
The Minister will know that there are no fully functioning hospitals left in Aleppo and that food ran out in early November. What recent discussions has the Foreign Office had with the United Nations, the EU and other nations of good will about urgent humanitarian relief? Does the RAF not have a crucial and immediate role to play in easing this humanitarian disaster, albeit with the risks that that entails? Our prayers are not enough: it is time to act, and if the Minister did so, a large swathe of the House would be behind him.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I do not know whether he is speaking on behalf of all Scottish National party Members in his final phrase, but that would be very welcome indeed. The Prime Minister raised the issue of Syria at the last European Council, and our ambassador in New York is also engaged. Britain wants to make sure that it can keep up the pressure in trying to effect an avenue for the aid to get in. If that is not forthcoming, yes, we will have to look at other options.
People in Kettering, horrified by the news that 250,000 people in Aleppo effectively have no access to hospital care and face imminent famine, are conscious that that population is equivalent to two and half times the number of people in the borough of Kettering. To get a sense of the scale of humanitarian effort required, would the Minister tell the House how many Hercules aircraft, or how many trucks on the ground, would be required to supply the requisite needs of a population of 250,000?
That question is probably more for my counterpart in the Department for International Development, who can supply the details. It is an interesting comparison that needs to be made, but we anticipate that dozens of trucks need to go through daily to keep the people of Aleppo alive and supported.
I have a great deal of respect for the Minister, but I am disappointed that there was no statement from the Government today. Does he not believe that it would strengthen the Government’s hand on the world stage in negotiating on airdrops to have the will of Parliament, which should express its view on a Government motion?
If we are to move forward we need to work together. We need to take the British nation with us, and we need to work as a Parliament. I hear what the hon. Lady says. We need to make sure that we debate these matters more regularly so that people are prepared to recognise the danger in which we may be putting our service personnel, as well as the options available for us to lean further forward and get the result that we want.
The Minister has been candid in his reflections on the vote in the House in August 2013. What direct impact has that parliamentary vote had on policy thinking? If one of our planes is shot out of the sky, we have to be prepared to retaliate.
Without revisiting the question too much, I believe that collectively our inability to secure that vote before Russia moved into this sphere, before we even knew what the word “Daesh” meant, was a missed opportunity to hold Assad to account. For different reasons, we blinked, and Government need to learn what more we can do collectively to work together to make sure that we do not repeat that mistake.
In his initial answer to the urgent question, the Minister rightly labelled the bombing of hospitals and other acts as war crimes by the Syrian Government forces and Russia. With that in mind, what specific measures can the UK Government take with international partners to hold those responsible to account?
A motion was put forward with British support, if not with Britain leading on it, at the United Nations Security Council to slide the matter across to the International Criminal Court, and guess what? It was vetoed by Russia. We are collecting the necessary evidence to make it possible in due course—it may take some time, as I mentioned earlier—to hold to account in the longer term those who are perpetrating the damage and causing the atrocities.
The Minister set out in some detail the difficulties that he and his colleagues face in dealing with this very difficult situation, and I appreciate that. He said, however, that the Government were considering a number of options. Given that 100,000 children are on the point of starving and 250,000 people in total are enduring the conditions in Aleppo, will he undertake to come back to the House with a statement next week about the options that the Government are considering and set out what the Government propose to do? The situation is incredibly urgent.
I agree with what the hon. Lady says. It is important that we keep the House updated. I, the Foreign Secretary or the Secretary of State for International Development will endeavour to do that on a regular basis.
I thank the Minister for his statement. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, at least 225 civilians have been killed, including 27 children, since the latest assault started on 15 November. The Government must do all they can to assist those in Syria now. However, they must also do more to help those who have managed to flee the conflict. Will the Minister please commit to pushing his Cabinet colleagues to accept more refugees from that war-torn country?
I touched on that earlier. There is a choice: whether we look after refugees in this country—as we have done for the thousands that are coming this way—or we provide support in the region. The price of looking after one refugee in the UK equates to looking after around 20 refugees in the region. Different standards, absolutely, but I hope the hon. Lady recognises that with £2.3 billion-worth of support, we are playing our part in the region.
Like many colleagues, I pay tribute to all our armed forces in service around the world, and I know that no one in this House would ever put them in harm’s way unless there was no alternative. What alternatives is the Minister considering, such as drones or unmanned aircraft, to carry out airdrops? I can think of few other clear-cut humanitarian crises in my lifetime that deserve intervention by the British armed forces in order to save the lives of innocent children at risk from barrel bombs, chemical warfare and starvation.
We want to use our influence with our allies and others to work across not just the military aspect, if our military were used, to provide the necessary humanitarian relief, but in the diplomatic corridors to get a political solution. We are not looking at one particular area, but trying to work across the piece.
If my postbag and those of colleagues are anything to go by, there is huge public support for scaled-up humanitarian intervention, so what contingency plans are in place so that when or if permission for aid drops comes, they can begin immediately?
I hope the hon. Gentleman recognises that I will not be able to answer that. It is an operational decision as to how any form of airdrops might be conducted and it must be part of a wider package of humanitarian support for those people requiring aid. It is extremely complicated, so I hope the hon. Gentleman will understand that I am not able to give a direct answer to his question.
I voted against airstrikes in 2013, and I agree with the Minister about the need to deliver aid on the ground, not least because some of the aid that is needed is medical care—physical and mental—which can be delivered only in person. However, I signed the letter that was published this morning, because the people of Aleppo are suffering in the most acute circumstances, and it is no longer acceptable to me or my constituents to stand by. I echo the calls of my right hon. and hon. Friends for the Minister and his colleagues to bring a fully worked plan to the House at the earliest possible opportunity, explaining fully the risks so that hon. Members can take a fully informed decision about the issues we face. I am confident that that decision, reflecting the wishes of our constituents, will be to find a way to alleviate the terrible suffering in Aleppo at the earliest possible opportunity.
When we had a meeting, co-hosted by John Kerry and the Foreign Secretary, only a couple of weeks ago, John Kerry gave a press statement saying that he felt there was no appetite to do more, in a general capacity, in dealing with the situation in Aleppo. That was his observation, having not just visited the country but spoken with leaders across Europe. It is important that the debate that we are having here is also held in other capital cities, because that collective effort is what we need to effect change in what is going on in the country of Syria.
Everyone is rightly concentrating on the worst foreign aggressor, which is Russia, but the Minister’s opening remarks also mentioned Iranian influence. Given that the Iranian nuclear deal was all about bringing Iran back into the international fold, what are the UK Government doing to stop Iran’s influence in this humanitarian disaster?
There was a coincidence in the sense that the opening of our embassy—for different reasons, our embassy was closed— tied in with the signing of the joint comprehensive plan of action. There is much greater dialogue with Iran, so we are able to discuss these issues. Indeed, I spoke to the Iranian ambassador on Friday, covering a wide variety of issues. It is important that Iran is aware that, if it wants to take on a more responsible role in the international community—it has proxy relationships or interests in the region itself—it must advance the way it does business. This situation provides a great example: Iran could show the leadership which, at the moment, we are missing from Russia.
What conversations have the UK Government had with the US President-elect, who has a desired policy of rapprochement with Russia and the Assad regime? What consequences will it have for British policy if we have to act more unilaterally given the US President-elect’s current policy?
We are looking forward to the confirmation of the President-elect’s nomination for Secretary of State. When that appointment is made, I am sure we will be engaging to encourage America to be as involved in, and committed to, not just this issue in Syria but other challenges we face in the middle east.
The Minister has mentioned some of the difficulties in dealing with Russia and has pleaded with it from the Dispatch Box about the actions he would like it to take, but he has not answered the question my hon. Friend the Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (Ms Ahmed-Sheikh) posed earlier, so will he tell us what discussions have taken place with Russia to demand that it sign up to the agreement brokered by the UN to provide aid? What more can be done to get the talks back on track?
This is raised on a regular basis. It was raised by the Foreign Secretary with Foreign Minister Lavrov only last week. Russia has a pivotal role in turning the situation round and allowing access for humanitarian aid, allowing a cessation of hostilities—at least a 10-day ceasefire—and allowing political discussions to recommence.
Point of Order
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. You may be aware that over the weekend it was revealed that thousands of families with disabled children, including some in my constituency, have lost out by up £4,400 a year in tax credits after an administrative error by the Department for Work and Pensions as a result of the Department failing to inform Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs about families’ eligibility for the award over a three-year period. That has resulted in an estimated 28,000 families in which children qualified for disability living allowance during 2011 to 2014 missing out on an additional tax credit premium of between £60 and £84 a week. At last week’s autumn statement, the Government set aside £360 million over six years to ensure that families who were eligible for child disability tax credits could be awarded this money. However, the payments will be backdated only to April 2016, meaning that individual families may have lost out on an entitlement totalling up to £25,000 over the past five years.
Have you, Mr Speaker, had any indication from the Work and Pensions Secretary, or any other Minister, that they will come to this House and make a statement so that we can clarify the impact on our constituents? If not, could you give us any other guidance about how we might raise this issue in this House and scrutinise Ministers on it at the earliest opportunity?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her point of order and for her courtesy in offering me some advance notice of it. The short answer to the inquiry towards the end of her point of order as to whether I have received any indication of a likely ministerial statement on the matter is no. However, she has sought my advice more widely, and I am very happy to try to oblige. There is, I believe, a range of options open to her. Tomorrow we have oral Treasury questions when hon. Members may, if they wish, raise this matter with the Minister responsible for HMRC. I anticipate that a plentiful supply of colleagues will be in their places looking to do precisely that, doubtless including no less august a figure than the hon. Lady herself.
It is a little while until the next Work and Pensions questions—that is regrettable but it is a fact. However, there will be opportunities to seek debates in Westminster Hall on the matter, or alternatively end-of-day Adjournment debates in the Chamber—a matter in which, as the hon. Lady knows, I take a keen and ongoing interest—in December. Alternatively, she may wish to gather support for a bid to the Backbench Business Committee, with whose Chair she will be well familiar. I have no doubt that the hon. Lady will pursue one, or perhaps more than one, of those options with her usual persistence and vigour. I hope that this reply is helpful not only to her but to other Members in various parts of the House who feel very strongly about this matter.
Digital Economy Bill (Programme) (No. 3)
That the Order of 13 September (Digital Economy Bill (Programme)) be varied as follows.
1. Paragraphs 4 and 5 of the Order shall be omitted.
2. Proceedings on Consideration shall be taken in the order shown in the first column of the following Table and (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion at the times specified in the second column of the Table:
Proceedings Time for conclusion of proceedings New Clauses and new Schedules relating to Part 3 and safety responsibilities of internet websites; amendments to Part 3; new Clauses and new Schedules relating to Part 2; amendments to Part 2; new Clauses and new Schedules relating to Part 1; amendments to Part 1. Two hours after the commencement of proceedings on the motion for this order. New Clauses and new Schedules relating to Part 6; amendments to Part 6; new Clauses and new Schedules relating to Part 4; amendments to Part 4; new Clauses and new Schedules relating to Part 5; amendments to Part 5; new Clauses and new Schedules relating to Part 7; amendments to Part 7; remaining proceedings on Consideration. One hour before the moment of interruption.
Time for conclusion of proceedings
New Clauses and new Schedules relating to Part 3 and safety responsibilities of internet websites; amendments to Part 3; new Clauses and new Schedules relating to Part 2; amendments to Part 2; new Clauses and new Schedules relating to Part 1; amendments to Part 1.
Two hours after the commencement of proceedings on the motion for this order.
New Clauses and new Schedules relating to Part 6; amendments to Part 6; new Clauses and new Schedules relating to Part 4; amendments to Part 4; new Clauses and new Schedules relating to Part 5; amendments to Part 5; new Clauses and new Schedules relating to Part 7; amendments to Part 7; remaining proceedings on Consideration.
One hour before the moment of interruption.
3. Any proceedings in Legislative Grand Committee and Proceedings on Third Reading shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion at the moment of interruption.—(Matt Hancock.)
Digital Economy Bill
Consideration of Bill, as amended in the Public Bill Committee.
[Relevant documents: Oral evidence taken before the Culture, Media and Sport Committee on 15 November, on Ticket Abuse, HC 823; and Independent Review of Consumer Protection Measures concerning Online Secondary Ticketing Facilities, presented to Parliament pursuant to section 94(3) of the Consumer Rights Act 2015, May 2016.]
New Clause 28
Age-verification regulator’s power to direct internet service providers to block access to material
“(1) Where the age-verification regulator considers that a person (“the non-complying person”) is—
(a) contravening section15(1), or
(b) making prohibited material available on the internet to persons in the United Kingdom,
it may give a notice under this subsection to any internet service provider.
(2) The notice must—
(a) identify the non-complying person in such manner as the age-verification regulator considers appropriate;
(b) state which of paragraphs (a) and (b) of subsection (1) applies;
(c) require the internet service provider—
(i) to take steps specified in the notice, or
(ii) (if no such steps are specified) to put in place arrangements that appear to the provider to be appropriate,
so as to prevent persons in the United Kingdom from being able to access the offending material using the service it provides;
(d) provide such information as the regulator considers may assist the internet service provider in complying with any requirement imposed by the notice;
(e) provide information about the arrangements for appeals mentioned in section17(4)(d);
(f) provide such further particulars as the regulator considers appropriate.
(3) The steps that may be specified or arrangements that may be put in place under subsection (2)(c) include steps or arrangements that will or may also have the effect of preventing persons in the United Kingdom from being able to access material other than the offending material using the service provided by the internet service provider.
(4) The notice may require the internet service provider to provide information specified in the notice, in a manner specified in the notice, to persons in the United Kingdom who—
(a) attempt to access the offending material using the service provided by the provider, and
(b) are prevented from doing so as a result of steps taken, or arrangements put in place, by the provider pursuant to the notice.
(5) The notice may specify the time by which the internet service provider must have complied with any requirement imposed by the notice.
(6) The notice may be varied or revoked by a further notice under subsection (1).
(7) The age-verification regulator may publish, in whatever way it considers appropriate, a notice given under subsection (1).
(8) It is the duty of an internet service provider to comply with any requirement imposed on it by a notice under subsection (1).
(9) That duty is enforceable in civil proceedings by the age-verification regulator—
(a) for an injunction;
(b) for specific performance of a statutory duty under section 45 of the Court of Session Act 1988; or
(c) for any other appropriate relief or remedy.
(10) Before giving a notice to an internet service provider under subsection (1), the age-verification regulator must—
(a) inform the Secretary of State of its decision to do so, and
(b) give notice of that decision to the non-complying person under this subsection.
(11) A notice under subsection (10) (other than notice of a decision to revoke a notice under subsection (1)) must—
(a) where subsection (1)(a) applies—
(i) say why the regulator considers that the non-complying person is contravening section15(1), and
(ii) indicate what steps the regulator considers might be taken by the non-complying person to comply with that section;
(b) where subsection (1)(b) applies, say why the regulator considers that the offending material is prohibited material;
(c) indicate the circumstances in which the regulator may consider revoking the notice it has decided to give under subsection (1) and the manner in which the non-complying person may notify the regulator of steps taken to satisfy the regulator that the notice ought to be revoked;
(d) provide information about the arrangements for appeals mentioned in section17(4)(e).
(12) In this section—
“the offending material”, in relation to a non-complying person, means the material which the age-verification regulator considers is—
(a) being made available in contravention of section 15(1) by the non-complying person; or
(b) prohibited material which the non-complying person is making available on the internet to persons in the United Kingdom;
“prohibited material” has the meaning given in section 22(4).”—(Matt Hancock.)
This new clause enables the age-verification regulator to require internet service providers to prevent persons in the United Kingdom from being able to access material on the internet where it is being made available in contravention of clause 15(1) or is “prohibited material” as defined in clause 22.
Brought up, and read the First time.
I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.
With this it will be convenient to discuss Government new clause 29—On-demand programme services: specially restricted material.
New clause 1—Power to require the blocking of access to pornographic material by internet service providers—
“(1) Where the age-verification regulator determines that a person has made pornographic material available on a commercial basis on the internet to persons in the United Kingdom—
(a) in contravention of section 15(1), and
(b) the person has been the subject of a financial penalty or enforcement notice under section 20 and the contravention has not ceased,
the age-verification regulator may issue a notice to internet service providers requiring them to prevent access to the pornographic material that is provided by the non-complying person.
(2) A notice under subsection (1) must—
(a) identify the non-complying person in such manner as the age verification regulator considers appropriate;
(b) provide such further particulars as the age-verification regulator considers appropriate.
(3) When the age-verification regulator gives notice under this section, it must inform the non-complying person, by notice, that it has done so.
(4) An internet service provider who fails to comply with a requirement imposed by subsection (1) commits an offence, subject to subsection (5).
(5) No offence is committed under subsection (4) if the internet service provider took all reasonable steps and exercised all due diligence to ensure that the requirement would be complied with.
(6) An internet service provider guilty of an offence under subsection (4) is liable, on summary conviction, to a fine.
(7) In this section “internet service provider” has the same meaning as in section 124N of the Communications Act 2003 (interpretation).”
This new clause gives a power to the age-verification regulator to require internet service providers to block pornography websites that do not offer age-verification.
New clause 3—Safety responsibilities of social media sites—
“(1) This section applies to a person who operates an internet site for commercial purposes which requires a user to create a personal account to fully access the internet site.
(2) A person under subsection (1) must—
(a) undertake and publish an online safety impact assessment in respect of their account holders,
(b) inform the police if they become aware of any threat on its internet site to physically harm an individual,
(c) remove any posts made on its internet site that are deemed to be violent or that could incite violence.”
New clause 10—Internet pornography: requirement to teach age requirement and risks as part of sex education—
“After section 403(1A)(b) of the Education Act 1996, add—
“(c) they learn about the risks and dangers of internet pornography, and the legal age requirement to access internet pornography under Part 3 of the Digital Economy Act 2017.””
This new clause would mean that the Secretary of State would have to include in guidance to maintained schools that pupils learn as part of sex education the risks and dangers of internet pornography and the legal age requirement to access it, as provided for under Part 3.
New clause 13—Code of practice for commercial social media platform providers on online abuse—
“(1) The relevant Minister must issue a code of practice about the responsibilities of commercial social media platform providers in dealing with online abuse.
(2) The code of practice must include guidance on—
(a) how a commercial social media platform providers shall respond to cases of a person being victim of online abuse on its internet site;
(b) quality service standards expected of the commercial social media platform providers in determining, assessing, and responding to cases of online abuse; and
(c) the setting and enforcement of privacy settings of persons aged 17 or under, where deemed appropriate.
(3) A commercial social media platform providers must comply with the code of practice.
(4) The relevant Minister may from time to time revise and re-issue the code of practice.
(5) As soon as is reasonably practicable after issuing or reissuing the code of practice the relevant Minister must lay, or arrange for the laying of, a copy of it before—
(b) the Scottish Parliament,
(c) the National Assembly for Wales, and
(d) the Northern Ireland Assembly.
(6) In this section “commercial social media platform providers” means a person who operates an internet site on a commercial basis on which people can interact.”
New clause 32—Approval of Age-verification providers—
“(1) Age-verification providers must be approved by the age-verification regulator.
(2) In this section an “age-verification provider” means a person who appears to the age-verification regulator to provide, in the course of a business, a service used by a person to ensure that pornographic material is not normally accessible by persons under the age of 18.
(3) The age-verification regulator must publish a code of practice to be approved by the Secretary of State and laid before Parliament.
(4) The code will include provisions to ensure that age-verification providers—
(a) perform a Data Protection Impact Assessment and make this publicly available,
(b) take full and appropriate measures to ensure the accuracy, security and confidentiality of the data of their users,
(c) minimise the processing of personal information to that which is necessary for the purposes of age-verification,
(d) do not disclose the identity of individuals verifying their age to persons making pornography available on the internet,
(e) take full and appropriate measures to ensure that their services do not enable persons making pornography available on the internet to identify users of their sites or services across differing sites or services,
(f) do not create security risks for third parties or adversely impact security systems or cyber security,
(g) comply with a set standard of accuracy in verifying the age of users.
(5) Age-verification Providers must comply with the code of practice.
(6) To the extent that a term of a contract purports to prevent or restrict the doing of any act required to comply with the Code, that term is unenforceable.”
Amendment 27, in clause 15, page 18, line 7, after “material” insert “or adult material”.
This amendment and amendments 28, 29, 30, 31, 32, 33 and 34 would require all providers of internet content which is not suitable for children to put in place a robust age-verification system. In the offline world, children are not allowed to view material which the BBFC has classified to be only suitable for adults. This amendment ensures that these restrictions apply equally to the online world.
Amendment 28, page 18, line 11, after “material” insert “or adult material”.
See explanatory statement for amendment 27.
Amendment 29, page 18, line 18, after “material” insert “or adult material”.
See explanatory statement for amendment 27.
Amendment 30, page 18, line 24, after “material” insert “or adult material”.
See explanatory statement for amendment 27.
Amendment 2, page 18, line 36, at end insert—
“(7) The Secretary of State must make regulations to ensure that the definition of specially restricted material in section 368E(5) of the Communications Act 2003 is amended to reflect the definitions in this Part.”
The amendment requires the making of regulations to ensure that there is a parity of protection for children using different online media. The regulations would amend the definition of specially restricted material for UK based video on demand programming and extend it to 18 material as well as R18 material.
Amendment 31, in clause 16, page 19, line 17, at end insert—
“16 (1A) In this Part “adult material” means any of the following—
(a) a video work in respect of which the video works authority has issued an 18 certificate;
(b) any other material if it is reasonable to assume from its nature that any classification certificate issued for a video work including it would be an 18 certificate; and
(c) any other material if it is reasonable to assume that the video works authority would determine that a video work including it was not suitable for a classification certificate to be issued in respect of it.”
See explanatory statement for amendment 27.
Government amendments 35 and 36.
Amendment 32, in clause 19, page 21, line 9, after “material” insert “or adult material”.
See explanatory statement for amendment 27.
Amendment 1, in clause 20, page 22, line 26, at end insert—
“(13) Where a person is—
(a) based in a country outside the United Kingdom, and
(b) refusing to comply with the requirements of the age-verification regulator, the age-verification regulator shall notify Ofcom that the relevant person is refusing to comply with its requirements.
(14) Following a notification made under subsection (13), Ofcom shall direct internet service providers in the United Kingdom to block public access to the material made available by the person on the internet.
(15) An internet service provider that fails to comply with subsection (14) within a reasonable period would be subject to financial penalties imposed by the age-verification regulator under section 21.”
Amendment 33, in clause 22, page 24, line 33, after first “material” insert “, adult material,”.
See explanatory statement for amendment 27.
Government amendment 37.
Amendment 34, in clause 23, page 25, line 5, after first “material” insert “, adult material,”.
See explanatory statement for amendment 27.
Government amendments 38 to 42.
New clause 7—Bill limits for all mobile phone contracts—
“(1) A telecommunications service provider supplying a contract relating to a hand-held mobile telephone must, at the time of entering into such a contract, allow the end-user the opportunity to place a financial cap on the monthly bill under that contract.
(2) A telecommunications service provider under subsection (1) must not begin to supply a contracted service to an end-user unless the end-user has either—
(a) requested the monthly cap be put in place and agreed the amount of that cap, or
(b) decided, on a durable medium, not to put a monthly cap in place.
(3) The end-user should bear no cost for the supply of any service above the cap if the provider has—
(a) failed to impose a cap agreed under subsection (2)(a);
(b) introduce, or amend, a cap following the end-user’s instructions under subsection (2)(b); or
(c) removed the cap without the end-user’s instructions or has removed it without obtaining the consumer’s express consent on a durable medium under subsection (2).”
New clause 14—Impact assessment of macro not-spot roaming—
“(1) Within three months of this Act coming into force, the Secretary of State must commission an impact assessment of enabling a system of macro not-spot roaming in the UK, and shall lay the report of the impact assessment before each House of Parliament.
(2) In this section “macro not-spot roaming” means the ability for hand-held mobile telephone users based in relatively large areas of non or partial broadband coverage to access coverage from networks other than their own.”
This new clause calls for an impact assessment of macro not-spot roaming in the UK, in line with the recommendations of the British Infrastructure Group report on mobile coverage.
New clause 20—Ability of end-user to cancel telephone contract in event of lack of signal at residence—
“A telecommunications service provider must allow an end-user to cancel a contract relating to a hand-held mobile telephone if, at any point during the contract term, the mobile telephones is consistently unable to obtain a signal when located at the end-user’s main residence.”
New clause 21—Use of emergency serve network wireless telegraphy infrastructure by multiple network providers—
“After section 8(4) of the Wireless Telegraphy Act 2006, insert—
“(4A) A licence issued in respect of a wireless telegraphy station or apparatus that is used for the purposes of emergency service network shall stipulate that more than one network provider can use the station or apparatus.””
New clause 22—OFCOM power to enforce structural separation of BT Openreach—
“After section 49C of the Communications Act 2003 insert—
“(49D) OFCOM has the power to enforce the structural separation of BT Openreach, should OFCOM consider this necessary.””
New clause 25—Ability of end-user to cancel mobile telephone contract in event of lack of signal at residence and place of employment—
“A telecommunications service provider must allow an end-user to cancel a contract relating to a hand-held mobile device if, at any point during the contract term, the mobile device is consistently unable to obtain a signal when located at the end user’s main residence or main place of employment.”
New clause 26—Wireless telegraphy licences and medical or hearing technology—
“After section 14(4) of the Wireless Telegraphy Act 2006, insert—
“(4A) Before granting a wireless telegraphy licence, Ofcom shall carry out tests to identify the risk of any interference with any medical or hearing technology and publish its findings.
(4B) Ofcom shall not grant a licence if tests carried out under section 14(4A) have found there is a risk of interference with medical or hearing technology unless—
(a) action is taken to eliminate the risk; or
(b) a fund is set up to meet the costs of replacing all medical or hearing technology affected by the interference.
(4C) Where a fund is set up under section 14(4B), Ofcom shall require that any person who is granted a licence takes action to inform its customers of the risk that its devices may lead to interference with medical or hearing technology.””
This new clause would place a duty on Ofcom to carry out tests in advance of the sale of radio frequencies to ensure that any interference identified with medical or hearing devices is made public. Where a risk of interference is identified, Ofcom shall not grant a wireless telegraphy licence unless action is taken to remove the risk of interference or a fund established to cover the cost of replacing medical or hearing technology affected. This new clause is supported by the National Deaf Children’s Society.
New clause 27—Introduction of broadband connection voucher scheme as alternative to universal service order provision—
“The Secretary of State shall introduce a broadband connection voucher scheme to allow an end-user to access broadband other than that supplied by the provider of the universal service order, under Part 2 of the Communications Act 2003.”
Although most individuals are likely to choose the standard universal service order offering, this new clause would provide individuals with the option of a voucher scheme that empowers them to take up an alternative solution.
Government amendments 23 and 24.
The Digital Economy Bill will help to connect modern Britain, support the digital economy and keep people safe online. The measures in this group are about strengthening the enforcement of protections for children, improving access to online media, and addressing consumer protection in telecoms. I will take in turn those three sub-groups of your excellent grouping, Mr Speaker.
Turning first to child protection, I am delighted by the cross-party support for delivering the Conservative manifesto commitment to require age verification to access online pornography. During the Bill’s passage through the House, my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Claire Perry), who is in the Chamber, ably supported by my hon. Friend the Member for North West Hampshire (Kit Malthouse), has led debate about this by powerfully expressing the view that the enforcement proposed in the Bill is not strong enough—she is right. We have listened to the case that she and others have made. They have advanced the argument that some companies, especially those based overseas, simply will not abide by the law that is enacted by this House, so it is clear that there is a case to direct a UK internet service provider to prevent access.
We all want the internet to be free, but freedom operates within a framework of social responsibility, norms and the law. The approach set out in Government new clause 28 will protect the freedom of adults to watch pornography online, but provide adequate protections by giving children the same sorts of safeguards online as they have offline. We have worked closely with the industry and I am confident that it will take a responsible position. I therefore envisage the regulator needing to use this power only sparingly, because the vast majority of companies will want to obey the law. We will work through the technical detail with the regulator—it is expected to be the British Board of Film Classification—and others to understand the broader implications and make the new system work as we take the proposals through the other place.
We have been persuaded of another argument that was made powerfully on Second Reading. The provisions we have discussed today will see children protected by one of the most robust and sophisticated regimes globally but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce)—I see her in her place—has said, supported by my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) and the hon. Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson), the protections have resulted in a disparity between UK-based on-demand services on the one hand, and overseas-based on-demand services and online commercial providers of pornography on the other. We have carefully considered that and concluded that we do not want disparate regimes. Government new clause 29 will ensure that children are protected from pornographic content from wherever it is derived. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton for making her case; I believe that we will have a stronger system as a result.
New clause 3 proposes a legal requirement to undertake an online safety impact assessment. I understand the intent behind the new clause, but I think that the measure is unnecessary, because leading social media companies already report on their online safety practices voluntarily as part of the safety framework of the ICT Coalition. We work closely with social media companies to ensure that they take down content that is violent or that incites violence, and to flag terrorist-related content. The system is important and is working well. Since 2010, we have secured the voluntary removal of more than 220,000 pieces of content. A requirement for a safety assessment is likely to be difficult to apply in practice because of the extraterritorial organisations that are involved in this space, and it would be almost impossible to target individuals who run small online websites for commercial purposes.
I am grateful to the Minister for agreeing to amend the Bill in this important area. As he is addressing the responsibility of social media sites, what action is he thinking of taking to prevent what happened recently, when Facebook refused to give the police information that it had relating to a missing child?
It is incredibly important to get the framework that operates in that sort of space right, as is the case for terrorist material and child protection online. The system that we have in place—it is essentially non-statutory, although it is underpinned by online and offline offences—is working well. Social media organisations’ collaboration with the police and others is incredibly important, and I urge them to collaborate with the police whenever they are asked to do so. We have taken the view that the effective and rigorous enforcement of rules relating to age verification is an important step to get that system up and running. The system is working well, with 220,000 take-downs since 2010, so we want to leave it in place. In all such instances, there might be difficult individual cases, but overall the system is, on the whole, working effectively. That is why we have taken different approaches for the two different areas.
New clause 10 would introduce some very specific requirements around online education. I maintain that the measure is not necessary, because e-safety is already covered at all stages in the new computing curriculum that was introduced in September 2014. From primary school, children are taught how to use technology safely, respectfully and responsibly, how to keep personal information private, how to recognise acceptable and unacceptable behaviour, and how to report a range of concerns. As hon. Members will see, we care deeply about protecting children online both through direct rules for the internet and through education. The new clause is not necessary, and I worry that putting in place a more static system would risk making the task at hand harder.
When it comes to broader protection, we expect social media and interactive services to have in place robust processes that can quickly address inappropriate content and abusive behaviour on their sites. It would be difficult to make the sort of statutory code of practice proposed in new clause 13 work, as there is not a one-size-fits-all solution. The way in which to deal properly with inappropriate content and abuse will vary by service and by incident. Technological considerations might differ by platform as innovation changes the way in which the internet operates. Legislating in this area is difficult because of the pace of change, and users will benefit most if companies develop a bespoke approach for reporting tools and in-house processes. Existing arrangements and the action taken by social media companies provide the best approach to tackling this problem.
Will the Minister tell us which companies and sectors already have a code of practice in place? How he is monitoring whether such codes of practice are being brought up to date?
We are working on codes of practice in a series of different areas. About 10 days ago, as my right hon. Friend will have seen, Twitter—one of the main players in this space—brought forward work towards a code of practice on online abuse. There is more to do in this area, but it is better that we have codes of practice that the organisations themselves can buy into and that can change with the times as the usage of social media changes. My goodness, we all know how social media changes over time—not always in a good way—so we need to make sure that we keep pace with that. I worry that putting something static into legislation would get into the way of such efforts. However, I agree with my right hon. Friend that it is incumbent on social media companies to play their part in establishing and rigorously enforcing norms and social responsibility in this area if we decide not to go down, or not yet to go down, the legislative route.
I quite understand that the Minister wants buy-in from the commercial social media platform providers. In response to the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller), he sketched out a position that appears to be that there is no actual code of practice, but that codes are being developed. Perhaps I misunderstood the Minister because I thought he had said before the right hon. Lady’s intervention that codes of practice are in place and working well.
I will quickly mention the changing circumstances. The Minister is quite right that this is a fast-changing world. Subsection (4) of new clause 13 states:
“The relevant Minister may from time to time revise and re-issue the code of practice”,
so the very flexibility that he is praying in aid would be delivered by the new clause.
Let me be clear: when I said that there are codes of practice, I was talking about taking down online terrorist and child abuse material, on which there have been clear codes of practice for a number of years. Regarding social abuse online, we are working with the companies involved to make further progress.
The Minister is being very generous in giving way. He mentioned the computing curriculum, which I assume relates only to England. What discussions has he had with the devolved nations about these issues?
The Government have had significant discussions with the devolved nations on these questions. They, of course, treat these questions differently—there is a different system in Scotland and Wales, and in Northern Ireland in fact—and it is a matter for them. The hon. Gentleman is quite right that the response I gave about the computing curriculum is a matter for England, although most of the Bill involves UK matters. I am very happy to clear up that point.
The Public Bill Committee considered the subject matter of new clause 32, which calls for the regulator to approve age-verification providers and to publish a code of practice with which the providers must comply. As I said in Committee, such a measure is not necessary because clause 15 requires the regulator to publish guidance about the types of arrangements it will treat as being in compliance. That may include the characteristics of age-verification controls that would be considered acceptable. I have been made aware of a number of proposed technical solutions for age-verification controls during the passage of the Bill. Clause 15 already takes into account the need for guidance in that area.
The Minister will be aware that such age verification will inevitably require the companies concerned to hold a lot of data. What assurances can he give the House that those data will not be liable to being hacked, as happened in the Ashley Madison case?
That is incredibly important. We will come on to the data protection provisions later, but this whole area operates within the scope of the Data Protection Act 1998, which provides for very strong safeguards that are set to get stronger. The Government have said that we will opt in to the forthcoming general data protection regulation, which includes stronger enforcement measures than the current Data Protection Act. All the data measures in the Bill, and all the consequences of the age-verification process, will be covered by the Data Protection Act, which has a very broad consensus of support behind it and has operated effectively over a number of years. That means that companies are responsible for the security of their data, including their cyber-security.
Will the data therefore be held in an anonymised form that will not allow the people who have provided them to be identified, should the data be stolen? The best security in the world can still be breached?
It will be a requirement that the data are held in such a way that they are secure and not made available. It is a common principle across swathes of life that data must be held safely. The Data Protection Act is in place to make sure that that happens.
Returning to new clause 32, it is likely that a requirement on the regulator to approve providers would be unnecessarily restrictive. However, I understand of course the need to ensure that the age-verification process is of high quality.
As I have stressed, these measures are part of a broader effort to protect children online. For instance, parental control filters are an important tool to protect children from harmful online material. They were introduced by industry after the efforts of my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes in the previous Parliament. In Committee, we discussed the concern that EU net neutrality regulations will render such controls, which have worked well, illegal. I am clear that our interpretation of the EU regulations is that filters are allowed when they can be turned off, as they are therefore a matter of user choice. I know that there is still uncertainty about this matter, as well as concerns that filters could be challenged. I am happy to confirm to the House that, to put this issue beyond doubt, we will table an amendment in the other place to the effect that providers may offer such filters.
Amendments 27 to 34 have been tabled by my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller), the former Secretary of State. The introduction of a new law requiring appropriate age-verification measures for online pornography is a bold step involving many challenges. It represents the first stage in ensuring that commercial providers of pornographic material are rightly held responsible for what they provide and profit from. While the internet brings incredible and unlimited opportunities, it has the potential to change the way in which younger generations grow up to understand and experience healthy relationships.
Delivering on our manifesto commitment to stop children and young people from accessing online pornographic sites remains our priority, and we want to get that right. I believe that the provisions in the Bill will enable us to do that. Our measures will protect children from exposure to material that is clearly inappropriate for them and that would be harmful to their development. Of course, pornography is not the only online content that may be harmful to children, but AV controls are part, not all, of the approach to protect children from possibly harmful content online.
The inclusion of other adult material within the scope of the Bill, as proposed in amendment 27, might not be the most effective way to address these issues. Most importantly, we must be careful to take a proportionate approach to ensure the success of our proposals. I assure my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke that we will continue to work to make sure that we take all action necessary on all fronts where children are at risk of harm. I look forward to continuing discussions with her and others. I believe our approach is a targeted and effective way of protecting children from accessing or stumbling across the pornographic material that is most readily available and potentially harmful, and that the Bill fulfils our manifesto commitment.
My right hon. Friend will be aware that one means by which young people are, more and more, accessing pornography is social media and sites such as Twitter. How will his age verification requirements apply to Twitter?
The age verification requirements apply to the commercial provision of pornography. That is not only the paid-for but that which is provided for a commercial return. There is a difference between websites that provide commercial pornography and platforms on which others can upload images. Getting this right with regard to that second group is much harder than it is with regard to the first. We are therefore proposing to put forward the measures in the Bill to deal with the larger swathe or mainstay of the problem, get them working properly and then see how they are working.
I appreciate that there is a big challenge in stopping those who really want to access porn online, but all the evidence suggests that children’s first interaction is often by accident. We are legislating to prevent as much as possible of that inadvertent viewing by those who are not desperately actively seeking to do so. I appreciate that the Bill is not a utopia, but it is a very important step forward. I hope my right hon. Friend will accept that.
The Minister is being very generous with his time. Is it not fair to say that four years ago providers such as Twitter told us it was impossible to take down visual images of children being sexually abused, but now, as he says, there is quite rightly a code of practice in place? Surely where there is a will there is a way. He has already proved that he can make significant progress, so should he not put more pressure on organisations like Twitter?
Yes is the short answer. The Bill does so, and we will best achieve that pressure by delivering on its proposals and then working with the platforms on the issue of platform-based pornography, because that is a much more difficult technical nut to crack.
The Minister has spent more time in the past few weeks thinking about children and pornography than I am sure he wanted to. The Bill deals with the publication of pornography, but we also need to help children to be more resilient and understand that those images are not normal sexual behaviour and are the kind of violence that should not be part of relationships, because research by the NSPCC and others tells us that children, and boys in particular, think it is normal. What discussions has he had with the Department for Education to try to build greater resilience among children to some of the images that, despite the efforts in the Bill, they will see?
I agree with every word of the right hon. Lady’s intervention—both the first part and the second. Yes, working with the DFE is incredibly important in building resilience and actively ensuring that people’s health through relationships is taught effectively. The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport and I have both been in discussions with the DFE on that point. That said, the right hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) makes an important point about the broader circumstances that should be taken into consideration, as well as the clarity in the amendment, which I hope she welcomes.
Turning to mobile phone contracts—a bit of a shift—new clause 7 seeks to place a mandatory obligation on mobile phone service providers to agree with the customer at the time of their entering into a contract a financial cap on their monthly bill. Since the new clause was first tabled in Committee, we have had further contact with mobile network operators, and providers already offer consumers ways to manage their usage: apps that allow customers to turn financial caps on and off, warning text messages when customers are approaching their allowance limits, dedicated phone numbers that tell the customer their usage, and online tools that explain how much data is needed to carry out different online activities. I expect providers to continue to take steps to minimise bill shock and ensure that their customers are sufficiently equipped to manage their usage, but I am sure that the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh) will agree that legislation is not currently necessary, although the movement in this direction is.
On new clause 14, I understand the frustrations of people whose mobile experience does not live up to their expectations, but while roaming appears to offer a quick fix, it risks doing more harm than good, because it could undermine the incentive for operators to invest in new infrastructure. This is particularly damaging in areas with no coverage from any provider at all. There is no incentive to invest capital in a new mast if operators can by law simply piggyback off others’ investment. The Government considered roaming in 2014, but for the above reasons it was rejected in favour of licence conditions to drive increased coverage by all mobile operators.
That agreement locked in £5 billion of investment to deliver improved coverage across the UK, and we now have 4G coverage to 97.8% of UK premises. I can confirm that this is happening: a mast was turned on just last weekend in my own constituency, and coverage on the road to Newmarket from my house is now better than it ever has been—so I have seen it for myself. The House will also have seen the recent announcements from mobile providers that they are expanding coverage to meet their 90% landmass requirements, which they must now meet under the contracts in their licence agreements. The Bill strengthens the fines they face if they miss those agreements. Of course, however, we want further improvements. Last week, new planning laws came into force to allow taller masts, and we are reforming the electronic communications code in the Bill to help operators to extend their networks, making mast-sharing easier and infrastructure deployment cheaper. These reforms have been widely welcomed by industry, and Ofcom will hold providers to account for the delivery of wider geographic coverage.
New clauses 20 and 25 seek to place mandatory obligations on mobile phone service providers to allow an end user to terminate their contract upon their being unable to obtain a mobile signal at their main residence or main place of employment. Existing consumer protections are already in place, while the automatic compensation measures in clause 3 strengthen Ofcom’s powers to require automatic compensation when there is a complete failure to provide a contracted service. I think that the ability to break a contract when one’s signal is not good enough at home is already dealt with, as contracts purchased at distance can be cancelled under the statutory 14-day cooling-off period, while for “in shop” purchases there is often a “check your coverage” cooling-off period for the first two weeks after sign up. Some providers also offer extended periods to ensure that the service meets needs, with the option of cancellation without penalty.
Does my right hon. Friend accept that this must be the only product that someone can buy and end up not being able to use? People do not just move house during the first 14 days of a contract; it can happen at any time during the two years of a contract. Will he look again at this?
I want to tackle this problem primarily by achieving universal mobile phone coverage for UK properties, and we are on track to hit 98%. By comparison, the universal broadcasting service requires 98.5%. We are getting to the point where we have near-universal service, but that is not necessarily good enough. With the forthcoming Green Paper on consumers and markets in mind, I propose to work with my right hon. Friend to make sure that it addresses the issues of concern, so that we ensure that consumers get a good deal from their mobile phone contracts and that those contracts will work.
I hear all these statistics about the level of coverage there is meant to be here, there and everywhere, but they never seem to match the reality on the ground or in the living room or in the shop. I live in the town of Porth in the Rhondda, and through the main street almost right through the town there is