Wednesday 8 February 2017
[Mrs Cheryl Gillan in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered low cost housing.
It is good to have you looking after us this morning, Mrs Gillan. It is also good to see the departmental Whip in her place—she is a fully-fledged Minister in her own right anyway. As a former Whip, I feel it is always good to see a Whip temporarily released from the office’s vow of omerta and allowed to show their knowledge of the area they cover for the Whips Office.
Housing, whether rent or mortgage payments, is probably the single biggest monthly bill that most of us face and because we have not, as a country, built enough new houses for decades, no matter who has been in Government, the costs have been getting steadily steeper. The result is less living space, longer commutes, less cash left over at the end of each month for other things and, overall, a lower quality of life for all of us. We need to increase the number of new homes that are built and yesterday’s welcome White Paper contains some important steps towards that goal. Most important, from my point of view, were the ideas to make it easier to build up, not out, in urban areas—greater housing density, in the jargon.
Anyone walking around most British town centres, passing train stations or high street shops, should look upwards. The chances are that they will mostly see fresh air—skyline. British towns and cities are some of the most low-rise in Europe, which seems bonkers for a country that is also one of the most crowded. Much of this is self-inflicted. For many Brits taller buildings create instant mental images of 1960s brutalist concrete tower blocks on sink estates—the backdrops for gritty dramas of social decay from left-wing film auteurs. This mental trope has had some real-world consequences for the country too because it means that we are, as a society, instinctively resistant to anyone who proposes building upwards. So let me sing a fierce anthem of praise for taller buildings—not necessarily brutalist tower blocks, although they have their admirers, but for elegant, well-proportioned apartment blocks and terraces where the design stands the test of time.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way and apologise for interrupting him as he gets to the chorus of his eloquent speech. He talks about the need to build upwards. Does he agree—he has alluded to the ’60s-style connotations that building upwards has for many people—that we need to have planning forethought in terms of what buildings will be like in 20 or 30 years’ time so that we do not repeat the mistakes of the 1950s and 1960s?
That is absolutely right. There are some people who, from a purely aesthetic point of view, love brutalist concrete architecture and rather more who dislike it a lot. For most of the rest of us, one of the crucial tests is not merely the aesthetics but whether this stuff remains liveable, not only in the first few years after it is built but over many generations. Another is whether it is therefore acceptable to the rest of the community. It is not just a question of what somewhere is like to live in as a location; it also has an impact on other people as they walk past.
As the hon. Gentleman said, it depends on how the design stands the test of time. There are places such as four or five-storey Regency terraces and Victorian town houses, which people still want to live in and walk past a century or two after they were built, or their slightly taller and more modern equivalents, which provide trendy new city centre living space for young professionals or well-designed retirement homes for older folk. We do not need to be scared of these buildings. One of the densest urban areas in Britain is Kensington and Chelsea, which is hardly a byword for inner-city decay. Elegant continental cities such as Paris and Madrid are far denser than almost anywhere in Britain too.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way; he is giving a very powerful speech so I am loth to interrupt him. He mentioned the international comparisons and Kensington and Chelsea, but I think he is missing the suburbs. I represent a suburban seat. He said that housing is the single biggest bill, but it is also the single biggest issue in surgeries. I had a candidate stand against me as a “no to tall buildings” person. His slogan was, “We want to be living in Acton, not in Manhattan.” Has the hon. Gentleman had similar experiences as a constituency MP? People just do not like these buildings; they crowd out light and are not in keeping with the suburban landscape.
The hon. Lady just gave a classic example of this instinctive British fear. I have discovered that in general if people see a beautiful building that is well-designed and moderately, but not too enormously, tall—Manhattan being an example of where things are incredibly tall—many of those concerns are greatly reduced. The taller something is the more impact it has on everybody else for miles and miles around and therefore the greater care we have to take. There is a middle ground that I will talk about in a minute, which will provide us with a great deal of building and housing opportunity to reduce the cost of housing without having to make everywhere look like Manhattan, if I can put it that way.
The hon. Lady’s intervention leads me to say that we need to throw off these mental shackles—these 50-year-old emotional architectural scars—and instead count the blessings of building up, not out.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for bringing forward this important issue of how we better utilise our space. He will know—I am sure this is the case in his constituency, as it is in mine—that people have the opportunity to live above shops. That is a special scheme brought in by local councils and local departments and is a way of utilising the space that is there. Does he agree that that is one method for addressing the issue of low-cost housing?
That is a very good example—a classic example—of the kind of thing we need to look at. Many British high streets are two storeys, or perhaps three storeys, tall. Not only are those upper storeys lightly used, and in some cases unused, but there are two or three further storeys of fresh air above them that could be developed into housing as well. The crucial point that was made yesterday in the White Paper, but has been more broadly accepted for years, is that the only way to bring down the overall cost of housing in this country is by increasing the supply. We have to make sure that more of this stuff is built and finding those right, convenient locations near social and physical infrastructure is crucial. I will expand on that point a little more in a minute, but the hon. Gentleman has touched on a particularly good example.
I was about to number the blessings of building up, not out and I shall now carry on doing so. First, it will attract much needed new investment to regenerate and save tired or rundown town and city centres, bringing fresh life, a broader mix of businesses and longer trading hours to high streets that—as the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) mentioned—are suffering under the twin attack of out-of-town shopping centres and online retailers.
Secondly, building up, not out could help break the stranglehold of large house building firms over the number of new homes that are built. Those firms tend to focus on larger sites, whether greenfield or in towns, and rarely pick up smaller plots where an individual bungalow or two-storey shop could be redeveloped into four or even eight smart new apartments on the same site. By releasing lots of overlooked smaller urban plots we can create a fast-growing cadre of insurgent new developers, adding much needed new capacity and competition to the sector and its supply chains and speeding up the too comfortable, cosily slow rate at which the big firms currently convert their land banks and planning permissions into completed homes.
Thirdly, building up, not out will reduce urban sprawl by cutting the pressure from builders to concrete over green fields and green belts at the edges of towns and villages across the country. Given the strain and pressure on our green spaces, they should be our last building resort, not our first. Fourthly, it will cut commuting by allowing people to live closer to work, shops and other community hubs from libraries to GP surgeries. The reductions in emissions, and the effects on both our quality of life and the wider environment, will be very significant indeed.
Finally, building up, not out would release huge numbers of new urban house building sites to solve the housing shortage. As the Secretary of State said yesterday in his new White Paper, the only way to make homes more affordable for everybody is to build a lot more of them. Whether we are talking about renting or buying, the basic laws of price and demand mean that the prices will never stabilise, much less fall, unless the supply of housing increases dramatically.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. He is making very good points, and I agree with him about the Government’s welcome White Paper yesterday on improving the housing supply. Does he agree that one of the challenges can sometimes be the fairly entrenched, long-held concerns that people raise locally about higher properties? Incentives are needed in the system to encourage local authorities to give planning consents if we are going to overcome some of the problems.
I agree with my hon. Friend for two reasons. When taller buildings excite the kind of Manhattan-ish concerns that we just heard about from the hon. Member for Ealing Central and Acton (Dr Huq), there clearly has to be careful consideration and community buy-in, because they have such a profound, wide-scale impact on local views and local infrastructure. Smaller and more modest proposals—I will talk about those in more detail in a minute—are much more absorbable and go much more with the grain of local things, so they may well not need a huge number of extra permissions and incentives, beyond the fact that they provide an opportunity for individual landowners to make a contribution and perhaps to increase the value of their particular site. I will expand on that, and perhaps if my hon. Friend the Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter) is not completely convinced, he will intervene later.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on obtaining the debate. I am glad to hear that he is talking about building up rather than out, given that in the past we have built on the green belt, destroying our environment. Does he agree that no matter what form of building there is, it is vital that the infrastructure is correct, because we have faced major problems in our cities from flooding over the past few years?
I absolutely agree. One advantage of building up rather than out in existing urban environments is that an awful lot of infrastructure is in place anyway. Less brand-new infrastructure needs to be constructed as a result. Other problems come from building in urban environments—for example, existing infrastructure may be put under strain and need to be expanded in some way—but flood defences are a good example of where the effects are perfectly scalable. When a flood defence wall has been built, an awful lot more can be built behind it. The flood defence wall does not need to be upgraded just because more has been built behind it, even though it may need to be upgraded when it wears out in 50 years’ time. I thank the hon. Gentleman for that very good example.
As I was saying, prices will never stabilise, still less fall, unless the supply of housing increases dramatically. Cheaper homes are one of the cheapest, simplest, most effective ways of raising living standards for everyone and, by making our available cash go further, of improving the country’s economic productivity.
In the 1970s and ’80s, our towns and cities were places without an economic purpose. Their industrial manufacturing centres were dead, social problems multiplied as jobs dried up and people left in droves. But now, urban living in towns and cities is fashionable again, because, even in our highly connected, distance-defying online world, it turns out that there is huge value in people clustering together. Ideas flow more freely; skills and knowledge too. Firms in similar sectors create clusters that feed off their neighbours’ energy, hire each other’s staff and drive each other on. Building up, not out helps those things to happen more easily, so more wealth can be created. It is greener and cheaper, and it makes us richer and improves our quality of life, so clearly, the idea’s time has come.
To their eternal credit, I think the Government get that. The new White Paper has much to say about developing smaller sites of half a hectare or less, and subdividing large sites so that smaller developers can get in on the act as well. Local development orders and area-wide design codes, which streamline planning permission if people want to build particular pre-approved types or styles of property in a specified area, make a strong showing too. There is a range of new permitted development rights, which allow everyone from hospitals to brownfield site owners to build without all the red tape, heartache and uncertainty of getting planning permission.
From a design point of view, I completely get the hon. Gentleman’s argument, but how would he inject affordability? The rate in London has been at up to 80% of market rates, and units in high-rise buildings in my constituency seem to be bought off-plan by people at property fairs in Singapore and by Russian oligarchs—the lights are always off—so how would he make that link and build affordability in?
The hon. Lady tempts me into a slightly wider area of discussion than the one I was focusing on. However, my broad point at least is that we will not be able to make all housing more affordable, whether that is for those on lower or middle incomes, unless we dramatically increase the supply of new homes of whatever tenure—whether we are talking about homes for rent or for buying. Only by doing that over the longer term will we manage to reduce the cost of housing for everybody at all income levels. The hon. Lady might like to propose some additional measures and, if so, I am sure that she will make some remarks later to turbo-charge some other opportunities for those on lower incomes as well. However, as a starting point and a fundamental, we are kidding ourselves if we think we can get away without increasing the overall level of new homes that are being created in the first place.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. One aspect concerns me slightly about the London model: is there not a risk that people being allowed to build upwards will lead to the creation of single town houses that have become much larger, therefore creating half-a-million-pound houses rather than low-cost housing, which is the thrust of the argument?
If demand is unsatisfied in any part of the housing market—whether at the top or bottom end—that will spill across. If people are looking for a particular size of house—if their family is growing and they need a three-bedroom house as opposed to a two-bedroom house—and they cannot find one, the demand will spill over into other areas of the housing market. Demand will drive up price, no matter what, and that will knock on through to other areas of the housing market. The hon. Gentleman is right that there are hotspots in the housing market—geographically and in terms of kinds and sizes of house and tenures—where this problem is particularly acute, but we cannot afford to be that choosy. We need to build an awful lot more of all kinds of houses if we are to reduce prices. Some of the hotspots may well apply to people on lower incomes and, at that point, we should be doing something about it, but that should not be to the exclusion of everything else; otherwise the knock-on effects will still be felt throughout the tenure range.
With what I have said in mind, I would like to take up the offer in the White Paper and make a formal submission to the consultation that the Minister launched yesterday. I want to make a concrete proposal—please forgive the pun—for a new permitted development right to add to the suite that the Government suggested. The right would allow small-scale additions to town and city centre properties when the final result is still below the treeline or other buildings in the same block. Converting existing shops or offices would still require planning permission, but building new apartments within those height limits above them, or above existing housing, would not. It would not apply to substantial new buildings or major developments, nor to listed heritage buildings or conservation zones.
That measure is safe, sensible and proportionate and should not scare anyone—certainly not those worried about Manhattan-style buildings. It would offer a little piece of freedom from the cold and clammy hand of bureaucracy: a chance for every householder to help solve the nation’s housing problems by extending the size, and value, of their property by adding extra bedrooms or perhaps an entire apartment on top of what is there already. It would provide an opportunity for energy and ideas to have their head, without being diverted, amended or discouraged by official objections, rooted in the very British fear of any building that is taller than two storeys high.
Without the measure, officialdom will be too slow to change. They will not be forced to look upwards, and will carry on thinking the same way as they have for the last 50 years. We need change immediately, not at some distant future time. Without a shock—a stimulus—and some creative development yeast, the White Paper’s dough will never rise. Many valuable town and city centre sites will continue to be ignored.
The new permitted development right could be that stimulus—that little piece of freedom. It could be a creative spark that lights the blue touch paper of Britain’s stodgy, slow-paced, cosily comfortable housing market so that it takes off like a rocket. It would improve our economy and our quality of life, make our homes more affordable and reduce development pressure on greenfield and green belt sites. I hope the Minister will agree.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Gillan. As a Back Bencher, it is certainly unusual for me to be second in the speaking order.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose) on securing the debate. He has campaigned on this issue and raised it in Parliament before, so it is clearly something that he is keen to see progress. I agree in principle with much of what he said about ensuring vibrancy in main streets at night. If that can be done by building upwards above shops, that is a good thing, but in the long run we really need to be careful. I have already touched on my concerns that the proposal might open the door for the construction of large town houses without delivering low-cost housing, which is the thrust of this debate. I am also slightly concerned that there may be a rush by too many people to do it. We need to ensure that the right controls are in place, including building standards and building controls, and that the processes can be inspected. Clearly some low-rise buildings were only ever designed to be low-rise buildings, even though they may be adjacent to higher buildings.
I fully accept that. I know that is the premise; I am just saying that we need to ensure that the resources are there to keep an eye on things. We have heard stories about properties in London getting built in the rear of gardens and so on, which is done without planning consent or building standards consent. It is a question of ensuring that procedures are properly followed. Foundations need to be checked and may need to be strengthened, and buildings that are structurally tied to adjoining buildings need proper structural design. I recognise the hon. Gentleman’s good point about controls, listed buildings and exemptions, and I agree that a controlled method of allowing building up can work.
Let me return to low-cost housing, which is the title of this debate. We need to do more to make low-cost housing available. I welcome the UK Government’s White Paper, but neither I nor my party think it goes far enough. As was raised yesterday, the elephant in the room for low-cost housing is the right-to-buy model. In the long run, the extended right-to-buy model for social housing will eat into the availability of low-cost housing. Subsidies from the public sector to allow people to buy properties use money that could otherwise be going directly into stimulating housing growth or be put towards brownfield development. Members have raised concerns about building outwards and eating into the green belt. Clearly brownfield regeneration is a good thing, especially in the urban environment. The money being taken out of the system for right to buy could be put to better use, either directly for building new social housing or for stimulating new brownfield development.
By ending right to buy, the Scottish Government have protected 15,500 properties that would otherwise have been sold from stock. Quite often, houses that are sold end up in the buy-to-let market, which pushes rents up because social rents are always cheaper than private rents, and that has an impact on the housing benefit bill. Again, that means more money from the public purse that could otherwise be going towards housing.
The Scottish Government are making a record investment in council house building. I request that the UK Government consider going back to that model and funding the construction of public housing. Because there is no right to buy for housing in Scotland, housing associations have more confidence to build housing. They can also get subsidies from the Scottish Government. The Scottish Government delivered 30,000 affordable homes in the last Parliament and have a target of 50,000 for this Parliament.
I recognise that the White Paper targets affordable homes, but the argument goes full circle: for the UK Government to deliver affordable homes, they need to put public money to the best possible use, not subsidise the purchase of properties for people who already have one and who do not need a discount to become a homeowner. I know that a lot of people have aspirations to become homeowners, but the No. 1 thing is to ensure that there are enough homes for everybody. We can look to further drive home ownership once there are enough homes for everybody, but once that happens the market will even out and we will not see the continued push on prices.
The hon. Gentleman said that there would be controls on listed buildings. My other concern is that we would need tight controls on the aesthetics of buildings to ensure that they blended in with the surrounding environment. Where there are permitted development rights rather than planning controls, there still need to be tight guidelines.
May I press the hon. Gentleman a little on that point? I take his point with respect to areas that have a homogeneous architectural style and that therefore have conservation of one kind or another, but not areas that have no such homogeneous style and no conservation control or anything like it. Most British cities are a hotch-potch of things built over several centuries, and that is fine. I am concerned that he is trying to create a sort of clammy bureaucratic control where historically there has been none and everyone has been happy with the outcome.
I take the hon. Gentleman’s point. Perhaps, as always, the truth is somewhere in the middle. However, I would have real concerns if people were just able to throw up these buildings. There could be real issues with the materials used, with long-term maintenance and with the aesthetics of buildings. For instance, if people use the wrong materials for wood fascias and do not maintain them, they become a real eyesore in the long run. I am just putting that out there; I think those issues should be considered within permitted development rights. Local areas might not have a completely homogeneous style; as he says, cities may have developed as a hotch-potch, but that is not always an attractive look, and if we do not watch out, it can become even less attractive. Clearly that is not the desire behind the hon. Gentleman’s proposal, but I conclude by congratulating him on advancing it.
It is an honour to serve under you again, Ms Gillan. I thank the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose) for securing the debate.
I wondered whether there had been a mix-up by the Chairman of Ways and Means, who decides on these debates, but knowing him and understanding the process as I now do, I know that that is not possible. Hon. Members may have attended this debate and people may have watched it in anticipation of a debate on low-cost housing, perhaps hoping to hear some more detail about the White Paper that the Government released yesterday or some more meat put on the bones of the essential topic of low-cost housing. Instead, this debate has been about a small proposal to tweak the planning system.
I will address the proposal from the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare in a moment, but first I will address low-cost housing, which is the topic of the debate and is what I expected to be speaking on. Of course the overall supply of housing—which the hon. Gentleman states it is the intention of his policy to address—is important, because we have a shortage of housing in this country, as the Secretary of State said yesterday. In a pure supply and demand curve, one expects more supply to mean lower cost, and the obverse—shortage of supply—means higher cost, which is exactly what has happened in the open market; so housing becomes more and more unaffordable for more and more people.
That has happened in the last seven years. Under David Cameron, the UK built fewer homes than under any peacetime Prime Minister since 1923. The number of home-owning households rose by a million under the 1997 to 2010 Government, but it has fallen by 200,000 since 2010, and this shortage has meant that the price of buying has risen and risen, putting homes out of the reach of even well-paid young people. Members here today may have watched “Newsnight” last night, in which there were reasonably well-paid young professionals who could not get on the housing ladder. In my constituency in west London, working people earning reasonable salaries cannot even afford to rent, and if they can just about pay more than 50% of their income on rent, they have no money left to save up for a deposit. The market is not delivering affordable homes to rent or to buy, except in some economically deprived areas, where there are more homes than there are people who want to live in them.
In most of England, because house prices have risen, more and more people need some kind of subsidised low-cost housing. Since 2010, however, Government funding for all types of affordable housing—there were eight definitions of affordable housing in the White Paper—has been withdrawn, except for one, which is for first-time buyers. The level of new affordable house building has still managed to hit a 24-year low. The number of shared ownership homes and other low-cost home ownership homes being built annually has fallen by 66% since 2010, to just 7,540 homes a year, meaning that 34,170 fewer affordable homes have been built since 2010 than in the last six years of the last Labour Government. The hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown) clearly described the problems—and the potential solutions—of delivering truly affordable low-cost housing.
For social rented housing, official statistics show that the number of social rented homes that were started in 2009-10 was almost 40,000, but in 2015-16 the number of social rented homes being delivered was less than 1,000—a fall of 98% and the lowest figure since records began.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey) said yesterday in the main Chamber that private house builders, housing associations and councils need to fire on all cylinders to build the homes that we need, and councils need to be allowed to build homes again to meet the needs of local people. At the moment, they are not allowed to do that.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend and constituency neighbour for giving way. I agree with what she is saying, that this “Pile ’em high, sell ’em cheap and leave it to market forces” solution does not sound like it is enough. When it is left to market forces, in a place such as Ealing, people seem to use these high-rise homes that are going up as a very expensive piggybank; they are not even living in them. Obviously we need more social housing to counteract all this.
My hon. Friend and constituency neighbour is absolutely right. I have experienced that in my own constituency. We still have newly built homes that are never let, because they are seen as nothing more than an investment, and many of them are very high in price.
As I have said, the latest affordable housing statistics have fallen to their lowest levels in 24 years. Of course I welcome any credible initiatives to provide low-cost housing, but where is the evidence that this well-meaning initiative to extend permitted development rights, which the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare has discussed today, will actually deliver low-cost housing?
Between February and April in 2016, the Government consulted jointly with the Mayor of London on proposals to deliver more homes in London by allowing a limited number of additional storeys on existing buildings through a permitted development right, local development orders or development plan policies, which is exactly what the hon. Gentleman is seeking. That was part of the Government’s commitment to explore how more homes could be built on brownfield land, in order to reduce the pressure on greenfield or metropolitan open land. The Government summary of the responses that they received to that proposal says:
“More than half of those were not supportive of the proposal, with a one-size-fits-all permitted development right approach considered unworkable. While it was noted that it could support town centres and deliver more homes, it was recognised that the complex prior approval that would be required to protect neighbours and the character and amenity of an area would result in a permitted development right that is no less onerous than a planning application.”
Specifically, a couple of the consultees—the Planning Officers Society and Historic England—did not support the proposals. I am well aware that the British Property Federation welcomed them.
I just wish to clarify something for the hon. Lady. I have read the document she is quoting and learned of the concerns surrounding the proposed permitted development right, which has been consulted on already, but my proposal is different. It starts from the same place, but is designed to avoid the criticisms that were levelled, which she has rightly pointed out. I have endeavoured to modify my proposal in a way that will allow it to sidestep those issues.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that clarification. Nevertheless, with any consideration of extending permitted development rights, there are always unintended consequences. That is why the Planning Officers Society, Historic England and other organisations did not see the merit of, and therefore did not make the case for, extending them. In fact, it was not only permitted development rights that were considered, but other methods.
As I say, the British Property Federation welcomed the proposal for an extension to permitted development rights, but even the BPF said that
“it is unlikely to deliver a significant amount of new homes”,
which, as the hon. Gentleman said in his speech, is one of his key aims.
What are the reasons to retain the status quo, which is what I am suggesting? Proposals to develop upwards can go through the planning application process. What is wrong with that? A planning application provides notification, consultation, transparency and accountability, whereas extending permitted development rights does not. If any proposal to build higher makes sense in a town or village centre; if it works with neighbouring buildings; if the space standards and design provide good quality housing in which people will thrive, it should be granted planning permission. However, to deny a community or a parish council the ability to comment, to deny planning officers the ability to negotiate improvements to a proposal, and to deny locally elected councillors the opportunity to determine the application would just open the gates to unpopular, unwanted and possibly bad developments.
If a local council makes a bad planning decision—possibly in the face of fierce local opposition to an application—there is always the opportunity to appeal to the impartial Planning Inspectorate. Nobody denies that enabling more homes to be built in a town or village centre is a good thing for the life and vibrancy of that place.
I certainly agree with the hon. Lady’s sentiment. However, is it not very difficult for the types of people my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose) has spoken about today—people who want to carry out small extensions or build small buildings—to bring the sorts of planning appeals that she just talked about? Sometimes bad decisions are made because around the time of elections, planning issues can become very contentious in local authorities.
Having been a councillor myself for many, many years, I am well aware of that pressure, which is why we have the appeals system—it is why we have that check and balance. Let us remember that one can only get away with refusing a planning application if the refusal is made on good planning grounds. Officers are there to advise councillors, and if councillors ignore officers, the application will go to appeal, and, if it is a good application that was refused for the wrong reasons, the Planning Inspectorate will overturn the refusal and the application will be granted.
The planning system is there for a reason. It is there to protect communities and ensure good development. It ensures that there are appropriate facilities, amenities, space standards, parking provision and so on. When permitted development rights are extended, a lot of that is lost. I am sure that the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare does not want to see a load of high-rise buildings going up that do not meet basic standards and do not provide a basic quality of life for the people living in those dwellings and in surrounding dwellings.
I repeat that I am not proposing huge high-rise dwellings at all; I am proposing things that can be built up to the height of the local treeline, for example, which is four or five storeys at the most. I gently say to the hon. Lady that if the planning system works so bleedin’ brilliantly, we would have four or five-storey developments in market towns and seaside towns around the country, but we do not. I doubt very strongly that that is because communities everywhere have roundly decided that they cannot live with anything taller than two storeys. I suspect that it is because there is a chilling effect. People are being discouraged from putting such applications in because of officialdom knocking them back all the time.
With the greatest respect to the hon. Gentleman, I believe he was in the same meeting as me last week, where we talked about converting empty space above flats into residential. In that interesting and informative roundtable, we heard that there is a whole host of barriers to converting empty space above shops, and the same applies to the proposal to increase heights. The planning system was not suggested as the main barrier. There are other barriers, such as structural ones, security ones, issues of funding and whether it is worth the cost. Except in very high-price property areas, such as those that my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing Central and Acton (Dr Huq) and I represent, it is just not worth landowners’ while to do it. There is a range of barriers.
No one denies that enabling more homes in town centres is a good thing for the life and vibrancy of those town centres. I wholeheartedly agree with that sentiment, but the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare could do better than blaming the planning system for the lack of delivery. The planning system can deliver what he wants now. He has brought no evidence that this little tweak of the planning system will deliver more housing, let alone more affordable housing. He has made circumstantial links between more supply, of which the proposal would provide a tiny amount, and a crashing fall in housing prices. There is no evidence.
We have seen problems when permitted development rights are extended, such as with the coalition Government’s policy, which has now been enshrined permanently, of allowing employment space to be converted into residential without planning permission. In Hounslow—I represent half of the borough—we have seen poor-quality housing, poor space standards, inadequate parking and issues with everything from refuse disposal to access. That policy is not providing good-quality housing or affordable housing.
The other extension of permitted development rights that was enacted under the coalition Government allowed homeowners to extend the rear of their homes by 6 metres, rather than the 3 metres it had been previously. Those developments have a massive impact on the neighbours. That is why we have to be careful about extending permitted development rights, and the Opposition do not support such extensions.
Building can be done at height with good design, but there is no reason why that cannot be done through the normal, transparent and accountable planning application process. In the years I was a planning committee member—some of those were as chair—we granted many applications for increasing the height of buildings and homes or for building new higher ones. We refused some terrible applications. The system allows for that to happen. We have a massive housing shortage in west London, but the prices are high enough that it is worth the developers’ while. We saw the applications; we approved the good ones and refused the bad ones. The market in west London is doing exactly what the hon. Gentleman desires.
I thank the hon. Lady for giving way yet again. She is being very generous and kind. I gently say to her that the London economic microclimate is not typical of the rest of Britain. I am rather reassured by some of the things she has said about what is happening in parts of London and how these things are being handled, but I do not think those incentives, processes or habits of mind among councils and council officials are broadly spread across the country.
In which case, the hon. Gentleman is effectively admitting that it is not the planning system that is the problem, but the state of the property market and other barriers to development. The market in west London is doing exactly what he wants, and I suggest he looks elsewhere for the cause of the problem and, therefore, for the solution.
The hon. Gentleman wants beautiful buildings; that is why a planning system is needed. He is proposing a solution that removes local oversight, but there is no evidence it will work and it could create unintended consequences. Furthermore, his proposal does not address the subject of the debate: low-cost housing. I am almost inclined to dissent when the Question is put at the end of the debate as to whether we have considered low-cost housing, but I will leave that for then.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Gillan. It is a great pleasure to respond to the debate introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose). He has been fortuitous in securing this debate on low-cost housing the day after the White Paper was published, but he is rather disadvantaged by the fact that the Minister responsible is so busy selling the White Paper that he has to put up with a reply from me, but I will endeavour to answer the points he has raised.
The tone of the debate has frankly been a bit miserable, in truth. My hon. Friend has come forward with a proposal to expand the supply of housing. We all know that supply is the biggest challenge in delivering low-cost housing. Houses have become less and less affordable because we have not been building enough houses, period. We need to look at what we can do to unlock a bigger supply of houses, and that is what the White Paper is all about. I could happily trade statistics with Opposition Members, but the reality is that we have not been building enough housing in this country for decades. There are many reasons for that. Some of them are to do with planning, public opinion, finance and land prices, but what is clear is that our housing market is broken, and I do not think we should be ruling anything out in fixing it, because we have a real problem in terms of fairness for everyone in society being able to live in a decent home that they can afford. We in Government and as politicians should be seeking to deliver that.
That is where my hon. Friend has it in a nutshell, in coming forward with a proposal that could unlock substantially more housing. Listening to him and the reaction to his remarks from Members highlighted a massive cultural prejudice against building up, rather than building out, and there is a reason for that, which he alluded to in his remarks. We were very badly let down in the ’60s. That was the zenith of building up, not out, but we built buildings that were ugly and unpleasant, and they became unpleasant places to live. That is in people’s minds when they start thinking about high-rise housing and development. I have it in my constituency. We are on the border of London, so we have a substantial need for new houses. We have a substantial amount of brownfield land and green belt. Members will not be surprised to hear that we get a lot more planning applications for housing on green-belt sites, because we all know that it is cheaper to build there. We are also on the river, and if there is one place where high-rise developments would work, it is on the river.
My hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles)—I think we were all impressed by his courage in turning up for the vote yesterday—came to my constituency when he was housing Minister. He did me no favours because he described one of my riverfront housing developments as pig ugly. It was a four-storey housing development on the river, and people want to live on the river, but his point was that if the planners had been a little more adventurous, we could have built something higher and more beautiful. When one visits places such as Greenwich in south-east London, one can see that they have shown imagination. They have opened up the river and created nice places to live, so I very much welcome my hon. Friend’s interest in this.
To give my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare some comfort, the White Paper sets out clearly the importance of high-density brownfield development, which is a part of his proposal. We propose changes to national policy to make it clear that local plans and individual development proposals should encourage building up where acceptable. We also propose to make better use of public land. The Department would welcome my hon. Friend’s response to the White Paper so that we can take this forward. It is incumbent on all of us, and it is very easy. We all react to our postbags—Mr Grumpy always complains about the planning application that is proposed—but we have a role now, because this is such an important issue, to sell what will really deliver more housing, so I encourage my hon. Friend to make his submission as robust and as forthright as he wishes.
The Government welcome the opportunity to discuss low-cost housing in its wider sense. The hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Ruth Cadbury) made some excellent points, but we need to recognise that the problem has been in the making for decades and the issues are complex. We do not say that the White Paper has all the answers or all the solutions. There is no silver bullet. If there was, the previous Labour Government would have delivered it, as would we in the last Parliament. Let us get real here. This is a serious problem, and unless we have a grown-up discussion about it, we will not solve it and we will let down future generations.
There is some stuff in the White Paper that was nicked out of the Ed Miliband playbook—we are pleased to see that there will be a ban on letting fees—but it could have been a little more aggressive on the “Use it or lose it” idea. I apologise, Mrs Gillan; I should have said my right hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband). In Ealing we have a site, which my 12-year-old remembers as a building site for most of his life—it was a cinema—that is going to be rebuilt for residential use, but it has been land-banked for the best part of a decade. What does the White Paper say about that, and how can we be more aggressive with developers who simply sit on land while the value goes up?
The hon. Lady has hit on a major structural problem that is inhibiting the ability to supply. There are many examples of what she talks about. Some developers are bringing forward a supply of housing and others are sitting on the land.
The White Paper on housing that we published yesterday advocates shortening timescales for the implementation of planning permissions where appropriate. That is very much on our agenda. We are considering legislative changes to simplify and speed up completion notices, which will encourage developers to build out or face losing the site. I am a big fan of naming and shaming. Transparency is an effective tool. Sunlight is the best disinfectant. Where we have developers clearly engaging in predatory behaviour and exploiting the marketplace, we should be prepared to name and shame them. Every one of us in this room has a voice. Where we see bad behaviour by developers, let us shout out about it, because we have to deliver more houses. It is that simple.
I trust that hon. Members have had the opportunity to digest some of the housing White Paper, if not all of it, and I hope that they will engage with the debate. I want to make it incredibly clear how committed the Government are to grappling with this problem. We want to make sure that all hard-working families have the housing that they need at a price they can afford. The root cause of the problem is that demand outstrips supply. Only by increasing supply substantially will we stop the increasing spiralling of house prices and rents.
If all options are on the table in the White Paper, will the Government reconsider the right to buy and extended the discount? Have the Government put a cost against how much money has been paid out in the extended right-to-buy scheme and how many properties might have been delivered had the money gone directly to house building?
The hon. Gentleman will not be surprised to hear that I disagree with his point about right to buy. We are firmly committed to it. We want to encourage the aspiration for everyone to own their own home. We want to enable that, and right to buy is very much a part of it. He made very thoughtful remarks in his earlier contribution, and we have answers. We are firmly committed to making sure that, for every additional home sold, another social home will be provided—nationally. There is a rolling three-year deadline for councils to deliver the affordable homes to replace right to buy. We must also remember that when someone exercises their right to buy, the house is not removed from the stock. They still have a housing need. Again, the issue comes back to making sure that we increase the supply of houses.
Perhaps I can give the hon. Gentleman a little more comfort. It was said by the hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth that councils were not building more homes. Actually, they are. Some councils are showing considerable imagination in unlocking new homes. They are establishing local housing companies and we are encouraging them to do that. We see local councils as part of the partnership to help to increase supply.
I am sorry if the hon. Lady feels that I said councils are not building new homes. They are building new homes, but they are having to use other resources now that there is no Government funding. They could build an awful lot more if they could be released from the borrowing cap. My own council is building about 400 new council homes. The problem is that councils are losing their own stock at a faster rate through the right to buy than they can build new council homes. They are building them using capital funds that could also be used for other infrastructure such as schools and so on.
I am not sure I entirely accept that. Certainly local authorities have the powers to borrow using their general power of competence, and they have established local housing companies to do that. There is an obligation to replace one for one, following the right to buy being exercised. Ultimately, we see local authorities as a partner in delivering more housing. That is the message I want to press home today.
Our broken housing market is one of the greatest barriers to progress in Britain today. If we are really serious about building a fairer society for everyone, we need to tackle that. We need to fix this to make sure that housing is more affordable. As has been mentioned, many people spend significant amounts of their income on rent or mortgage payments. Building more homes will slow the rise in housing costs so that many more families will be able to afford to buy a home or enjoy the benefits of lower rents.
To summarise and put what the housing White Paper proposes in context, first, we will insist that every area has an up-to-date plan, because development is about far more than just building homes. This is where the challenge is for local authorities. The planning process and building a vision of where new homes will be built and what the future will be for a local economy is so important. It is about getting community buy-in. It will help to tackle some of the cultural prejudices that we discussed earlier in the debate. If communities have ownership of a local plan for their local area, they will get the attractive homes that they want and need. My challenge is for local authorities to step up and deliver. We are all aware that there are far too many local authorities that have not risen to the challenge of identifying where houses are needed. There are still too many councils that do not have a local plan, and they need to show leadership and deliver.
Secondly, and as the hon. Member for Ealing Central and Acton (Dr Huq) noted, we need to ensure that homes are built quickly once planning permission is granted. We will make sure that the planning system is much more open and accessible. We will improve the co-ordination of public investment infrastructure to encourage that, and we will support timely connections to utilities to tackle unnecessary delays, but the real issue is developers. We will give councils and developers the tools they need to build more swiftly and we will expect them to use them. I suspect that this is an issue that we will look at as reactions to the White Paper unfold and we consider whether there is a need for further legislative change.
We will also diversify the market. We want to bring new players in to the supply of housing. We need to give support to small and medium-sized builders and custom builders and to champion modern methods of construction to support new investment to build to rent. Those measures could be transformational. The idea of institutional investment that builds property estates or residential blocks that are specifically for rent, which people can rent for a long time, could transform the housing market and make renting much more affordable.
The White Paper also sets out how we will support housing associations to build more and explores options to encourage local authorities to build again. As I have said, we will also encourage further institutional investment in the private rented sector. Finally, because we recognise that building the homes we need takes time, we will also take more steps now to improve safeguards in the private rented sector. Hon. Members who represent constituencies in London will be particularly concerned about that.
We have seen the need to do more to prevent homelessness. I am very pleased that the Government have committed to fully funding the Homelessness Reduction Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman). We will provide £61 million to local government to meet the costs of the new burdens associated with that Bill over the course of the spending review period.
We could easily trade statistics, but I do not think there is any value in playing the blame game about where we are now. We need to look at how we fix it. Everybody has a role to play in that—including the former Leader of the Opposition, the right hon. Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband), who the hon. Member for Ealing Central and Acton mentioned. The Government are very clear that fixing the problem is a real priority.
We have already delivered 313,000 affordable homes in England since 2010. The affordable homes programme alone delivered 193,000 affordable homes, exceeding expectations by 23,000. At the autumn statement, the Chancellor announced the expansion of the affordable homes programme with an additional £1.4 billion, which increased the overall budget to £7.1 billion. That is a significant investment from the Government in tackling the problem. The expanded programme also allows a wider range of products to help people on the pathway to home ownership and to continue to provide support for those who need it. Those products include shared ownership, rent to buy and affordable rent.
Opening up the programme in that way will help to meet the housing needs of a wider range of people in different circumstances and at different stages in their lives. We have to recognise that there are different problems in different areas of the country, but also different problems hitting people at different stages of their lives. We need to make sure that we have a solution for all of those.
Affordable rent was a policy introduced to get more bang for our buck in providing social rent models. It allows rent to be set at 80% of market rents so that we can unlock more supply. Those tenants will still benefit from a sub-market rent. This is a particular issue in London, where the affordable rent can be set even lower.
Home ownership, however, continues to be the aspiration for most people, which is why we have looked at the Help to Buy products, right to buy and shared ownership. Shared ownership offers a route through the part-buy/part-rent model to enable people to get on the housing ladder sooner than if they were saving for a deposit. Purchasers buy a minimum 20% share in the new-build property at market value, pay a controlled rent on the remainder and may continue to buy further shares until the property is owned outright. We will continue to use that tool to expand home ownership. Since 2010, around 45,000 new shared ownership schemes have been delivered and we will continue to deliver more.
Help to Buy has already helped more than 200,000 households to buy a home, including through the equity loan scheme, which has benefited 100,000 households—81% of whom were first-time buyers. We have also committed £8.6 billion for the Help to Buy equity loan scheme to 2021, to ensure that it continues to support homebuyers and stimulate supply. We recognise the need to create certainty for prospective homeowners so we will work with the sector to deliver that.
I come back to the issue of the planning regime and how we can speed up its ability to help to deliver the volume of supply. My hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare is quite right to look at tools for how we can do that. He highlighted the importance of increasing brownfield development and building to higher densities to deliver more homes. If widely adopted, that could reduce the need for green-belt development. What excites me about the idea is the ability to regenerate our high streets. I am sure I am not alone, given the way that retail is moving today, in seeing some of my high streets really struggling. The idea that we could create a new, mixed-use high street, rather than a retail-dependent one—one where people can live above the shops or behind the shops in new high-rise developments and be able to go downstairs and visit cafes and restaurants—is quite an exciting concept, which would particularly appeal to the younger generations coming through. There is massive potential, and I encourage my hon. Friend to carry on trying to open people’s eyes to the potential of this initiative.
The Department has been engaging with my hon. Friend on his work and has taken up his proposals. We consulted last February on proposals to allow limited upward extensions in London, no higher than the height of an adjoining roofline. Following that consultation, we recognise that there is potential to deliver more homes nationally, not just in London, through a change to national planning policy to support upward extensions in suitable locations. As set out in the housing White Paper, we propose to amend the national planning policy framework to make it clear that local plans and individual development proposals should address the particular scope for higher-density housing in urban locations where buildings can be extended upwards by using the airspace above them.
In the White Paper, we have committed to reviewing the nationally described space standards, because of feedback from the sector that in certain places, space standards make it hard to use land efficiently and stop cheaper houses being built, which more people now want to rent or buy, such as Pocket Homes. We have to recognise the limitations. When we write planning law, we write it at a given time, in a given set of circumstances. When the world changes, we need to be prepared to be fleet of foot in dealing with new opportunities to address the issues we face. However, this is not a race to the bottom, and Government are clear that in assessing the options we will be looking for a solution that combines greater local housing choice with good quality and with decent places to live.
As I have set out, in the past few years we have seen over 300,000 affordable homes built in England. We now need to go much, much further and meet our obligation to build many more houses, of the type people want to live in, in the places they want to live and at a price they can afford. Doing that will give those growing up in society today more chance to enjoy the same opportunities as their parents and grandparents. I am struck by the fact that this is the first time that the future generation will be less well-off than their parents, when for many decades we have been used to high living standards. It is firmly my view that the price of housing is central to that.
We will ensure that the housing market is as fair for those who do not own their own home as it is for those who do, and we will continue to look at what is happening in the private rented sector. All that is a vital part of our plan for a stronger, fairer Britain, and a critical step along the road to fulfilling the Government’s mission to make Britain a country that works for everyone.
I would like to extend my thanks to everybody who participated in this debate, in particular my hon. Friend the Minister—and Whip—for responding so constructively and helpfully. As she said, the timing of this debate was slightly fortuitous. As everyone here will appreciate, when we put in for debates we have little control over precisely when our names will come up, so I had no idea that it would take place 24 hours after the publication of the housing White Paper.
As the Minister said, I have been campaigning on this issue for some time, so this is at least partially a celebration of victory, because I am pleased to say that the Government have listened. There is a great deal in the White Paper about building up, not out, and it contains some very welcome steps. The Government deserve full credit for taking some major steps in the right direction. Therefore, my modest proposal, as the hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Ruth Cadbury) called it, is a final flourish or a final capstone—a residual step to ensure that it is done well and fully, rather than only partially. I think I am very close to the summit of achieving what we need to do, and I want to take this final step. This is, at least in part, a celebration of victory as much as a request for further activity.
I want to pick up on the Minister’s comments about there being a slightly miserable tone to the debate. She is absolutely right that there is no silver bullet to this problem, but it is perhaps a little reductive to say that because one particular proposal—in this case, my final step—does not solve all the complicated, deep-rooted and long-lasting housing problems that this country faces, it should therefore be opposed. If we let the best be the enemy of the good, we will get nowhere. This is a far broader issue than we can possibly cover in one debate, but I am pleased to say that we will make some progress.
I will finish on this point, which I direct to the Labour party and the hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth in particular. My hon. Friend the Minister said there was a cultural divide over tall buildings, but I think that in this Chamber there has been a cultural divide over the approach to regulation, too. I accept that the planning permission and planning regulation process plays an important role in preventing substandard building and inappropriate large-scale building—the hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth was right to point all those things out. However, when it comes to regulating our fellow citizens in a free society, the burden of proof is on us to show why what we are doing to take away their freedoms is right, not on them to explain why they should have them back. Therefore, if I have a modest suggestion for an extension of those freedoms—a rolling back that will not impact on the broader points that the planning system is rightly geared to prevent abuses of—then it is up to us to justify why that should not happen. The burden of proof should be on us.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered fees and charges on unauthorised overdrafts.
Overdrafts are one of the most widely used credit products in the market. Almost three in 10 people in the UK with personal current accounts have been overdrawn in the past year. Overdrafts can be a flexible form of borrowing, and most people use theirs for only a couple of months in the year. However, a significant minority of people—around 10%—are much more frequent users and regularly go overdrawn for nine months or more each year. There are also people who regularly go over their overdraft limit and are hit by exorbitant and disproportionate charges. The major banks make more than £1 billion per year from charges on unauthorised overdrafts—the majority, according to the head of the Competition and Markets Authority, from financially vulnerable customers.
StepChange Debt Charity estimates that 1.7 million people in the UK are trapped in an overdraft cycle and consistently use overdrafts to meet essential and emergency costs. For many vulnerable customers who are already struggling, regularly having to go into an overdraft or over an overdraft limit can lead to and exacerbate financial difficulties. Many hard-working families live constantly on their overdrafts, and those in chronic financial difficulties often face impossible choices between meeting the costs of essential bills and going further overdrawn or over their overdraft limit. Those people can struggle to get out of their overdrafts, as fees and interest build up over time and make it increasingly difficult to get out of the red. Those households are also more likely to be on the edge of their overdrafts, and if they go over, they face substantial and punitive charges that push them into difficulties. If people do not have the means to get out of their unarranged overdrafts, that can lead to persistent charges, which make it successively harder for them to avoid financial difficulties each month.
Last year, StepChange surveyed its clients with overdraft debt to explore their experiences of overdraft charges. It found that people with overdraft debt who contact the charity regularly go into the red. On average, those people had been in an unarranged overdraft for 11 of the past 12 months. Almost two thirds—62%—of the people StepChange helps with overdraft debt regularly exceed their arranged overdraft limit as they struggle to make ends meet; they did so on average in five of the past 12 months. Borrowers face average charges of £45 a time for slipping into an unauthorised overdraft. That adds up to a massive £225 a year of unauthorised overdraft charges on average.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the cap on payday lending has actually worked quite well and stopped unaffordable charges, so in its review of high-cost credit, the Financial Conduct Authority should look at introducing a similar cap on overdraft charges and more affordable ways of paying down debt?
My hon. Friend has done a lot of work in this area, both as a Member of Parliament and before she came to this place, and she is absolutely right. I will come on to the difference between caps on overdraft charges and those on payday lending.
Research published today by Which? found that consumers needing as little as £100 could be charged up to £156 more by some major high street banks than the Financial Conduct Authority allows payday loan companies to charge when lending the same amount for the same period. For example, Which? compared the cost of borrowing £100 for 30 days and found that some high street banks’ unarranged overdraft charges were as much as seven and a half times higher than the maximum charge of £24 on a payday loan for the same period. And because bank overdraft charges apply to monthly billing periods, not the number of days money is borrowed for, consumers who need £100 could pay up to £180 in fees if they borrow over two calendar months from their high street bank in the form of an unarranged overdraft.
A constituent of mine was made redundant and wanted to get back on his feet, so he set up a small business—a soft play area for kids, which was essentially a cash business. For every direct debit he paid, he had to pay 40p. For every automated debit and every internet payment, he had to pay 40p. Every time a payment was made to his account, the charge was 22p, and for every £100 paid to his account, he was charged 66p. Those are obscene amounts for what is essentially a cash business. I thank my hon. Friend for allowing me to put that on the record.
I thank my hon. Friend for speaking on behalf of her constituent. We have all experienced people in our patches being ripped off by banks. Frankly, that is not what people expect. They expect to be able to trust their high street bank to give them a good deal and treat them fairly, yet in my hon. Friend’s constituent’s case, that just is not happening.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this excellent debate. She talked about the Which? report. She will be aware that NatWest customers face fees of £180 for exceeding their limit by £100 for 30 days, and that Lloyds and Santander demand £160. That is completely uncalled for.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We have a situation where people can be charged £5 or more per day by many high street banks for going just a few pence overdrawn. Those charges rack up very quickly. The issue is that they are totally disproportionate to the offence. Going just a few pence over an overdraft limit in one month could mean £100 of charges, and as she says, the charge for doing so over two calendar months is potentially £180.
It is simply not acceptable that banks are making large profits at the expense of pushing the most financially vulnerable people deeper into debt spirals. My hon. Friend the Member for Ashfield (Gloria de Piero) gave one example, and StepChange has told me about two other cases. The first is of a 42-year-old man who racked up overdraft charges after losing his job. Interest on his overdraft and persistent charges for going over his limit meant that on average, £80 a month was added to his debt. Over a year, his overdraft debt increased by more than £1,000 because of interest and unauthorised overdraft charges. The second case is of a 38-year-old woman who faced spiralling overdraft debt after getting divorced. The increased burden of managing financial commitments on her own meant that she slipped into an unplanned overdraft by £90. That led to a cycle in which she was constantly in and out of an unarranged overdraft, and her overdraft debt increased to £1,000 due to interest and charges.
Those people, like so many others, were already in difficulty and trying to manage their debt from day to day. The banks should have a responsibility to help them manage their finances and help them out of their cycle of debt rather than sending them deeper into crisis with extortionate charges. The banks know that those customers are financially vulnerable and struggling, yet they do nothing to help—in fact, they do the exact opposite by making it harder for them to get a grip of their finances.
I thank my hon. Friend for securing this timely debate. Does she agree that it is sometimes in the banks’ interest to allow customers to run massive overdrafts so that they can push them on to even higher personal loans and other products, which they might not need and might not be right for them in the circumstances?
I agree. What really worries me is that most of the £1 billion that is made every year from unauthorised charges is made on the backs of those who are most financially vulnerable. It is a bitter irony that it is now a better deal for some people who need short-term credit to go to a payday lender rather than their high street bank. Most of us regard banks as more reputable and fairer to customers, yet for many people that is just not the case.
Huge progress has been made on the charges faced by people who access finance through payday lenders, as my hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue) mentioned, with the introduction of a cap following great work by my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy), so why are banks still allowed to get away with these unfair practices? There was some hope last year that this problem would be addressed when the Competition and Markets Authority undertook a review of the retail banking market. The CMA recognised the issue and the inquiry’s chair subsequently told the Treasury Committee that unauthorised overdrafts are
“the biggest single problem in the personal banking market”.
The CMA published its review of retail banking on 9 August, but frankly its conclusions and proposals were a missed opportunity. It found that overdraft users make up almost half of those with personal current accounts and that many find it hard to keep on top of their arranged or unarranged overdrafts. It acknowledged that failing to do so can be costly, since overdraft users can accumulate high costs from the complicated mix of interest, fees and charges.
The review goes on to say that overdraft users, like other personal current account customers, have very low switching rates, which is particularly striking given that they often have the most to gain from switching. One reason for that is that overdraft users can be uncertain about whether they will be able to obtain an overdraft facility from a different bank or when such a facility would be made available to them and are therefore worried about moving accounts,. Anyway, none of the major high street banks has a great offer for customers who are financially vulnerable.
When it came to remedies, the CMA’s proposals, quite frankly, fell well short of the mark. Some measures will go some way to addressing problems for some people, but not for those who most need support. One proposal says that customers need to be given clear notice when they are going overdrawn and that banks will be required to notify customers when they are going into an unarranged overdraft. Customers also need to be given the opportunity to avoid incurring charges, and the alerts that banks will be required to provide will inform them of a grace period during which they have an opportunity to avoid charges by paying more money into their account.
Critically, the CMA fell short of proposing an independently set maximum cap on the charges on overdrafts, as we have with payday loans. Instead, the report said that banks will be required to set their own ceilings on their unarranged overdraft charges in the form of a monthly maximum charge. However, most banks already have that. The problem is not that banks do not have a maximum charge—they do, and it might be £5 a day or £90 a month—but that the maximum charge is much too high.
The major four high street banks, which make up 77% of the current account market, already set their own caps on charges, and those charges can be up to £100 a month. The CMA’s proposals represent little more than business as usual for those banks. Competition in this section of the market is weak, and in the past few years it has got weaker still with the merger of many of our high street banks. Heavy unarranged overdraft users are the least likely to switch banks accounts. Banks make more than £1 billion from unarranged overdraft charges and, given the substantial revenues they generate, there is little financial incentive to lower existing charges.
Ultimately, the proposals in the CMA report might take small steps towards helping some, but for the majority of people who are already struggling and do not have the means to prevent unauthorised overdrafts even if they are alerted to them, they will do little, if anything, to help. The monthly maximum cap as proposed by the CMA will likely do nothing to stop the deepening of a person’s debt crisis, with punitive and disproportionate charges.
I do not want to deny the banks the right to charge for the services they provide, but I do want some fairness and proportionality. It is not fair to charge £5 a day or £90 a month for being a few pence over an overdraft limit, and it is not fair to whack charges on customers who are struggling with debt, in the knowledge that the charges will make their problems worse, not better. Banks need to take some responsibility for their customers.
As the Competition and Markets Authority admitted at a meeting of the Treasury Committee, the measures proposed in the report are geared at everybody and not in particular those who are financially vulnerable, for whom no direct action is proposed. When I asked whether the banks were taking advantage of financially vulnerable customers, it conceded that those customers who are least likely to switch are a “captive audience” for the banks and their excessive charges.
Ultimately, the Competition and Markets Authority report was a huge opportunity finally to put an end to what it calls “uncomfortably high” charges and to address what it said was the
“biggest single problem in the personal banking market”.
However, the opportunity was squandered. In effect, it passed the buck by asking the Financial Conduct Authority to respond to the recommendations. Peter Vicary-Smith, the chief executive of Which?, said to the Treasury Committee that the Competition and Markets Authority had left the heavy lifting and the difficult decisions for the Financial Conduct Authority to make. In response to that buck-passing, the new chief executive of the Financial Conduct Authority, Andrew Bailey, has made the welcome decision to include this issue in its ongoing review of high-cost short-term credit, which will report later this year.
The Financial Conduct Authority needs to do more to tackle the detriment caused by persistent overdraft use. I have been pleased by the focus that the FCA has placed on this issue so far, picking up where unfortunately the CMA left off. StepChange Debt Charity says that the review
“should include looking at what more can be done by lenders to support people who are trapped in an overdraft cycle and give them better and more affordable ways of paying back their debts.”
My hon. Friend is right. The bank rate is so low and banks are being given access to money at such low rates from the Bank of England. The problem is that they are not passing that on to their customers, and certainly not to those who most need it. The banks should be doing much more to ensure that those low interest rates are passed on, because that would give the whole economy a boost as well as helping those people who most need it.
I have been calling on and will continue to urge the Financial Conduct Authority to look at setting a cap for banks on unauthorised overdrafts as has already been done for payday lenders. It must look at such lending by banks in exactly the same way and not shy away from setting a cap for banks, too.
I also urge the Government to take action, because while the Financial Conduct Authority undertakes its review, every single day more financially vulnerable customers are being exploited and more and more are being pushed further into a cycle of debt. That is simply not acceptable. The justification for a cap in these markets has been made with the introduction of a cap in the payday lending market, and those are two different sources for the same short-term credit for people who need it immediately. They can either go to a payday lender or go into an unarranged overdraft. Whichever option they decide on to meet their short-term needs, they should not be exploited. The Government recognised that for payday lending and now need to recognise that on unarranged overdraft charges.
Frankly, it is a disgrace that the banks are charging more than payday lenders for short-term lending and getting away with it, so the Government should take action. That is why I am calling on the Minister and the Government to legislate for a cap on overdraft fees and charges, as they have already done for payday lending through the Financial Services (Banking Reform) Act 2013. That would allow the FCA to implement such a cap without delay and without the risk of the banks taking the matter to the courts.
It is not right that the banks are making huge profits at the expense of the most vulnerable. Anything less than an independently set cap on overdraft charges will not be enough. I urge the Minister and the Government to act now, and I ask that as a first step the Minister will agree to meet me and representatives of Which? and StepChange to discuss this issue further so that we can ensure that all customers are afforded the protection they deserve.
What a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Gillan. I thank the hon. Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves) for securing this important debate on an issue that we share a keen interest in. I am here to listen and, hopefully, to be helpful.
It is clear that we all share a commitment to ensuring that people across our society can rely on the financial services that they need to manage their money effectively, securely and confidently. We want an economy that works for everyone. For most people, the bedrock of that is a transactional bank account that enables them to manage their personal finances on a day-to-day basis. Access to credit, including the use of an overdraft facility, is an important part of that.
For that reason, the Government are committed to doing two things. First, we will support and encourage competition among financial services providers, not only so that people have more choice over who they bank with, but because we know that more competition inevitably means better options on offer for customers, who can then vote with their feet. Secondly, we want to make sure that British customers are supported in the important financial decisions they make.
The hon. Members who have spoken have expressed the same aims, and I want to discuss the key issues that have been raised. I thank the hon. Members for Ashfield (Gloria De Piero), for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue), for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi) and for Islwyn (Chris Evans) for making some thoughtful points, sharing their constituents’ stories and making some more general observations. I am sure that the FCA, which is reviewing high-cost credit, will listen carefully to the debate.
The hon. Member for Leeds West rightly discussed the Competition and Markets Authority. A key question is how to ensure that there is competition. That is why we set up the CMA in the first place as a single stronger and independent competition regulator. It is the CMA’s role to review the market, assess how effectively competition is working and, where appropriate, propose remedies to address any issues. Hon. Members have referred to the CMA’s retail banking market investigation, which was published last summer. I am aware of the variety of opinions on that. It represented a thorough analysis of how competition is working in retail banking, including the role of both unarranged and arranged overdrafts.
The CMA concluded that the retail banking market is not working well for overdraft users. To tackle that, it is imposing remedies to improve overdraft transparency, including setting a monthly maximum charge for unarranged overdraft charges. It also looked closely at whether a hard cap on overdraft fees was necessary on competition grounds, and reached the conclusion that it was not. However, as hon. Members may know, it also recommended that the FCA should assess the ongoing effectiveness of the monthly maximum charge and consider whether other measures, including the introduction of rules, could be taken to enhance its effectiveness further.
The hon. Members for Leeds West and for Makerfield mentioned the action of the Financial Conduct Authority. It is true that the FCA has an important role to play in relation to overdrafts. It is worth pointing out, of course, that it has a much broader set of statutory objectives in relation to financial services, duties, powers and tools than the CMA. It has the power to cap the cost of all forms of consumer credit if that is deemed necessary and proportionate to tackle risks to consumers.
I thank the Minister for his response to the substantive points that I and my hon. Friends have made. Does he think it is inconsistent that the Government have set a monthly maximum charge for payday lenders, but not for high street banks in relation to unarranged overdraft charges? If he does, is it time for the Government to act by setting a monthly maximum charge for unarranged overdrafts as well?
I understand the point that the hon. Lady is making. What I think is appropriate is for the Government to listen carefully to what the FCA comes up with later in the year, and to act in consumers’ best interests. I am sure we both agree on that. There is clearly an inconsistency; otherwise we would not be having this debate.
The Government welcome the fact that the FCA is looking closely at what action might be necessary on overdrafts, considering the twin objectives of enhancing competition and protecting customers. That is why, in the light of the CMA’s recommendations last November, the FCA launched a consultation on high-cost credit, including high-cost, short-term credit—payday loans—and overdrafts. The FCA’s call for contributions remains open for another week—until next Wednesday, 15 February. I encourage those watching or listening to the debate, or reading it afterwards, to contribute to that, so that the FCA will be fully informed of the variety of opinion.
Today’s debate is timely, in view of that. It has—and I thank the hon. Member for Leeds West for this—attracted quite a lot of press interest; the subject is obviously of interest out in the real world. I am certain that hon. Members’ views will be heard clearly.
I am not quite ready to wrap up yet; I have a few things to say that I am sure the hon. Lady will be pleased to hear. I should be delighted to meet her and representatives of Which? at an appropriate point—the most constructive time, when we can make the most difference. Obviously, while the FCA is considering the matter and the consultation is still open, the appropriate time may not be next week, but I should be delighted to work with her to come up with a solution that benefits everyone.
I think it is safe to say that the Government will be working alongside the FCA to understand the issues in the market. We will continue to do so, to ensure that it has all the appropriate tools at its disposal to take action where problems are identified. We have heard about some of the issues that people face when taking on overdrafts or other forms of high-cost credit. I can reassure hon. Members that the Government will closely monitor the work of the FCA in looking at that area. I am sure that the views expressed by hon. Members this morning will be taken into consideration as the regulator carries out its work.
We in the Government will also continue our efforts, complementing the work of the FCA. We have taken steps to encourage competition, to support credit unions and to improve financial education. The Government will, through that comprehensive approach, continue to take steps to make sure that British customers have quality choices, good information and strong protection.
It may be helpful if I say, in closing, that the CMA is not the final word in competition. There are important areas outside the scope of its work and the Government will keep a keen eye on the entire area. The Government will take the necessary action to ensure that our banking sector is not only the most competitive and innovative in the world, but fair.
Question put and agreed to.
National Shipbuilding Strategy
[Mr Nigel Evans in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the National Shipbuilding Strategy.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Evans. I stand before you with the sense that we have been here before, and indeed we have. It is déjà vu on a grand scale, because at Defence questions, during Westminster Hall debates, in answers to urgent questions and in ministerial statements, the Government have had the chance to put at rest the minds of the various parties interested in the shipbuilding strategy. Yet again, we find ourselves hoping that the Minister will give us something more than the usual scorn sometimes reserved for SNP Members.
Any time I tire of waiting for answers, I simply remind myself that many people have been waiting much longer, whether they be the men and women who serve us in the Royal Navy or those in the yards on the Clyde and at Rosyth. That is not to mention the average taxpayer, who demands nothing more from the Government than that their money is well spent on equipment that actually works and the assurance that the Government are doing their utmost to fulfil their most basic duty—defending our homeland.
In 2021, it will be two decades since HMS St Albans slipped from Yarrows on the Clyde and became the last-of-class Type 23 frigate, meaning that the state that has always prided itself on being a maritime power will not have built a single frigate for the best part of 20 years. Furthermore, as the first-of-class Type 23, HMS Norfolk, left that same shipyard in 1990, it found that the mission for which it had been specifically designed had all but ended. It is quite incredible that in 2017, we are still unable to see a signed contract to begin the replacement of the Type 23s, which are a cold war platform. No one I have spoken to through my work on the Select Committee on Defence, whether fellow members, academics, shipbuilders, trade unionists or even civil servants, sees that as an acceptable way forward, yet here we are.
Its cold war mission may have ended, but the Type 23 has certainly done all that was asked of it, and more. Let us not forget that the range of tasks the Royal Navy has undertaken in the post-cold war era has dramatically increased, yet paradoxically, as the senior service’s task list is increasing, the number of frigates and destroyers available to it has sunk to an historic low. It is that paradox that I hope the Minister will help me with today. Although the Ministry of Defence has long been able to exploit the convoluted and confusing history of the Type 26s and Type 31s, there is no way to hide its failings. I will make it easy for the Government by posing three straightforward questions that I hope they will take in good faith and respond to appropriately.
First, and most simply, when will we see the national shipbuilding strategy? Secondly, the MOD has made much of 2017 being the year of the Navy, but 2023 is a much more appropriate choice, as that is when the MOD completes the purchase of 24 F-35B planes to fly from the carriers, and when HMS Queen Elizabeth becomes fully operational. Will the Minister reassure us that the Royal Navy will be able to form a fully functioning carrier group with Type 26s, Type 45s and the requisite Royal Fleet Auxiliary Service ships? Thirdly, on a related note, various media outlets have reported in recent days on the bandwidth problems in the procurement budget, which were highlighted in a National Audit Office report. So far as the equipment plan is concerned, how will the shipbuilding strategy ensure that surface naval ships are prioritised in procurement decisions?
When the Government committed to the national shipbuilding strategy as part of the 2015 strategic defence and security review, many of us thought we were reaching the end of a long journey with respect to the modernisation of the Royal Navy. How wrong we were. Early studies of what in 1994 was called the “future surface combatant” certainly thought outside the box. A whole range of options were considered, including a radical trimaran hull design. After a decade, the FSC had become the “sustained surface combatant capability”, which had as many as three designs. It was not a concept that would survive the financial crash. Indeed, by 2009, it was possible for my friend the right hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis), who chairs the Defence Committee, to call for a future surface combatant that was as “cheap as chips”. How did we get from as “cheap as chips” to building £1 billion frigates in less than a decade?
I contend that the blame lies squarely at the door of the MOD. One thing has become clear from the numerous conversations I have had with both management and unions at BAE Systems: it is a global company with a world-class workforce that is able to turn its hand to whatever design and specification is provided by the MOD. Up to this point, it has done that. Quite simply, the MOD’s unerring ability to change horses midstream has added to the cost, timescales and uncertainty of the ongoing naval procurement programme.
That continued after the shipbuilding strategy announcement in 2015. The initial reassurances we were given were replaced with disquiet last spring, when no contract for the Type 26s was signed. When The Guardian broke the story in April about potential job losses at the Clyde yards, there was a crushing realisation that, yes, it had happened again. Any hope that a refreshed team in the main building over the summer would lead to clarity on the Type 26 or the shipbuilding strategy did not last long. When the Minister repeatedly assured us in the Chamber that we would see a strategy by the autumn statement, we knew she was using alternative facts. When my colleagues and I on the Defence Committee released a report that concluded
“it is now time for the MoD to deliver on its promises”,
I imagine we already knew that it had no intention of doing so—although I am interested to know if that report played any part in delaying the strategy, or if Ministers simply chose not to tell Parliament of their intentions.
It was not entirely clear, when Sir John Parker’s independent report was announced, whether informing Parliament was part of the original strategy. When the report was finalised, we thought that it would be the formal strategy going forward. There is plenty to agree with in Sir John’s report. Many of its findings chime with my experiences of MOD procurement, namely that there was a
“vicious cycle of fewer and much more expensive ships being ordered late and entering service years later than first planned”,
“The Government must drive cultural and governance changes in Defence that inject genuine pace into the procurement process with a clear grip over requirements, cost and time.”
However, we are now getting to a stage at which the report, far from being too little, too late, is too much, much too late. It will once more allow Ministers to take us around the houses and hope that we forget that they are running out of time to fulfil previous promises made to the House, the Royal Navy and the men and women on the Clyde.
While there is
“no precedent for building two ‘first of class’ RN frigates in one location in the UK”,
there appears to be no real alternative to the Clyde, as I am sure we will hear from my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens). Let us get on with signing the Type 26 contract and ensure that the Type 31 is ready to go as soon as possible.
Can the hon. Gentleman shed any light on what the Type 31 is? There have been generalised views of what it will do and what it will be, but I understand that there are no plans and no actual specification. Is the Type 31 not one of those pipedreams that seems to be put out there to reassure the industry, when actually there is a lot of work to be done not only to design it, but to find out where it fits into the broader naval strategy?
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. We are constantly told that the Type 31s are also for the export market. I have asked parliamentary questions on whether the Government could provide details of their homework on what that export market might look like. I am afraid that, to date, there are no answers. We need to make progress with the information we have, which is why we are questioning the Minister today.
Anyone who has taken an interest in this matter will know that BAE Systems has two possible designs. It is important that we get on with picking one, so that we can ensure—to follow up on the hon. Gentleman’s point —that we have an exportable product that we can take to market. However, we are falling behind. The Franco-Italian Aquitaine class frigates are already in service with La Royale and have been exported to Egypt and Morocco, so we are already missing the export boat with regard to the Type 31s.
My hon. Friend should also note the Danish Absalon class frigates, which have proved to be very versatile, reliable and affordable ships for a valuable ally’s navy.
Of course. That just makes the point that while the Government sit back, dither and try to work out what the strategy might be, we have great examples of other countries—small countries—that are able to export their own products into the markets that they want to serve.
Quite simply, we have been waiting for the future surface combatant, be it the Type 26 or the Type 31, since 1994. Sir John’s report may seek a “sea change” in naval procurement, but the fact is that we had a defence industry strategy in 2005, a 15-year terms of business agreement signed by BAE Systems in 2009 and a consolidated shipbuilding plan for the Clyde, with support from the Government and the trade unions, in 2013. How on earth has it taken the Government so long to get to a strategy? Why do they still not have one by 2017? Surely that is a damning indictment of their competence to run the country. Again, I plead with the Minister: let us get on with it.
My second question for the Minister is about ensuring that when HMS Queen Elizabeth enters service, it will do so with a carrier group worthy of a next-generation Navy. Those carriers—the largest ships ever built for the Royal Navy—are being built on time and on budget in my constituency by the superb workforce in Rosyth. It would be a great disappointment to those workers, those men and women—
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate on a very important issue. He mentions the aircraft carriers. Let me respectfully advise the Minister that shipbuilding and ship repairs are still very much alive on the Tyne and that my local yard, A&P Tyne, has played a key role in getting those ships on time, within budget and with excellent quality. In the light of John Parker’s report, which identified that commercial yards have a great role to play in supporting traditional naval yards in providing the MOD’s requirements, I ask the Minister to ensure that when any lucrative contracts come forward in the future, commercial yards such as A&P are taken into consideration, bearing in mind their record.
I thank the hon. Gentleman. That is a bit of a non-question for me, but I am sure the Minister will be happy to add it to her extensive list of questions already put.
The ships in Rosyth are the biggest that the Royal Navy has ever built, and various people have been involved in building them from day one and bringing the parts from all areas of the UK to Rosyth, but we must ensure that when those ships sail down the Forth, they are adequately protected. At the moment, I struggle to see how that battle group will fit together.
As I said, although 2017 may be the year of the Navy, 2023 will be far more significant, because in 2023 we will know whether the strategy has done what it set out to do in the first place. By 2023, the initial tranche of 24 F-35Bs should be in place to fly operations from the carriers, and the first Type 26 should be entering service to replace HMS Argyll, which will be the first Type 23 to leave service.
The Defence Committee highlighted the question of the carrier group in our November report and I hope we will press the Minister further on it, but quite simply the Government are running out of time to uphold their end of the bargain. Quite honestly, I am not holding my breath.
I expect many right hon. and hon. Members will talk today about the state of the Navy, but going over some of the history again might be worthwhile. At the time of the infamous Nott report, the Royal Navy had 60 frigates and destroyers, and even by the end of the Falklands conflict, it still had 50. In the 1998 strategic defence review, long after the cold war had ended, a floor of 32 ships was constructed. However, the Government now crow about their commitment to 19 frigates and destroyers.
Even as we move to an era of fewer and more powerful ships, 19 is still too low a number and has seen the UK fail in many of its commitments to its allies. I am not alone in finding it unacceptable that the UK has often been unable to provide a ship for NATO’s standing maritime groups; that we had to miss the recent anniversary celebrations of the New Zealand navy because a suitable ship was not available; and that offshore patrol vessels are having to fill in on tasks relating to the fleet ready escort and the Royal Navy’s presence in the Caribbean.
My hon. Friend makes a good point about the 75th-anniversary celebrations for the royal navy of New Zealand. In November, our allies the United States, Canada and Australia sent ships to the international naval review—even Tonga and the Cook Islands sent ships to the naval review—but the United Kingdom Navy sent nothing. That is not exactly the best start to a brave Brexit diplomatic offensive, is it?
Again, I cannot help but agree with my hon. Friend. He makes a very valid and good point, but if our backs were to the wall and we needed to provide ships for NATO, that would be a much more serious commitment that the UK would have to make. If we do not have enough ships to fulfil those commitments, that is even more concerning.
I said that the current fleet was 19 in number. Two ships, HMS Diamond and HMS Lancaster, are being used as training ships, so that reduces the number from 19 to 17 usable frigates and destroyers.
I hope that the Minister will break the habit of a lifetime today and actually give us the answers to the questions that we have asked. Quite simply, the Royal Navy and the carrier programme demand that. It starts with a contract for the Type 26 programme being signed, so let me reintroduce an old slogan: “We want eight and we won’t wait!” If we were to add anything to that, it would be that we cannot afford to wait any longer.
I hope that the Minister can also answer my last question. How can we ensure that surface shipbuilding does not suffer as a result of the proliferation of big-ticket items going through the order book over the next decade? The headline from Monday’s Financial Times says it all: “Spiralling cost of UK defence projects signals hard choices”. I raised this issue at the most recent Defence questions. With the years 2020 to 2023 being the most critical in the equipment procurement plan, I fear what Professor Malcolm Chalmers of the Royal United Services Institute highlighted in the FT article:
“the historic response at MoD has simply been to push programmes to the right and allow service dates to slip.”
That story followed last month’s excellent National Audit Office report, which highlighted, among other things, that the “headroom” used to account for any potential overspend had already been spent. The report stated that
“any further capability requirements during the lifetime of the Plan period will have to be met through a reprioritisation”.
I know that all those situations put the Minister in a really difficult position, but the clear questions that I must ask again are these. When will we see the national shipbuilding strategy? Can the Minister assure us that, by 2023, the Royal Navy will be able to form a fully functioning carrier group, with Type 26s, Type 45s and the requisite Royal Fleet Auxiliary ships? Finally, how will the shipbuilding strategy ensure that surface naval ships are prioritised in future procurement decisions? Let us hope that today we get some answers and that 2017 does become the year of the Navy, not the year that the Navy wants to forget.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Evans. I congratulate the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Douglas Chapman) on securing this very important debate. He raises some very interesting points. Certainly I have been trying to get answers to them through parliamentary questions, but we are getting the usual stonewalling from the Ministry of Defence, which has become a habit in recent times.
The important thing is to ask this question: what is the status of Sir John Parker’s report? It was announced in the 2016 Budget, which stated:
“The government has appointed Sir John Parker to lead the national ship building strategy, which was confirmed in the Strategic Defence and Security Review 2015.”
It also stated that the report would be published in the autumn of 2016, which in MOD-speak means anytime between December and the following June. The press release stated that it was a Treasury-led, not a MOD-led review. That is important. It was announced by the right hon. Member for Tatton (Mr Osborne) when he visited Portsmouth naval base.
The report was published, strangely, not as a Government report but as Sir John Parker’s own report. The jungle drums in the MOD tell me that there was a bit of concern about whether the Secretary of State would put his name to this report, and he decided not to. That has left the report in limbo in terms of what influence and status it will have in the forward thinking about not only our naval shipbuilding strategy, but our wider industrial strategy.
I am also concerned about how this matter fits into broader defence industrial strategy. I asked the Minister on 12 January when we would publish a defence industrial strategy, only to be told that there are no plans to publish a separate defence industrial strategy, but that the national shipbuilding strategy—Sir John Parker’s report—would be added into a broader cross-Government piece of work on industrial strategy. That is important because we have basically abandoned having a separate industrial policy and strategy in this country. That is important because of the jobs that are relied upon and the important capabilities that we need in this country. The Government seem to have just mashed that into the rest of wider industrial policy.
A basic question needs to be asked about shipbuilding: do we want sovereign capability to produce complex warships in this country—yes or no? It is a very simple question that the Government need to answer to give reassurance about the future of the jobs—which the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife raised—and the technical expertise. The problem is that people look at a warship and think that the bulk of the cost and expertise has been met on the outside. It has not. The main value and technology in it are the skills that go into designing it and into systems integration. Our supply chain goes way beyond the Clyde—there is a national footprint of companies in leading-edge technologies. We need to ask whether we want those skills in this country or whether we will just buy from abroad.
When I was first involved in shipbuilding in the late 1980s, the then Government competed at different yards. We had Swan Hunter, Yarrows and Cammell Laird around the country and the Government used to compete contracts between them. At the end of the day, it was pork barrel politics as to who got the contract and that ultimately meant that Swan Hunter closed. Clearly, the strategy after that was to concentrate complex warship building in one yard. That made absolute sense. That one yard is on the Clyde, whether we like it or not. There is no other way of doing it.
The concern I have about Sir John Parker’s report—there are some points in it that I agree with—is that it is a bit naive. It has looked at building the carriers, which are on a huge scale in terms of block modular build, and then more or less said that we can start building Type 26s and others in a modular format. Well, I am sorry but I do not think we can—no disrespect to my hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow (Mr Hepburn). These ships are on a different scale. We need one yard to do the integration—the actual build. The idea that we are going to build them around the country to try to get some competition goes back to an argument we had in the late 1990s. I come back to the basic question of whether we actually want complex warship building in this country.
The issue is not just the capability. There is naivety among some people who think that they can order these ships like ordering their next car. They decide what colour they want, go to the showroom and say, “I will have a blue one and we will have a yellow one next year.” That is not how this happens. These are very complex warships and pieces of defence equipment. We need to retain not only the technological capability but the skill base in the yards and in industry, and we need a drumbeat of work going through to ensure that we do that. A classic example of when we got that wrong is when the Conservative Government in the 1990s took us out of submarine building. That led to all the problems we had trying to regenerate the capacity in Barrow for the Astute programme. Unless we keep that drumbeat going, we will get into a situation whereby we cannot rely on the fact that when we need a complex warship, there is one there to be delivered. We cannot turn these skills and capabilities on and off like a tap when they are needed.
One of the real dangers is exactly what the hon. Gentleman describes. As the yards in Glasgow await the commencement of the Type 26 project, engineers—highly skilled workers who can work in many different fields—will not wait around forever.
The hon. Lady makes a very good point. The issue is not just about generating the skills in the first place—the key investment that companies need to make in apprenticeships and other things. This is now an international market. There are perhaps engineers working on the Clyde who, if there is no work, will move elsewhere in the world. In some cases, they will not come back to the industry. We found that with the Astute programme; nuclear engineers left and trying to get them back, or regenerating those skills and expertise, was very difficult.
Again, the hon. Gentleman makes a very good point. This is an international market and these skills are very sought after. This comes back to my point that if we want this capability in the UK, we have to nurture and protect it and the only way to do that is by having a throughput of work.
The hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife raised the issue of the Type 26. The delay is adding to that uncertainty. The wider piece really concerns me. To give the impression that we are going to have that drumbeat of work, we have had the Type 31 inserted into the programme. I have studied in detail to try to find out what the Type 31 actually is; no one has been able to tell me yet. It is a bit like the mythical unicorn—everybody thinks it exists, but no one has ever seen one. If the MOD can say that there is a budget line for it, it should please identify that—in the current procurement there is no budget line for it at all in the programme.
As people know, I am a bit of an anorak on this subject and I actually study the MOD accounts, but I still cannot find where this budget line is. Another point that has never been answered is what this ship will actually be used for. I am not sure where it fits into any naval strategy. Will it be able to meet, for example, Britain’s NATO capabilities? Will it have capability to fulfil those roles? If it has not got the air defence capability, it will not. The other thing that people have completely missed is that this is about not just building the ship, but running it afterwards. We all know that there is a crisis in recruitment and manpower in the Royal Navy. Again, where is the budget line for not only building but running this generation of ships?
The hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife makes a very important point. The Government say that the great thing about the ships is that they are exportable; I am sorry, but we are bit behind the game on this. He rightly identifies at least two other nations that have product out there.
There is another point about strategy. This is about not only skills but the defence of our country, because if we have the gap between the Type 23s going out and the Type 26s coming in, there will also be a gap in the nation’s capability. I understand that there is an ongoing extension programme for some Type 23s, but we need clarity, because if there is a gap, we will not be able to protect the carrier groups or some of our other capabilities.
That leads me to the wider piece about the Government’s strategy in this area. The Prime Minister argues that she is batting for Britain and that Britain is the key market, but we have a situation in which the Ministry of Defence, obviously leant on heavily by the Treasury, is happy to have multimillion-pound contracts with the United States—the Apache and P-8 contracts, to name just two—with no commitment whatever that proportionate workshare will come back to the UK economy. I asked the Minister a written question about the Apaches, and I think Boeing said that 5% of the programme’s value will come back into our supply chain. That point is important not just for the number of jobs, but to keep the capability that we need in this country. I cannot imagine for one minute the United States doing something similar, even before President Trump took office, and things will get even worse now. Exporting highly paid jobs and capability from this country is inexcusable. I do not want to see the same thing happening in shipbuilding, so that we will perhaps just buy ships off the shelf from the United States or anywhere else.
A few weeks ago I asked the Minister in a parliamentary question what she was doing to monitor whether Boeing, for example, would put enough jobs into the economy. She fudged the answer, saying, “We don’t monitor this area.” I am sorry, but that is inexcusable. What really irritates me is that if a British company sold a piece of defence kit to the United States of America, there is no way that we would not have to give guarantees about workshare and jobs in the United States. My fear is that without joined-up thinking on shipbuilding, if we are not careful, a time will come when the Treasury says, “Isn’t it cheaper just to buy these from abroad—from the United States or somewhere else?” We would then lose not only the sovereign capability that is so important to this country, but the skill base and jobs that come with that.
I come to my final point. It is about time that the Ministry of Defence fessed up that it has a huge problem, which is only partly of the MOD’s making, because this is actually a Treasury issue. The National Audit Office report is clear about the procurement budget. The Ministry of Defence is falling into an old habit—as a former Minister in the Ministry of Defence, I know this is easy to do—of just pushing the budget sideways, which is what has happened with the defence budget. However, there are other pressures on the day-to-day in-service budgets. Ships are being laid up, for example, because the cash is not available to run in-service services. In addition, there is a huge black hole—it was highlighted in the NAO report—that the MOD has to deal with. We are not talking about separate money; it will have to find £8 billion over the next 10 years for the defence estate. All that falls within the defence budget, so if does not come out of one place, it will come out of another.
The Government need to be honest about where they are with the equipment budget. The Opposition got lectures from the incoming coalition Government about how frugal they would be, in terms of ensuring that they did not over-commit on defence, but they are clearly doing that now. The shipbuilding strategy needs to be published soon. If we are going to answer yes to the question, “Do we want a sovereign capability for shipbuilding in this country?”, we will have to put the money behind it and ensure that the work is of a nature that allows the industry to develop its skills and retain that capability.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) and to have listened to his technical expertise in this area. I very much appreciated his speech and particularly his support for the Clyde shipyards. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Douglas Chapman) on securing the debate, and it is always a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Evans.
I shall start, as the hon. Member for North Durham did, with the extraordinary process regarding the strategy. He is not the only one who thought that Sir John Parker’s report would be the national shipbuilding strategy; I and other hon. Members of the House did too, as did trade unions and the defence industry.
I remember that exchange, and there was clearly confusion about the report. I also find it extraordinary that although Sir John Parker’s report was sent to the Ministry of Defence on 3 November 2016, this is the first opportunity that hon. Members have had to discuss it in detail. In November or December, there should have been a debate, or a series of debates, on the report, so that hon. Members could give their views on it and feed into the process. I shall come to that later.
I was very concerned when it was pointed out to me that on 2 January in The Daily Telegraph—not necessarily a newspaper that I subscribe to—MOD sources were not only saying that there is no budget for the Type 31, but that it will not happen and the plan will not be realised. We need to go back to the former Prime Minister’s announcement on the Clyde in my constituency in 2014, when he promised that 13 Type 26 frigates would be built on the Clyde. We were then told that there would be eight Type 26 frigates and five general-purpose frigates. As the hon. Member for North Durham outlined, we do not know exactly what that capability is, but we were told, “It’s okay; relax, because eight plus five equals 13.” We are still awaiting the final sign-off, not only for the eight Type 26 frigates but for the five general-purpose frigates. I hope that the Minister will tell us, if there is indeed a budget for Type 31 frigates, what it is and what the procurement timetable is for Type 26 and Type 31 frigates.
I would be very concerned about that, and I will come to the effects of that later. Sir John Parker’s report is an honest attempt to end the “feast and famine” procurement processes by the Ministry of Defence that have often plagued the shipbuilding industry. If any other public services carried out procurement processes in the way that the Ministry of Defence does, there would be uproar in the streets—imagine if it was equipment for the health service or education, and so on.
I am pleased that Sir John Parker’s report also recognises the capability and skills of shipyard workers on the Clyde—in my constituency, in the Govan shipyard, and in Scotstoun, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan)—working on digital technology adapted from the automotive sector and with new working practices that have increased productivity. It is an honour and a privilege to represent them in this Parliament. The shipyard workers are also supported by trade unions and are represented at shop-floor level by representatives who have campaigned tenaciously over the years to ensure that future work is secured. Any announcements that come from the Government are a victory for them more than anyone else. However, as someone who had family members in Yarrows who were made redundant under a Tory Government, I always view such commitments from this Government with suspicion when it comes to shipbuilding.
Sir John Parker’s report also recognises that the Royal Fleet Auxiliary ships should be assembled in the UK. It really is a nonsense that that work has been farmed out elsewhere. I would hope that Rosyth, to cite one example, would have that opportunity. Failure to ensure that Royal Fleet Auxiliary ships are built in the UK will make the report fall at the first hurdle. An award to a UK yard for Royal Fleet Auxiliary ships would demonstrate that the Government are serious about ensuring that an export model can be achieved and that investment in technology can be kept.
My hon. Friend is talking about Type 31s, but given the fact that the Secretary of State and also the leader of the Conservative party in the Scottish Parliament have said that there will be work on the 13 Type 26s, where is that guarantee from the Government?
I hope we will get that today. I hope the Minister will give us that commitment.
There is one fatal flaw, however, in Sir John Parker’s report, which needs to be tackled. His assumption that there is no precedent for building different first-class naval ships concurrently is wrong. In the 1990s, Yarrow shipyards were building and constructing Royal Navy ships as well as exporting ships to Malaysia. This precedent was envisaged by the Clyde shipyard taskforce in 2002, chaired by the then Scottish Executive Minister, Wendy Alexander, and the former Scottish Office Minister, Brian Wilson, which ensured that the Govan shipyard was responsible for the steelworks and that Scotstoun was to become the centre for excellence.
There is therefore reason to argue that Govan could construct the Type 26 frigates and Scotstoun could develop the new Type 31 frigate, using the specialist design capability to ensure that it could be exported to other countries. Such technical expertise to carry out the work is already there on the Clyde, but it will require investment. MOD pressure not to invest in the frigate factory—promises that led to the demolition of the covered berth and module hall at Scotstoun—has meant that we still have a constrained capacity and that the full potential for shipbuilding on the Clyde has not yet been realised. I want to hear from the Government about progressive plans with respect to shipyard reconstruction to unlock significant long-term advances and savings for the industry so that it can win more orders, not only here but from overseas.
Sacrifices have been made by shipyard workers on the Clyde. Let us not forget that to get to where we are now, workers on the Clyde took redundancy to ensure that the rest would be kept and that they would be match-fit to build the 13 Type 26 frigates. I hope that today the Minister will confirm procurement processes for the Type 26 and Type 31 frigates. The trade unions have said that failure to ensure that the Clyde leads on the general-purpose frigates would be a betrayal.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate, Mr Evans. I am conscious of the time and will make sure that we all get a chance to participate.
I thank the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Douglas Chapman) for bringing the issue forward today. He spoke very well, as he always does. He has been an advocate for shipbuilding across the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, where we are all better together, as I often say, Mr Evans—I am sure that in this case you would probably say, “Yes, you’re probably right on that.” [Laughter.] I digress slightly, Mr Evans; I apologise for doing so.
This is an issue that I have given much thought to and had much discussion about, having just come off the Select Committee on Defence. I am pleased to see my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson) here. He took over my position on the Defence Committee and is already much involved in the issues. It is good to see him here and involved in the work on that Committee.
We have what is undoubtedly the finest Navy in the world. That is a recognised fact. That is no surprise, given that we are a small group of islands. At one stage we were described as the empire on whom the sun never set, as we controlled so much of the world. Our Navy was a major reason for that and our Navy retains a major role in the strength of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland today.
A strong army needs a strong fleet, and this is where the national shipbuilding strategy must play its part in the process. These are the facts: the Ministry of Defence is in the middle of an ambitious recapitalisation programme for its naval surface fleet. The Government plan to spend some £19 billion over the next decade on surface ships for the Royal Navy and Royal Fleet Auxiliary.
The Royal Navy designates a class of frigates and destroyers as a Type. The Navy has a fleet of 13 frigates, all Type 23s, which will begin to leave service from 2023 onwards. Hon. Members who have spoken so far have expressed concern—it is my concern as well—about the delays and the timescale, and about the quantity and numbers as well. We look to the Minister today for a response that can put our minds at ease and allay our fears.
Plans to replace the fleet changed significantly in 2015, when the Government dropped proposals to replace it on a one-to-one basis with the yet-to-be-built Type 26 frigates. Only eight Type 26 frigates will be ordered, and a new class of general-purpose frigate, unofficially known as the Type 31s, will be developed. We spoke on the topic of the Type 26 in October, and my stance today is as it was then, when I said:
“It is my desire...to see the new British fleet built in Britain. As we have said, we are marching to the steady drumbeat of orders, and that must be the way we move.”—[Official Report, 18 October 2016; Vol. 615, c. 308WH.]
Hon. Members have suggested that although the drumbeat of orders is on paper, we need to have it confirmed and the timescale needs to be in place.
BAE Systems is the prime industry partner for naval warships and submarines. I welcome the Government’s confirmation that the steel is to be cut on the Type 26 in summer 2017, although as the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) said earlier, summer can develop into autumn—or indeed winter, whatever the case may be. The work will be at BAE’s two remaining shipyards, both located on the Clyde. Again, I can say it is within the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. I welcome the commitment, but the Government have not gone far enough and there is much uncertainty about what the highly anticipated report will bring.
I read an interesting report—Members have referred to it—on a website called Save the Royal Navy. Its opinion on the Parker report states:
“On 29th November Sir John Parker’s report to inform the UK National Shipbuilding Strategy...was published. Commissioned by the Treasury, exasperated with decades of continual delays and cost increases to warship construction, the report is concise and written in clear layman’s language. The 34 recommendations are eminently sensible and the report has generated at least temporarily, a warm and fuzzy feeling of consensus and optimism.”
That is a positive response looking towards the future. However, that report goes on to say:
“Amongst independent observers there is cynicism about whether any of the recommendations of the report will be implemented at all. Most of the issues highlighted have long been known but nothing has been done for years. By commissioning the report, the Treasury has at least created a roadmap to escape the current shipbuilding malaise which will be difficult to ignore.”
Perhaps the Minister will respond to that. The report continues:
“It is now up to government to properly fund, endorse and enforce the recommendations when it formulates and implements the actual shipbuilding strategy next year. Should those in power be bold enough to do so, it would go a long way to reviving the RN and have great benefits to UK industry.”
This is exactly the phrase we want to see:
“It is now up to government to properly fund, endorse”
and fulfil the recommendations—and, I would say, their obligations as well. That is why we are here this afternoon. These are matters of national importance and we need to impress upon our Ministers, particularly the Minister who is here, the importance of implementing the review and incorporating the recommendations for shipbuilding for our Navy.
We do not always get full details from the Library, but on this occasion we have oodles of information, which has been very helpful to inform our speeches. One thing that has not been mentioned is the issue of logistics ships. We have heard much about frigates, but I want to mention logistics ships on the record, because—the Minister will know this—it seems that South Korea is going to build them, and I want to know: why are we not building them here? I mean no disrespect to South Korea—it has a lot to do and is very expert in what it does—but I would like our people to have the opportunity.
There has been a suggestion that conversions from commercial shipping might be the right solution. If it is the solution, let it happen at home, using our own shipbuilding expertise. We have shipbuilders throughout the UK and they must benefit from Government contracts. A Ministry of Defence principle ensuring that only home firms get the work is a must. It is important to entire communities that rely on the work and the money. More importantly, however, we do not ask for ships to be built only to save jobs; we need those ships for the security of the nation. Sometimes that point is lost in the debate. We are thinking about the security of the nation, to make sure that we are okay. We have a duty and responsibility. I should like to say that I have every confidence—provided that the Minister gives a good response today. We must impress on her how vital it is to have a strong, fully functioning Navy. That can happen only with proper frigates and the right types of ships.
I implore the Minister to set our minds at ease and ensure that the report takes into consideration all that has been said, in the valuable contributions made by all Members to the debate. Certain things cannot be scaled back, and one of those is our defence capability. The Navy is an essential component of that, which must be recognised in the forthcoming national shipbuilding strategy. I thank the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife for setting the scene, and all other hon. Members who have spoken. We look to the Minister for the response that we need.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Evans. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Douglas Chapman) on securing this important debate. The timing could not be better, given the revelations about the cost of UK defence projects in all forces, not only the Navy. I want to raise two points. The first is about our priorities. They are set in the national security strategies and should flow into the strategic defence and security review and the Government’s priorities in this area. The second is the effect of the recent National Audit Office report on procurement for large defence projects and the affordability of the national shipbuilding strategy that we anticipate.
The national security strategy and the SDSR should inform the procurement process and, because of that, the national shipbuilding strategy. However, there seems to be a logical inconsistency in how that is applied. In paragraph 75 of the SDSR, the Ministry of Defence is quoted as saying that the document will
“determine priorities for investment to ensure that the UK has a full suite of capabilities with which to respond to defence and security threats”.
Page 67 identifies the three tiers of domestic and overseas risks, grading them as tier 1, 2 or 3 threats,
“based on a judgement of the combination of both likelihood and impact.”
Taking that at face value, the National Security Council has identified terrorism, international military conflict, cyber, public health, major natural hazards and instability overseas as the tier 1 threats facing the UK. That exercise having been undertaken, one would have thought the resources would follow the perceived threats and their perceived likelihood, but that does not seem to be the approach followed by the Ministry of Defence, particularly in the present case.
Yes, I think that is a concern that many of us have—that the priorities identified in the risk assessment done for the document I have quoted are not being followed in Government spending. Perhaps that is why there has been delay after delay in the project.
If we are going to take the SDSR process seriously and look at the assessment of what we need for the defence of the country, we must deal with tier 1 threats first—that is why they are tier 1 threats. Clearly, if we are to meet the threats identified, the shipbuilding programme is essential.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) noted, the Government promised that 13 Type 26 frigates would be built on the Clyde, then revised that substantially, to eight, with five multi-purpose frigates. At paragraph 90 of its report on the 2% level of spending by the Government, the Defence Committee correctly identifies the risk to the Type 31 programme:
“Should...the ‘concept study’ to investigate the potential for a new class of lighter, flexible general purpose frigate be unsuccessful, we wish to be informed at the earliest opportunity of the MoD’s contingency plans to deliver the extra ships to satisfy the total originally promised.”
The Government’s response to those concerns merely indicates a willingness to keep the Committee informed. We are looking for some more concrete answers from the Minister today. Furthermore, we still await confirmation that the frigates will be built on the Clyde. Should that not occur, it will be a betrayal of the Clyde workers, as my hon. Friend said. They would be entitled to feel betrayed; it would threaten the yards’ capacity to deliver complex warships in the future and would undermine the UK’s ability to meet the challenges identified in its own national security strategy and the SDSR.
My second concern is that the shipbuilding strategy will not be affordable. I am concerned that there will be further backtracking on the commitments. It is fine to have a strategy, with many large new procurement projects, but if there is no money to actualise the strategy, what is the point in the exercise? According to the National Audit Office’s report “The Equipment Plan 2016 to 2026”—which the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones), among others, has already alluded to—the price of the plan has ballooned by 20%, to £82 billion, in a single year. That means that the Department has allocated all headroom previously set aside in the plan, removing all the flexibility to accommodate additional capability requirements. That is why we need reassurance today.
Given that the Type 26 project started at a projected cost of £343 million per hull, according to the 2015 major projects report, and is now £1 billion per hull, according to oral evidence to the Defence Committee, the MOD does not have, and never has had, a proven track record of acquiring big-ticket items on time and on budget. Rather than dealing with those pressures in the past, it has pushed the programmes further down the list and allowed service dates to slip, exactly as has been described today.
The hon. Gentleman must have read my mind, because I am coming on to say that point 18 of the NAO report summary states:
“Changes in foreign exchange rates, such as those that happened after the EU referendum, can pose a significant risk to the Plan’s affordability in the future. As at 10 January 2017, the pound was 21.4% below the exchange rate with the US dollar and 4.2% below the exchange rate for the euro used in the Department’s planning assumptions. Approximately £18.6 billion of the Plan is denominated in US dollars and £2.6 billion in euros over 10 years.”
That will have a major impact.
I understand that the Department has a certain amount of protection against foreign exchange rates in arranging its finances, but does it not worry the Minister that such a large amount of the plan is predicated on foreign exchange rates, with the Government appearing to be gambling that the rate will not go up further? Given the Government position that economists cannot be trusted, which is what many current Ministers said during the recent referendum—and going by even a cursory look at the financial predictions before Brexit—can we really have any confidence that the envisaged programme can be afforded? That is why we need reassurance today.
The shipbuilding strategy is long overdue and, given the current state of the Department’s books, it is badly needed to provide clarity for those working in shipbuilding and those monitoring our national defence readiness going forward.
My hon. Friend will correct me if I am wrong but, to take F-35s as an example, they are 85% built in the United States, and therefore bought in dollars. That is critical when we reflect on the impact of the fall in the pound compared with the dollar.
Absolutely. That illustrates the point very well. I hope that the Minister will reassure us today about the Type 26 programme and the Type 31 programme, about the ships being built on the Clyde as promised, and on the affordability of the shipbuilding strategy that the Government will hopefully soon present. Finally, I hope that by the end of the debate we shall know with certainty when the overdue shipbuilding strategy will be published.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Evans. I sincerely thank my hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Douglas Chapman) for securing this important debate.
I am pleased to see that all the constituent parts of the United Kingdom are represented here today, but I have to ask: with the honourable exceptions of the Minister and the hon. Member for Bury St Edmunds (Jo Churchill), where are all the Government Members? On the day we debated the royal yacht Britannia, one could not get one’s nose through the door for Government Members wishing to contribute. Yet here we are, discussing the national shipbuilding strategy, and apart from the honourable exceptions I mentioned, not a single Government Member is here to take part or even listen.
I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline and West Fife; as always, he has hit the nail on the head. I join him in seeking an assurance from the Ministry of Defence that it will be able to form the functioning carrier group that he mentioned. I also join him in seeking a cast-iron guarantee that the building of surface ships will not suffer as the big-ticket items begin to come on to the books over the next decade or so. I look forward to the Minister addressing those questions.
I recognise the contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Steven Paterson), who questioned—rightly, in the light of the National Audit Office report—how the Government intend to pay for this equipment, given that we have been told that there is no headroom whatever, the contingency funds have gone and the costs are ballooning.
I commend the tenacity of my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens), who has been a tireless campaigner on behalf of the shipbuilders of his constituency and of workers the length and breadth of the country. I hope the Minister was listening carefully when he articulated the fears of workers on the Clyde at Scotstoun and Govan.
The hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) was correct to refer to the status of Sir John Parker’s report. We were told that the strategy would be delivered; then, after it was not delivered, we were told that Sir John Parker’s report was merely for information. I would like to know when that was decided—I will return to that point in a moment. The hon. Gentleman also raised the vital question of the status of the Type 31s. I hope that the Minister will clarify the exact role that the Type 31s will play. Will she give cast-iron guarantees that they will actually happen?
My hon. Friends the Members for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes), and for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan) raised an incredibly important point: the delays and uncertainty caused by holding back the national shipbuilding strategy are in danger of producing a skills flight from Scotland, particularly from the Clyde. As we have heard, Canadian shipbuilders are already advertising locally in and around Glasgow, promising jobs in Halifax, Nova Scotia. That is deeply worrying.
The contributions from Scottish National party Members can be summed up with a single question: when will the Government finally publish the national shipbuilding strategy? As so many of us have said, it has been much discussed in this House. It has been talked about, promised and threatened; as my hon. Friend the Member for West Dunbartonshire said, we were even told on one occasion that it had actually been published, only for it to disappear again. The hon. Member for North Durham described the national shipbuilding strategy as a unicorn, and in many ways he is right. However, I tend to look at it as the Maris Crane or the Mrs Mainwaring of UK politics—a central character in a long-running series who is much talked about and around whom entire storylines may be based, but who is never, ever seen. Sadly, while Maris Crane or Mrs Mainwaring are cleverly constructed comedic devices, the national shipbuilding strategy is descending into farce.
I look forward to the Minister’s attempt to use smoke and mirrors to explain why the House and the people whose livelihoods depend on the report are still waiting for it in February 2017, when it was promised many times that it would be here before the autumn statement. My first memory of the national shipbuilding strategy being promised goes back to 12 September, when the Minister said that it would be delivered in November. In an answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South West on 18 October, she repeated that
“the national shipbuilding strategy will report by the autumn statement.”—[Official Report, 18 October 2016; Vol. 615, c. 318WH.]
There were no caveats, qualifications or stipulations—nothing to suggest that that would not happen. It was a clear and unequivocal promise that the strategy—not a report that would inform the strategy, but the strategy itself—would be delivered before the autumn statement.
The Minister then told me at Defence questions on 7 November that
“the national shipbuilding strategy…will be announced nearer to the autumn statement…I am sure that there will be great news for shipbuilding across Scotland and the whole of the UK.”—[Official Report, 7 November 2016; Vol. 616, c. 1237.]
How would we know? We have never seen the strategy. It has not appeared.
We were given false hope on 12 December when I asked the Minister directly why the national shipbuilding strategy had not appeared, despite all the promises. She told me that I was
“complaining about the lack of publication of a report that has been published”.—[Official Report, 12 December 2016; Vol. 618, c. 485.]
She even offered to send me a signed copy of it. Needless to say, signing, gift-wrapping and sending something that did not actually exist proved a step too far, even for the not inconsiderable skills of the Minister.
Sadly, it is a will-o’-the-wisp—it does not exist. Perhaps it will come when Brigadoon next appears.
The rest of the country and I remain without the national shipbuilding strategy, signed or unsigned. Five months after the first recorded promise that it would be delivered, we are still waiting. I fully concur with my hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline and West Fife that our frustration at being led a merry dance by the Government over the shipbuilding strategy must be as nothing compared with the frustration of the shipbuilding workers and the servicemen and women of the Royal Navy who depend on the strategy for their livelihoods. We may poke fun at the Minister, but let us never forget that we are dealing with people’s lives and people’s jobs. Those people deserve respect, and when their Government say that something will appear on a given date, they should be able to trust that it will.
The Minister has a lot to address in her reply, but I ask her to address the following questions in particular. When will we see the national shipbuilding strategy? Will there be a full carrier group capability in 2023, as my hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline and West Fife asked? Can she guarantee that surface shipbuilding will not be squeezed as the cost of Trident soars, the economy shrinks and the pound loses value? What is the status of the Type 31 frigates, as the hon. Member for North Durham asked? Can the Minister guarantee that they will be built? Will she give a timetable for the construction of the Type 26, as she has been asked? Is she aware of the levels of concern that have been caused by these delays, and will she act accordingly?
There is so much about the national shipbuilding strategy that needs to be discussed. At the risk of repeating myself, I am sorry that so few Government Members are here to listen to this vital national debate. I look forward to the Minister’s reply.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Evans. I congratulate the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Douglas Chapman) on securing this debate; it is on a very important subject and, as has been said, it has given us a first opportunity to discuss Sir John Parker’s important report.
I welcome the contributions of Scottish National party colleagues, the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr Jones), who showed his expertise in this area. However, it is a great shame—a crying shame—that there are no Conservative Members of Parliament present, apart from the Minister and, rather belatedly, somebody else who I think has come in for another debate. It is a great shame that we have not had a full Chamber and that we have not all been able to debate collectively what is a fundamentally important issue for this country.
I will focus my comments on the situation regarding the strategy from the Ministry of Defence. My starting point, of course, is what the Government themselves declared in 2015 in their strategic defence and security review. They said that they were committed to maintaining a fleet of 19 frigates and destroyers, and that they intended to complement that force with a new class of lighter and flexible general purpose frigates. At that time, they correctly made the link between the need to develop our national security and the promotion of our domestic prosperity. The Government proudly announced then that a new national shipbuilding strategy
“will lay the foundations for a modern and efficient sector capable of meeting the country’s future defence and security needs.”
In the Budget of 2016, the Government proudly announced that they had appointed the eminent Sir John Parker to lead and write a national shipbuilding strategy, and it was promised that a report would be prepared and presented to this House in 2016.
However, there has been genuine confusion and I hope that the Minister will take this opportunity to clarify the situation. On 29 November 2016, we had a report from Sir John Parker, but it was not, as we had been promised, the Government’s national shipbuilding strategy. Many people thought that it was—some Ministers thought that it was—but it was not. Instead, we had an “independent report” on the UK’s national shipbuilding strategy from Sir John Parker.
My questions are quite simple. How did that metamorphosis take place; why did it take place; why is there confusion; what contact was there between the different Departments; and who is taking the lead on this issue? Those are very important questions about something as fundamental as the strategy for our future warships, which is not an issue that can be lightly dismissed. I echo what other Members have said: we would all like answers from the Minister about what on earth has happened and what on earth is going on.
Of course, Sir John’s report is very radical and extremely scathing about how things work, or rather do not work, within the Ministry of Defence regarding Royal Navy programmes. The report has a very interesting, informative and worrying chart about the length of time it takes for projects to develop to fruition. For example, Sir John points out that it was in 1967 that the conceptual start of the Type 21 frigates began and they were delivered nine years later. As for the Type 23 frigates, the conceptual start date was in 1978, but it took 17 years for that project to come to fruition. Goodness knows how long it will take for the Type 26 frigates.
Sir John asks why there have been such long delays. Why has this process taken such a long period of time? In some ways, the demands upon the frigates have changed. The world has changed and defence requirements have changed, but there is still that laborious project time before us. Why has that happened?
Indeed, I fully support those points. The situation is very worrying for all concerned, not least the people who are employed in the shipbuilding industry and the local communities from which they are drawn.
Sir John gives a number of reasons why the long delays have occurred. He makes 11 points. I will not go through all of them, but will just pick out some of the reasons he suggests. He says that there has been
“A lack of assured Capital budget per RN ship series, subject to annual arbitrary change, with accumulative negative impact on time and cost with accompanying increased risk of obsolescence”.
That is very worrying. He also says that there have been
“Poor linkages across the ‘Total Enterprise’ including industrial capability and capacity”.
He goes on to say:
“Senior decision-makers have, previously, been engaged too late in the process and not always with high quality information and costing data”.
“The MOD has lost expertise in both design and project contract management”.
He says that there has been
“Inadequate evaluation of risk contingency in each project”.
Those are some of the damning reasons why Sir John says there have been delays. I suggest that they are an indictment of the MOD, which really must sort things out once and for all regarding its procurement and governance strategy for warships.
Once the strategy has been written by the Government, when will it be published? I will not ask for the exact day or week, but will it be published in March, April, May, or whenever? We would like some sort of indication. Once it is published, we would like to know what sort of consultation there will be and how long it will last. I ask that because we want to have a full debate on every dot and comma of that important policy document.
I recognise that the Minister will not say very much about what might or might not be in that report. Nevertheless, I have a number of questions for her. First, will the Government sort out, once and for all, their procurement and governance systems for warship construction in this country? There really ought to be a masterplan that should be reviewed at each SDSR, and as part of that approach there should be a partnership with both the industry and the trade unions. As Sir John has suggested, a shipyard trade union representative ought to be appointed to attend regular meetings, to enhance the transparency and efficiency of the processes that are under way.
Secondly, will the Government commit to working with their industry partners and trade unions to enhance the training and educational capabilities and facilities, so that there is the correct mix of skills and competence, particularly with regard to the new digital systems that are coming on stream?
Thirdly, will the Government commit to having a small but highly specialised virtual innovation centre to force through, among other things, advances in design, new materials and productivity improvements? As Sir John has argued, such an innovation centre is necessary if we are to oversee the new “global competitiveness plans”, which I believe the Government want to see being created.
Finally, will the Government commit to placing a greater emphasis on the exporting of British-built ships, as well as British project management, design, equipment and sub-systems? Will they not only engage in general rhetoric, but commit to specifics, as part of a great national effort to ensure not just that British-built ships are used for British defence, but that the expertise in this country is sold for the benefit of navies throughout the world?
I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response to my questions.
In the short time available to me—I want to leave a bit of time for the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Douglas Chapman) to say a few more words at the end of the debate—I will attempt to answer all the questions that hon. Members have put this afternoon, to the extent that I can.
The 2015 strategic defence and security review set out a clear plan for the Royal Navy. For the first time in a generation, we are growing our Royal Navy, and this major programme of investment will increase our nation’s power and reach. There seems to have been quite a lot of discussion in the debate about the exact timings for various different documents. We made it clear in the Budget last year—I will quote the exact wording—that:
“The government has appointed Sir John Parker to lead the national ship building strategy, which was confirmed in the Strategic Defence and Security Review 2015. He will report by Autumn Statement 2016.”
In the end, it was 29 November. My office assures me that a copy of the report was sent to the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O'Hara). I am happy to take bids on whether it has been suitably autographed. If he has not received it, he should have, by this stage.
I have not received a copy. I look forward to a signed copy; it would be far more valuable. If what she is now saying is right, why did she say on no fewer than four occasions that the national shipbuilding strategy will be delivered by the autumn statement? It was unequivocal.
It is about the distinction between the report and the Government’s publication of the national shipbuilding strategy. A range of people raised this issue, so I make it clear that we are considering Sir John’s recommendations, and we will provide a full response, which will be what we can all call the national shipbuilding strategy. It will be published in spring 2017. I am sure Members will appreciate that I cannot be more precise than that in terms of a specific date.
Will the Minister outline the process? A few Members have mentioned that, including the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David). Once the Government publish the national shipbuilding strategy and its response to Sir John Parker, what is the process? Who feeds into that response?
In previous engagements at the Defence Select Committee, the Minister has indicated her willingness to travel throughout the United Kingdom to see the other opportunities that are available. Given that the largest dry dock and the second largest dry dock in the United Kingdom are in my constituency at Harland and Wolff, I look forward not only to the Minister visiting, but to formulating plans that can feed in to her final report and considerations.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for an obviously irresistible invitation. I hope I will be able to take him up on it in the not-so-distant future. For the record, I say to the hon. Member for Jarrow (Mr Hepburn) that I am in Newcastle tomorrow. I look forward to meeting a range of manufacturers. I will not specifically be meeting A&P Tyne on this occasion, but I met A&P in Falmouth only last week.
In the SDSR we announced our plans for a naval programme of investment. We are investing in two new aircraft carriers, which are currently being completed at Rosyth. We are investing in new submarines to be based in Scotland at Faslane. We have announced our plans for frigates. We are building five new offshore patrol vessels on the Clyde at the moment. We have ordered new aircraft, including the maritime patrol aircraft, the P-8, which will be based at Lossiemouth. Scotland is clearly doing well out of defence, and the UK is doing well in defence with Scotland, and 2017 is the start of a new era of maritime power, projecting the UK’s influence globally and delivering security at home. I do not have time in this debate to list all the different ships we have deployed across the world’s oceans.
I know the appetite of Members for publications. They will have all read the 2016 equipment plan, which we published last month. It laid out the plans in more detail and announced that the total amount that will be spent on the procurement and support of surface ships and submarines over the next decade amounts to some £63 billion. It is all part of the continued modernisation of the Royal Navy in the coming years, which will be underpinned by our national shipbuilding strategy. It is very much our intention that the strategy will be a radical, fundamental reappraisal of shipbuilding in the UK, with the aim of placing UK naval shipbuilding on a sustainable long-term footing. It will set the foundations for a modern, efficient and competitive sector, capable of meeting the country’s future defence and security needs.
The hon. Gentleman will have read the equipment plan. I do not have the exact quote here, but clearly we have a very ambitious equipment plan. We are expecting to spend some £63 billion on ships, support and submarines.
I want to convey to Sir John Parker the thanks of all Members who have spoken today for his excellent report. He is clearly a highly respected expert. Importantly, he has taken an independent approach to the report. He has had a high level of engagement with stakeholders. Members asked about his engagement. He has visited all key industry leaders and all the companies across the UK that design and build ships, including in Northern Ireland. He has visited small and medium-sized businesses in the supply chain. Industry stakeholders were engaged at all levels. He brought strong strategic direction and guidance to the work, for which we are immensely grateful. He also met trade bodies, trade unions, Ministers, civilian and military officials and, indeed, the hon. Members for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan) and for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens). He has been thoroughly engaged with everyone.
I have not got much time left, so I will speak very briefly about exports, which a range of Members raised. The report makes an important recommendation about exports. We have already started that work, working closely with the Defence and Security Organisation in the Department for International Trade. Members can expect to hear more about that in the coming weeks and months.
The Type 26 programme is a key element of our investment plans. To meet our needs, we require eight to replace the eight anti-submarine-focused Type 23 frigates. Members will be aware that the Defence Secretary announced in November last year that, assuming successful completion of the negotiations, we expect to sign a contract for the first batch of the eight planned Type 26s and cut steel on the first ship this summer. That would give BAE Systems on the Clyde work until the early to mid-2030s. Commercial contract negotiations are intense and ongoing, so I cannot make any more information available to the House today. The investment will sustain shipbuilding skills at the shipyards on the Clyde and continue to provide opportunities in the wider supply chain around the UK. The ships will provide an anti-submarine warfare capability, which is essential for the protection of our nuclear deterrent. SNP Members had a bit of a political pop at me, but they would do well to remember what I have just said. Their two political obsessions—Scottish independence and ending our continuous at-sea nuclear deterrent—would be two of the worst things that could befall the Scottish shipbuilding industry.
Briefly on the Type 31e, Sir John recommended that a new class of lighter general purpose frigate should be given priority. He was clear that it should be designed to be exportable, but capable of incorporating the needs of the Royal Navy. A lot of work is under way on that in the MOD. It is in the pre-concept phase, and further information will be made available in the national shipbuilding strategy.
In summary, the MOD is working with colleagues across Government and with industry to examine Sir John Parker’s report and its recommendations in full. I recognise that Members value the shipbuilding jobs in their constituencies, and I assure them that the Government are committed to an industrial strategy that will increase economic growth across the country and refresh our defence industrial policy.
I opened the debate by talking about déjà vu, but the debate has been déjà vu writ large. I asked when we could expect an announcement on the national shipbuilding strategy. There was no reply from the Minister. We asked how the carrier group will be secured when it is at sea. There was no reply from the Minister. We asked whether surface ships would be prioritised in the budget, and again, there was no commitment from the Minister. What we did discuss was whether a signature was on a document. What we really need to see is her signature on contracts to ensure that jobs on the Clyde are safe and secure for the years to come.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the national shipbuilding strategy.
Construction Industry: Blacklisting
[Sir Alan Meale in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered blacklisting in the construction industry.
This debate relates to a secretive, insidious and shoddy practice that has brought shame on our construction industry. As shadow Secretary of State for Business, I initiated a lengthy debate in the main Chamber on the issue in January 2013. I return to it publicly today because it is my strong view that those who were responsible for it have yet to be properly held to account for their actions and the matter has fallen off the radar in this place. My intention is to put it firmly back on the national agenda.
The hon. Gentleman must be telepathic because he pre-empts what I will come on to. I will address that issue later.
First, it is important to state that although the issue has brought shame on the construction sector, there is still much to be proud of in the sector—look at the Olympic Park venues, Heathrow Terminal 5 and the new buildings that we see springing up around us on time and on budget in so many different communities. Let us also never forget why the sector is the success it is: primarily because of its construction workers. They build the offices and factories we work in. They build the homes in which we live. As a nation, we owe them a huge debt of gratitude, particularly when we consider those who have lost their lives working on construction sites in this country.
There is also a dark side to the sector—anyone who has worked in it knows this only too well—that leads to good people being subject to the most terrible injustices. As a result, lives have been ruined, families have been torn apart and many have been forced out of the industry.
What am I talking about? What is blacklisting? For the record, it involves systematically compiling information on workers, which is then used by employers or recruiters to discriminate against them, not because of their ability to do the job, but because they have raised health and safety issues or been active trade union members. It has meant that people cannot find work and therefore cannot support their families—they cannot put food on their children’s plates—and the result is all the stress and upheaval that come with that.
My hon. Friend talks about many lives being ruined by the blacklisting of workers. Does he agree that it is time we put on record the work that the Union of Construction, Allied Trades and Technicians, Unite and the GMB have done in securing settlements for the workers who were treated so badly?
I completely agree with my hon. Friend. She, too, must be telepathic. Not only am I a member of Unite and the GMB, and proud to be so, but UCATT, which is now part of Unite, is headquartered in the centre of the universe: my constituency. The work that the unions have done is so important. I practised for almost a decade as an employment law solicitor before being elected by my constituents and I have seen injustice in the workplace, but I have never seen injustice on this scale.
The extent of the blacklisting activity in the construction sector was exposed for all to see following the raid in 2009 by the Information Commissioner’s Office on the shadowy and secretive organisation called the Consulting Association. Further details emerged in the last Parliament, during an excellent and extensive inquiry into blacklisting carried out by the Select Committee on Scottish Affairs. My hon. Friend the Member for Ashfield (Gloria De Piero) mentioned the work of the unions, and a lot of the evidence provided to that Select Committee was provided by those trade unions, which also worked with the ICO, as well as by the blacklisting support group.
The Consulting Association was born out of a right-wing organisation called the Economic League, which was set up in 1919 to promote free enterprise and to fight left-wing thinking, to which it objected. That included Members of this House. The former Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, had information collected on him. The league, which blacklisted more than 10,000 people, was wound up in 1993, but its construction sector member companies wanted to continue this unforgivable practice and its activities, so the Consulting Association was born.
According to the Information Commissioner, 44 construction companies made up the hall of shame that was the membership of the Consulting Association at the time of the 2009 raid, including five companies in the Amec group, Amey Construction Ltd, six Balfour Beatty companies, BAM Construction Ltd, Carillion plc, Kier Ltd, Laing O’Rourke Services Ltd, Morgan Est and Morgan Ashurst, which are now known as Morgan Sindall, Sir Robert McAlpine Ltd, Skanska UK plc, Taylor Woodrow Construction, and VINCI plc —to name just a few of the companies listed. In 2009, half of the 20 biggest construction companies were all named as being involved in the association.
Skanska has a base in Pencoed in my constituency. It blacklisted more than 111 workers or families. Will my hon. Friend join me in condemning that company for its actions? I echo any statement that he makes calling for a public inquiry, which I fully support.
I completely endorse my hon. Friend’s comments. Let us put what the Consulting Association was doing into context. It did not just maintain lists and files on thousands of construction workers; the material that it collected included personal information, such as information on workers’ private relationships, in addition to whether they had raised health and safety issues, their trade union activities and so on.
It is worth reflecting on this: member companies were charged a £3,000 annual fee to be part of the Consulting Association and then had to pay £2.20 on top of that for each blacklist check on a construction worker. For the cost of £2.20, the association would be able to dictate whether a worker got a job and whether they could put food on the table that week. Worse still, taxpayers’ money was being used to inflict that misery on people. Blacklisting checks were carried out on workers on publicly funded projects, ranging from airport runways, the Jubilee line, the millennium dome, hospitals, schools, roads and Portcullis House on the parliamentary estate—I could go on.
In addition to the blacklist checks, David Clancy, the Information Commissioner’s investigations manager, who carried out the raid in 2009 and is himself a former police officer, gave evidence to the Scottish Affairs Committee that he believed that some of the information held by the association would have come from the police or security services, because of the nature of that information. I mentioned the private information that was collected—for example, one file features an in-depth analysis of an individual’s home circumstances and what his neighbours thought about him. I have seen some of those records, and it is clear that they contained information based on the surveillance of individuals away from construction sites. It is improbable that such information came exclusively from the construction firms themselves.
What about the legal protections for construction workers and the system of redress for victims? Although it was and remains unlawful to refuse employment on the grounds of trade union membership alone, at the time of the 2009 raid on the Consultancy Association there was not a specific prohibition on blacklisting. Following the raid and the emergence of the blacklist, the Labour Government acted to outlaw blacklisting and introduced the Employment Relations Act 1999 (Blacklists) Regulations 2010, which allow individuals to bring civil claims against those found guilty of blacklisting in employment tribunals. If successful, that can lead to compensation of between £5,000 and £65,300. However, the regulations were not retrospective, and there is no criminal sanction. In truth, I believe the Labour Government should have acted much earlier, because that was too late for many victims.
Perhaps more shocking still is the fact that the firms that set up the association and supplied the information to and accessed the blacklist were neither charged with any offence nor ordered to pay compensation to the workers. To date, not one director of any of those companies has been brought to book for what happened. That is an outrage.
In October 2013—shortly after we had the debate on this issue in the main Chamber—a number of construction firms announced that they intended to establish a compensation scheme for workers who had been blacklisted. On the surface, such a move should be welcome, but there are many problems with the Construction Workers Compensation Scheme. It was brought together without reaching prior agreement with the trade unions—which, as I said, have been absolutely critical in all this—and it provides inadequate compensation. Applicants to the scheme are required to waive any future legal claims, and the companies involved do not have to admit liability or give an apology as part of the process. In fact, the workers were able to get a public apology only by dragging the construction firms kicking and screaming through the courts. I again pay tribute to the Blacklist Support Group, some of whose members are here today, which secured an apology from the firms involved in the Consulting Association in the High Court, although many victims feel that the apology was half-hearted and insincere.
Serious questions remain about the role of the police services in the collection and passing of information to the Economic League and the Consulting Association. I know that the undercover policing inquiry chaired by Sir Christopher Pitchford has said that blacklisting is potentially a matter within its scope. That is welcome, but not enough. It should be within the scope of that inquiry. There are many unanswered questions, and we cannot let this matter go.
What am I asking for from the Minister? Let me deal with the law first. As cases have progressed through the courts, it has become apparent that the blacklisting regulations need to be strengthened. For example, the extent to which it is possible for those who are not employed in the strict sense of the word but are self-employed to bring claims under the regulations if they have been refused work is unclear. That is important, because we know that full self-employment is an endemic problem and is rampant in the construction sector. Claims can be brought in employment tribunals or county courts, but the cap on compensation in a tribunal is £65,300. There is no cap in a county court, but to bring a claim in a county court there are added risks for a potential claimant because of the costs involved, and they need more resources. It is easier to do it in an employment tribunal, as there are not the costs consequences, but the claim has to be brought within three months of the alleged unlawful conduct, and sometimes people who have been blacklisted do not realise it for some time.
The upshot of all that is that the only legal remedy for some is a complaint to the European Court of Human Rights, based on the right to privacy in article 8 and the freedom of association in article 11. For all those reasons—I could go on, but I will not go back to being a lawyer and bore people—the Secretary of State needs to carry out a review of the law in this area to look at how it might be tightened up.
The second issue is public procurement. I want the Government to adopt the Scottish Affairs Committee’s recommendation that all UK Government agencies and devolved Governments must require firms that have been involved in blacklisting to demonstrate how they have “self-cleaned”, as the Committee put it, before being allowed to tender for future public contracts. Those that have not done so should not be allowed to tender. The Welsh Government have introduced that measure, and I think it should be introduced across the whole of the UK.
There are lots of unanswered questions. Pitchford does not pick up on all of them, and nor do the cases we have seen. Were the intelligence services involved? We need a full public inquiry into this issue because people have not seen justice and we do not know exactly what happened. We cannot allow a climate of fear to hang over our construction sites. No worker on any building or in any other workplace up and down this land should hesitate before reporting an unsafe site or a dangerous working situation. The bottom line is this: if people do not report their concerns and do not highlight dangers, people could lose their lives, so this issue is very serious indeed. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Alan. I congratulate the hon. Member for Streatham (Mr Umunna) on securing this debate and on speaking with such knowledge and passion about this terrible blight—this terrible indictment of companies in the construction sector, particularly during the 1990s.
I share the hon. Gentleman’s view that the blacklisting of trade union members and activists is an indefensible practice. What I have heard today really horrified me. However, I think we have an appropriate legislative framework for dealing with any further attempts at blacklisting, which is why we are not in favour of a public inquiry at the moment. Such an inquiry would perhaps have had an effect 20 years ago, and I regret very much that one was not held then.
The Information Commissioner intends to undertake a call for evidence later this year to develop her understanding of the underlying issues, building on her office’s observations from its extensive investigations into blacklisting complaints. In an area where there have been many allegations, that is an important step forward in establishing a true picture of the level of blacklisting that may or may not take place now.
Following the 2009 investigation of the Consulting Association—a case that Members are all too familiar with, thanks to the hon. Gentleman—the Government strengthened the legal protections in this area. The Employment Relations Act 1999 (Blacklists) Regulations 2010, which the hon. Gentleman referred to, make it unlawful for an individual or organisation to compile, sell, use or supply a blacklist of trade union members or those who have taken part in trade union activities. Individuals can enforce the rights contained in the regulations through employment tribunals or the county court, as the hon. Gentleman said.
I am not aware of any evidence that the blacklists regulations are not doing their job, but should any new information come to light to suggest otherwise, we will certainly consider it.
In July 2016, the Minister told me in a written answer that the Information Commissioner was investigating some allegations of blacklisting. She committed to consider any further action that might need to be taken as a result. Will she give me an update, please?
There is no further update. The Information Commissioner’s Office is undertaking such inquiries and when it reports to me I will consider the contents of what has been found.
The Information Commissioner’s Office is an independent regulatory body that was set up to investigate breaches of the Data Protection Act 1998. It has the power to take enforcement action, including searching premises and issuing enforcement notices and fines. Since April 2010, it has also had the power to issue a civil monetary penalty of up to £500,000 for serious breaches of the Act. That is a significant deterrent and a vast improvement on the previous rules, which allowed a maximum penalty of only £5,000. Data protection law is undergoing reform as a result of the general data protection regulation, which is to take effect on 25 May 2018. The powers of the Information Commissioner’s Office to impose fines will substantially increase as a result.
In 2009, the Information Commissioner’s Office established a fast-track helpline for those who thought that they might have been affected by the Consulting Association case. I congratulate the trade unions mentioned by the hon. Member for Ashfield (Gloria De Piero), which campaigned for and won compensation, and the Blacklist Support Group, members of whom are in the Public Gallery today, on their work on this matter.
When the Information Commissioner’s Office considered that a person might appear on the Consulting Association list, they were asked to provide further documentation. It has continued to run that service and to respond to written requests for information. To date, the helpline has received and responded to about 5,700 calls and 3,000 written requests. The nature of blacklisting is that it is secretive and discriminatory, however, and it can be difficult for individuals to know whether they have been affected by the practice. If people suspect that they have been blacklisted, they can report their concerns to the Information Commissioner’s Office, which will provide advice on how an individual may choose to take the matter further. The Information Commissioner has also attempted proactively to contact individuals who might have been affected, although that is only possible where up-to-date contact details are available.
The Minister is coughing so I will intervene to allow her to take a swig of water. While she is doing so, I will ask three questions. First, on a public inquiry, I understand what she says about the history, but the fact that events happened in the past has not stopped other big public inquiries, such as those into Bloody Sunday and Hillsborough. Will she explain why that should stand in the way of a public inquiry into blacklisting? Secondly, does she accept that it is difficult for the self-employed to use the legislative framework?
Finally, will she answer this point that has been made to me by people in the sector: there is a feeling that the Leveson inquiry into media behaviour came about in part because powerful, important people were subject to an abuse of media power and that, because we are talking about construction workers, the Government and the establishment are not taking the blacklisting matter as seriously. What does she say to people with that view?
I will come back to the hon. Gentleman’s third question in a minute. On the second question, the self-employed are covered by the legislation. I accept that it may be more difficult for them to exercise any powers, but they are covered by the Data Protection Act. A self-employed individual may make a complaint to the Information Commissioner’s Office.
On the more vexed question asked by the hon. Gentleman, there have been public inquiries in the past to do with people without power who have been affected by dreadful instances. That we are talking about a group of workers who are traditionally not very powerful and perhaps do not earn huge amounts of money has nothing to do with the matter. Personally, I think that such individuals are more entitled to protection and safeguarding than the wealthy and powerful.
The compensation on offer is, absolutely, for serious amounts of money. The Information Commissioner’s Office has taken action, and approximately £100 million has been extracted from the industry for a compensation scheme and to satisfy the results of court actions. The matters we are discussing are being taken very seriously.
On the question of a public inquiry, is not the point that much of the information that has come into the public domain has done so in an utterly random way? That is why there is a need for a powerful and systematic examination of whatever evidence might be out there.
We are now in a position where compensation and redress are available, and there is an absolute law against anything similar happening again. For the time being, we are not considering a public inquiry because action was taken back in 2010, as I mentioned. The Information Commissioner has also now announced a call for evidence. Pending the outcome of that, we will consider the framework and whether it is still appropriate. For now, no public inquiry is under consideration, but we will see what happens after the Information Commissioner’s call for evidence and its subsequent report.
I encourage anyone who thinks that they might have been blacklisted by the awful Consulting Association and who has not already done so to get in touch with the Information Commissioner’s Office through its helpline. Furthermore, the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992 prohibits an employer from refusing employment because someone is a union member, so that is illegal. Individuals who believe that they have been discriminated against can, as I said, bring a claim at an employment tribunal. Dismissal for such a reason would automatically be unfair.
I understand the desire for the blacklists regulations to be applied retrospectively, but in 2010 the Government decided that that was not appropriate. The compensation package is available, blacklisting is now against the law and the Government’s response to the consultation was clear about a new, specific criminal sanction not being proportionate. The Government will ensure that any allegations of blacklisting are investigated by the appropriate authorities.
We already have procurement rules that allow the Government not to enter into a contract with a company found guilty of a criminal offence or found wanting in ethical standards. It may well be that blacklisting can be shoehorned into that. Certainly, any company guilty of a criminal offence would not be considered for a public contract under the public contracting guidelines.
I think that I have answered the other points, so if there are no further interventions, I will sit down.
Question put and agreed to.
Private Renting: Homeless and Vulnerable People
I beg to move,
That this House has considered private renting solutions for homeless and vulnerable people.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Alan. I refer hon. Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I will talk about the housing problems around the country, but of course every area is different, and I concede that some of the ideas and statistics that I apply to my arguments may help the situation differently in different parts of the country.
The private rented sector is an increasingly important route out of homelessness. When renting works for homeless people, it can be life changing. It is often a huge step towards finding a job, reconnecting with family and rebuilding lives.
I am well aware that the hon. Lady and her colleagues frequently deal with cases in which people were made homeless for precisely that reason, which is an increasing problem. I will come on to talk about some of those issues, and I hope that the Minister can add some flesh to the bones of the White Paper that was published yesterday and the work that he is doing on tenure with the private rented sector.
Finding a home in the private rented sector can be difficult, and we all know that despite the Government’s welcome move to ban letting agent fees, up-front costs often act as a barrier for people trying to access the private rented sector. Research by Crisis shows that 16% of landlords report increasing the deposit when renting to homeless people, 12% increase the rent required in advance and 15% increase the contractual rent.
By way of example, I want to pay tribute to a constituent of mine, Adrian Smith, who runs Swift Logistics in Newbury. He discovered that one of his temporary agency workers had collapsed due to epilepsy, because he was finding it difficult to manage his medication as he was homeless and living in a tent. Adrian stepped in, gave him a clean uniform, offered him a permanent position and talked to him about his situation—things that I am sure he would do for any of his employees who were going through a rough patch. Adrian then started to look for accommodation for that employee. There was very little affordable accommodation in Newbury that suited that individual, and anything that Adrian found was made impossible because once the landlord or his agent discovered that the prospective tenant had debt problems—he had a county court judgment against him—they demanded six months’ rent up front. We can see the vicious circle here. I see some of the ideas put forward by organisations such as Crisis, which I will come on to talk about, as possible solutions to such cases.
My hon. Friend will come on to talk about various organisations that help people with homelessness. Shrewsbury Homes for All in my constituency does a good job of trying to help homeless people. Does he agree that the Government ought to do more to help such organisations?
Unless we are extremely hard-hearted, we are all moved not only by the huddled figures in doorways and the cases that come to us of people who are either homeless or likely to be homeless but by organisations in our constituencies such as the one my hon. Friend mentions. It is when those organisations work with local authorities and a Government and all point in the same direction that we can get real solutions to this problem, and I am sure that that happens in his constituency.
The Centre for Regional Economic and Social Research found that 55% of landlords said they were unwilling to let to tenants in receipt of housing benefit, and even more—82%—were unwilling to rent to homeless people. The majority of local authorities agree that it has become more difficult for single homeless people to access private rented accommodation.
I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for securing the debate. Does he acknowledge that the number of private landlords who turn away housing benefit claimants is partly to do with cuts to housing benefit and the fact that it is more of a struggle for tenants to pay the difference to their landlords?
It is for a multitude of reasons, but the hon. Gentleman is right that that factor has contributed in certain areas. I applaud private landlords who take housing benefit tenants. Not all of them do, and they need to be supported in trying to do so. I recognise that that is part of the problem, and some of the solutions that I will talk about go precisely to that point.
The all-party parliamentary group on refugees has found that landlords increasingly are not taking another category of people: newly recognised refugees. They are unable to provide sufficient documentation to prove their status and struggle to get a deposit and first month’s rent in the 28-day move-on period to ensure that they get the tenancy that they deserve.
Many local authorities are doing noble work in trying to provide accommodation for the refugees—particularly the Syrian refugees—who we have taken in. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s local authority for doing its best. However, there will be several problems at the next stage, because we want those people to be assimilated into our society, get work and be able to function like any other person. We want to ensure that we have systems in place to allow them to transition from the support that they get at the moment. I have direct experience of that in several areas, and I am keen to talk to him about trying to find longer-term solutions to the issue.
The problem that we are talking about is coupled with the capping of local housing allowance and the shortage of available accommodation at the shared accommodation rate. Those burdens can result in people ending up on the street. However, I believe that there are ways of making the private rented sector work for vulnerable people, and innovative solutions are being delivered every day. Homeless and vulnerable people are being helped and guided into the rental market and, most importantly, given the tools and support that they need to sustain lengthy tenancies. Creative change in the market has the potential to improve not only access but standards in the private rented sector.
On standards, does the hon. Gentleman agree that there is potentially an important role for private rented sector licensing schemes, such as the one in my borough of Newham, in helping to tackle the minority of landlords whose accommodation is below standard?
I am glad that the right hon. Gentleman, whom I respect greatly for his understanding of this problem, says that it exists among a minority of private rented sector landlords. One could have got the impression from yesterday’s statement that nearly every private landlord was a rougue who managed substandard accommodation. As he says, that is far from the truth. I entirely accept that in many cases, local solutions are better suited, but the Government should be given credit for really trying to move things on through a variety of measures, which are sometimes extremely burdensome to landlords but seek to raise the standard of accommodation and improve the way that landlords treat their tenants.
Evidence shows that when a vulnerable person is in secure and safe rented accommodation, they can leave their homelessness behind them and make a fresh start. That also makes good economic sense, which I hope will be a theme of the debate. If we get this right, there will be an entirely virtuous circle. Both the Residential Landlords Association and the National Landlords Association believe that, with the right support, financial risks can be reduced and letting to vulnerable people can be a viable business model. Even if hon. Members forget everything else that I say today, I hope that that will resonate with them. By changing perceptions, we can truly make the private rented sector work for all.
How does the hon. Gentleman feel that the private rented sector will become a viable alternative for vulnerable tenants when rental claims under universal credit are taking an estimated nine weeks—in reality, it is three months in my part of south London—to be assessed?
I recognise that that is a problem. If the hon. Lady will allow me, I will come on to talk about that. If I do not, I am sure she will intervene again. I very much want to talk about the variety of different factors that influence homelessness.
I want to tell the Minister about two potential solutions that may be of help. A lot of work on this has been done by the homelessness charity Crisis, which I cannot praise enough. It is totally focused on outcomes, working with us, whatever side of the House we sit on, to try to find solutions that work. There is nothing particularly new in the two schemes I am proposing, and they will be familiar to some. The first is a help to rent scheme and the second is a national rent deposit guarantee scheme.
WPI Economics developed a model to assess the cost-benefits of the services over a three-year period and identified that £31 million would be required per annum over that period. That would be made up of £6.7 million for the rent deposit guarantee scheme and £24.1 million for a help to rent project. In a time of cash-strapped Treasury forecasts, I want to show—if the Treasury is listening—that this makes economic sense, because it will reduce the cost of the burden of homelessness that sits on the taxpayer.
From 2010 to 2014, Crisis, with funding from the Department for Communities and Local Government, ran the private rented sector access development programme, which funded specific help to rent schemes across the country, which helped homeless and vulnerable people access affordable and secure accommodation in the private rented sector. I have seen that work in my constituency in a different scheme run by the Two Saints hostel in Newbury, which moves people from the wayfarer beds and being the huddled figures in the doorway I described earlier through to supported accommodation and then on to independent living. That works only because all the complex problems that we know exist in homelessness, particularly in rough sleeping—mental illness, relationship breakdown and alcohol and drug abuse—are dealt with throughout the process, which allows a sustainable solution to each individual’s problems.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. I agree with many of the points he has made. However, those people with chronic and enduring mental ill health find it very difficult to access any suitable social housing accommodation, particularly in big cities. That group has been let down badly by the private sector and I am not sure whether the solutions he is proposing will change that, given that those people are often going in and out of mental health hospitals. What thoughts does he have on helping that particularly vulnerable group?
Mental health problems can cause homelessness and homelessness can cause mental health problems. In this place we think of things only in silos. We have a very good Minister here from one Department, but if we really are to deal with this problem we ought to have a whole range of Ministers from the Department of Health, the Ministry of Defence and people from all the organisations who care for people sitting down on the equivalent of the Treasury Bench here so that we can do so in in a much more cohesive way.
The schemes I have been talking about matched tenants with landlords and provided financial guarantees for deposits and rent, with ongoing support for both parties. They provided the landlord with a deposit and insurance throughout the tenancy were problems to arise. They also offered the tenant training in budgeting and help to gain and sustain employment. During the programme, more than 8,000 tenancies were created with a 90% sustainment rate, which is an incredible achievement.
Another person we should have here is an Education Minister. One statistic I find fascinating is from the Centre for Social Justice, which showed that while the national average of educational attainment is that 60% achieve five A* to C grades at GCSE, the figure is only 27% among those who have to move more than three times during their secondary school education. We can therefore see the knock-on problems caused by people having to move frequently, and that sustainability in one home is so important.
The schemes also saved the Government money. In just three months of operation, 92 schemes saved almost £14,000 in non-housing costs. The schemes created homes for those who need them most and helped some of the most vulnerable navigate a complex market. With the security of a home and the floating support from a help to rent scheme, a vulnerable person is less likely to need assistance from other services. That is a point that my hon. Friend the Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter) will appreciate. Schemes varying in geography and specialisms still exist, yet without the funding they need they are unable to deliver all the services they would like to the number of people who need them. By working with landlords, such schemes have the potential to unlock the supply of private rented sector properties, which could particularly benefit areas where housing demand is highest. Local authorities could also incentivise good practice through the schemes as well as eliminate bad practice through enforcement policies.
Crisis is also calling for the second project I want to touch on: a national rent deposit guarantee scheme. To reduce up-front costs, help to rent schemes often offer bonds or guarantees to landlords in place of deposits, which cover certain types of costs that the landlord may incur at the end of a tenancy including damages and, in some cases, rent arrears. That was the case in the example from my constituency that I outlined earlier, where private sector landlords were demanding six months’ rent in advance. That means that vital funds are tied up in admin costs and reserves in case those guarantees are called in rather than in going into funding the support that helps vulnerable tenants sustain their tenancies. If the Government established a national rent deposit guarantee scheme, that would provide help to rent projects with greater financial security, with landlords safe in the knowledge that their property is protected and that the help to rent projects are providing the right support to help tenants maintain rent.
Crisis has found claims on bonds by existing schemes to be relatively low, within the 15% to 20% margin. That is one of the reasons why the schemes are attractive to the private sector trade bodies. It seems only fair that, along with help to buy, there is a similar scheme to help those who are just about managing and for whom purchasing a home is just not realistic. Crucially, both the Residential Landlords Association and the National Landlords Association support those asks of the Government.
Currently, schemes attract landlords through the development of a suite of services to mitigate the risks associated with letting to a vulnerable or homeless person or family. We could, and should, actively encourage more landlords to view working with those schemes as an effective business model. The moral argument aside, there are fiscal incentives to working with such schemes. For example, a targeted intervention by a scheme and a national rent deposit guarantee reduces the financial risks for landlords. Also, clients using the access support who have a history of homelessness are much more likely to be deemed vulnerable under universal credit and therefore they should be offered universal credit direct payments for a limited period, which landlords may welcome. I think that goes a little of the way to addressing the concerns of the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh).
Help to rent schemes give landlords a layer of security that they do not currently receive from letting agents or the local authority. Such interventions could significantly increase the landlord’s confidence to let to this vulnerable sector or to those in housing need, and that could be part of an agreed longer-term tenancy. Among landlords with experience of letting to homeless people, 59% said they would consider letting to homeless households only if that were backed by such interventions. I therefore believe that the rationale for Government is clear to see. These policies are cost-effective schemes that will provide stability in the private rented sector for the most vulnerable, helping to prevent and tackle homelessness. Investment in the private rented sector access support would build on the Government’s recent announcement for homelessness prevention trailblazers and the Prime Minister’s welcome commitment to put prevention at the heart of a new approach.
Government investment has the potential to reduce spending on temporary accommodation and the costs of rough sleeping. This would allow cash-strapped local authorities, such as mine in West Berkshire, to allocate more of their homelessness budget in a more targeted way—for example, West Berkshire Council continuing to support the mental health triage service, which is doing great work. Independent analysis commissioned by Crisis estimates that if access were available to all households approaching their local authority for homelessness assistance, some 32,000 people could receive support annually. The model assumed that if 60% of people leave temporary accommodation as a result of the scheme being available, savings amounting to between £175 million and £595 million could be realised from one year of the scheme.
Investing in the private rented sector access support fits with the Government’s wider agenda on universal credit and homelessness prevention. I was pleased to support the Bill promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) and will continue to do so. It will make a difference. My worry is that unless parallel schemes, such as those I have outlined, are introduced and accompany a review of the impact of the freeze on local housing allowances in certain areas, we could get into the mad situation where inadvertent actions by the Government create one problem on the one hand that my hon. Friend’s Bill has to solve on the other. I am pleased that the Prime Minister has made housing a priority in her wish to lead a Government that help those people left behind who have not benefited from recent economic growth. The White Paper is an important indication of that intent. I suggest to the Minister that here are two possible schemes that would work and put the private rental sector at the heart of achieving the Government’s ambitions.
Order. I intend to call the Front-Bench speakers at 5.10 pm so there is not much time left and a number of Members have indicated that they want to be called. If you could look at the clock and try to be as sparing as possible in your own contributions, that would help the general debate.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon) on securing this debate. I am here because I am full of rage. I am full of rage at the number of homeless families I see on a weekly basis who do nothing worse than work for their living and raise their children and who find themselves homeless because of a lack of security of tenure in the private sector. It is about time that MPs from all parties address the issue as it is, rather than as they might like it to be. Our constituents—the people out there—look incredulously at us as we seem to consider that, somehow, things are okay. They are not okay.
When I had a proper job, before I entered this House almost 20 years ago, I worked in the homelessness and housing association sector. Today, I see things in my suburban constituency that I never thought possible. The major reason for homelessness in my constituency—and, I am sure, in others in London—is mature families being evicted from assured shorthold tenancies in the private sector. These are not tenants who have been there a short while, abused the property or not paid their rent. In my experience—I am willing to share with any hon. Member the 147 cases that I have seen since 1 September that fall into this category—they are families with children at the top of primary school and the middle of secondary school. They are simply being evicted because the landlords can get more rent from somebody else and can realise the value of their assets. Neither of those things makes them bad individuals, but it makes for a very bad housing situation for someone to find themselves in.
There are consequences to this. I sit there and I go through the process. I say, “They’ll issue you with a section 21, then they’ll go off to the county court, then they’ll get a possession order and then you must wait for a bailiff’s warrant. You will get 10 days’ notice of the bailiff’s warrant, and when that comes, the council will put you in temporary accommodation in Luton.” We live in south-west London. Some of the people I have talked to did not know that a place called Luton existed, but they will soon find out. I am sure that Luton is a fine place, but if someone works in south-west London and their children go to school in south-west London, it is not the place where they want to live.
I have had similar experiences in my constituency surgery. Does the hon. Lady hope that the ambition, not least behind the Homelessness Reduction Bill, to deal with this matter might be realised? Sadly, responsibility is sometimes triggered only once the bailiff notices have been served. There is also the issue of the inappropriate placements in Luton. The ambition needs to be fulfilled by the housing White Paper—by ensuring that there is sufficient supply, but also that prevention duties are in place that actually mean something for the 147 families to whom she refers.
I have a controversial view on the prevention of homelessness Bill. I believe that it is a sticking plaster and does not resolve the problem. It simply puts more demand on local authorities, which cannot cope with what they have at the moment. At the heart of the matter is supply. At the heart of it is control, whether that is control over how much rent people have to pay, some control over landlords who are not prepared to maintain their properties or some control in terms of security of tenure. Unless those things are addressed, and addressed in numbers, the problem will not be resolved.
What are we doing to the children who find themselves in this position, who find themselves moving year on year, or six months on six months? These are kids who do well at school and want to be ambitious at school, but who never know or never experience the simple security of living in the same place for a reasonable length of time. That is life for people in my constituency, and the scary thing is that it is life for an ever growing proportion of people, not just people in poor, low-paid work—
I will not.
Increasingly, that is life for people in middle-class jobs who simply cannot get on the housing ladder and cannot rent something that is in any way affordable.
When the White Paper was presented to the House yesterday, the Minister talked of families for whom rent is 50% of their income. I regularly see working families whose rent is 200% of their family income. We have a crisis. I realise that everyone wants to speak and I do not want to prevent anyone from speaking. It is about time that we stopped pussyfooting around. We have to build homes that people can afford. Anything else does not address the issue.
I will try to limit my remarks, because I am acutely aware that the right hon. Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) wants to speak.
I have been very interested in this issue since I was at school in the constituency of the father of my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon) in the 1970s. I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. I did a lot of work talking to some people who were living in very damp accommodation. It was very important that we got them moved and got the house condemned as well. If we can actually sort out some of the homelessness issues, it is very important to ensure that people move into properties that are dry and acceptable, rather than, frankly, in an appallingly bad state.
When I was living in London full time, apart from making visits down to my constituency in Plymouth, I went to church at the Savoy chapel, which is in the heart of London, and the chaplain told an horrendous story about how, if someone is homeless, they feel dirty, no one talks to them and everything is all very difficult indeed. We have to take some action to try to deal with that.
My constituency of Plymouth, Sutton is an inner-city seat. It is south of the A38, running from the River Plym to the River Tamar, and has a significant level of deprivation, as evidenced by the 11 or 12-year life expectancy difference between the north-east of the constituency and the south-west, around Devonport. That is a very big issue, and we have to do something about it, and it is not helped by people being homeless. I am delighted that we have a hostel in my patch, where a lot of the homeless end up going, but I am appalled that the national health service has decided to close one of the GP surgeries in my constituency that deals with homeless people who live in that kind of hostel accommodation.
I was particularly distressed to read about that in my hon. Friend’s local paper because I think I opened that GP surgery for him. However, the point is that hostels are not the answer to the problem, particularly for vulnerable people with mental illness, because they need to be properly housed, and they are not being properly housed due to a lack of housing supply, particularly in the social sector. Hostels must not be—and are not—the answer.
I will not, because I am acutely aware that the right hon. Member for East Ham also wants to speak and it would be wrong of me not to leave him enough time.
On Christmas day, I spent the morning visiting several places that were providing lunch for the homeless. They included Hamoaze House, the Shekinah Mission, Stoke Damerel church and Davie hall in north Plymouth, where a number of events were being held for the homeless and I was able to hear for myself what was going on. It is very important that we provide the homeless not only with accommodation, but with access to GP surgeries. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter) for all the work that he did in opening that GP surgery. I feel real frustration that NHS England has decided to try and close it.
Next week I will be doing a surgery at the food bank, because it is important that people should use my offices to try to make sure we can sort out their benefits too. Without further ado, I am going to shut up, because I want to make sure that the right hon. Member for East Ham can speak as well. Next time, however, we need longer to debate this issue.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Oliver Colvile) for his considerateness.
My hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) is right that the problem is growing. In 2001, 17% of the residents in my borough—Newham in east London—lived in the private rented sector, whereas today almost half do. That rapid growth is continuing and has led to problems. Regulation in this area is weak. The hon. Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon), whom I congratulate on securing the debate, was absolutely right to make the point that the great majority of landlords do a perfectly good job and provide decent accommodation, but a minority do not. The private rented sector has a number of virtues, as we have rightly been reminded. However, when there are problems, vulnerable people suffer disproportionately. They frequently do not know what their rights are and get a very bad deal, which was why my local authority—it was the first in the country to do so—introduced borough-wide private rented sector licensing in 2013.
I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon) on securing the debate. I will make a few quick points. There is hesitancy among private landlords about renting out property to homeless people. They want long-term tenants; however, the most important thing is the benefit system. If things are not in place when people have to reapply for housing benefit, they then have to be reassessed and can fall behind. Landlords in many places worry about that, as do tenants in particular.
The hon. Gentleman is right about that. My hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden made the point that universal credit is making the problem worse because of the long delays before any payment is made.
I want to make a point to the Minister about the Newham private rented sector licensing scheme, which will end in December. The London borough of Newham is asking Ministers to allow the scheme to be extended for another five years. I would ask him to look sympathetically at that proposal and allow the scheme to go forward.
My right hon. Friend makes a powerful point. Will he comment on two points relevant to that? Landlord licensing deals with antisocial behaviour and other conditions, but not stock condition. Stock condition in the north is poor, and conditions in landlord licensing should be allowed to deal with that. If the Government were on people’s side, they would allow licensing conditions to include elements to do with stock condition.
Furthermore, as my right hon. Friend said, the private rented sector has grown, but it has also grown into former social housing, which existed to help poor people to rent. I find, as I am sure do many other Members, that former council housing is being offered in the private rented sector at twice the rent of properties currently in the stock. That should be stopped.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. In the Newham scheme, licence holders are bound by conditions, as he described, to prevent overcrowding and deal with antisocial behaviour, and to make sure that properties are well managed and safe. He is right to say that wider stock issues are outside the scope of the scheme.
Perhaps I can give an example from my constituency of what has happened. In Waterloo Road there is a typical terraced house with three rooms on the first floor and two on the ground floor. All five were being used for people to sleep in. In the main bedroom upstairs, which by ordinary standards is appropriate for a couple to sleep in, four single, unrelated people were sleeping. There were six others staying elsewhere in the house. That was 10 people in total, no doubt with a number of cars between them and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hyndburn (Graham Jones) pointed out, there were antisocial behaviour problems for the neighbours as well as grim conditions for those living in the house. Because the scheme was in place, the local authority was able to intervene. There was a fine of more than £8,000 and the position was brought under control.
Altogether, licences have been issued for 38,880 private sector properties in the borough and there have been 1,000 prosecutions since the scheme was introduced. Just 28 landlords have been banned for failing to meet the borough’s “fit and proper” test, in relation to 230 properties. The places where enforcement action is necessary are a small proportion of the total, but the fact that it is possible for the council to intervene in serious, problem cases is an important help to vulnerable people and others living in the borough. For that reason as well, I would particularly ask the Minister to respond sympathetically to the approach that I think he has already received—at least informally—requesting that the scheme should be extended for a further five years after it ends in December.
It is a pleasure to take part in the debate with you in the Chair, Sir Alan. I congratulate the hon. Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon) on securing the debate. I thought his speech was an honest assessment of the country’s current situation. It was refreshing and followed on from the honest title of the White Paper presented yesterday: I remind hon. Members that that is based on the situation in England.
The hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) made a passionate speech and touched on short-term tenancies and tenancy insecurity, and on the building of homes. What she said is right: it is the only way we shall get around the housing supply problems we face across these isles. I understand what the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Oliver Colvile) was saying about hostels, but we must surely be capable of providing something more secure and dignified to homeless people in this day and age. The constituency example outlined by the right hon. Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) reminds me of looking at census data from Victorian times. It is shocking and highlights the desperate situation that people find themselves in, particularly in London. Action must be taken on that.
The private rented sector has a clear role to play in assisting those experiencing or facing the prospect of homelessness. However, the problems it creates are also well known: affordability, landlords’ reluctance to rent to housing benefit recipients, a lack of security of tenure, poor quality housing and a lack of support for vulnerable people. All these make what is a potential source of vital support for homeless and vulnerable people more difficult for them to obtain.
The focus on seeking private rented solutions for homeless and vulnerable people presents challenges. Although there has been a growth in the private rented sector, changes to housing benefit entitlement since 2010 mean that it is more difficult for housing benefit claimants to cover the full amount of rent due, as I said in an earlier intervention. That is especially so for young people, who are seeing their support cut away. In the light of all of the UK-wide issues caused by the Government’s social security policies, I believe that the effective approach being taken in Scotland should be commended and articulated.
All local authorities in Scotland have a duty towards all unintentionally homeless households, regardless of whether they are classed as being in priority need. That is one reason why, in April 2016, Crisis recorded that Scotland has been on a “marked downward path” for the past five years in relation to homelessness. That downward path can be seen in the Scottish Government’s statistics from 2016, which indicate that 81% of unintentionally homeless households in Scotland that had an outcome between April and September of that year secured settled accommodation—not only in social housing but in private rented tenancies as well.
I welcome what the hon. Gentleman says about that progress, but I was in Edinburgh over the weekend and I was particularly shocked by the level of street homelessness. I am a London MP and have sadly seen an increase in that on our streets in London, but in Edinburgh it was extremely significant.
I would not for a minute even begin to suggest that we have all the answers in Scotland, nor that, just because the evidence from organisations such as Crisis suggests that things are going the right way, we cannot do more. Clearly, more can be done. I live near Edinburgh and know the situation there very well, which is a smaller version of what we see here in London. That is why some of the Scottish Government’s interventions, which I will touch on, are directed at that.
If private rented accommodation is to be a viable solution for homeless people, it is clearly imperative that protections are put in place to ensure that it is secure and affordable and provides an acceptable standard of living conditions. I will focus on some of the measures introduced in Scotland in the past decade that help to address some of those issues. In 2006, Scotland was the first part of the UK to introduce a mandatory landlord registration scheme, which we touched on earlier, in terms of licensing. The local authority must be satisfied that the owner of the property and the agent are fit and proper persons to let the residential property before registering them.
Commencement of the Private Housing (Tenancies) (Scotland) Act 2016 will remove the “no fault” grounds for repossession, and should mean that there is no risk of a retaliatory eviction in Scotland. When commenced, that Act will also introduce a new type of tenancy for the private rented sector in Scotland to replace short assured and assured tenancies for all future lets. The new tenancy will be known as a “private residential tenancy”, which will be open ended and will not have a “no fault” ground for possession equivalent to the current notice that can be given under section 33 of the Housing (Scotland) Act 1988.
Finally, the 2016 Act will allow local authorities to implement rent caps in designated areas—“rent pressure zones”; one such zone is in Edinburgh—where there are excessive rent increases. Applications must be made to Scottish Ministers, who will then lay regulations before the Scottish Parliament. Tenants unhappy with the proposed rent increase will also be able to refer a case to a rent officer for adjudication. Each of those rules and pieces of legislation help in different ways to ensure that the private rented sector is up to standard when used as an option for homeless and vulnerable people. There is clearly no point in placing homeless people in privately rented accommodation when it will only lead to an unaffordable rent, unacceptable standard of housing or an insecure tenure.
Thank you, Sir Alan. I quickly say to the Minister that there should be a slight review of landlord licensing to include the stock condition of individual properties, because that is not in the legislation. One issue that we need to tackle is sofa sleeping—the hidden homelessness. We talk about building new housing being the answer. It largely is, but not in my area; we have plenty of empty properties because of a lack of skills and a poor economy. We have to address skills in the economy if we want to get people into housing. The houses are there.
Finally, I want to raise housing benefit for under-21s. The cuts will start in April, but the Government have still not been clear what they will be or where they will apply. That affects supported housing. I know youngsters in Crossroads in Accrington, which is a fantastic resource. They are really vulnerable 16 to 19-year-olds from troubled families, who have tried to find a way for themselves. The situation they are in is not their fault. They rely on housing benefit. Even if housing benefit is not cut, Crossroads may close because Lancashire County Council may pull the funding. Local authority cuts may undermine supported housing even if housing benefit for under-21s is protected. I ask the Minister to clarify what he is going to do about housing benefit for under-21s to prevent further homelessness.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Sir Alan. I thank the hon. Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon) for raising this important subject. I will say a little more at the end of my speech about his specific proposals, which are worth while and which I commend to the Government—we will see what the Minister says about them.
However, I hope the hon. Gentleman will not mind if I take my cue more from the contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh), who spoke with extraordinary passion and knowledge. I have known her long enough to know that she is one of the most assiduous constituency MPs in the House and that she speaks from absolute experience. I am sure that her experiences have been shared by all London Members, including my right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms), and increasingly by other Members from around the country.
Let us start by making it clear where the problem started. It started, to a large extent, with the Localism Act 2011 and the permanent discharge of homelessness responsibilities into the private rented sector, alongside lack of security for social housing and an almost complete cut of capital expenditure. Suddenly, the private rented sector was on the frontline, faced with problems that it was neither ready nor able to deal with.
In an intervention, the hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Neil Gray) mentioned housing benefit cuts. We could add the benefit cap or the freeze on the local housing allowance, which the hon. Member for Newbury himself acknowledged. Those are among the reasons why, as my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden said, more than 40% of homelessness cases are principally caused by the eviction of people on assured shorthold tenancies, largely because of landlords simply wanting higher rents or not wanting to deal with people who are on benefits. Those are the real problems.
There is also the problem of shared accommodation. In 2012, the shared accommodation rate for under-25s was extended to under-35s. In its briefing for this debate, Barnardo’s asked that those who are leaving care be protected from that at least until the age of 25. The Minister may respond to that request, but it will still not resolve the principal problem.
The budget of the Supporting People programme for vulnerable people was cut by 45% between 2010 and 2015. These are huge sums. I appreciate that the hon. Member for Newbury is asking for relatively modest sums by comparison, but they will have relatively modest results.
Does the hon. Gentleman concede that there are some landlords in London—I speak with a little experience—who are in it for the long term? They want to build a relationship with their tenants and they have never evicted somebody at the end of their lease, because they want to continue that relationship. I want to work with Members on both sides of the House to create a longer-term offer to tenants so that they can have certainty, whether it is about the education of their children or about their own retirement. There are opportunities to work together to find solutions.
Nobody denies that the majority of landlords are good landlords, but I ask the hon. Gentleman: why has rough sleeping more than doubled—it has gone up by 133% since 2010—and why is statutory homelessness increasing hugely? He mentioned that the White Paper might give some detail. I do not know whether he has had time to look at what the White Paper says about the private rented sector, but he will not get much detail from it. There are five paragraphs with three proposals, two of which are ideas pinched from us but watered down, and one of which the Secretary of State has already pooh-poohed.
On letting fees, which are an important issue, the White Paper states:
“We will consult early this year, ahead of bringing forward legislation as soon as Parliamentary time allows”.
I thought that we were going to get something rather more quickly than that. The White Paper also states:
“The Government will implement measures introduced in the Housing and Planning Act 2016, which will introduce banning orders to remove the worst landlords”.
Again, that is good, but I heard the Secretary of State say in the House yesterday that looking for greater restrictions to deny houses unfit for human habitation was “frivolous”. I think that was the word he used. That does not show particularly good intentions. What on earth does it mean that we are simply going to encourage landlords to have longer tenancies? We need to legislate. We need longer tenancies if we are to stop the terrible curse of insecure accommodation.
The Homelessness Reduction Bill has the support of the Opposition, but we are waiting and taking our cue from local authorities, who know what they are talking about in this respect, on whether the funding will be adequate to the task. All the indications are that that will not be the case, despite the funding that the Minister announced. As my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden said, we are just putting more burden on local authorities, which are already charged with the responsibility without having the resources to deal with the problem.
This is a real housing crisis. I appreciate the intention of the debate and the specific measures. We are blessed with some extremely good, very sophisticated organisations now. I have a lot of facilities from what used to be Broadway and is now St Mungo’s Broadway in my constituency. It previously ran a scheme very much of this kind off its own bat. People went out and identified private sector accommodation, took vulnerable people and matched the landlord to the tenant. They gave that degree of support, as well as supporting people with deposits. That is an excellent thing to do and it is what the organisations do well, but it does need support and some funding.
I fear that we are not going to address the key issues. It is not just I who think that. Yesterday, at the launch of the White Paper, I did media with the former housing Minster, the right hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps). I never thought that I would agree with him on any matters in relation to housing, but his view did not differ much from mine, which is that the Government proposals are a sticking plaster and a missed opportunity. I do not say that with any pleasure, because this is the biggest social problem of our age. It is a problem that has accumulated over time. It is extraordinarily difficult for everybody, but it is particularly difficult for vulnerable people, young people and people who are made homeless through no fault of their own.
I hope that we are going to hear something from the Minister today. I welcome the engagement of all parties, including the landlord organisations. [Interruption.] I do not particularly want to be heckled; I am taking half of my time, which I am entitled to do. If the hon. Member for Newbury thinks that I am dealing with “frivolous” issues, as the Secretary of State does, he is welcome to say that, but let us have some home truths about what the real problems of the housing crisis in this country are.
I will do my best, Sir Alan. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon) on securing this important debate. I know that tackling homelessness is a priority for him. It is certainly a priority for me and the Government. I say at the outset that nobody should find themselves without a roof over their head.
Yesterday, the Government’s housing White Paper was published, which makes it clear that we are determined to make the private rented sector more affordable and secure for people. We have taken action to increase the supply of affordable and secure rented properties through the promotion of Build to Rent homes. That and other measures proposed in the White Paper will ensure that local authorities put more emphasis on planning for those rental schemes. We will certainly encourage the take-up of longer-term tenancies.
On the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury about securing private rented sector accommodation, as he set out in his speech, we have made a significant investment of £14 million from 2010 to 2016, working with Crisis, to develop a programme for single people to access private rented accommodation. More than 9,000 people were helped and 90% of those maintained a tenancy for more than six months.
My hon. Friend also mentioned the banning of letting agents’ fees for tenants. As he knows, we have brought forward proposals on that in the White Paper. We will consult on those proposals before we bring the policy forward. We have also set up a private rented sector affordability and security working group. On that working group, we have Shelter, Crisis, Generation Rent and landlord and letting agent representatives, and it is in the process of finalising its report. We have asked those organisations to work with us to see how we can reduce the costs and barriers people face in accessing private rented accommodation.
Homelessness, as has been discussed, is not just a housing issue. I am proud that we are giving our full support as a Government to the Homelessness Reduction Bill, the private Member’s Bill brought forward by my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman). The Bill has benefited from the support of Members, many of whom are here today. My hon. Friend the Member for Newbury spoke passionately about the Bill on Second Reading. We are also bringing forward £50 million of homelessness prevention funding. That money has been awarded to 84 projects that will work across 225 local authority areas in England. A number of those projects include working with the private rented sector. We hope, through that funding, to support more than 1,000 private rented tenants and help those who are at risk of losing their tenancies.
Turning to some of the specific questions that have been asked, my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury mentioned the complexity of homelessness, particularly in terms of mental health. He rightly said that there should be a line of Ministers here to respond to the issues. In that spirit, I chair a ministerial working group that brings together various Departments and Ministers to see what more we can do to deal with the underlying issues that relate to homelessness. My hon. Friend will know that in the Homelessness Reduction Bill is a duty to refer. That is an important first step in putting an obligation on public sector bodies to refer people who may be at risk of becoming homeless to the relevant local authority.
My hon. Friend mentioned schemes and the proposals from Crisis. We continue to discuss a number of issues with Crisis on an ongoing basis. He also mentioned giving areas the ability to get people into private rented tenancies and out of temporary accommodation. That was a very good point. We are devolving the temporary accommodation management fee, which we believe will help local authorities to move people out of temporary accommodation and into settled accommodation more quickly.
My hon. Friend the Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter) mentioned the challenges with people who are not in the right place. They may be in a hostel and need to move on. He will be glad to know that the Government have committed £100 million to move-on accommodation. That will create places for up to 2,000 people to move on from hostel accommodation.
The hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) mentioned tenancies. The average tenancy is four years, but there are challenges in areas where affordability is an issue. The bottom line is that we need to significantly increase supply, and we are doing that in London, as she will know, by giving £3.15 billion to the Mayor to bring forward a significant number of affordable housing units.
To conclude, I will write to Members who have asked any other questions, in particular the right hon. Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms), who made a very good point about licensing schemes. I will leave it there, but we are absolutely committed to tackling this important issue. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury for the debate, albeit a short one, although that was not his fault.
No, Sir Alan, I was conceding the time to the Minister, but if I may have the 30 seconds I would appreciate it.
There is an all-party group in this House called the all-party group for ending homelessness. Some people roll their eyes when we talk about ending homelessness, but it is only with such ambition that we can address the kind of outrage we all feel when we see someone who is homeless. I am grateful to the Minister for what he said. I hope he will work with Crisis, the Centre for Social Justice and other organisations to try to bring some of the ideas forward. Together, we can achieve a lasting solution.
Motion lapsed, and sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(14)).