House of Commons
Wednesday 12 July 2017
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
I remind Members, in so far as a reminder is required, that the ballot for the election of Select Committee Chairs is taking place today until 4 pm in Committee Room 8. The results will be announced when they are available; that is a statement of the blindingly obvious, but it is what it says here, to which I add, if this is helpful, that I expect to announce the results of the ballots at the end of the debate on Grenfell Tower this evening.
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Aid Programmes: Africa
1. What assessment she has made of the effectiveness of UK aid programmes in Africa. 
UK aid plays a vital role in helping the world’s poorest and tackling global challenges such as disease migration and terrorism. In Africa, since 2015, we have provided humanitarian assistance to 13.7 million people.
I congratulate the Secretary of State on her announcement this week on population. Given what Mrs Gates said about the impact on migration, will the Secretary of State consider how the core funding for organisations such as the International Planned Parenthood Federation and Marie Stopes International can be reinstated to allow those organisations to deliver what they have been doing effectively for some years?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right; these are important organisations. Of course, the United Kingdom has led the way on the whole issue of family planning, as we showed yesterday through the summit we held. We are constantly looking at how we can work with important partners on that critical issue and, in particular, on family planning and modern methods of contraception. We will of course review these programmes, too, as all programmes are always under review.
In welcoming the fab decision by the Prime Minister to appoint a joint Minister from the Department for International Development and the Foreign Office to sub-Saharan Africa, will the Secretary of State confirm what her priorities are for driving forward Her Majesty’s Government’s priorities in Africa, rather than just DFID and FCO priorities?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to commend the fact that the two Departments are working together on Africa. There is a very good reason for that. We are, of course, one HMG—one Government—and our priorities are the same priorities when it comes to Africa: tackling the big issues of disease, migration and economic development, which is critical, and growing regions such as Africa so that they can become our trading partners.
What is the Secretary of State’s assessment of the current humanitarian and political situation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo? In particular, what are the Government doing to assist in tackling the humanitarian crisis there, and also to ensure that Congo can move to democratic elections as soon as possible?
I thank the hon. Gentleman, the Chair of the Select Committee, and congratulate him on his reappointment to that role. He is right to stress the significance of what is going on in the DRC. The situation is very worrying; there are many humanitarian pressures that we know of in-country, and the current electoral and democratic situation is not sustainable. We are of course working on the ground and with our partners to ensure that we continue to provide the support that is necessary to get the country back on track.
14. In recent years, UK aid has played a key role in helping Ethiopia to become more resilient to crises by ensuring that people have a safety net so that they do not starve when a crisis hits. Does the Secretary of State agree that the British public can be immensely proud of all the work this Government have done? 
My hon. Friend is right. I visited Ethiopia again recently—just a month ago—and saw UK aid in action. There is no doubt about the fact that UK aid is keeping people alive in the humanitarian situation, with the drought taking place there. However, at the same time, we are supporting the industrialisation of Ethiopia, with trade opportunities and British firms now creating jobs in the country.
The Independent Commission for Aid Impact has reported that UK development assistance to Africa was down by a massive £20 million in 2016 and warned that Africa is losing out on aid spending as the Government divert money to countries in Europe and Asia. Considering that Africa has the highest proportion of population living in extreme poverty, will the Secretary of State update the House on what she intends to do to reverse the cuts and to ensure Africa does not lose out on funding from DFID?
I welcome the hon. Lady to her new role and congratulate her on joining the Opposition Front-Bench team in that role.
We have the 0.7% commitment, of course, which we are proud of, and 74% of that is spent on DFID programming. The majority of that money goes to Africa programmes, but it is important to recognise a couple of points. There is an enormous humanitarian crisis in Africa right now, and we have throughout the year scaled up, and led the way in calling on other donors to put more money into Africa famine relief. We are also working across all Government Departments to ensure that Africa is a development priority.
Humanitarian Crisis: Syria
2. What discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for Defence on ensuring that the Government’s operations in Syria help to alleviate the humanitarian crisis in that country. 
I have regular discussions with the Secretary of State for Defence and other ministerial colleagues in response to the conflict in Syria, and of course we are doing more on the humanitarian side as well.
Will the Secretary of State tell us what measures her Department is taking to ensure that civilians are able to leave Raqqa safely, and what information it is giving them on escape routes?
The hon. Lady highlights the terrible situation of the mass conflict involved in the recapturing of Raqqa. The regional support that we are providing includes medical supplies, food and shelter—all the basics that people in the region need. She asks specifically about information. We are working with our partners on the ground, who are working in very challenging situations, to give them information and guidance as to where the safe places are for them to go.
Several hon. Members rose—
Order. We might not reach the question tabled by the hon. Member for Banbury (Victoria Prentis), so if she wants to come in now, she can, although it is not obligatory.
7. How kind! May I use this opportunity to thank you, Mr Speaker, for your support for Singing for Syrians? I also thank the Department for International Development for its support. As a result of all the support we have received from across the House, Singing for Syrians is now able to support not only medical aid in Syria but a school for disabled children. Does my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State agree that aid is always worth more when it is spent in the region, and that what the people caught up in this terrible conflict really want is to be able to stay as close to home as possible? 
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I congratulate her and everyone else who has been involved in Singing for Syrians. It is an incredible charity, and I commend her for her work. She is right to highlight the fact that providing support in region is what makes a difference in terms of changing and saving lives. We have led the way in this. The United Kingdom has spent more than £2.46 billion in Syria and the region, providing hope and opportunity to those who have been displaced through conflict.
It is quite obvious that senior Ministers in the Government wish to expand this conflict to target actors other than Daesh in Syria. Has the Secretary of State made an assessment of what that would mean for her Department on the ground, and is she being the voice of reason in cautioning against expanding the conflict?
It is wrong to suggest that we are expanding any conflict at all. The focus of this Government, particularly from the humanitarian perspective, is to ensure that UK aid goes to the people who are suffering as a result of the bleak situation on the ground right now. Of course we are working across Government and with our partners in the region and our international partners to bring hope where there is despair and, importantly, to end the conflict.
13. Before the conflict, about 11% of the Syrian population were Christians. The Government rightly have a programme to admit refugees from the camps on humanitarian grounds, but in the early stages of the programme, many Christians would not go to the camps because of intimidation. Can my right hon. Friend assure me that, when the Government admit refugees for very good reasons, a fair proportion of them will be Christians? 
My hon. Friend makes an important point. We are prioritising reaching the most vulnerable people across Syria, including Christians, and UK funding is distributed on the basis of ensuring that civilians are not discriminated against on the basis of race, religion or ethnicity.
UN Target: Aid
3. Whether the Government plan to continue to meet the UN target of spending 0.7% of GDP on aid to developing countries for the duration of this Parliament. 
Meeting the 0.7% of GNI target for overseas aid is a manifesto commitment. It is enshrined in law, and the Government have been unequivocal that we will continue to honour that pledge.
As well as committing to the United Nations target of spending 0.7% of GDP on aid to developing countries, does the Secretary of State agree that poverty reduction must be at the heart of UK aid spending?
I welcome the hon. Gentleman to the House. He is absolutely right, and that is exactly what our aid spending does. Importantly, poverty reduction is at the heart of the definition in terms of official development assistance spending, and that is something that the Government are absolutely focused on.
The 0.7% is extremely valuable in alleviating poverty. Will the Secretary of State update the House on the important summit on family planning that she attended yesterday and tell us what it achieved?
Family planning is an enormous issue for development and poverty alleviation. Yesterday, we convened a summit with our co-hosts, including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and many representatives from around the world made big pledges and commitments to tackle family planning. The United Kingdom has led the way on the issue, but we are also working with the private sector to put more money into this area and to develop new commodities.
What percentage of the budget will be spent on helping developing countries to tackle climate change? Will the Secretary of State follow Scotland’s example and establish a climate justice fund, or will the Government tie themselves to Donald Trump’s attitude to climate change, which Professor Stephen Hawking recently described as pushing
“the Earth over the brink, to become like Venus, with a temperature of 250 degrees, and raining sulphuric acid”?
Let me be clear about this Government’s commitment to climate change reduction. We are a signatory to the Paris agreement, which we are committed to delivering. As for the spending percentage, it is important to stress that we have a range of spending across Departments. The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, which leads on climate control and climate change, is working with DFID, because climate change issues such as drought and famine have a massive impact and cause a great deal of harm in various parts of the world.
Constituents from Chipping Barnet are coming to Parliament today to set out their concerns about Christians in Syria facing oppression and persecution. Will the Secretary of State use the aid budget to alleviate the suffering of Christian communities during their times of trouble?
I thank my right hon. Friend for her question and commend her and her constituents for the work that they are doing. UK aid and funding are distributed to those in need, including persecuted Christians around the world. Importantly, we are standing up for them and giving them a voice in parts of the world where conflict is happening.
As well as recommitting to the UN target of spending 0.7% of gross national income on aid to developing countries, will the Secretary of State consult civil society before proposing any further changes to or relaxation of the rules on what ODA can be spent on?
This is an important area and I have committed to working with all partners, particularly civil society. In fact, a range of NGOs and stakeholders spent some time with me two weeks ago, and we had a constructive discussion on that very issue. The dialogue is ongoing, and I would welcome the views of many other partners.
With the Government’s new-found desire to reach out to other parties for new ideas, precisely which of the 13 policy ideas in Labour’s 2017 manifesto does the Secretary of State now intend to implement?
When it comes to development, it is fair to say that we agree on the national and global commitment to the 0.7% target, hence why we are having such a constructive exchange right now. In reference to the hon. Lady’s previous question, we should be working collectively and with our international partners on ODA reform.
Famine and Food Shortages: Africa
4. What steps her Department is taking to support people affected by (a) famine in South Sudan and (b) food shortages in Somalia and Burundi. 
This year, we are providing a package of £276 million of humanitarian support to those countries, supplying food, shelter and water to those in desperate need.
What is the Department doing to encourage the Ugandan Government to engage fully in diplomatic efforts to bring the warring parties in South Sudan around the negotiating table?
The hon. Gentleman is right to raise that issue. The conflict in South Sudan is abhorrent, and I saw that first hand on my visit earlier this year. I have been pressing the Ugandan Government and other neighbours in the region. They need to step up and call out the appalling behaviour that we have been seeing in South Sudan with President Salva Kiir. The United Kingdom is doing everything it possibly can to ensure that that message is being heard.
I congratulate the Secretary of State and DFID on co-ordinating the aid effort in South Sudan with other countries. Does she agree that that is yet another example of where British taxpayers’ money is being wisely spent on keeping alive men, women and children who happen to share the same planet as us?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. South Sudan is a man-made crisis that has killed thousands and forced almost 4 million people to flee their homes. UK aid is not only saving lives but making an enormous difference in a country dominated by war and conflict.
Small Charities Funding
5. What steps she is taking to enable small charities in the UK to access funding allocated by her Department. 
Last week, DFID launched the small charities challenge fund, which is specifically for small UK-registered charities with an annual income of less than £250,000.
I am particularly proud of the work that many of my constituents in Cheadle undertake for small charities, which are vital to our aid programme, as highlighted by this funding. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, by providing these funds to our local small charities, we can improve the connection between our civil society and the important work of helping countries overseas?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. There is no doubt that small charities are a crucial part of the UK’s development offer internationally. There are many extraordinary grassroots charities, and I urge all colleagues on both sides of the House to encourage their small charities to apply for this fund. There is a great opportunity to build links, both nationally and internationally, on these important issues.
Will the Secretary of State give priority in allocating funds to areas of the world such as Yemen? There is a humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen, where 300,000 people are facing a cholera epidemic.
The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, and I commend him for again raising the issue of Yemen, where the conflict is having a devastating impact and, of course, there is a cholera crisis. The Government are spending hundreds of millions on providing necessary life-saving support to the people who are engulfed by that awful conflict.
12. What assess- ment has my right hon. Friend made of the remarkable voluntary charitable contribution made alongside the Government’s work to relieve the crisis in Syria? How does the Department help to facilitate that work? 
My hon. Friend is right to raise that point. UK aid is playing a significant part supporting Syria and the region—we are one of the largest donors—and many small charities are also involved. My hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Victoria Prentis) has spoken about how UK charities are playing their part. The small charities challenge fund will help to facilitate more UK small charities to do more on international crisis and conflict.
6. What discussions she has had with Cabinet colleagues on the implementation of the Government’s report, “Agenda 2030: Delivering the Global Goals”, published in March 2017. 
As the hon. Lady knows, the UK was at the forefront of drafting those goals and is leading a great deal of the implementation. We published our report on 28 March. DFID leads on international implementation, and the Cabinet Office is ensuring that the single departmental plans drive it through domestically.
The Minister will know of my interest in food waste, which is addressed by sustainable development goal 12.3. Does he agree that it is not enough just to have a DFID-led approach? We will not be able to help farmers in developing countries unless we also tackle the relationship with supermarkets in this country.
The hon. Lady has been a leader in this House on addressing food waste, which fundamentally needs to be driven by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and its Secretary of State, monitored by the Cabinet Office through the single departmental plan. DFID’s role is then to ensure that, internationally, we are consistent by showing exactly the kind of leadership on food waste that the hon. Lady has provided.
I know that the commitment to implementing the sustainable development goals comes right from the top of Government. By when did my hon. Friend ask the Office for National Statistics to report on the UK’s progress?
The Office for National Statistics is compiling a report for the UN, and we will be submitting ourselves to a voluntary assessment of the UK’s performance on the sustainable development goals at home and abroad.
Several hon. Members rose—
Briefly, Mr David Hanson.
15. Does not President Trump’s declaration on the Paris agreement blow a hole in the UK’s objectives on the climate change agreement as part of the millennium development goals? 
The UK’s obligation under the sustainable development goals is to remain committed to our own performance. We are sticking with the Paris agreement, and we will demonstrate at home and abroad that we really care about clean, renewable energy and the future of this planet.
T1. If she will make a statement on her departmental responsibilities. 
Yesterday I hosted a fantastic family planning conference here in London, dealing with the population challenges of regions such as Africa, demonstrating UK leadership and UK aid in action, and helping those who do not have a voice on that essential issue.
Will the Secretary of State commit to not changing the UK definition of international aid without consultation with and the approval of this House—yes or no?
I have already said that I am engaging all parties, meaning not just political parties but stakeholders and international colleagues. We have very clear guidelines on OECD development assistance committee rules. We will work with all partners to make the necessary changes.
T2. If someone’s tools or land are stolen and there is no redress through the justice system, or if someone is fearful to walk to school because they have been raped and no action has been taken, development is restricted and poverty continues. What action is the Department for International Development taking to make sure that justice systems function properly in the developing world? 
My hon. Friend is right to raise that important issue. Strengthening justice systems around the world, particularly in developing and poor countries, is an essential part not only of our fight to combat global poverty, but of building safer communities and countries. That is the focus of DFID and UK aid.
What are the Secretary of State and her ministerial colleagues doing about the plight of the hundreds of thousands of Syrians who cannot access any UK aid because they are still under siege from the al-Assad Government?
The hon. Gentleman mentions the very serious situation in Syria and the besieged areas, where we and all other agencies are collectively struggling to get support and aid to people who desperately need it. We are working with many aid agencies on the ground and with the United Nations in particular, which is leading the way. The situation in Syria is devastating and we are working with everyone possible and all parties to see what we can do to get supplies in as and when windows of opportunity appear.
T3. Free trade is essential if poorer countries are to escape poverty. Will my right hon. Friend update the House on the steps she is taking to address that issue? 
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The UK is committed to ensuring that developing countries can reduce and combat poverty by focusing on free trade and open markets. We are at the forefront of an economic development strategy and are encouraging trade preferences with poor countries to help to trade their way out of poverty. DFID is absolutely focused on that area.
Order. So that the whole House can benefit from the mellifluous tones of the right hon. Lady, perhaps she would be good enough to face the House in answering, and then we can always have a richly satisfying experience.
School students from Wrexham and Leribe in Lesotho in southern Africa have had a tremendous relationship over 10 years as a result of personal contact between students in Europe and Africa. How are we going to enable that to continue?
The hon. Gentleman is right to raise those amazing partnerships between schools in Africa and the United Kingdom. DFID is leading the way with many programmes, including the connecting classrooms programme in schools in the constituencies of many right hon. and hon. Members. We are absolutely encouraging more of that dialogue.
T4. Trade, not aid is the route out of poverty for developing countries. Does the Secretary of State agree that leaving the EU will allow this country to lower its tariffs, and developing countries to trade with us? 
My hon. Friend makes a very important and relevant point. As someone who also campaigned to leave the European Union, I think he is absolutely right. Our trade preferences, which will be introduced by future legislation as we leave the EU, will enable many poor countries to leave poverty behind and get on the path to prosperity through open markets and free trade.
With 95% of its drinking water now unsafe to drink, Gaza is fast approaching the point of becoming uninhabitable, as predicted by the United Nations. What are the Government doing to ensure that we do not reach that point and to push the EU plans to fund a desalination plant there?
According to the UN Office for the Co-Ordination of Humanitarian Affairs, most homes in Gaza are getting water for only a few hours every three to five days. The availability of safe drinking water has become worse. The UK is urging all parties to find a sustainable solution to the current situation, and in the longer term continues to urge the Israeli authorities to ensure fair distribution of water across the Occupied Palestinian Territories.
T5. Will the Secretary of State assure me that her Department will work closely with disability-focused organisations so that the UK’s efforts to improve access to education for disabled children in developing countries are successful? 
I welcome my hon. Friend to the House and thank him for his question. We are committed to using UK aid to focus on disability in poor countries and, importantly, to enable disadvantaged people in some of the poorest parts of the world to access some of the innovation and great ways of working we have in the United Kingdom.
The right hon. Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry) and I recently went to Jordan, where we met people on the ground who are really worried about the potential instability resulting from Jordan’s acceptance of so many Syrian refugees. Do the Government agree that ensuring stability in the host countries that are opening their doors is an absolute priority?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right. Like me, she will have seen at first hand the impact of Syrian conflict on Jordan and the region. As a host country, Jordan is being heavily supported by UK aid—the British taxpayer—to provide all the essentials.
T6. Will the Secretary of State ensure that her Department works with Population Matters to make sure that more women in the developing world have access to advice and support for contraception and family planning? 
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise that. Yesterday, we hosted a summit on that very issue. We will continue to lead the way and to be at the forefront of standing up for women’s rights in developing countries, as well as pioneering more work on and support for family planning and contraceptives.
Does the Minister agree that recent proposals in Israel on the construction of a Gaza sea port, such as those advanced by the Israeli Labor Knesset Member Omer Barlev and discussed last month by the Israeli Cabinet, would offer a much-needed route to easing the situation in Gaza? Will he support that initiative?
Yes, a new sea port at Gaza could open up all sorts of things in Gaza and change the situation for the people there quite materially. It is an interesting proposal and I am of course interested to see how far it is taken.
Several hon. Members rose—
I call David “Top Cat” Davies.
T7. Thank you, Mr Speaker. British-funded refugee camps throughout Turkey have been saving lives and preventing illegal migration into Europe. Is it now time to operate a similar scheme in north Africa? 
We are of course providing a great deal of support and humanitarian aid to migrants and refugees in north Africa. We are working across the Government on how to deal with migration routes: we are looking at the flows of people so that, when we need to, we can send them back to their home country.
I do not want the hon. Member for Havant (Alan Mak) to feel excluded.
T8. The British Government are leading the response to the famine in east Africa. Will the Minister update the House on the Department’s work in this area? 
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to speak about east Africa, where there is one of the four famines that the world faces this year. In east Africa specifically, we have led the way in humanitarian and emergency food assistance and helped more than 2.4 million people.
The Prime Minister was asked—
Q1. If she will list her official engagements for Wednesday 12 July 2017. 
I have been asked to reply. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is in attendance on Her Majesty the Queen, welcoming their Majesties King Felipe and Queen Letizia of Spain on their state visit to the United Kingdom. I am sure the whole House wishes them well.
Is today’s report that in 2015-16 National Grid made £3 billion of profit at the expense of households not further evidence that the Government are not delivering fair energy prices? Will the Government agree to an immediate rebate for overcharging, and will they now commit to an energy price cap for the 17 million households on the most expensive tariffs?
The right hon. Lady is right to identify the issue of energy prices, and I am sure she will welcome the announcement in the Queen’s Speech that the Government will
“ensure fairer markets for consumers”
“this will include bringing forward measures to help tackle unfair practices in the energy market to help reduce energy bills.”
I am sure this is an issue on which we can work across the House together.
Q2. Mr Speaker, yesterday you kindly hosted two important talks on the future of health and social care, and their funding, including one by my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston). My right hon. Friend the First Secretary knows that the NHS in Staffordshire and Stoke is delivering fine care, but under great financial pressure, in common with other parts of the country. May I encourage the Government to bring together people from across this House to make this Parliament the one that puts the NHS and social care on a firm and sustainable foundation? 
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that. I know he has been campaigning vigorously on behalf of health services in his constituency, including his local hospital, and he is absolutely right to do so. I am sure we both welcome the fact that the Government have committed an extra £8 billion over this Parliament to the NHS, and we are also committed to having a full debate, across the House, and much more widely with people, about how we can improve our social care system, because this is indeed one of the big issues facing this country.
First, let me welcome the First Secretary to his new role. By my reckoning, in the 20 years since he first joined this House he is the 16th Member to represent his party at Prime Minister’s questions, so how about I give him until the end of this session to be able to name all the others? In the meantime, I am sure he and the whole House will join me in congratulating Jo Konta and the British and Irish Lions on their historic achievements of recent days.
On British and Irish co-operation, the First Secretary has huge expertise on the practicalities of the common travel area, so can he tell the House: what will happen to the Irish land border if no deal is reached between Britain and Europe by the end of March 2019?
I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for her kind remarks; I might take her up on her offer and try to name all 16 in the Tea Room later, rather than delay the House now. There are many, many distinguished people, of both sexes, who have done this in my party, because we of course elect women leaders occasionally. I also absolutely share her view about the British and Irish Lions, although it strikes me as a particularly British thing to do to celebrate a drawn series quite as hard as we have—nevertheless, that is the way we do sport. I know you, Mr Speaker, will be very keen on following Jo Konta’s progress through Wimbledon, and Andy Murray’s. Let us hope we have two finalists over the weekend.
On the substantive question the right hon. Lady asked about the Irish border, she will know that it is the aim of this Government to make sure we get the best deal for Britain. As the Prime Minister set out in her Lancaster House speech, one of the key issues that we want to bring forward, and have brought forward at the start of the negotiations, is precisely the issue of the Irish border, because it is extremely important that we get that right, not just for our own citizens in Northern Ireland, but for the Irish Republic. I have already had meetings with my opposite number, the Tánaiste, on this and other matters.
I mentioned at the outset that the right hon. Gentleman is the 16th Member to represent his party in Prime Minister’s questions since 1997. Only three of those have been women and the last one before the current Prime Minister was 16 years ago. I believe we have had three women Labour MPs doing this job in the past two years alone.
Let me return to my question. My question was not: what deal do we hope to get? My question was: what happens if we get no deal at all? This is not some sinister nightmare dreamt up by remainers: it was the Prime Minister who first floated the idea of “no deal”; the Foreign Secretary who said it would be “perfectly okay”; and the Brexit Secretary who said we would be prepared to “walk away”. But, since the election, the Chancellor has said that that would be a “very, very bad outcome”’; and a former Minister has told Sky News that “no deal is dead”. So will the First Secretary clear this up: are Ministers just making it up as they are going along or is it still the Government’s clear policy that no deal is an option?
I recommend that the right hon. Lady read the Prime Minister’s Lancaster House speech, as that is the basis on which we are negotiating. We are also saying that it is conceivable that we will be offered a kind of punishment deal that would be worse than no deal. That is not our intention; we want a deal and we want a good deal. May I also point out to her that it is the position of her leader and her party that, whatever is on offer, they will accept it? That is a terrible way to go into a negotiation. All that I can congratulate them on is their consistency. They have been consistently in favour of unilateral disarmament. They apply that not only to military matters, but to matters of negotiation on Britain’s future prosperity.
Apparently, the First Secretary of State did not get the Prime Minister’s memo—you are supposed to be building consensus, man. If we ignore the political bluster, I think that what we heard was that no deal is indeed still an option. If that is the case, can we turn to what I might call the East India Club question? That was the question that the hon. Member for Newton Abbot (Anne Marie Morris) was trying to ask before she suddenly turned herself into Nick Griffin. What does no deal actually mean for our businesses, for our people and for issues such as the Irish land border? Will the right hon. Gentleman address this question now: what does no deal look like in practice?
I am very happy to address the right hon. Lady’s first point about consensus. As she knows, I am a moderate person who is keen on consensus. I very much look forward to sharing the Labour party’s views this morning on the unemployment figures. Unemployment is now down to its lowest level since the early ’70s. There are many Members of this House who were not born when unemployment was as low as this Government have made it. I would hope that, in the course of her questions, she can bring herself actually to welcome lower unemployment. On the substance of her question—as she knows—we are seeking a good deal for Britain that will enable us to trade as freely as possible with the European Union to protect our prosperity at the same time as getting trade deals with other important markets around the world. In the past week alone, both the United States and Australia have said that they would like to sign trade deals with Britain as fast as possible. I am happy to report to her that negotiations are going well and that her fear of no deal is probably overstated.
If the First Secretary of State wants to talk about unemployment, let me ask him this: will he publish the Treasury’s assessment of the impact that a no deal outcome would have on jobs and growth in Britain? Will he publish that today—I don’t think so. Let us continue. If he will not tell the House—[Interruption.]
Order. The right hon. Lady must be heard, and she will be, as will the First Secretary of State. Members must calm themselves.
If the First Secretary of State will not tell the House what no deal means, can he at least clear up the confusion over whether a plan for no deal actually exists? Yesterday, the Foreign Secretary told me that, indeed, there was no plan for no deal. Two hours later, No. 10 fought back and said that there was a plan. [Interruption.] The Brexit Secretary might be laughing, but I am turning to him next. He was so busy fighting with himself that, on 12 March, he said that there was a plan. On 17 March, he said that there was not. On 19 May, he said that he spent half his time thinking about it. Yesterday, he said that he was not prepared to comment. Can the First Secretary of State clear up the confusion today: is there, or is there not, a contingency plan for no deal? If there is, will he undertake to publish it?
The right hon. Lady says that she is happy to talk about unemployment; I notice that she cannot bring herself to welcome falling unemployment figures. We will clearly have to try harder to establish consensus on what I would hope would genuinely unite both sides of the House.
On the issue of the report, the Office for Budget Responsibility is publishing its fiscal risks report tomorrow. If the right hon. Lady can be patient, she will see the report that she wants.
So let us be clear: the First Secretary seems to be saying that no deal is still on the table, but he will not say what it means; and that there is a no deal contingency plan, but he is not going to publish it. This really is two steps forward and two steps back. After all, if the Government seriously want open, cross-party debate about the best way forward for Brexit, surely they have to spell out what all the options look like.
Can the First Secretary at least provide some clarity on one issue? Let us try to make some progress today. He has said repeatedly that we want to avoid a cliff edge Brexit, but under a no deal scenario, he knows that that must be impossible. The Prime Minister can hardly storm out of the negotiating room saying that she will not accept the deal, and then pop her head round the door again and ask can she have two more years to prepare. That is not how it works. Does the First Secretary accept that no deal also means no transitional arrangements?
Let me try even harder to establish consensus with the right hon. Lady. I think we both want a deal; I hope she will agree to that—that she wants a deal at the end of this. The reason why I am optimistic that, because of our negotiating stance and the position set out by the Prime Minister, we will get a deal, is that we have, for example, made a fair and realistic offer about citizenship to try to remove that problem from the equation.
That is a first indication of how we will approach these negotiations. We approach them in a positive state. We believe that it is in the interests of not just Great Britain but the other member states of the European Union to reach a deal with one of their biggest trading partners. It is in everyone’s interests to reach this deal. Frankly, the right hon. Lady has so far said nothing constructive that might contribute to a deal, but I will give her another chance.
I know the right hon. Gentleman is new to this, but the way the rules work—[Interruption.]
Order. I do not know whether this is spontaneous or orchestrated, and I do not really care which. But whichever it is, the idea that it is going to stop the right hon. Lady from asking her questions is for the birds. Members are wasting their vocal cords. We will carry on for as long as necessary to accommodate the Back-Bench Members whom I wish to accommodate.
I know that the right hon. Gentleman is new to this, but the way it works is that he asks the—that I ask the questions—[Interruption.] We are quite happy to swap places with them. Frankly, if he does not want to continue under these rules, I am sure there are plenty of other people on the Front Bench there who would love the opportunity to audition as Prime Minister.
I do appreciate all the First Secretary’s answers, but they just serve to illustrate what a mess the Government have got themselves into by threatening to walk away even before talks began. Is it not the truth that we have a no deal option on the table but the Government will not tell us what that means, and that they have contingency plans but they will not let the public see them? We have got a Chancellor demanding transitional arrangements, which a no deal option makes impossible. We have got a Foreign Secretary making it up as he is going along. We have got a Brexit Secretary so used to overruling his colleagues that he has started overruling himself, and we have got a Prime Minister who is so bereft of ideas that she has started putting suggestion boxes around Parliament. But as a country we have 20 months to go until Brexit. We absolutely have to get a grip. If the Conservative party has not got the strength for the task, then we absolutely have to get rid of them.
There may have been a question in there somewhere. I assure the right hon. Lady of two things. This Government are already in the negotiations, as she will have seen. We have started the negotiations, and they are going well. We said that the first thing we wanted to do was to negotiate citizens’ rights, and that was the first item on the agenda of the first meeting. We want to ensure that European citizens in this country and—equally importantly—British citizens living in other European countries, have as much certainty about their rights as soon as possible. That is what we are negotiating, and that is the sign of a practical and pragmatic Government getting on with work in the interests of the British people.
I have counted that the Labour party has so far had nine different plans on Europe. Labour Members want to be both in and out of the single market, and in and out of the customs union. They said that they wanted to remain, but they voted to enact article 50. They split their party on that. The right hon. Lady said that she would prefer to be at this Dispatch Box, rather than that one. I remind her of the other event that happened recently, where the Conservative party got more votes and more seats than the Labour party and won the election.
Q3. I do welcome the jobs that have been announced. Furthermore, after 65 years of people in my constituency talking about a link road, one actually opened on my watch. I am also trying to obtain an enterprise zone or business park, about which I had a productive meeting yesterday with the powerhouse Minister and the Chief Minister of the Isle of Man, who I believe is here today. Would my right hon. Friend help, in any way possible, to ensure that this business park becomes a reality so that we can create more jobs in Morecambe and Lunesdale? 
I agree with my hon. Friend. He will be interested to know that employment in the north-west of England has increased by 2.5% over the past year. Labour Members may wish to welcome that, rather than to heckle. He is absolutely right to highlight the importance of business parks and enterprise zones as drivers of economic growth. I wish him well in his campaign, and I am sure that the Business Secretary will be happy to look into the matter.
I am sure that the whole House will join me and my colleagues in marking the 22nd anniversary of the sad events at Srebrenica. I thank those who held last night’s memorial in London to ensure that we never forget. Will the First Secretary of State confirm that the devolved Administrations will not face a diminution of powers as a result of the repeal Bill?
I join the hon. Gentleman in commemorating the dreadful events at Srebrenica. I am happy to reconfirm what the Prime Minister and others have said—that there will be no diminution of the devolved Administrations’ powers under the terms of the Brexit deal that we will negotiate, and that we will look to devolve more powers as a result of the process.
I thank the First Secretary of State for that answer. Will he confirm that there will be a cast-iron guarantee that all powers that come back into the United Kingdom on devolved matters will be returned? Furthermore, do the United Kingdom Government intend to amend schedule 5 to the Scotland Act 1998 to change any aspect of the devolved competences that were approved in the 1997 Scottish referendum?
I can only keep repeating the assurances that we have already given. I am slightly surprised by the Scottish nationalists’ approach. My understanding of their position is that they want the powers taken from London to Edinburgh so that they can give them back to Brussels. Perhaps their inability to explain the logic of that position might explain their recent general election result.
Q5. Earlier this year, the brilliant new St Luke’s Hospital opened in my constituency, but the old cottage hospital that it replaced contains an important and unique war memorial. Does the First Secretary agree with me that, however the NHS redevelops that site, it is vital that the war memorial is preserved in a fitting way so that future generations can remember the sacrifices of those who came before us? 
Perhaps particularly at the moment, when we are about to commemorate the centenary of the terrible battle at Passchendaele, it is very important that we consider the issue of war memorials. Memorials like the one my hon. Friend mentions call on us to remember the horrors of war and to honour the memories of those who died. In this case, I understand that the war memorial is protected by an Historic England grade II listing, so specific planning consent would be required to relocate the memorial as part of any future plans. I hope that will provide the protection he and his constituents need.
Q4. My constituent has serious mental ill health and has had over 50 separate admissions to psychiatric care. She requires regular monitoring to prevent her condition from worsening and becoming a danger to herself and others. She could access support under the disability living allowance, but she stands to lose £110 per week under the personal independence payment. As the former Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, will the First Secretary look urgently at this case and change the loophole in PIP that leaves very vulnerable people without the continual support that keeps them safe? 
Obviously, the House will be concerned to hear about the case of the hon. Lady’s constituent, as I am. The hon. Lady will know that one of the effects of the transition from DLA to PIP is that more people are now eligible for support—particularly those, as it happens, with mental health problems. The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions will have heard her point, and I have no doubt that if she contacts him, he will look into the case personally.
Q7. Some of the most distressing cases that I and other Members see in our constituency surgeries are those involving domestic violence. The Queen’s Speech has promised a Bill to help to strengthen our confrontation of this problem, so will the Deputy Prime Minister—sorry, the First Secretary—tell us when we can expect this legislation, urgently needed as it is, and what the Government are doing about this problem while we await it? 
I agree that this is a hugely important issue, and my hon. Friend is right that we have committed in the Queen’s Speech to introduce a domestic abuse Bill in this Session, which I hope will be a landmark in this important area. What we want to do in the Bill is set in motion a transformation not just to protect and support victims, but to recognise the lifelong impact domestic abuse can have on children and to make sure that the agencies respond effectively to domestic abuse. We will, of course, be consulting all the relevant professions and voluntary groups on this, but we are absolutely determined to press ahead with this very important legislation.
Q6. Little Max Johnson is nine. He is in hospital, and he is urgently waiting for a heart transplant. His mum, Emma, and his brother, Harry, join us today to support Max, but also the 10,000 people around the country who need an organ transplant. We can do more to help them. Wales has already moved to the opt-out system, and Scotland plans to do the same. Does the First Secretary agree with me that, in England, we should change the law to one of presumed consent for organ donation, to give Max and all those other people the best chance of life? 
I am sure that the thoughts of Members across the House are with Max and his family at this incredibly difficult time. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that organ donation is clearly a hugely important part of our system, and I am pleased that there are now more than 23 million people on the organ donor register. Over the past year, we saw the highest ever donor and transplant rates in the UK, but, of course, there is more that can be done. As the hon. Gentleman says, the law is different in other territories inside the UK, and the Department of Health is looking at the impact of those changes to see if they can give rise to further improvements in the number of available organs.
Q8. Is my right hon. Friend aware that the quarterly economic survey of the Greater Manchester chamber of commerce predicts economic growth at 3.25% annually, which it has been, broadly, since 2013? Is he further aware that Manchester airport is planning a £1 billion investment in the coming years? Does that not indicate a welcome rebalancing of the economy, underpinned by sound economic management? Will he undertake to continue that sound economic management, which is so necessary to our country? 
My hon. Friend has made a number of important points, particularly about Manchester airport, which I know has been a significant driver of the excellent growth figures of the increasingly excellent economy of Manchester and the surrounding areas. Everything that he has said is true, and I think it is a tribute to the work that has been done on the northern powerhouse that we are now spreading that prosperity across the north of England.
Q9. The First Secretary said the other day that we needed a national debate on tuition fees, and admitted that student debt was “a huge issue”. Given that the Prime Minister is touting for ideas, may I recommend page 43 of our manifesto, and ask the Government to adopt Labour’s pledge to abolish tuition fees—[Interruption.] 
Order. I do not remember the contents of page 43, so I would quite like to hear this.
May I suggest that the Government consult page 43 of our manifesto, and commit themselves to Labour's policy of abolishing tuition fees?
People often stand at this Dispatch Box and say, “I am pleased that the hon. Lady raised that question.” I am genuinely pleased that the hon. Lady raised that question, because it allows me to draw attention to the very slight problem with her argument, which is that her own party’s Education spokesman has admitted that the tuition fees policy has a £100 billion—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Angela Rayner) has admitted that there is a £100 billion black hole in Labour’s student fees policy. That is nearly as much money as we spend on the NHS in a year, and it is equivalent to two years’ worth of disability benefits.
The Labour party was particularly incredible on this issue at the general election, and I am astonished that Labour Members now want to bring it up at Prime Minister’s Question Time. I remind them that misleading students and young people is a very dangerous thing to do. If they do not believe me, they can ask the Liberal Democrats.
Q10. Just one in five of our public art sculptures and statues is of a woman. Next week, to mark 200 years since the death of the world-renowned novelist Jane Austen, the first ever sculpture of her will be unveiled in my constituency, the borough of her birth in the county that inspired her. Will my right hon. Friend join me in calling for more areas to do what Basingstoke has done, and celebrate their famous daughters? 
I am delighted to echo my right hon. Friend’s call for a welcome for the new statue of Jane Austen in Basingstoke. I am genuinely astonished that there is not a statue of Jane Austen anywhere else in the country, given that she is one of our greatest authors and is still popular 200 years after her birth. I am also happy to echo my right hon. Friend’s desire for more statues of Britain’s greatest women to be spread around the country.
Q12. Politicians are said to be here today and gone tomorrow, but whatever tomorrow may bring, the Prime Minister is not even here today to mark the end of her first year in power. I also note that, for the first time since she became Prime Minister—[Interruption.] Listen: you might like to hear this. For the first time since she became Prime Minister, her image has been removed from the front page of the Conservative party website. Can the First Secretary tell us why she has gone from being the next iron lady to “The Lady Vanishes”? 
The hon. Gentleman is ingenious in asking very personal questions, and I commend him for it. Unfortunately, he has his own record on this subject. As recently as June last year, he said that the leader of the Labour party was
“not destined to become Prime Minister”,
and called on him to resign. I suggest that he might want to make peace with his own Front Benchers before starting to be rude about ours.
Q11. Today’s jobs figures show that we have the highest employment rate since comparable records began. We have more people in full-time employment, and we are touching on the lowest youth unemployment since records began. In the light of the Matthew Taylor review of modern working practices, what more can be done to ensure that that record continues, and that we continue to rid the country of the scourge of long-term youth unemployment? 
My hon. Friend is exactly right, specifically on the subject of youth unemployment. One of the particularly welcome figures among the consistently low and falling unemployment figures over which this Government have presided is the fact that youth unemployment is now at historically low levels and lower than in many other comparable economies. We will continue this in this Parliament, not just with our moves on more apprenticeships, but with the introduction of new and better technical and vocational education, which is key to providing long-term prosperity not just for the economy as a whole, but for everyone in this country.
Q14. How can the Government continue to justify not providing fair and equitable funding arrangements for West Lancashire to support water level management organisations, otherwise known as drainage boards, to help protect homes and the agriculture and horticulture industries critical to the local economy, instead of causing the Environment Agency to threaten to turn off the Alt Crossens pumping station? 
The hon. Lady raises a reasonable point about the Environment Agency. It is the Environment Agency’s duty to ensure that water supplies are good and safe. If she wishes to bring up this issue with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, I am sure he will be happy to talk to her about it.
Q13. Zero-energy bill homes at below market prices are being built by British architect Bill Dunster, with the support of the Building Research Establishment. Given their potential to help people find affordable housing, what more can the Government do to help expand this type of housing as part of our commitment to both enterprise and social justice? 
I know that my hon. Friend is an energetic campaigner for social justice. This is a very good example of how having a dynamic and flexible economy is not just good for the economy, but actually good for the whole of society. I am happy to join him in welcoming this type of innovation. Bill Dunster’s firm is a good example of such innovation. I know that it has been supported by the Government’s enterprise investment scheme, so the Government are doing their best to support this type of measure. We are stimulating the growth of the off-site construction sector, which enables more houses to be built, through our accelerated construction programme and the home building fund. This is another very important issue to make sure that we spread the benefits of prosperity around this country.
I wonder if the First Secretary of State might imagine what it feels like to be a parent forced to uproot their children from their one settled home to flee war and persecution, as millions of refugees around the world have done. Then would he imagine further how it might feel for those who become separated from their family members—with one family member making it, for instance, to the United Kingdom—when they are needlessly kept apart from their families due to cruel and unnecessary barriers to family reunification? Will the Government today endorse Baroness Hamwee’s Bill in the other place to bring those desperate families back together?
The hon. Gentleman raises an important issue. He will be aware that this Government, and this country, have done a huge amount—particularly in the region, but also here at home—to help refugees from countries such as Syria. We have expanded the vulnerable persons resettlement scheme, so we make sure our doors continue to remain open to people who most need our help. In particular, we work very closely with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to identify and refer the most vulnerable refugees. That is the most sensible humanitarian way we can help these very desperate people.
Since I assume this was the hon. Gentleman’s last question, I suspect, as the leader of his party, may I wish him a fond farewell from that job? I am delighted that the Liberal Democrats have taken so seriously the Government’s fuller working lives strategy, which is about providing more jobs for older workers, and that they are about to skip a generation in their leadership.
At the recent G20 meetings, the Prime Minister had excellent and constructive trade discussions with the leaders of India, China, Japan and America, which collectively represent 43% of the world’s population and six times the population of the European Union. Does my right hon. Friend agree with me that this demonstrates the potential for a prosperous and positive future for Britain post-Brexit, and that it really is time for the pessimists to look at the cup being half full rather than half empty?
I am happy to endorse my hon. Friend’s approach and emphasise to him and the House that it is really important to do both—we need a good trade deal with the European Union, which is still a hugely important trading partner for us, but we also need to take the opportunity to strike trade deals with economies around the world, not just currently advanced economies but those that are growing very fast. That is the route to future global prosperity for this country.
We have had two general elections where the Government have promised investment in the northern powerhouse, and yet again, within weeks, they have U-turned on the Trans-Pennine electrification. Is the £1 billion deal with the DUP to keep the Prime Minister in power being funded at the expense of investment in Bradford and the north?
No, not at all. The money that has gone for infrastructure in Northern Ireland is richly needed there. For example, we have signed city deals in England, Scotland and Wales, but none yet in Northern Ireland. The hon. Lady is right about the importance of the northern powerhouse, and we will continue with that programme, which is hugely important. As she has already heard, we are seeing unemployment falling consistently in the north of England as a sign of how the economy there is going as well as anywhere else in the country. We are determined to continue that.
I know that the First Secretary will be delighted to see that Parliament Square is now displaying the flag of every British overseas territory to welcome the King of Spain this week, including the flag of Gibraltar. Will he ask my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister to remind the King of Spain that Gibraltar is British and that its sovereignty will remain paramount?
I am happy to assure my hon. Friend that the Government’s position on Gibraltar is that the primacy of the wishes of its inhabitants, which are overwhelmingly to stay British, will be respected.
What assessment have the Government made of the effect on radiotherapy for cancer patients of their decision to withdraw from Euratom, given that the Royal College of Radiologists said this week that half a million scans a year are done using imported radioisotopes and that thousands of patients could be affected by this decision?
I am again genuinely happy to answer this question, because this is a very important issue and there has been some unnecessary worry caused to cancer patients by speculation on it. Let me set out the position.
The import or export of medical radioisotopes is not subject to any particular Euratom licensing requirements. Euratom places no restrictions on the export of medical isotopes to countries outside the EU, so after we leave Euratom our ability to access medical isotopes produced in Europe will not be affected. I hope that clears the matter up and reassures cancer patients around the country that the scaremongering that is going on is unnecessary.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker.
It is a hopeful try by the hon. Lady, but points of order will come after the statement.
When the hon. Members for Isle of Wight (Mr Seely) and for Ealing North (Stephen Pound) have resumed their seats—ah, I see that the latter has forged a new alliance with members of the Scottish National party; I am not sure which of them should be more afraid—we will proceed with the statement.
Humanitarian Situation in Mosul
With permission, Mr Speaker, I will update the House on my Department’s continued support for the people of Mosul.
On Monday, Prime Minister Abadi declared Mosul to be liberated, three years after the city fell to Daesh. Victory comes after three years of unimaginable oppression by Daesh—three years of fear, executions, abductions, forced marriages and the destruction of Iraq’s ancient heritage. It comes after nine months of heavy fighting by the Iraqi security forces, who faced brutal Daesh tactics, including the use of human shields and suicide bombers. My right hon. Friend the Defence Secretary will provide the House with a more detailed update tomorrow on the ongoing military campaign against Daesh in Iraq and Syria, and the UK’s role in this effort.
The declaration that Mosul is once again free is a great victory for the people of Iraq and a great stride forward for global security. I am sure that the House will join me in commending the extraordinary bravery of the Iraqi security forces, who have put the protection of civilians at the heart of their military campaign, acting to reduce civilian casualties wherever they could and risking their lives to help to evacuate civilians fleeing the bullets of Daesh fighters. We should recognise their professionalism, courage and significant sacrifice. They have been backed up from the air by the international coalition forces, including the RAF, who have taken all reasonable precautions during the planning and execution of airstrikes to reduce the risk to civilian life.
We should also recognise the bravery of the people of Mosul: children who have been out of school for years are now back in the classroom and sitting exams; doctors who had to stop working under Daesh are once again giving life-saving treatment to their fellow citizens who were injured in the fighting; and volunteers are clearing the rubble from the streets and public buildings.
However, we must be realistic about the challenges ahead. Almost 50,000 homes have been destroyed and although 200,000 people have returned to their homes in eastern Mosul, over 700,000 people are still displaced and in need of continued humanitarian assistance. Explosive remnants of this war will be a problem for many months to come.
After winning the battle for Mosul, it is important to win the peace, and now starts the painstaking task of rebuilding and reconciling so that families can return home as quickly as possible, communities can live peacefully alongside one another once more, and citizens can start to rebuild their lives. Needs in and around Mosul will not fall immediately, even as the fighting ends.
As a global humanitarian leader, the United Kingdom has been at the forefront of efforts to support the humanitarian response and will continue to stand alongside the people of Iraq in the months ahead. From the very start of the Mosul military operations, the UK has provided shelter, medical care and food to those who have either lost their homes because of the fighting or been forced to flee for safety reasons.
The UK is the largest donor to the Iraq humanitarian pooled fund and we are providing practical, life-saving support, including water in camps for over 166,000 displaced people, cash assistance to over 50,000 vulnerable people, and life-saving healthcare, including a trauma hospital to treat the victims of the fight against Daesh.
Today I am pleased to confirm that the UK will provide £40 million of humanitarian funding this year, taking our total commitment just in Iraq since 2014 to £209 million. This funding will help to ensure that displaced communities and people will receive much- needed shelter, food and medical support, and it will also provide protection services for the most vulnerable, including minorities, women and girls. Already, £18 million of this funding has been allocated to partners who are working hard to deliver assistance around Mosul.
The United Nations has set funding requirements for Iraq in 2017 at $984 million. The UK is stepping up, and I continue to call on my colleagues in the international development community—the donors—to follow Britain’s lead. The international community must continue to support the people of Mosul and Iraq.
As people return home to liberated areas, they will need support to rebuild their lives. Humanitarian and stabilisation partners are helping to re-establish basic services, including by distributing food in areas where markets are not yet functioning and providing cash assistance so that vulnerable people can buy what they most need.
In east Mosul, the Department for International Development’s humanitarian funding to the International Organisation for Migration and UNICEF has already helped to reopen health facilities and provide clean water in liberated areas, which is essential for people to be able to return home. DFID will also provide £6 million this year for stabilisation efforts. That funding will help to restore basic services and infrastructure in liberated areas, including in Mosul. Through the United Nations Development Programme, UK funding has already helped to rehabilitate the al-Qasour water plant in eastern Mosul. Over 750 schools have already reopened, allowing 300,000 children to sit exams. Our funding will also support local reconciliation, helping displaced people to reintegrate back into their communities when they return home. Across Iraq, over 1 million people have returned to their homes in areas where UK-funded stabilisation projects are working.
But ultimately, to win the peace in Iraq, the Government of Iraq will need to unite all Iraqis against extremism, address the grievances that led to Daesh’s rise and persuade all Iraqi communities that they have a fair stake in their nation’s future. The UK will continue to be steadfast in our support for the Government of Iraq’s efforts to drive forward reform, reconciliation and stabilisation.
This week’s victory against Daesh in Mosul marks an important moment in the campaign to defeat this terror group and its poisonous ideology. We join our Iraqi friends in celebrating the liberation of this historic city. The UK will continue to provide much-needed humanitarian and stabilisation assistance to those who have been affected by the conflict, and to support the Government of Iraq’s efforts to build a stable, secure and prosperous Iraq. I commend this statement to the House.
I welcome the Secretary of State’s statement, and I particularly welcome the news of Mosul’s liberation after three years of oppression. It is important to defeat Daesh’s violent ideology wherever it emerges. I would like to pay tribute to the Iraqi security forces and the people of Mosul, who have shown remarkable courage in the face of Daesh’s continued oppression. I pay particular tribute to the role of the UK Government in their important work to provide critical aid and emergency support. The UK’s continued role in the coming days and weeks, and the significant funding commitments announced by the Secretary of State, which I welcome, will save lives and help to rebuild Mosul. This commitment also demonstrates the important role that UK aid plays not only in standing alongside the people of Iraq, but in contributing to long-term peace and stability.
I would like to ask the Secretary of State a series of questions about her announcement. First, although there is cause for real celebration in the liberation of Mosul, Amnesty International has identified countless human rights violations on all sides—both by Daesh and, possibly, by the Iraqi forces—in the fight for Mosul. These include the use of civilians as human shields by Daesh fighters and violations of children’s rights. Amnesty International has called for a thorough investigation of all human rights violations and possible war crimes carried out during the liberation of Mosul, and the UN human rights chief has called for a strong culture of accountability now that the city has been liberated. Does the Secretary of State support those calls and will she tell us how we can help?
Secondly, while I welcome the UK Government’s aid response to the situation in Mosul, the forced displacement of numerous refugees in and around Mosul as a result of the past two years of Daesh occupation requires widespread action, not only on rebuilding, but on the resettlement of those displaced. Will the Secretary of State update us on how we will be able to help all those who have been displaced? I thank the Secretary of State again for her welcome statement to the House.
I thank the hon. Lady for her generous comments and support for what has been achieved in Mosul. I absolutely agree that we should pay tribute to all the forces involved, and also to the people of Mosul, who have suffered considerably at the hands of Daesh.
The hon. Lady is right to point to Amnesty International’s report today, which makes allegations and raises concerns about the coalition—well, Iraqi—forces and human rights violations. It is important to stress that the security forces and the coalition have made every effort to protect civilians during operations. Now that we are hearing of alleged violations or abuses, it is quite right that they are thoroughly and transparently investigated, and those found responsible must be held to account. We also welcome the previous statement by Prime Minister Abadi on this and encourage reporting on the outcomes.
The hon. Lady raised the issue of the displacement of people. Hundreds of thousands of people have been affected by what has happened in Mosul and in Iraq more broadly. The focus now has to be on resettlement and the reunification of the country as a whole.
The hon. Lady will have heard me speak briefly about the stabilisation efforts which, of course, have to be the focus right now. UK aid, and my Department in particular, are working with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence, others across Government and the international community not only to support UN stabilisation efforts in Iraq and secure the liberated areas, clearing areas of explosives and making them habitable again, but, importantly, to provide the basics to people by putting in water facilities, power networks, clinics and schools. We also know that 1.8 million people have been displaced in Iraq since 2015 and have returned to their homes when possible, so it is important to focus on resettlement and stabilisation, and how we can bring prosperity and stability back to Mosul and the outlying areas of Iraq.
Mosul was home to one of the oldest Christian communities in the region, but religious minorities suffered dreadfully at the hands of ISIS. What can DFID do to ensure that such minorities are able to return to their place of origin?
I thank my right hon. Friend for her question and for once again raising the issue of minorities who have been persecuted and displaced in the conflict. We know that what has happened, particularly for Christian communities and others, has been absolutely abhorrent. We are now focused on stabilisation, and also on ensuring that Iraq as a whole can be rebuilt and reunified so that all communities can come back to their homes and feel that they can contribute to a new Iraq following the conflict.
We very much welcome the military defeat of Daesh in Mosul, but for the victory to be truly complete, it is imperative that we address the now critical humanitarian needs of the people of the city and the surrounding region. As we have already heard, Amnesty International has described the horrors that the people of Mosul have witnessed and the disregard for human life by all parties to the conflict. That must not go unpunished. Entire families have been wiped out, many of whom are still buried under the rubble today. The people of Mosul deserve to know that there will be justice and reparation so that the harrowing impact of this operation is fully addressed.
The UK Government must finally learn the lessons from Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan. It cannot be allowed to happen in Mosul, as it has happened in so many places before, that the cost and impact of UK military action dwarfs the relief and reconstruction efforts that follow. How are the Government working with civil society on the ground to alleviate the suffering of those in the refugee camps who lack sufficient food, water and electricity to survive the scorching desert heat? Will the Government support the creation of an independent commission, as recommended by Amnesty International, to investigate the killings of civilians by all sides in the conflict, including by air strikes carried out by the UK?
I reiterate the comments I made to the hon. Member for Edmonton (Kate Osamor) about the Amnesty International report, the violations that may have taken place and the need for investigations. It is right and proper that all attention is given to the investigations and that people are brought to justice in the right way, but we must also recognise that there have been horrific attacks across the whole of Iraq because of the poisonous ideology of Daesh. The conduct of Daesh, the displacement of people and the atrocities that have taken place are absolutely unforgiveable and will no doubt scar generations to come.
It is important to stress at this time when many have worked to liberate Mosul, in particular coalition forces and the Iraqi security forces, that our priority is to continue the humanitarian support we provide through UK aid to the displaced and to support the stabilisation efforts. Of course that is the focus of not just the British Government but all our international partners, including the United Nations. We will continue to stand up for those who have been displaced and work collectively to bring peace and stability to Iraq.
I warmly welcome the tone of the Secretary of State’s announcement, and in particular the extra funds the UK is giving to the wonderful people in Mosul. However, she will know that if the experience of Fallujah and elsewhere is to be followed in Mosul, the vicious tactics of Daesh will mean that every single house, street and public place will be booby-trapped and mined, and it will take many years to clear that. Will she therefore commit the Government to doing what we can to help on the technical matter of removing the explosives? Secondly, it is not the scorching heat of today that we should be worrying about; it is the cold of the Mosul winter, which will come in only three or four months’ time, by which point we must have found decent accommodation for these people.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I referred to the fact that we will spend a great deal of time, resources and effort in rebuilding not only Mosul but Iraq as a whole through the stabilisation approach that we will put forward. But there is no doubt that we will have to invest to reclaim land, and particularly to de-mine huge swathes of the country. The British Government announced earlier this year a substantial commitment to our de-mining efforts in countries that have been unstable through conflict.
My hon. Friend is also right to say that the weather conditions in Mosul will change in the latter part of the year—they will become much harsher—so all of us in the international community will have to not just step up our efforts, but focus our resources on those who will be in need in the harsh winter to come. Importantly, we need to rebuild, put houses in and start building infrastructure sooner rather than later.
I welcome the Secretary of State’s statement, and particularly welcome the additional humanitarian assistance she has announced and what she has just said about de-mining. When the people of Mosul do return, many will be deeply traumatised. What will the Government do to ensure there is the mental healthcare and support for those families when they do return?
The hon. Gentleman is right to speak about the psychological, mental and physical trauma involved in recovering and rebuilding after what has happened across Iraq, and in Mosul in particular. I spoke about the fact that we will obviously need to rehabilitate the country at every single level—infrastructure, water, schools and health centres. It is also vital that we work with our colleagues and counterparts internationally and in the health community to ensure that the medical assistance, support and expertise of those who can give the necessary help to those who need it is provided.
The people who wish to return to Mosul have been traumatised, as we have heard from many Members, but while the ones who stayed in the area want to go home, there are very few homes to go to. What exactly is this country doing to help to rebuild the infrastructure and put a roof over people’s heads? Is the Secretary of State also encouraging other countries to support the people of the area?
My hon. Friend rightly highlights the immediate needs of the more than 1.8 million displaced people in Iraq who have returned to their homes. We are working with the Iraqi Government on stabilisation, as well as with UN stability programmes in the areas where they are working to provide necessary infrastructure—renovated water facilities, power networks, clinics, schools, and also homes. The destruction that has taken place is incomprehensible to us. Vast swathes of land and homes were deliberately destroyed by Daesh, and it is our responsibility through UK aid, and working internationally with our partners, to ensure that we rebuild and rehouse the many millions who have been displaced.
I welcome the statement and thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of it. Tens of thousands of children have been without education in Mosul for many years, so it is good news that 750 schools have reopened, but what work is being done to assist schools to tackle the very particular and sensitive challenge of helping older children, teenagers and young adults to plug the significant gap in their education and prevent there being a lost generation?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right to speak about the lost generation. There is a high level of displacement, including a horrifically high number of displaced children, across the whole region affected by conflict—Syria and Iraq. Many children have lost their education; they have been out of school for several years because of the extent of the conflict. The hon. Lady knows that the United Kingdom is an enormous supporter and big funder of the Education Cannot Wait programme, which focuses on exactly this in areas of conflict, as well as host communities—Jordan and Lebanon, for instance. We are providing resources to introduce a double-shift system of education. She also mentioned older children, and it is important, with the funding we put in through the partners with which we work, and particularly through Governments directly, that organisations provide education—they are—as well as technical and vocational training opportunities.
Ah, a competition between cream-suited colleagues. I call Mr John Baron.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. My hon. Friend the Member for Elmet and Rothwell (Alec Shelbrooke) is obviously a man of taste.
The Government have previously acknowledged that the cutting of the food coupon in the Syrian refugee camps in the summer of 2013 led to the mass exodus thereafter. While acknowledging the UK’s proud track record on humanitarian aid, will my right hon. Friend make it clear to the House that the international community must step up to the plate on the funding of any temporary arrangements with regard to displaced people, and that we must learn those lessons?
My hon. Friend is right to raise this issue. On lessons learned, effectively it is now about the implementation of a lot of the programmes for those in humanitarian crisis situations, in terms of food provision, water and other essentials. We have learned many lessons through the Grand Bargain work; partner organisations on the ground delivering services and provisions are working collectively, in a way that they were not in 2013, to bring vital aid and food to those who need it.
I congratulate the Secretary of State on her measured and comprehensive statement. I have a friend in Baghdad who was an MP in Mosul and who was also Culture Secretary; for her, the devastation of this historically very important city will have been awful, but I am glad that the Secretary of State is focusing on the humanitarian needs right away, because as Members have said, the traumatisation, particularly of children, in the area needs to be addressed immediately.
The Secretary of State talked about the importance of peace. Of course, we all want to see peace in the region, and I congratulate the Prime Minister of Iraq on hopefully getting rid of Daesh, at least from Mosul, but Kurdistan is a very important part of the country; does the Secretary of State agree that it is important that the Parliament of Kurdistan, which has not met for over a year, should meet as soon as possible?
I thank the right hon. Lady for her thoughtful observations on how we need to work together to bring peace and stability to Iraq and the region. This is not something that one country can do on its own; the international community can provide guidance, support and, in particular, assistance with getting the democracy functioning again. That would be the ultimate symbol of beating Daesh and the poisonous ideology that it has been propagating across the region. She is right to highlight the fact that stabilisation, peace and, ultimately, a functioning democracy should return all over again. This is a long-term objective, and we know that it will be difficult because of the levels of conflict, instability, destruction and displacement that we have seen. Our immediate focus is on putting people, including children, first and rebuilding the country in the best way we can through the international coalition.
Several hon. Members rose—
I do not want the hon. Gentleman to feel left out: I call Mr Alec Shelbrooke.
In all my elections, I have proudly stood in support of our manifesto commitment to spend 0.7% of GDP on international aid, although many people have criticised it. Does my right hon. Friend agree that in situations such as these, such a commitment is not only morally right but enables us to invest in Iraq? A lot of the situation with Daesh in Mosul came about because the residents were worried about divisions in the Baghdad Government. It is investment from this country through my right hon. Friend’s Department that allows people to be educated and ensures that that Government will work for the entire country to prevent this happening again.
I thank my hon. Friend for re-stating the importance of UK aid and our commitment to the world’s poorest through the 0.7%. We have been undertaking urgent humanitarian support for a number of years, but we are also looking ahead to the stabilisation that we will work to achieve collectively within the international development community. We can see UK aid making a difference to people, and bringing peace, stability and global influence to countries such as Iraq in the way that we would all expect our aid budget to do.
Following the comments from the Scottish nationalist spokesman, the hon. Member for Dundee West (Chris Law), does the Secretary of State agree that the crucial difference between the actions of the British and coalition forces on the one hand and Daesh on the other is that we go out of our way to minimise civilian casualties, while Daesh does exactly the opposite? At a time when one of our colleagues is being hideously bullied and threatened over her vote in favour of the action against Daesh, do we not need to send a clear message that this House was absolutely right to take the decisions to carry out military action against Daesh, both in Iraq and in Syria?
The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to say that we did the right thing, and we will continue to do the right thing by standing up to those poisonous ideologies and the conduct of those awful groups around the world. The liberation of Mosul speaks volumes about the sacrifices that the people in that community—and those who fought against Daesh—have made.
I thank my right hon. Friend for her statement. Sexual violence is one of the consistent horrors of war, both conventional and unconventional. It is a deliberate act, and a recognisable but repugnant tactic designed to shatter the cohesion of oppressed people, as well as being a grotesque example of individual human rights abuses. Will the Secretary of State assure us that she will look at what DFID can do to mitigate this vile form of violence and to support the Yazidis and other fragile, damaged communities? Moreover, will she tell us what DIFD can do to deter would-be oppressors from using this form of violence in future conflicts?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to mention the abhorrent sexual violence against women and girls, particularly in the Yazidi community. He is also right to highlight the fact that Britain has been calling this behaviour out, and standing up for and giving a voice to many people who have been subjected to horrific abuses and attacks by Daesh. In countries of conflict, it is women and girls who suffer such atrocities and acts of violence, and we will continue to stand up for them through our work with the United Nations and with our partners in other countries. In answer to his question on what else we can do, we will follow through the prosecutions of those who are responsible and hold them to account.
I visited the outskirts of Mosul last October during the conflict and met counter-terrorism personnel. I also visited six camps for refugees and internally displaced people and saw the huge humanitarian operation, which I was very impressed by. I note that on Radio 4’s “Today” programme this morning, the deputy commander of the coalition forces, General Jones from the United Kingdom, said that everything had been done to protect citizens. However, he went on to describe Amnesty’s report as “naive” and reckless. This is in the week in which the Amnesty report on Saudi Arabia arms sales—
Order. We are all very interested in the contents of the Amnesty report, but there is no need for a verbatim regurgitation of its contents. I just point out that so far, progress has been lamentably slow. That is not just the fault of the hon. Gentleman; it applies much more widely. We have got through only about 10 Back-Bench questions in 15 minutes, but I am sure that he is reaching his peroration, which we eagerly anticipate.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. I was going to say that we need a new democratic settlement in Nineveh province. What are the Secretary of State’s Department, the Foreign Office and our ambassador, Frank Baker, doing to ensure that we include minorities in that settlement?
The Iraqi and coalition forces have made every effort to protect civilians. On the hon. Gentleman’s last point, we are working with the Iraqi Government and with all partners on the ground on stabilisation and support for the rebuilding of Mosul.
Several hon. Members rose—
I call the hon. Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy); he can be the author of the brevity textbook.
I pay tribute to the Iraqi security forces and the British armed forces for their work. Will the Secretary of State update us on another humanitarian threat to the people of Mosul, namely the Mosul dam, which is in an incredibly dangerous condition and, being upstream of Mosul, threatens the city?
That is a very serious situation and, again, we are working on stabilisation and are making every effort to provide the support required in that area. We will continue to do that; this is an ongoing situation. We are not only monitoring it but are being very active in the support that we can give.
Last November, I raised the plight of the thousands of Yazidi women and children who were being held in slavery by Daesh in Mosul. I asked the Government whether they would seek to provide specialist psychological care once the liberation of Mosul had been completed. Will the Minister tell me what plans the Government are putting in place, now that Daesh has been driven from the city, to tend to the specific psychological needs and physical wounds of one of the most wickedly abused communities on this planet?
The hon. Gentleman is right to point out the awful abuse of minorities, and of the Yazidi women in particular. I refer him to my earlier comment about the medical support we are providing. Mental and psychological support are absolutely essential, given the abhorrent nature of this conflict.
I welcome the resources that the Government are making available for the relief of the suffering following the conflict, but will the Secretary of State ensure that the international community at no stage loses focus on the politics of the settlement around Mosul? We must ensure that there is no continuation of the institutionalised marginalisation of the complex number of communities around the city, and that they all have a stake in the future.
My hon. Friend is right to talk about the political stabilisation and about inclusivity in relation to the rebuilding. We will continue to work with Prime Minister al-Abadi and the Iraqi Government to ensure that this happens.
The tributes that the Secretary of State has made were right, and the ambition is commendable, but the question is: how is this going to be achieved? People talk facilely about learning the lessons from Iraq, but is it not an example of the collective failure to reconstruct the country that many Sunni families saw Daesh as their protectors against the legitimate Government, rather than the marauding killers that they were? How will things be different, and what role will the UK Government play?
The UK Government will play their part in every way that is necessary. There are no easy solutions to rebuilding a country or to making it operationally functional again after such an abhorrent and appalling conflict. We will continue to support Prime Minister al-Abadi and the Iraqi Government and to aid in the response that is required. We will also support inclusivity and getting the politics, security and stabilisation right.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that reconstruction depends on the removal of mines and booby traps? Is she satisfied that there is adequate capacity, and that enough money has been allocated to deal speedily with that task? Is there any timetable?
We provide support for the vital de-mining and clearing up of improvised explosive devices. The British Government have provided specific resources, and we will use various Government funds and support the UN Mine Action Service. However, the task is not easy, and the level of destruction in Iraq is absolutely atrocious. Our work is cut out for us, but we will give all the necessary support to ensure that mines are cleared and that land is returned to its former use.
The liberation of Mosul is a significant step towards the defeat of this evil terror, but does the Secretary of State agree that the rebuilding and de-radicalisation of communities are just as important as that defeat?
The hon. Lady is right that de-radicalisation must be a feature of the stabilisation and rebuilding. Divided and fractured communities need to be brought back together. Once again, Britain will lead the way on this, providing all the necessary support to the Iraqi Government and doing our bit to bring stability and peace to the country.
The atrocities of Daesh have failed to deliver a caliph and the so-called caliphate. My right hon. Friend rightly recognises the role of the Iraqi forces, but will she join me in recognising the role played by the Yazidi fighters, especially the female fighters? What work is being done to ensure that their voices are heard during the reconstruction?
Taking back control of Mosul has been a hard-fought battle, and all the forces and communities should be commended for their efforts. Stabilisation obviously needs to happen, but the focus must be on bringing together the minority groups from all the communities that have been divided by this atrocious conflict.
I join the right hon. Lady in paying tribute to our brave servicemen and women. I welcome her announcement about UK humanitarian aid, but what specific funding will be offered to women and girls who have been subject to the most unimaginable sexual violence of Daesh? We must do more to support them.
I announced today that we will be providing the necessary humanitarian aid, but 46,000 vulnerable and displaced people, many of whom are women and girls who have been subject to such atrocities and violence, will also receive support through that money.
I am sure that the Secretary of State will agree that the liberation of Mosul is a vindication of those on both sides of the House who were prepared to vote to give our allies on the ground the military support that they needed, rather than those who only wanted to offer warm words and hand-wringing in response to Daesh’s advance. Does she agree that getting people back into work is vital for getting things back to normal? What specific work will the Department be doing to bring Mosul’s economy back to life?
My hon. Friend is right that the liberation of Mosul represents a great opportunity to rebuild the country and put infrastructure in place. We need to work collectively with our partners and with the companies that will go in and help to create jobs, new economic opportunities and prosperity. That is a major feature of the stabilisation and rebuilding work that DFID is leading on with colleagues from across Government and with our international counterparts.
Points of Order
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Have you had any notice from the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions about an impending statement on Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs’ “Building our Future” programme? Today, the Department made the outrageous decision to move over 1,000 jobs from my constituency to Edinburgh, despite the publication of a National Audit Office report just before the election that damned the programme. Questions are being asked about the inappropriate use of funds during purdah, and the public and my constituents cannot have confidence in this Parliament and its processes until they get answers. What can you do to assist me and my constituents?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her point of order. In short, I have received no indication from the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions of an intention to come to the House to make an oral statement. I think that something has been announced, either in the form of a written statement or some media communication, outwith what I would call oral discourse. That said, the hon. Lady, in her relatively short time in the House, has become an adroit deployer of the various mechanisms available to her to pursue the interests of her constituents. There are some days to go before the House rises for the summer recess, and if she judges that there is an urgency attached to this matter, I am sure that she will have recourse to the appropriate mechanism, and I will look out for it. What is more, I rather imagine that she will be in her seat, and leaping up and down from it, at business questions tomorrow.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Many people, myself included, will have been disappointed to read in today’s papers that the Prime Minister has postponed the publication of a report, which she ordered as part of her mission to tackle “burning injustices”, that audits and examines how people of different backgrounds are treated by public services. The reason for the delay is reportedly because it is “explosive” and “pretty bad”. Given the genuine and growing concern, is it in order for the Prime Minister to postpone a publication because she does not like the findings and because it will look bad for her Government? Is there a way that Parliament can have sight of the report that the Prime Minister is trying to hide?
I thank the hon. Lady for her point of order. The short answer is that nothing disorderly has taken place. The timing of Government statements and the release of Government reports are matters for Ministers, not the Chair. However, if there is a completed report and if the hon. Lady and others are keen to know its contents and are not aware of any particularly compelling reason why it cannot be published sooner rather than later, it is open to the hon. Lady to seek to cajole or entice an appropriate Minister to come to the House in the remaining days before we rise for the summer recess. I cannot commit that that will happen, but I have this keen sense that the hon. Lady will return to the issue and probably seek some sort of adjudication from me in the days ahead.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. During Prime Minister’s questions, the First Secretary of State claimed that people with mental health conditions are more likely to be supported by the personal independence payment than the disability living allowance. The mental health charity Mind has made it absolutely clear that 55% of people with mental health conditions transferring from DLA to PIP have no award or a reduced award. I would be grateful if you could advise me on how we can have the record corrected.
It is fair to say that the hon. Lady has found her own salvation, in that she has put her thought on the record in characteristically robust, but thankfully pithy, form, and that will now form part of the Official Report. I am well aware—I would be failing in my duty if I were not—that she has strong views on this matter, and that those views differ markedly from those of the First Secretary of State. I think it is fair to say that this is properly a matter for debate, but we shall leave it there, albeit only for today.
If there are no further points of order, we come to the general debate on the Grenfell Tower fire inquiry, and I am looking to the First Secretary of State to open the debate at his second outing at the Dispatch Box today.
Grenfell Tower Fire Inquiry
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the Grenfell Tower fire inquiry.
I begin by expressing my deep sympathy to all those who lost family members and other loved ones in this terrible tragedy. Their suffering is beyond imagining. Our thoughts also go out to all those who lost their homes and possessions in the fire. Since that terrible event of 14 June—a month ago—we have all been deeply affected by that unprecedented tragedy, and words feel inadequate.
I pay tribute to the men and women of our emergency services, many of whom risked life and limb in their efforts to tackle the fire and showed extraordinary courage in their determination to save lives. Equally important, I pay tribute to the many volunteers and charities that have given their time and much, much more to help the bereaved and those who have lost their home.
Sir Martin Moore-Bick, the chair of the Grenfell Tower inquiry, is currently consulting on the scope of the inquiry’s terms of reference, so this debate provides an opportunity for Parliament to express its views on the inquiry before the terms of reference are set. Of course, it is most important that the chair listens to the views of those most affected by the tragedy and takes account of those views when considering the scope of his inquiry’s terms of reference, but I am sure Sir Martin will want to reflect on the views expressed in this House today—we should all be conscious that the survivors of this terrible tragedy will also be listening.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way so early. Does he agree that it will be important to have an interim report? If there are recommendations that address crucial safety issues with high-rise blocks, clearly they need to be attended to as soon as possible.
My right hon. and learned Friend is correct, and he may be aware that there is an intention to produce an interim report as soon as is practical. I am conscious that one of the great wishes of many survivors, and of the groups representing them, is for as many of the questions as possible to be resolved as quickly as possible.
I am sure there will be lots of comments on the scope of the report during this debate, and I do not want to widen it too far, but can the First Secretary of State assure the House that the scope will include private blocks and not be confined to social housing? In my experience as a city centre Member of Parliament, it is often much more difficult for residents of private blocks with opaque ownership and unresponsive managing agents than for residents of social blocks to have their voices heard.
The hon. Lady makes a good point. I cannot guarantee what the terms of reference will be, because that is obviously a matter for Sir Martin, but one of the purposes of this debate is precisely to allow such views to be expressed. I am happy to assure her and the House that the testing regime for the safety of blocks does extend to private blocks.
Will the First Secretary say what has happened to the independent recovery taskforce, which was announced about a week ago by the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government? We do not know who the members are, what they are doing or whether they have been to Kensington. If the taskforce has not yet been convened, will he reconsider sending in commissioners, particularly given what we heard this morning? We heard that the person to whom the taskforce is reporting, the new leader of Kensington and Chelsea London Borough Council, despite being a councillor for 11 years and a cabinet member for five years, has not seen fit to go into any of the tower blocks in her borough.
I reassure the hon. Gentleman that the taskforce is an independent body that will report to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, not to Kensington and Chelsea Council.
Pursuant to that point, will the First Secretary clarify whether the recovery taskforce has any executive authority whatsoever, or is it purely advisory?
It is an advisory panel, not an executive one, reporting to the Secretary of State. That is the proper way to proceed.
Is the First Secretary saying that the taskforce has no executive authority and that executive authority remains with the council? Is there a distinction between the taskforce’s powers and the powers that would be available to a commissioner, if one were appointed?
The taskforce will be overseeing what the council does but, as I have said to other Opposition Members, it will report to the Secretary of State, who can then decide the appropriate way to proceed. The taskforce is independent of the council, is not reporting to the council and will oversee what the council is doing.
The Prime Minister rightly identified the immediate priority when she announced the inquiry: establishing the facts of what happened at Grenfell Tower in order to take the necessary action to prevent a similar tragedy from happening again. The inquiry will fulfil that purpose and will report in two phases, with an interim report being published as quickly as possible.
Beyond that immediate focus, it is also important that all the wider lessons from this catastrophe, and from the inspections of other buildings around the country that followed it, are identified and learned. Sir Martin has said:
“I should make it clear that I shall want to consider a broad range of evidence, including on the role of the relevant public authorities and contractors, in order to help me answer the important questions.”
I am grateful to the Minister of State, Department for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Reading West (Alok Sharma), for answering my written question on the privatisation of housing functions in Kensington and Chelsea Council. I find it extraordinary that there is no central management, nor even records kept, of housing contracts within the housing department. We now have a situation where there is no accountability and no transparency on the nature of local authority contracts with the private sector involving housing, or on the degree to which housing contracts are subcontracted to other private providers. In view of this tragedy, will the First Secretary advise me on whether there are plans to revisit that policy?
There is clearly a large range of issues on which the inquiry may wish to make recommendations to the Government, and the hon. Lady has put that thought on the record. As I said, I imagine that Sir Martin will wish to take note of the views expressed in this debate.
On a wider point, my right hon. Friend will appreciate that many survivors suffered from carbon monoxide poisoning. Of course, carbon monoxide is known as the silent killer. Will he ensure that, among the many other lessons that are learned, the planned review of carbon monoxide alarms actually goes ahead in October 2017?
My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point. A range of lessons need to be learnt from this terrible tragedy. As he knows, an expert panel with a range of skills and expertise across a number of areas will be helping the inquiry. Again, he raises an important issue that not only the Government but the inquiry itself will want to consider.
The First Secretary is right that no stone should be left unturned in uncovering the truth behind the horror that was the Grenfell Tower fire. On wider lessons and action in the meantime, Birmingham has 231 tower blocks and the city council has rightly decided that it will retrofit sprinklers in all of them, costing £31 million to a council that has suffered £700 million of cuts to its budget. Will the Government unequivocally commit to funding all the necessary safety measures, pending the outcome of the inquiry?
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has said that the necessary safety measures recommended by the fire service will be met by the Government. The inquiry is designed to ascertain the causes of the tragedy.
For clarity, the First Secretary has just made an important statement. Is he saying that the necessary safety measures to protect 10,000 households in 231 blocks will be funded by the Government?
For clarity, I will go all the way through this. If the fire service recommends that something needs to be done for safety reasons, the local authority will be the first port of call to pay for it—I am sure all local authorities will want to follow the fire service’s recommendations on this. If a local authority can show that it cannot afford it, central Government will obviously then step in. That is a matter for local authorities and the fire service in the first instance. Clearly, that is the sensible way to proceed.
Will the First Secretary give way?
I have been very generous in giving way and I really need to make some progress.
The inquiry will need to examine all relevant circumstances leading up to and surrounding the fire at Grenfell Tower, its spread to the whole building and its effect on residents. That necessarily means looking at circumstances well beyond the design, construction and modification of the building itself. It will mean looking at the role of relevant public authorities and the contractors, and the broader implications of the fire for the adequacy and enforcement of relevant regulations. It will also mean looking at the handling of concerns previously expressed by local residents.
May I make some progress and then I will give way? I am conscious that many Members want to contribute to this debate. I have been extremely generous in giving way during my opening remarks, and I think the House will benefit from my making progress.
Sir Martin is highly respected, and as a recently retired Court of Appeal judge he brings with him many years of judicial experience. He and the Government fully agree that, for this inquiry, consulting on the terms of reference is an important way of involving those affected by the tragedy. It is clearly right that those affected by this terrible tragedy, and others with an interest, are given the opportunity to shape the terms of reference, which will in turn give direction and focus to the inquiry. Sir Martin has started that consultation process and is keen to give as many people as possible the chance to contribute to the consultation. He will consider all suggestions made to him when drawing up the terms of reference. He will then make a recommendation to the Prime Minister, who under the Inquiries Act 2005 is responsible for setting out the terms of reference.
Will my right hon. Friend give way?
May I do so in a moment? I will give way again, but first I wish to finish this section of my speech.
I will quote Sir Martin at length, because this is at the heart of many of the issues that have arisen:
“I am determined to establish the causes of the tragedy, and ensure that the appropriate lessons are learnt. To do this, the Inquiry will need to examine all relevant circumstances leading up to and surrounding the fire at Grenfell Tower, in order to understand its causes and prevent such a tragedy ever happening again.
To produce a report as quickly as possible, with clear recommendations for action, I will listen to people and consider a broad range of evidence, including on the role of the relevant public authorities and contractors, in order to help me answer the important questions.
I therefore want to hear from people directly affected by the fire and others involved, to listen to their views on the shape of the Inquiry’s work and the questions we should be seeking to answer.”
That is clearly the right approach. Sir Martin has set a deadline for comments of Friday 28 July, extended by two weeks from the inquiry’s original deadline, following discussions between Sir Martin and survivors of the fire and other residents of the estate, which made it clear that those affected need more time to respond to the consultation. That extension will allow the inquiry to begin its work in August. I am sure we are all agreed that the sooner the inquiry can begin its work, the sooner we will have the important conclusions of its interim report. It is important to point out that the public and others with an interest will of course be able to feed into the inquiry throughout the course of its work, by writing to it or emailing the contact address provided on its website. The terms of reference can always be revised during the course of the inquiry, and that may be likely as the inquiry reflects on what it has learned at the interim report stage, before it begins phase 2 of its work.
I thank my right hon. Friend for giving way. I am heartened to hear about the inclusivity of the inquiry, and public safety must be at its forefront. Will the inquiry look back historically and examine the effectiveness of the fire regulations and enforcement regime introduced in 2005 and 2006 respectively?
My hon. Friend raises a valid and important point. I assure her that the expert panel, which covers a range of different expertise, is already looking at that, and it will feed into the inquiry.
Following on from the question asked by the hon. Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow), the building regulations should be due for review. In this country that usually happens every 10 years, and 11 have now passed. The Lakanal House inquiry recommended in 2013 that building regulations should be reviewed. The Government have been saying since 2011, including after Lakanal House, that that would be done by this year. We do not have to wait for a public inquiry to say that building regulations should be reviewed. When will the working party be recalled, to show that that work is under way?
I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman has huge experience and expertise in this area. I assure him that the expert panel is considering whether any advice needs to be given urgently to the Secretary of State to act on.
The First Secretary is right that there should be a consultation on the remit to try to help to rebuild the local community’s trust in the inquiry, but is he prepared to go further? Should not there be an advisory panel made up of genuine and diverse community members?
The right hon. Gentleman may know that a similar group, namely Grenfell United, has already brought together many other groups. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and the Minister of State, Department for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Reading West (Alok Sharma), had a long and extensive meeting with the group last night. I assure the right hon. Gentleman that the views of those most affected are being fed to Sir Martin directly, and they are also in direct communication with the Secretary of State.
In terms of the potential appointment of panel members, the priority at this stage is for consultation on the terms of reference, which once agreed will allow the inquiry to start work. The chair will then want to consider what other expert assistance might be required and how that should be provided to the inquiry, including the process of consultation.
I assure the House that Government work is already in hand to address issues highlighted by this terrible tragedy. The Department for Communities and Local Government and the Cabinet Office are working together across the piece and on the wider building safety programme, about which I know hon. Members on both sides of the House are concerned. DCLG has written to local councils and housing associations, calling for checks to social housing. A survey of the public sector estate began on 28 June, with a request for Government Departments and arm’s length bodies to review all public buildings in line with provided guidance and to submit samples for testing from priority buildings with aluminium composite material cladding.
Is the First Secretary aware that a lot of DCLG advice has been contradictory? It initially informed us that certain kinds of cladding had to be removed, but then its position changed and it said that certain kinds of cladding could still be safe as part of fire safety systems. There was also a lack of clarity about whether that testing regime was compulsory. That appeared to be the initial position, but now we have been informed that the Department was responding to landlords’ concerns. Is the First Secretary aware that such flip-flopping is causing a lot of confusion and concern, including among tenants?
The expert panel, which I have mentioned on a number of occasions, includes precisely the people to provide advice and it continues to do so. Its advice has been consistently followed by the Department because it has that expertise. It may well discover more and decide that its advice needs to change, but it is all done on the basis of fire safety experts who are independent of Government.
I grew up in a two-bed flat in a council block and the traditional advice was always to stay put and await rescue. I wonder how many souls perished following that traditional advice. Will the advice change?
That issue may well be addressed by Sir Martin in the public inquiry, which is clearly the appropriate forum for that sort of investigation.
Even as we speak, and before the inquiry has begun, new tower blocks continue to be constructed and developed in my constituency and around the country. What new advice has been issued to planning authorities, those who monitor construction standards and the building industry?
The expert panel published new advice last week in a memorandum of understanding about what should be done about new blocks, so that issue has been addressed very directly over the past month.
On the points that were just made, I have constituents with disabilities who live in tower blocks on higher floors who have expressed great concern about what they should do in the event of an emergency. Sometimes they have been given conflicting advice about, for example, whether people in wheelchairs should be using lifts, which is contrary to general advice. Will the First Secretary encourage the inquiry to consider people with disabilities who live on higher floors?
As the hon. Lady will know, rules are already in place to cover precisely that type of thing. The best advice is obviously that those rules should be obeyed. The fire safety advisers are looking at what happened and what should happen in future, but it will be the local fire safety authorities that give that advice. I am sure they will all have been looking carefully at the advice they have been giving, particularly to people in wheelchairs and so on, who clearly will be understandably concerned about whether they are getting the right safety advice. I advise the hon. Lady to talk to her local fire safety officials.
Over the past month, the Cabinet Office has established a cross-Government working group called the public estates response group, with a technical sub-group to ensure that all technical advice is understood and is being properly applied. The Government are ensuring full engagement and alignment with activity in the devolved Administrations—I am conscious that they will be concerned as well. As I said, DCLG has formed an expert advisory panel made up of a range of building and fire safety experts to advise the Government on any immediate action required to ensure that buildings are safe. The Cabinet Office is working with DCLG’s expert panel and others to establish a remediation plan and the next steps towards the review of building regulations that several Members have asked for. All that work is under way outside the inquiry’s timetable, so its completion will not be dependent on the publication of the inquiry’s report.
Some of those affected by this terrible event are concerned that an inquest would be more appropriate than an inquiry, and that the inquiry might delay the identification of those who died. I can reassure them that there will be an inquest: the coroner, Dr Fiona Wilcox, is already investigating the deaths—that is a statutory duty. Once the identification of each of the deceased has been completed, I understand that the coroner will open the inquest into each individual death and then adjourn proceedings pending the outcome of other investigations, including the inquiry. The coroner will consider the inquiry’s recommendations to determine whether to resume the inquests. The process will not delay the formal identification of victims.
I can reassure those who want a criminal investigation into this terrible tragedy that that is in hand. The Metropolitan police announced the investigation on 16 June. It is one of the largest and most complex investigations ever undertaken by the Metropolitan police, with around 250 specialist investigators currently engaged. I hope that Members will be reassured by the clear statements about the investigation from the Metropolitan police. Detective Superintendent Fiona McCormack said on 23 June that the investigation would
“identify and investigate any criminal offence and, of course, given the deaths of so many people, we are considering manslaughter, as well as criminal offences and breaches of legislation and regulations”.
That point was reinforced on Monday by Assistant Commissioner Martin Hewitt, who said:
“The investigation we are conducting is a criminal investigation that quite obviously is starting from the potential that there was something that effectively amounts to the manslaughter of those people.”
It is clear that it will be a rigorous, detailed investigation; the police are determined that, if wrongdoing has occurred, the perpetrators will be brought to justice.
The Grenfell Tower inquiry’s task is of the utmost importance to establish the facts and make recommendations about the action needed to prevent a similar tragedy from happening again. The Government will provide the inquiry with all the resources it needs to complete its work thoroughly and rapidly. This was a terrible tragedy; we must learn the lessons to ensure nothing like it can happen again.
It is four weeks to the day since the truly dreadful Grenfell Tower fire—the worst fire and greatest loss of life in this country since at least the London blitz. One hundred and fifty-eight families have lost their homes, and many others have lost loved ones. All are struggling with the horror and trauma of losing family members, of their own escape, and of being left with absolutely nothing. This is the time when they should feel that they can look to their council and their Government for help, as well as to the overwhelming solidarity and support of their local community. But so many do not, and so many feel that they simply cannot trust those in authority to listen to them and do what they promise. This is a very strong message to Ministers, Kensington and Chelsea Council and the chair of the Prime Minister’s public inquiry.
Today is one week on from the Prime Minister’s deadline for everyone affected to have been found a home nearby, yet just four of the 158 families from Grenfell Tower have moved into a fresh home—and those are only temporary. Today is 24 days on from the start of the Government’s testing programme; the Prime Minister said that we could test more than 100 buildings a day, yet only 224 tests have been done, almost all on one type of filler in one type of cladding. Today is four years and four months since two official coroners’ reports following other fatal tower-block fires, yet the Government have still failed to act on their recommendations. And today is almost three weeks since the Prime Minister said that
“we simply have not given enough attention to social housing”—[Official Report, 22 June 2017; Vol. 626, c. 169.]
Yet, in her speech yesterday crying out for ideas—any ideas for a domestic policy programme—there was no mention of housing and no mention of the words “social housing”.
This is the measure of the Government’s response to the Grenfell Tower tragedy: too slow to act; too slow to grasp the gravity and complexity of the problems; and one step off the pace at every stage. Let me spell out to the First Secretary and his colleagues the pledge that the Labour party makes, as the official Opposition, to, above all, the survivors and the relatives of the families from Grenfell Tower: we will not rest until all those who need help and a new home have it; until all those culpable have been brought fully to account; and until all measures needed to make sure that this can never, ever happen again are fully in place.
We welcome the Prime Minister’s public inquiry and what the First Secretary said about this debate helping to inform the terms of reference and the way the inquiry will be conducted. We will make a submission to the Prime Minister on the terms of reference and recommend an approach like that of the Macpherson inquiry, with the appointment of panel members with deep experience in community relations to help to overcome the serious gulf in trust that many in the north Kensington community feel.
Let me turn to housing and the help for the survivors. The pledges that the Government have made to the families and the survivors—no-strings financial assistance, open access to trauma counselling, guaranteed school places, no legal action on immigration status or sub-letting, and rehousing—are all welcome and important. But there is still a big gap between what Ministers are saying to us in the House and what the residents and the community in north Kensington are saying is happening to them.
On housing, how is it, one week after the Prime Minister’s deadline, that only four families have moved into a fresh home and 13 others have been offered somewhere they feel they can say yes to? Who is finding, checking and offering this temporary accommodation? Who is providing the reassurance needed for the families? Who is in charge?
The right hon. Gentleman is making a good point, and of course these people, their homes and rehousing them is of the utmost importance, but to politicise the figures and to argue—[Interruption.] I do not know where he is getting his figures from. I was led to believe that 139 people had received offers of accommodation and many families have agreed not yet to engage, because they are not quite ready—we cannot force them to either. I am not sure where the statistics are coming from or whether all the scaremongering about statistics is helping to solve the actual problem, which this Government are getting on with doing.
The First Secretary’s speech to this House was fact and figure free. If I am wrong about the fact that only four of these families, after nearly one month, have moved into a fresh home—a temporary home—and the rest are still in hotels, he can get up and correct me, but he is not doing so. The hon. Lady talks about scaremongering and political point scoring, but it is precisely the decisions and policies of those in power that the Grenfell Tower residents want challenged. And it is precisely the questions of policy, ideology and responsibility in government that lie at the heart of the deep changes needed to fix the housing crisis in this country, and her own Prime Minister has recognised that.
Just to clear up any confusion in the right hon. Gentleman’s mind, 159 families have been offered accommodation, as my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow) rightly said. Some of those have said—I heard the leader of Kensington’s council say this this morning—that they do not wish yet to make the move into the housing they have been offered. Of course everyone across the House will recognise that we need to meet those wishes. These people have to decide how they can try to cope with this, but I can assure the right hon. Gentleman and the House that 159 of the families identified have been offered accommodation—some of them have been offered more than one type of accommodation. That commitment has been met.
I think the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government may want to set the record entirely straight when he winds up this debate. I take the First Secretary at his word for now, but last week we were told that 158 families lost their homes in Grenfell Tower, and 139 had been offered accommodation by the Prime Minister’s deadline. Last week, only three had moved out. This week—today—four weeks on, four had moved out and only a further 13 have actually been given offers that they feel they can accept. There is a huge gap between what Ministers are saying here and what residents are saying there. That is the problem, and the question to the First Secretary and the Secretary of State is: who is sorting this out? Who is in charge? Who is responsible for this continuing failure to provide the homes and the start again that people need? I am sure the First Secretary would accept that a hotel room is no home and that temporary accommodation is no place in which to try to rebuild a shattered life. So the top and the urgent priority must be for Ministers to find the permanent homes that are needed.
We welcome the 68 homes in Kensington Row that now will be available, as social housing, for the residents of Grenfell Tower. The rest could be done straightforwardly by doing a deal with local housing associations to make new homes available; by leasing or buying vacant private properties in the area; and by funding the council to build or acquire the new homes needed. The Government might even force Kensington and Chelsea Council to use some its reported £274 million in reserves to take this urgent priority action.
Most of the residents who have been decanted are in budget hotels—I know that as I have visited a number who were unceremoniously dumped in my borough by Kensington and Chelsea Council, without money, a change of clothes or anything of that kind—and have been there for four weeks. None of those people are there because they want to be there; they are there because they have not been made appropriate offers. Does my right hon. Friend therefore agree that the Government should stop this sophistry and get on with offering decent, permanent homes to people who have suffered extraordinary trauma?
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend about that. He speaks with a special authority, as a neighbouring MP who has spent a great deal of the past four weeks in the North Kensington community, working alongside my hon. Friend the Member for Kensington (Emma Dent Coad) to try to support and give voice to the concerns of survivors.
Let me move on to the issue of safety testing. It is totally unacceptable, four weeks on from the Grenfell Tower fire, that Ministers still do not know and cannot say how many of the country’s other tower blocks are unsafe. The Government’s testing programme is too slow, too narrow and too confused. This is a testing programme in chaos. Only 224 tests have been done, yet an estimated 530 tower blocks have the same cladding and we have a total of 4,000 tower blocks across the country. That means that 24 days after the start of this testing programme, which we were told could test 100 buildings a day, we find that tests have been done on only half the highest-risk blocks and on fewer than one in 20 of the total number of tower blocks around the country.
Last week, the Secretary of State said that there was “no backlog” in testing and that tests would be processed within a matter of “hours”. Given the continuing shortfall in the number of high-rise buildings that have been subject to testing, does my right hon. Friend share my bafflement that the Government do not appear to know where any of this material actually is?
Yes, I share my hon. Friend’s bafflement entirely. I also hear of councils and housing associations that want to test their buildings, which may not have the same type of cladding, but simply cannot get the tests. I note, again, that the First Secretary’s speech was entirely free of any facts or figures that can update the House on the chaos of this testing programme.
My right hon. Friend will be aware that Camden Council has done the testing in my constituency and, as a result, has evacuated more than 3,000 people from the Chalcots estate. The council is spending its own money to try to ensure that the buildings are fit for purpose before the residents are placed in them again. Does he agree that the Government should be giving financial support to councils such as Camden after cutting their budgets for years on end?
The short answer is yes; the longer answer is that I pay tribute to Camden Council for taking the tough decision that it had to make in those circumstances. My fear is that other housing associations, councils and landlords of high-rise blocks around the country will hold back or perhaps cut corners because they know they cannot afford to do the works required—either to remove and replace cladding, or to make the inside safe and fully fire-safety compliant—and that they will do so only because they cannot get a straight answer from this Government on a clear commitment to up-front funding where it is needed to make sure that this essential work is done. The situation leaves hundreds of thousands of residents in tower blocks around the country still uncertain as to whether their block is safe.
I hope that Ministers will stay to hear the debate because a number of colleagues from around the country will set out concerns about the testing system, including the problem that landlords and residents are confused. The testing system does not meet the needs of those residents or landlords. We know from the Lakanal House fire that cladding is not the whole problem—nor, I suspect, was it in Grenfell—yet only one component of one type of cladding had been tested until very recently. We are therefore talking about no tests on cladding systems, on insulation materials, on the interaction between cladding and insulation, on installation, and on the fire breaks between floors. I can tell the First Secretary of State and the Secretary of State that housing associations across the country, such as Bradford-based Incommunities, cannot get their type of cladding tested, so they cannot reassure their residents that their tower blocks are safe. Councils such as Salford have stopped stripping off cladding from their high-rise flats because they have no guidance from Government on what to replace it with.
I wish to comment on that point in relation to Hounslow Council. I commend it for the speed with which it was able to de-clad a block in my constituency, but it has hit some of these concerns about what to replace that cladding with. Given the amount of re-cladding that might take place across the country, I am worried that the producers of that cladding could jack up the prices, thus making the replacement even more expensive.
My hon. Friend is right. Her council, like Oxford, is in the dark on this—it simply does not know what the Government’s guidance and advice will be. If it takes off the cladding, what does it replace that with, because the council must be certain that it is safe?
The First Secretary of State rightly made great play of the panel of independent experts in his speech. The panel is there to advise Ministers on the urgent lessons that need to be learned and the action that needs to be taken, and that is very welcome. I hope that the panel can help the Government to get back on track and deal with some of the following concerns, which Ministers will hear about from colleagues right across the country. What advice will the Government give to landlords—and what reassurance will they give to residents—if cladding systems pass the new second round of tests despite the fact that they failed the narrow first test? If cladding fails the Government’s tests, must it be taken off tower blocks in all circumstances, and will the Government cover the costs of taking it down and replacing it? When will councils and housing associations be able to get other cladding or insulation tested? How will the Government make sure that all internal fire safety works that are now being carried out inside tower blocks meet the highest safety standards? Will the Government launch an immediate review into the approved inspectors responsible for building control checks, as well as who hires them, who pays them and who approves their qualifications, starting with all those responsible for signing off the systems that are being failed by the Government’s tests?
Four weeks on, Ministers must widen their testing programme and reassure all high-rise tenants that their buildings are safe, or commit to fund the urgent work necessary to make them safe. The clearest warnings that the system of fire safety checks and building controls was failing came more than four years ago following the inquest into fatal tower block fires at Lakanal House and Shirley Towers. Both coroners wrote formal rule 43 letters to Ministers with recommendations to improve fire safety in high-rise buildings. Such letters are written by coroners only when the Government can prevent further loss of life—that is their importance. Some of the recommendations were simply rejected, such as making internal cable supports fire resistant and providing onsite information about a tower block to firefighters arriving to fight a blaze.
Ministers said that they would act on other recommendations, but they have not. The Government passed all responsibility for retrofitting sprinkler systems on to landlords. In 2014, one Minister even said:
“We believe that it is the responsibility of the fire industry, rather than the Government.”
On overhauling building regulations, the Government promised a review but it did not happen. The Minister of State, Department for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Reading West (Alok Sharma), has just told me that
“this work will now need to be informed by any recommendations that the independent inquiry into Grenfell Tower fire makes.”
Rather than waiting months or years to start this work, Ministers must put this right now. They must start installing sprinkler systems in the highest-risk high-rise blocks and start the overhaul of building regulations, into which any findings from the fire investigations or the public inquiry can be incorporated.
Has my right hon. Friend picked up on the rumour about the review of building regulations in the Department for Communities and Local Government? I have heard that the review was paused because the civil servants who were leading on it were put on to other work related to Brexit. If that is true, how many other pieces of essential, urgent and safety-related work are on pause in government right now?
I had not heard that rumour—I prefer to deal with the facts in front of us—but my hon. Friend is dead right that there is a serious question of capacity in DCLG. There is an even greater question over leadership, which I shall come on to in a moment.
Finally, I want to turn to the “fundamental issues”, as the Prime Minister described them, that were raised by the Grenfell Tower fire. When a country as decent and well-off as ours fails to provide something as basic as a safe home for its citizens, things must change. Let me mention two areas, the first of which is regulation. Surely Members in all parts of the House would agree that all markets, organisations and consumers require regulation to guarantee quality and safety, to ensure fair practice and to stop abuse, yet that is not the current Government’s mindset. Never again can we have a Government Minister who, when challenged on fire safety measures after the fire in Camberwell, said that they were not the Government’s responsibility, justifying that with the “one in, two out” approach to regulation. If the Prime Minister and First Secretary of State are serious about change, they should start by confirming that that approach came to an end with the Cameron-Osborne era of Conservative government.
The right hon. Gentleman makes a very important point. He and the House might like to know that when I was a junior Business Minister, people from No. 10 and the Cabinet Office asked me whether we should get rid of fire safety regulations for girls’ and ladies’ nightdresses and furniture. I said no. We did not get rid of them, nor should we have done. He is absolutely right that we have to change the culture.
I am grateful for that unexpected support from the Liberal Democrat Benches. The right hon. Gentleman’s very important and specific point supports my general argument.
The second area is social housing. For decades after the second world war, there was a national cross-party consensus about the value of social housing to help to meet the housing needs and aspirations of many ordinary families. There is a recognition that there has been only one year since the second world war in which this country has built more than 200,000 new homes without the public sector doing at least a third of them. This is the first Government since the second world war to provide no funding to help to build new social-rented housing, and they have also ended all funding through the Homes and Communities Agency programme for decent homes, which is investment to bring social housing up to scratch. If the First Secretary of State and the Prime Minister were serious about social housing, they would lift the cap on councils borrowing to build and maintain their homes, restore central Government investment to help to build new social housing, guarantee “first dibs” on new homes for local people, and strengthen the hand of councils to get better deals from big developers for their residents.
Finally, we hear that the Prime Minister wants us to “contribute” rather than just “criticise”. I have to ask this: has she asked her Cabinet to contribute? What does the Secretary of State have to contribute to solving the country’s housing crisis; to doing more on social housing; to reversing the plunging rate of home ownership, especially for young people; to giving 11 million private renters basic consumer rights; and to preventing the rapidly rising numbers of homeless people sleeping on our streets? Where is the plan? Where is the hope? Where is the leadership? If the Prime Minister wants a domestic policy programme, and if she wants to find common cause and to make fundamental changes to Government policy, we stand ready to contribute—we offer our Labour housing manifesto, published last month, as a starter.
If the Government want our support for a plan to tackle the country’s housing crisis, they must raise their sights. If Ministers want our support for their recovery programme post-Grenfell, they must raise their game.
I agree with the right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey) on one aspect: this accident should not have happened in a country such as ours. He is also right to argue for a national and clear approach that does not just concentrate on one issue but considers all the issues involved.
Slightly uncharacteristically, the right hon. Gentleman was not prepared to accept—at least he seemed not to—that, over the years, both main parties have made mistakes in this area when in government. If he thinks back to 2005-06, when the enforcement regime was weakened and the building regulations changed, he might wonder whether that tackled the problem. The previous Labour Government also had a deplorable record on building houses. I do not think that the right hon. Gentleman can be holier than thou in this debate, as he was tempted to be.
I should like to pay tribute to the local community for all it has done at the Westway centre. People were generous and warm-hearted; they put their arms around the victims’ families. Our thoughts are, correctly, with the victims and families, but I pay tribute to the communities of Latimer Road and the Westway, who come out of this very strongly.
It is time that fires that claim lives in high-rise buildings were a thing of the past. In February 2005, there was a fire in Stevenage in my constituency, at Harrow Court, a high-rise, 17-storey block of flats. Two firemen lost their lives, including my constituent Jeff Wornham; a member of the public died as well. Jeff came from a family who are very committed to public service. He was extremely brave in the fire and saved lives. His loss was felt in my constituency and by his family, friends and the fire service in Hertfordshire more widely.
The incident led to a fire investigation by Hertfordshire fire and rescue service—a very good service with a lot of experience of dealing with hazardous materials. It fought the Buncefield fire as well as that could have been fought. It is generally a highly respected fire and rescue service, and one of its recommendations was that the UK fire service should explore options for high-rise buildings to have provision for sprinklers. I felt at the time that that was an important matter, and we had a Westminster Hall debate about Hertfordshire firefighters’ safety. The then fire Minister, Sadiq Khan, met Jeff’s father, Robert Wornham, and fire safety experts to discuss the case for sprinklers being retrofitted to all high-rise blocks; sprinkler experts also went to the meeting. That retrofitting has not happened, but Robert Wornham still believes that it is an important way of helping to ensure fire safety in such blocks. He contacted me recently to say that he hoped that the issue can get back on the agenda.
After 2007, the rules were changed for new buildings more than 30 metres high, which are now required to be fitted with sprinkler systems. Some local authorities have gone ahead and retrofitted sprinklers to some of their blocks. As the right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne mentioned, coroners have recommended retrofitting sprinklers on two occasions. But that has not been the general rule. We need a national approach—something clear.
The British Automatic Fire Sprinkler Association estimates that the cost of fitting a system in Grenfell Tower would have been about £200,000. We need to establish the truth of what happened in Grenfell Tower and make sure it does not happen again. I hope that the retrofitting of sprinkler systems can be firmly and urgently considered, because that may be long overdue.
I turn to the investigations that have been ordered. There is a police investigation, which will look at criminal wrongdoing, but it is good that a judicial public inquiry has been announced by the Prime Minister. The two types of investigation have different purposes. Public inquiries investigate issues of serious public concern, scrutinising decisions and events. The Inquiries Act 2005 ensures that witnesses can be compelled and documents brought forward without any difficulties—something that did not happen with other forms of inquiry.
Public inquiries are different from criminal investigations, but the parallel criminal investigation into the fire that is being carried out by the Metropolitan police will be informed by the public inquiry. Facts are given and recommendations made in a public inquiry, and if the inquiry comes across criminal activity during its investigation, it will obviously pass that information to the police. That is its duty.
There has been some discussion nationally about the choice of chair for the public inquiry. People from all over the world come to our country to have their legal issues resolved. They come here because we have independent-minded judges who do not mind telling the Government where to get off when they are wrong. Our judges are of the highest quality and there is a transparent system that people trust. That is why the English legal system has been copied all over the world, and why people respect it so much. Our common-law system is excellent.
The choice of chair for the public inquiry is a senior judge. Think of the Hillsborough case, over which a senior judge presided. Nobody would argue that such judges are not capable of dealing with a complex case and getting right to the heart of the issues. The Lord Chancellor asked the Lord Chief Justice for a recommendation of a judge who would be best suited to leading a public inquiry of this sort. The Lord Chief Justice recommended Sir Martin Moore-Bick. Sir Martin is one of our most respected judges, with extensive experience of trying complex cases, including the investigation of disasters. He was vice-president of the civil division of the Court of Appeal—one of our most senior judges—until he retired in December. He will be thorough and get to the heart of the issues.
Members in all parts of the House are determined that there will be justice for victims of the tragedy and for their families. I believe that the combination of a judge-led inquiry and a police investigation will achieve that. We can judge how well a judge will run an inquiry by how speedily he gets on with the matter in hand. By immediately consulting—he opened the consultation on 5 July—to establish the terms of reference, Sir Martin has shown that he is seeking a wide range of views. That bodes well for the inquiry. He wants to hear from those directly affected by the fire and from others who have a contribution to make. He is having a series of meetings to listen to victims’ families, survivors and others affected, and to take their views.
It is welcome that the chair has been so open to ideas, and that he said he wants to establish the terms of reference as soon as possible, so that the inquiry can begin making sure that we know what happened and how to stop it from ever happening again. I am personally a strong supporter of a judge-led inquiry, and I hope it will be possible to have a relatively early interim report that will deal with some of the key issues, such as sprinkler systems and cladding, so that we have the national, clear approach mentioned by the right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne. I am a strong supporter of the inquiry, and I would like sprinklers to be strongly on the agenda.
The Scottish National party welcomes the Government’s announcement of a full public inquiry into this terrible tragedy. But we are clear that, as others have already said, no stone should be left unturned in ascertaining not just the immediate cause of the fire but the wider causes of what happened and what went wrong in order to ensure that the appropriate lessons are learned and to get justice for those affected.
Our thoughts and sympathies are very much with those affected by this terrible tragedy, and it goes without saying that we pay tribute to the bravery and professionalism of the first responders and the emergency services who dealt with the matter. I want to address, though, the scope and nature of the inquiry. I am glad to say that the days when inquiries in the United Kingdom were establishment whitewashes are long over. Our modern society could not tolerate the sort of cover-up we saw in the now notorious Widgery tribunal after the Bloody Sunday massacre, or the delay that occurred before the Hillsborough families found justice. However, we should always be mindful that the history of inquiries has seen many examples of justice being delayed and being denied altogether.
It seems that this most often happens when those affected by death and disaster come from among the ranks of those who do not have wealth, power or influence in our society. I am thinking about the fleeing unarmed Catholic civilians who were shot dead by the Army on Bloody Sunday while protesting for their basic civil rights, and the innocent Liverpool football fans who were unlawfully killed at Hillsborough while going about their lawful business and then wrongfully blamed for so many years for being the cause of their own deaths. Those two incidents are very different from the Grenfell Tower inquiry, but I was struck by the words of one Grenfell survivor that were recently brought to my attention by the Scottish journalist and commentator Lesley Riddoch. The man’s name was Mehed Egal, and he told the BBC:
“We are not poor people, we are working-class people. We are leaseholders. We are homeowners. We pay tax. We pay council tax. We make the economy turn while the rich put us in hazardous positions. I’m not going to hold back—we have been neglected from the get-go and we are neglected still.”
Those words may be uncomfortable for some to hear, but they cannot and should not be ignored as they come from a survivor and someone who lived in the tower block.
Underlying this tragedy is the stark contrast in our society between those who have wealth, power and influence, and those who do not. What I mean by that is that it seems unthinkable—to me, at least—that those with power, wealth and influence would have been condemned to live in accommodation that seems to have been such a death trap. The tragedy raises real questions about the inequalities in our society and the inadequate provision of social housing in cities such as London. There is real issue as to whether the inquiry will be of adequate scope to address not just the immediate causes of the fire and its rapid spread, but systemic issues underlying the tragedy. The terms of reference are vital. It is also vital that the participants have confidence in the chair, and that all participants have adequate funding to ensure representation and equality of arms. I will take each of those issues in turn.
The Stephen Lawrence inquiry is often considered an exemplar of what an inquiry should do. It is worth remembering that that inquiry’s terms of reference were simply,
“matters arising from the death of Stephen Lawrence.”
In the Grenfell case, the survivors are concerned about some comments made by the judge chosen to chair the inquiry that suggested, at an earlier stage, that the inquiry will be restricted to issues relating to how the fire started, rather than examining wider issues about Grenfell Tower, the council, central Government, and the management and funding of social housing.
I note that the Communities Secretary last week told the House that the Government expect the inquiry to be as broad and wide-ranging as possible, and the First Secretary has today addressed the way in which there can be input into the framing of the terms of reference. What is not clear is whether this House will be able to scrutinise or have any input into the final framing of those terms of reference. In my view, a way should be found to enable that to happen because the Grenfell fire raises issues that concern the public and our constituents all across the UK.
Constituents have written to me, concerned about the extent of the death toll and its composition, which seems to include the poor, immigrants, the elderly, disabled people and undocumented people—people who are sometimes forgotten in society. Members of the public are concerned that the fact seems to be that a refurbishment budget for the block was spent with an emphasis on cladding that was pleasing to the eye, rather than fire-safe, and about the suggestion that not enough was spent on fire safety measures. They are also concerned about the adequacy of the response to the fire. People have asked, “Where was the publicly funded infrastructure dealing with relief? Where was the plan for the aftermath?” We need to ensure that the inquiry’s terms of reference encompass those matters, while ensuring that the interim report deals with the immediate fire safety issues.
We should never forget that the decades of failure to investigate properly what happened at Hillsborough began with the controversial decision by the coroner in the inquest to close off certain questions from proper investigation, so we must be very careful not to close off from proper investigation certain questions arising from how the fire came about.
Turning to the chair, the problems with the historical child abuse inquiry show that it is vital to have a chair who commands the confidence of the victims. As a lawyer, I will not cast any aspersions on Sir Martin Moore-Bick’s ability to chair the inquiry, but the residents’ concerns about his ability must be respected and listened to. Doubt surrounding public confidence in his suitability cannot be ignored because it will undermine the efficacy of the inquiry.
The hon. and learned Lady knows as well as I do that we are talking about a judge who has dealt with the most complex matters and disasters. How can she say that somebody of that sort of ability, who has been hand-picked to do the job by the Lord Chief Justice, is not the right sort of person to run a judicial inquiry?
That is not a decision for me. I am bringing to the House’s attention the perfectly valid concern of local people about the judge’s ability to chair the inquiry. I was careful to preface that—[Interruption.] Will the right hon. and learned Member for North East Hertfordshire (Sir Oliver Heald) let me develop my point?
The right hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Sir Edward Davey), who is no longer in his place, said that a properly diverse expert panel is required to sit alongside the inquiry judge to advise on a variety of issues. A local organisation, BME Lawyers 4 Grenfell, has made a number of demands, including that there should be such a properly diverse panel to advise on issues including housing need, and fire and safety construction. I respectfully suggest that doubts about the ability of the judge may be allayed if that suggestion is followed. [Interruption.] Whether Conservative Members like it or not, it is vital that the people affected by the disaster have confidence in the ability of the constitution of the inquiry to bring about a just result. We do not need to look far back in British history to see many examples where that has not happened, and which shame us.
Will the hon. and learned Lady give way?
I am going to develop my point. I will give way in a moment.
All that I and others are asking is that the Minister gives serious consideration to the demand that, in addition to the judge, there should be a properly diverse expert panel that has the proper expertise to advise on issues concerning housing need, and fire and safety construction. We lawyers are not necessarily experts on housing need. The point is that we may need a bit of assistance from somebody who is.
People take cases against the Government to our courts the whole time. Judges are keen to do the cases properly, and they kick back at the Government on numerous occasions, as everybody in the House knows. Is the hon. and learned Lady really saying that one of the most senior judges in our country will not be able to do an independent and objective job of the highest quality? [Interruption.]
As has been said by a colleague from a sedentary position, that was not what I said. This is not litigation; it is a public inquiry. All I am saying is that the Government have already accepted that a panel of advisers is required. The point I am making is actually quite simple: the panel of advisers should be of suitable expertise and diversity to inspire confidence.
Another thing we need to do to ensure justice is done is to make sure that not only victims but tenants’ groups are given public funding for independent and separate legal representation sufficient to enable them to have a voice equal to that of local and national Government and the private management company. This is a simple matter of human rights and equality of arms, and I was pleased that, when I asked the Prime Minister about this on 22 June, she said that, although the way in which the inquiry is conducted is ultimately a matter for the chair, for
“those who require legal representation, that will be funded by the Government”
and that she was not going to
“set any limits in relation to the types of body or the individuals for whom”—[Official Report, 22 June 2017; Vol. 626, c. 186-87]—
funding would be available. I welcome what she said, because although funding and proper representation are matters for the inquiry, the inquiry can work well only within the constraints imposed on it by the Treasury. If the tenants’ groups are not represented in this inquiry, I fear that justice will not be seen to be done.
Finally, before I say something about the position of the devolved Administrations, which the Minister alluded to, I want to turn briefly to question of the inquiry’s recommendations being properly implemented. It is vital that this House is empowered to make sure that the recommendations are implemented promptly, because important recommendations are not always implemented promptly. We have already heard about the recommendations after the Lakanal House fire. After a tower block fire in Irvine, in Scotland, in 1999—just before devolution—a Select Committee of this House recommended that all cladding on high-rise dwellings should be non-combustible. Subsequent to devolution, that report was taken seriously by Scottish housing authorities, and building regulations in Scotland were duly amended in 2005. All new high-rise domestic buildings in Scotland are therefore fitted with non-combustible cladding, or a cladding system that meets stringent fire tests, and with sprinklers. The same recommendation was seen as optional south of the border, and it appears now that that has had tragic consequences. So it is vital that this House finds a way to make sure that the inquiry’s recommendations are properly implemented.
I join the tributes that have been paid to the victims and the first responders. Many people in Scotland, including in my constituency, still live in tower blocks. Despite the reassurances my hon. and learned Friend has provided, they will nevertheless be looking to the recommendations that come from the inquiry’s report. Does she agree that there will be lessons to be learned across the UK and that it is important that assurances are provided not just to the constituents she mentioned earlier but particularly to people who continue to live in tower blocks?
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. I have many tower blocks in my constituency, and I was pleased that the City of Edinburgh Council, in very early course, had all elected representatives in to tell us what investigative steps it was taking to make sure these high-rise blocks were safe.
As I have indicated, Scottish building standards are devolved, and the Scottish Government have already set up a ministerial working group to make sure that our buildings are up to scratch and that the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service is satisfied with the standards in all local buildings. I am pleased to say that all 32 local authorities in Scotland have been able to confirm that none of the high-rise domestic properties they own use the type of cladding we understand was used on Grenfell Tower. However, the Scottish Government are not being complacent, and the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service will continue to carry out additional operational assurance visits to high-rise buildings. The Scottish Government will continue to monitor the situation in Scotland, gathering information from local authorities and taking a proactive and safety-first approach to this issue while we await information from the investigation into the fire in London.
The point I have sought to make in my contribution is that the way this inquiry is set up—the framing of the terms of reference, and the way in which the expert panel that will advise the chair is made up—and the funding that is made available to all relevant participants are vital for justice to be seen to be done, and we cannot cut corners on any of those things. There is widespread concern across the United Kingdom about the circumstances surrounding this fire, and all our constituents, but particularly the people local to this fire, need to be satisfied that justice is done and seen to be done.
The House struggles on occasions such as this to get the tone of the debate right. When Members of this place awoke on 14 June, we were all horrified by what we witnessed. How on earth the residents are coping with this tragedy, I just do not know.
I pay immediate tribute to the local Member of Parliament, the hon. Member for Kensington (Emma Dent Coad). She has not been here very long, but in no time at all she has done her very best to support local residents. So I congratulate her, and I think that the House will come together at least on that point.
There are no words that are adequate to describe our feelings about this horror. The fire started on the fourth floor at one in the morning, when most of the residents were asleep. Within half an hour, a towering inferno took place. It was truly shocking to turn on our TV screens in the morning and see what had happened. This was just a month ago.
This House has a huge responsibility in terms of how we deal with this matter in the debate, and the tone must be moderate. Recently, an article was written by Nick Ross. He is not someone I know personally, but he appears on TV as a commentator. He said:
“no one has a right to a monopoly on anger, or grief…For 15 years I have been campaigning to update building regulations in England to improve fire safety and to have sprinklers fitted routinely to council and other social housing, and I can’t recall a single Government minister or Opposition frontbencher—Labour, Conservative or Lib Dem—who ever campaigned with us…Three times I’ve addressed the Local Government Association…pointing out how the risks are disproportionate in subsidised housing—‘It’s the poor wot gets the flame’—as three times they applauded and did nothing.”
Now, I come to my hon. Friend the Minister. Mr Ross continues:
“Ministers are mostly here today, gone tomorrow”,
although I hope my hon. Friend will be around for a little time,
“and few would claim to be expert in their briefs. Except for those who know it all because they are gripped by rigid ideology, most ministers do listen to their advisers…If there is any group whose actions allowed the catastrophe to happen it was these advisers”,
and Ministers took their advice.
Finally, Mr Ross says:
“Sprinklers are not invincible. They can’t function if the water supply fails. But—and this is the truth that makes me so angry—no one ever dies from fire when a home is protected by automatic sprinklers. That’s why in the U.S. they’re installing 40 million a year.
But let’s not be persuaded that the risk is only in high-rise towers. There are 300-400 fire deaths a year and most victims live in low-rise properties.
We need sprinklers in all social housing, care homes, and multi-occupation premises including schools—and let’s not forget our hospitals…There is a terrible anger after Grenfell. Instead of trading political insults we must put it to good use.”
We politicians are often criticised—we take the blame for most things that happen—and we have been criticised for not acting on this issue. However, that cannot be said of the all-party group on fire safety rescue, and I am delighted that a number of its very active members are present. Unfortunately, we lost one or two members in the last election, but the group has been going for a long time. I do not know whether colleagues here today are experts, although we found out this morning that one newly elected Scottish Conservative Member is a former firefighter, and he will no doubt bring his expertise to this. Most of us are not experts, however, and since 1986 the APPG has depended on two marvellous secretaries. First we had Douglas Smith, and then, in 2013, Ronnie King took over. Time after time—as was mentioned earlier by the group’s vice-chairman, the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick)—we asked Ministers to look at the Lakanal House recommendation about the retrofitting of sprinklers, and we asked for the building regulations to be reviewed after 11 years.
The Minister of State, Department for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Reading West (Alok Sharma), who I think will be replying to the debate, has already met members of the all-party parliamentary group, and this morning it was agreed that I should put a number of points to him, which I hope he will consider. They are as follows.
“Without prejudice to the public inquiry or the police criminal investigation, the all-party group…want to respond to the Secretary of State’s invitation to submit measures which can be put in place immediately to keep people safe”.
I entirely accept the frustration felt by Opposition Members who feel that something needs to be done now, and that we need not wait until the outcome of the public inquiry for that to happen. I hope my hon. Friend the Minister will reflect on that.
The APPG said:
“One such measure is to commence the long promised review of Approved Document ‘B’ to the Building Regulations, forthwith, and in particular to seek an immediate reinstatement of the provisions of Section 20 of the London Building Acts insofar as they are required a one hour fire resistance to outside walls of blocks of flats”.
It is crazy that we no longer have those regulations. The Minister will face a test: he will be given advice on the matter, and I hope that, unless it is in the affirmative, he will make his own decision and will agree with the recommendation from the all-party parliamentary group.
My hon. Friend obviously understands these things better than I do, but one thing has really worried me about this tragedy. If there had been sprinklers inside the building, and the outside of the building had caught fire, would people have survived although the outside of the building was aflame? That worries me. I do not know whether there is an answer, but it seems to me that they might have survived.
That is an interesting point. All I will say is that people do not lose their lives when sprinklers have been fitted. That is the point.
Does it not speak volumes that in 2007 we said that every new building should have a sprinkler system?
I will come to that point, but I also want the Minister to hear this, because it is not the responsibility of his Department. It is crazy that it is not mandatory for all new school buildings to have sprinklers fitted. We must address that, as a matter of urgency. Again, I hope that, if the Minister is not given the advice that I certainly want him to be given, he will make a contrary decision and recommend that all new school buildings have sprinklers fitted.
I am grateful for what the hon. Gentleman has said about sprinkler systems in schools, but does he agree that it is also imperative for the regulations to be changed to cover student accommodation? I understand that tower blocks more than 30 metres high will now be fitted with sprinklers, but that student accommodation more than 30 metres high will not qualify. I hope my hon. Friend agrees that that cannot be right.
I certainly do agree. The Minister has heard what has been said. I understood that every building more than 30 metres high would have to have sprinklers fitted. I hope that at some stage when the Minister is winding up a note will be passed to determine whether or not the hon. Gentleman—he was at our meeting this morning— is right, but as far as I understand, that cannot be the position.
The APPG also agreed on the following:
“without prejudice to the public inquiry or the police criminal investigation, the all-party group…wish to support the recommendation of the coroners at Southwark and Southampton arising from the Lakanal House and Shirley Towers tower block”
—which was mentioned by the right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey)—
“whereby both coroners recommended in a letter to the Secretary of State that the Department for Communities & Local Government, encourages providers of housing in high risk residential buildings containing multiple domestic premises to consider the retrofitting of sprinkler systems”.
I hope my hon. Friend the Minister will deal with that as well.
The APPG said:
“a letter to the then CLG Minister, dated 1st May 2014…drew the Minister’s attention to”
“personal involvement with the Lakanal House Coroner’s Inquest, where clarification was given from the Department that the current Building Regulations allowed the composite panels under the external wall window sets of such tower blocks not to have any fire resistance”
—that is absolutely crazy—
“and that this weakness in the Regulations remains uncorrected today; despite the upward spread of fire which occurred, resulting in the deaths of six people.
(Under the current Building Regulations guidance Approved Document B, the external walls of Tower Blocks need only have a classification “O” Surface spread of Flame, with no fire resistance)”.
The House would not expect the Minister to be an expert on all these matters, and he will have to take advice from somewhere, but I hope he understands the frustration that has been caused by the ignoring of the APPG’s recommendations. This fire should never have happened, and it would not have happened if notice had been taken of our recommendations.
The Minister for Policing and the Fire Service —who is not in the Chamber at present—said:
“we are maybe looking at a system failure, built up over many years, which we now have to address urgently…over many years and perhaps against the backdrop of, as data shows, a reduced risk in terms of fire, in terms of number of incidents and deaths…maybe as a system some complacency has crept in.”
Well, it certainly has not “crept in” as far as the APPG is concerned.
I understand that the Fire Brigades Union has talked a great deal about the cuts in services and about deregulation, and the hon. Gentleman has talked a great deal about sprinklers today. Does he agree that the cuts and what has happened to the fire regulations cannot have failed to have an impact, and that they happened on the Conservatives’ watch? Let me add that I am a bit disappointed to see how many Conservatives are missing from this debate. It is a crucial debate, and Conservative Members should be here.
I know the general secretary of the Fire Brigades Union, and I shall be meeting him shortly to hear in more detail precisely what his criticisms are. I can assure the hon. Lady that the APPG will raise any issues that the union mentions to us. As for attendance on the Conservative Benches, in time the hon. Lady will have a view on attendance in the House. A long time ago, all the Benches were packed. I can only say that I regret that that is not the case on this occasion. Given that the general public can see our proceedings on the parliamentary channel, it is always disappointing when the Chamber is not packed, but I am afraid that, in recent years, that has been the trend.
I refer the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the Fire Brigades Union should have core participant status in the inquiry?
The Minister will have heard what the hon. Lady has said. I cannot believe that there will not be very close involvement. I do not want to trip myself up if there has already been a discussion about the matter, but I certainly do not see why there cannot be real participation in the inquiry. Perhaps the Minister will take up the point when he responds.
Finally, I want to highlight three points to my hon. Friend the Minister. The first is that building regulations no longer include a requirement for one-hour fire resistance for outside walls, as was the case under the London Building Acts. That has got to be corrected. Firefighters were horrified by the way this disaster took place. The second point relates to the testing of cladding. It costs £10,000 to fire-test a 30-metre cladded wall. Most testing is done on the desktop, which does not take into account materials used underneath or between cladding, such as wood. I hope my hon. Friend the Minister will look at that point. The last point is about the retrofitting of sprinklers over the past year: in 100% of cases where sprinklers have been activated, they have controlled or extinguished the fire. I welcome the fact that there is a public inquiry, but I again ask my hon. Friend the Minister not only to listen to the recommendations of the all-party group, but to act on them.
Several hon. Members rose—
Order. We have plenty of time for this debate. A lot of people wish to take part in it, and I should tell the House that I have had notifications from several new Members wishing to make their maiden speeches. I would like to manage without a formal time limit; especially for the benefit of those making their maiden speech, it is much better not to have a time limit. We can manage that if people, showing some self-restraint and some thought for their fellow Members, speak for about nine minutes. That means calculating on the basis of 10 minutes and then stopping a bit earlier. It is amazing how difficult people find it to do the arithmetic once they are on their feet, but I will try to help them. If we keep to about nine minutes, everyone will have an opportunity to speak without a formal time limit, and I know that I can rely on Mr Clive Betts to do this perfectly.
This is the most appalling tragedy. I am sure that our hearts go out to the friends and families of everyone who lost their lives, to everyone who has been traumatised by this appalling event, and to everyone who has been displaced and is now homeless. The only good that can come out of this is that we learn lessons quickly about what happened and make sure it never happens again.
On the practicalities, I first want to address the issue of funding to put right the tower blocks up and down the country that are now deemed to be failures and in non-safe situations. I was worried by the conditions that the First Secretary of State put on the funding that might be available. When challenged, he initially said that of course the Government would fund any safety work that the local fire authority deemed necessary, but he then withdrew that statement and said that the Government would fund such work when the local authority could not afford to do it, which is a very important condition. Will the Minister explain precisely what that means, what criteria will lead to Government funding, and if local authorities will be asked to find funding for themselves?
We must see this in the context of local authority finances as a whole—not merely in relation to the cuts to local authority budgets, but in the light of the fact that this work on social housing will come out of not the general fund, but the housing revenue account. In 2010, funding for social housing was cut by more than any other form of expenditure—by 60%. There is not a penny of Government money in the current spending round for new social housing, decent homes work or any remedial work on social housing. Local authorities have been asked to find the money all by themselves.
Is it my hon. Friend’s understanding that any works at the local level will, in effect, be paid for by tenants out of their rents and by leaseholder contributions? Does he agree that the basic repairs and maintenance budgets for local authority social housing have already been cut by 20% since 2010?