House of Commons
Monday 17 July 2017
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Before we come to questions to the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, I am sure the whole House will wish to join me in offering our congratulations to Britain’s Jamie Murray, Jordanne Whiley, and Alfie Hewett and Gordon Reid on their successes respectively in the mixed doubles, the ladies’ wheelchair doubles and the men’s wheelchair doubles at Wimbledon. I am sure that colleagues will also wish to join me in offering our warmest congratulations to Roger Federer on his record-breaking eighth Wimbledon singles title, the oldest man to win the Wimbledon men’s singles trophy in the open era, the oldest man to win a grand slam singles title since Ken Rosewall won in 1972 and the first man to win the Wimbledon title without dropping a set throughout the whole tournament since Björn Borg in 1976. We are celebrating the achievements of a very great man indeed.
Oral Answers to Questions
Communities and Local Government
The Secretary of State was asked—
No one should find themselves without a roof over their head. That is why this Government have committed to halve rough sleeping by 2022 and to eliminate it all together by 2027. We are implementing the most ambitious legislative reform in decades, ensuring that more people get the help they need before they face homelessness.
Our manifesto makes it clear that rough sleeping is unacceptable, and I am delighted that the Secretary of State shares my view that we should be demanding nothing less than its complete eradication. What is being done not only in England but in Cheltenham to end this stain on our society?
My hon. Friend cares very deeply about this issue and has done a lot in his constituency. I share those concerns and it is one of the reasons why, for example, we announced in our recent manifesto that we will be piloting the concept of Housing First, which has worked well elsewhere. He will also know that his town of Cheltenham will receive £1 million of our £10 million social impact bond, money that will help the most vulnerable rough sleepers get the help they need.
The Secretary of State talked about homelessness as though it is people living on the street; in my constituency, the council is spending £35 million a year on people living in hostels and temporary accommodation, and there are many other hidden households who are living with another family because they cannot afford a roof over their head. The Secretary of State talks about his ambitious plans, but they do not help people here and now; what is he doing now to make sure that people in Hackney South and Shoreditch, across London and the country can get a roof over their head that is affordable?
The hon. Lady reminds us all that homelessness is much more than about people living on the streets; there are many more families and people affected across the country, including, of course, in London. One thing we are doing that I am sure she will welcome is the announcement in a recent Budget that we will be putting £100 million into low-cost move-on accommodation that will provide at least 2,000 places.
First Point in my constituency works with many hundreds of my constituents who could be at risk of homelessness. Does my right hon. Friend think that housing associations should be doing more to refer individuals for support if arrears arise? That sometimes happens with larger housing associations, but smaller ones often fall short when it comes to referring constituents for support.
My right hon. Friend refers to how we can try to prevent homelessness from occurring in the first place, and rightly says that some housing associations do a much better job with these types of referrals when arrears arise. There is also a better role for local authorities, and the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017 will certainly help to achieve that.
Surely the Secretary of State must give some hope of a vision that this Government actually believe in something. And if he believes in one thing, it must be sorting out the social housing market by building homes for people at affordable rents—and good quality ones, too.
I know the hon. Gentleman cares passionately about this, but it is worth reminding him that statutory homelessness reached its peak in 2003 and since then has fallen to half that number. But, of course, more needs to be done, and the right type of social homes in the right places have a big role to play.
Will my right hon. Friend join me in commending the work of YMCA Black Country and its excellent chief executive, Steve Clay, as it works, through its Open Door programme, to persuade more private individuals to open their homes to homeless young people?
I will very much join my hon. Friend in commending the work that the YMCA does in his constituency, throughout the Black country and indeed throughout the country. This is a lesson that can be learned by many other areas, and it is exactly the kind of thing we want to look at and see whether we can do more of it.
The Minister will be aware of the TV programme “Can’t Pay? We’ll Take It Away!”, in which officers arrive to evict people from their homes. Some of those people do not understand the High Court process and might not have paid their money, but some of them have paid their money and the High Court is unaware of that fact. What can be done to help those people at that last minute before the midnight hour?
I agree with my hon. Friend that more should be done in such difficult cases to help those vulnerable people. I know that some councils do a much better job than others in that regard, and I hope that the work we are now doing as a result of the Homelessness Reduction Act will help us to spread that good practice to more councils.
Grenfell Tower Fire: Advice to Landlords
The safety of tower block residents is absolutely paramount. We have made our testing process available to private residential owners free of charge. This means that landlords can check the safety of their buildings and take the necessary action to reassure residents that they are safe in their homes.
The Residential Landlords Association, which is based in my constituency, has raised concerns about the complex and sometimes contradictory guidance being given to private landlords by various bodies, including the Government, on fire safety. What plans does the Secretary of State have to address this matter?
The hon. Gentleman will understand that, in the wake of the tragedy at Grenfell Tower, the Government had to move quickly and issue guidance within days. Much of that guidance was continuously updated as we were made aware of new information. I met representatives of the private sector on 6 July, and we are discussing with them what more we can do.
Will the Secretary of State confirm that it was this Government who introduced the requirement for private landlords to fit smoke detectors and carbon monoxide detectors in private homes, and that we are introducing electrical safety checks as standard later this year? Does he acknowledge that all landlords have an overriding responsibility to make their properties safe for their tenants?
My hon. Friend reminds us that it is the legal responsibility of all landlords, whether in the private or public sector, to ensure that their properties are safe for all their tenants. I think that he was also implying that, in the wake of the tragedy at Grenfell Tower, we should be looking at what more can be done.
17. I am concerned that a survey of social landlords carried out by HouseMark has found that they had little confidence that they would be able to take enforcement action under the Housing Act 2004 to ensure that leaseholders complied with fire safety regulations, including through fitting fire doors, which is obviously essential, given what the Secretary of State has just said about keeping all tenants safe. Will he respond to the request from Nottingham City Council, which is seeking additional powers to enable this to happen? (900518)
That is an important issue and I will certainly look carefully at that request. It is important that all leaseholders recognise their responsibilities as legal owners of their properties. A number of towers were evacuated in Camden recently and a lot was found to be wrong with the internal fire safety of the buildings, including fire doors that should have been in place but simply were not.
I have pointed out to the mayor of Birmingham that the home in which he lives in Birmingham is in a block that is clad. Does the Department keep a register so that it can push out information to private landlords on what they should be looking for, specifically in relation to cladding?
My hon. Friend will know that the legal owners of the building, be they private landlords or otherwise, will have the best information about what type of cladding may or may not exist. Soon after the Grenfell Tower tragedy, after getting expert opinion, we swiftly issued guidance on how to handle that identification process better.
Could the Secretary of State be more specific about the financial help that he is going to make available to councils with tower blocks, such as Southwark, which has 174? He has talked about the legal duties of councils to keep their tenants safe, and of course that is very important, but they also have a legal duty to have a balanced budget. Since the Conservatives came into government in 2010, Southwark Council’s budget has nearly halved. Fire improvements such as the installation of sprinklers should not happen at the expense of other improvements that tenants are waiting for; nor should the expense be placed on leaseholders. Will the Secretary of State come up with the £100 million that Southwark needs?
We have been very clear to local authorities and housing associations in the wake of the Grenfell Tower tragedy that they should carry out checks immediately. They should then consult with their local fire and rescue service, and whatever is recommended should absolutely be put in place. Where local authorities cannot afford that, we are happy to talk to them and to provide the support that they need.
In the five weeks since the Grenfell Tower tragedy, both private and social landlords have met with an array of bewildering and sometimes contradictory advice. They look to the Department for Communities and Local Government both for technical advice about acceptable specification and for real advice about what the Department will pay for. When is the Secretary of State going to make it clear to those responsible for tower blocks what is the right thing to do and how they will pay for the necessary improvements?
First, the hon. Gentleman is right about looking to the Department, among others, for advice. That is one reason why we set up an independent expert panel to provide more of that advice that can be relied on. Secondly, the Government have made their position clear on funding: there is no need to wait. If any necessary work has been identified, local authorities must get on with it, and where they cannot afford it they should approach us.
The level of housebuilding has not been matched by demand. Radical reform is needed to build new homes now and in the future. Our housing White Paper set out how we intend to do that and turn around a legacy of decades of not building enough homes.
The Secretary of State will be aware that Cornwall recently received £5 million for community-led self-build housing. Does he support neighbourhood plans that look to provide that facility instead of registered social landlord properties, so that Government Members can give people not only the ladder, but the spade, the spirit level and the trowel, too?
As you say, Mr Speaker, supply has not met demand, and one way of getting that right is to have more self-build homes. I understand that some 255 people have registered in Cornwall Council’s area, and the Homes and Communities Agency is working with igloo Regeneration to deliver 54 plots at Heartlands for people in Cornwall. Our recent announcement of the home building fund—£3 billion in total—can also help.
Telford is a new town that is about to celebrate its 50th anniversary, and it is playing its part in tackling the national housing shortage, so I am delighted that the housing infrastructure fund has been announced to encourage new build. Will the Secretary of State confirm that the fund will also accept bids for the regeneration and renewal of new town infrastructure?
As we have shown in the housing infrastructure fund’s prospectus, we have deliberately given infrastructure a broad definition, so we would welcome bids that would support regeneration. She is absolutely right to highlight that infrastructure is often the missing bit where we need new homes, which is exactly why we launched the fund.
15. Numbers matter, but so does the quality of new homes. I am sure that the Secretary of State will have seen some of the terrible stories in the national press, and I have seen some awful examples recently in my constituency. Why is it that someone can buy goods in a shop and have powers of redress, but if someone spends a fortune on a new home, they can sometimes struggle for months, if not years, to get what they paid for? (900516)
The hon. Gentleman is right to highlight the issue of ensuring that if things go wrong, as they sometimes do, when people buy new homes, owners do get proper redress. Mechanisms are in place, both in the private sector and through statutory means, but the issue needs to be looked at carefully.
I can happily tell the hon. Lady that the number of council houses built in the last six years is more than double what was built in the previous 13 years. Council houses offer an important choice to people in terms of affordability. We have seen almost 900,000 homes built since 2010, of which more than 300,000 are affordable homes.
Will the Secretary of State congratulate Exeter’s Labour council on building more council homes and housing association homes in the last 10 years than all the surrounding Conservative districts put together? What more can he do to encourage those rural councils to provide more homes in their market towns and villages, instead of plonking their developments on the edge of cities such as Exeter in unsustainable urban sprawl?
I would like to see all councils playing an active role in getting more homes built in their area. It is to be welcomed when councils work with private partners to deliver more homes themselves. To make sure those homes are in the right place, local people should be involved in formulating the local plan and then the neighbourhood plans.
Balancing supply and demand requires successful developers and confident buyers. Will my right hon. Friend bring in the owners of the freeholds, who are making a misery of the lives of people in leasehold houses, and the developers who are trying to put things right? People such as Adriatic, frankly, look like modern-day robbers.
I commend my hon. Friend for his work in this area to show up the leasehold abuses that take place, especially when it comes to buying new houses. He will know that we said in the White Paper that we will be bringing forward proposals, and I can confirm to him that we will be doing so very shortly.
The Prime Minister has blamed weak housing policy for the Government doing so badly at the election and, now, a Government official speaking for the Secretary of State said the same thing yesterday, but blaming “selfish” Conservative councils who are not telling the truth about housing needs in their area. Is it not the truth that this is a desperate bid to shift the blame from the Secretary of State, who is failing on all fronts on housing? With affordable housebuilding now at a 24-year low, will he change tack and back Labour’s plan to build 100,000 new genuinely affordable homes? He can even offer it to the Prime Minister, and we will back him to see it through this House.
The right hon. Gentleman wants to know the truth, and the truth is that, when he was Housing Minister at the end of the last Labour Government, housing starts fell to their lowest level in almost 100 years —that is the truth. Since then, new-build housing starts are at a nine-year high. If he supports us on implementing the housing White Paper, we can work together.
Core Cities: Economic Regeneration
All Core Cities have benefited from city deals. Areas covering five Core Cities, including Bristol, have also agreed devolution deals, which provide funding powers and support economic growth for regeneration.
The Core Cities are responsible not just for 19 million people and a quarter of the UK’s economy but for 29% of our trade exports, yet the Department for Exiting the European Union has not made any approach to the Core Cities to discuss how they can be represented during the Brexit negotiations. Will the Minister have words with his colleagues in that Department and tell them that they really ought to be talking to our cities?
Looking at the list of Core Cities, I have lived in two and worked in one, so I know a bit about them. All I can say is that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union has written to all Core Cities that have a mayor to say that he will meet them over the summer.
We should be proud of the funding for our Core Cities, particularly through the devolution deals, but regeneration in the north also relies on the funding of our non-Core Cities. An important part of that for communities such as Hull has been coastal communities funding. Will my hon. Friend confirm that the Government remain committed to coastal communities funding?
I can confirm to my hon. Friend that we will of course deliver on our general election manifesto pledge to extend coastal communities funding. I also wish to take the opportunity to thank him for the work he did when he was doing this job; I am all too aware that I am walking in the shoes of a giant.
Devolution, as promoted by the former Chancellor and former Prime Minister, is no doubt dead in the water. Few real powers have been devolved and even less fiscal devolution has taken place. The only constant theme is the year-on-year cuts passed down to our local government base—the very base that should be the foundation on which devolution is built. When will Ministers bring forward a meaningful plan for devolution? When will they address the Treasury push for continued cuts to our local government base?
Devolution has been one of the great successes of this Government and I have been delighted to welcome Conservative colleagues as our new metro mayors, from James Palmer in Cambridgeshire and Peterborough, Ben Houchen in the Tees Valley and of course Andy Street in the West Midlands, to Tim Bowles in the West of England. The Labour party talked about devolution for years, but what did Labour do? Absolutely nothing. We are getting on with devolution and we are delivering for every region of this country.
I welcome the Minister’s announcement about the coastal communities fund a moment ago. He will be aware that a major regeneration scheme is being developed by North East Lincolnshire Council, about which I wrote to the Secretary of State a couple of weeks ago. Will the Minister agree to meet me and other representatives from the area so that we can move this forward very quickly?
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland is leading on Scotland’s city deals; he spoke to the Scottish Government as recently as last Thursday. No direct discussions have recently taken place between Ministers from this Department and the Scottish Government on this specific issue, although we would welcome such talks.
I thank the Minister for that answer. Interestingly, the Democratic Unionist party managed to get £1 billion out of this Government in just a couple of weeks, yet the remaining city deals for Scotland are still on the table. Will he speak to the Secretary of State for Scotland to get his Government to push these deals along? While he is at it, will he consider the Ayrshire growth deal as well, because there has so far been a failure to have meaningful talks on that?
On the Ayrshire growth deal, my understanding is that Ministers met Keith Brown MSP and local partners from Ayrshire in January and again in April to discuss the priorities for it. I would have thought that Scottish National party Members would welcome the fact that more than half a billion pounds went to Glasgow for its city deal, and that £53 million went to Inverness and the highlands and £125 million went to Aberdeen for theirs. Why do SNP Members not get behind their own cities and city deals, rather than sniping from the sidelines?
Ashover in my constituency is being blighted by planning applications that we believe are inappropriate, despite our trying to put a neighbourhood plan in place, as the council had not put in place a local plan in time. Will the Minister be willing to meet me to talk about the challenge that Ashover is experiencing, as he will perhaps be able to offer some advice about a village caught between a rock and a hard place?
Not too far from the Scottish city deals are the great prospects for one in Belfast and the rest of Northern Ireland. The Secretary of State was kind enough to meet us just prior to the election, and since the election we now have an agreement that we will bring forward city deals for Northern Ireland. May I ask the Minister to engage as soon as possible ministerially, so that we can make sure we get the best deal for Belfast and our city regions?
We have already engaged with Belfast on the city deals and we look forward to working together to ensure that we can deliver on their promise. City deals for Northern Ireland are long overdue. They have succeeded in England, in Scotland and in Wales; now it is Northern Ireland’s turn, and we look forward to it.
The reality is that the deal with the DUP has seen Northern Ireland get £1 billion, which is more than all of Scotland’s city deals so far put together. The Edinburgh and south-east Scotland city regional deal has been delayed and the Cabinet Secretary for the Economy, Jobs and Fair Work, Keith Brown, has had meetings cancelled at late notice by the UK Government. Will the Minister confirm whether the UK Government take Scottish city deals seriously and will he meet the ambition of the Ayrshire growth deal, the Tay cities deal and the Stirling deal?
We absolutely take the entirety of Scotland’s ambitious plans very seriously. That is why, as I said earlier, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland is leading on this important policy. If the hon. Lady thinks that I or my Department can do something more, she must let me know.
The city deals so far have seen Scottish cities’ plans short-changed by the UK Government. The Scottish Government have put in far more than the UK Government have sought to find. If money can be found for Northern Ireland—if £1 billion can appear overnight—how long will Scottish cities have to wait before they get their money?
All the Scottish cities agreed the city deals mutually with the Government. Some £523 million has gone to Glasgow, £53 million to Inverness and Highland, £125 million to the Aberdeen region and, with a deal for Edinburgh and other deals on the table, I do not think the hon. Lady will have to wait too long.
Nobody should ever have to sleep rough. My Department co-funded Crisis’s recent Housing First report, which shows how that approach can work to end rough sleeping for those with the most complex needs. We are now considering how Housing First can help our manifesto commitment to end rough sleeping by 2027.
Official figures released by the Minister’s Department continue to show year-on-year increases in the number of rough sleepers since 2010, including a 3% increase in London alone in the past year. Rough sleeping is often linked to mental health issues, so what specific steps will his Department take during this Parliament to address the mental health crisis among rough sleepers?
I thank the hon. Lady for that question and welcome her to the House. A number of underlying issues keep people on the streets when they are rough sleeping, and they certainly include mental health issues. Let me give her some insight into what is happening in her constituency: there is a social impact bond focusing on getting people with underlying mental health issues off the streets. I hope that she welcomes that.
I thank my hon. Friend for that question and welcome him to the House. He is right that the Government are setting up a homelessness reduction taskforce in addition to the measures in the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017 and the homelessness prevention trailblazers being run by the Government as a forerunner to the Act’s coming into effect. The culture is now starting to change and councils are starting to help people far earlier as a result of the trailblazers in areas where they are taking place.
Rough sleeping in Plymouth is on the increase and large numbers of those who are sleeping rough served our country in the armed forces; they are veterans. What discussions has the Minister had with the Ministry of Defence about increasing the amount of funding going into support for rough sleeping veterans so that we can give all our veterans a decent home?
The hon. Gentleman mentions a critical area and it is vital that we support veterans who are rough sleeping. I run a cross-party working group attended by a number of Ministers, including one from the Ministry of Defence, and this is certainly a subject that we are eagerly trying to address.
My hon. Friend makes a perceptive point. The use of drugs, particularly psychoactive substances such as Spice, which seems to be prevalent among rough sleepers, is having a very detrimental effect on getting people off the street. She will have heard that last week the Home Office launched a drug strategy, and we are working closely with it on that because we realise how critical that is in dealing with the underlying issues and making sure that we can help people off the streets.
Grenfell Tower Fire
I can confirm that the first new permanent homes will be available very shortly, and more are being secured, either in Kensington and Chelsea or very close by. In the meantime, good-quality, fully furnished temporary accommodation in the local area has been offered to every family.
I am sorry; I am not too sure about the formalities of this. In some cases, people are refusing homes because one single unsuitable offer has been made to them. That is absolutely true. I am dealing with casework daily, and I am amazed that only 22 households have been matched with temporary accommodation; four have moved in. What on earth is going on? There are empty homes all across the borough, and they are still not being taken up. People are being offered unsuitable homes. Could the Secretary of State please say what is happening here?
First of all, I can tell the hon. Lady that over 220 temporary homes have been identified and inspected—that is all good-quality, available accommodation. She referred to unsuitable offers; she should certainly bring those details to me, and we will look at them and take this very seriously. There are 169 families who have received offers; 30 offers of temporary accommodation have been accepted, and nine families have already moved in. As she knows full well from talking to her constituents, many families do not feel ready to move into temporary accommodation, and we will absolutely respect their wishes.
Is it not absolutely crucial that we increase the amount of social housing available in Kensington and Chelsea? The Government have announced that 68 properties provided by Berkeley will be made available as social housing. Is it not true that negotiations were under way to provide those homes as social housing under a section 106 agreement before the Grenfell fire? So where are the extra new homes coming from?
First, I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s re-election as Chair of the Select Committee on Communities and Local Government. I agree that we want more social homes—and not just in Kensington and Chelsea; we want to make sure that that choice is offered across the country. With regard to the 68 homes in the Kensington Row development, to which I think he was referring, my understanding was that they were originally planned to be affordable homes, not social homes, so they will be additional. Despite that, given what has happened and the need for social homes in Kensington and Chelsea, we should do more.
Supported Housing: Funding
Developing a sustainable funding model for supported housing is a priority. We welcome the input into our recent consultation. We are now carefully taking stock of the joint report by the Communities and Local Government Committee and the Select Committee on Work and Pensions on supported housing, and we will set out further details of our plans in the autumn.
There are 38,500 people in supported accommodation in Wales, and landlords say that decisions about future developments are being delayed due to uncertainty about future funding. Will the Minister confirm that any proposals, devolved or not, will properly fund current and future needs in Wales, especially given Wales’s ageing population?
I thank the hon. Lady for her question. Nobody is under any illusions about how important supported housing and its provision are to all our constituents. That is why we have confirmed that we will exempt supported housing from the local housing allowance cap until 2019, by which time we will come forward with a suitable solution. As I say, we are looking to bring forward our plans in the autumn, and we are taking our time to make sure that those plans work and are right, so that we bring forward that supply of supported housing. In England, we are putting £400 million in capital funding behind that, to bring forward new units.
Domestic abuse is a critical issue across the country. We want to eradicate it, but we must understand that we need to provide safe refuge provision for people who do end up in that very difficult position. We announced earlier this year that we are supporting 76 projects to create 2,200 bed spaces to support 19,000 victims across the country.
Local Authorities: Financial Support
The Government are committed to delivering the manifesto pledge to continue to give local authorities greater control over the money they raise. We will open a conversation with local government over the next few months about the best way to achieve this.
Plans for the 100% retention of business rates fell at the general election and were not introduced in the Queen’s Speech. Will the Minister explain whether the Government still plan to legislate for 100% retention? What should already cash-strapped local authorities do in the interim as the revenue support grant is phased out?
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. As I said, the Government are committed to delivering our manifesto pledge to give local authorities greater control over the money they raise. To give councils certainty, we have given an unprecedented four-year settlement, which 97% of local authorities have taken up. That does not end until 2019-20, during which time we will bring forward further proposals, which we will work with local government to achieve.
If Barnet got the same Government support as Camden, it would probably be a realistic option for Barnet to reduce council tax to zero. Will the Minister look at the allocation of funding between outer and inner London to give boroughs such as Barnet a fairer share of resources?
My right hon. Friend raises an important point. After more than 10 years without the funding formula being looked at, many areas across the country feel a number of challenges, with demographic and service pressures that are encountered more in some places than in others. I assure her that we will look at these matters carefully through the fair funding review.
Before the election, the Government had a plan and a timetable for business rates retention. We know the revenue support grant is going in 2020. In the absence of legislation in the Queen’s Speech, I have asked the Government five times how they will introduce measures to fill the financial black hole. Can I assume from the Minister’s answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford East (Imran Hussain) that the previous measures in the Local Government Finance Bill, and the timetable, have now been ditched? Will he now give absolute certainty to local councils? What precisely will be in place by 2020 when the RSG goes?
I think this is the sixth time that I have answered the hon. Gentleman’s question; his question has been put with a considerable amount of faux rage each time, although it is an important issue. I say to him again that we are absolutely committed to what we said in our manifesto: we will give local authorities greater control over the money they raise. When his Government were in power, they only ever gave local authorities a year’s certainty—a one-year settlement. We have given a four-year settlement, which 97% of councils have taken up. That enables us to have time to bring forward a sensible solution that works for local government, and we will work with local government to deliver that.
In February’s housing White Paper, the Government set out a plan for high-quality, high-density housing. The Government plan to implement this through changes to the national planning policy framework later this year.
Our Conservative manifesto committed to supporting new high-quality housing
“like mansion blocks, mews houses and terraced streets.”
How are the Government working to fulfil this promise and to build housing that is attractive, dense and popular with the public?
My hon. Friend is right: it is about not just the quantity of housing, but the quality too. That is why, for example, getting local people engaged in neighbourhood plans is so important, and it is why we will be bringing forward the changes that we set out in the housing White Paper.
I asked the former Housing Minister back in April what the Government were doing to protect homeowners following the bogus homes scandal, which saw people spending significant sums, only to find that properties were unfinished, that basic plumbing was not working and that wiring was left unsafe. That was not a unique problem: Shelter has found that half of all new build buyers report a major problem on moving in. The former Minister said that an announcement was imminent, but there was nothing in the Conservative manifesto, the Queen’s Speech or the Secretary of State’s response to my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner) earlier. When will the Government act to protect buyers of new build properties?
Of course it is very important—we had a similar question earlier—to make sure that people buying new properties get exactly what they believed they were purchasing and, where that is not the case, that they receive help in putting things right. There are already procedures in place, and we are looking to see what more can be done.
Private Rented Sector
Licensing can be an effective tool where it is targeted at delivering improved standards and safety in the private rented sector for areas suffering from serious problems. As the right hon. Gentleman will know, in April 2015 further conditions for applying selective licensing were introduced.
Newham Council introduced the first borough-wide private rented sector licensing in 2013. Last week, the council applied to renew the scheme for a further five years. It has been very successful, enabling the council, working with agencies such as Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, to concentrate resources on the small number of private landlords causing problems. Some 81% of Newham residents say it has been effective. Can the Minister reassure me that renewal of the scheme will get the go-ahead?
I can certainly reassure the right hon. Gentleman that the scheme will be considered on its merits and in accordance with whether it meets the strategy requirements in part 3 of the Housing Act 2004, which was, of course, introduced under a Labour Government.
In Bath, we have a high number of family homes that have been turned into student accommodation, often with very low housing standards, and students take them up because they have no choice. In the light of the Grenfell disaster, will the Minister ensure that student safety is protected, by encouraging councils to include compulsory electrical safety checks as part of these licensing schemes?
The private rented sector has the poorest quality housing in my constituency. It is unregulated, and it needs looking at. I would very much welcome Manchester having a borough-wide licensing scheme like the one in Newham. I ask Ministers to take this issue very seriously, before we see safety concerns in the private rented sector as well.
There is close collaboration between my Department and Ministers at DEFRA on waste collection issues. Ultimately, it is for local councils to determine when collections take place, but in doing so I would strongly urge them to consider the wishes of local people.
Prior to the recent local elections, and against the wishes of local people, Powys County Council took the decision to reduce waste collection from fortnightly to three-weekly. What more can my hon. Friend to do ensure that local people’s views are taken into account on waste issues to prevent potential health hazards?
My hon. Friend has been a champion in the House on this issue. As he knows, it is a devolved matter in Wales. Ultimately, it is for local councils to decide on the frequency of collections. In England, we have done a great deal to proactively support councils to respond to the wishes of local people on this issue. I would say to my hon. Friend that this is the service people associate most with their local council, and the council should be mindful of the fact that local people should certainly be consulted before any changes are made.
Rather than lecturing councils about their legislative requirements, would the Minister like to come up to Barrow and Furness—or so many other councils, particularly across the north of England—to see the scale of the cuts that these councils are having to implement and the near impossibility of being able to balance a budget in these situations, and provide more help?
The hon. Gentleman highlights the mess that the public finances were left in when the Labour party left government in 2010, and this Government have been picking up the pieces of that for the past seven years. Unlike Labour, we have given a four-year settlement to local authorities—97% of authorities have taken that up—to give them more space and time to plan to change services to reflect the changing financial environment.
New Homes for Social Rent
I welcome the hon. Gentleman to his place. Since 2010 we have delivered nearly 330,000 affordable homes, including over 120,000 homes for social rent. Our priorities are to boost housing supply and to build more affordable homes to rent and to buy.
Tens of thousands of Bristolians are waiting for a council house and many more are stuck in expensive, insecure and inadequate private sector housing. Many of these tenants are young families who feel disempowered and stuck in a system that does not care. Will the Secretary of State visit my constituency in Bristol to see at first hand how his supposed radical reform is failing my constituents who are in often damp, inadequate and insecure housing?
We set out in our manifesto—again, I talked about this very recently at the Local Government Association conference—our ambition to help local authorities that have ambitions to build more council homes, so if that is what Bristol wants, then the Mayor of Bristol should approach me.
The ongoing response to the Grenfell tragedy has understandably dominated my Department’s work for the past few weeks, and it will remain a priority in the months and years ahead, but we have not let up on our wider work. We have launched our £2.3 billion housing infrastructure fund, we have introduced the Telecommunications Infrastructure (Relief from Non-Domestic Rates) Bill, and later this week we will set out further details on our plan to get more homes built in the right places.
I see that the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) has beetled away from his seat and looks as though he is about to exit the Chamber. I would have called him at topical questions if he were standing, but I will not if he is not. Anyway, he has got the public information announcement, for which I am sure he is duly grateful.
As you know, Mr Speaker, in Lincolnshire we have some wonderful coastal resorts. They trip off the tongue as a litany of sun and fun: Cleethorpes, Mablethorpe, Skegness. Indeed, Mr Speaker, when you go on your holidays on Thursday, do not go to Italy and France—come to bracing Skegness. Can my right hon. Friend promise to use the coastal communities fund to promote all-round tourism and, after Brexit, match the £143 million we receive from the European regional development fund for these resorts?
My hon. Friend rightly highlights the importance of all our coastal communities, including, of course, those in Lincolnshire, many of which I had the pleasure of visiting during the recent general election campaign. I can assure him that we continue to use the coastal communities fund, and whatever other resources we have available, to help promote those areas.
Does the Secretary of State agree with the Conservative leader of Warwickshire County Council, who also leads on community welfare for the Local Government Association, that fining councils and withholding money for delayed discharges will exacerbate the social care crisis, and has he spoken to the Health Secretary about these plans?
Of course I have spoken to the Health Secretary, and indeed I spoke to the leader of Warwickshire County Council only last week. I think there is a very broad understanding that with regard to combating and reducing delayed transfers of care, there is a role to play for local authorities and for the NHS.
T3. Plymouth is leading the way on innovation in social care. The work between the local authority and care provider has broken new ground. What more can the Government do to support local authorities that are working so hard to meet social care needs in places such as Plymouth? (900528)
I am pleased to hear about the good work in Plymouth. My Department works closely with the Department of Health to promote joined-up working across health and social care, including capturing good examples of innovation across the country, through the better care fund.
T2. More than 50% of fires in people’s homes have an electrical source of ignition, and the Department set up a working group last August to look at electrical safety in the private rented sector. Does the Secretary of State agree with me and others, including London Fire Brigade, Electrical Safety First and Shelter, that it is time for a more preventive approach to electrical fires, and that mandatory five-year electrical safety tests should be introduced as a matter of urgency in the private rented sector? (900527)
As the hon. Lady may be aware, a working group within the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy is looking at precisely those matters. In the light of the Grenfell fire, the Prime Minister has made it clear that it should bring forward its work and recommendations.
T4. The Guinness Partnership is reviewing fire safety measures in its three high-rise buildings in Havant. If it concludes that new sprinklers are required, will the Minister join me in calling on private landlords to take responsibility and meet the cost of installing those sprinklers? (900529)
Obviously, the Guinness Partnership will need to determine, with the local fire service, what is needed to keep those properties safe. As the Secretary of State has made absolutely clear, where work is necessary to ensure the fire safety of social housing, a lack of resources should not prevent it from going ahead.
T9. Will the Secretary of State join me in congratulating Nottingham Community Housing Association, which has been recognised by the Almshouse Association for its refurbishment of the William Woodsend memorial homes in my constituency? Will he also listen to NCHA and give it the certainty to enable future investment by dropping his plans to cut housing benefit for supported and sheltered tenants? (900534)
I join the hon. Lady in commending Nottingham Community Housing Association and so many other housing associations across the country on their work. I think that the housing association sector welcomes our provision of record funding and of new flexibility so that it can do more of what it does.
T5. What steps has the Department taken to provide safe and legal spaces in which Travellers can reside, instead of them having to go on really nice green spaces in Oakwood in Derbyshire, which they leave in a terrible mess? (900530)
I know from my own constituency that unauthorised encampments can cause distress for local communities. The Government are absolutely committed to reducing the number of unauthorised sites by providing affordable, good-quality accommodation for Travellers.
Will the inquiry into electoral conduct take full cognisance of the superb all-party report written by the previous Deputy Speaker, Natascha Engel, which has, sadly, been rebuffed by successive leaders of parties on both sides of the House?
I assure the hon. Gentleman that the inquiry, which was announced by the Prime Minister and will be led by the Committee on Standards in Public Life, should take account of all information. We heard during last week’s debate how many hon. Members and candidates suffered racism and other forms of abuse during the general election. I also suffered that. I am sure that everyone in this House agrees that racism has no place in our society.
T6. What is the current status of the Devon and Somerset devolution bid? Do they still need to have a directly elected mayor to get the full devolution package, and will the Minister please meet the leaders of Devon and Somerset councils and me this autumn to discuss the way forward? (900531)
Our manifesto makes it clear that there will be no requirement for mayors in rural counties. Devon and Somerset have not to date submitted any combined authority proposals, but I look forward to meeting my hon. Friend and his council leader in due course.
A growing number of Grenfell survivors are being placed in budget hotels in my constituency as the central London hotels fill up for the tourist season. Despite their being unsuitable for long stays, especially for young families, they are being booked by the month. That gives the lie to the argument that the Government have suitable accommodation ready—not temporary or unsuitable, but permanent accommodation. Will the Secretary of State ask Kensington and Chelsea to use some of the £274 million in its reserves to buy a couple of hundred homes and make sure that those people have decent houses?
The hon. Gentleman will know that money is not the issue. We have already made it absolutely clear that we will do whatever it takes to find the victims of Grenfell Tower permanent homes. That is exactly what we are doing, but we will be led by the victims themselves, at their pace, on what they need.
T7. Overton, Oakley and Whitchurch in my constituency have produced really ambitious neighbourhood plans with generous housing targets, but those communities are now concerned about the infrastructure investment required to make the housing developments happen. What can the Minister do to help? (900532)
I commend my hon. Friend’s constituents for putting together neighbourhood plans—a great innovation that this Government introduced. In terms of infrastructure, I encourage him to get his local planning authorities to bid for the £2.3 billion housing infrastructure fund that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State announced earlier this month.
When I was growing up, I had the security of the roof of a council flat over my head. I wonder what the Secretary of State would say to the 11-year-old boy in my constituency who pulled me aside after a classroom visit just last week because he, his mother and his two siblings are living in one room in a hostel, as they have been for more than a year. What message does the Secretary of State have for such children in my constituency who no longer have the security of a decent place to live?
T8. Will the Secretary of State join me in commending excellent Cheltenham homeless charities Cheltenham Open Door and P3 for their compassionate and, above all, early intervention, which is turning lives around in my constituency? (900533)
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight the excellent work that is being done by the charities that he mentions in Cheltenham. Early intervention is absolutely critical. That is why doing things earlier to prevent people from becoming homeless is the bedrock of the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017. Already, through the homelessness prevention trailblazers that were the forerunners of that Act, the culture among the local authorities involved is definitely changing towards prevention.
I have regularly raised my concerns about the safety of the rapid conversion of family homes in my constituency into houses in multiple occupation. In view of the Grenfell disaster, do the Government have any plans to issue new guidance to local planning authorities, particularly about the safety of such conversions?
The hon. Gentleman is right to raise that. There are many lessons to learn from the Grenfell tragedy, some of which will come from the public inquiry. The expert panel on fire safety has already made recommendations, and if they recommend anything urgent, we will implement it. I am also looking to see what more we can do regarding building regulations and enforcement.
I thank the Minister for the northern powerhouse, the hon. Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Jake Berry), for visiting New Ferry in my constituency, where the House will remember there was recently a terrible explosion. As a result of that meeting, the leader of the council in Wirral, Phil Davies, has written to the Minister. May I ask him to expedite a reply to that letter?
No one could visit the scene of the disaster in New Ferry and talk to the residents without realising the seriousness of the explosion that took place some months ago. Following my meeting, I received a letter from Phil Davies. A response will be going out later today, dealing with the queries he raised.
Can the Secretary of State tell me what he will do to ensure that Bradford Council builds on the brownfield sites that it has identified before it starts concreting over and building on greenfield sites in the green belt in my constituency?
It was not entirely wise for the Minister for the northern powerhouse last Monday to come across the Pennines from his Lancashire constituency and tell the people of Yorkshire that, in his words, they could not have “full Yorkshire devolution”. Are not those decisions best made in God’s own county, not in Whitehall and certainly not in Lancashire, with its very different geography and the dominance of Manchester and Liverpool?
As a proud Lancastrian, it is not for me, nor is it for Government, to tell Yorkshire what devolution deal it should have. However, I gently point out that in 2015, Barnsley, Doncaster, Rotherham and Sheffield asked for powers from the Government and we gave them to them; they asked for new money from the Government and we gave it to them; and they asked to have an election next May and we gave it to them. When will the people of south Yorkshire learn to take yes for an answer?
Kettering Borough Council, of which I am a member, provides specialist housing advice to those in financial difficulties to prevent homelessness in the first place. It is working closely with local housing associations to bring forward a record number of new homes for social rent. Is that not exactly the right approach?
I commend the work that Kettering Borough Council is doing. In my experience, where a local authority is preventing homelessness, it is doing very much those types of things, particularly helping people to deal with financial challenges through things such as budgeting. It is certainly good to hear that Kettering is bringing forward a significant number of affordable homes that residents in Kettering will benefit from.
We heard earlier from the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Jake Berry) about coastal communities, but Dawdon, Easington Colliery, Blackhall and Horden in my constituency are also former coalfield communities that have suffered terrible levels of under-investment since the pits were closed under a previous Tory Government. Will the Minister meet me and the Coalfields Regeneration Trust to see what can be done to address those problems?
It is not just for the Government to support our coastal communities. I encourage all Members across the House to visit the fantastic Great British coastline. I will, of course, happily meet the hon. Gentleman and representatives of his constituency to work out what more the coastal communities fund can do for him.
In my Cheadle constituency, Woodford neighbourhood forum is drawing up its local plan. However, there are concerns that the Greater Manchester spatial framework will override it. What assurances can my hon. Friend give neighbourhood forums that their plans will be given appropriate consideration?
As the Secretary of State reiterated, we made a commitment in the housing White Paper to protect the green belt. I cannot comment specifically on the plans my hon. Friend talks about, but I emphasise that plan makers need to consult their communities, especially in neighbourhood forums. Once a neighbourhood plan has been brought into force, it is part of the strategic development plan of an area.
On Thursday 13 July, the text of the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill was available through a tweet before the Bill was presented in the House. Points of order were raised about the Bill being available online before it was available to Members. An immediate investigation was carried out.
A flaw in the publishing process within the House of Commons service meant that the Bill text was inadvertently available on a live parliamentary web server before the Bill was presented. A link to the text was circulated on social media just before 11 am. Immediate action has been taken to amend the publishing process to ensure that this cannot happen again. No one outside the House of Commons service bears any responsibility for this mistake.
This was a serious incident and I have been assured that the required changes have been made to strengthen the Bill publishing arrangements. I hope that that assuages the concern of right hon. and hon. Members.
Points of Order
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. May I seek your advice on the urgent matter of the HS2 route and the announcements due to be made by the Transport Secretary, which will affect millions of people? The Secretary of State began his consultation with an oral statement last November, and there had been an expectation that he would announce his final decisions today in an oral statement; indeed, parts of the media were briefed to that effect. All the indications now are that the news will be sneaked out in a written statement any time now. This is a gross discourtesy and adds insult to injury for my constituents. I seek your advice, Mr Speaker, about how we can get the Transport Secretary to come to the House and show some accountability on this issue.
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. I seek your advice, because today the Government have announced—they have certainly been all over the airwaves—£6.6 billion of contracts on HS2. When such a large amount of taxpayers’ money is being spent, it seems to me that the Minister should come to the House and make a statement. I appreciate that the urgent question, the statement and the business on the Order Paper today are equally important, but I wonder whether you could extend the sitting of the House, Mr Speaker, and allow us to have a statement from the Minister, in the light of what has happened with contractors before, CH2M having withdrawn from a £17 million contract because of a lack of due diligence and conflicts of interest. We need to look at these contractors, because one contractor has major project overruns and has written off millions of pounds, two contractors have pulled out of other public service contracts and one is having financial problems and restructuring. I would therefore seek a statement urgently from the Minister.
Further to the point of order raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband), Mr Speaker. I would add that it is not just his constituents but voters across South Yorkshire and beyond who are affected by the decisions related to HS2. Not only that, but this is the latest in a long line of actions by the Government who are demonstrating an unwillingness to make themselves properly available for scrutiny by the House. I wonder what you can do, Mr Speaker, to improve the situation and encourage the Government to stand up and do their job properly.
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. On the Order Paper today we have the High Speed Rail (West Midlands - Crewe) Bill, which, as it points out, relates to Fradley Wood in Staffordshire, in my constituency. I have two farms on which it was announced there will be quarrying, and that is before we have even had First Reading. I have elderly residents who are being told that their homes will be taken away from them. We have already heard from my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs Gillan) about cost overruns. I too, sadly, think it is outrageous that this major item of public expenditure, which is affecting my constituents and those of many others, is not being reflected by a statement here today.
Further to the point of order raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband), which I entirely support, Mr Speaker. This is a major announcement affecting my constituency and many others. It is not an HS2 recommendation; it is a Government decision on a previous recommendation. The Government have always come to the House before with an oral statement. While we can ask for an urgent question tomorrow, by that time there will have been public debate on the matter. This House should have the first opportunity to debate it.
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. Many of my constituents have taken part in the consultation on the re-routing of HS2, over many months now, and we do not know if their voices have been heard. There has been no publication of the consultation, and we are now threatened with a decision that is going to wreck over 100 homes in my constituency and many jobs, with different employers. It is absolutely outrageous that my constituents have been treated with contempt by Ministers, who are not prepared to come to this House, tell us what they have spent all the money on and come to logical decisions on this matter, as opposed to hiding behind making a written statement, we think sometime today.
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. As you know, because you have already allocated an Adjournment debate to two colleagues—my right hon. Friends the Members for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband) and for Rother Valley (Sir Kevin Barron)—and because you have heard us, and me in particular, say it, this possibly £80 billion scheme means that a lot of houses in my constituency are going to be demolished; that roads are going to go straight through a development that has only just taken place; and that in Derbyshire there will be a slow track, dawdling its way to Sheffield and beyond, and then a fast track going to Meadowhall. This is a very important matter, and it should be debated at length, because it is going to cost the taxpayer a small fortune. As you know, Mr Speaker, the Sheffield line could be electrified all the way to London, and the trains could get to London a lot more quickly for a lot less money.
This is an outrage, and that is why I have raised the matter today, along with my right hon. and hon. Friends.
I am grateful to right hon. and hon. Members for their points of order. What I will say in response is this.
First, my understanding is that the written ministerial statement has now been issued. There was some speculation on when it would be issued, and I am advised that it has been. Secondly, I am not in a position to require a Minister to come to the House today to make a statement; however, it is comparatively unusual for Members on both sides of the House, in unison, to raise such a concern, and to make, to all intents and purposes, exactly similar requests for a statement.
I will come to the hon. Gentleman.
In the circumstances, the Secretary of State is bound to hear of these concerns within a matter of minutes. If the right hon. Gentleman wanted to come to the House today to make a statement, I would certainly be very happy to facilitate him.
Finally, the hon. Member for Sheffield—
The hon. Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts)—the former hon. Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe—said that an urgent question could be applied for tomorrow, but by then all sorts of briefing would have taken place. I am afraid it is not within the power of the Speaker to reverse time. I cannot do anything about that; I can only deal with the situation as it evolves. What I will say, however, is that if no statement is forthcoming from the Minister, it will be perfectly open to Members to do their best to secure parliamentary time and attention tomorrow. It may be that such an exploration would take place at some length, and it may be that, faced with such a scenario, a Minister might think it prudent and judicious to anticipate the difficulty and offer the statement today instead. I do not know—we shall have to see—but I am on the side of the House in wanting Ministers to be accountable to it. That seems pretty clear to me.
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. Has there been any discussion between you and the Secretary of State about whether the further reports and documents that are scheduled to be published today should have been delayed until the Secretary of State was before the House tomorrow, if at all possible?
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. On 27 June, I put a parliamentary question to the Government asking when they would release the report on product safety produced by a working group from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. I am sure you will agree that, given the situation in which we find ourselves, particularly after the Grenfell Tower disaster, it is crucial for the House to be kept up to date with the progress of the report.
On 3 July, I received the response that an answer was being prepared and would be sent in due course. On 12 July, I asked another parliamentary question pursuing the matter, for named-day answer today. May I ask you, Mr Speaker, to kindly ensure that the Government make their response known as a matter of urgency?
It is highly undesirable for questions that have been tabled in good faith and an orderly manner some time before the recess not to receive an answer by the time of the recess. That is not some new development articulated at this moment by me from the Chair; it is a long-established and respected practice that Ministers try, to put it bluntly, to clear the backlog. It has customarily been expected that the Leader of the House would be a chaser after progress on such matters. I very much hope that the hon. Lady will receive a substantive reply to her written question or questions before the House rises for the summer recess. That would seem to me to be a matter of proper procedure, and indeed of courtesy from one colleague to another.
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. The working group to which my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Gill Furniss) refers was set up following a serious fire in my constituency last August. We were promised at least its first report before last Christmas, but we are still waiting. If we do not get it this week, and if we do not get a clear statement from the Government, we will be waiting, both in the case of my constituents and that of Grenfell Tower, until the autumn. The urgency cannot go unremarked by the Minister. Anything you can do to assist with that would be most welcome.
The hon. Gentleman has transmitted his concerns through me to the Government, who will very quickly hear that he is on the war path on the matter, which might yield a positive outcome for him over the next 48 or 72 hours. It is up to him to judge whether, having heard or not heard anything from Ministers, he wishes to find ways of trying to secure attention to the issue on the Floor of the House before we rise for the summer recess.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I would have given advance notice of this point of order, but I thought that we were having points of order a little later. Last week, after meeting trade union representatives from Rolls-Royce outside Bristol, I attempted to table a written question asking whether the Government are seeking to stay in the European Aviation Safety Agency post Brexit. My question was rejected, on the grounds that a similar question had been asked back in January and nothing had changed. The answer to that question had been that we cannot pre-empt the negotiations. Today I would like clarity on two points. First, how will we know that nothing has changed if we are not allowed to table questions about this? Secondly, I have been told that I cannot ask the question again until the end of the Brexit negotiations, which seems absolutely ludicrous.
Well, it strikes me as a very rum business indeed. I hope that it will be possible for the hon. Lady to receive some satisfaction. My strong advice to her is that she should make the very short journey from here to the Table Office and seek advice, because I am quite sure that it will be possible to achieve a satisfactory outcome. Forgive me for making this point again, but I do make it again: the hon. Lady effectively refers to being denied on grounds of repetition. Repetition is not a novel phenomenon in the House of Commons. I think that we will leave it there for today.
Saudi Arabia: Anticipated Executions
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his urgent question. Media reporting has suggested that 14 men could be facing the death penalty in Saudi Arabia for attending protests in the eastern province of the country in 2012. We are looking into the details of the reports and seeking urgent clarity from the Saudi authorities, both in Riyadh and here in London. I have been in contact with the ambassador for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, who I know will come back to me with information when he has it.
We regularly make this Government’s opposition to the death penalty clear—we are firmly opposed to it—and we raise such concerns at all levels and at all appropriate opportunities. The Saudis are aware of our stance on their human rights, and this position is a matter of public record. The Prime Minister most recently raised this during her visit in April this year.
I thank the Minister for his helpful response. Evidence points to Saudi Arabia taking the final steps before executing up to 14 people, including at least two who were juveniles at the time of their alleged offences and were convicted on the strength of confessions obtained through the use of torture. Our Prime Minister has highlighted the UK’s “long-term and historic relationship” with Saudi Arabia, and has said:
“rather than just standing on the sidelines and sniping, it’s important to engage, to talk to people, to talk about our interests and to raise, yes, difficult issues when we feel it’s necessary to do so.”
I am sure the Prime Minister and the Minister will agree that 14 executions are just such a difficult issue and I am pleased that it has been raised urgently with the Saudi Government.
I would like to ask the following questions, however. Will the Minister ask the Prime Minister to call on Saudi King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to stop the executions—especially of juveniles Mujtaba Sweikat and Salman Qureish—going ahead? If the executions of juveniles and others arrested in relation to alleged protest activity go ahead, will the UK commit to freezing and reviewing any criminal justice assistance which could contribute to the arrest of protestors and dissidents in Saudi Arabia? What further steps will Her Majesty’s Government take to condemn Saudi Arabia’s use of the death penalty, especially in the case of people with disabilities and juveniles, such as Ali al-Nimr, Dawoud al-Marhoon, and Abdullah al-Zaher?
Our Prime Minister is promoting the UK as a global nation. How she responds to the threat of summary executions by a partner and close ally will determine exactly what kind of global nation she intends the United Kingdom to be—a global champion of human rights or an apologist for human rights abusers.
First, on the death penalty, in particular in relation to juveniles, the UK Government oppose the death penalty in all circumstances and in every country, including Saudi Arabia, especially for crimes other than the most serious and for juveniles, in line with the minimum standards set out in the EU guidelines on the death penalty 2008, the provisions of the international covenant on civil and political rights and the Arab charter on human rights. A law has been proposed to King Salman by the Shura Council that codifies the age of majority at 18, and the death penalty should not be given to minors. All the cases the right hon. Gentleman mentioned towards the end of his remarks have been raised specifically by the United Kingdom, and in each case we have received assurances that minors would not be executed.
On the general relationship with Saudi Arabia, our starting point for engagement on human rights with all countries is based on what is practical, realistic and achievable, and we will always be ready to speak out as a matter of principle. Ministers frequently discuss human rights and raise concerns with the Saudi Arabia Government. We have a balanced relationship with Saudi Arabia and use engagement to encourage reform. This is a society that is going through a process of reform, heading towards Vision 2030, which the new Crown Prince has laid out as a pattern for Saudi Arabia for the future. Women’s rights are changing with the addition of women to the Shura Council. It is a process that goes not at our pace, but at other paces.
We make sure that human rights are a key part of every conversation that senior colleagues have, and that would certainly be the case should it be necessary to intervene should any minors be in the position described by the right hon. Gentleman. As I indicated at the beginning, we have very sketchy reports on this at the moment. That is why we are doing more and I will write to the right hon. Gentleman when I receive further, more detailed information, so that he has it available.
Thank you very much, Mr Speaker.
We have heard—over the years, indeed—Her Majesty’s Government talk about the influence they have had over the actions of the Saudi Government in terms of capital offences. I would be very grateful if the Minister could from his place today give some examples of how that has paid off, because, on days like this, it does leave some questions to be answered.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on his election to the office of Chairman of the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs. It is an important office, which was well held by his predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Crispin Blunt), to whom we would all pay tribute. These are difficult jobs done by colleagues, and my hon. Friend did it particularly well, but we are very pleased to see my hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat) in his place.
It is so difficult to try to prove a negative. The authorities with which we deal in Saudi Arabia are not necessarily in a position to make their judicial decisions dependent on external pressure, and nor would we be in a similar situation. We know that allegations are made about possible executions, including those of minors, and that they then do not happen, but we do not know whether that can be laid at the door of any specific representation. I can assure my hon. Friend and the House that these representations are regularly made to a changing society and a changing judicial process in Saudi Arabia, which must, of necessity, be theirs and not ours.
I add my thanks to you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question today. I also thank the right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) for bringing such an important matter to the House and for speaking so eloquently on the subject.
I am sure that all Members present today share my concern about the impending executions. Saudi Arabia is one of the world’s most prolific executioners, and the death penalty is increasingly being used there as a punishment for non-violent acts. In January 2016, the Saudi authorities executed 47 men in a single day for alleged terrorism offences, and just last Monday, six men were killed. It is becoming clear that these executions are being used not only as a form of draconian punishment but as a tool to suppress political opposition, to fight sectarian religious battles against the Shi’a minority and to antagonise regional rivals in the process.
It is just over six years since the then Foreign Secretary, William Hague, declared that there would be
“no downgrading of human rights under this Government”.
He went on to argue that
“pursuing a foreign policy with a conscience is…in the long term enlightened national interest of our country.”
It is striking how far the Conservatives have strayed from that commitment. When it comes to our relationship with Saudi Arabia, it would appear that human rights concerns are now of secondary importance to trade. This Government have treated Riyadh’s human rights record as an inconvenient embarrassment rather than a cause for serious concern. Their reluctance to champion the values of human rights runs counter to who we are as a country and risks eroding our international standing, just when we need it most. My party’s position on this matter is clear: the 14 executions—including those of two juveniles and one disabled man—must not take place. I call on the Government to use their influence to stand up for human rights and unreservedly condemn these planned executions.
Order. Before the Minister responds, I must say in all kindness to the hon. Lady that the fluency of her delivery was unfortunately not matched by any conformity with the expected procedure for the posing of an urgent question. I allowed her to continue, but for future reference—this is directed not only to the hon. Lady but more widely—an urgent question requires a brief sentence or two in response to the Minister, followed by a series of questions. It is not an occasion for the setting out of an alternative party position. It is not like a debate—[Interruption.] It might very well have been very good, as the shadow Foreign Secretary, the right hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) chunters from a sedentary position in a rather inappropriate way, but unfortunately it was not very good at complying with our procedure. I say good-naturedly to the hon. Member for Heywood and Middleton (Liz McInnes)—and I am looking at the Opposition Chief Whip too—that we really must encourage compliance with the required procedure. Now, I would like the Minister very briefly to respond—30 seconds will suffice, I think—before we move on to further questioning.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. I thank the hon. Lady for her remarks; I have got the gist of the points that she was making. Saudi Arabia remains a Foreign and Commonwealth Office human rights priority country, particularly because of its use of the death penalty, its record on women’s rights and its restrictions on freedom of expression, assembly, religion and belief. No aspect of our commercial relationship with Saudi Arabia prevents us from speaking frankly and openly to it about human rights. We will not pursue trade to the exclusion of human rights; they can be, and they are, complementary. The United Kingdom will continue to adhere to that.
The Minister will agree that it is depressing how regularly the death penalty is carried out not just in Saudi Arabia, but in its neighbour Iran, which has already carried out dozens of executions this year. Given the small likelihood of persuading the Saudis to abolish the death penalty completely, does he agree that it is best to focus on getting them to adopt the most basic of standards, such as not executing people for crimes they committed when they were juveniles?