Tuesday 5 September 2017
[Graham Stringer in the Chair]
Venezuela: Political Situation
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the political situation in Venezuela.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer, and I am grateful for this timely debate. I do not often speak about Latin America, but it is registered in the “Dod’s” directory as one of my interests. I am a long-standing member of the all-party parliamentary British-Latin America group, as well as chairman of the newly formed APPG on Venezuela.
As I said, I am grateful for this opportunity to speak on the situation in Venezuela. Latin America is an area of the world where Britain has a myopic view—partly due to the continent’s Spanish and Portuguese colonial past, and partly due to its own sense of history in relation to those two European nations and, of course, the Vatican. It is in British interests that there is a change of outlook on South America, Latin America and Venezuela, particularly given our exit from the European Union and the need to build new international bridges. Latin America is an important part of the planet that we should be mindful of in protecting the wellbeing of this fragile place that we all inhabit. I appreciate that our South American relationships have been somewhat skewed—rightly so, in my opinion—in terms of protecting the UK sovereignty of the Falkland Islands.
Although the issue of Venezuela has been a concern for a while, it landed on my constituency doorstep when constituent Andrea Adamson came to see me in June. Her son, Adam Cowell, of Oswaldtwistle, died of cocaine poisoning due to its purity. That unnecessary death in Hyndburn recently led the local coroner, Michael Singleton, to say:
“I can tell you from the inquests that I have recently conducted, and those that are going to be conducted by me within the next few weeks, that this is reaching epidemic proportions.”
“I am becoming increasingly concerned with the number of young people who are dying from cocaine toxicity.”
In relation to Adam’s case, the pathologist said:
“At the time of post mortem there was 8.4 micrograms of cocaine per millilitre of blood.
That is very high, anything over one is potentially fatal.”
The coroner said:
“I have been doing this job for 25 years and this has reached phenomenal levels.”
Mr Singleton went on to make a searing criticism of the UK’s failure to tackle the cocaine epidemic. His comments are online.
This so-called party drug has been responsible for the deaths of at least 17 young people in the Lancashire district in the last nine months. I promised Andrea that I would raise the issue of cocaine dealing, trafficking and production locally, nationally and internationally, for they are all part of one deadly supply chain.
This was a Daily Telegraph headline as long ago as June 2008: “President Hugo Chávez’s Venezuela has become the key trafficking route for most of the cocaine sold on Britain’s streets”. The report stated:
“Anti-drugs officials estimate that more than 50 per cent of all the cocaine consumed in Britain has been trafficked through Venezuela—under the ‘revolutionary’ regime of Mr Chávez. The figure could be as high as two thirds.”
In 1998, the last year before Mr Chávez came to office, Venezuela’s security forces made 11,581 drug-related arrests. By 2005, that had plummeted to just over 1,000, and the figure remains low to this day. That journalistic piece highlighted the Venezuelan gateway for cocaine into Europe and the United Kingdom. It alleged that Mr Chávez’s Administration had
“a longstanding relationship with Marxist rebels from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). These guerrillas fund their insurgency by smuggling drugs”.
Back in 2008, The Guardian reported from FARC sources in Colombia
“that powerful elements within the Venezuelan state apparatus have forged a strong working relationship with Farc”
“that Farc and Venezuelan state officials operated actively together on the ground, where military and drug-trafficking activities coincide.”
The allegations were that the Chávez regime, alongside the Venezuelan military, supported the FARC rebels with military equipment in exchange for cocaine.
In 2012, The New York Times used radar information—when we look at the radar maps of flights out of Venezuela, we see that it is remarkable where they go—to show that Venezuela was
“one of the world’s busiest transit hubs for the movement of cocaine”,
with FARC Colombian guerrilla rebels able to operate “with…impunity.” The drug is coming from Venezuelan airports, not from inside Colombia. The flights by and large go to Honduras; it is going to the Caribbean and on to the United Kingdom.
In 2014, Reuters reported that the “Venezuela drug trade rings alarm bells”. It reported on a major French seizure:
“Hidden in a large ochre-colored container, the 1.4 tonnes of cocaine got past two dozen army checkpoints during a 500-mile journey from the Colombian border to the Venezuelan capital.
The drugs were stored for several days at the Simon Bolivar International Airport outside Caracas, then placed in 31 suitcases with false name-tags and put on an Air France flight to Paris on Sept. 10, 2013.
Ten days later, French police announced the biggest cocaine haul in their history—the shipment was worth about $270 million—after a meticulous operation involving French, British, Spanish and Dutch authorities.
The foreign agents kept Venezuelan authorities in the dark.”
The problem for the Minister and the Government is that the flow of drugs from Venezuela into this country continues unabated to this day. Only recently, during our general election, Spanish police seized more than 2 metric tonnes of cocaine—£1 billion-worth—from a ship with a Venezuelan flag in the Atlantic ocean.
There are ample stories of cocaine seizures, but the UK and EU Governments seem to have little success in stemming drug trafficking from South America and Venezuela in particular and to be unable to take firm action against a corrupt narco regime. The UK Government have had enough signals. Mr Chávez halted co-operation with the United States Drug Enforcement Administration way back in 2005.
Last year, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime—UNODC—stated that Venezuela has become more important in recent years as trafficking organisations move Colombian cocaine overland across a porous border and take advantage of the busy maritime traffic between the coast and the islands of the Caribbean and Europe.
In the UK, we have seen rising purity levels for cocaine, along with ease of supply and vibrant demand. My constituents and their families are bearing the brunt of that. Our own National Crime Agency identifies Venezuela as a producer country and a major transit country for cocaine coming to this country.
Early last month, The Times ran a warning headline: “Pure cocaine fuels rise in drug deaths”. Deaths linked to cocaine jumped by 16% between 2015 and 2016 to a record high of 6.4 deaths per million. That sharp rise was widely reported across all media. The Office for National Statistics report said:
“The National Crime Agency reports that there was a significant increase in both crack and powder cocaine purity at all levels in 2016, including user-level, which may partly explain the increase in deaths relating to cocaine.”
A decade on, little seems to have changed. The Chavistas continue, through the new President, Nicolás Maduro, to facilitate and funnel cocaine to the west. Last November, two of Nicolás Maduro’s nephews were convicted in a New York court of attempting to smuggle 815 kg—about £350 million-worth—of cocaine into the United States. Throughout that trial, details emerged suggesting that high-level Venezuelan officials had serious involvement in the drug trade. The court heard that the President’s nephews intended to use the presidential aeroplane hangar at Caracas’ international airport to move the drugs. It also heard that “government executives” and the Cartel of the Suns were the “only ones who worked” in drug trafficking in Venezuela, and that they were
“in charge of fumigating [eliminating] anyone who tried”
to get involved in the drugs trade in Venezuela.
Venezuela is a narco-state and the UK cannot have a policy of “do nothing”. The US Administration have acted. They have imposed sanctions on Venezuelan Vice-President Tareck El Aissami for facilitating shipments of narcotics on board planes leaving a Venezuelan airbase, as well as controlling drug routes through Venezuelan ports. Since appointing Mr El Aissami to the post, Mr Maduro has granted him expanded powers, including over the economy and expropriating businesses. The Guardian reported:
“Venezuela’s top convicted drug trafficker, Walid Makled…said he paid bribes through El Aissami’s brother to officials so they could turn a blind eye to cocaine shipments that proliferated in Venezuela over the past two decades of”—
so-called “socialist rule.” In March, the US Administration also announced sanctions against eight corrupt Venezuelan Supreme Court justices for stripping the opposition-controlled legislature of its powers.
Mr El Aissami joins a long list of senior Venezuelan Government officials who have been sanctioned or indicted by US law enforcement for complicity in drug trafficking to the United States. That includes Minister Néstor Reverol; the former head of military intelligence, Hugo Carvajal; sitting Governor, Henry Rangel Silva; former Interior and Justice Minister, Ramón Rodríguez Chacín; and several others. It also includes Diosdado Cabello, vice-president of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela—Maduro’s party—and an alleged member of the Cartel of the Suns.
Before briefly turning to the economic turmoil, which has been widely reported and I am sure colleagues want to speak about, I ask the Minister why it has been left to the US Administration to take action against this rogue regime, which has been operating with impunity for many years. When will the UK Government look into this issue in the interests of my constituents and UK citizens, and publish their findings? What measures can the UK Government take independently, as well as with the EU, on implementing individual sanctions? Finally, will the Foreign and Commonwealth Office facilitate a much-needed parliamentary visit to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for eloquently setting out the woeful conditions in Venezuela and the very human impact that that regime has on people’s lives not only in Venezuela but in this country as well. In my previous life I prosecuted serious organised crime gangs, including drug traffickers. Will he join me in wishing that all Members of Parliament, including his leader, would condemn the Venezuelan regime and spread the message that anyone buying cocaine in this country is supporting organised crime?
I am grateful for the hon. Lady’s intervention. I say to her that it is the Government—her party—who are in power, and I am asking the current Government to tackle the situation on the streets of the United Kingdom. I can speak for myself and I condemn the regime, as I have done.
I want to turn briefly to the economic and political situation. I asked the House of Commons Library to update Members of the House and am grateful that it has done so. I am also pleased that it provided a debate pack for Members before the debate. It does a marvellous job and we should all thank it for that.
Venezuela is an economic basket case. Despite more than $1 trillion of oil revenues and billions of dollars from narco-trafficking and remittances, it is possibly the most mismanaged economy in modern history.
My hon. Friend describes Venezuela as a socialist state. It is in fact yet another failed communist state, and shows the inability of a command economy to run the economy properly or, indeed, to feed its people. We should note that as well as huge revenues, it has the world’s largest oil reserves; but oil production is going down because of failed management.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is a failed authoritarian communist state, but are not all communist states authoritarian in their outlook? It is certainly a basket case.
I do not need to elaborate on the stories from Venezuela that we have all witnessed over the summer and before. Recent political events have been condemned by all—the UN, the EU, the Inter-Parliamentary Union, the South American trading bloc Mercosur and Venezuela’s neighbouring countries. Importantly for Opposition Members, and coming to my right hon. Friend’s point, Socialist International has also condemned the Chavista regime, and we stand alongside our sister socialist parties in opposition to the Venezuelan regime.
On that point, does my hon. Friend agree that in politics there is sometimes a clear right and wrong? When any President in effect abolishes a Parliament that opposes him and replaces it with a lapdog Assembly, there is only one side—whatever President Trump or anybody else does—for democrats and those in this House who believe in human rights to be on regarding that issue: condemning that action of abolishing the Parliament.
I, and Members of this House, do condemn the actions of the Maduro Government. My hon. Friend alludes to the point that we must not conflate power and the powerless. These are the decisions of those in power, not of those who are powerless—the protestors—and it is the regime that we should condemn, not the people of Venezuela.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for bringing such an important issue forward for debate today. He talks about condemning, and over the summer he suggested himself that the Leader of the Opposition would condemn the human rights abuses in Venezuela “in his own time”. Is the hon. Gentleman satisfied with his leader’s response to date?
The response from the Labour party Front-Bench Members has been a condemnation, and I am pleased with the words put forward by them in condemning this. I reiterate that this is the Government’s responsibility. They won an election; it is now for them to resolve this issue and for us, as Opposition Members, to put pressure on them. Let us not conflate the two.
The humanitarian situation in Venezuela is calamitous. The scarcity and shortage of food and medicines are making Venezuelans’ daily lives a nightmare. Record high inflation and the systematic destruction of the commercial and industrial sectors are only making things worse. Criminality and political violence are the norm.
As chairman of the British-Latin America APPG, I am absolutely delighted in the hon. Gentleman’s debate. May I urge him to look at the misery of people trafficking and the record numbers of displaced persons who are now living in Bolivia, Brazil and Colombia? In fact, we now have more people displaced from Venezuela than from Syria. That is a shocking statistic.
The hon. Gentleman raises a very important point. I cannot cover all aspects of the issue in this debate, but the misery of those who have had to flee Venezuela to neighbouring countries is considerable. I think we underestimate the numbers involved and are not fully aware of the scale of the problem of those refugees who have had to flee for their own safety into neighbouring countries and the pressure that puts on those countries. The hon. Gentleman raises a very good point.
My hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Fylde (Mark Menzies) rightly identify those who are poor, dispossessed and being forced to flee, but is not the additional tragedy of Venezuela that many with university educations and technical skills are also fleeing because of the breakdown of civil society inside Venezuela? That is a long-term tragedy for that country, which, because of its natural resources, should be a very prosperous state.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right; it is probably the most mismanaged country in the world. As a result, it is experiencing a brain drain: those who are educated are leaving Venezuela, because the regime is strangling intellectuals’ careers and the economy, and because their human rights are being undermined and they are being persecuted for taking part in demonstrations. Many of them are taking the decision to leave, which is having an adverse effect on Venezuela.
Venezuelan cities are the most violent in the world. Gangland violence, political brutality and drugs have taken hold as the economy collapses. The motorbike militia are quite frightening, and seem to operate hand in hand with the Maduro Administration to oppress the people of Venezuela. Inflation is at 720%, according to the International Monetary Fund, and is expected to surpass 2,000%. Rather than cutting budgets and raising taxes, the Chavista Government have borrowed from their communist allies Russia and China at high prices, and have resorted to printing money. The value of the Venezuelan bolívar has plummeted 99% against the US dollar since Hugo Chávez came to power.
The crunch will come later this year when Venezuela’s debt repayments come due. According to the World Bank, Venezuela has run a budget deficit in 15 of the last 17 years, and over the last four years, that deficit has averaged about 15% and climbing. Most of Venezuela’s reserves—what little it has—are in the form of gold, so in order to make debt repayments this year, Venezuela shipped gold bars to Switzerland. China has bailed out Venezuela by loaning it an eye-watering $60 billion, but now, according to analysts, even it is reluctant to give its Latin American ally more credit. Despite all this borrowing and huge receipts from legal and illegal exports, the country remains in dire straits. Food prices are soaring and hospitals are broken. If Members want further information, there are some good illustrative examples in the House of Commons paper provided for the debate.
Transparency International consistently ranks Venezuela as one of the most corrupt countries in the world. The House of Commons Library briefing paper states that former president Hugo Chávez
“inherited a weak economy which deteriorated further under the initial phase of his Presidency”,
with an average fall of 5.1% in economic performance, which was finally offset only by significant increases in world oil prices. Its modest rises in GDP between 2004 and 2008 were financed solely by rising oil prices. Oil accounts for 98% of total exports and 59% of official fiscal revenues.
Economic problems were exacerbated from 2005 onwards, when so-called unproductive land was nationalised, along with strategic industries including electricity, steel, cement, tourism, telecommunications, agriculture, oil services, and food distribution. By 2013, the World Bank ranked Venezuela 160th out of 185 nations for electricity availability, and 185th out of 185 for paying taxes.
We must question how Chávez’s daughter, Maria Chávez, has amassed a personal fortune of $4.2 billion. The Bolivarian revolution has spawned many “boligarchs”; the presidential palace, according to elected opposition members, costs more than $3.6 million a day to run. Such profligacy extends to the state oil company, whose US subsidiary, as reported in April by The Guardian, donated $500,000 to Donald Trump’s inauguration. All overseas trade is currency-controlled. Since 2003, the Chavista Government have controlled currency. The real currency rate is now thought to be 700 Venezuelan bolívars to the dollar, but those needing dollars require a Government permit.
As the economic situation deteriorates, the dollar is becoming the de facto currency, yet poor people cannot access it, which means they cannot access many basic goods that must be imported. The four Government rates, including what can only be described as mates’ rates, are just another means by which the Chavista elite can gain material advantage. Corruption and incompetence have been endemic throughout the Chavista regime. According to Transparency International, when the state oil company, PDVSA, took over a programme to buy food in 2007-08, more than
“1 million tons of food were bought for US $2.24 billion, but only a little more than 25% of the food was received. And of this figure, only 14% of the food was distributed to those in need. At one port alone, 3,257 containers with a total of 122,000 tons of rotten food were found.”
The United Nations says that President Maduro, the country’s leader, is responsible for “widespread and systemic” human rights abuses. The UN has said that blame for the oppression there lies
“at the highest level of the Venezuelan Government”
and slammed Maduro’s use of excessive force. More than 5,051 protesters were detained and 1,000 are still in custody after months of clashes, according to Foro Penal. Some 600 cases of torture have been referred to the International Criminal Court; according to the Casla Institute, 70% of torture cases involve sexual assault. There are 620 political prisoners in Venezuela, according to the Organization of American States, and 73 people have been killed by security forces during protests, according to UN High Commission for Refugees. The UN states that violations include house raids, torture and ill-treatment.
Before I conclude, it is worth briefly mentioning democracy in Venezuela. Although elections take place, the Government spend most of their time manipulating the law—either breaking it or changing it—with the sole intention of undermining the opposition. That has gone on for a considerable time. The line dividing state and the ruling party spending has been erased. Citizens and organisations loyal to the Government get most state jobs, contracts and subsidies, while overt opponents get nothing or are locked up. Proportional representation has been manipulated and mayors sacked to favour the PSUV.
I would like to ask the Minister about UK nationals caught up in Venezuela. My constituent Judith Tregartha-Clegg is worried that political turbulence could leave her daughter stuck in the country. She states:
“A few airlines have been cancelling flights out of Caracas because of the trouble and some just won’t fly there anymore.”
She expressed her worry and her daughter’s about the journey to the airport. She has received no support from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office so far. What support have the UK Government given to UK nationals living in Venezuela? Do they have a plan to evacuate all UK nationals from Venezuela if the situation deteriorates?
Judith has described to me the dire situation. Her daughter now lives in the town, as their home was taken over by squatters following 2006 legislation allowing for requisitioning of property. It is not safe outside urban areas. Schools do not have teachers, because they have not been paid.
In summary, condemnation is not enough. The UK Government must show resolve through tangible actions that will put pressure on President Maduro and his allies to respect democracy, human rights and the rule of law. The UK Government should lead on targeted sanctions against individuals in the Venezuelan Government responsible for drug trafficking, human rights violations and breaches of democracy. Those sanctions should include: freezing any UK assets belonging to those individuals; preventing UK individuals and companies from doing business with them; enforcing a travel ban against them; enforcing a ban on exporting weapons or any equipment that might be used for internal repression in Venezuela. I note that we give Venezuela export licences for military equipment. Surely that must stop.
Those are not economic sanctions against Venezuela. It is important that the UK targets the regime and not its citizens. Can the Minister update the House on what progress he has made in introducing sanctions, and when we are likely to see some? Many thanks for your patience, Mr Stringer; I look forward to the rest of the debate and to the Minister’s reply.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Hyndburn (Graham Jones) on securing today’s debate, which is as timely as it is important.
We work in the shadow of George Canning, whose statue stands in Parliament Square and who gave moral and material aid to the nations of Latin America as they emerged from the wreckage of the Spanish empire. Since then, Great Britain has always taken an active interest in the continent’s affairs. There has been so much progress in recent years: Latin America is more prosperous and more free than at any time in history, and nations such as Colombia and Chile stand as shining examples of what the continent can and should be.
In Venezuela, however, chaos reigns. The gross economic mismanagement that the hon. Gentleman referred to means that inflation is running at more than 1,000% this year and is forecast at more than 2,000% next year. That kind of inflation guts an economy and a society. It brings with it the incalculable miseries that we have already heard discussed today. Some 82% of Venezuelans live in poverty. Businesses have been ruined. Unemployment stands at more than 25%. Life savings, and with them any chance of a dignified retirement, have been destroyed. There is not enough food for 90% of the population, and there are shortages of basic medicines.
According to the Venezuelan Government’s own data, infant mortality rose by 30% last year, maternal mortality rose by 65% and malaria jumped by 76%. The people, understandably, are desperate for change, but they face naked political oppression. The utterly illegitimate Constituent Assembly has sidelined the opposition-led National Assembly. The Supreme Court has been expanded and packed with Government supporters. Just since April, at least 73 people have died at the hands of the security forces and pro-Government groups, and a further 51 deaths are unaccounted for. Opposition leaders have been arrested and dragged off in the dead of night. Dissenting TV and radio stations have been censured and shut down. We should be in no doubt that this is a tyranny.
With that in mind, will the Minister inform us what pressure the Foreign Office is exercising on the Venezuelan Government to reinstate basic democratic norms? What dialogue has he held with neighbouring Governments in Latin America to promote and co-ordinate regional pressure on Maduro? What further steps will we take at the United Nations following the report issued by its Human Rights Office on 30 August that calls for the regime to release demonstrators who have been arbitrarily detained and to end the use of military courts to try civilians? Finally, can British influence be brought to play on President Putin and the Russian Government not to bail out Maduro as the calamitous consequences of his rule bring his regime to its knees?
Closer to home, I am clear that we in Westminster have our part to play. I hope that colleagues will join me in utter condemnation of the Venezuelan Government’s actions and in deploring the likes of early-day motion 1278 of 17 April 2013, which
“congratulates…Maduro for his victory in Venezuela’s…Presidential elections”,
praises his continuation of
“Chavez’s Socialist revolution”
and urges the then Prime Minister
“to extend an invitation for…President…Maduro, to visit this country at the earliest opportunity.”
There were just 13 signatories to this nonsense—unlucky for some. Among them were the current Leader of the Opposition, the current shadow Chancellor and the current chair of the Labour party, the hon. Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery).
For some historical context, allow me to read the assessment of Venezuela made by Human Rights Watch just one month before that early-day motion:
“the concentration of power and erosion of human rights protections had given the government free rein to intimidate, censor, and prosecute Venezuelans who criticized the president or thwarted his political agenda.”
Lenin used to gloat about useful idiots to his cause. I call it grotesque. Either the signatories are blind to the point of crippling naivety about the ruin that Chávez and Maduro have unleashed on their country or they are complicit in actively misrepresenting the regime to the world as some kind of socialist paradise. That matters because the right hon. Members for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn), and for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) head the alternative Government of our country. The signals that they send out by their failure to condemn the terror, murder and totally avoidable economic ruin are powerful ones, and are wholly unacceptable.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech. He mentioned some statistics about deaths. I am informed by the Library that there have been 124 deaths during clashes between police and protesters. The crisis in Venezuela is not just economic but political, and it is entirely self-made. Democratic institutions are being torn apart and there are violent clashes on the street. Does he share my disappointment that the Leader of the Opposition holds up Venezuela as a different and better way of doing things?
I think my cold war credentials are fairly clear, but I recognise that the hon. Gentleman and some other Members who have made interventions are fairly new to the House. Do they recognise that one can make a greater advance by uniting across party lines on issues of common agreement than by trying to score cheap political points? The points speak for themselves, but what we need is a united attitude from the British Government and the British Parliament on this issue. He is not getting the balance right.
I am afraid I totally disagree. The Leader of the Opposition speaks for the right hon. Gentleman’s party, and he is absolutely and totally mealy-mouthed in refusing to condemn violence by the regime. He talks about condemning violence by all sides. What does that mean to the victims of this monstrous tyranny?
Let me try to bridge the gap between the right hon. Member for Warley (John Spellar) and Conservative Members. Is there not, indeed, a great deal of agreement in this Chamber about the woeful conditions in Venezuela? Is not my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Mr Clarke) simply saying that it would be nice if the Leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition joined us in condemning Venezuela and the way in which it is treating its people?
The hon. Gentleman is making a powerful case for the importance of standing up to these people. Will he therefore join Labour Members in calling for the Government to do what the American Government have done and introduce a travel ban? Perhaps they could come up with some practical suggestions for sending a strong message that this House universally condemns human rights abuses, and then actually act on those suggestions. The need to take the plank out of one’s own eye before looking at the splinter in somebody else’s is a wise thing to remember in this place.
On this issue, the splinter in the eye of the right hon. Member for Islington North is a large one. However, I am perfectly happy to look at practical steps that could be taken to bring the regime to some form of account. I see the Magnitsky Act in Russia as an encouraging precedent that we should seek to follow. We need to hold those at the very top of the regime to account for their actions, but it is also important that the moral lead set by the Opposition—
I am asking the Minister for an update on precisely those issues: the steps that the Government are taking to hold Venezuela to account. However, at least we on the Conservative Benches are absolutely crystal clear that what the regime is doing in the name of socialism is profoundly wrong.
I close my remarks with a message of heartfelt solidarity with those who are fighting to keep the flickering flame of democracy alive in Venezuela; with an utter condemnation of President Maduro and his associates; and with a call to the leadership of the Opposition to show some belated moral clarity about the true nature of the regime that they have supported for far too long.
I never thought that I would speak in a debate on Venezuela, although I am interested in what is going on. The international issues that I become involved in are normally determined by the concerns of my constituents, whether the Tamils of Sri Lanka or the Ahmadiyya Muslims.
I became involved in the issues of human rights and the terrible economic conditions in Venezuela through football—not the wonderful Latin American game, but the league one game. Ivor Heller, the commercial director of my team, AFC Wimbledon, contacted me to ask what could be done to help his partner Lisa, her Venezuelan family and the great Venezuelan community in south London. I had the opportunity to meet members of that community a fortnight ago and many of its representatives are listening to this debate. So I gently say to the hon. Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Mr Clarke) that their anxieties and distress about the starvation and murder of their families is much greater than our own inter-parliamentary and party disputes.
I would like to give a few pen portraits of the people I met, and of their families. I would like to tell you about my constituent and neighbour, Marifel. Her brother is a surgeon in a Venezuelan hospital and he faces complications beyond anything we can imagine in our healthcare system. Marifel showed me a photo of him holding a torch to carry out an operation due to the regular blackouts in the hospital. And that is just the beginning. In her own words:
“Patients need to bring everything with them, from bed sheets to surgical gloves and antibiotics. The x-ray machines are not working and nor is simple equipment to take blood pressure. You may think we are talking about a hospital in a war zone”.
Those deplorable facilities face the country’s worst healthcare challenges in decades. Diphtheria has come back after previously being eradicated, malaria has multiplied tenfold since 1999 and maternal mortality has increased by 67% in the last year alone—I could go on.
Jennifer tells me that her grandmother had a severe stroke three months ago and that she feared the worst. Fortunately, she is still with us, but the doctors treating her told her that the medicines she needed were no longer available. Jennifer has resorted to reaching out to friends in Spain, Chile and Colombia to locate, purchase and transport the medicines that her grandmother needs to survive. Similarly, Erika, who has joined us here to watch the debate, spends every night praying that her mother will be able to obtain the blood pressure pills she needs to survive.
Those terribly sad stories are the real-life examples behind the 87% shortage of food and medicine in the country. Last year, three quarters of the Venezuelan population lost an average of 19 lb because there is so little food. The annual inflation rate is expected to rise to 1,100% by the end of 2017 and the family food basket currently costs almost five times the monthly salary of the majority, leaving 82% of the population in poverty.
Leana contacted me with her story behind the shocking statistics. Her mother sends a monthly care package and money to her family in Venezuela, as they cannot afford to live on their salaries. The prices of the items they can actually find in the supermarkets are too high, and those who cannot afford food are eating out of rubbish bins. Day-to-day survival is their primary focus. Militza’s nephew and niece missed 60 days of school last year because of the street protests; they live in fear and desperation, yet many of their peers do not even reach school age. It is estimated that 54% of children suffer from malnutrition, and infant mortality has risen by 30% since 2012.
Compounding the extraordinary levels of poverty are world record levels of murder across the country, with a staggering 78 homicides per day. Thamara contacted me to tell me that her brother was kidnapped by a violent gang but luckily managed to escape. Unfortunately, the younger brother of María, who also wrote to me, was murdered. No investigation has been conducted and no justice served.
Without doubt, Venezuela is in a state of humanitarian and economic crisis that we simply cannot ignore. Democracy has been breached through the illegitimate Constituent Assembly, and the regime should be condemned loud and clear. I have not all the answers, or perhaps any of the answers, but I know that there are 5,000 British-Venezuelan citizens in our country who look to us, our Parliament, our parties and our MPs to show leadership and concern for them and for their families. I hope we can show that today.
Hon. Members have made absolutely evident the problem we face regarding Venezuela, so they will forgive me if I do not repeat the claims and statements that have been so clearly pronounced. Members on both sides of the House have rightly condemned the brutality of the regime and have called for the UK Government to do more, and I welcome the opportunity to hear the Minister’s views on that. I also look forward to hearing how he is working with our European partners—as they still are—on getting joint action, particularly on the sanctions and prosecutions.
If I may be permitted one small reminder: the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) focused on her constituents and she is, of course, right that that is what we are here to do, but it is also right that we remember that these distant places are not so distant. The drugs that the hon. Member for Hyndburn (Graham Jones) spoke about kill people in our country. The drug money that goes back into the FARC pays to train the IRA—at least it certainly used to—and that brought death to the streets of Northern Ireland. The links between the UK and South America may appear distant, but they are not. Our history, as my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Mr Clarke) described, links us to the revolutionary era and the end of the Spanish empire. Our present, through air, communications, friendship and marriage, links us to some of the most wonderful people in the world, in some amazing countries in one of the most beautiful continents but, sadly, also to the destruction, the failure of Governments, the abuse and the violence caused by people like Maduro.
So today, we should perhaps remember some of the names that deserve to be mentioned, not the ones that should be forgotten. We should remember names such as that of Leopoldo López, who has done so much for the cause of democracy in Venezuela, and that of his wife, Lilian Tintori, who has been refused permission to enter Europe to talk to the leaders of some of our European partners by an abusive and despotic regime.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Hyndburn (Graham Jones) on bringing the debate to the House, thereby giving us all the opportunity to be involved. We are not here to point the finger; we are here to look at the situation in Venezuela and, for me, the focus, as the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) mentioned, is on poverty and human rights.
I have an interest in the issue because the political situation in Venezuela is clearly precarious, and it is my belief that there is a sincere need for intervention from this House, to help where possible—the Minister will tell us about that shortly. Regarding human rights and poverty, the statistics that were sent to many of us highlight the dire straits that innocent people living in the country face daily. There is 80% poverty—it was 40% when Chávez came to power and the oil price was only $9 a barrel. As the parliamentary briefing states, hunger is rife, with 12.1% of the population eating fewer than three meals a day—I wonder how many of us could deal with that every day of our lives—and the Bengoa Foundation for Food and Nutrition estimates that 30% of school-aged children are malnourished. We need to look at what we can do to assist the children—either through the Government or by bypassing them—in whatever way we can.
In its May 2017 report, Caritas, a Catholic non-profit organisation working in Venezuela, found that, in the four states it surveyed, 11.4% of children under five were suffering from either moderate or severe acute malnutrition—a serious issue for families. Human Rights Watch’s 2016 report stated that infant and maternal mortality rates were rising sharply. Some 85% of medicines are running low, and Venezuelans face shortages in everything, from vaccines to rice and bread. Diphtheria had been eradicated, or at least they thought it had gone, but it is back. The incidence of malaria is up by 79% and the number of cases of the Zika virus is rising. It cannot be denied that there are acute health issues.
The International Monetary Fund estimated Venezuela’s budget deficit to be 15% of GDP in 2016, and the Government have monetised the deficit by printing money—my goodness me, how silly and completely out of control—which has led to soaring inflation. Official figures have not been released since 2015, but the IMF estimates that the annual inflation rate was 255% in 2016 and, as has been mentioned, that it will rise to 1,100% by the end of 2017. After more than $1 trillion in oil revenue, the country has tripled its international debt and there are real concerns about its ability to meet its obligations on that international front. GDP has fallen by a third in the four years since 2013 and unemployment stands at 25%. To many people those are just statistics, but it is real, cold life for those in Venezuela.
Many jobs have been destroyed and most of the population works in the informal economy. People are going hungry every day; many are forced to rummage through rubbish bins to find food. The country was once one of the richest in middle America. It has fallen so far down the league of economic stability that it is in dire straits. The UN has just published a report stating human rights have been violated extensively in Venezuela—I want to speak about that in the short time I have. The Independent reports that Venezuelan security forces have wielded excessive force to suppress protests. They have killed dozens of people and have arbitrarily detained 5,000 since April, including 1,000 still in custody. Instead of easing off, they are getting stronger. If ever there was a time to have a debate on Venezuela, it is now. As the UN report further shows, more than 100 lives have been lost in the struggle for democracy, with 4,000 people wounded, 5,000 detained illegally and some brought to military tribunals, often in inhumane conditions, and in some cases tortured. That should not happen in this day and age.
The UN has investigated 124 deaths in connection with demonstrations against President Maduro’s Government. It found 46 deaths attributable to security forces and 27 to pro-Government armed groups. These are armed militias—terrorist groups—doing the Government’s work under the table, behind closed doors or with balaclavas on, or however we want to describe it. It is clear that action must be taken.
Reports state that the Attorney General had to flee the country, leaving in flux one of the major stabilising effects of the rule of law and justice. He had to flee, which shows the level to which law and order has fallen.
The hon. Gentleman talks about the loss of life. Some is state-sponsored, but much of it is a result of the breakdown in law and order. I want to bring to the House’s attention the numbers of people losing their lives as victims of people trafficking, which is off the scale. These are some of the most vicious people-trafficking gangs anywhere in the world. They have no intention of trafficking people: they take their money and kill them.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention; he has clearly illustrated the issue of people trafficking. It is one of the most wicked, depraved, violent and evil activities that takes place. Taking people’s money with the sole aim of killing them, as he described, illustrates the extent to which law and order has broken down and how much the Government have lost control.
When we look further afield, we see that the US and Mexico have frozen the assets of 22 top Government officials, including President Maduro. It has been reported that while previous records indicate the absence of any major assets, several now show millions of dollars stored in foreign banks. We are all entitled to our wages, but that is nothing short of theft and literally taking food out of the mouths of children in that country. That money could and should be used to supply the food and medications that are needed for children and families and to try to restore law and order in that country. I ask the Minister the same question that I suspect others have, although perhaps in a slightly different way. What steps can we take to freeze the assets of those with bank accounts in this country and then use them for the welfare of others?
One case brought to my attention is that of a 23-year-old violinist, Wuilly Arteaga, who played the national anthem on the violin during street protests. Wuilly was arrested and put in jail. His crime was instigating violence and having an incendiary substance in his possession. Since when was a violin considered an incendiary substance? That clearly tells us that the Government there look upon any kind of protest as something they simply cannot take. He was tortured in prison. Amnesty International was alerted and secured his release after 19 days of wrongful imprisonment. Again, that illustrates the type of thing taking place.
It is abundantly clear that this situation is a time bomb. We have an obligation to act and not simply provide aid, which I believe we must do. We need to provide aid and get it to the people who need it, irrespective of Government, but also ensure that it reaches the proper destination and makes a difference to the children who are malnourished. We must also get medication to those who need it—for example, the blood pressure tablets that the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden mentioned. We must also seek to support the cause of democracy—we all believe in democracy, freedom and liberty—and exert any pressure that we can to see a real democracy in operation. The fact that the President of Venezuela has asked the UN for help to address the crisis must allow us a door to hopefully bring about change. Let us use it. Let us hear what the Minister, our Government and our allies—the United States of America or Mexico—are doing to bring about change. I ask the FCO what steps we are taking to help Venezuela at this time of great need.
It is nice to see you in the Chair, Mr Stringer. I congratulate the hon. Member for Hyndburn (Graham Jones) on securing this debate, which is of personal interest to me and some very close friends. The recent political history of Venezuela has not often been the subject of debate in this place. There has been too much subtlety when there should be clarity, and strong opinions when it is obvious that there are many complicated and intractable historical issues at play: issues not only in Venezuela, but across the South American continent, as it seeks—I paraphrase Linz and Stepan—to overcome the problems of democratic transition and consolidation in the post-colonial and cold war era.
The violence of the summer has been troubling. The deaths of many, thousands injured and the brutal Government crackdown, including the arrests of thousands of mainly peaceful opponents and demonstrators, as well as members of the Venezuelan National Assembly, can lead to no other conclusion than that the Venezuelan Government, their military and police forces have lost any democratic mandate they were seeking in July.
Let me be clear on behalf of the Scottish National party: we call urgently for an end to the violence. Venezuelans and the political parties that represent them have a right to protest, but the democratic process must be put back on track. I am sure we all hope that the United Kingdom Government and the Minister here today can work with the European Union and other allies to find a peaceful solution to the ongoing crisis. Those of us who have taken a keen interest in Venezuela over many years will have found something sadly inevitable about the recent events we have seen there, as a democratic deficit, economic mismanagement, and human rights abuses have combined to create a crisis that we have not seen in the Americas for more than a decade.
There is also something inevitable about the way that many in this place have used and continue to use Venezuela to prove narrow political points. I know from speaking to enough left-wing opponents of the late President Chávez and also Maduro that ideology is not the principal driver in this crisis. I will say something about the right in a moment, but the leadership of the Opposition can be criticised for the way in which they have ignored legitimate critiques of the Venezuelan regime and continued to lend it their support until long after it was credible for them to do so. Unlike many of the Chávez fanboys, from whom we would expect this sort of thing, they should have a good enough grasp of Spanish not to fall for the dismal, knee-jerk anti-Yankee propaganda that the regime of Maduro and the late Chávez put forward. But let us not fall either for the nonsense put forward by those on the right, which somehow derives from the tragedy the belief that social radicalism is doomed always to fail. The example of one south American country that I personally know best, Brazil, shows that right-wing parties seeking to take the left to task on corruption often find themselves equally as culpable.
The examples of Chile and Bolivia, while not themselves perfect, show that progressive Government and the responsible stewardship of national resources mean that the problems we see in the Bolivarian Republic are not inevitable. Venezuela, as does the continent of south America, carries the scars—on its landscape, in its cities, and in the hearts of its people—of a legacy of nearly five centuries of colonial exploitation. The United States, at least in the 20th and 21st centuries, must carry much responsibility for that, but it is wishful thinking on a grand scale to think that they are the only villain in this piece. The elites, both political and economic, must face up to their repeated failures and impoverishment of the Venezuelan people. That President Evo Morales of Bolivia is the only indigenous leader of a South American state shows that there are much deeper issues at play in most of the continent. Although the Morales regime has its own problems, it has demonstrated how putting the people in charge of their own resources can have positive results for the economic and social whole of a country.
Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the Venezuelan Government have run deficits in 15 of the last 17 years? Evo Morales and the Bolivian Government have run surpluses in virtually all those years. There are two distinct, different economic answers in those countries.
I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman. Morales shows a model of economic stability that I think many in south America would hope for in their own countries.
Venezuela deserves peace in its fractured and divided society. It will have none while the left and the right fight over the bones of the cold war. In summing up, the Minister may bring forward plans on the British Government working with our partners to be more stringent in banning travelling for Venezuelan officials—but we must, most of all, stand up for peace in Venezuela, for all Venezuelans. I hope the Government will play their part.
What a pleasure it is to see you in the Chair this morning, Mr Stringer. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hyndburn (Graham Jones) on showing the foresight he did in requesting this debate in July. I am grateful to the Backbench Business Committee for agreeing to it.
My hon. Friend pointed out clearly the importance of looking at the Latin American countries and seeing the connections between what is happening in those countries and what goes on on our streets. He described the problems of drug-taking in his constituency. I join him in asking the Minister to say some more about what the Government are doing to limit and control the arrival of those drugs in this country.
My hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) spoke eloquently about the humanitarian crisis. She has constituents with relatives who are suffering some horrendous experiences. We have all been reading about the issues over the summer in the newspapers. Her Majesty’s Opposition entirely share the concerns that have been expressed by Members on both sides of the House about the deteriorating and serious humanitarian and political crisis in Venezuela. We mourn all those who have been killed and injured in recent months on either side of the sham election in August. We believe that the bloodshed must end without delay. While that means that all sides must put down their arms, there is a special responsibility on the so-called forces of law and order to live up to their name.
We condemn the closure of the Parliament, which was established in 1999 under a constitution supported in a referendum by 88% of the Venezuelan people. We are also deeply concerned about President Maduro’s sacking of his independent-minded Attorney General. When we see police and security personnel assaulting civilians in the streets, using military tactics and weaponry against unarmed protestors and snatching political opponents from their homes at dead of night, it is obvious that they stand for neither the rule of law nor the restoration of order. Those actions must stop.
The Government of Venezuela must recognise their duty to protect human rights, free speech and truly democratic elections, rather than undermining them. They must stop the ever-escalating cycle of repression, division and violence for which they have been responsible.
Of course, in making that demand, we are not blind to the historical and economic context in which today’s tragic situation occurs. The hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat) pointed out that the recycling of drug moneys into Europe predates 1998, but everybody—particularly the Minister, who was an oil trader in a former life—must understand the significant impact that the collapse of the oil price was bound to have, and undoubtedly has had, on the Venezuelan economy.
In 2012, Venezuela was selling its oil at $103 a barrel. By 2016, the price had collapsed to $35 a barrel. That is bound to be a problem for a country when 90% of its export earnings are from oil exports, which raises another issue. Why has there not been greater diversification over time to build up other parts of the Venezuelan economy? That debate is not confined to Venezuela; Nigeria suffers similarly. When the oil price is high and the exchange rate is pushed up artificially, it can be difficult to get other sectors of the economy to become competitive and effective—indeed, such criticisms were made of this country in the 1980s. It is clear that the Venezuelans have not diversified in an intelligent and strategic way.
Notwithstanding the economic difficulties, the Maduro Government have no excuses for the political crisis that now faces the country, to which they have contributed. The Government must take responsibility for the crisis and respond to the legitimate concerns, expressed on both sides of this House and throughout the international community, about the increasingly dangerous direction the country has taken over the last five years, and particularly since the beginning of 2017. If they believe that those concerns are misplaced, it is not enough to ignore or dismiss them. They must take the necessary actions to prove them wrong.
One of the major long-term problems is that millions upon millions of ordinary Venezuelan people now regard themselves as “ni gobierno, ni oposición”. They are not for the Government or for the Opposition. They regard Maduro’s current Administration as a long way distant from the aims, methods and achievements of the original Chavista movement, but they have no faith in the official Opposition to do anything but return to the pre-Chávez norm of serving the elites and ignoring the masses.
As the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes) said, there can be no political or economic solution in Venezuela until the needs of those disenfranchised citizens are met. If the rest of the world treats the dispute simply as a binary one between the PSUV and the MUD—the Mesa de la Unidad Democrática—that will not help. I hope that the Minister will reflect that in his remarks.
The basic foundation for a flourishing civic society must be respect for human rights. We need that before we can build the democratic institutions. The destruction of the popular democratic institutions in that country is unhelpful, extremely concerning and straightforwardly wrong.
Hon. Members have asked the Minister a number of questions, and I will add a number on the Government’s policy towards Venezuela. In addition to asking about the Government’s policy on limiting the drugs trade, I want to ask about the funding programme. The Government previously committed to improving the operation of the National Assembly via the Magna Carta fund. I shall be grateful if the Minister brings us up to date on how that money will now be used. What are the Government proposing to do to build civic and democratic institutions in Venezuela, or will they abandon that plank of Government policy? The need to fund the promotion of human rights is obviously greater than ever, but there will be concerns about how to guarantee that any future funds are spent appropriately in the country when its institutions are so weak. We would like an update.
Secondly, I should like to ask the Minister about arms sales. Given the legal requirement for UK Ministers not to authorise arms sales to regimes that might use those arms for internal repression, will he explain why £80,000-worth of such sales to Venezuela were authorised in the past year alone? In light of the Maduro Government’s refusal to co-operate with the ongoing UN-led investigation into human rights abuses, will the Government suspend any further arms sales until those concerns are resolved?
Thirdly, as my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden mentioned, will the Minister tell us how the Government are supporting UK nationals affected by the crisis in Venezuela? How many requests for consular assistance has the Foreign Office received? What assistance has the embassy in Caracas been able to provide? What fees have been charged to individuals for that assistance?
Fourthly, as I am sure the Minister will spell out, what initiatives are the Government supporting to put pressure on the Maduro Government and bring about peace in Venezuela, including the mediation offered by the Vatican? On the issue of sanctions, a good case has been made by some hon. Members for individual, targeted sanctions against those involved in serious and organised crime and drug trafficking, but what assessment have the Government made of the American Secretary of State’s proposals to implement all sanctions? Is the Minister not slightly concerned about possible conflicts of interest in the American Administration, given that the Secretary of State, before he took up his post, received a payment of $180 million on leaving Exxon? Will the Minister explain whether he believes that further reducing Venezuelans’ export earnings would be helpful? Will he also make it clear that one plan the UK will definitely not support—and that we will actively oppose should it be put on the international table—is Donald Trump’s threat of military action against Venezuela?
In closing, I have one more important point to make. When we face a situation such as that in Venezuela, with demands for an immediate end to bloodshed and hardship, and the full restoration of human rights, it does this House proud that we are united in such calls, as we have been today. It is also important that we are consistent, and that we avoid anything that could be construed as double standards. If we are prepared to speak out with one voice on the issue of Venezuela—rightly—then, by contrast, people will not understand any equivocation about other countries with serious human rights records, such as Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. We must not allow anyone to claim that this House discovers its conscience and its voice only when there is an argument to be had in domestic politics. We must be consistent. I hope that the Minister will give us the assurance that the Government are wholehearted in their condemnation and addressing of the human rights problems in Venezuela, as across the globe.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer.
I thank the hon. Member for Hyndburn (Graham Jones) for initiating the debate, and I congratulate him on becoming chair of the newly formed all-party parliamentary group for Venezuela. I was, however, rather disappointed by his recent letter to my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary, which accused the Government of silence on Venezuela. I will therefore take the opportunity to prove that that accusation is totally unfounded, as I will explain in a moment. It is indeed high time that this entire place spoke up on the situation in Venezuela, and it is vital that we do so with a single, united parliamentary voice, without making any excuses for the Government there.
Let me go straight in to answer some of the points made in the debate. The hon. Member for Hyndburn, despite his letter to the Foreign Office understandably focusing on all the political developments in Venezuela—that, too, is what I will primarily develop my thinking on in the debate—focused on cocaine. Most of the cocaine on the UK’s streets, however, is produced in Peru and Colombia, although that is aided and abetted by the nature of the Government in Venezuela. There is a lack of effective government control in porous border areas, in particular on the border with Colombia, where Venezuela both suffers from and colludes with illegal armed and criminal groups involved in drug production and trafficking, kidnap and extortion.
That is exactly why the Government have added Venezuela to our long-running serious and organised crime programme, which already covers Colombia and Peru. The NCA and its predecessor worked with Venezuela on counter-narcotics for 15 years and that work continues. As I am sure the hon. Gentleman appreciates, however, drug policy is primarily the responsibility of the Home Office, rather than the Foreign Office, so detailed questions should be addressed to that Department.
On consular matters, our travel advice is reviewed and updated regularly. Currently, we advise against all but essential travel to Venezuela. We have received no requests for consular assistance from British nationals in Venezuela, but were we to do so we would follow them up in the usual way, with the diligence and assiduous attention that I like to think we always offer to someone abroad who asks for our assistance. We did however take dependants out of our embassy when the Constituent Assembly vote was taking place, because we were concerned about reprisals against our diplomatic staff. The situation has been alleviated since then, but at the time we took that sensible precaution.
The UK does not have its own domestic sanctions regime. We will have once we have left the European Union and passed a sanctions Act, in preparation for which something will come before the House soon. In the meantime, we are working with the international community and international organisations to implement EU sanctions. We will continue to work with EU member states and, crucially, regional powers to consider a wide range of options, including sanctions and the freezing of assets in respect of Venezuela, should a consensus emerge.
On export controls, therefore, we assure the House that the Government take their export control responsibilities very seriously and operate one of the most robust defence export control regimes in the world. We rigorously examine every application case by case against consolidated EU and national arms export licensing criteria.
To be clear and to get to the fundamental point of the debate, the problem is that democracy is being dismantled piece by piece. Human rights and the rule of law are being systematically flouted. People are struggling to get hold of even the most basic essentials in what should be one of the most prosperous countries of the region. A local think-tank reports that a basket of basic food for a family of five costs more than the minimum wages for 14 people. That economic disaster would have implications for regional stability if it were to become a humanitarian crisis. Tens of thousands have already fled to neighbouring countries, and those flows are continuing.
It is clear what has caused that appalling situation. It is the result of a catalogue of deliberate attempts to undermine democracy, culminating in a highly dubious election in July to create a Constituent Assembly that is designed to usurp established democratic authority. That body has created something that it calls a truth commission, supposedly, as it says itself, to “resolve violence”. It has already removed powers from the democratically elected National Assembly—it is like having a Parliament above this Parliament to neuter it—and stripped an MP of his parliamentary immunity, thus setting a very dangerous precedent.
As well as undermining democracy, the Venezuelan Government are failing to respect and defend human rights. Venezuela was identified in 2016 as one of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s 30 human rights priority countries. Opposition politicians have been arrested, protesters have been tried in military courts and demonstrators have been subjected to heavy- handed treatment by security forces, leading to more than 120 deaths since protests began in March. I am sure that everyone in this House considers that totally unacceptable. Baroness Anelay expressed our serious concern when she met members of the Venezuelan Government in Caracas in May. She urged all her interlocutors to respect the human rights of all Venezuelan citizens.
Since the start of the crisis, the UK has made its views very clear to both the Venezuelan Government and the opposition. We condemned the violence earlier this year and called on all sides to resolve their differences through dialogue. The Foreign Secretary issued a statement criticising the imposition of the Constituent Assembly, which does not represent the wishes of the Venezuelan people, and called on the Venezuelan Government to reduce tensions.
We have spoken in support of the integrity and autonomy of the National Assembly to both the Venezuelan Government and members of the Assembly itself, many of whom I met in March, and we condemned the dismissal of the independent prosecutor general. We made it clear that those steps constituted a direct attack on Venezuela’s democracy and its legitimate democratic institutions. I say to the hon. Member for Hyndburn that, far from doing nothing, I have been personally criticised by the Venezuelan Government for having been critical of them.
We believe strongly that the only solution to the crisis is for the Venezuelan Government to restart talks with the opposition. We encourage them to do that without causing further suffering to ordinary Venezuelans. We are working with our EU partners on a tangible response to encourage the two sides to find a solution that respects the will of all Venezuelans.
On Thursday, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and I will discuss the UK’s approach with Julio Borges, the President of the National Assembly, at a meeting in Downing Street. We had hoped also to meet Lilian Tintori, who is a human rights activist and the wife of opposition leader Leopoldo López, who is currently under house arrest. However, she has been prevented from leaving Venezuela, which is yet another example of how democracy and human rights are being so heinously undermined in that country.
One helpful development is the strong regional response. That is crucial, because any solution must come from the region. The Lima Group, a new gathering of a dozen or so countries from across the Americas that, as the name suggests, is led by Peru, strongly condemned
“the rupture of the democratic order”
“the systematic violation of human rights and fundamental freedoms, violence, repression and political persecution”.
Importantly, it refused to recognise the Constituent Assembly. The condemnation of the Constituent Assembly by that regional gathering of neighbouring countries is a crucial development. I have worked closely with Peru’s Foreign Minister, Ricardo Luna. Indeed, I last spoke to him on 18 August, at length, to acknowledge and support Peru’s regional leadership and to offer UK backing.
I will write to the hon. Gentleman with more detail, but I believe that I am right in saying that the Venezuelan Government have declined to accept any assistance of that sort, which once again illustrates the total lack of concern that they have for their own people—a people whose need is growing. The poorest are always hurt hardest. The politicians in Latin America who talk most about the poor are often the ones who do them most harm.
The US has imposed sanctions on several Venezuelan Government officials, including high-ranking military officers and the managers of the state oil company, and it recently announced new sanctions targeting Venezuela’s financial sector and the issuing of debt. The Constituent Assembly’s determination to prosecute for treason people who support US sanctions is indicative of its total disregard for the rule of law.
As the Foreign Secretary said in his July statement, Venezuela stands on the brink of disaster. The Venezuelan Government must pull it back from the brink. They must engage in good faith with the opposition, restore democracy to the country and respect the human rights of all its citizens. Together with our international partners, we will continue to press the Government to do all those things and to restore the security and stability that all Venezuelans so desperately need.
I thank everyone who attended the debate, which has been helpful and is timely, given the situation that developed over the summer and the events that led up to it. As I mentioned, it is important, not just for the global interest but for our constituents, that the United Kingdom takes a greater interest in Latin America.
I asked the Minister about the drugs epidemic on our streets, including in my constituency. I reiterate my question: what are the Government doing to tackle that issue? The purity of drugs has reached alarming new levels. I asked him about the UK’s input into the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime and whether it would be possible for his office to facilitate dialogue between parliamentarians and that UN office.
Turning to the economic and political situation, condemnation is not enough. It is simply unacceptable for us just to sit by and condemn while people suffer. Many Members spoke about the suffering and hardship in Venezuela. I do not think that the situation has been exaggerated; it is probably far more dire than it has been painted in this debate. I urge the Government to move from condemnation to action. The United States is taking action. Although large parts of our policy reside with the European Union, it is for the United Kingdom, while we are a member of the European Union, to advocate sanctions. It is for the United Kingdom to be the lead nation in the EU in showing the world that we stand up against human rights abuses and for democracy and the rule of law. We should not simply be on the sidelines condemning the Maduro Government.
I urge the Minister to look at what actions he can take to address the questions that he was asked during the debate, and to respond to those questions. We have oligarchs and an authoritarian communist regime that do not want to give up power. The idea that simple dialogue will bring about a transition to a peaceful Venezuela seems a long way off. Those people are making huge amounts. They are also concerned about what would happen in a transition. Would they be arrested? Would they be taken to the United States to face charges for various acts that they have committed? Where would they stand legally? They have entrenched to protect their position, which seems secure as long as Venezuela is a militaristic state.
I ask the Minister to make more effort to bring about action on Venezuela and, as he suggested, to work with the countries that are opposed to the current regime in Venezuela and with our partners around the globe to improve the situation for all Venezuelans and for the rest of the world.
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).
Coventry City of Culture
[Sir David Amess in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the matter of Coventry’s bid to be the 2021 City of Culture.
Thank you, Sir David. I am sure that you will chair the debate in your usual fair-minded manner. We have known each other a long time, but I would not expect any favouritism from you. It is a great honour and privilege to be here today to talk about the wonderful city of Coventry and its bid to be the city of culture for 2021. Coventry is often overlooked in favour of larger neighbours such as Birmingham, but that does not mean that Coventry is any less great. It is a welcoming city, with rich traditions and fantastic people. It is a city with a long history of culture and innovation. It was once celebrated for its mystery plays, which attracted travellers from far and wide. Some historians even believe that one such visitor was William Shakespeare. Coventry also has a proud history of fighting injustice. The legend goes that Lady Godiva rode through the city on horseback naked to protest against the high taxes levied on city folk.
Moving forward in history, we see that Coventry has always been an industrial city with an important place in the British economy. As far back as the 14th century, Coventry was an important centre for the cloth and linen trade. Since then, Coventry has developed into a thriving city for manufacturing—first for the manufacture of bicycles and, more recently, as the centre of the country’s motor car industry, with world leader Jaguar Land Rover based in the city. It continues to be at the forefront of industry, with the London Taxi Company beginning to develop and manufacture electric taxis in its Coventry factories.
Coventry has also been, and continues to be, a strong trade union city, with the development of the labour and trade union movement and the shop stewards movement. The likes of Thomas Mann and Jack Jones were heavily involved in organising a union presence in the city.
During the second world war, Coventry was one of the hardest hit cities in the country. In just one night in November 1940, 568 people were killed, 4,330 homes were destroyed and thousands more were damaged. Seventy-five per cent of Coventry’s factories were damaged, and the city’s cathedral, built in the late 14th century, was also badly damaged in the bombings. Today, the old cathedral stands as an important reminder of the fortitude and resilience of the great city and people of Coventry. It is also a monument to reconciliation and international development.
During the war, Coventry became the first city in the world to twin with another, offering the hand of friendship to the people of Stalingrad, who had faced similar hardships, only on a larger scale. After the war, it was twinned with the city of Dresden in a further symbol of international reconciliation and peace. That tradition continues today, with Coventry enjoying the friendship of 26 cities around the world.
That heritage is proudly remembered and continues to inform the city’s character. It has shaped Coventry into a city that should be celebrated. Coventry is not just an industrial city but a city of academic excellence.
The hon. Gentleman is making a brilliant case, which I support, for Coventry being the city of culture. Does he agree that the bid gives an opportunity to not just Coventry but the wider local area to show what it is all about, including places such as Bedworth and Keresley in my constituency?
I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s intervention and cannot disagree. It is a great opportunity not only for Coventry but for the west midlands in particular and, in a way, for Warwickshire, which is part of the west midlands to an extent.
Coventry has two world-class universities in the form of Coventry University and the University of Warwick. Those universities attract students from all over the country, as well as from across the rest of the world.
As with the mystery plays in the middle ages, culture continues to be an important part of the city’s life. The city pioneered theatre in education and it is now a vibrant centre for theatre and performing arts. It was the birthplace of 2 Tone music, a hybrid music that reflected the city’s diversity. Today, Coventry boasts the Godiva festival, the largest free festival in Europe.
The regeneration of areas such as Far Gosford Street and the Friargate project have attracted people from all over the country. There is also a proud sporting tradition in the city—I am not referring to the football club at the moment—with several sports teams maintaining strong and passionate fan bases. It is a city fiercely proud of its achievements, and rightly so.
People who come to Coventry are constantly surprised by the city and all that it has to offer. It is a vibrant, bustling city, surrounded by a beautiful protected green belt. The people of Coventry are proud and passionate about their city, and rightly so. It is a city that deserves recognition. I can think of no better way of celebrating Coventry than by making it our next city of culture, and I strongly urge Members to back its bid.
I very much recognise what the hon. Gentleman says. He may have concluded his remarks, but I want to congratulate him on bringing forward this important debate to put Coventry’s bid for city of culture on the map. From his remarks I have learnt a great deal about the city closest to where I live. Does he agree that the award would add to the resurgence of the city that we have seen in recent years, and particularly the welcome resurgence of manufacturing? With this bid, we will ensure that more and more people get to see the great virtues of the city of Coventry.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham) on securing this debate. It is exciting for all of us to know that Coventry has made the shortlist and is now in a five-way race to win this title. I declare my interest in that part of my constituency is covered by the diocese of Coventry, so I have many reasons to visit the city on a regular basis.
As the hon. Gentleman said, it is the indomitable character of the city, which rebuilt itself after terrible destruction in the second world war, that means it is a very strong contender for the designation of city of culture. As he said, the city has not just one but two outstanding universities in Warwick and Coventry, which are very much at the cutting edge of pushing the frontiers of science and technology in some of the industrial sectors in which our country leads globally. Most notably, the pursuit of driverless cars is building on the city’s great traditions in the motor industry for our country.
In my role as Second Church Estates Commissioner, I have witnessed the excellent work that Coventry cathedral undertakes. It is one of the world’s oldest religious centres. The terrible destruction of the cathedral in 1940 was a turning point in its history. Provost Howard stood in the ruins, which can be seen today, and made a Christmas day broadcast in which he pledged to make reconciliation for peace the focus of the cathedral’s work. He spoke in that broadcast about building a kinder, more Christ-like world. There could hardly be a more poignant moment to argue the case for designating as city of culture one that has such a focus on the work of reconciliation and peace. We live at the moment in such a troubled, unstable world, and Coventry has a particular mission. As the hon. Member for Coventry South mentioned, it has 200 active partners around the world, in more than 40 countries, which are committed to sharing that ministry of reconciliation.
The cathedral church itself also offers great support to the bid for the accolade of city of culture. I mean not only the ruins that remain following the second world war but the new cathedral, which is an iconic building in its own right and which hosts many cultural events, not least the concerts of our own Parliament choir. I sing with the choir, and every other year we join with St Michael’s singers from the cathedral to give a big concert. A great highlight that I will never forget was singing Mendelssohn’s “Elijah”, with Sir Thomas Allen. The cathedral, at the heart of the city, offers some of the best examples of what our country has to offer culturally. However, it is also used for other events that have nothing to do with music. I took part in a national conference about the threats that the environment faces, entitled “Reconciling a Wounded Planet”, which drew people from all over the country to come and talk about what we can do about the deleterious effects of climate change.
Coventry is a city at the heart of the country, and incredibly well connected. It is easy to get to, and it is focused on human connectedness. I think that that makes it an incredibly strong contender to be made the city of culture.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham), on securing this timely debate. As other right hon. and hon. Members, irrespective of political hue, would agree, Coventry is a great city, for many reasons. However, I shall briefly focus on its history, its industrial heritage and its multiculturalism.
Coventry grew to become one of the most important and strategically significant medieval cities in the UK. Today we have countless culturally significant medieval buildings and ruins dotted throughout the city. We are an historic symbol of the terror and devastation that war can cause, but also of the importance of reconciliation and peace. Equally, Coventry has made significant industrial contributions to cultural advancement. We were the birthplace of the modern bicycle and the motor car, and we continue to be a leading light in automotive engineering, thanks to the role played by Jaguar Land Rover, the London Taxi Company, the University of Warwick and Coventry University. Finally, Coventry’s cultural identity is strengthened and enhanced by our city’s multiculturalism. We have some of the most diverse and integrated communities in the UK, and I am proud to represent the most diverse area of the city.
Coventry has some great cultural assets, but it is also an understated city that has struggled to make the most of the historical and cultural resources at its disposal. That is why I am pleased that it has put itself forward to be the UK city of culture in 2021. I believe, of course, that we deserve to win. Winning the title would give the city a once in a lifetime opportunity to make sense of its cultural resources and use them to tell its story to the rest of the nation and the world, using the energy, excitement and hope that that would provide, to create a lasting economic and social legacy for current and future generations.
May I say for the first time from the Front Bench what a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David? I congratulate the hon. Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham) on securing this important debate about Coventry’s bid to become UK city of culture in 2021, and all those right hon. and hon. Members who have contributed—particularly the hon. Member for Coventry North East (Colleen Fletcher), but also my right hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Dame Caroline Spelman) and my hon. Friends the Members for North Warwickshire (Craig Tracey) and for Rugby (Mark Pawsey).
The hon. Member for Coventry South is a passionate advocate of the city, and this is clearly an exciting time for Coventry and the four other towns and cities shortlisted to be the next holders of the transformative and prestigious title in question. The UK city of culture programme is one of our nation’s crown jewels. The winning area must build a high-quality arts and cultural programme that reaches a wide variety of audiences and participants. The title of city of culture acts as a catalyst that can regenerate and transform a place, enabling it to attract external visitors and investment while engaging and inspiring local communities and institutions, including universities, schools, health trusts and businesses. I note the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for North Warwickshire about its value in the wider area.
In the presence of my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster), who was a member of Coventry City Council, I would point out that Coventry lost out under the structure of Advantage West Midlands. The Minister has spoken about investment; does he agree that the absolute commitment of the new Mayor of the West Midlands to back the bid, and for the region to get behind Coventry’s case, should help us to win?
My right hon. Friend’s point is, as always, well made, and she is right. It is useful to have the widest possible base of support across the whole region.
This year, 11 places made an application to become the UK city of culture in 2021 and, following a recommendation from the independent panel chaired by the excellent Phil Redmond, I recently agreed a shortlist of five. It was not an easy decision, as all the bids had real merit. However, I am delighted that the shortlist contains cities representing England, Scotland and Wales, each of which makes a strong case. I have been impressed by the full engagement of all the places making bids. It is even more gratifying to see that making a bid has become a valuable process in itself. It has proved transformational in raising a city’s profile and developing a clear set of cultural aspirations for the future. Feedback from the places that did not make the shortlist—Hereford, Perth, Portsmouth, St Davids, Warrington and Wells—confirms that.
Now, along with Coventry, the other shortlisted places—Paisley, Stoke-on-Trent, Sunderland and Swansea—are embarking on the final stages of the process. I shall announce the winner by the end of this year. There is clearly much to be gained by the winning city. Taking part in the arts can improve self-esteem and confidence. It makes people feel good about where they live and about themselves, raising aspiration and bringing communities together. The arts and culture, through their ability to engage, inspire and challenge us, are instrumental in helping to break down barriers to participation and engagement across race, disability, age, gender, sexual orientation and socio-economic disadvantage. The economic and social importance of culture to place making has never been more understood and acknowledged. That is underlined by the culture White Paper and is evident in emerging data and evidence coming from Hull—the incumbent UK city of culture.
Before I address Coventry’s bid, it may be helpful to set the potential benefits that the city of culture title brings against what has happened in Hull this year. As recently as 2013, The Economist, which really should know better, suggested that declining northern cities should be abandoned. However, only three years later and still not even into its official year as city of culture, Hull became the only UK city to make Rough Guides’ top 10 cities in the world to visit, alongside Vancouver, Reykjavik and Amsterdam. That seemingly remarkable transformation is now backed up by the data emerging from the evaluation of the first three months of this year, including hotel occupancy being up almost 14%, a 17% increase in rail passengers and 37% of local businesses reporting an increase in turnover.
Of course, it is not only about economic regeneration. It is extremely heartening to learn that, in the first three months of 2017, nine out of 10 people living in Hull took part in a cultural activity, and that Hull 2017’s volunteers had already undertaken more than 100,000 volunteer hours. Those are amazing achievements for which Hull City Council and the Hull UK City of Culture 2017 company can be hugely proud.
On Coventry’s bid to become UK city of culture 2021, I acknowledge that the city has much to be proud of. Its contribution to UK culture is already impressive, from Lady Godiva to The Specials and 2 Tone, and it is also home to some of our most important medieval and post-war architecture. Throughout the bidding process, it has sought to highlight its cultural diversity and its rich heritage. Coventry hopes to use the power of culture to cross boundaries, create understanding, nurture respect and embrace humanity. As a city of invention and reinvention—as we have heard from various colleagues —it wants to create a digitally connected and international place, to reimagine the place of culture in a diverse, modern Britain.
I am sorry for intervening so late in the debate, Sir David, but I knew I could count on your indulgence, for which I am very grateful, and, indeed, on the Minister’s. I will say a few words along the lines of exactly what the Minister was saying about Coventry. It is all of the things he said, but it is also a city of youth—that is our appeal. On the grounds that Scotland and the north-east have had a city of culture, and Londonderry in Northern Ireland was the city of culture, if there is any sort of turn to be taken or regional coverage to progress, it is clearly time for the midlands to have one. Coventry is at the centre of the midlands, which is at the centre of our bid, and we can assure the House and the country of a very fine series of great, exciting and innovative events, in line with the long tradition of innovation in Coventry.
I thank the hon. Gentleman; I will reference him later in my remarks. His point about the engagement with youth and the value of the wider application of this title to the area was well made.
Coventry has a rich architectural heritage, with St Mary’s Guildhall, the Charterhouse and, of course—as we heard from my right hon. Friend the Member for Meriden—the magnificent cathedral, which is one of the city’s most important assets and, as a living architectural symbol of the UK’s post-war reconstruction and hope, perhaps one of the most important modern buildings in the UK. The city is also home to two universities, which both contribute to the cultural assets of the city and the UK. Coventry University has developed a strong reputation for the quality of its arts and media courses and for its work as an incubator of the next generation of young talent in the cultural and creative industries. I believe we have at least one of its alumni here today.
Some of Coventry’s other great cultural assets include the Belgrade theatre—the main building-based producing theatre in Coventry—and Warwick arts centre, on the University of Warwick campus, which is one of the largest multi-art form venues in the UK, delivering an extensive programme of performing and visual arts and film. There is also the highly respected Coventry transport museum, which houses the largest publicly owned collection of British vehicles in the world and tells the story of Coventry and its people through the development of the automotive industry. The museum will no doubt hold many memories for the hon. Member for Coventry North West (Mr Robinson), who was involved in the motor industry there for many years. The city’s arts and exhibition space, the Herbert art gallery and museum, hosts major touring exhibitions and permanent galleries chronicling the history of the city.
Coventry is also home to a number of exciting contemporary arts organisations and individuals, and has shown how it can deliver exciting, large-scale events. For example, the Godiva festival is an annual free festival that attracts more than 140,000 visitors. It has a genuinely diverse family audience, drawing from a wide range of communities and across the age spectrum. There is also the Festival of Imagineers, run by Imagineer Productions, which is a week-long festival celebrating innovation linking art, design and engineering, and acting as a catalyst for new creative work at the intersection of art and engineering.
On funding, significant cultural investment has been made in those and other projects and programmes in Coventry over the years. In the 21 years since the Heritage Lottery Fund was created, more than £30 million has been invested in 125 separate projects, including more than £12 million on historic buildings and monuments and more than £4 million on parks. Over the past seven years, Arts Council England has invested more than £21 million, supporting a range of arts organisations and excellent, innovative projects.
In June, ACE announced future funding for 2018-22 to its national portfolio of organisations in Coventry of £8.3 million. That is an increase of almost a third, from £1.5 million a year during the current period to more than £2 million a year for the 2018-22 period. That four years of confirmed funding gives those organisations the ability to plan ahead and develop strategic partnerships, which in turn bring more cultural product and funding into towns and cities.
The cumulative impact of that investment has helped to drive the ongoing development of this historic city. I know there are many more plans in the pipeline, including for Drapers’ Hall, which has received £1 million from the Government, to develop as a venue for music performance and education. Most recently, Coventry has been awarded just under £1.5 million from the Arts Council and Heritage Lottery Fund’s Great Place scheme to stage a programme of events celebrating the heritage and communities of Coventry. The award builds on the city’s new 10-year cultural strategy, its cultural destinations award and its bid to be UK city of culture.
The Minister is certainly making an impressive case for Coventry. I have no doubt that Coventry would hold the city of culture title with distinction, and that Coventry 2021 would be a huge success. However, with the bigger emphasis on regeneration in this year’s competition, does he agree that Paisley, with its economic and social needs, allied with its many cultural delights, has a strong chance of winning?
I will not be drawn on the likelihood of that. It is abundantly clear from all that we have heard this morning that, in common with the other shortlisted areas, including Paisley, Coventry has the ambition, the heritage and the cultural infrastructure to be the next city of culture. I think it is apt to finish with some thoughts from a Coventry-based company of artists, Talking Birds, who specialise in acts of transformation. They talk about Coventry as a city rich in possibility, and even though its inhabitants like to think that they are not too attached to the place, the truth is that they are. They enjoy the city’s contradictions and believe in its potential. I wish Coventry the best of luck in its bid. We do not have many more weeks to wait until the outcome.
Question put and agreed to.
New Housing Design
I beg to move,
That this House has considered new housing design.
Good morning, Sir David. It is great to serve under your chairmanship. Britain needs more homes; I think we all agree on that. Rising house prices have made building more houses a social and economic imperative, so it is vital that we get the design and quality of these new homes right. I will make two points in my speech. I will argue that the majority of new homes should be built in a high-quality traditional design, so that they are popular with the public. Secondly, I will call for the creation of a new homes ombudsman, to give homebuyers redress for any problems with their new homes, to ensure the highest possible standards.
There was one policy in the Conservative election manifesto that I dare say I was delighted to recommend to everyone, unlike one or two others in the manifesto. We committed to building
“better houses, to match the quality of those we have inherited from previous generations. That means supporting high-quality, high-density housing like mansion blocks, mews houses and terraced streets.”
That commitment really stood out to me.
As someone who was a member of a planning committee for nearly 12 years, I know just how terrified some communities are of new development—not necessarily because people are nimbys but because they have seen how developments in the last 50 years have left communities with homes that are totally unsuitable for their area. That is backed by hard evidence. A recent survey of 2,000 British adults showed that a whopping 81% are unenthused about living in new build housing developments. What is more, 60% feel there are too many unattractive, poorly built new builds popping up across the country. Older properties and streetscapes in a traditional design are, on the whole, much more popular.
I agree with every word that my hon. Friend has said so far. Does he agree that it is possible to have attractive houses that have no net energy bills during the course of the year? That is not fantasy. The Building Research Establishment has proved that such houses can be built, and it has examples of them. Does he agree that we should go further down that route, to have not only attractive houses but houses that do not have energy bills?
My hon. Friend makes a very interesting point. Houses need to be attractive not only architecturally; they are very attractive to live in if people will not have energy bills. That also, of course, reduces our commitment to produce energy as a country, so it makes our power stations and gas supply go a lot further. He makes a really good point that I very much endorse.
The survey showed that over two fifths of people feel that new build homes lack character and are an eyesore in the local community. Those are shocking statistics. We will never build support for new homes when people fear new housing designs. The latest research from the Department for Communities and Local Government shows that over half of households would be less opposed to new house building if they had more say over the design and layout of developments.
A separate poll for Ipsos MORI shows that design clearly influences public support for new build homes. When people were asked about their local area, housing designs in traditional form and style commanded about 75% support. Less traditional development styles commanded very low support, from about a fifth to a third of those polled. The message is clear: people want and are happy to accept new housing if it has the right design, and if developers take local people with them when producing new designs.
We cannot go back to the mistakes of the ’60s and ’70s, when ugly modernist designs were imposed on communities, damaging trust in new housing for a generation. Of course, some of those properties proved not really fit for purpose, and some have actually had to come down. I say to the Minister that this is a once-in-a-generation opportunity, and we only have one chance to get it right. We must build new housing in the right way, with designs and forms sympathetic to local areas.
My hon. Friend is making a really strong case for something that is terribly important. Does he agree that it is right to cater for all types of people? New homes are quite often very much built for young families, but in Somerset, the number of people over 75 will double within a decade. Is it not right that we should consider purpose-built, well-designed developments for them—low-level houses, with sliding doors, that look attractive, are perhaps modular and fit in with the vernacular? Is it not essential to put that into the whole planning process?
My hon. Friend makes a really good point. We can still have a reasonably traditional design and regional design that also fits into the new type of living we want. Older people may well need wheelchair access, wider doors and all sorts of things in these properties, and those can be fitted in. Our housing almost fits into categories—affordable homes, homes for young people or homes for the elderly—but it should be a complete mix. When we have a complete mix within the design, we can then get it right. Traditionally, we would not have had one type of housing all put together; my hon. Friend makes a good point.
We must build new housing in the right way, with designs and forms sympathetic to local areas. Ruth Davidson hit the nail on the head when she recently wrote:
“The biggest ally we have in increasing housing supply is beauty—if new houses complement the local environment and avoid the disastrous design choices of the past we can help build sustainable local support for extra construction.”
I must say, as a Scottish MP, that I found it rather ironic last week when Ruth Davidson talked about investment in housing and was looking to see if she might be getting the polish out for her brass neck; the Conservative party has left a massive social housing crisis in Scotland as a result of the disastrous right to buy. That has only been helped by the abolition of right to buy by the Scottish National party Government in Scotland.
I have not had enough direct experience of what the hon. Gentleman is talking about in Scotland, so I do not intend to answer his question. As far as I am concerned, Ruth Davidson does a very good job—but he would expect me to say that, would he not? She is right; good-quality design will boost support for development and then encourage further growth. I would like to give a special mention to the social enterprise Create Streets. It has done fantastic work in the past three years to encourage the development of quality town and city homes. Its focus is on terraced streets of housing and apartments, rather than complex multi-storey buildings. We know that these designs are popular with the public.
So how do we achieve this? The key is strong community engagement. The tools are already there in the form of neighbourhood plans and design codes, but we need to ensure that neighbourhood plans are not then overruled by local district councils and others who decide that they still know best. I want to ensure that local people get a real input into the design. A design code is a set of drawn design rules that instruct and advise on the physical development of an area. Used well, they create certainty about what should be built, but they are not enough used. Local people should be given the encouragement and resources to create neighbourhood plans with their own design codes, and then, like I said, to actually put the plan in place. They could then plan the sort of development they want in their local area. This would have two main benefits: it would improve the quality of our housing stock and give local communities a stake and a sense of civic pride in the new development. They would be buying into the new development, and we need that to happen more.
Shelter recently published a report, “New Civic Housebuilding: A better way to build the homes we need”, with practical solutions for building high-quality, popular and affordable homes. It recommended a strong master planning process so that local groups, landowners and residents could influence the design of new housing in the area, which in turn will build public support.
The Royal Institute of British Architects has also recommended that every neighbourhood forum or parish council should have the funding to develop a design code for their area. This is a good idea. The village of Membury in my constituency has drawn up its own local plan; the problem is that the local district council is trying to overrule it. That is where the Government’s ideas are right. We must make sure that Membury can get its way because it had a local referendum and has done all the right things, but its plan is still being scuppered by the local district council. Imagine how this idea could stimulate interest in local design of housing and really boost support for new housing in towns and cities in England and across the country.
I thank my hon. Friend for securing this important debate. Does he agree that if we want local people to engage properly in the manner he is describing, which is absolutely right, it is critical that their decisions, guidance and local plans are not overruled by remoter bodies over which they have very little control?
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. A developer may put an exciting design on the table but then, further along the line, may decide that due to economic or other circumstance they cannot build to that specification; or they may suddenly drop a water park that was in the specification. That is when people become cynical, which is why, when things are put forward and local people have an input, we need to build what they decided on, not something that is foisted upon them.
Developers need certainty about the standards they must hit instead of the current race to the bottom. Local people must have confidence that developers will build to their plans. A new town, Sherford, is being built in Devon, and in Cullompton a proposed garden village will have a water park and a lot of green open space. What I have seen so far is very exciting, but I want to make sure that the developers do what they say they will do, because it is a great example of how design should be done with a design code and proper consultation. However, the developers have now applied to change the town code to mere guidelines. That would be a retrograde step and must not be allowed to happen around the UK.
When communities come together to influence local housing design, they must know that the plans will be implemented. The local authority should amend them only in exceptional circumstances, not because they do not suit its plans for the future. Designs should not be railroaded by big house builders chasing extra profit and deciding that the economics have changed. I have a clear question for the Minister: how are the Government working to meet their manifesto commitment to support high-quality, high-density housing like mansion blocks, mews houses and terraced streets? How are they helping communities to shape design of houses in their local area?
The second part of my speech calls for a new homes ombudsman. The concept is simple: a new ombudsman focusing on complaints about new build homes. I suspect that no Member in the Chamber has not received complaints from constituents about new build. An ombudsman would give new homebuyers redress for any dispute with house builders or warranty providers. I am sure that every Member here today could reel off examples from their own constituency.
In Axminster and particularly Cullompton, in my constituency, there has been a problem with new homes. I name Barratt Homes and its offshoot, David Wilson Homes, not because there have been problems with their houses, but because they have not redressed those problems. They have been reticent to be contacted and difficult to get hold of. They take ages to make repairs, such as to roofs that are not sealed properly, and to wet rendering that is supposed to be damp proof, but is not. There have been all sorts of problems that they do not sort out quickly enough. That is where the new homes ombudsman could have a good effect.
In my constituency, Bellway Homes has been negligent to my constituents. Does the hon. Gentleman agree with my constituents, Mr and Mrs Maine, that
“whilst numerous consumer groups have redress to an independent ombudsman consumers who have bought defective homes have no parity of redress and are therefore being discriminated against by the Government”?
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. I do not know about the individual case, but I suspect it is similar to those we all get when redress is not available. An ombudsman could intervene directly to get the builder to rectify the situation quickly. That is what the issue is about. Builders often rectify problems eventually, if they have not gone bankrupt in the meantime or used other wheezes to make sure they do not carry out improvements and repairs. If someone buys a new house, they should be able to get quality, and redress if there is a problem. We must accept that when a new home is built, there can be problems with it. I accept that, but there must be proper redress.
Before this debate, I asked members of the public on the House of Commons Facebook page to give examples of problems they have had with their new homes. There was a very strong response. They reported leaky pipes, faulty front doors, abandoned rubble and necessary re-rendering. A whole host of new build problems were raised. The anecdotes were depressing and are backed up by hard evidence. The national new homes customer satisfaction survey showed that an overwhelming 98% of new home buyers had reported snags or defects to the building after moving in. Over four in 10 reported more than 10 faults. That is shocking in a new property.
A new homes ombudsman would provide a great opportunity to look again at the system of warranties and perhaps assurances. As my hon. Friend will know, modern methods of construction offsite would require an assurance rather than a warranty. Is there an opportunity to look at assurances and warranties again and to give consumers the powers that they need to get decent homes and the good build that they require?
I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention. That quality of assurance rather than a warranty would work much better. The National House Building Council can act, but once a builder has started repairs, it can do no more. If the builder takes a long time to instigate repairs, there is no real redress. That is where there is a role for an ombudsman and an assurance scheme so that building is delivered to a high standard and builders are held accountable. I value that point.
If a customer buys goods in a shop, there is an automatic power of redress, but if someone spends their life savings on a new home, they may struggle for years to get what they paid for. If we make the mistake of erecting millions of poor-quality homes in the next decade, the public will never forgive us. We are building to higher standards, including insulation standards, but we must make sure that houses are designed to fit in with the local area, with regional variations so that one does not see exactly the same designs all over the country, whether in the north of England, Devon, Wales or Scotland. One could almost say, “Well, we’ll have an off-the-peg development,” and all the homes would look the same. I have explained what I want to see in the future, and the cost will not be that much greater if we use a little more imagination as we build.
As things stand, the National House Building Council cannot step in if the builders claim that they are dealing with the problems, and there seems to be no time limit on how long a builder can spend dealing with problems. That is where a new homes ombudsman could step in to close the loophole. That would give a wake-up call to all house builders—many are good, but many are not—to sharpen up their act and build to the design standards and quality that they promised. Builders would know that they could not cut corners, as redress would be swift and exacting.
The all-party parliamentary group for excellence in the built environment, chaired in the last Parliament by my then hon. Friend Oliver Colvile, published a report last year on the quality and workmanship of new housing. Its No. 1 recommendation was for a new homes ombudsman. I think that the screw is beginning to turn on this issue. We need to take action. This country is going to embark on a big house-building drive. Those properties are needed, but we must ensure that they are built in the right way. Let us seize the opportunity and give people the sort of housing designs that they want. I am talking about quality, popular designs, with community backing, and all backed up by a powerful new housing ombudsman. I look forward to the Minister’s response.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I congratulate the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) on raising this issue. It is a really big issue in my city. Those of us who know Cambridgeshire know that the view for people coming across the fens used to be just King’s College chapel and the university library—two different examples of architectural styles—but now they see cranes everywhere. The city is being rebuilt around us. Whether we are building homes that people can afford or repositories of value is perhaps a debate for another day. Today, I want to raise two particular issues, which have already been addressed.
A few weeks ago, I was taken to see a new house in Cambridge. Inevitably it was a very expensive new home. There was a line of houses, and one looked like a building site because the people who had moved in had found so many problems that it had literally needed to be torn apart from the inside—I had never seen anything like it. After they had done it once, they went back in and there were yet more problems, so it has been done twice. Those people have not been able to be in their new home for more than a year; their lives have been wrecked and ruined, and I suspect that the same issues exist elsewhere. I will not name the house builder today, because I live in hope that it may be encouraged to do the decent thing. Exactly as has been suggested, if people get a defective product in any other walk of life, they are given the opportunity to have their money back and go elsewhere. That is what the house builder should have provided in this case, and it should still do that in my view. That is not the only case, as we have heard. I have had others in my constituency, but that one was particularly shocking. I think that this is partly a matter of the attitude from the house builders and how they treat their customers.
If there is an individual problem, there is also a collective problem, because—as has been said—communities feel that they have been disempowered. There has been much talk lately of taking back control. From Cambridge’s perspective, the people in Brussels are pussycats compared with the house builders and developers who, in many people’s view, have not kept their side of the deal. If people come to Cambridge, they will see the new station development. Many promises were made many years ago, but as it goes down the line, things are taken out. Promises were made, and the local council does its best, but it is up against the power of the developers, who are, in many people’s view, letting people down. Right at the end was a delightful Victorian terrace. It would not have been much to ask of the developer to leave that for the people of Cambridge, but no, it had to go as well.
When I asked the former Secretary of State in the Lobby—there are of course many Cambridge people in this place—he shrugged and said, “Well, there’s not much I can do, either.” Talk about no control—the Secretary of State cannot do anything about it. The community cannot do anything about it, and in Cambridge there is no lack of engagement; it is a very engaged community. However, there is an imbalance of power.
The news is not all bad. There are some very good developments that have worked in Cambridge. On Saturday I am joining others to celebrate the opening of a very big new development in north-west Cambridge that has been developed with the University of Cambridge—Eddington. It will be a fantastic new development, particularly for post-doctorates, but I suspect that it has worked partly because the University of Cambridge is also a powerful player and has been able to deal with some of these issues, whereas the local community does not always have the same power.
On the issue of fighting back, I congratulate organisations such as BIMBY—“Not in my back yard” has been rejected by Beauty-In-My-Back-Yard. Organisations such as the Local Government Association and the National Trust are supporting that.
This is not just about engagement, but about the balance of power. That has to be addressed. There needs to be a new settlement between developers and house builders, and their customers and their communities.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate under your chairmanship, Sir David. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) on calling the debate and giving so many people the opportunity to share their thoughts and concerns about this matter. I commend also my hon. Friend the Minister for coming today and the work of the Government in trying to innovate in the housing market. I am talking particularly about things such as self-build projects, which the Government have been so good at getting behind. My hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk (Mr Bacon) spearheaded a lot of the work in that respect. My constituency will be one of the pilot areas for that, and I am excited to look at the innovative thinking.
There has been a fundamental change in the house building market in this country, but that has not been reflected in any fundamental changes to the way the market is regulated. Most homes in this country are now built by just a handful of house builders—about five or six—and now, more than ever, buyers rely on the Government to ensure that those well designed homes are also built well. I hope that the Minister can update the House today on the work that he is doing to update building regulations, because it is hugely important that they reflect the almost monopolistic market in which we operate.
It is sad to hear that more than half of homebuyers have experienced major problems with their new homes. That was in a YouGov report earlier this year. I would like to reflect briefly on four issues. First, we have to ensure that new design actually works. My hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton mentioned the report by the all-party parliamentary group for excellence in the built environment, which I have co-chaired. It talked about having in place an ombudsman to ensure that any problems that are experienced—problems are widespread, as we have heard—are mediated and resolved swiftly. Like many other hon. Members present, I have a number of ongoing cases in which major house builders are, frankly, dragging their feet over dealing with major problems with my constituents’ homes, and making their lives hell. That is not good enough.
I am listening with interest to my right hon. Friend’s contribution. Last year, I spoke at the Federation of Master Builders’ annual conference, where the technical guru from the National House Building Council put up some slides of really shoddy workmanship. Interestingly, the largest number of examples of shoddy workmanship came from the largest house builders—the biggest of the top three. Does my right hon. Friend not find that surprising, as those are plainly the businesses that could do more about it if they chose, and is it not now time for the Government to stop the warm words and actually grip this issue?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. That is why an ombudsman would be so important—so that people could get redress. The house builders would know that there was someone holding their feet to the fire and now is the time to act.
My second issue is also about the warranties that house builders give. I think that most people do not realise that not all home warranties are the same. A Premier Guarantee is not the same as one from the NHBC. Consumers do not understand that, and I think that consumers are potentially being misled.
The Minister may know from looking through his in-tray from his predecessor that I campaigned very hard for a change in building control performance standards, because of the problems of inspections of houses on-site being carried out in a shoddy way. New performance standards came in on 1 April this year to reflect that. Will he update the House on how the implementation of those new performance design control standards is going, and in particular the improved role of the inspector?
New houses should promote wellbeing in our community; they should not promote disharmony and concern. As part of that review of building control standards, will the Minister look at a particular issue that has been raised by one of my councillors, Councillor Onnalee Cubitt, about sound insulation in houses? I have written to the Minister about the fact that many new homes have poor sound insulation with plasterboard walls. That is not good design; it is not groundbreaking design. Should he not look at amending part E2 of the building regulations, which sets the standards for sound transmission in homes? I think that those standards currently fall short of what people need in order to have good mental health when living in new homes.
Finally, will the Minister indicate when the Government might respond to the Women and Equalities Committee report on the availability of housing to disabled people? Our report made a number of important recommendations about the availability of housing for disabled people. In particular, as people get old they perhaps get more disabled, as my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow) mentioned in her intervention. When will he give me a response on that important set of recommendations?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I congratulate the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) on securing this debate.
This country faces a housing crisis that is unprecedented since the second world war and getting worse. By the Government’s own admission, the housing market is broken and failing to deliver anything close to the 300,000 homes a year we need to address housing need in the UK. The broken nature of the UK housing market and the Government’s failure to tackle it are stifling the number of new homes being built, but also damaging the quality of those homes that are being built.
Last year the all-party parliamentary group for excellence in the built environment, of which I was vice-chair jointly with the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller), undertook an inquiry into the quality of new build homes entitled “More homes, fewer complaints”. The inquiry was undertaken in response to an increase in complaints from people who had purchased a brand new home—the most expensive item that they had ever purchased—only to find when they moved in that there was something seriously wrong with it, such as rising damp, faulty electrics, the drains not being properly connected, or poor quality fixtures and fittings, and the very great difficulty that many people faced when they tried to seek redress. Research by Which? found that under this Government more than half of new homes have serious defects, indicating that this is a widespread and serious problem. Such situations are deeply distressing and completely unacceptable. Not only is the brand new home that someone eagerly anticipated moving into flawed, but the flaws can seriously undermine the quality of day-to-day life and physical and mental health, and can take months or even years to resolve.
The APPG made several recommendations to address the quality of new build homes, including changes to the building control inspection regime, with a defined minimum number of inspections, and the setting up of a new homes ombudsman. The new homes ombudsman must be properly resourced, have teeth and be able to react quickly to right the wrongs that it identifies. It and its compensation scheme should of course be funded by the development industry, providing an important incentive to get new homes right first time and not to compromise quality standards in the rush to increase profits. I fully support the recommendation on the basis of the struggles that my constituents have had to access redress, but I would also like to focus this morning on some of the underlying reasons why the quality of so many homes in the UK is so unacceptably poor.
The first is the structure of the land market in the UK. It allows far too much speculation, driving up land prices and artificially inflating the amount of money many developers believe that they have to make as profit before they will build a scheme. This results in a structural focus across the UK development industry on the bottom line, and therefore on cutting costs. Since staff costs for development are relatively fixed, it is the cost of materials that is pared back to the minimum. On so many housing schemes, any generosity of design that was intended in the original plans is cost engineered out by using cheaper materials, meaner proportions, or cutting corners on the build itself. This is simply not an adequate basis for a housing market that needs to deliver so much so quickly, and it is not acceptable that short-term profits are being achieved at the expense of long-term quality and the health and wellbeing of residents.
The second is the systematic reduction since 2010 of the resource and regulation underpinning the design quality of homes in the UK. The coalition Government simplified planning policy in the national planning policy framework. There was no disagreement about the need for simplification, but they went too far and one of the casualties of that process was any real emphasis on design quality in national planning policy. There are just 12 short paragraphs on design quality in the NPPF, two of which relate to advertising hoardings.
Under the previous Labour Government, the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment, supported by a network of regional architecture centres, advised and reviewed the quality of many planning applications and masterplans for new homes, and published a huge body of work on design quality. CABE is now an independent organisation with a much-diminished resource, and since its services are no longer funded by Government, the number of local authorities that can afford design review services and choose to take them up is much reduced. There has been no comprehensive or systematic review of the quality of design of new homes being built across the UK for more than ten years, and there is no systematic post-occupancy evaluation of the quality of new homes.
Good design is about more than just the appearance of a new home; it is also about its sustainability, energy efficiency, durability, robustness and flexibility to the changing requirements of its residents. Since 2010, the Government have removed many of the policy requirements that had previously helped to drive up the quality of design, including the zero-carbon homes programme and the lifetime homes standard, which increased the number of homes being built to a fully accessible standard for disabled people. The Government have also refused to incorporate the nationally described space standards into building control regulations, resulting in a situation where the number of homes built below the standards more than trebled from 2013 to 2016, and some homes are being built in London at just 16 square metres. The house building industry is very responsive to the policy and legislative environment that it is in and will adapt to meet new quality standards. Standards matter because many parts of the sector will only deliver the bare minimum the Government require. Leadership from the Government in this area is sadly lacking, and a clear and rapid change of approach is needed to set the standards UK residents require from their new homes.
Finally, the lack of direct Government funding for genuinely affordable social housing—a problem in itself in addressing the housing crisis—also contributes directly to the issue of poor design quality. The number of social homes built with Government funding since the start of the coalition Government in 2010 has dropped by a staggering 95%, and the Government have not increased the borrowing cap for councils. This means that the delivery of affordable housing—often not affordable at all if it is built to this Government’s definition of affordability—is increasingly dependent on cross-subsidy from private sales, which also creates an incentive to maximise the number of homes at the expense of design quality, to minimise the cost of materials and to lower the specification. The Government must now do what the Labour party has pledged to do, and restore the building of genuinely affordable social homes and a civic purpose to the building of new homes.
We face such a huge challenge in the UK to build the number of homes that we need, but at the same time the Government must ensure that those that are built are high-quality homes that are energy efficient, have generous space standards, have high-quality open space, have good storage for refuse, recycling and bicycles and are pleasant places to live that can stand the test of time and become communities of the future. Ensuring that new homes built in the UK are consistently of a high quality requires structural change in the land market and reform of the deeply flawed and unacceptable viability assessments that are used to justify cutting costs. It requires a Government commitment to fund genuinely affordable new homes, built for a social and civic purpose, to meet our desperate need for housing, rather than for profit. That commitment is currently sadly lacking. It also requires properly resourced planning departments with access to good practice in design, and a policy and regulatory framework that raises the bar, in particular on environmental sustainability and accessibility in new homes.
I join the chorus of congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) on organising this important and timely debate. He nearly put me off my breakfast this morning as I woke up to his dulcet tones on Radio 4, but he made some very important points, in particular about the commitment in the Conservative party manifesto to higher-density urban housing—mews houses, mansion blocks and the like.
I join him in emphasising the importance of this matter. I thought his speech rather neatly summarised the slightly schizophrenic approach that we have in this country—it does not matter where on the political spectrum or what part of the country someone is in—to taller buildings, if I can put it that way. If high-rise living is mentioned, people automatically picture some sort of brutalist, 1960s tower block and their hackles start to rise. They get concerned about the quality and design of the build and the impact not only on the people living in that particular development, but on the surrounding public realm, which is influenced because everyone can see it from a good distance around.
But mention mansion blocks, terraced streets or mews houses, built altogether on a more human scale—four, five or six storeys tall; the sort of thing that can be seen in many long-established city centres such as London, Bath, Bristol and the prosperous Victorian cities of the midlands and the north—and people take a different approach. They are much more welcoming, because those designs have stood the test of time. My hon. Friend’s comments about ensuring local buy-in are particularly important. There may be a local vernacular style, often using local materials, but such houses can be built using modern building techniques to a high modern building standard, allowing them to deliver at the same time some of the other things mentioned by colleagues in interventions, such as greener buildings, energy efficiency and so on.
My hon. Friend is making a good point about higher density, but is it not right that green spaces must be included, if not in properties—not everyone needs a garden—then nearby? Royal Horticultural Society surveys indicate a direct link between our health and wellbeing and green space.
My hon. Friend and near neighbour in Somerset makes a tremendously important point. The advantage of building up, not out—if I may paraphrase the manifesto commitment to higher-density living—is precisely that it can preserve, and in some cases enhance, available green space. We could increase the density of existing urban centres—not necessarily city centres; they could be the centres of market towns or seaside towns such as Weston-super-Mare, which I represent—while working within existing street plans and plots.
Many of our town centres are an average of two or three storeys tall. Walking down the main streets of most towns and looking up, one can see large amounts of fresh air, which could be incredibly economically valuable if only it were developed, providing that it were developed in a modern style—not necessarily a modernist style, but with modern materials—in keeping with the local style. Many of the problems mentioned by the hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes), who immediately preceded me—problems to do with value engineering and the difficulty of ensuring economic value—would go away.
If there is an existing plot on which a couple of extra storeys can be put, taking it from two storeys to four or five, there is no need to trip over the problems with high-rise living that my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton discussed. People will accept it. We need only walk through town centres, such as the ones near where we are standing now, to see that people will accept it. It is extraordinary to consider that Kensington and Chelsea and Westminster, where we are currently debating this issue, have some of the highest-density housing developments in the entire country, and they are hardly bywords for inner-city and urban decay. They are good examples of designs and systems of living that have stood the test of time.
I want to sing a hymn of praise to building up, not out. It attracts new investment into our existing towns and city centres, helping urban regeneration. It also reduces urban sprawl, helping to preserve green spaces by increasing the density of existing urban spaces and reducing the need to build out on the fringes, eating into green belts. As we heard from my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller), it also breaks the stranglehold of the established housing developers, who are often not keen on building on small plots in town centres. Small local developers and builders are much more keen to do so. That is greener. It cuts commuting times, as people can live closer to work, and allows building to be done in an energy-efficient fashion.
My query to the Minister is, how we can make the manifesto commitment—to build up, not out; to increase urban density—move much faster? He will be aware, I am sure, that I made a submission after the White Paper for permitted development to allow people to build up, not out. I hope that he will take it seriously. Will he also consider whether we can increase the level of credit that local authorities, in making their local plans, get for local development orders so that people can build up in the middle of towns? Housing inspectors, when considering whether local plans are acceptable, should give credit for extra building that might happen. They do not currently accept as part of the assessment of local housing need whether plans will provide the necessary local incentives to local communities so that people will want to build beauty in their back yards.
I commend the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) on securing this debate. Before I was elected, I worked for a consultancy advising people how to build controversial buildings, from skyscrapers to new housing developments, so I know a bit about the issue.
I think we all recognise that more housing is needed, and I recognise the Create Streets agenda, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned, as powerful not only in big cities such as Manchester and London but in places such as Plymouth, which I represent. However, we must ensure that the quality of the housing that we build makes it not only attractive on the outside but usable and sustainable on the inside as well. That is why we must consider not only the environmental sustainability of those homes but the fact that people might live in them for a lifetime. That is essential to building in quality of life.
I am concerned that in the push to address the real and pressing housing crisis, poor-quality housing is being built. We have heard a bit about housing bought on the open market, but I am also concerned about affordable housing built by developers and then transferred either to local councils or to housing associations. The affordable housing built in the Mount Wise development in my constituency lacks the sound insulation mentioned earlier by the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller), creating negative social impacts for the people who live in those properties. Not enough sound insulation was installed when the houses were originally built, and it is difficult to retrofit it once they have been built.
A quality product does not need to be expensive; we need to ensure that that is at the heart of the housing strategy from now on. However, that is not always my experience of new builds in Plymouth. Plymouth is experiencing a housing boom, but in student accommodation. In the city centre, new student blocks are being built left, right and centre. Some of them are being retrofitted mid-build—in the light of what happened at Grenfell tower, the cladding is being removed and replaced to ensure that it is safe—but too many of those student blocks look poor-quality from the outside as well as inside. I am concerned that they are being built quickly and cheaply, with the intention that they will last for 20 years and then be knocked down again. That may look good on an accountant’s spreadsheet, but when it comes to the practicalities of it in 20 years’ time, those buildings will still be there, and will exist for another 20 years.
We must also be clear about where blocks should be built. Too many student blocks with poor-quality design inside and out are being built in the wrong place, such as the Royal Eye Infirmary development, which people going into Plymouth station can see on the right-hand side. It has been built in the wrong place. Local people objected to it and the local council rejected it, but sadly the Government planning inspector approved it in the end. That does not seem like localism in action.
There are superb examples of housing being built. To single out one example in Plymouth, the Nelson self-build project is creating 24 affordable homes in Millbay. The project is being run by veterans, the Devon community, DCH and Interserve. The homes are being built by veterans who were previously homeless. Not only are they building their own homes, which will be ready shortly; they are gaining skills that will help every veteran who has worked on the project to secure a job in the construction industry on other sites. In terms of learning from good-quality design, although that project is only 24 units and we need many more, the idea is scalable. I encourage the Minister to look at what is happening at the Nelson project and to encourage self-build by veterans, as a way of helping homeless veterans in particular to build skills and a home of their own. In our haste to build, let us ensure that we build well.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I join the chorus of congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) on securing this essential debate. I have been interested in the topic ever since childhood, when my father, who worked for a house building company—I declare an interest—took me to see Poundbury, the village in Dorset designed under the auspices of the Prince of Wales. It is a model village, and the whole point of it is that the houses are built to look individual, with detail and architectural merit.
I draw attention to that project because it seems to me that, as many Members will have seen in the objections of members of the public to planning applications in their constituencies, people object, broadly, on two grounds. The first is practical: how can I get to work? Will the doctor’s surgery be able to cope? Sir David, you will forgive me if I do not address that in any detail during my limited time, given the topic of this debate. The second is: will it wreck the nature of the place that I love and call home? Housing design is critical to that second aspect, but the issue is how we square the circle.
Most people’s attitudes to development are entirely reasonable. They do not want to see all the fields near them concreted over, but they understand that there is a need for housing because our young people need somewhere to live. That is the challenge we face in housing: we need to ensure that numbers are not unsustainable, but it is critical that as politicians we do not develop an obsession with the numbers. It is to that issue that I wish to address my brief comments.
I urge all members of the public and all Members, when walking down the streets of any market town—particularly those around London, but we all have examples of such towns in our constituencies—to look up. If they do, they will see all sorts of features that used to be commonplace in the days of Victorian or Georgian housing and that are still built abroad today. There is no reason why we cannot continue to create such features: Flemish brickwork, work on chimneys, crown mouldings or details, guttering that has design merit, door surrounds—there are so many possibilities.
Developers will always say that the cost implications are prohibitive, but that is simply not the case. CABE, which has already been mentioned, has produced a report that states that cost implications do not necessarily increase. Taking this approach means that a new development is not about vast amounts of numbers being put on the outside of an attractive village and fundamentally changing its nature. In my constituency, for instance, Cotswold stone and slate roofs are particularly important. Ensuring that buildings complement their area is one of the ways to get public consent for the buildings we need. Unless people are satisfied that they will be able to get to work, but that the nature of their village and their homes will not change, we will not have public consent for the housing that is required.
The planning process is particularly important. The local planning process is essential, as my constituents realise, because it is one of the ways to combat speculative development. Developers who come in, impose housing on a village that may not want it in that form, and then leave, are part of the problem. Part of the solution is to use local small builders, of which there are some superb examples in my constituency. Someone who was born locally, who works locally, whose company builds houses locally and whose children go to the local school and stay in the area long after the houses have been built and have weathered into the environment will ensure that their housing and their development complements the area instead of blighting it. That is critical, as is self-build, which has been referred to; I wholeheartedly agree with it, but given time constraints I will not go into it in detail.
My last point is about cost. Timber frame is used in many other countries, but for many years it was absolutely forbidden in this country. Happily, that taboo is starting to be lifted. Timber frame offers speed of construction, lower cost and environmental benefits—again, I have outstanding examples in my constituency—and we should look into using it a great deal more. The same is true of prefabrication, which was used after the war. It seems to have a dirty name, but it should not, because outstanding examples that have all those benefits are available.
In conclusion, the White Paper on housing, to which I made a detailed submission, was an excellent start, but I ask that it be the start of the conversation, not the end. I welcome its focus on local communities having a local say and on design quality and architectural merit. When we are building houses, we must have public support and we must not be obsessed purely with numbers. We need the infrastructure, but the built environment is crucial. We are building homes, not houses. We must always remember that we are building places, not just filling spaces in our countryside.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) on securing this debate on new housing design, a very important issue in my constituency. I declare an interest as chair of the all-party group on healthy homes and buildings.
I would like to concentrate on health as well as design. The ramifications of poorly designed and constructed buildings are felt by my constituents and by constituents throughout the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. I believe it is incumbent on us to act to deliver a built environment that is healthy and safe. Everyone loves moving into a new home, whether it has been freshly built or is just new to the owner, but it is important that we live in safe and healthy homes. The all-party group was established to highlight the health and cost benefits that can be achieved by constructing our buildings and homes to the highest quality and standards.
Given that we spend 90% of our time indoors, it is important that we look at these issues clearly. Our homes should be fit for purpose and should not exacerbate or cause ill health. The costs to our health services of poorly constructed homes and buildings are monumental. Perhaps some figures will illustrate why it is important to get it right: the Building Research Establishment estimates that poor housing throughout the UK costs the health service £2.5 billion every year. Getting the homes right will address some of the issues associated with ill health and its costs. Poor insulation, poor indoor air quality, damp, and poor light quality have all been proven to cause or exacerbate a variety of health problems, including respiratory ailments, child and adolescent development problems and mental health problems. Those are the issues that failure to design homes to a safe standard leads to.
I encourage all hon. Members to read the all-party group’s green paper, “Building our Future: Laying the Foundations for Healthy Homes and Buildings”, which was recently put out to consultation. If the Minister and the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton do not yet have a copy, I will make sure that they get one. The green paper makes a number of key recommendations to ensure that our homes are built to promote good health and wellbeing.
First, leadership on health and housing issues has been disjointed, with responsibilities spread across multiple Departments. This undermines the Government’s ability to tackle the problem. We want a cross-departmental committee for health and buildings to champion change in the sector, recognising the interaction between buildings, health, education and the economy.
Secondly, we ask that the Government continue to support and expand projects such as NHS England’s “Healthy New Towns”, which promise to rethink how health and housing services are delivered, as well as building a solid evidence base for the dynamic between health and housing provision. It is quite clear that the two have to work together.
Thirdly, a recent report by the UK Green Building Council estimates that four out of five homes that will be occupied in 2050 have already been built, so it is insufficient to talk only in terms of new housing design. The retrofitting and renovation of existing homes to acceptable health standards must be a Government priority. My constituency of Strangford in Northern Ireland has a lot of small construction firms of the kind that have been referred to by other Members. They build lots of individual houses, but also do lots of development. We in Northern Ireland have invested in training and upskilling in our construction industry. That must be one of the first steps in moving forward. It is not simply about training our young people in new methods of building but about engaging, upskilling and retraining older members of the construction industry.
I am conscious that you are giving me the eye, Sir David, so I will conclude. We have had various initiatives in Northern Ireland, such as the warm home scheme, which funded insulation and part-funded new safe boiler heating systems. These schemes really made a difference to the quality of homes, but it is surprising how many homes in Northern Ireland did not have a 10-year warranty. There has been a lack of insulation, among other things, which shows that not every home has been built even to the bare minimum standard. More needs to be done, and I do not believe that it can be achieved merely through regulation. We must also look at skills training, for the safety and benefit of families throughout the UK.
I am very happy to have the opportunity to talk about a subject that I have been writing about for most of my career. I concur 100% with my hon. Friends on the issues that they covered.
I must challenge the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) on his view of modern design as ugly. It is not ugly to everybody; it is a question of personal taste. We should remember that the ’60s gave us some rotten buildings, but they also gave us some amazing estates such as Trellick Tower, which is very solid, Cressingham Gardens, Golden Lane, Pepler House and of course Grenfell Tower, which amazingly is still standing despite what happened there. The structure is still there; it was very solidly built. Some of those buildings could continue for ever.
[Joan Ryan in the Chair]
It has been interesting to witness how the debate has moved from design to construction quality. I have a lot of very new builds in my patch, such as Catalyst Housing’s developments in Portobello Square. I actually have more casework from new buildings than from old buildings—collapsed ceilings, collapsed floors, you name it. It is absolutely appalling.
Poundbury, I am afraid to say, is also suffering as a result of very poor construction quality—so I have heard from people who visited it recently. So from Portobello to Poundbury we have the same problem, and it must be addressed. As I have found when trying to deal with Catalyst’s development, a lot is down to what can and cannot be done. Planning officers came and shook their heads—
Is the hon. Lady aware that there are many architects among what one might call the ancien régime of the architectural establishment who, despite the fact that lots of people who live there love it and think it is great, hate Poundbury and campaign against it?
I am talking about the construction quality, not the design. If I may continue, we were talking about what we can and cannot do with the new homes ombudsman. In theory, it is a good idea, but there should be another whole level of monitoring way before we get to that stage because planning officers will shake their heads on odd points of design that may or may not have been dealt with correctly yet there is no proper enforcement in terms of quality at that level. There really should be a level at which building enforcement officers can come in before a building or a ceiling actually collapses and look at its quality. All of that is to do, of course, with local government funding, the funding formulas for how buildings are put together and the cost savings that have to be made, as we have heard recently—but that is for another day. We really must review the whole way in which design and build has diminished the quality of the buildings that are delivered.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ryan. I congratulate the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) on securing this debate on an important and timely subject. I certainly always welcome the opportunity to debate housing and house building, and I will try to focus more in my remarks on social housing and affordable housing, which is something I am glad to see the Labour party doing as well, in some respects.
The most important thing about housing policy is ensuring that we have an adequate supply of safe housing, which is what the Scottish National party-led Scottish Government are doing. As the MP for Glasgow’s east end, I am particularly proud to follow in the footsteps of the late great John Wheatley, who served my constituency as the MP for Glasgow Shettleston from 1922 to 1930. On being appointed Health Minister by Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald, John Wheatley introduced legislation to tackle the social housing crisis at the time. The Act famously became known as the Wheatley Housing Act and allowed the Government to provide subsidies to build public housing. As a result of Wheatley’s Act, more than 500,000 council homes had been built in the UK by 1933. Wheatley’s housing legacy lives on today, and I am delighted that Parkhead Housing Association in my constituency will, as it celebrates its 40th anniversary this year, once again host the John Wheatley lecture. I will be proud to introduce the lecture, which will be delivered by Dame Elish Angiolini QC.
I have mentioned that the debate is timely, and I touched on this matter in my intervention on the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton. Last week, the leader of the Scottish Conservative and Unionist party, Ruth Davidson, suggested that the Scottish Government should build more new towns and council houses in Scotland to ease the country’s housing shortage. I am afraid I was not alone in being taken aback by the sheer rank hypocrisy of a Conservative politician lecturing us on the need to invest more in social housing, not least because it was a Conservative Government under the stewardship of Margaret Thatcher who sold off vast swathes of social housing. Worse still, the housing stock was not replaced, which has left generation Y struggling to get into social housing and being squeezed into the hands of the private sector.
Before I move on to the substance of today’s debate, it would be remiss of me not to highlight the excellent work undertaken by the Scottish Government to build good quality affordable housing in our communities. I mentioned the mismanagement of our housing stock by the Government of the 1980s, and I am afraid that the initial delivery of devolution did not vastly improve housing under the first Labour-Lib Dem Administration. Since 2007, and under the SNP, house building has come on leaps and bounds, with more than £590 million available this funding year to increase the supply of affordable homes across Scotland, which is an increase of £18 million on the 2016-17 figure. Of that, all 32 councils will share £422 million to deliver more affordable homes in their local communities.
Due to our action, we have maintained higher build rates and lower price inflation than in England. If we had built at English rates since 2007, we would have about 20,000 fewer affordable new build homes. In 2009-10, we reintroduced council house building and, since then, we have delivered more than 7,500 council homes. Between 2003 and 2007, Labour in government delivered six—yes, six—council houses in an entire Parliament. We are investing more than £3 billion to deliver at least 50,000 affordable homes over the lifetime of this Parliament—a 76% increase on our previous five-year investment. Some 35,000 homes out of the 50,000 target will be for social rent, which is a 75% increase on our previous social rented target. I mention that because a huge part of the debate today has focused on the private sector and, in my capacity as spokesperson for the third party—the SNP—I want to bring Westminster back to looking at our investment in social housing as well. We are determined to increase and accelerate housing supply across all tenures and to support the industry and local authorities in delivering their housing priorities, with quality homes in mixed communities that fit local needs. More Homes Scotland includes a new mid-market rent offer to alternative providers, which is a further option to help deliver the 50,000 target, and we have increased housing subsidies by up to £14,000 for social homes and affordable homes for rent, being delivered by councils and registered social landlords.
When preparing for today’s debate, I was pleased to come across the Scottish Housing Regulator’s 2017 national report on the Scottish social housing charter, which states:
“Average satisfaction with the quality of homes has increased for RSL tenants to 88%”.
At this juncture, I pay tribute to CCG (Scotland) Ltd, which is based in my constituency and provided the kit homes we saw built in the Dalmarnock area of Glasgow for the Commonwealth games. Some 700 homes were put together in a year or two. So while the Conservatives and Ruth Davidson sit polishing their brass necks and giving us lectures on investment in housing and building new communities, we will get on with the actual job of building communities and homes for the people of Scotland.
I want briefly to touch on housing design. I am mindful that the focus of the debate is policy, which is a devolved competence, so I seek only to introduce a different dimension, namely what we are doing north of the border. I commend to the House—and will place a copy of it in the Library—the document entitled “Places, People and Planning: A consultation of the future of the Scottish Planning System”, which the Scottish Government published in June of this year. I know that colleagues in the Scottish Parliament will today announce the programme for government and I expect there might be something in it on new planning legislation, which is welcome, and long overdue. One suggestion in that June 2017 document is that local development plans be considered over a 10-year rather than a five-year period, and that is certainly worthy of being thrown into the mix.
Another aspect I would like to introduce from a Scottish point of view is tenement stock. Whereas Aberdeen is famous for its granite buildings, my own city of Glasgow is famous for its sandstone tenements, and I am mindful that many of them are of an age at which they require a lot of attention. I very much hope, therefore, that the Government in Scotland, housing associations and local authorities factor into their plans investing in and looking after the current tenement stock as well as investing in new housing supply.
To sum up, the point made by the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton about a new homes ombudsman is pertinent. Last night, before catching the sleeper train down to London, I attended a public meeting in my constituency. The hon. Member for Kensington (Emma Dent Coad) made a point about Bellway. Too often, we see house builders come along and make promises to communities for which they are not held accountable—Broomhouse and Eastfields are just two communities in my constituency where that has happened—which is why I am keen that housing associations should be able to take through the whole process of building new developments. I am, therefore, keen to pursue the idea of a new homes ombudsman.
We have heard excellent speeches from the hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner) and the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller). I agree particularly with the points made by the hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes). It is good to see a focus on tackling the housing crisis by way of investing in social housing and affordable housing. The hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose) talked about people’s perceptions of homes. Before I came along to the debate, I was in the Tea Room, chatting about perceptions with some of my colleagues. If you ask kids to draw a house, they all draw a little detached building that looks like a bungalow—there is a point there.
The point about building up and not out is absolutely worth considering. As a new Member, I am looking to move into a flat in London, and as I have gone around various parts of the city I have been interested to see more developments that go up than go out, which is not necessarily the case in my constituency. The hon. Member for Witney (Robert Courts) spoke about looking up, and I encourage him to come to Glasgow because we are a city that is renowned as a place where people look up to the architecture. I pay tribute to the work of the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) in the all-party parliamentary group on healthy homes and buildings.
I started by talking about the legacy of John Wheatley. I am confident that in Scotland we are working towards tackling the legacy of a lack of investment in housing, but I will finish with a word of advice for colleagues here in England. We need to look at abolishing the right to buy. I know it is not popular in this Parliament. We abolished it in Scotland, where it is bearing fruit. It is difficult to build more homes and get people into social housing when we sell off such housing. That is a conversation that colleagues need to have. Ultimately, we need to identify a new John Wheatley.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) on securing this important debate. Much of what he said would create a consensus across this Chamber and, indeed, across these nations of ours. There have been creditable contributions all round and a wealth of experience from the Members who spoke. I will not run through every constituency at this stage, but serious points were made for the Minister to take on board.
No serious debate can begin without our recognising that we are in a bad place at the moment. Every Member who spoke has illustrated the fact that things are not going in the way they should be. It is important to recognise that, because we look to the Government to institutionalise significant change. Houses are not simply bricks and mortar, as Members have said. They are homes and parts of the communities in which people make their lives, and we must do better than we are doing now.
I will add some words of caution. First, it is worth recalling that almost everything that has been said, particularly about the environmental impact of homes and noise insulation and so on, applies just as much to the existing built stock. The bulk of homes that will be around in 20 years’ time are already in existence. Probably some 80% of them already exist. We have got to do something about retrofitting to improve existing homes. Even if we are to see the building boom that we await—I hope the Government’s ambitions are brought into reality—there will be some real impacts, one of which we have seen in the past: when there is a housing boom, unfortunately the quality of the build does not always keep pace with the scale.
One issue in the construction industry that the Government are not addressing is the ageing workforce and the lack of adequate training places for young and not so young people coming into the construction industry. We must deal with that if we are to have construction workers to deliver quality homes of the future and retrofit the homes of the past.
I join my hon. Friend the Member for Kensington (Emma Dent Coad) in saying that unless we have adequate funding for our local authorities, including the funding of building control and planning, which have been cut across our nations because of the austerity budgets, we will not see the type of ongoing control that we need to guarantee that the build of the future avoids the mistakes of the past. To make an obvious point—bearing in mind the experience of Grenfell Tower—we have first class and second class housing in this country. Social tenants’ housing must be of exactly the same quality of design and build as we would expect for anybody else. So that is the background to the debate.
The Government face real challenges. On issues of design and high quality homes, clearly the Government have a central responsibility to assess standards and provide a framework. Good design is aesthetically pleasing. I agree with the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose) that there is nothing intrinsically wrong with building up, although, like everything, it is a question of whether the design is of an acceptable standard. My hon. Friend the Member for Kensington is right: let us not be so concerned with replicating the past that we fail to take advantage of what the future can offer. Amazing buildings are going up all around this country because new building technologies allow more experimental and more interesting buildings than some of those in the past.
I think the hon. Gentleman is saying we should not allow awful tragedies such as Grenfell Tower to sway us against the advantages of greater density and building a little higher, provided it is done in a sensible way and with the right standards and design.
Indeed. If I can repeat the point, we already have a building stock of homes in the sky. I am old enough to remember when we were told we were going to build vertical streets. I give away my age when I say that. People live in vertical streets. Whether built in the future or existing stock, we have to make sure they are fit and proper homes. Let us agree on that.
We have to face the challenges of new builds. I was involved when Greater Manchester was looking at the spatial framework for the future. There were a lot of objections, some inevitable. There was some nimbyism in people’s objections, but people have legitimate objections if they see that a new development is not accompanied by the kind of infrastructure investment that is fundamental to making communities work. It is not simply about the new community that is being built, but whether it is compatible with the existing community. Transport links, local schools and local medical facilities, and access to the world of work are legitimate concerns because such things make real communities work properly.
Along with local infrastructure, people need to be able to move homes as their lives change. The right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) made the point about people’s circumstances changing with age. Sometimes an ageing couple have an issue with disability. It is not impossible to adapt existing homes, but nor is it impossible to keep people within their own community where they may prefer to make a move. So it is sensible to design communities around people’s progressive needs.
An issue raised already is the question of space. The Government have a real challenge. When the former Brent Council building is now seeing homeless single persons offered 16 square metres of floor space, we have a real issue. That is way below the national space standards for housing design, which the Government introduced. I say to the Minister it is time those space standards were implemented nationally and made mandatory, because they are an acceptable minimum. In any case, there is always the capacity to use adequate design as a reason for eroding that standard, but that should be firmly lodged with the local planning authority as the guarantor of the safeguard, so we do not see developers overreaching themselves.
Often when space standards have been eroded, it is consistent with offices and retail premises being converted into homes. The Minister needs to look hard at blocking such loopholes if we are to prevent ridiculously small homes being built.
On section 106, I was bemused rather than amused to see an advert by a company called Section 106, which tells would-be developers about affordable housing. It talks about its own performance and references a development in Gloucester Place in London where an affordable housing contribution of £646,000 demanded by Westminster Council was reduced to a nil contribution. It goes on to tell would-be developers that they can go on a holiday with the money they have saved. That is simply not a responsible use of section 106; it is not what it is there to provide. The Minister must look again at making the section 106 process transparent, so there can be public tests, and enforceable by local authorities. If we are to have the homes for the future that the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton is demanding—and he and other colleagues are right to demand them—our local authorities must have the capacity to say to developers that developments must be of an acceptable standard, and that they have the power to control the rogue builders and developers.
Thank you, Ms Ryan. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, I think for the first time in this Parliament. I start by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) on securing this debate on new housing design. He is a long-standing advocate of high-quality development and his passion about the subject has come through clearly today and in the media as well; indeed, all Members who have spoken today have spoken with passion about why design is important.
We all acknowledge that it is critical that we build more homes. Our housing White Paper, published earlier this year, set out how we intend to tackle that challenge. Just as important as building more homes is the need to ensure that they are of good quality, are well designed and respond positively to the local context.
Around the country, there have been some fantastic examples of good design in new house building and a number of colleagues have pointed to examples in their own constituencies. However, we can also all point to soulless developments that ultimately destroy the character of a local area. That is something we must change.
The Government have put in place a robust framework that promotes and supports high-quality design. Both the national planning policy framework and our planning guidance emphasise the importance of good design and provide advice on planning processes and tools, which local planning authorities can use to help achieve that aim. Over the months ahead, the Government will engage with the housing industry to showcase good practice and develop new policies that support that ambition, but we know we must do more.
The housing White Paper contains proposals to improve the quality and character of new development. We want to strengthen the national planning policy framework to introduce an expectation that local and neighbourhood plans in development plan documents should set out clear design expectations. That will provide greater certainty for applicants about what types of designs are acceptable in a local area.
We also want to use national planning policy to strengthen the importance of early, pre-application discussions, as a means to encourage more valued discussion of the design of new homes between communities, developers and local authorities. The Government also have a longer-term ambition to support the development of digital platforms on design.
My hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton talked about a number of surveys. He concluded that people would support the building of homes if they are well-designed and in keeping with their local area. It is important that local authorities and developers work with communities to ensure that they get the quality of new housing development that they want. A range of tools is in place to engage the local community, both when preparing plans and at planning application stage, yet I know community engagement is far too inconsistent. Far too often local people hear about new housing schemes late in the day, after a planning application has been submitted.
There are of course good examples of where engagement works. The hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner) talked about the Beauty-In-My-Back-Yard toolkit; there are of course others. Our housing White Paper proposals will go a step further to help make sure that local communities are not left behind.
A number of colleagues have mentioned neighbourhood planning. I see plans driven by local people with a vested interest in the quality of design for the place they live in as an incredibly valuable tool to achieve good design and local engagement. Since 2012, more than 2,200 groups have started the neighbourhood planning process in areas covering nearly 13 million people. In some areas, neighbourhood planning groups are keen to ensure that good design does happen in practice. For example, the plan for Bristol Old Market Quarter sets out design principles for the development of key sites to ensure that new buildings make a valuable contribution to the character of the neighbourhood. The Government recognise the significant effort neighbourhood planning groups make and that is why we are supporting them with funding. The housing White Paper sets out our commitment to further funding for neighbourhood planning groups in this Parliament. We are committed to providing £25 million of funding to boost the capacity and capability of local authorities for a three-year period, starting this year, which will open up opportunities to support and provide design resources to neighbourhood planning groups.
Turning to the issue of a new housing ombudsman, we have already published proposals to tackle unfair lease practices, including banning the sale of new leasehold houses, but it is the case that, according to the latest Home Builders Federation survey, 84% of new home buyers would recommend their builder to a friend. That figure has fallen steadily from 90% over the last four years, and means that 16% of new home buyers would not recommend their builder. In any other market, that would spell the end of the most poorly performing companies. I am having a set of discussions with developers; I also make the point to them about the need to improve quality and design.
My hon. Friend makes the point perfectly. It shows that customer satisfaction is absolutely key. House builders need to step up to the plate.
The housing White Paper sets out the Government’s plan to diversify the housing market, which will play a part in helping to improve quality. My hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Robert Courts) and the hon. Members for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) talked about custom building and the importance of small and medium-sized builders as well.
Of course mechanisms are in place for redress, such as the consumer code for home builders, which a number of colleagues have talked about. I have been encouraged by the industry’s response to last year’s report by the all-party parliamentary group for excellence in the built environment, “More homes, fewer complaints”. A working group was set up by the Home Builders Federation and has commissioned an independent report into consumer redress. We expect that to come forward in the next few weeks. I will review the report in detail and I will consider the call from my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton for a new homes ombudsman.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) talked about the Women and Equalities Committee’s report. We expect to respond next month. Colleagues also raised the issue of space. As the hon. Members for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes) and for Rochdale (Tony Lloyd) will know, we have committed in the White Paper to reviewing the nationally described space standards, because of feedback from the sector.
My hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose) talked about building out. We will amend the national planning policy framework to address the scope for higher density housing in urban locations.
The Government will continue to work with industry, local communities, developers and all those with an interest in the quality of new homes to drive up standards and create the type of places that people want to live in. It is clear that Members and their constituents want that to happen, and I want that to happen too.
May I press the Minister on this point? He said that the Government’s intention is to review the national space standards. That is welcome, but the suspicion is that the review will reduce the standards rather than enforce them. Will part of the review be about making them obligatory across the length and breadth of the appropriate domain?
I thank the Minister very much for his comments, particularly on the fact that he will consider a homeowners ombudsman. It would be a really good idea to bring that forward and I would very much welcome it.
The Minister also talked about redress for those who can get it. There are many good builders out there, but it would be good if the Government could highlight those who are not, as that would put pressure on them and make sure that people had choice.
I thank all hon. Members for their contributions—I cannot mention them all by name as I am short of time. It is interesting that when it comes to architecture, beauty is very much in the eye of the beholder, but if we can take local people with us, we have a greater chance that they will support development and we could take out a lot of the objections to further development. We need quality homes—we have talked again about the need for good insulation, good building standards, and building quality homes for the future. I believe we can do that and I very much welcome the Minister’s remarks.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered new housing design.
Northamptonshire: Combined Fire and Police Service
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the matter of a combined fire and police service in Northamptonshire.
I welcome you to the Chair, Ms Ryan, and I welcome the Minister to his place. I thank Mr Speaker for giving me the honour of having this debate on an important issue for my constituents in Kettering and for everyone across the county of Northamptonshire.
The title of the debate is not very accurate, which is probably my fault, because we are actually talking not about a combined fire and police service but about the combined governance of the fire and police services in Northamptonshire. In my more optimistic moments, however, I hope that one day we will have a fully combined fire and police service, and I urge the Minister to consider that.
To set the context for any constituents who in a weak moment might have tuned into today’s proceedings, Northamptonshire is a county of more than 720,000 people, with a single police force and a single fire and rescue service, which have coterminous boundaries—that in itself is helpful when thinking about joining the two together. The picture for policing and for fire and rescue is changing, and has changed rapidly in the past decade.
For fire and rescue, demand for fire-related emergencies has reduced by 50% in Northamptonshire, compared with a national decline of some 40%. Fire and rescue has had to diversify into more proactive activities and now provides a first response and co-response service to medical emergencies with East Midlands ambulance service. On a recent visit to the fire and rescue service in Northamptonshire, I was amazed and pleasantly surprised to learn that 60% of its calls are now for medical emergencies, so the emphasis is very much on rescue as opposed to fire.
I ought to say that the reason I attended the fire and rescue service is that I have taken part in the fire service parliamentary scheme. I spent one year with the London fire brigade, and the second year with the Northamptonshire fire and rescue service. I also completed two years with the police service parliamentary scheme—with the Northamptonshire police force some years ago—and I have also been a special constable with British Transport police. I placed a great deal of emphasis on talking to individual police officers and fire and rescue officers to find out what life is really like for them at an operational level.
I want to place on record my thanks to all the wonderful police and fire and rescue staff we have in Northamptonshire. We are truly blessed as a county to have so many individuals of such dedication, resolution and resolve, who day in, day out and week in, week out are prepared to serve the local public as best they can.
The Northamptonshire police force has a budget of £116 million, 1,242 officers, 95 police community support officers, 860 police staff, 488 specials and 84 volunteers, and operates off 38 sites. Northamptonshire fire and rescue service has a budget of £24 million, 242 whole-time firefighters, 254 retained firefighters and 74 support staff, and operates off 24 sites. In terms of the scale of the operations, they are therefore quite different, but police officers and firefighters attend many of the same incidents.
In southern Northamptonshire, indeed, we now have two rural intervention vehicles, or RIVs, which on one side are badged with the Northamptonshire police livery of blue, yellow and white, and on the other side are badged with the fire and rescue service livery of yellow, red and white. On one side of the vehicle is a police officer and on the other a firefighter. They go around the rural parts of the county in response to call-outs. It an incredibly efficient way to manage policing and firefighting resources. That is evidence of something I know the Minister will appreciate—the boys and girls in the service getting on with mixing up their operations to increase local efficiency, regardless of what happens with governance at the senior level. On the ground, individual police officers and firefighters are already operating jointly in many cases.
I back 100% the business case presented to the Minister by Stephen Mold, the police and crime commissioner for Northamptonshire, for him to become the police, fire and crime commissioner for Northamptonshire.
I am very pleased that the Northamptonshire police and crime commissioner has taken the opportunity to look at the governance model and to consider becoming a police, fire and crime commissioner. Will my hon. Friend join me in welcoming the news that that is happening in Staffordshire too? The consultation has recently been completed. The police and crime commissioner taking the fire authority into his role would enable greater collaboration and joint working.
I am delighted to hear that positive news from Staffordshire. My hon. Friend is developing a well-deserved reputation for being thoroughly on top of local issues in her constituency. I join her in welcoming the news from Staffordshire. I believe that seven police and crime commissioners are now actively consulting on taking over fire service responsibilities. I very much hope that they all succeed. I would like Northamptonshire, Staffordshire and the five others to be successful role models for authorities around the country, because it makes huge sense to me that delivery of emergency services should be as joined up as possible.
My understanding is that under the Police and Crime Act 2017, which my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Amanda Milling), the Minister and I supported, four options were given to police and crime commissioners and the local fire and rescue authorities. Option 1 was a duty to collaborate, but with no change in governance; option 2 was for the police and crime commissioner to take a place on the fire and rescue authority; option 3 was for the police and crime commissioner to become the fire commissioner as well; and option 4 was to combine the services.
Ultimately, I hope that option 4 is delivered in Northamptonshire, but I fully recognise that option 3 is the right place to be at the moment. Operationally, the police service and the fire and rescue service will be two different organisations, but the police, fire and crime commissioner will be the head of both. Although structurally separate organisations below the commissioner, on the ground police officers and firefighters are increasingly working together already. Indeed, I think there are now three fire/police/ambulance stations in Northamptonshire. At Rushden, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone), there is certainly an all-singing, all-dancing police, fire and ambulance station with all three services together. I think the same is true at Thrapston.
I do not see why we should not be really ambitious. Ultimately, I would like to see a Northamptonshire-wide police, fire and ambulance service dedicated to Northamptonshire. I do not see why East Midlands ambulance service needs to provide ambulance services to Northamptonshire; the police, fire and crime commissioner would be well able to run ambulance services locally. I invite the Minister to come to Northamptonshire if he ever would like to pilot such an initiative, because I think we could persuade the police and crime commissioner that that might be a good idea, especially since 60% of calls to the fire service are already for medical emergencies.
Both services will remain operationally distinct, but joint working is increasing. That does not mean that police officers will put out fires, and it does not mean that firefighters will have the power of arrest; it just means that they will work sensibly together. This is not a police takeover of the fire service or a merger of the two; it is just a shared governance structure that should lead to sensible joint decisions. If this move is approved by the Minister, it will accelerate collaboration and better protect the frontline than the existing model. At the moment, the fire service is part of Northamptonshire County Council. With the best will in the world, any fire and rescue authority in a county council structure will not get the funding certainty that can be provided by governance by a separate police, fire and crime commissioner.
I am grateful for the opportunity to intervene again. Does my hon. Friend agree that having a police, fire and crime commissioner would improve the democratic accountability of the fire service? Councillors are appointed to the fire authority, but they are not electorally accountable to the public.
My hon. Friend demonstrates once again that she has a wise head on young shoulders. That is the same as the argument in favour of police commissioners. Who knew who the members of the local police authority were? No one did. Sometimes, even members of the police authority did not know who the other members were. The same is true of the fire and rescue authority. Accountability and transparency, along with more funding security and certainty, are big drivers behind the proposal.
I am pleased that people in Northamptonshire basically agree. Some 1,200 people responded to the police commissioner’s consultation. Some 61% of them, and 92% of people working in the fire and rescue service, are in favour of the proposals, which they know will deliver efficiency, effectiveness, economy and improvements in public safety because of increased funding certainty. Those are impressive results—they certainly impressed me, and I hope that they will impress the Minister.
The business case is now on the Minister’s desk; it requires his signature for the proposals to be moved forward. If it gets his signature, in his distinguished hand, the change could come into effect from April 2018. I urge him to study the case and approve it. Northamptonshire has demonstrated that police officers and firefighters are getting together on the ground to deliver sensible joint working, and the governance structure is now catching up with that. If we can get Home Office approval, we can move on over time—not too long, I hope—to stage 4, which is combining the services. Crucially, the proposed change should not lead to increased costs for the taxpayer, because the money that is now given to the county council to fund the fire and rescue service will be given to the police, fire and crime commissioner, but there will be a separate line on people’s council tax bills for the fire authority precept, which will improve transparency and accountability.
Thank you for your patience with me, Ms Ryan. I hope that I have outlined my 100% support for these proposals. The Minister is diligent, assiduous and very much on top of his game, and I know that he will take the proposals seriously. If he agrees with the police and crime commissioner and approves the business case, we in Northamptonshire are up for the challenge of delivering the country’s best combined police and fire service.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ryan, I think for the first time, and to respond to this welcome and timely debate, which my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) secured. We came into the House in the same year—back in 2005—and since then he has been a tireless champion of the interests of the people of Kettering. I was therefore delighted to hear him express his 100% support for police and crime commissioner Mold’s proposals, and I heard him urging me to go even further in terms of ambition. It is typical of him that, to get insight into the operating reality of the people serving his constituents, he invested time in the parliamentary fire and police schemes and was himself a special constable, and I congratulate him on that.
I note the presence of my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton South (Andrew Lewer), who is presumably here to support my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering in registering what appears to be a consensus across Northamptonshire and clear popular support for this initiative, which to some degree, as he noted, reflects the reality on the ground. Northamptonshire is well known to be in the vanguard of collaboration between the emergency services, and I place on the record my congratulations and respect for everyone involved in the leadership that has been shown there. The debate is very welcome.
I can give my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering immediate reassurance about the Government’s support for the principle of enabling police and crime commissioners to have greater involvement in fire governance. That goes beyond words: we have already approved the first proposal, from Roger Hirst in Essex. We are encouraged to see that about a dozen areas, including Staffordshire—I very much welcome the intervention from my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Amanda Milling)—have responded to the legislation that enables that greater involvement and are actively developing proposals to take on governance for fire and rescue. As I said, I am particularly pleased to see areas such as Northamptonshire leading the way.
As we MPs all know, the reality is that our public services—particularly our emergency services, which do an incredible job—responded impressively to pressure to control costs and find savings. Many of them have embraced collaboration, which is easy to talk about but quite difficult to do in practice. We are keen to encourage leadership to go even further in that direction, not just in the interests of using taxpayers’ money better and finding efficiencies, but to deliver a better service to the people we serve.
In that context, I pay tribute to police and crime commissioner Mold and his team for the hard work that they put into developing the proposal that gave rise to this debate. Indeed, they worked at such pace that they have already submitted the proposal. I must correct something that my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering said: the proposal is not actually sitting on my desk; it is sitting in the bowels of the Home Office being processed by officials, because it has only just come in. It will come to me, I will take a view, and it will go to the Home Secretary. That is the process. That means that I am a bit restricted in what I can say about the detailed business case, because I have not seen it. However, I will see it and we will test it robustly, not least because my hon. Friend will want the reassurance that I want that it is sensibly rooted in good economics, will result in a better service for his constituents and will leave Northamptonshire County Council with a solid financial base. The statute requires us to make various tests of the business case, which is in the system and will be processed as quickly as possible. I am a bit restricted in what I can say, but I absolutely note his message to get on with it.
I am particularly grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention, because he makes an important point. As I have said, this is easy to talk about, but difficult to do. In particular, some of the work, which he talked about, that the county council has to do with the police and crime commissioner on data is complicated. He is quite right that some county councils have set their face against these changes, so I place on record my respect and thanks to Northamptonshire County Council for the leadership it has shown in fully co-operating with this complex task.
By way of conclusion, I would like to draw out a couple of key themes. First, I join my hon. Friend in placing on record my personal thanks and the Government’s thanks for the hard work and the service that the police and fire officers in Northamptonshire and across the country perform on our behalf. He is right that there are operational aspects to emergency response that are common to police, fire and ambulance, so it must make sense to explore where those services can be more effectively joined up to maximise capability, resilience and everything he talked about in his remarks. There are some fantastic examples of collaboration out there, including joint control rooms, multi-agency intervention teams and joint prevention and support capability. The Government have invested more than £88 million since 2013 in local blue light collaboration projects. We are not just sitting here, saying, “Get on with it.” We are actively trying to provide support, such as initiatives in Northamptonshire that include £4.5 million for police innovation and £3 million for fire transformation.
[Mr Charles Walker in the Chair]
I get the sense that we are perhaps not in danger of going over the time limit, so I want to intervene again and say that we are blessed in Northamptonshire with two outstanding senior officers. The chief constable of Northamptonshire, Simon Edens, is fantastic. He is down-to-earth and hands-on, and he knows all his officers. Likewise, the chief fire officer, Darren Dovey, has years of experience and knows all the boys and girls in the fire service. The two are determined to work together operationally to make things work, whatever the governance structure will be. The changes to the governance structure will help them to do what they are already doing.
I am sure that my hon. Friend’s intervention will be noted by both those officers. In this place, we perhaps do not do enough to celebrate and recognise individuals who do outstanding work in public service. In the course of my process of engaging with police officers, I have spoken to the police chief on the phone, and I very much look forward to visiting Northamptonshire and meeting him and the fire chief in person, not least because it is clear that Northamptonshire has been at the forefront of many collaboration initiatives, including estates co-location, interoperability and joint community prevention work, as my hon. Friend brought to life in his speech. Frankly, I am very encouraged that PCC Mold has made collaboration and emergency services integration a running theme in his police and crime plan, for which he is accountable. His conviction about the benefits of service transformation is evident and encouraging.
While we know that good work is going on in some local areas, it is fair to say that nationally the picture remains a bit patchy, as my hon. Friend alluded to, and more can be done. In some ways, the pace and ambition with which policing has been transformed since 2010—it is much to the credit of police leadership across the country—can serve as a model for the changes we want to see in fire. With the Home Office now responsible for this area, we are able to support what we hope to see as the continuous improvement of fire and rescue services, enabling them to be more accountable, effective and professional than ever before. My hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase pointed out the important scope in the governance reforms to introduce much greater transparency and accountability, not least around funding streams into fire services, which the public we serve are obviously going to be increasingly interested in post-Grenfell.
To support the fire service along this journey, we are establishing an independent inspection regime for fire and rescue to be delivered by Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary and fire and rescue services. There is consensus about the need for that. We are also making progress in setting up a professional standards body for fire. However, we want the bulk of the fire reform programme to be owned and delivered by the service itself. For example, we want the fire service to get better deals when buying equipment. There is still a lot of scope to improve that area, and we believe that a true commercial transformation and radical improvement to procurement processes are needed. We also want the service to look at workforce reform, increasing diversity and more flexibility in terms and conditions.
My hon. Friend the Member for Kettering made a very good point about how the police and crime commissioners have developed in the consciousness of the public. The system we had before was sub-optimal in terms of public accountability. Police and crime commissioners were a bold reform that is beginning to develop momentum, thanks not least to the individuals involved, such as PCC Mold, who has shown great leadership since his election. That includes action on cyber-security, domestic violence and children and young people’s safety. Such examples convince us that PCCs are ideally placed to support emergency services collaboration and the fire reform agenda. In bringing together local police and fire under a single leadership, we hope to see PCCs driving through transformation that truly delivers for local people. We expect to see improved visibility and transparency, direct accountability to the electorate and a renewed impulse to police and fire collaboration, which my hon. Friend is calling for. That is why we want PCCs to explore the opportunity.
A transfer of fire and rescue governance is not the only option for involving PCCs. As my hon. Friend mentioned, they can request a seat on their local fire and rescue authority, which can come with full voting rights, subject to local agreement. There are options, but I am clear that where PCCs are up for the governance option, are convinced that they have a strong business case, feel that they have the public on their side and, ideally, have the local authority on their side as well, they will have our support, subject to the rigour and robustness of the business case. It is up to local areas to decide what arrangements will work best for them. That is why the Government chose not to mandate the involvement of PCCs in fire governance.
Successful transformation has to involve local people and key stakeholders, and that is exactly what has happened in Northamptonshire. We want everyone to get behind the changes and what they hope to achieve, so that we can really see the benefits of improved accountability and greater collaboration. That is why we have encouraged early dialogue with local communities, local leaders and fire and rescue staff about the future they see for their fire and rescue services. Northamptonshire has shown that a constructive dialogue between PCCs and partners, including the county council, is possible, and I strongly urge other areas to follow that model and leadership.
I am grateful to the Minister for his response, but I am going to press him into an area that is a little off-piste and where he might be a little uncomfortable. Would he welcome innovative proposals that came forward from a county, such as Northamptonshire, to go for the full Monty: to combine fire, police and ambulance in some kind of sensible, county-wide emergency provision? That would enjoy huge popular support. I know it is very early days, but if someone were to produce a sensible plan, would the Home Office look at it?
I thank my hon. Friend, not least for the heads-up that he is encouraging me to go off-piste. We are operating in tough conditions. The situation requires outstanding leadership and for authorities, the system, the Home Office and the Government to be open to new proposals, because this is an environment in which we need to innovate. My instinct is always to be open to new ideas, and I will always ask, “Is there local support for this? Is there a business case and an evidence base to support this?” We feel strongly that there is an opportunity to go further with the governance of emergency services and police and fire in particular, which is why we enabled that through legislation. I am absolutely delighted that Northamptonshire is in the vanguard in responding to that opportunity, as I would expect. I can assure my hon. Friend that when the business case is released from the bowels of the Home Office and on to my desk, I will process it as quickly as possible. In the meantime, I congratulate him on securing this debate and thank him for his approval.
Question put and agreed to.
This is a one-hour debate. As colleagues know, there will be five minutes for the two Opposition leads and 10 minutes for the Minister. If the contributions of Back Benchers were to end a little earlier, I would be inclined to allow six minutes to the hon. Members for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) and for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey), but it may be just five.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered blacklisting.
I should say at the outset that I am pleased that the Minister for corporate responsibility will respond to the debate, because, as she responded to the debate that I held in the previous Parliament earlier this year, she will be familiar with the issues.
For the benefit of the record in this Parliament, I want to recap what we are talking about. Imagine a person who has spent years acquiring the skills to work on construction sites around the country. No one ever complained about the quality of their work or their work ethic. They happen to be an active member of their trade union, keen to ensure that they and their colleagues have a safe and pleasant working environment—nothing out of the ordinary. Then, on one occasion, they raise a serious health and safety concern—no small matter, given that an average of 39 construction workers are killed at work every year in the UK—and ever since they have not been able to get work. That is what happened to thousands of construction workers for decades. They were blacklisted, and no one has ever been brought properly to book for it.
Absolutely—I could not agree more. I will outline some of the things people have done and matters on which they have campaigned for justice. Blacklisting is the shady, underhand practice of sharing information on workers without their knowledge and then systematically denying them employment on the basis of that information. The practice first hit the headlines in 2009, when the Information Commissioner’s Office raided the premises of a disreputable organisation called the Consulting Association. When it raided that association, it found a blacklist of more than 3,000 construction workers. The association was funded and used for years by more than 40 of the country’s biggest construction firms to vet employees.
The association, set up in 1993, was the successor to another disreputable organisation called the Economic League, which I am sure my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey) will mention later. The construction companies fed the association detailed information about workers without their knowledge. Whenever the companies made hiring decisions, they checked applicants’ names against the association’s list. If they were on it, they were usually refused work—they were denied the abilityto do their job and provide for their family.
Essentially, the system facilitated systematic victimisation and denial of work simply because workers had raised legitimate health and safety concerns in the past or because they were a member of a trade union or a political party. It was, and still is, an outrage. The nature of some of the information held about people on the list—their religion, national insurance number, car registrations and so on—strongly suggests that the data were collected with the collusion of the police and/or security services. That is why it is entirely fitting that the Blacklist Support Group members, many of whom are here, have been granted core participant status in the Pitchford inquiry into undercover policing.
Those who suffered and are victims now have three principle routes of redress. The Employment Relations Act 1999 (Blacklists) Regulations 2010 now outlaw blacklisting, but they came into force too late for those who suffered at the hands of the Consulting Association. The Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992 stops people being discriminated against on the basis of being a member of a union, and the Data Protection Act 1998 can be used against those who abuse and misuse people’s personal data. The late Ian Kerr, who was chief officer of the Consulting Association, was fined a paltry £5,000 after the ICO’s raid because only later were fines levied under that Act substantially increased.
My constituent Sandy Macpherson of Ilkley was one of the plaintiffs in the recent case. Does my hon. Friend agree that there is now a strong case for making blacklisting a criminal offence with strong sanctions, including big fines and possible imprisonment in the worst cases?
I wholeheartedly agree. My hon. Friend talks about litigation, and in July 2014 Balfour Beatty, Carillion, Costain, Kier, Laing O’Rourke, Sir Robert McAlpine, Skanska UK and VINCI plc, which were all involved in blacklisting and in funding the Consulting Association, established a compensation scheme for individual workers affected by blacklisting and made an apology of sorts for what happened. However, their scheme was established unilaterally without agreement on the terms with the trade unions representing workers. Other firms that were part of the hall of shame involved with the association such as the Amec Group, Amey, BAM Construction, Morgan Sindall and Taylor Woodrow did not sign up to the scheme.
As my hon. Friend knows, this is an important issue to me as I represented blacklisted members of the Union of Construction, Allied Trades and Technicians in the High Court. Does he agree that no firm involved in historical blacklisting should be given a public contract until it demonstrates regret for its actions by supporting a public inquiry, offering retraining to victims and demonstrating that its recruitment processes are transparent and fair?
I completely agree, and I commend my hon. Friend and the huge team of people who have worked on all the litigation we have seen in the High Court brought by a number of unions including UCATT— now part of Unite—which I am proud to say is headquartered in my constituency, and the GMB. Those unions deserve huge credit for the efforts they put into uncovering exactly what went on and then getting redress, working with my hon. Friend and others in the courts. Those cases have been settled in the past two years and millions have been paid, but the fact remains that not one director of the firms who funded the Consulting Association has ever been properly brought to book, fined or subjected to any individual court sanction for the misery they visited on construction workers over the decades. No one has been brought to book properly for that.
In fact, we are behaving as if all has been forgiven. Tears were apparently shed last month over the fact that we will not hear Big Ben’s bongs for several years. We should be far more concerned about the fact that Sir Robert McAlpine, a firm implicated in all of this, appears to have bagged a multi-million pound contract for the work that is to be carried out on Big Ben tower to fix those bongs.
Let us be clear about the role that the company Sir Robert McAlpine played. Cullum McAlpine, a director of Sir Robert McAlpine, was chairman of the Consulting Association when it was formed in 1993. Later, David Cochrane, the head of HR at that firm, succeeded him as chair of the association. During a hearing of the Scottish Affairs Committee’s inquiry into all of this in 2012, the late Ian Kerr, who died that year, admitted that his £5,000 fine for breaches of the Data Protection Act was met by Sir Robert McAlpine
“on the basis that I had put myself at the front and took the flak, if you like, for it all, so that they wouldn’t be drawn into all of this. They would remain hidden.”
How, in the light of that, can we parliamentarians sit here and say to the victims—many of whom are watching the debate in the Public Gallery—“It is an outrage”, while we stand by as Sir Robert McAlpine is awarded the contract to do the work on the parliamentary estate? There must be consequences when those who bid for public contracts are found to be involved in such practices. Will the Minister explain why on earth, given its disgraceful role in blacklisting, we are giving Sir Robert McAlpine the contract to fix the bongs of Big Ben, which so many parliamentarians have shed tears over?
I took up the blacklisting issue originally as a constituency issue, having been alerted to the scandal by my good friends at Unite; I took an even stronger interest when I was shadow Business Secretary, and I instigated the first full debate on the topic on the Floor of the House in 2013. As I have said, I instigated another debate on it earlier this year, because we must have a proper public inquiry into blacklisting, and the victims are continually denied it.
One of my constituents, Alan Wainwright, is a victim of blacklisting, and was party to exposing it—he was a whistleblower. He has submitted a file of evidence to the Minister’s office on the very point about the public inquiry. Does my hon. Friend agree that the Minister should examine it seriously and in detail as part of the inquiry?
I completely agree; I have met my right hon. Friend’s constituent. In the end, we need the inquiry because we need to know who knew what was going on. It was happening not just in the private sector but in the public sector. There are allegations that it was going on at the Olympic sites, Portcullis House and Ministry of Defence sites. Who knew it was going on? Did the permanent secretaries or the Ministers at the time know? Were the Departments that commissioned construction projects complicit in it? We do not know. Does the law need to be changed or tightened? To what extent is it still going on?
Each time we have debated the issue here the coalition and subsequent Conservative Governments have specifically refused to set up a public inquiry, saying that there is little evidence that blacklisting still goes on. Today I will present compelling evidence showing that the practice is definitely still going on, and that it is happening on one of the biggest construction sites in Europe—Crossrail, a publicly funded project that I have visited. Let us not forget that a construction worker died after being crushed by falling wet concrete, in March 2014, and that two other men were seriously injured in separate incidents in January 2015, working on Crossrail tunnels around the Fisher Street area in central London. In July this year the contractors concerned, BAM, Ferrovial, Keir— the BFK consortium—pleaded guilty to three offences following an investigation by the Health and Safety Executive, and were fined more than £1 million. The HSE said that had simple measures such as properly implemented exclusion zones in high-hazard areas been taken, all three incidents could have been prevented. That shows why it is so important that construction workers should feel free to raise health and safety issues without fear of retribution.
My hon. Friend outlines the human cost to the blacklisted workers and their families, which is almost the point that I want to make; but is there not also a sinister reason—intimidation of those engaged in legitimate trade union activity, to boost profits, often at the cost of the lives of a company’s own workers?
My hon. Friend makes a good point: to what extent is profit being put before safety? Why is there such paranoia when employees and workers raise such issues? I find that hard to fathom, given the fatalities that occur in the construction sector.
The first case that I want to mention concerns surveillance of workers that took place at a peaceful demonstration at a Crossrail site in 2016. I have seen and read emails that passed and were circulated between contractors and the employee relations department at Crossrail, which detail questionable surveillance practices. The surveillance operations involved named individuals who were implicated in and involved with the activities of the Consulting Association. The evidence that I will supply to the Minister after the debate shows that a number of construction workers were being closely watched there, and that sensitive personal information was being collected in relation to them. It is not clear where those data were subsequently posited or by precisely whom, but those collecting information on the workers had to fill in a form, which was definitely filed somewhere.
Two of the workers who were subject to that surveillance have since sought to obtain further employment on Crossrail through employment agencies advertising positions. In each case they approached the job agency about the vacancy, and had the required skills to fill it. However, as soon as they relayed their names there was a delay; they were subsequently given an excuse as to why the positions had been filled. Unite does not believe that what happened to the two workers is coincidental, and it has already informed the Information Commissioner’s Office of its concerns about the case. Clearly, subcontractors were explicitly discouraged from employing certain known trade union members. One subcontractor has actually told Unite that the consequences of his employing a Unite member would be the refusal of future work. For obvious reasons, the subcontractor does not wish to disclose their identity.
The Information Commissioner’s Office, having been contacted about this, has stated that the evidence
“raises the possibility that surveillance is being undertaken without appropriate checks and balances being in place”
and that the
“collection of this type of data is potentially excessive”
under the law.
The second case that I want to highlight is that of an electrician who has been trying to obtain work in the construction industry since raising a grievance while working on Crossrail. He has since applied for hundreds of job vacancies, almost always being turned down. He never received any criticism about the quality of his work. He is an intelligent young guy, who is conscientious about his work and who takes his health and safety duties to himself and his colleagues particularly seriously. He is not particularly political: he is a construction worker and his focus is his work. He served Crossrail with a subject access request that compelled it to provide him with the information it held on him. I have been passed the documents and had a chance to read them. They reveal that Crossrail and three of its contractors exchanged personal data, and sensitive personal data, concerning the individual’s previous employment and the issues and grievances that he had raised there. On the face of it, the data appear to have been processed for the purpose of determining the individual’s suitability for employment related to his trade union activities. The very strong inference from the documents is that some kind of vetting operation was in operation between Crossrail, its contractors and the agencies involved. Again, I will pass the information and the documents to the Minister after the debate.
Those are just two examples, but clearly they show that blacklisting is still going on. I do not think that it is being carried out in the way that it was before, with a centralised system collectively funded by the construction companies, not least because for those caught under the data protection legislation there is a much bigger fine, and the blacklisting regulations are also in force, of course. However, clearly it is still being done, but in a more covert way, making it a lot harder to identify.
The ICO has said it will put out a call for evidence about ongoing blacklisting next year. It should really get on and put out the call for evidence now, without further delay; but it is no substitute for the public inquiry that we seek. The ultimate way to get to the bottom of what happened and is still happening is a proper investigation of that kind. The law clearly needs to be reviewed, even though the Minister told me earlier in the year that that was not necessary. I would like workers to be given a positive right not to be blacklisted. The suggestion of my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (John Grogan) that it should be made a criminal offence was well made. I would also like protection against blacklisting to be extended to include trade union-related activities, as opposed to the current definition, “trade union activities”.
That is absolutely right. All Members who have spoken or undertaken any activity on this issue would have found it much harder to do what we have done without the trade unions providing support and information and uncovering what happened.
I have to say to the Minister that I just do not understand why the Government and her Department are so resistant to having a public inquiry. What are they so afraid of? At the end of the 2010-15 Parliament, I made it very clear to her Department, which I was hoping to run after the 2015 general election, that, if Labour won that election, I would be giving instructions for the establishment of such a public inquiry. I was very clear on that to the permanent secretary. It can be done, it needs to be done and, above all, the thousands of people who have suffered need it to be done. At the same time that they need it to be done, those who were ultimately responsible for all of this have got off scot-free.
I have provided the evidence to the Minister orally—I will provide the documents so she can see them in detail —that this is still going on. To her and the Government, who claim to look out for the interests of workers, I say: put your money where your mouth is, deliver on the public inquiry and let us get justice for those who have suffered and those who are still suffering.
I will make one comment on the public inquiry. There could be reasons why the Government are a little reluctant to hold one, because, if we look at history, we will see that there were, of course, previous blacklisting organisations. We know of the unanswered questions—or rather, the unjustly resolved questions—relating to Shrewsbury in 1973, and we know about the Economic League blacklist. I put it to my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Chuka Umunna), to the House and to the Minister that we should not be scared of taking this on. I believe there were people working inside Parliament who were a part of the creation of the Economic League blacklist. They were working for MPs and using the facilities here. Who is to say that they have not actually continued those activities, because the same companies keep coming up?
Blacklisting happens to all sorts of people. I think there is a view among some of the more naive MPs that this is perhaps something to do with extreme militants battling away. Let me tell hon. Members about one extreme militant who was on the Economic League blacklist and was refused a job because of it: me. I probably do not fit the normal view of an extreme militant. Some would say I am far from it; I will leave colleagues to make their own judgment on that. However, when I was given a job in Manchester by Ciba-Geigy in the 1980s, it was withdrawn, which was a bit of a surprise. I asked them why. I said, “You’ve given me a job and now you’ve taken it away.” They said, “You’re on some list, and we’re afraid”—they were very apologetic —“we can’t give you it.”
Then, by some coincidence, someone got hold of that list, and it was made public. I remember very vividly a meeting at the University of London Union. I think Ricky Gervais was the events officer there at the time. I went in this student room and there were desks there. I thought I would go and see—nosey in; have a look—and I went through and looked under “M” and I found my name there. I have no idea why I was on the Economic League blacklist, and I do not know who put me on it or why. Frankly, it has not affected me, because I was not bothered about the job, unlike some people, whose lives and income and those of their families have been blighted ever since.
I could not have known I was on that list if the person who told me had not apologetically pointed it out to me. They could easily have not said a word, or said, “No, we haven’t got the money. There is no job there. Sorry. No contract has been signed.” I also would not have known if I had not read that the list was being shown—I read it somewhere; I do not know where—and thought that I would stick my nose in and have a look at the list, as you do, curiously. It was a bit of a shock when I found my name on that list. I wondered who it was who put it on there. I can tell hon. Members who it was, because I did some research in some good publications from the time. There were a lot of names of people in the Economic League, and some of those people were working for Tory MPs here, and there were Tory MPs in the middle of it.
Let us have a public inquiry and have everything revealed. Let us go all the way back through the 1970s and 1980s for those who have not gotten justice—I am not bothered about me; I will be all right—such as those in Shrewsbury. Let us have some justice there. There are a lot of people out there who do not even know why they did not get jobs that they went for. That was in construction, but it is not only in construction. I tell hon. Members that, today, it will be parts of the NHS where this kind of informal blacklisting is going on as well, not just construction. It is therefore crucial that we change the law, so let us get on with it and let us have an inquiry.
I did not actually intend to speak in the debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) mentioned the Shrewsbury case. That alleged conspiracy took place in my constituency, in the Bull and Stirrup. It was a bunch of fellows trying to defend their livelihoods, and that sore continues today, 40 years later.
My hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Chuka Umunna), who led the debate—I pay tribute to his persistence on this issue—mentioned the attitudes of the Minister and the Government on this, which is that they do not want a public inquiry because blacklisting has stopped. However, whether in the Shrewsbury case from 40 years ago or for workers today, even if blacklisting had stopped, its effects—the poverty, the shame and, frankly, the humiliation—are still there for decent, hard-working, skilled men and women who have been denied that livelihood and have been suffering the economic consequences ever since. The effects, the human consequences and, above all, the sense of injustice are still with us.
We cannot turn our back on that sense of injustice, whether for the families of Des Warren and Ricky Tomlinson in my constituency 40 years ago—it was not my constituency then, but I will still lay claim to it—or for the other men and women who have suffered perhaps thousands and thousands of pounds of financial loss and heaven knows what kind of human and psychological damage and who are still living with the consequences of that today. Even if blacklisting is not taking place—I am minded to agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham that it is—the consequences are. I believe the Government have a responsibility to address those current consequences.
I will just make a couple of very quick comments. I did not intend to speak in detail, but given that there is time, I will do so. I happen to be the Member of Parliament for six members of the Shrewsbury 24. I know, even today, how they live with the consequences of that blacklisting. One of my constituents has been the Labour mayor of the town I live in, has been a Labour councillor and sat on the police authority. However, even today he cannot travel to the United States because of that conviction and because of the investigation into a whole range of matters to do with health and safety in the workplace and the allegations that were made.
The Government still need to address the information they hold that they could publish about the records of the Shrewsbury 24 at that time. I ask the Minister to look at that issue in general terms, and to revisit what was visited very strongly in this Chamber in the last Parliament: the consequences of the Government not releasing information to do with the Shrewsbury 24, which they promised to release, but which they have failed to release.
The main reason I stand is to say that I was approached in the last few weeks by my constituent, Alan Wainwright, who is a victim of blacklisting and who was part of the whistleblowing in the blacklisting exposure that is taking place. There was a Guardian article last Tuesday that detailed his experiences, and he has also produced a detailed report of his experiences of his dealings with trade unions and with business, which he has submitted to the Minister’s Department for her to examine. He has also submitted it to the general secretary of Unite, Mr Len McCluskey, who has himself ordered an inquiry into this matter within the Unite union. Mr Wainwright asked me to ask the Minister if she will confirm that she has received that report, consider the evidence and look at a possible inquiry into all the allegations he has made, in addition to the points made very ably by my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Chuka Umunna).
When I was a young trade unionist, there was a feeling about that those people who were blacklisted or sacked on strike were generally revolutionaries and pretty bad people, in the main. I rather suspect that that view is still harboured in the dark corners of some people’s minds.
Nearly 40 years ago, I was a works convenor in a medium-sized factory, and after a 19-week strike, the employer decided to sack me for being nothing more than the works convenor of the people who had been on strike. People may well have said at that time that I was a pretty aggressive individual and might well have deserved it, but the reality is that my wife and two little children had not done anything wrong. I never really got over the fact as to why I should be victimised in that way.
Earlier this year, Prince Charles, on the instruction of the Queen, knighted me. So I ask the question: in the long term, who was the villain—me, a Member of Parliament, or the employers who decided to victimise me and, much more importantly, my family?
Thank you, Mr Walker. First, I congratulate the hon. Member for Streatham (Chuka Umunna) on giving a very vivid account of blacklisting in this country.
I have argued since the general election that in this House of minorities, there is potential for this Parliament to be called the justice Parliament. That is by ensuring there are inquiries to deal with the Shrewsbury conspiracy, the wrongful conviction of miners during the miners’ strike and this issue of blacklisting, as well as for those caught up in contaminated blood. While there is now an inquiry into contaminated blood, which I welcome very much, I support the efforts of the hon. Member for Streatham and others to have a public inquiry on blacklisting.
Blacklisting is covered in a fantastic film called “The Happy Lands”, which is based in Fife. The historical context is the general strike there, and in that film blacklisting is revealed. It is difficult to comprehend the extent of blacklisting in this country, thanks to the levels of denial and secrecy surrounding this odious practice, but what is not difficult to understand is the dreadful effect that blacklisting has on people’s lives and the suffering of not just the workers targeted for their trade union activity but their family members as well. Denial of the most basic of human rights—the right to work and provide for your family—by the same companies that have grown rich on lucrative public sector contracts is a shameful act and an abuse of power.
Make no mistake: blacklisting is a deliberate decision taken by company directors and managers who are in the business of maximising profits for shareholders by punishing those who seek to stand up for their rights and the health and safety of their fellow workers. The account given by the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) of his personal circumstances is commonplace in the construction industry, where people turn up for work and within a day or two are told that there is no longer a position for them, because companies have been looking at the blacklist.
The Scottish National party is clear that blacklisting in any form is unacceptable and will not be tolerated. Despite employment law being a reserved matter—which is unfortunate, given the consensus in Scotland that it should be devolved—the Scottish Government have introduced legislation: the Public Contracts (Scotland) Regulations 2015 and the Procurement (Scotland) Regulations 2016, which came into effect in April last year. Those changes will ensure that any company in Scotland found to be involved in the practice of blacklisting will be excluded from bidding for public sector contracts. The general secretary of the Scottish Trades Union Congress, Grahame Smith, has welcomed that action and said that any company applying for new public contracts where blacklisting has taken place in the past must make an apology to the affected workers, issue a statement on future conduct and prove compliance with any tribunal ruling made against it in relation to blacklisting.
I share the concerns of the hon. Member for Streatham about the delays to 2018, flagged up by Unite the union. That is more pathetic, Brexit-induced stalling, and yet another kick in the teeth to those who want not just justice for past wrongs but security for present and future workers.
Some of the context for the move towards greater transparency has come through action through the High Court. In an attempt to body-swerve liability, a number of construction companies attempted to almost name and shame themselves, including Laing O’Rourke, Costain, Kier and Sir Robert McAlpine, which I will come on to later. Let us make a mental note of the last company named there. One of its directors, Cullum McAlpine, who has already been mentioned, was interviewed under oath by the Scottish Affairs Committee when it conducted its inquiry into blacklisting. As an important aside, I hope that the Scottish Affairs Committee now goes back to that inquiry, which was chaired by my predecessor, Ian Davidson. The three interim reports all made clear that there is a case for a full public inquiry, which is essential if we are ever to expose the true extent of the practice and take measures to stop it.
I return to Sir Robert McAlpine, which was a founding member of the Consulting Association. Cullum McAlpine refused to answer many of the questions put to him by the Scottish Affairs Committee members and relied heavily on his lawyer for advice throughout the session. Despite that, he was forced to admit that the company had used the blacklist to vet workers on the Olympic stadium. In the light of that, it is most shocking, as the hon. Member for Streatham rightly said, that the company has been awarded a £20 million contract to refurbish Big Ben—one of the most iconic buildings in the country, symbolising the seat of power and London as a global destination.
I am calling today for McAlpine to be stripped of that contract. It is an absolute disgrace and scandal that it was awarded the contract in the first place and that none of the actions taken in Scotland are happening here in Westminster. The Government should look at what the devolved Administrations have done about companies in the public sector that have engaged in blacklisting. It signals bad faith that one of the main perpetrators of this conspiracy—and blacklisting is a conspiracy—is accessing public money to boost its profits.
I support the hon. Member for Streatham in relation to a public inquiry. I hope that the Government will announce a public inquiry into blacklisting, because there are many, many unanswered questions. I congratulate him once again and all those who have spoken so far. They have the support of the SNP for a public inquiry into blacklisting.
Thank you very much, Mr Walker. May I first congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Chuka Umunna) on his outstanding advocacy of a noble cause?
Trade unions are a force for good. To be denied work because you are a trade unionist is an affront to democracy. Blacklisting is not history; it is a scandal that has never gone away. Forty years ago, when I came out of the Grunwick strike, I was blacklisted by the Economic League. I was one of the 30,000 subversives, as they defined us at the time. I was out of work for a matter of months and then became an officer of the Transport and General Workers’ Union, but tens of thousands of others paid a very heavy price, some of them for decades. I then worked with The Guardian to expose the Economic League, leading ultimately to its demise, but it is absolutely scandalous that it was then reincarnated as another organisation, with the same practices.
It is absolutely scandalous that two generations on from the 1970s, we still have an industry—the construction industry—that has not learned the lessons of history and has not recognised that, as Keith Ewing, professor of public law at King’s College London has said, blacklisting is
“the worst human rights abuse in relation to workers”
in Britain in half a century.
Blacklisting has been outlawed, but the law is simply not strong enough. There has been some compensation for some of the victims of blacklisting, but it is not good enough, and that cynical manoeuvre was about companies trying to protect themselves from public scrutiny and escape their crimes being made public. No user company has been punished for blacklisting. No director has ended up in the dock, and that is completely wrong.
The scale of blacklisting over the years is tens of thousands of workers. There is a long history of Government, the police and construction firms acting in collusion and, as we have heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham, blacklisting is happening right now by major and allegedly reputable companies that enjoy enormous public contracts such as Crossrail and Big Ben. It is important to reflect on the human consequences of continuous blacklisting and we have heard powerful testimony of that today.
Workers take a pride in their work and define themselves through their job. The issue is self-worth and identity. To be out of work for years not quite knowing why and then discovering it was because they did nothing else but ask for a safe workplace is a scandal.
My constituent, Danny Regan was an electrician until he was blacklisted. He is not an electrician anymore and he still cannot work in that field because of the history of blacklisting. In supporting the call today for a public inquiry, does my hon. Friend agree that it should address the legacy of the impact of what happened in the past?
Without hesitation, I agree with my right hon. Friend, and I will come to that.
Over the years, hundreds of individuals have been blacklisted and I will give one example today. Dave Smith, joint secretary of the Blacklist Support Group, became virtually unemployable as a consequence of his file, which was first held by the Economic League and then by the Consulting Association. It was 36 pages long and stretched from 1992 to 2007, from his very first job with Balfour Beatty all the way through successive employment. His sin with Balfour Beatty was to take part in a dispute about unpaid wages. His file included personal information, including address and national insurance number, but also details of his wife and brother. That is an affront to democracy and the rights of working people, and demands further action. Members today were absolutely right when they said we need first and foremost a public inquiry into blacklisting, its use in the past, its current use, steps going forward to eradicate blacklisting, the role of the special demonstration squad, the role of the Consulting Association, and examination of evidence of blacklisting in publicly procured contracts. The truth needs finally to be fully told.
Secondly, we must strengthen legislation to stop the continuing practice of blacklisting and criminalise it. We must also ensure that the law is not limited to employment relationships because, by definition, if a worker is blacklisted he or she does not have an employment relationship. As Unite has argued, we must also tackle patterns of work generally in construction, such as bogus self-employment. The argument is that 10 million workers are in insecure employment where employers can abuse without fear, and blacklisting very often follows.
Thirdly, we need strong rules covering Government contracts awarded to firms complicit in blacklisting. There must be consequences for blacklisting. It is a scandal that the Big Ben contract has gone to McAlpine, one of the first blacklisting offenders. I suspect that we here do not give a damn about the Big Ben bong, but we give a damn that that firm, which blacklisted workers and treated them shamefully, has an iconic contract just yards from where we are.
We need effective action, including at local authority level. I particularly praise Liverpool for its social value charter, which refers to respect for all individuals and does not engage in any form of discrimination or blacklisting practices—in other words, an unmistakeable message must be sent and enforced that a company suspected of blacklisting does not get public contracts.
Fourthly, we must make sure that specific laws banning blacklisting and data protection are retained after we leave the European Union.
In conclusion, as we have heard today, blacklisting is not history. We must learn from the lessons of history and ultimately confine blacklisting to history. That is why we need a public inquiry, strengthening of the law and absolute clarity that companies do not get public contracts if they blacklist. The time has come to blacklist the blacklisters.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Walker. I congratulate the hon. Member for Streatham (Chuka Umunna) on securing this important debate and on his opening remarks, which I listened to intently.
I am pleased to have the opportunity to respond to this debate and I want to make it clear that the Government take blacklisting extremely seriously. We hope and trust that blacklisting has already become and will remain a thing of the past, but we are not complacent, and I am even less complacent, having heard from the hon. Gentleman who introduced the debate about evidence that he wishes to put before me afterwards. I was shocked by what I heard and I share his view and that of other Members that blacklisting of trade union members and activists is completely unacceptable. It has absolutely no part to play in modern employment relations.
As hon. Members have noted, we have in place regulations targeted specifically at trade union blacklists and I believe they are both proportionate and robust enough to prevent abuse from occurring. I accept the point that has been made that the horrendous abuse of the past, which was overt, organised and clearly in breach of the law as it stands today, may have been replaced by a more covert approach. That must be borne in mind, but the Employment Relations Act 1999 (Blacklists) Regulations 2010 made it unlawful for an individual or organisation to compile, sell or make use of a blacklist of trade union members or those who have taken part in trade union activities.
Since the introduction of those regulations, no evidence has been presented to the Government or the Information Commissioner that these practices are recurring. If that is no longer the case, naturally I want to know about it. Any individual or trade union who believes they have been the victim of blacklisting practices has the right to take action. They do not have to wait for an independent investigation. They can enforce their rights under the regulations through an employment tribunal or the county court. Anyone who believes they have been affected has the right to pursue justice through these means and we would encourage them to do so.
The measures in the 2010 blacklisting regulations are reinforced by powers in the Data Protection Act 1998, which protect the use of personal data—that was very much needed in the examples we have heard this afternoon. I emphasise that this includes information on trade union membership and sensitive personal data. The Government take the protection of personal data very seriously.
The Information Commissioner’s Office is the regulatory body and was set up to investigate breaches of the Data Protection Act 1998. It has power to take enforcement action, including searching premises, issuing enforcement notices and imposing fines of up to £500,000 for serious breaches. The Government continue to bear down on those who seek to exploit personal data. We have published a statement of intent in relation to the proposed data protection Bill that was announced in the Queen’s Speech. The Bill will implement the general data protection regulation into UK law and will give us one of the most robust and dynamic sets of data laws in the world. It will give people more control over their data, require a higher standard of consent for its use, and prepare Britain for exiting the European Union.
As a result of the general data protection regulation, the Information Commissioner’s fining powers will increase substantially from 25 May 2018, to 4% of an organisation’s annual global turnover or €20 million, whichever is greater.
It is clear that data collection and data analytics in the workplace are gaining in importance. In the light of that and the strengthened framework that the general data protection regulation will create, the Information Commissioner’s Office intends to open a call for evidence, to which hon. Members have alluded, on the implications of modern employment practices in recruitment and selection, and the obligations of employers. The hon. Member for Streatham says that that should happen sooner rather than later. I agree with him. I believe that the call for evidence is scheduled for next year. I will talk to the Information Commissioner’s Office to see whether it can be brought forward.
The call for evidence is an important step in trying to establish not only the true picture of the level of blacklisting that may or may not take place in practice now, but how growth in digital services has created potential new risks for employees and how those may be addressed.
In my previous capacity on Suffolk County Council, when the council decided to outsource its highways to Kier, we took a motion to council calling for it to ensure that there was no blacklisting in relation to employees of Kier working for Suffolk County Council. That motion was passed unanimously, because Conservative members of Suffolk County Council—like, I am sure, Conservative Members of this Parliament—were vocally opposed to blacklisting. However, nothing was done to find out whether blacklisting was actually taking place. The Minister is talking to us about a search for evidence, but without a public inquiry to find out what has actually taken place, surely there is no way we will get to the bottom of this.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I can reassure him. If people in his borough have any evidence, the best thing they can do at the moment is to take it to the Information Commissioner, who will investigate it. In fact, the Information Commissioner does not need particular examples even. If they are seeing allegations made against a particular employer or within a sector, they will commit to investigating the issues that his constituents have raised.
The hon. Member for Ipswich (Sandy Martin), who made the previous intervention, mentioned procurement. Will the Minister tell us what steps the Government are taking on procurement to ensure that companies that blacklist workers do not get public sector contracts?
I will write to the hon. Gentleman on that matter. We expect high standards of corporate governance for major contracts awarded by the Government. If there is evidence of companies acting in the present day in not only a disreputable but a potentially illegal manner, that will be taken into consideration.
To press the Minister further on that point, we have heard powerful evidence today in relation to both Crossrail and Big Ben. Does she agree that if there is evidence of complicity in blacklisting, the companies concerned should not get public contracts until such time as they have remedied the bad practices of the past and, indeed, the present?
The shadow Minister makes a very reasonable point, which I will consider further. I think there is nothing to disagree with in what he has said.
We want to build on the work already undertaken by the Information Commissioner’s Office looking at profiling and big data analytics. The Information Commissioner’s call for evidence, once complete, will be the most recent and authoritative source of data that we have. I can assure hon. Members that the Government will consider the evidence collected and the report on it very carefully indeed.
I want to acknowledge the request from the right hon. Member for Delyn (David Hanson). I have indeed received correspondence from Mr Alan Wainwright. I have looked at it briefly and will examine it thoroughly. The right hon. Gentleman also asked me to look again at the situation with regard to the Shrewsbury 24, and I will write to him on that subject as well.
The Government will continue to take a very close interest in this matter. If the Information Commissioner finds any evidence of current blacklisting, perpetrators can expect to feel the full force of the law, and I am sure—to go back to the shadow Minister’s intervention—that that would have implications for contracting as well. In the meantime, in the absence of clear, strong and compelling evidence to the effect that blacklisting is widespread, we remain of the view that the blacklisting regulations, alongside the proposed changes to the data protection rules, are appropriate and robust tools— the increased fines and accountability are further disincentives—to counter this abhorrent and illegal practice.
I urge all hon. Members to talk to their constituents who raise these matters with them and to the trade unionists in their constituency who have been affected, and to use the call for evidence as a means of exposing any current practice that might be continuing, so that we can eradicate this appalling abuse of people’s human rights at work once and for all.
I am very grateful to all hon. Members who have contributed to the debate, and for the powerful testimony that several have given. I will just say three things.
First, I welcome the Minister’s saying that she will press the Information Commissioner to do the call for evidence this year, not next year. I also welcome her saying—if I heard her correctly—that the Government will consider taking into account whether people were or are involved in blacklisting in relation to public procurement decisions going forward. That is most welcome.
Secondly, there are clearly good and bad sides to this industry. I have seen some of the good sides in my constituency during the past couple of weeks while visiting big construction sites, on Streatham High Road and the Clapham Park estate, that will make a positive difference to my community. However, this scandal exposes the ugly underbelly of the sector, which continues to go unaddressed.
I will wrap up by saying this to the Minister. She accepts that this practice is an outrage and has said that the Government take it seriously and are not complacent about it. I still fail to understand why she was not able to come here today and commit to a public inquiry. I do not understand what the Government are so afraid of. If it exposes embarrassing things for people politically that happened in the past, so what? Surely justice is the key here. That is how we prove that this Parliament is relevant. For all the bad press that this place gets, and given how disillusioned people are with the political process, at least with this we can illustrate that we deliver the goods and care about people, so I ask the Minister to please think again about doing a public inquiry. Do not be scared; just announce that you are going to do it.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered blacklisting.