Wednesday 6 September 2017
[Albert Owen in the Chair]
Letting Agent Fees (Tenants)
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the proposed ban on letting agent fees to tenants.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship once again, Mr Owen. I must first draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I worked in the property sector for 30 years prior to joining this House. I started my business in the property sector 25 years ago. It has grown into a national business, which I am still involved in as non-executive chair and a principal shareholder. Like many in this sector, my business and its revenue would, on the face of it, be significantly affected by the proposed changes; nevertheless, for reasons I will outline, I am in favour of the ban on lettings fees, but it needs to come with effective enforcement, and we need to cater for unintended consequences, in particular for those whom we are most trying to help in this House: tenants on low incomes.
Why am I in favour? I have declared my interest in this sector, but think that all Members with any outside interests should leave them in the Members’ cloakroom when they join this House. We should first look to ensure that we represent our constituents’ interests. Of course, our constituents include letting agents, landlords and tenants. For me, in business, as in politics, the consumer has to be put first. The free market is ultimately the best regulator that we can ever have. It creates so much opportunity. It created opportunity for my business 25 years ago; there were no protections, entitlements or privileges for the businesses in our market that we sought to compete against then. The consumer, our landlords and our sellers could simply choose which agent delivered the best service at the best price.
May I ask the hon. Gentleman what an unfettered free market, where supply is limited, does for first-time buyers and people on low incomes who have to resort to the private sector?
The first-time buyer difficulty is huge. We are not debating that today—we are talking about tenants—but as I stated, we need to consider the plight of those on low incomes, and I will do that shortly.
The point is that tenants do not have a choice. This is not a free market for tenants in terms of levying fees on them. Landlords choose agents; tenants choose properties. When a tenant has chosen a property, the agent can charge them whatever they feel is the right fee. It is a completely closed market at that point. Most agents take a very responsible view of that and provide their services at fair rates, but from the research done in the consultation by the Department for Communities and Local Government, we know that there is huge variation in those charges. DCLG suggests that the average tenant fee is £318; the industry says that it is much lower. One thing that we would all agree on is that there is huge variation. DCLG says that tenant fees are between £120 and £747.
I was recently at a roundtable of letting agents discussing this issue. A high-profile London agent said that they charge a £400 tenant fee, which they justified on the basis that they provide viewings for tenants. To me, that is clearly a service they provide for their landlords. Another leading figure in the estate agency industry talked to me about his daughter, who went to college in Manchester. She rented a house with four fellow students, and they were charged £500 each as a tenant fee. That is simply unfair.
Some agents exploit this opportunity. They use it as a way to compete unfairly in the marketplace, which is not good for people who operate a fair system of charges. They use it to lower their charges to landlords, so that they attract more of them, and transfer that cost to the tenant. That cannot be right. Others use it simply to maximise profits. There is a loophole, and I welcome the Government’s action in looking to close it. I think that tenants should welcome that, as well as housing charities and Members across this House.
However, it is right that we consider the potential impacts of this change, and there are impacts and unintended consequences. First, there is the issue of rent increases. All rules and regulations have a price tag. A similar ban was introduced in Scotland in 2012. It was a kind of secondary ban, because a ban was put in place some years earlier that had not been totally effective. Having talked to agents in Scotland, I know that they had to make more efficiencies after the ban. They cut jobs and transferred some of the costs and charges to landlords, which is bound to result in higher rents. In terms of landlords and the private rented sector, the lettings market is an effective free market, and those markets do not lead to excessive profits if there is sufficient competition, which there is. Research by LSL Property Services—a property company that looked at the Scottish situation—said that there was a 4.3% increase in rents in 2013, compared with a nil increase in 2012.
The likelihood is that there will be a rise in rents, and that will disproportionately affect some tenants. Tenants who move more frequently will probably be better off; tenants who stay in properties for longer—usually tenants on lower incomes—would potentially be worse off if the fees go into rents. Overall, in their consultation, the Government recognise that this is a potential, if not desirable, outcome. The housing charity Shelter, which has been campaigning on this matter, also sees it as a potential outcome. On the forum that we held on Money Saving Expert, we asked tenants about that, and they said that the transparency of that is better than the lack of transparency and the closed market regarding tenant fees.
I see in the Gallery a number of people who are involved in the industry. The industry is very concerned about the impact on jobs and businesses. The industry position is that we should have a cap, rather than a ban, on fees. I understand that, and at one point argued for it, but the trouble with a cap is that it is a contrived device. Putting a cap in place potentially allows for a race to the top. It does not afford the opportunities of a free market, which I see as the best regulator. What charges would we allow and where would those be capped? That was one of the issues with the original Scottish scheme that was supposed to ban fees. It created a loophole that allowed other types of charges. The Government’s position is clear, and the reality is that the direction of travel is towards a complete ban.
We must consider businesses, which are hugely important. Their investment in our economy and the jobs and wealth that are created are very welcome, and we should do whatever we can to ensure that we create a fair, level playing field for business. According to Companies House, the number of letting agents in Scotland has increased since 2012, so some of the worries about businesses seeing difficulties are probably overblown. One of the leading lettings-only agents in Scotland has had no office closures since 2012.
As somebody who believes in competition, I see market failure and closed markets as protecting weak companies that do not compete on a level playing field, and that do not really work, in terms of their services and in terms of efficiencies, which businesses are so good at.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent and balanced speech. He mentioned that there has been no decline in the number of letting agents in Scotland since the new regime. How does he account for that? What is the key reason why the industry has continued to prosper?
I like to think, although I have no definitive evidence, that a dynamic market has been created. New entrants have come into the market that are willing to work harder and provide different, more efficient services. Some agents will find it difficult and there will have to be job losses, but hopefully those jobs will be transferred to new businesses that come into the market and compete. We should see this as a definite challenge, but also as an opportunity within the sector.
One of the biggest concerns is the unintended consequences, particularly for tenants on low incomes. Agents are allowed to charge tenants for very important services such as references and inventories, but in future they will not be, so the costs will be borne by the letting agent. When faced with a tenant whom we might call borderline—somebody who is on a lower income, who might fail a credit check or who is on housing benefit—the letting agent may not want to carry out a reference check, if they will not get paid for if the tenant fails it, so they may plump for a safer bet. This may result in some tenants being unable to rent the properties they seek.
I draw the hon. Gentleman’s attention to a quotation from an article in The Daily Telegraph on 27 August. This touches on the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) made about young people. Does he agree with this?
“If you are under 35, it’s likely there is little chance of you ever owning your own home. No doubt you are also fed up of living in overpriced rented accommodation, often of a standard that can best be described as a dump.”
Is this not part of a wider malaise? Our leader would be proud of that article, since a lot of it seems to be pilfered from the 2015 Labour manifesto.
Well, nobody has a monopoly on the best ideas. The Government absolutely believe in the power of market forces and want to ensure that they apply universally. However, I do not recognise the hon. Lady’s description of the private rented sector. There are 4 million properties in that sector in the UK, of which about 1 million—a significant number, but a minority—are considered substandard. I will move on later in my speech to how we might deal with properties of substandard quality and condition, but I do not recognise them as characteristic of the industry, of landlords or of agents.
I neglected to say that the article I mentioned was written by the Minister’s former colleague Rob Wilson, the former MP for Reading East who was defeated at the last general election. He writes that the Conservatives should get a grip on housing if they are ever to win again.
That is exactly the purpose of this legislation. I will move on shortly to how we tackle substandard properties, but the point is that they are a minority. The hon. Lady characterises rented properties as universally substandard; I do not accept that at all. When I started in the industry 30 years ago, the only homes for rent in the middle of York were shabby, damp, dark terraced houses. There was very little choice in the private rented sector. Since then, the private sector has delivered excellent accommodation throughout the country. Yes, there are difficulties, including rogue landlords and rogue agents, and we need to deal with them. The Government have legislated and are legislating on that basis.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
One last time, but after that I had better make some progress.
The hon. Gentleman talks about the delivery of rented sector housing in the free market. Does he accept that there is a big difference between a normal market and the housing market—a market for a service of primary importance to the continuation of human life, with a massive gap between demand and supply? That has put the tenants in an impossible position vis-à-vis the agents. In any normal market, such as groceries, demand meets supply. Someone who goes into a supermarket does not get charged its advertising and transport costs on top of the price of the groceries. The customer knows what they are paying, and we need the same in the lettings market.
Order. Interventions need to be slightly shorter.
The hon. Gentleman makes some good points. In the main I support them, though I do not agree with them all. I have made it clear that there is an issue here that we need to deal with.
I have a couple of further points on unintended consequences. It is welcome that holding deposits will remain, and that if a tenant offers false documentation, the letting agent can retain it. I wonder who adjudicates on whether that process is fair; I think it is part of the redress schemes that apply to letting agents. There are also exemptions for tenants’ actions, so that tenants can be charged if they lose keys or break a contract. Again, I believe that that is fair.
The consultation suggests limiting security deposits to one month’s rent. The difficulty with that is that a number of tenants will try to use their security deposit as their last month’s rent. We know that around 50% of tenancies end with condition issues and work required. Limiting the security deposit to only a month’s rent raises the possibility of leaving the landlord out of pocket, because it is very difficult to chase a tenant for a debt once they have left. One month may be too short a limit; we need to look at that.
We really need to consider enforcement. The consultation proposes that local authorities enforce and oversee the regulations, but we know that most local authorities simply do not have the time to do that effectively. We need proper enforcement to ensure that we deliver a level playing field for all companies, in which rogue agents cannot continue to charge while good agents do not. In a recent survey, 45% of local authorities said that they took a “reactive only” approach to regulation in the sector.
The rules will also apply to landlords who let directly to tenants. England is the only part of the UK that does not have a central register of landlords. Who will monitor landlords to ensure that letting agent fees are not simply being transferred to direct charges from landlords? Who will regulate that area? There is a chance that more landlords will self-let after the changes.
There is a simple solution: extending the redress schemes, which have been very effective in raising standards, to landlords, so that tenants who rent directly from landlords have somewhere to press a claim for unfair treatment, rather than going to their local authority. That would be a light-touch way of regulating the sector. It would also have the benefit of improving rental standards, to which the hon. Member for Ealing Central and Acton (Dr Huq) referred. Redress schemes could apply a national rental standard and oversee it to ensure that we raise standards. The Government have been proactive in raising standards, having introduced measures on smoke alarms, carbon monoxide detectors, electrical checks and client money protection.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way on that point?
For the final time.
The hon. Gentleman is very generous in giving way. We can have what laws we like; if local authorities do not have the funds to do works in default if a landlord does not do them, the laws are pointless. In the last year, only 19 of the 33 London boroughs have done any works in default.
I accept that point; I made it earlier. A far more effective way to regulate this would be to have a redress scheme, backed up by a lead enforcement agency for prosecutions and higher fines. At the moment, the fines are £5,000, which is insufficient. Fines for rogue agents should be up to £30,000, as in the Housing and Planning Act 2016, and we should also allow for the possibility of banning orders for rogue landlords and agents. Again, that would potentially provide a funding stream for local authorities and the lead enforcement agency.
In conclusion, the way forward is to make sure that we deal with unintended consequences and deliver a considered and strategic solution, using a combination of market forces, the best regulator and light-touch regulations, which would lead not only to a level and fair business playing field but—crucially—a fair deal for tenants.
Thank you, Mr Owen, for calling me to speak and I also thank the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) for securing this important debate.
At one stage, the private rented sector was the stop-gap for people before they owned their own home. Now in the UK, one in four families with children privately rent, which is up from one in 10 just 10 years ago. In fact, the total number of households privately renting has increased by more than a third since 2010. The under-supply of new houses, particularly social homes and affordable homes, is forcing those households into the private rented sector and extortionate costs have left them trapped and unable to save for a home of their own.
Let us start with the letting fees. Every month, renters pay more than £13 million in unfair fees. On average, each tenant is expected to pay more than £200, with one in seven being charged more than £500. I have heard of tenancy agreements that are as high as £480 and referencing fees that are up to an eye-watering £550. Fees have risen faster than inflation and it is no wonder that, as a result, more than half of tenants have had financial problems. About 27% of tenants have had to borrow or use a loan to pay fees, while 17% cut down on heating and food to cover costs. Can anyone explain why a referencing could possibly necessitate such an extraordinary expense?
Let us take my constituent David as an example. He rents a small room in what was originally a three-bedroom house. There are now two further bedrooms in the loft and the two reception rooms on the ground floor are also used as bedrooms. There are currently 10 households in that house and David is charged £550 a month for his room. That is not the highest rent in my constituency, but it is still high enough, and he was further charged an astounding £1,250 in letting fees, as well as an additional £50 simply to get a letter that explained how much his deposit was and what he had paid for. How can anyone possibly justify such a disgraceful fee? Such fees are exploitative and the market is completely lacking in transparency, with fees being set and charged by individual agents.
I appreciate that I am coming at this issue very much from a London point of view, but the owner of the property that David lives in is taking in a rent of £3,850 per calendar month for an unregistered house in multiple occupation.
Despite the Consumer Rights Act 2015 making it mandatory for letting agents to publish their fees in full, 12% of them still do not do so. One in five tenants expect to have to pay an average of £80 to renew their tenancy, with letting agents preferring short tenancies, so that they can impose fresh extortionate fees on a new tenant. Since the proposed ban on letting fees, one agent has even introduced an additional fee, named a “legal document charge”, as compensation in the short term before the proposed ban hits. Capping those fees would not limit the number of different charges that a tenant might face and I agree with the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton that they should be banned once and for all.
However, a ban on letting fees will not solve the country’s housing crisis; it would not even solve the crisis in the private rented sector. Since 2010, the cost of private rents has risen by 22%, making tenants increasingly reliant on support from the state. In fact, the amount of housing benefit going to private tenants has more than doubled in the last 10 years, with a quarter of private renters now claiming it. Similarly, the average cost of a deposit in London is a staggering £1,760.30. A ban on letting fees will not solve those spiralling financial issues.
Renters are lost in our housing crisis. They are unable to afford their own home but are unlikely to qualify for social housing. They face paying rents that on average take 41% of their household income, compared with homeowners, who pay 19% of their income on mortgage payments. How can a private renter ever be expected to afford their own home? Extortionate costs have left almost two-thirds of private renters without savings or investment, them precariously close to homelessness if rents continue to rise. It is no wonder that private renters are now the biggest group being made homeless, with one in three homeless cases involving a tenant at the end of their tenancy.
I hold my advice surgery every Friday and the biggest group of people who come to me because they are threatened with homelessness are mature families with three or four children, and they have lived in their private rented home for 10 or 15 years and never miss their rent. They have done nothing; they come to me because of the fact that their landlords can receive higher rents by renting to people who are not even partially on housing benefit. When my mum and dad came to London, they regularly saw signs in the windows saying, “No blacks, no Irish, no dogs”. Today the equivalent signs say, “No one on housing benefit or universal credit”.
Considering the extraordinary costs, it is unforgiveable that almost a third of private rented homes in England fail basic health and safety standards. In fact, a private landlord is more than twice as likely as a social landlord to be renting out a property containing a serious safety hazard. But tenants are petrified of voicing their concerns, with 820 renters per day in 2014 being threatened with eviction for highlighting poor conditions in their home. Councils have the power to fine failing landlords but are strapped for cash themselves and simply cannot afford to enforce the regulations. Next month, the Government’s register of rogue landlords will become active, but unless tenants can access the register it will be worthless to them.
After hearing these statistics, few will be surprised to hear that the level of home ownership in Britain is at its lowest since 1985. When I became an MP in 1997, homeowners could expect to pay just over three and a half times their annual earnings to buy a house; now, it is over nine times. Newly built houses are out of reach for 83% of working private renting families and the vast majority of those families are simply unable to afford a home of their own.
Does my hon. Friend also agree that this problem is also an outer London problem? It used to be the kind of thing that was associated with inner cities. In my constituency of Ealing Central and Acton, 34.4% of people are in private rented properties, compared with 16% nationally. We have a landlord register, which is a good idea. Does she agree?
I totally agree with my hon. Friend. We both represent outer London constituencies and we are seeing rents that are completely unimaginable. I was looking for a home for a constituent who had to leave her previous home in shocking circumstances. We spoke to a very good local landlord, who told me that a one-bedroom flat in the street I was born and brought up in and where my 93-year-old mother still lives would cost £1,250 per calendar month. My constituent is a young woman who has a good job as a civil servant—she works very close to where we are now—but there is no prospect of her having access to such a home.
For those who cannot afford private rents, nearly 76,000 households are now in temporary accommodation, while not a single starter home has been built since the Government announced their flagship programme three years ago. Our housing market is broken. The lack of housing supply is at the heart of our housing problems, from homelessness to falling home ownership and soaring house prices.
The hon. Lady has highlighted serious abuses of the private rented sector, particularly in terms of some of the conditions and charges that she referred to. Does she accept that there is life outside London? The property market in the rest of the country can be completely different to the one she describes. Does she also accept that the vast majority of landlords and agents do a very good job in their provision of the private rented sector and making sure tenants get a fair deal?
First, I accept the hon. Gentleman’s point about London. Our problem is that London is such an important driver for the country’s entire economy and London is getting bigger. Merton is no longer an outer London borough; it has become inner London because London is becoming Reading or Milton Keynes. The pricing out of the people who do the important jobs that we need to be done from ever having an opportunity to live in our city is an important issue for the whole country.
Does the hon. Lady accept that the issue is not only a London problem? I represent Bath and the problem spreads around the country from London, so it is not just a London problem.
I appreciate what the hon. Lady says. I imagine Bath is becoming part of Greater London as well as people make ever further attempts to be able to afford the sort of home in which they want to bring up their children. I accept that most private landlords and letting agents are good people simply doing a job, but that does not solve our housing crisis. Buying to let causes problems for young people in good jobs who simply want the opportunity that many of us had to own a home, and we have to do something about that. The problem is not bad motives on the part of people, but the fact that buy to let has an implication for the wider housing market, our wider economy and our wider society.
A homeless family turning up in Merton today will be placed in temporary accommodation in Birmingham or Burnley, away from their wider family and away from their support and their children’s schools. That cannot be right for anybody. Let us ban letting fees, but let us not believe that that will help us to resolve our housing difficulties.
I do not want to impose an official time limit, but I will call the Front Benchers at half past. Those who wish to speak have about four minutes.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) on securing this debate this morning.
There are many good landlords, but it is clear that there are some pretty shocking ones as well. It is in the interests of good landlords to get a grip and ensure that the bad landlords and letting agents are pushed or driven out of the market. It is perfectly reasonable for landlords to fund searches and referencing. I do not think that is a problem; it is a price that landlords should pay.
There is a competition out there among letting agencies for those with properties to let. So if someone goes along to a landlord and says, “We will let your property, but we will charge you £1,000 for referencing,” they will probably get short shrift. However, if they say, “This is a market. We do thorough and good referencing that will cost you £250,” the landlord is probably more likely to use that agency. Landlords will do their research, look online and see an agency has positive endorsements, but with the great internet it is possible to find the agency out there that will let their property to tenants.
I think we need to go a little further because check-in and check-out can cause problems. It is hugely important that check-in and check-out is done by an independent person. My hon. Friend mentioned that 57% of properties are self-let, which creates a problem when the owner—the landlord—checks the tenant in and checks them out. That is not an independent check-in and check-out. It is possible that some landlords allow self-interest to interfere with what is fair and just. I want to see independent check-in and check-out so that when a property is let there is certainty that the person looking at the inventory does not have a stake in the game. It would be reasonable for the landlord to fund that.
I take my hon. Friend’s point entirely; I am greatly in sympathy with him. However, in the case of an independent landlord doing the checking in and checking out, if it is not done properly and agreed with the tenant at the time, under the tenant deposit scheme any withdrawal of money or holding back of the deposit means it becomes null and void, so there is an onus on the landlord to ensure the tenant agrees with the check-in and check-out process.
That is a very important point. At the time, the tenant may agree with the landlord that something was damaged before they moved in, but there is no guarantee that the landlord will fix it and then in 12 or 24 months’ time—this is particularly prevalent in student accommodation at universities—try to charge the tenants again for it. Of course, the landlord is often in an economically stronger position. I welcome the fact that there is a third-party deposit scheme, but it only works properly where a letting agent is used. If the landlord is self-letting, they are not obliged to lodge the money with a third party. They keep the money, but are required to insure it with a third party. So at the end of the tenancy, the landlord still has the cash, can hold back what he or she wants and can then say, “If you want to contest it, go and contest it with my deposit.”
I have spoken to Mr Hooker, the chief executive of MyDeposits, and we have a meeting coming up. He sees the flaw in the system. If someone is self-letting, they keep the cash and simply insure against it if there is a claim against them. A lot of tenants have not got the time, the wherewithal or the understanding to challenge the deductions. We particularly see that in student accommodation. I welcome what we are doing, but we need to do more.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen. I commend the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) for securing this debate and welcome his support for the ban, drawing on his extensive experience in the industry.
The UK has a housing crisis that is unprecedented since the end of the second world war. By the Government’s own admission, the housing market is broken and they are failing to repair it. The number of new homes being built in the UK is well below the 300,000 homes a year that need to be built to address the shortfall, and the number of genuinely affordable social homes being built with Government funding has atrophied, dropping by a staggering 95% since 2010.
The crisis is manifest in the thousands of people on the waiting list for a secure social tenancy and the thousands who are unable to afford to purchase a home. The number of people renting privately while they wait for a secure social tenancy or try to save to purchase a home has grown enormously in recent years, and increasing numbers of people are living in the private rented sector for the medium to long term, including 1.5 million households with children—three times the number of a decade ago.
We have a private rented sector that is entirely unfit for purpose, in which tenants pay above the odds for lower levels of security and often lower quality accommodation. Private renters spend a higher proportion of their income on rent—41% on average, compared with 19% on average for people with a mortgage—leaving many unable to save and struggling to make ends meet. The ending of a private tenancy is now the single biggest cause of new cases of homelessness. Both my local councils, Lambeth and Southwark, tell me that the number of residents seeking help from the council because their tenancy has come to an end or they face an impossible increase in their rent has gone up by hundreds of cases every year, and I see struggling tenants living in impossible circumstances in my surgeries every week.
The situation is made much worse by the introduction by the coalition Government of the local housing allowance cap, which increasingly means that almost no private sector housing is affordable to people on low-to-average incomes in central London boroughs. The pernicious right-to-rent regulations are increasing prejudice and discrimination in the private rented sector. Councils in London are now seeing people who in the past would never have needed to ask the council for help with their housing being threatened with homelessness as a result of a combination of high rents, the coalition Government’s local housing allowance cap and insecure tenancies.
We urgently need wholesale reform of the private rented sector. We need longer, more secure forms of tenure; intervention to curb spiralling rents; new requirements on the standard of accommodation to make every home fit for human habitation; and an end to the iniquitous practice of section 21 no-fault evictions. Tenants, of course, have contractual obligations to pay rent and keep their rental property in good order, but the balance of power between landlords and tenants in the UK is completely unjust. It needs to be reformed to provide security and stability for the many thousands of residents who are forced to rely on it.
In the context of the need for radical reform, the proposal to ban letting agents from charging fees to tenants is a vital first step. Those fees are presently completely unregulated, and the letting agents are chosen and appointed by landlords. The majority of the services they provide are on behalf of landlords. In the purchase of a home, estate agents—often the same agents who provide lettings services—charge only the vendor. Many tenants move every six to 12 months, so fees are not a one-off cost as they are when buying a home, but a recurring and unaffordable burden. A situation where tenants are spending more than 40% of their income on rent makes it very difficult to save, and paying hefty fees to letting agents on a regular basis is simply another blow that prevents many people from adding to their savings either for a deposit or to create a bit more financial breathing space to cope with unexpected bills.
Some concerns have been voiced by letting agents, but I am not convinced that they are supported by the evidence. The first thing to say is that there are letting agents, including at least one in my constituency, that already do not charge fees to tenants, so it is clear that a successful business model for letting agents can be achieved without the need to charge tenants. The regulation of fees should, in fact, benefit responsible and professional agents, since it is often the least scrupulous agents who charge the highest fees.
Some have argued that tenants will face higher rents as landlords seek to pass any increased costs on to them. I agree with Shelter on that point, which states that predictability beats up-front costs. Although it is to be hoped that landlords would not pass on additional costs to tenants who already pay high levels of rent, an increase of a few pounds a month is clearly preferable to having a small amount of savings obliterated every six to 12 months.
Concerns have been raised that some agents would refuse to check references, resulting in an increase in the number of tenants facing discrimination. Discrimination is already common in the private rented sector. Again, I agree with Shelter: there are better methods, most notably a tenant passport scheme, that would allow checks to be undertaken in an efficient manner and refreshed periodically—rather than taken from scratch at the start of every tenancy—and that would safeguard the interests of both tenant and landlord, while enabling letting agents to operate more efficiently. Any passporting scheme should also apply to tenants’ deposits, which should be transferable from one tenancy to the next, to reduce further the burden of up-front costs.
The Government must act urgently to address the housing crisis, to invest directly in genuinely affordable social housing and to bring forward low-cost homes for first-time buyers. For as long as they fail to do so, more and more people will be living in the private rented sector. We need urgent comprehensive reform of the private rented sector to make it fit for purpose and to address the impact of housing insecurity and homelessness on families across the country. The proposed ban on letting agents’ fees is the minimum first step in that process. I urge the Government to follow through on their commitment.
I ask Members to be a bit more disciplined. I call Derek Thomas.
Thank you, Mr Owen. I am grateful for the opportunity to speak, and I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) on securing this important debate.
I welcome the Government’s action. When I first became a Member of Parliament in 2015, I was amazed at the number of prospective tenants who came to see me about this issue. We surveyed all the letting agencies and my office was surprised by the sheer scale and variation of charges, so I completely welcome the opportunity to get rid of charges altogether. I have three points to raise for consideration and clarification, and I hope, Mr Owen, that they will not take too long.
First, is there the potential or a plan to cap the deposit? The deposit is often set at a month’s rent. The difficulty of finding the deposit is often the greatest barrier people face in looking for a home. However, rents vary dramatically from region to region. As a result, a deposit that relates to rent can be thousands of pounds in London and a few hundred elsewhere. If the Government plan to cap the amount of deposit that can be charged, will the Minister indicate how the figure will be established? In my view, the deposit should reflect what would be a reasonable amount to bring a property back to its former condition, rather than a typical month’s rent.
I have spoken with letting agents and tenants about what the deposit might be and how that might be regulated, and it is still necessary to have some flexibility. That is in the interest of the tenant. For example, a prospective landlord may consider allowing a pet into a property in return for a slightly increased deposit. If there is no flexibility or consideration given to accommodate a pet, a person who relies on the companionship of a dog or a cat may find it hard to secure a rental property and, as a result, be discriminated against by the cap on what deposit can be charged. I would be interested to hear the Minister’s thoughts on that issue.
Finally, consideration and clarification are needed on how changes are made during a tenancy and who pays for them. If a tenant requires a change during a tenancy, such as removing a name from a tenancy agreement, that will inevitably incur a cost. Tenants need to feel that changes to their agreement can be made easily and when necessary. We must be careful not to create further barriers for tenants and, when bringing in legislation, we need to be careful that we understand clearly who will cover the cost of changes to a tenancy.
I again commend my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton for securing this debate. I am grateful for your patience, Mr Owen, and I look forward to the Minister’s response on how deposits will be capped and on who pays for changes during a tenancy when those changes are in the interest of the tenant.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I have not put a specific time limit on speeches, but if people keep to what we have just had from Mr Thomas, we will get everybody in.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) on securing this debate. Although it is clearly about England and Wales, there is a Northern Ireland perspective. The concerns that Members have expressed are concerns that I have as well. There are people on the waiting list who will never be housed, and that is the reason that the housing benefit system for people who need help to live independently is available for private rental households. The difference between renting from the Northern Ireland Housing Executive and a private landlord is not only the protection that is offered, but the cost.
Since the Government’s decision to pay tenants housing benefit instead of paying it directly to landlords, many more landlords have made the decision to work through letting agencies in order to have less hassle. However, that also means that tenants are swallowing the cost increase.
I thank the Library for the evidence in the background information, which notes that 93% of local authorities have failed to issue a single penalty for non-compliance by letting agents. Only three penalty notices have been issued and only one has resulted in the full costs being repaid. We can see clearly where the issues are.
The fact is that when the Government bring in legislation to give protection, the cost ends up resting mostly with the tenants, many of whom can ill afford it. Although a £25 per month increase may not seem much to many people, it would be very hard for a constituent of mine who works 16 hours, lives with her young daughter and has had no help from her husband, who left her, to pay an extra £25, upwards to £100. It would not be paid by housing benefit; it would be paid by her. Although we need more protection, we also need to ensure that the cost is accepted by those it was intended for.
Single parent families are struggling. They are receiving less tax credits, face having their housing benefit reduced depending on the number of rooms in the house, and are unable to work full-time hours and still be a loving single parent. I hate the thought that we are not protecting that type of family unit to the extent that we can and should be.
I again thank the Library for its background briefing, and I make a brief comment on the Northern Ireland perspective. Housing Rights carried out a mystery shopping exercise and went to 40 different letting agents, looking at administration costs, credit checks, tenancy renewal fees and inventory charges. The need for tighter regulation of letting agents’ fees was also raised by several Assembly Members in a debate in June 2016. Housing Rights called for greater regulation of letting agents’ practices, including a requirement for letting agencies to present all fees on their websites, advertisements and promotional material. In Northern Ireland, we recognise the need for that.
I read a guide to the changes, which referred to the mandatory inventory fee, the tenancy fee, the renewal fee and the agencies’ own administration fee. The average tenant pays £233 in fees, and some people pay a huge £700. Some hon. Members referred to the figure of £500, but it can be as much as £700. Citizens Advice found that 42% of renters have to borrow money just to pay the fees, which is not acceptable.
I will finish on this point. It is clear that, although landlords need to cover their costs and many are still paying for the mortgage on their property, we need to ensure that a pricing increase is not met with an increase to the tenant. How does the Minister believe that can most effectively be carried out?
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) on securing this debate.
Hon. Members have given very good examples of the ways in which various agents exploit tenants. The hon. Members for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) and for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes) raised some dreadful examples. I do not doubt that there is a problem in some parts of the country—particularly London and the south-east—but no tenants have complained to me or other Norfolk MPs about letting fees in Norfolk, where we have a strong private rented market. Furthermore, contrary to what the hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood suggested is happening in London, since 2010 there have been 600 registered housing association starts in my constituency. A significant number of new housing association houses are coming on stream, which is due to the local council being very proactive.
I have had the chance to talk to a number of local agents, who are extremely responsible, care deeply about the work they do and take great pride in the houses they let. The average application fee in my constituency is £325, and the average renewal fee is £75. That is the situation in Norfolk. I visited a firm of estate agents in King’s Lynn called Brittons, which made it clear that the ban would have an impact on its business model and would undoubtedly lead to a loss of income and jobs. It believes that the ban would have a number of unintended consequences.
We should look at the amount of work that goes into referencing. I am told that, on average, it takes up to five hours to prepare for a tenancy, as agents have to look at all the different documentation, go through the reference requests, check the credit history and liaise with external referencing companies. I had a session with a couple of the agents in Brittons, and they told me about all the work that has to be done. They pointed out that the ban is a blunt instrument, and that it is being proposed to deal with a problem in one part of the country that is not a problem in East Anglia. I therefore ask the Minister, are there no other ways forward that could be looked at? Would a cap on fees not solve the problem? What about taking referencing fees outside the scope of the action the Government are taking?
My hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Mr Walker) said that the landlord should pay the fees, but the potential tenant forms a relationship and signs a contract with the agent, who then carries out the referencing work on the tenant. The tenant then has the opportunity, through the agent, of bidding for various properties. I therefore suggest that, if the onus is put on the landlord, rents will go up, so there will be unintended consequences.
I am very concerned indeed that there could be a particular problem for tenants on low incomes—for example, those who have a particularly poor credit rating or a complex credit history. If an agent takes on the task of the referencing, it takes the onus off the tenant to some extent. If the tenant clears those hurdles, they will be in the position to have their name put forward for a property.
I entirely accept that there is a problem, and the Government are right to deal with it. They are responding to a great deal of pressure from the non-governmental organisation sector and people representing tenants and other organisations, but I believe they have to be very careful indeed that they do not do something that has unintended consequences. In parts of the country with a solid, well-performing market, they must not make changes that may disrupt the market and cause major problems for small businesses, such as the ones in my constituency.
If Mr Knight and Mr Stewart can share the remaining eight minutes between them, that would be very helpful. I will then call the Scottish National party spokesperson.
I refer the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I am both a landlord and, like many in this House, a tenant. I rent out my family home, and I rent a home in my constituency.
I have scribbled out part of my speech, not just because of the time limit but because of the excellence of the speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake). I agree with nearly everything he said. He took a balanced view and, drawing on his wide experience, made some very important points, which I echo.
We have all heard horror stories about letting agents’ fees. I concur with what other hon. Members said; I have experienced that in my surgery and seen the advertising when I have been looking for property, particularly in the south-east of England. Some practices are, frankly, unacceptable, but we have to remember certain things about the fees. If we transfer referencing fees on to landlords, what happens if a tenant comes back with very poor references? That means that the landlord would have multiple fees to pay. That is one unintended consequence.
There is also the unintended consequence of rents going up. My hon. Friend said that there has been an increase of 4.3% in Scotland. That is not a few pounds, as the hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes) and Shelter said. On a rent of £1,200 a month, 4.3% is approximately £40 a month. That is a substantial sum of money, and would affect most of all those who are in the property for the long term, rather than those who shift between properties. We have to think about that.
I agree that letting agencies can shift their models and become more innovative in the services they provide and in levying charges for things such as broken keys. There is also the potential to sell insurance and products to landlords. That is an underutilised sector, which could be expanded and could bring greater guarantees to the sector, given time.
We should not be too damning of landlords. We hear a lot of propaganda about private landlords, but the environment for landlords has become much more difficult. Small landlords who own only one, two or three properties have a less favourable tax regime than they did. Perhaps it would have been better if we had targeted interest-only mortgages, rather than all landlords who have mortgages. Perhaps a higher up-front stamp duty would have been a better, more income-generating way of producing the same result.
Landlords have had a difficult time in many respects. Quite rightly, they have had to meet new higher standards, but without landlords we would end up in a bipolar world with just social housing and large faceless corporate landlords or large property owners. That would not be ideal, and could impact the property market and the most vulnerable of tenants.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) on securing this important debate. Many of the points I wished to make were eloquently made by my hon. Friend the Member for North West Norfolk (Sir Henry Bellingham), so I will not repeat them all.
My interest in speaking in this debate was borne from a meeting I had during the recess with the Milton Keynes Private Landlords Association, which talked me through the legitimate costs it incurs. Very often, it incurs a loss on the checks it has to do for landlords, which is passed on indirectly in higher rental costs to the tenants.
Although there is a genuine problem, and there are some rogue landlords out there, I am worried about the unintended consequences that a blanket ban would have. I agree that it could lead to higher rents. Particularly for people in long-term rentals, that extra monthly cost would significantly exceed the one-off cost they may have to pay in letting fees. I also worry that it will exclude more difficult tenants—those on lower incomes and non-EU nationals—from the market.
There is a wider issue to do with housing. Now is not the time—not in 30 seconds—but I have my own proposals for expanding shared ownership to deal with the balance of buy to let and property owning.
What is needed is better transparency. If we are to have a blanket ban on letting fees, the danger is that the cost gets passed on to the landlord and then passed on in higher rents. I am interested in exploring the tenant passport model, which could be based on the mortgage-in-principle situation—people could have what is almost a “right to rent” done in advance, with the costs taken from both the landlord and the agency. The market could deliver a very cost-effective such product, which would increase transparency and the ease with which people could rent.
Although I would like to expand on that, I am out of time. I hope it has been helpful.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) on securing the debate, and I give credit where credit is due, because this issue affects so many people’s lives and raising it in this place is absolutely necessary. I also congratulate the Government on taking a positive step for people in rented accommodation.
The policy will bring England into line with Scotland, where the ban on tenant fees has helped to make the private rental sector fairer and easier to access. In Scotland, it is illegal for letting agencies to apply conditional charges to renters. For example, they cannot charge for registration or providing a list of properties, and they cannot ask for a deposit before having found a property for the renter. Any charges beyond the deposit and rent are unlawful, including for administrative work or credit checks.
Such measures have made the private rented sector in Scotland more transparent and fairer for tenants. However, I take the opportunity to recognise the comments of the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton about outcomes and possible unintended consequences, and there are of course nuances in this debate. The hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) highlighted the alarming statistics and the huge impact on individuals’ lives, including the taking out of loans and people having to cut back in order to afford the cost of letting fees. Other hon. Members spoke about deposit schemes, the broken housing market and how it has affected vulnerable families and those on low incomes.
Any charges beyond the deposit are unlawful in Scotland. An estimated 4.8 million renting households in England are expected to benefit from the proposals for the tenants fees Bill, saving them between £200 and £700 per household per move. Letting agents in England are at present able to charge for things such as tenancy reference checks, mandatory inventory fees, renewal fees and administrative fees.
Those costs come on top of a security deposit and the rent, and can therefore be difficult to cover. Research by Citizens Advice found that 42% of renters had to borrow money just to pay fees on entering new accommodation. If the new policy is able to help people avoid needlessly increasing their debt, it is a good one. It will make private renting fairer for low-income families, who are often priced out of the sector by excessive hidden fees. Members will recognise that the policy has the potential to help their constituents who are struggling with social housing lists. By widening access to the private rented sector, it might become easier for many constituents to find accommodation suitable to their circumstances and budgets more easily.
The policy is to be welcomed, but we must ensure that no loopholes allow costs to be passed on to tenants in an underhand manner. A fear covered by many Members in the debate is that landlords and letting agents will increase rents as a result of the ban on tenant fees in order to recoup the lost fees. However, research by Shelter in Scotland in 2013 found that only 2% of landlords increased rents because of the fee ban, so while such a policy can work in tenants’ favour, we must be vigilant about rent prices.
The Government’s statement on the policy reads that it will stop
“tenants having to pay fees through the back door by other routes.”
How will the Minister ensure that fees are absorbed by agencies rather than being passed on to tenants, especially in urban areas such as London and other parts of England where the private rental market is already competitive? Will the Government commit to ensuring that the policy puts tenants first?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen.
I thank all hon. Members who have contributed to this important debate, which was secured by the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake). It is worth recognising the points made by my hon. Friends the Members for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes) and for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) about the specific issues faced by people in London, where supply lies at the heart of many of the challenges in the rental sector, as well as population growth and the expansion of London as a defined area. The perspective of those in the rest of the country, however, is very different, and they have a different set of challenges. In my constituency, that would be to do with security of tenancy and the quality of properties available.
Over the past few decades, the number of people renting privately has increased hugely as home ownership has declined and social housing has been sold. The 4.5 million households who rent their home privately spend far more of their income on housing than either home owners or social housing tenants, with close to half of household income on average going towards rent payments. In addition, over recent years people’s incomes have stagnated, but rents have continued to rise. Private renters also enjoy the least secure tenancies, often moving home after a year or even less. That is not the stability that is needed for bringing up a family, but 1.5 million of households in the private rented sector include children.
There are also the increasingly large numbers of people who cannot afford to buy but are not eligible for a council house. Whether we want to label them as “just about managing” or the “squeezed middle”, they are long overdue a break. As my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing Central and Acton (Dr Huq) mentioned, that is why Labour has been arguing for years that we need to ban letting agent fees. I am therefore pleased that the Government are now following our lead.
Tenants are charged hundreds of pounds a year for any of a variety of fees when renting a property. Before moving in, they can be charged for a holding deposit, a registration fee, an administration fee and a fee for a reference check. Another issue—highlighted by the hon. Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas)—arises when tenants wish to stay in their property beyond the initial length of the contract, because they can be charged a fee for renewing the tenancy. In practice, that might involve as simple a change as the date on the contract, but it can set tenants back by as much as £150. If private renters wish to move, they may have to pay an exit fee, and some even have to pay the letting agent to provide a reference for their new landlord.
For an average cost of £400 per household, private renters are receiving a service for which their landlord has already paid the letting agent. The fees charged by different letting agents vary hugely, which shows that those fees bear little or no relation to the service they supposedly buy. If one letting agent can charge only £6 for a reference check, how can other agents justify charging £300?
Letting agent fees are not only unfair, but distributed unfairly, with those on low incomes paying more than private renters on higher incomes, according to housing charity Shelter. A Shelter survey also revealed that one in four renters had to borrow or use a loan to pay the fees, while one in six was forced to spend less on heating or food.
The issue is not new, and the coalition Government legislated in 2014 to make the system more transparent. Since the requirement to publish details of the fees was introduced under the Consumer Rights Act 2015, however, 33% of letting agents have increased their fees, while only 19% have decreased them. According to Citizens Advice, agency fees have increased by 60% in the past five years—that is an enormous amount of money.
The reason that the reform made no difference was simply because it was tackling the wrong issue. The problem is not one of information asymmetry; everyone knows that the fees are bogus. The problem is that tenants are being charged for services for which landlords have already paid and, in an uncompetitive market, there is not a lot that renters can do to avoid paying.
The hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton expressed concerns discussed widely in the agency sector about what would happen were the fees to be banned. One fear is that the costs will be passed on, from agents to landlords and from landlords through to tenants, which will result in higher rents. Another possibility mentioned was that job losses could occur in the agency sector, but I simply do not believe that to be true. If we look at the examples in Scotland, where letting agent fees were banned five years ago, we see that really has not happened. Rents there have increased by 5% since 2012, but in England rents have gone up by 9%. There is no direct relation between banning letting agents’ fees and rents increasing. It is also worth mentioning that it is easy for landlords to shop around for agents, and if letting agents were to attempt to get away with charging landlords an extra £300 for reference checks, I suspect they would quickly lose an awful lot of business.
We welcome the Government finally coming around to Labour’s policy of banning letting agency fees. Had they realised in 2014 the strain that those fees put on tenants, they might not have voted to reject the amendment to the Consumer Rights Bill proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) to ban letting agency fees. The average renting household has paid an extra £400 for the past three years as a result of the coalition blocking that amendment.
When the Chancellor announced the ban in his autumn statement last year, I had hoped that the Government were seeking to right the wrong urgently. Why was the Bill to ban letting fees announced in the Queen’s Speech only a draft Bill? It has been Government policy for almost a year. The Government said in the autumn statement that the ban would be implemented “as soon as possible”, following the consultation. The consultation has been completed and the policy was part of the Conservatives’ manifesto in the general election, so why the cautious step of just a draft Bill? Will the Minister at least tell us when the Government’s response to the consultation is due and when they plan to move ahead with this?
Will the Minister also explain why there is no action to encourage longer term tenancies in the draft Bill? The Conservatives’ manifesto in this year’s general election said:
“We will also improve protections for those who rent, including by looking at how we increase security for good tenants and encouraging landlords to offer longer tenancies as standard.”
However, there was no mention of that in the Queen’s Speech, when seemingly it could have been easily rolled into the Bill on letting agent fees. Has that commitment gone the way of the dementia tax, workers on company boards, the energy price cap, scrapping free school lunches, cuts to the winter fuel allowance, and the reintroduction of grammar schools and fox hunting, or do the Government remain committed to addressing the scourge of short-term tenancies?
Labour has been clear. We recognise that this is a major issue for private renters. As well as banning letting fees, we would legislate to make three-year tenancies the norm, so that private renters are no longer ripped off but able to put down roots and become a part of their local community.
Order. I call the Minister to respond to the debate, and I remind him that, if time allows, the mover of the motion may have a few minutes to conclude.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen. I start by declaring an interest: my wife is the owner of a property that is rented out. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) on securing this timely and important debate. It is clear that he has huge knowledge of the sector from many years spent working in it. I think we have had a good and balanced debate in which many colleagues contributed.
A number of colleagues raised the issue of the housing market, and I agree—it is acknowledged in the housing White Paper—that it is broken. It is one of the greatest barriers to progress in Britain, and particularly to social mobility. However, we are making progress. The housing White Paper set out many of the challenges and what we plan to do, and we are moving forward with that. In terms of net additions, there has been growth—perhaps not at the rate that we would like—and we are also supporting expansion of the build to rent sector.
Fundamentally, I think we all agree that building more homes, particularly in the places where people want to live, is incredibly important. Building those homes, however, will take time. In the White Paper we set out important measures to support people with the help they need right now. Helping people now is what we are trying to address in today’s debate. The hon. Member for Lanark and Hamilton East (Angela Crawley) talked about putting tenants first, and I believe that the draft Bill will be about that.
As colleagues have noted, the private rented sector now accounts for 4.5 million households in England. The Government want to see all tenants receiving a good and affordable service from their landlord and letting agents, and transparency about the true cost of renting. The hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Melanie Onn) talked about the fees being charged and increases by agents. We are aware of that, which is why we intend to ban letting fees paid by tenants in England. We believe that a ban will help to deliver a more competitive, more affordable and more transparent lettings market. As we have heard, a ban has not had the negative consequences in Scotland that some suggested it might.
Good letting agents provide a valuable service in ensuring that properties are safe, compliant and professionally managed. The problem is that the letting agent is chosen by the landlord, so tenants can be charged unfair or excessive fees with limited ability to negotiate or opt out. Evidence shows—colleagues have referred to this—that that is a problem right across England. By banning tenant fees, we will enable tenants to see what a given property will cost them in the advertised rent levels without any hidden costs. We believe that will reduce the up-front costs that tenants face when moving home, and ensure that tenants are committing only to properties that they know they can afford.
Colleagues referred to the consultation. We sought views on how the ban should be implemented and enforced during the eight-week public consultation, which closed on 2 June. We hope to publish the outcome of that shortly. We received more than 4,700 responses, which we have been analysing. Given the range of views from across the sector, we feel it is important to ensure that the fee ban is carefully considered. As the hon. Member for Great Grimsby rightly said, we announced the tenants fee Bill in the Queen’s Speech, but we said that we would first publish the Bill in draft, to enable scrutiny of our proposals by Parliament and stakeholders before introducing the legislation.
Under our proposals, tenants will no longer have to pay letting fees, whether they rent through an agent or directly from a landlord. It is important that all tenants be treated equally under the ban. A number of colleagues asked whether rents may rise. Understandably, a key concern is that letting agents will simply revert their fees to landlords, who in turn will pass the cost on to tenants. The Government do not accept that rent levels will necessarily rise as a result of the fee ban, as there is evidence that some agents are charging excessive fees. Indeed, studies have been done on the potential impact on rents, and all of them show that while there may be increases in rents, they would be significantly smaller than the fees tenants are currently being charged. We will keep the impact on rents under review. All agents will need to be up front and clear about their landlord fees to secure business. As a result, the fees charged should be a fairer and more transparent reflection of the services provided.
A number of colleagues raised the issue of capping, which has been suggested as a more proportionate measure. I simply do not believe that a cap would be effective. A series of caps on different types of fees would be harder to understand and enforce.
On credit and reference checks, as raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton, I understand that many landlords and agents believe that the cost of a reference check should be met, or partially met, by the tenant. As with other fees, it is the landlord who chooses to engage the services of a referencing agency; that is essential to them being able to operate as a landlord. We believe that the landlord is better placed to negotiate and pay reference fees than tenants. I recognise that some agents and landlords are concerned that they will be at risk if a tenant withdraws from a property despite reference checks having been undertaken. To address that, we propose that holding deposits be exempt from the ban. That will also act as a deterrent to tenants from registering in multiple or unsuitable properties.
Trading standards do an important job of enforcing current regulations in the private rented sector, which can help keep tenants safe and protect them from poor practice. With their local knowledge of the industry, they are the clear choice when it comes to enforcing the ban on letting fees.
I understand the concern about the resources available to trading standards, and the Government are keen to ensure that they are well supported. In the consultation document, we proposed the creation of a lead enforcement authority in the lettings sector, similar to the one that exists in the estate agent sector, to provide guidance and support to enforcement authorities. I should point out that one of the advantages of banning fees outright is that it makes it easier for tenants to understand and enforce the ban themselves.
A number of colleagues have talked about looking at the sector more widely. The ban on tenant fees will be considered in the context of a strategic approach to the private rented sector, and there is scope to introduce wider regulation of letting agents and landlords. However, at present there is not a clear consensus on what kind of regulation is needed. I am interested in considering the various options and proposals put forward by colleagues and friends in the sector, including the proposals of my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton. It is worth pointing out—he talked about this—that we intend to make client money protection mandatory for letting agents that handle client money. That will ensure that tenants and landlords enjoy the same consumer protection already in place in comparable industries. My officials are working with key stakeholders on a “How to let” guide that would complement the existing “How to rent” guide, giving landlords a single source of information for rules, regulations and best practice.
Perhaps I might address some of points raised today. Measures in the Housing and Planning Act 2016 tackle rogue landlords. There are penalties of up to £30,000, the database of rogue landlords comes into effect shortly, and banning orders will be implemented in due course. My hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Mr Walker) raised the issue of deposits and what happens in the case of self-letting landlords. All landlords who take a deposit must put it in a protection scheme; that has been the case since April 2007. The hon. Members for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes) and, of course, for Great Grimsby, raised issues about longer tenancies. Of course we encourage the offering of longer, family-friendly tenancies of three years or more in build-to-rent schemes, and we have set that out in the White Paper. My hon. Friend the Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas), among others, raised the question of the capping of deposits. Our view is that the cap needs to strike the right balance. As well as affordability for tenants, there is a need for landlords to feel that it is at the appropriate level. We shall continue to engage on that via the draft Bill.
I hate to press the Minister on this, but a self-letting landlord is not required to lodge the deposit with a third party. The requirement is only to insure the deposit. They can keep the cash in their own account and, at the end of the tenancy, deduct money from that cash and challenge the out-of-pocket tenants, who are often university students, to come and get it back. We need to look at that; it is not a perfect situation.
I know that my hon. Friend cares deeply about that point, which he made with great passion. I should be happy to sit down with him to have that discussion after the debate, perhaps with my officials as well.
There was discussion during the debate of whether certain fees for tenants should be allowed. Our view is clear: all fees on tenants need to be banned. My hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes South (Iain Stewart) raised the question of the tenant passport. Of course a ban will not prevent tenants from securing their own references if they want to. Agents and landlords will not be able to require tenants to pay for such a reference check or passport, but tenants can of course choose to procure it. The hon. Member for Lanark and Hamilton East also raised the issue of rent caps. I think the evidence, from the UK and around the world, shows that rent controls lead to fewer properties on the market, and higher rents as a result.
We have had an excellent debate; as I said, we shall publish the outcome of the consultation shortly and there will be an opportunity for colleagues to engage in the draft Bill process, which I hope will result in legislation that as well as being workable will make a difference to tenants’ lives. We believe that the proposed ban on letting fees for tenants is the right approach, and we shall publish the tenant fee Bill in draft form in due course.
Thank you for your excellent chairing of the debate, Mr Owen. I also thank the Minister for his comments; he has a clear understanding of the issues. He has had many challenges in his short time as a Housing Minister, and I understand that publishing a draft Bill will allow proper consultation and debate, but I felt that it would be useful to seek today’s debate at an early stage, so that views from across the House could be considered. I thank Members on both sides for their contributions, which have helped to further the debate. It is refreshing to hear Members on both sides accepting that, in the main, landlords and agents do a professional job and are part of the solution, not the problem. [Interruption.] That is certainly how I read the comments of the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh), who shakes her head. It is my clear understanding of the position. However, there is also clearly recognition across the House—and in the industry—of a problem. That is crucial to the ability to reach a well-considered solution.
One of the phrases heard most commonly in the debate has been “the law of unintended consequences”. That law applies far more prolifically than any that we could pass in the House. We have considered issues such as the potential for rent increases, which is debatable, and for job losses, which we must of course take into account. My hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Mr Walker) talked about landlords who enter into direct relationships with tenants, how we supervise that and whether the relationship is fair. My hon. Friend the Member for North West Norfolk (Sir Henry Bellingham) talked about issues relating to rural agents, and I think that was relevant. I agree with the sentiments of my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull (Julian Knight) about ensuring that the future of the private rented sector will be about not just institutional investors but small and medium-sized enterprise landlords, who provide much of the diversity in the location and type of private rented accommodation. Not everyone wants to live in a two-bedroom flat at a high rent in the middle of Manchester, which is what institutional landlords would tend to prefer over properties in more rural areas, which are also important. My hon. Friend the Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) spoke about the level of deposits, and I share his concern.
The debate was constructive. We are looking for a considered, strategic solution that is fair to landlords and agents, who put their hard-earned money into investing in the private rented sector, but principally, of course, to the consumers. We want something that provides a fair deal for tenants.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the proposed ban on letting agent fees to tenants.
Solar Panels: Residential Properties
I beg to move,
That this House has considered solar panels on residential properties.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen. I am delighted that the House has the opportunity to debate solar panels and their potential benefits to consumers and the wider community.
Quite simply, energy matters. It heats and lights our homes. It drives industry and commerce and, of course, is central to transportation. Therefore, energy policy also really does matter. The Government have recently taken the initiative with their proposed industrial strategy, which is a potentially welcome development. However, central to any industrial strategy must be an energy policy—and an effective energy policy, at that.
It is obvious that in any industrial strategy we would want to see the plentiful supply of energy and the security of such supply, and competitive prices for the industrial, residential and private sectors. Our energy policy must seek to achieve those goals. Part of achieving those goals will undoubtedly be the energy mix. From the Government’s perspective, it is entirely logical that we want to have a healthy base-load to ensure the supply, particularly through the busy periods of demand or times when some renewables will be less able to generate energy. Such an energy mix will be made up of carbon, which I think we all accept is declining—indeed, I think there was acknowledgment recently that, for the first time ever, we had not used coal—and, of course, nuclear and renewables.
As an aside, it is interesting from my perspective in Carlisle that my county of Cumbria can be very much at the centre of our energy policy, because of the nuclear on the west coast and the proposed new build there, and also because there are a large number of renewables in Cumbria, particularly wind. There are opportunities with tidal power and technology with regard to rivers. Cumbria has a real opportunity to be very much part of any future energy policy and of the energy mix.
Any energy policy must allow for innovation—new ideas, new concepts and new systems. That can take many forms, but one clear example right now is battery technology. I think it is accepted that battery technology has the potential to transform not only the renewables industry but the whole energy industry, including the transport sector. An emphasis on battery technology and the research that needs to go into it must be a priority of our energy policy. It must be accepted that promoting innovation is central to any energy policy and industrial strategy.
The questions that then arise are: how are we to achieve that laudable aim; should this be centrally planned; should Government take the lead; and should the taxpayer be the key investor? Some undoubtedly would argue that it is the Government’s job to drive this potential change and that it is the responsibility of the taxpayer to be central to the investment required. I accept, as I think most people would, that there has to be Government involvement; that is required, particularly regarding regulation and standards. However, my view is that the market can provide the solution to many of these issues. The Government need to take an active role to create an environment in which the market can provide many of the solutions.
Does my hon. Friend accept that it was the intervention of the Government, particularly in subsidising the rates that could be received for the use of solar panels, that kick-started the industry, and that Government intervention can be expected to do the same for battery technology, ultimately securing an industry that might not have prospered but for Government intervention?
To a certain extent, I agree with my hon. Friend. Clearly, where Government intervention is channelled properly, it is worth while. Sometimes, subsidy and Government funding are required. I just think we have to be a little bit careful about getting the balance right, and there are times when Government involvement in the regulation or standards can create as great a benefit as subsidy. I will come to that point in a minute.
Through simple regulation, the Government can create an environment that will allow for much-needed competition and certainty for the market. Businesses, as we all know, lack a degree of certainty, and creating a market that has certainty would be beneficial. Regulations can also create innovation, with new ideas and products coming to the market. They can avoid, where possible, the need for subsidy by the taxpayer. They can create a market that is sufficiently large to entice new businesses to enter it and, indeed, encourage existing businesses to expand and invest in it.
I come to the issue of solar panels and residential properties. Solar is now, as my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk) highlighted, an accepted and established form of renewable energy. Indeed, I believe that somewhere in the region of 850,000 houses up and down the country have solar panels on their roofs. The UK turnover for the solar industry was estimated at £3.2 billion in 2015. The number of full-time employees involved in the industry is estimated at more than 16,000, and the amount of energy created by solar was around 15% of that created by renewables generally. The industry has enormous potential to grow much further and become a far greater part of the energy mix in this country.
We, as a society and a country, want clean energy. We want sustainable energy, and of course we want that energy at an affordable price. To date, we have had mixed success with regard to renewables, and in particular solar panels. For example, they have been heavily subsidised. I accept the point that kick-starting the industry was a requirement, but perhaps we have reached the point where it has become unnecessary.
We build more than 150,000 new properties per year. As we all know, there is a requirement to build many, many more houses, probably towards 300,000 a year. Housing, as we recognise, is a major issue for this country. It is also a huge industry. By bringing together a variety of issues, with a simple change to building regulations, we can create a market for solar panels that will be enormously beneficial and not require any taxpayer subsidy.
Is it not important to recognise how far we have come? The fact is that cloudy Britain generates more energy from solar panels than sunny Italy. Does that not say something about what has been achieved in this country, in this vital sector?
Yes, I agree wholeheartedly. Indeed, that demonstrates the importance of technology and innovation. We are a cloudy country, particularly in Cumbria at times, but if we have the right technology, we can maximise the benefit of sunlight, which can have a huge benefit for the energy sector.
We already use building regulations as a vehicle to ensure high-quality windows, high-quality boilers and other aspects of construction. It is an accepted fact that building regulations are a critical part of the construction industry and have the ability to drive up standards and change. I hope the Minister will comment on that. I believe a review of building regulations will go on very shortly, so I will be interested to hear what he has to say on that point.
My suggestion is that we make it compulsory that all new residential properties built from some point in the future have solar panels and appropriate connections. I accept that the date would have to be two, three or maybe more years hence, so that the industry has enough time to prepare and adjust, to allow businesses already in the industry to either expand or invest, and to allow new entrants to come into it. That would give the building industry enough time to prepare to have solar panels and appropriate connections in each and every property.
What are the benefits? As I have said, there is a market of 150,000-plus new units every year, and it could be up to 300,000. Therefore demand for the product would not be an issue; there is a ready-made market. The sheer size of the market will drive down prices. The market and the volume involved will, without a shadow of a doubt, lead to innovation. It will lead to cheaper and more attractive panels. I think we all agree that some of the solar panels on top of roofs are not particularly attractive, and the opportunity for aesthetic innovation and new ideas is undoubtedly there. In many respects, solar tiles would become the norm, rather than solar panels. Without a doubt, we would see more efficient panels as well. My hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham touched upon that. We have lots of grey skies, but with more efficient panels, we could still generate plenty of electricity.
This proposal would help in other ways. The large solar panel market would have consequences for other parts of the sector, such as the battery industry, which I have touched on. I was contacted by the Hot Water Association, of all things, which indicated that with improved solar panels and a bigger market there would be improvements in boilers. There is a connection between solar panels, boilers and so on.
There would be no need for Government subsidy. I accept that initially there may be a slightly higher price for properties, but the time to put in solar panels is when the property is being built, the scaffolding is up and workmen are on site. That drives down costs and, more importantly, in the long run there will be a saving in electricity bills. Changing building regulations would create and achieve many worthwhile objectives: sustainable energy, help with battery technology, lower energy prices for households, a contribution to the national grid and an undoubted boost for UK industry through jobs, research and development. We could create a market in this country and I would like to see British industry and British business at the forefront of this technology.
We must not forget the second-hand market. Some 850,000 houses have solar panels. If the price drops and there is innovation, the second-hand market would seize the opportunity to install solar panels, particularly when properties are being re-roofed. I like to think that in five years, well over 1 million houses would have benefited from this simple change. There would be other opportunities for the Government to consider: commercial property, which I have not even touched on, and Government properties such as schools and hospitals. In time, policy could be adapted to incorporate such buildings.
I acknowledge that the Minister is not about to congratulate me and announce a policy change with immediate effect, but I suggest that sometimes in life, a simple adjustment to policy can bring the greatest benefit. Opening up a market creates new commercial opportunities, innovation and benefits for our society. I believe this policy would benefit thousands of homeowners up and down the country. It would be good for the environment and it would be good for the country. It would be a win, win, win situation.
Will the Minister consider this policy initiative and ask his Department to consider the implications and benefits that would flow from it? It should seek the views of the solar panel and renewables industry and, of course, the construction and building sector. Will the Minister report to the House the Government’s conclusion and, if the proposal proves to be realistic, which I believe it will, confirm that they will introduce the appropriate changes to regulations to enable this to happen? I look forward to the Minister’s comments.
It is a great pleasure, Mr Owen, to serve again under your chairmanship this morning. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle (John Stevenson) for bringing forward this debate. During his time in Parliament, he has shown an incredibly keen interest in the energy sector, and he has done so again in this debate.
It is clear that all of us in the Chamber share the common goals of wanting new homes to be energy efficient and their occupants to have low energy bills. I recognise that there is a desire among homeowners and the wider public to contribute to sustainable development and to generate their own green energy. As my hon. Friend will be aware, the Government have just helped to secure new investment in solar panels to produce electricity for affordable homes across England and Wales.
The Minister is making an interesting point and he is absolutely right. It is interesting and bizarre that in a mixed build of social and private sector housing in Carlisle, the social housing ended up with solar panels on the roof, but the private sector housing did not. That seems to be an anomaly. Why was it not done for both?
I will address my hon. Friend’s point about whether we should mandate a particular technology, but in an announcement last weekend, the Minister for Trade Policy, my right hon. Friend the Member for Chelsea and Fulham (Greg Hands), welcomed £160 million of capital investment in UK renewable energy, backed by Dutch investors. This first step is a £1 billion programme to give 800,000 lower-income households access to cheaper solar electricity.
My hon. Friend talked about building regulations. Our building regulations and planning reforms encourage the use of renewables without mandating any particular technology. In the previous Parliament, we twice strengthened the energy requirements in building regulations, introducing tough but fair minimum standards. Home builders are now required to deliver highly energy-efficient homes that typically reduce energy bills by £200 a year, compared with homes built before 2010.
The energy requirements do not prescribe the technologies, materials or fuels to be used. That allows builders the flexibility to innovate and select the most practical and cost-effective solutions in the circumstances. Those solutions could indeed include solar panels— my hon. Friend talked about the example from his constituency—but they may not be appropriate for some types of building or location. For example, the use of solar panels is more limited on high-rise blocks, because there is of course proportionately less roof space available per apartment in the block.
The Government are carrying out a review of energy standards for new homes. We are examining the costs of making energy improvements and the benefits in fuel bill and carbon savings. That will allow us to consider the impact on housing supply, as more costly regulatory requirements may make housing development less viable in some areas.
My hon. Friend talked about building regulations more widely. The recent tragic event at Grenfell Tower shocked us all deeply, and we want to ensure that such an event never happens again in our country, but we also need to learn any broader lessons that may emerge. That is why an independent review of building regulations and fire safety is being carried out by Dame Judith Hackitt. We are waiting to see the outcome of that.
Planning reforms are also contributing to more deployment of solar panels on rooftops. In April 2015, we introduced new planning measures that allow for a twentyfold increase in the amount of solar that can go on to the roofs of non-domestic buildings without a full planning application having to be submitted, through the exercise of permitted development rights.
Of course, regulation and planning are not the only ways to increase the installation of renewable systems; incentives play an important part. My hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk) talked about how the solar sector has been assisted during the past few years through Government incentives. The feed-in tariff scheme is a Government programme designed to promote the uptake of a range of small-scale renewable systems, including solar panels. Homeowners who install solar panels receive payments for the electricity generated, use that to save money on their bills, and sell any surplus electricity not used back to their supplier. Similarly, homeowners can be paid under the renewable heat incentive scheme for hot water provided by solar thermal panels. Feed-in tariffs have proved highly popular with homeowners. The scheme was introduced in 2010, and there are now close to 1 million solar panel installations on homes. The economy of scale has helped to reduce the cost of a typical domestic solar panel installation from about £20,000 to £7,000.
Smart meters will offer a range of increased functionality, including the ability accurately to measure exported electricity from solar panels. The Government are committed to ensuring that every home and small business in the country is offered a smart meter by the end of 2020. More than 1 million smart meters were installed in the first quarter of 2017, and almost 7 million smart meters are now in operation across the country.
As our energy system and the way we interact with it changes, installing storage technologies such as batteries, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle referred, as well as solar panels can help consumers to use energy when it is cheapest, and they can be rewarded with smart tariffs for being flexible about when they use energy. As hon. Members may be aware, in July my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy announced a plan to give homes and businesses more control over their energy use and to support the development of innovative battery technologies.
The Government recognise the important contribution that solar panels on buildings are making in creating a low-carbon future, and we have a range of current and planned policies to promote their uptake further. However—I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle will not be too disappointed when I say this—ultimately we do not want to mandate the use of specific technologies. The decision on the use of renewable technologies needs to be determined by what is most practical and cost-effective in the circumstances in which builders find themselves.
Question put and agreed to.
International Day of Democracy
[Mr Clive Betts in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the International Day of Democracy.
It is a pleasure, as ever, to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. In 2007, the UN General Assembly resolved to observe 15 September as the International Day of Democracy. The aim of the day is the promoting of and recommitting to the principles of democracy. Member states are invited to mark the day as one for celebrating our achievements in democratisation, but also for recognising the shared challenges in nurturing democracy at home and abroad. While we are not quite yet at 15 September, I do not believe there is any harm in kicking off the celebrations early.
I turn first to article 21(3) of the universal declaration of human rights, which states:
“The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures.”
That simple but powerful principle, expressed as a human right, seems common sense to us all here today, but for most of our history it was quite the opposite, and it remains disputed by too many regimes across the world. I hope the debate will be outward looking in considering the challenges facing democracy across the globe and what we, both as a state and as parliamentarians, can do to support democracy abroad. However, the debate should also be self-reflective, as we look at the steps we need to take here to help democracy flourish.
This year, the theme of the International Day of Democracy is democracy and conflict prevention, focusing on the need to strengthen democracy not only as a good thing in itself, but also so that we can manage and reduce the risk of violence and conflict. That can be seen at all levels of polity, whether we look at the global level, across our European continent or within these islands. Even the briefest of surveys suggests that, where democracy, rights and civil society are disregarded—often for short-term gain—peace and stability are undermined in the long term and conflict ensues.
The link between democracy and peaceful societies is recognised by goal 16 of the sustainable development goals, which seeks to:
“Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels.”
Such institutions play a vital role in preventing the spread of violence, which can have destructive and disastrous impacts on a country’s development. In the context of war and violence, it becomes virtually impossible for a country to combat challenges such as extreme poverty, lack of access to education or gender inequalities, for example. Goal 16 and the prevention of violence are therefore fundamentally important to achieving the ambitions and the ambitions agenda set out by all 17 global goals for sustainable development. I am sure the Minister will be eager to update us on the UK’s progress in achieving those goals—goal 16, in particular—both internationally and at home.
It is appropriate to turn to what the UK is doing to support democracy abroad and on conflict prevention, and to ask where there is still room for progress. In 2016, the House of Lords International Relations Committee published a report on co-operation between the UK and UN, and outlined priorities for the UN’s new Secretary-General. It concluded that:
“The UN needs to invest more in conflict prevention. Member states should consider awarding more financial resources, intelligence and analytical capacity to support the ‘good offices’ of the Secretary-General. The UK should take the lead in this field.”
It would be helpful to hear from the Minister what progress has been made in that regard.
The report identified a number of ways in which the UK could further assist UN peacekeeping operations, including by increasing our contribution and stepping up support for the training of other forces. It also suggested that:
“The UK might provide ‘greater and more systematic general and specialist training, which could be expanded to special training’ to address the issue of sexual exploitation and abuse by UN peacekeepers.”
Similarly, it would be useful to hear from the Minister about what work is under way to take forward that recommendation.
Another significant development in the past few years is, of course, the conflict, stability and security fund, which is overseen by the National Security Council. In terms of budget, it is potentially now one of the world’s largest mechanisms for addressing conflict and instability. I think there are questions over the accountability of that fund, and it is early to say how effective it has been and whether its role is defined appropriately, but we should recognise some of its important contributions. Over the past couple of years, it has funded a doubling of the UK’s troop contribution to peacekeeping through two new deployments: providing essential logistical support for the African Union mission combating al-Shabaab, and providing 370 UK military personnel to give engineering and medical support to the UN mission in South Sudan. I pay tribute to the personnel undertaking that work. Again, it would be helpful to hear more from the Minister about how the CSSF will aim to support democracy and conflict resolution in the years ahead.
Another way in which the UK can play its part is in promoting democratic values through its participation in the Community of Democracies, which is an international organisation founded in 2000 that aims to strengthen democratic norms and values around the globe by combining the expertise of Governments, civil society and the private sector. The next Community of Democracies conference is scheduled for later this month in Washington DC. However, I understand that there are concerns that the meeting will not take place as President Trump is still to commit to hosting the event. As a member of the governing council, I hope the UK Government will make representations to ensure that the conference takes place. I will be grateful if the Minister will comment on whether that is under way.
It is also important to remember the great strides taken by the UK’s devolved nations in promoting peace and security around the world. Aside from playing its role in welcoming refugees fleeing violence in Syria, and providing funding to aid agencies in that region, Scotland will be working with the UN to host an international women’s summit in Edinburgh. That will support Syrian women by providing training in communication, negotiation and post-conflict planning, to help ensure that women play a key role in building a lasting peace in the region when the opportunity arises.
My hon. Friend rightly mentions the role of women in making peace. The Finnish Crisis Management Initiative found that, since 2000, fewer than 2% of peace agreements were signed by women and fewer than 9% of peace negotiators were women. Does he agree that a whole lot more needs to be done to bring women into that process, to bring a lasting peace that works for everybody in society?
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. I very much hope that the Scottish Government’s work with the United Nations will at least set that ball rolling in the context of the crisis in Syria and the middle east. That work certainly has to be done on a far greater scale in relation to conflicts around the world.
As well as asking questions of our Government, I will turn to the work of individual parliamentarians and what we can do to support peace and stability through strengthening democracies abroad. I freely confess that, until the debate, that is probably not something I had given enough thought to, never mind participated in, so what follows will really be a tribute to the work of colleagues across all parties who are taking action where I have merely made speeches. By way of a very immediate example, Iraqi Kurdistan will hold an independence referendum on 25 September. The Scottish National party will share its experience of holding a peaceful, democratic referendum, and members will attend as observers.
The SNP’s Westminster Foundation for Democracy project liaises directly with the Kurdish regional Government and the three main political parties there. Each of them has agreed to a cross-party delegation to Scotland and London in 2018, to review and learn from the processes of the UK and Scottish Parliaments. The main objective is to strengthen the case for resuming the normal parliamentary processes of the Kurdish Parliament, which was disrupted following violence in 2015. I pay tribute to my colleagues—and former colleagues from the previous Parliament—who have already been in Kurdistan, met politicians there and worked to strengthen the understanding of the operations of our Parliaments here. I know that other parties have had similar experiences with their own projects, and it is right that we take the time today to reflect on what we, as a Parliament, can offer to people elsewhere, by means of training and capacity building, as they seek to enhance or even restore democratic rule.
The International Day of Democracy is not only about what we can do to support democracy elsewhere, but is a chance to look at where we are going wrong here. Indeed, it undermines our arguments for there being democracy elsewhere if we are not seen to pursue best practice at home. I had the privilege of meeting Maina Kiai, the former UN special rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, on his last official visit to the UK. He said in his report on that visit:
“It is imperative that the same standards that the UK calls for internationally…are implemented domestically.”
Building democracy must be an ongoing process of renewal, not just an historic roll-call of celebrated achievements along the road to where we are today.
Everyone here today will have their own ideas about what more can be done. My party will continue to advocate for the abolition of the House of Lords. In Scotland, we implemented votes for 16-year-olds and put in place the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act 2015. We also opposed the Trade Union Act 2016 in Westminster because of its attack on the democratic right of freedom of assembly and association, and we stood against the oversized powers of the Investigatory Powers Act 2016 because of their invasion of privacy. Ultimately, my colleagues and I would argue that our goal of independence is about enhancing democracy and the accountability of political decision-making in Scotland.
Putting all that to one side, today I want to focus briefly on another piece of legislation. My party has repeatedly voiced concerns about the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Act 2014, having heard about some of its impact on genuine charities that are trying to inform debate. Everyone in the House can appreciate that there is a difference between charities working to fight injustice and a commercial lobbying firm seeking to shape a debate in their client’s favour. Treating lobbying firms and charities as the same seems to be entirely the wrong way to go about it. Registered charities are regulated in a different manner than lobbying firms, so the elision that occurs in their treatment under this Act seems very much to be a backwards step. We know from various reviews that it caused serious problems for charities at both the 2015 and 2017 elections. I therefore ask the Minister, who might not know himself, but can raise it with colleagues, when will the Government respond to Lord Hodgson’s report on the Act? How do they plan to implement its recommendations and what is their timeframe for doing so?
In concluding, I am grateful as a parliamentarian to have had the opportunity offered by the International Day for Democracy to reflect on what we can do to support democracy abroad and nourish it at home. It is a human right that we should never take for granted, and I look forward to hearing the contributions from other Members today.
Thank you for your chairmanship today, Mr Betts. I also thank the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald) for introducing the debate.
Clement Attlee said:
“Democracy means government by discussion, but it is only effective if you can stop people talking.”
It is a sentiment that we in this House might do well to heed from time to time.
Over the summer I was lucky enough to spend a few days in Honduras through the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, at a conference of young political leaders drawn from around Latin America. It was, I have to say, inspirational and incredibly humbling. In a part of the world where the threats of communism and military dictatorship are all too real, these young leaders, who were all aged between 18 and 30, shamed me and would shame many of us here today with their confidence, passion and enthusiasm for democracy and the rule of law. I was taken aback by how, out there, so many still look to this place as a source of hope and inspiration. More than once people out there described this place as still the mother of Parliaments. To them, freedom and liberty are not abstract notions or taglines for the next Marvel Avengers film; they are genuine, live and emotive topics, and so too is democracy.
If we look around the world today, we see far too many countries where the right of individuals to choose freely, without let or hindrance, those who govern them—the ability to hold their Government effectively to account—simply does not exist. In the west, and in Europe and North America in particular, where the idea of getting a say, having a voice and choosing to vote has been the norm in some form or another for centuries, we take democratic freedom too much for granted.
One of the most common refrains in the past two or three years in Scotland in particular is that we have had too many elections and too many referendums—in fact, too much democracy—and that people are getting fed up of voting. I think that that is highly depressing. In modern parlance, what a first-world problem to have. Although I am no fan of referendums, I have recently become a huge convert to unexpected general elections; but imagine telling the oppressed peoples of the world that one of the problems in our country is that we have to vote far too often.
The hon. Gentleman mentions being a convert to snap general elections. May I push him a bit further and ask whether he would join us in being a convert to the concept of votes at 16—the idea that if someone is old enough to pay tax, get married and join the Army, they are old enough to vote? Is that something he is willing to welcome?
I absolutely will. I have gone on the record in the past saying that I would welcome votes at 16, and I am willing to stand by that again today. I also think that it is very important in a democracy that we learn to respect the results of referendums and elections—something that the hon. Gentleman’s party might do well to remember.
I am for more democracy, and would argue that we could start with directly elected provosts or police and crime commissioners in Scotland following the UK Government’s excellent example. I am not sure that I expect cross-party support for those, however. I am very proud of this country’s role in helping to strengthen and spread democracy around the world. The UN and Inter-Parliamentary Union International Day of Democracy, which we debate today, does great work in attempting to drive positive democratic change through political dialogue and action. I believe that it is our duty as democratically elected representatives to champion, defend and encourage the spread of participation in government, through initiatives such as this one and others, to ensure that, in Abraham Lincoln’s words,
“government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
I congratulate the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald) on presenting this debate. It is just a pity that we did not have more contributions. We are all here because we are democrats, we believe in democracy, freedom and liberty, and we were elected—that is the democratic process. The fact that the numbers are not great does not take away from the importance of this debate and of the issues that the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Andrew Bowie) have presented.
The theme of this year’s International Day of Democracy, on 15 September 2017, is democracy and conflict prevention. If someone were to do a quick check of the contributions that I have made in Westminster Hall and the Chamber, they would see that a surprising amount of them refer to democracy. That is because I believe it is so important, and that is why I am here to speak and support the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East. It is a principle that is dear to my heart, and the very heart of this place. This is the world’s greatest seat of democracy, and it is an honour to be a servant of that democracy as the Member of Parliament for Strangford.
One of my great heroes—I quote him often in this House, and the girls in my office say that I am becoming more and more like him, but I hope not in a facial and visual sense—is Winston Churchill. As he so famously said,
“democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”
We have got the best system, though it is not ideal. It is in no way perfect—indeed, it is inherently imperfect because we as individuals are imperfect—yet I am proud of the democracy at work in this great nation of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. I am proud that no matter how the media have spun Brexit, the underlying fact is that we are in a democracy; the majority of people exercised their democratic vote to vote out, and that is something that we and the media must respect. Many of those who had a different opinion from me have accepted that and moved on, but some have not. That is how democracy works: we will not agree on every decision, but it is incumbent on all elected representatives to carry out the work that democracy dictates.
I can remember, at the time of the Belfast agreement, being fundamentally opposed to prisoners being excused for their terrorist activities, and voting against the agreement. I can even remember wearing a badge afterwards that said, “Don’t blame me, I voted No”. At the same time, democracy dictated that I went into government with those people, who had a mandate, and I worked within the parameters of the Belfast agreement despite my heart-held view. That is the democratic process at work. We accept the will of our constituents and of democracy and move forward. That is the position that all remainers find themselves in today. I understand that the International Day of Democracy is a fact—I will shortly turn my eyes externally—but even when we do not agree, we must accept democracy and work hard to achieve the best we can within its parameters.
In my role as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on international freedom of religion or belief, I see so many countries around the world where there is what may loosely be labelled a democracy, yet where there is no freedom, which is something that we completely take for granted here. We have a right to speak out on things that we believe in or disagree with, as long as we do so in a safe and respectful manner. Hopefully all debates in this House will be held in a safe and respectful manner. There are too many who do not have that protection, and on the international day of freedom, it is only right and proper that we give thanks for our freedoms and democratic rights. We also need to ask ourselves—in this House and this debate, and outside—whether we are doing all that we can to see those same rights preserved in other countries.
I will reiterate some facts that illustrate what we have here and what others do not have. I have already highlighted some of these in the Chamber, but they are worth repeating in this debate. Many of these are from countries with a nominal democracy, yet if we see that no freedom exists, we can rightly question the presence of real democracy. In more than 100 countries around the globe, more than 215 million Christians continue to face intimidation, imprisonment, forced conversion or assault. The so-called Islamic State’s attempts to eradicate the Christian communities in Iraq and Syria have nearly succeeded. The Christian population has plummeted from more than 1 million to less than 200,000 in Iraq, and from 1.25 million to half a million in Syria. Many of those people remain displaced and face discrimination that prevents them from gaining equal access to food, shelter, education, employment and the ownership of houses and property—just normal life for the rest of us.
In Eritrea, 122 Christians, including entire families and disabled people, were rounded up from their homes in May and detained. This escalation in the crackdown on Christians coincides with the Orthodox Archbishop’s 10th year under incommunicado house arrest.
In Russia, the Supreme Court issued a decision in April that declared a Christian sect, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, an extremist organisation. It banned its headquarters and all 395 local organisations from operating, and ordered that its property be seized by the state. These are countries that say that they have a democratic process, but clearly their definition of democracy is different from ours in this House.
It is not just Christian groups that are targeted because of their religious identity. Other groups deemed a threat are often targeted as well. I have already raised in the House the fact that a few months ago in Pakistan a Shi’ite man, Taimoor Raza, was charged with blasphemy and handed the death sentence for his comments on social media—the first time that has ever happened in the history of Pakistan.
In Myanmar, which we debated in this House just yesterday, almost 170,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled the country since 2012. They are fleeing attacks by the military that include the burning of homes and the rape of women. We have seen illustrations on television over the last few weeks of the height to which Myanmar’s problems have escalated. There have been fires in forests, villages have been burned and people have been displaced. Yesterday, in the main Chamber, we had the opportunity to question the Minister on behalf of the Rohingya Muslim people in the province of Rakhine. Myanmar masquerades as a democracy, but it is quite clear that its definition is different from ours. People have walked for days up the bay of Bengal, and some have being smuggled in boats to Malaysia and even Australia. Bangladesh has almost 90,000 of those displaced people.
It is clear that the democratic rights that we enjoy do not exist worldwide. That is why the International Day of Democracy is so important, as the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East said. We believe in it wholeheartedly, and we need to instil that belief in others so that they, too, understand what it means. It is also clear that we can and must do something to help by using our connections and our ability to grant aid and promote international development. The Government should be proud of what they do through the Department for International Development; I support wholeheartedly their contributions to the betterment of people in so many places in the world. We always hope that people will not only see the practical benefits, but look to us for an example of how the democratic process can work. As well as granting aid and promoting international development, we must use our embassies and ambassadors.
We also have a role to play ourselves. I look forward to the reply from the Minister and his Department, which is always fruitful and helpful, but I have three questions not just for him to ask himself, but for all of us to ask ourselves. First, is the promotion of democracy important to me? Secondly, what I have I done to help the democratic process? The hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East has helped it today by introducing the debate, and so have others who have contributed or who have to come to support it. Thirdly, what more can I do? We all have a role, and we can all do more.
I truly treasure democracy—even when it works against me, as I said. I am proud to take my seat in this seat of democracy, and I urge everybody to support democracy all over the world. On the International Day of Democracy, I pledge again to play whatever role I can to achieve that goal.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Betts—for the first time, I think. I fear we may have scheduled more time for this debate than we require.
My brief as a spokesperson for the third party—the Scottish National party—relates to the Cabinet Office and the constitution, rather than to international development. However, I have been asked to speak in this debate on the UN International Day of Democracy because we see it as an opportunity not to exhort others to catch up with us, but to reflect on how we can improve our own democracy within this Parliament and on these islands. That is what my comments will address, but I appreciate that the Minister may be unable or unlikely to respond to them all.
Over the summer, I was privileged to be asked to give the Thomas Muir memorial lecture. Thomas Muir was a radical Scottish lawyer in the late 18th century who formed an organisation called the Friends of the People. He was an associate of Thomas Paine, Wolfe Tone and many other radicals of the time. He argued for universal adult male suffrage, as well as for annually elected Parliaments—an idea that some hon. Members may not like. He was accused of sedition, sentenced, and transported to the colonies for 14 years. Such was life in the 18th century; they do not do that to us today.
I thought I would reflect on what Thomas Muir might make, if he were alive today, of the imperfect democracy we have achieved in the several hundred years since his death. I think he would be surprised by some aspects of our democracy in the United Kingdom in 2017. First, given that he argued for elected Parliaments, he would be very surprised that the majority of parliamentarians in the United Kingdom are not elected by anyone. The House of Lords is an affront to democrats. It has more than 800 Members, and apparently its numbers are set to be increased with no upper limit. It is now the second-largest legislature in the world, after the National People’s Congress in the People’s Republic of China. Nobody has any say over who the Lords are, what they do or how they can be held accountable. We are long overdue a major reform of Parliament that abolishes the House of Lords and replaces it with an elected second Chamber that can properly revise legislation and do the business of Parliament.
I think Muir would also be rather shocked that on 8 June, 14 million people in the United Kingdom chose not to exercise their right to vote, for which he and many others died several hundred years ago. It is incumbent on all of us who value the democratic system to ask why not, because it is a serious problem. Are great numbers of people apathetic, and happy to leave decisions to others and consent to them? Or is there a degree of alienation, so that many people feel that there is no point in participating in the political system because it does not represent their views or seem to do anything to change the lives of those around them? I think there is a bit of both. I do not know what we can do about the apathy, but there are certainly some things we can do to improve the electoral system.
First, we should completely overhaul how we teach civics and democratic participation in our school system and in our society more generally. We have to see politics as something that people actively participate in—something they do, rather than something that is done to them. The teaching of elections, electoral processes and politics needs a radical overhaul at all levels, from primary school upwards.
Secondly, we could overhaul the process of voting. In this day and age, it is bizarre that people can vote only in a very defined period, in a defined place and a defined way. We need to look at using 21st-century technology to allow people to vote in much greater numbers than ever before. I see no reason why people cannot be given a secure ID number to allow them to cast their vote online. For Conservative Members, that would have the added benefit of dealing with one of their greatest concerns, the threat of personation—people voting when they are not entitled to. Giving people a unique ID would take care of that problem.
Thirdly, we need to do something about the electoral system. The first-past-the-post system is another affront to democrats, because it quite simply does not allow the representation in Parliament of people’s views in the proportion in which they exist in society. It has created a two-party system that obliges people to have their views compromised rather than represented. I firmly believe that modernising our electoral system through a form of proportional representation would allow the growth of many more parties, a much more pluralistic debate in our country and the emergence of better Governments. To those who complain, as some do, that PR gives unstable Government, I point out that on two of the last three occasions on which first past the post was used for elections to this House, it has produced an inconclusive result, and, I would argue, an unstable Government, so we urgently need to look at electoral reform.
My hon. Friend is giving an excellent speech, and I very much support the points he makes. Before he moves on from the process issues around elections and electoral set-ups, does he agree that we also need to look at a better system of electoral registration in this country, perhaps going to auto-enrolment? It struck me during the independence referendum that we saw people registering to vote who had not voted since the poll tax. We really need to make sure that we reach everybody and allow them, as much as we can, to have their say in elections.
I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention. Yes, I do agree, in short. It is ridiculous that people have to apply for the right to vote. For citizens of the country, that should be automatic; it should be given, and people should not have to apply for it. If the state is capable of interacting with its citizens when it comes to issuing driver licences, collecting taxes and in many other areas, it really ought to be possible, when there is an interaction between a citizen and the state, to check whether that person is on the register, and if they are not but are entitled to be, to automatically put them on it. It seems to me that the technology is available to us to do that.
I would be very grateful if the hon. Member, having spoken about the House of Lords, could share his personal and honest view on the institution of monarchy.
My personal view on the issue of the monarchy is that we need to review the relationship between the monarchy and Government. The extent to which powers still lie with the monarchy in terms of the apparatus of state is questionable. I realise that many people will consider even looking at the issue highly controversial, but it seems to me that the succession—I do not know when it will come, but perhaps not many years from now—should be taken as an opportunity by everyone in society to look again at the relationship between monarchy and Government. I hope that most people would agree that if someone is to exercise executive power over someone else, they really ought to be accountable. That is the definition—is it not?—of a democracy.
I do not want to go on much longer, but I wanted to mention another aspect of democracy, which is the notion of empowerment. Democracy is not just a matter of structures and the right to vote once every four or five years. A democratic society is also one in which people feel that they are empowered to control the things around them, whether that be the litter on their street, what is taught in their local school or many other things.
We really need to do something about the degree of political centralisation in this country; I mean the United Kingdom, but it applies equally to Scotland. We are long overdue a look at how we can have better provincial and local government throughout these islands. One of the things that we need to do—
Does that mean that the hon. Gentleman would be in favour of what I would call real devolution, from centralised, devolved Administrations in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast, down to the local level as much as possible, rather than holding Government centrally?
I am in favour of—what was the word that the Eurocrats used to use? I have forgotten.
Subsidiarity, yes. I was a big fan of that in its day. Basically, it is the principle that power should be exercised at the level closest to people at which it can be exercised and at which it is practical to do so. I am all in favour of power and governance being transferred to the most local level possible.
I will make just one other suggestion. We tend to get hidebound in these debates and conflate two things that ought not to be conflated. One is the question of community participation and communities setting their own priorities; the other is the management of things. For example, there was a headline in the Edinburgh Evening News that it would be possible to have at least a dozen—if not more—local councils in a city the size of Edinburgh. However, that does not mean that there must be a dozen refuse departments or a dozen education departments. We could separate the process of running and managing services from the process of deciding on the priority of the things those services should achieve. If we could do that, we could make big strides forward and we would emulate some of the much more successful schemes in Europe, including in Scandinavia, and in other parts of the world that allow much better local governance and setting of priorities.
I conclude by saying why this issue is important, including why it is important for the United Nations, and why we often talk about democratic rights and human rights being intertwined. It is because all the studies show that there is a clear relationship between people’s participation in society, the control they have over their everyday lives, and their happiness. Improving democratic rights and the way that people can participate and run their own lives is also about improving the human condition. It is about becoming a more civilised, more progressive and better, more modern society. This opportunity to discuss the UN’s day—I hope that our discussion is the beginning of the debate, rather than its conclusion—allows us to reflect on these issues and consider how we can improve our processes here, because we cannot just wait for an election in another two, three, four or even five years before we get round to considering these issues.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Mr Betts.
I am very pleased that this debate has been called to mark the International Day of Democracy, which takes place next Friday. I know that the Westminster Foundation for Democracy is hosting an event in Parliament next week, which I will attend in my capacity as shadow Minister for International Development, and that many other events will take place around the world, including at the UN, to mark the day and to reaffirm our commitment to democratic values. So I really thank the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald) for securing this debate.
I also pay tribute to the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who made a really passionate defence of democracy and the need to uphold our democratic values in this institution and beyond. I will come back later to some of the points he made.
I was not sure whether I would find that I had any common ground with the spokesperson for the Scottish National party, the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard). Actually, however, I did indeed find common ground. His comments on the House of Lords were very well made, as were his points about how we, as legislators, need to make it easier for people not only to register to vote but to vote.
I think what we have seen this afternoon is an outbreak of support for the principle of subsidiarity. We are all signing up to that principle, because there seems to be common agreement that our system of governance is much too centralised and that we need to think about how we can devolve matters more effectively than we are doing at present.
The past few years have shown that we cannot take it for granted that democracy is on an upward trajectory. Therefore, it is vital that we continue our efforts to embed democracy around the world, in order to combat many concerning trends. There has been some good news for democracy over the past year, for example in Africa, where countries including the Gambia, Nigeria, and Burkina Faso held elections that led to a change of Government. On the whole, however, the trend globally could be better.
In its report last year, Freedom House spoke of
“a worrying lack of self-confidence and conviction”
within leading democracies, so it is right that leading democracies, including Britain, take the opportunity presented by the International Day of Democracy to make a full defence of our system in the face of its critics, both at home and abroad, as their arguments become louder and, for some people, more compelling.
Democracy and dictatorship are not binary states; they are points on a spectrum. So, while the number of pure dictatorships worldwide has thankfully decreased, democratic norms continue to be undermined in many states, perhaps putting those countries on a path towards having more autocracy than they have at present. Some of that is pretty close to home. Hungary and Poland, for example, have real challenges on the freedom of their media and judiciary. We need to make sure that that does not continue and does not support those who are losing faith in representative democracy.
We must continually reaffirm not only the importance of free and fair elections, but of all the institutions that underpin democracy, including legislative checks on the Executive; the rule of law; a free media; an informed citizenry; and the independence of the judiciary. Outside Parliament the freedoms of assembly, expression and association and a free and vibrant civil society are crucial components of democracy, but they are all aspects of our democratic system that we do not talk enough about in this institution and certainly do not do enough to uphold. A Labour Government would repeal the lobbying Act because, as outlined earlier by the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East, it undermines the way in which charities and others can actively campaign in this country. The Act was a backward step. We need to properly fund civil society organisations and work with trade unions, because all those different agencies are a vital and vibrant part of our democratic system. Their work should be supported and not curtailed.
Our democracies face new threats, particularly from foreign interference in election results. We have already seen some of that in the US, although I will not go into it in too much detail. Such threats work only in so far as they magnify an underlying polarisation in our societies. In upholding our democracy we have to try to work against that. That is extremely difficult for us as parliamentarians because we often have to take time to explain to people how complex our decision-making process is. Also, in a representative democracy it is not a simple case of a group of residents coming to us with a particular opinion and then we speak in support of that opinion and act in favour of it, because another group of residents might come with the completely opposite opinion. So we parliamentarians need to explain the complexity of the world that we inhabit, and how we negotiate a path through that will likely take on board what the majority of our constituents believe, and will also take account of what is in our party manifesto and our own convictions on a particular subject.
We need to respond to what we saw in the previous election, particularly from young people: a desire for radical change in how Britain is run, which gives more weight not only to the key aspects of representative democracy that I have already outlined, but to democracy at more local levels. It is a real pity that we often spend a lot of time—all of us do this—complaining about councils and bodies at local level, but they are really important to our system of governance. Perhaps when we celebrate democracy we should take time out to think about local councillors, particularly local parish councillors who do such a lot for absolutely no money. They are volunteers who give a huge amount to their local communities, and they consult a lot with local people about their priorities.
I am not as generous as the hon. Member for Strangford and I will have some asks for the Minister this afternoon. What will the Government do to support our parishes and councils better? We should not have a discussion on our local councils and the important work that they do for their communities without saying to the Government that it would be helpful if they stopped strangling our local councils with austerity measures that mean they cannot respond to the needs of local communities, because that does not help us uphold our democratic values. We have not put it to the test in many cases, but local people might want to pay more tax to have better services or they might have a set of priorities that are not shared by the Government. In reflecting on our democracy it is really important to think about how to support our councils further.
The hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East talked about the importance of devolved Administrations. He is right to make such points. Since we are having so many discussions about what is happening through Brexit, we might also want to put on the agenda the important work that the European Union does in supporting democratic values and nascent democracies across the world. It does a lot of work on election observation and supporting new Governments. I have not heard that discussed at all by any Minister or anyone in Parliament so far. I hope the Minister will be able to comment on that point. What will the Government do to ensure we continue to work with our European partners on embedding democracy worldwide if Brexit takes place?
On the role of democracy in conflict resolution, both the Minister and I have some experience of working in Afghanistan and we know how difficult it is to embed democracy in post-conflict situations. The UN is clear that,
“democracy, development and respect for all human rights and fundamental freedoms are interdependent and mutually reinforcing”,
and such work is a key part of the UN’s peacekeeping efforts. Initiatives such as the UN Democracy Fund focus specifically on programmes to support democracy worldwide, but their commitment to democracy is at the heart of the UN’s work globally. We should recognise that.
However, the introduction of elections in post-conflict situations must be done well so that it does not exacerbate existing societal tensions and lead to an increase in political violence. Institutions need to be effective and hold legitimacy in the eyes of the people, and every effort should be made so that elections are as pluralistic as possible. Also, we must not lose sight of the goal that democracies and Parliaments should reflect and look like the people they seek to represent. We all have a lesson to learn in this. Our Parliaments need a better gender and ethnic balance. If Britain is going to support the UN in calling for better embedding of democratic values, we need to put our own house in order, too. That goes right across the board. It is not only about gender and ethnicity, but how we carry out our business in this institution. If we look at what leads to good governance, we need to speak strongly and passionately for our communities and our values, but we also need to respect the fact that others have a different point of view.
When we celebrate the International Day of Democracy, we should pay tribute in this place to the work that the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association and the Inter-Parliamentary Union do to support democracies across the Commonwealth and through the IPU more widely. They do the difficult day-to-day work of providing training courses, sharing best practice and trying to work out the problems that individual Governments face, and help them through those difficulties. As the UN charter states, democracy is a process, and often what those organisations do is help Governments to improve processes, and oppositions to be more effective, so that we have better democratic systems across the Commonwealth and, through the IPU, more widely.
We have had a number of discussions this afternoon about the importance of involving young people in the democratic process, and I agree that we should move to votes at 16. There is a Youth Parliament here once a year. I do not know whether anyone in the Chamber listens to the debates, but they are brilliant—incredibly well researched and articulate. There is so much evidence against the proposition that they would not understand, or whatever the argument is against votes at 16. I think we should have votes at 16. The CPA runs an international Youth Parliament, which is equally amazing. I hope that the Minister will think about that. It is vital to support young people, in terms of not only politics but communities generally, to get more involved in public and civic life at local level. That would enrich our democracy a great deal.
We heard something earlier about sustainable development goals. SDG 16 is incredibly challenging for all Governments, in terms of embedding democratic values. They must ensure a responsive, inclusive, participatory and representative decision-making system at all levels. I do not think that we have that. I do not think that many Governments in the world have it. It is incredibly difficult. What will the Government do to monitor how we live up to SDG 16, in its various aspects? What will they do to support votes at 16, and how are we to give better support to institutions in the UK, so that we get more devolution and real decision making at the appropriate level?
It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts.
In 2003, George W. Bush, making his State of the Union address, provided one of the great optimistic statements about democracy. He said that because democracies respect their own people and their neighbours, freedom would bring peace. At that period, 14 or 15 years ago, many academics believed that democracy would have that extraordinary instrumental effect. People wrote articles arguing that democracy was the best guard against terrorism, the best guarantee of economic growth and prosperity, and the way to cease sectarian violence—that democracies could be guaranteed not to go to war with each other.
Following that high day of optimism we have faced, over the past 10 to 15 years, a series of bewildering setbacks. We discovered in Afghanistan and Iraq that attempting to create democracies and holding elections, driven by the government of people such as George W. Bush, did not deliver the instrumental benefits that people had hoped for. It turned out that it was possible to hold formal elections in a country and still end up with a corrupt judiciary, an extremely unpopular Government, nothing resembling civil society, the media barely operating, sectarian violence exploding, terrorist groups establishing themselves and, indeed, countries at the edge of war with their neighbours.
The situation has got worse, as has been pointed out in the debate. For example, the hon. Member for City of Durham (Dr Blackman-Woods) has pointed out that the move to authoritarianism has accelerated in the past five to seven years. Many states have gone through a process whereby I can hardly visit them, as a Minister, without hearing about the closing space for civil society. That is jargon for the fact that regimes are increasingly locking up Opposition politicians, shutting down newspapers and closing down civil society groups. They do so for a range of reasons. It does not seem to matter whether we talk about societies in east or south Asia, sub-Saharan Africa or, indeed, Latin America. There appears to be a consistent admiration for either the economic model of China or the authoritarian model of Russia.
That poses a major challenge to us in the United Kingdom and the west, in terms of how we talk about democracy; but we have no choice. Democracy is and must remain the answer for our society and other people’s societies. Why? First, because it does not matter where one travels in the world: whatever the cultural differences that divide us from someone in a village in the back end of Somalia, I challenge anyone to find an individual who does not want a say in who governs them. I have never met anyone who has said, “I am quite happy to let someone else decide who governs me.” I also challenge anyone to find someone who does not want their basic human rights to be respected. I have never met an individual who has said, “I am quite happy to be arbitrarily arrested or tortured.”
In that sense, those values are universal; but they are moral values. They are not instrumental values. We should not argue for democracy because we believe that it is a cunning technique for making oneself wealthier, or a cunning trick for guaranteeing peace. The reason we believe in democracy is that we believe fundamentally in the equality and dignity of humans. The idea of one person, one vote is simply a mathematical expression of the fact that my view or your view, or the view of anyone outside this room, is worth exactly the same: it is the formal embodiment of the moral idea of equality. That is what gives it its strength and universality, and that is what will in the end make democratic societies more resilient than any others.
To move forward, we need to consider how we talk about democracy, and what, specifically, the British Government do for democracy. We were encouraged by the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) to look at ourselves. I join the hon. Member for City of Durham in paying tribute to his speech, for its humility and introspection; the hon. Gentleman pointed out that if there are flaws in democracy, that is because there are flaws in us humans. Democracy is, in the end, a mass expression of the fact that each of us, as an individual, has flaws in our judgment: there are flaws in the information to which we have access and there are flaws in the way we respond to the world around us. Democracy, however, like any important moral consideration, is not a state but an activity—a way of behaving. It is a form of active, lived contract between the politician and the citizen.
If democracy is to work in this or any country, in terms of looking at ourselves—and I was struck by the challenges to look at ourselves raised by the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard)—it needs to be based on a fundamental contract of honesty, under which politicians are prepared to be honest with the public. There are so many temptations and risks in democracy that lead us not to be honest. They lead us to construct a political narrative that says the majority of our potential voters are victims; that there is a small group of evil people—an elite, or some ethnic or sectarian group—that is somehow responsible for our ills; or that we are supermen and heroes who will transform and save the world with a brand new platform that will lead people to a promised land.
Not only do we engage in that practice; politicians here and elsewhere appear to suffer from an even more profound problem in admitting that we do not know things. We present ourselves as endlessly omniscient and omnipotent. We are incapable of admitting things to the public. For example, when I stand at the Dispatch Box and am asked exactly what we are doing in Togo or Benin, perhaps we are not doing a great deal in Togo or Benin. We may not know a great deal about the situation there or, indeed, about our own society. Our knowledge is actually limited.
The second consideration that we need to take forward is the idea of difference, which is where the arguments of the hon. Member for Edinburgh East were particularly powerful. Democracy is based on a fundamental principle of equality and dignity, but we need to recognise that different societies have different responses to democracy. Even within a single cultural society, there can be a completely valid set of disagreements, equally democratic, about the kind of institutions that we want to have.
The hon. Member for Edinburgh East, who comes from a particular rational, radical tradition, has profound differences from myself, as a Conservative, when it comes to issues such as the monarchy, the House of Lords and our electoral system. This is perhaps not the place to go through why I happen to disagree with him, although I can gesture in that direction: the idea that a second elected Chamber is going to perform better than the House of Lords needs to be judged more on the basis of performance than rational principles. It is very flattering to politicians to believe that the answer to the ills of their country is to generate more democratically elected politicians.
I could also, if we had the time, engage in an argument about proportional representation. I feel very strongly that the links with our constituents that are embedded in the first-past-the-post system are deeply precious. I am worried by colleagues in European states I go to that have full proportional representation systems, who say, “I can’t understand why you visit your constituents so much. I don’t need to; I am on a party list. That isn’t part of my life.” I think the geographical link—the link to place—is very precious.
However, it is perfectly valid for us to argue about those things. It is perfectly valid for our constitution to be changed through a democratic process. Where I actively and energetically agree with my hon. Friend the Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Andrew Bowie) and the hon. Members for Edinburgh East and for City of Durham is that one of the great failings of our democracy is in respect of decentralisation. We could learn a great deal about difference from France and the ways in which its mayors operate at a local level. I feel that Cumbria would be deeply improved if we had directly elected local mayors. I also agree with the hon. Member for City of Durham that we can do an enormous amount more to give financial autonomy, as well as theoretical political autonomy, to devolved bodies.
The reason for that is that the secret of democracy is the genius of our citizens. We live in a unique democratic age. It was quite easy 800 or 900 years ago to suggest that a small elite could decide what was best for people. The reality now in this country is that we have never been so well educated. We have never been so well travelled—more than 43 million people in this country now have passports. We have never known so much about the outside world. All of us are living lives far broader and far more engaged with the world than our parents and our grandparents did, and that is true not just of Britain but of the developing world. I was struck on my recent visit to Tanzania by just how different young Tanzanians are. That is what should create much better democracies.
That is what the republic in Athens was looking for: the citizenry that we have; a citizenry that can engage, and in which every single one of the people in the United Kingdom could be in the House of Commons and do just as good a job as we can. I have not met a constituent who could not do the job as well as I am doing it now. That is the genius of our society, and somehow we are not tapping it. Somehow, we are less than the sum of our parts. Somehow, instead of feeling that we now have more than 60 million educated, engaged people and are creating a wonderful democracy, we end up in a world where the more we know and the more engaged our citizens are, the more disappointing our democracy seems to feel.
Moving on to Britain’s place in all of that, there are various things that Britain should do at home and abroad in the way that it thinks about and approaches democracy. The hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald), to whom I pay tribute for securing this debate, focused on this year of democracy and the dimensions of peacekeeping. He raised some important points that are a real challenge to the British Government. We are beginning to move on them and I hope that we have some good news, but there is more to be done.
Sexual violence and peacekeepers are a huge priority for the Secretary of State and the Department for International Development. We have just put additional money into the UN special rapporteur on sexual violence and are hoping to make that an important theme as we move forward to the UN General Assembly. As the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East pointed out, our contributions to UN peacekeepers have increased both in Somalia and South Sudan.
We are also pleased to say that the Community of Democracies event, which the hon. Gentleman raised, is going ahead in Washington DC. Sustainable development goal 16 on inclusive societies, which the hon. Member for City of Durham raised, is something that Britain was very proud to work on in the drafting process to get included, but it remains really tough. The language of that SDG contains within it the tensions of trying to convince many different countries with different governmental systems that they want to sign up to what is fundamentally a democratic vision.
There are six things I think Britain should do as general principles moving forward. The first is not to panic. We should not give up on democracy or on the basic fundamental moral insight that equality and dignity require democracy, and that there is nothing more capacious, resilient, inspiring or successful than a democracy.
Secondly, we should put our money where our mouth is and support states that are moving in a democratic direction, such as Ghana. We should celebrate the fact that Sierra Leone is going to go through a civilian democratic transition, and we should recognise and acknowledge the huge progress made in Nepal from civil war through a series of democratic elections.
Thirdly, we should play a waiting game in the authoritarian regimes. There will be places where it will feel completely miserable and where, as the hon. Member for Strangford pointed out, Christian and minority groups are abused, sexuality is abused, disability is abused, minority ethnic groups are abused and pastoral communities are abused. In those situations, the obligation of the British Government is to stick with those civil society organisations and back them, not betting that this year or next year necessarily the Governments of those countries are suddenly going to say, “We acknowledge and embrace those minorities”, but acknowledging that those Governments will eventually go. When they do, the seeds that we have continued to nurture and the civil society organisations that we have continued to support will be able to re-emerge. Without the support from Governments such as the United Kingdom’s, it will be very difficult to rebuild civil society or defend minority rights in any of those contexts.
Fourthly, we should work with others. The hon. Member for City of Durham pointed out the important work that the European Union is doing, but that is not enough. It is not enough for the European Union, the United Kingdom and the United States to go around telling other people to be democracies. In fact, it goes down extremely badly and discredits our project. We need to embrace other countries, above all those such as Brazil and India, which are huge democratic successes in the most challenging developmental contexts—countries struggling internally with corruption and huge problems of sectarian violence that are still keeping democratic systems alive.
The fifth point is about young people and was raised by many Members. Clearly, anything that we are doing in a democracy needs to think about how we engage with young people. That may be about voting age, but it is also about the massive technological transformation and the way in which all of us have just emerged bewildered from an election in which we have suddenly discovered that everything we believed about Facebook and Instagram and Twitter in 2015 no longer seem to be valid in 2017, and everything we had assumed about newspapers and television was turned on its head. That is just the beginning. Engaging young people with politics will involve thinking very nimbly about new technological media and, probably, new messages to fit those media.
Finally, we need to redevelop our confidence in ourselves. The only way in which we are going to be able to project democracy to the world is if we rediscover faith in our own democracy, while recognising all the things that depress us. Many things are deeply wrong in our society, such as when I see in my constituency an 88-year-old woman looking after a 93-year-old doubly incontinent man, struggling to get up every two hours through the night to look after him, or when I open a door and see somebody who is mentally ill behind it who is not receiving the support they need. When we see illegal immigrants struggling to access Government services and get the support that they require, we are seeing things that are deeply wrong in our society.
However, there are also things that we need to rediscover our pride and confidence in. There is the precious blessing of peace—the fact that this country has been at peace for hundreds of years, and the fact that we are able to do really difficult things in the face of hugely difficult political challenges, and perform them peacefully, nimbly and adeptly through an electoral process. We should be grateful, above all, for the fact that our democracy is not elections-only and does not stop in this Parliament: it is our media, our civil society and our citizens. It is on that note that I want to conclude.
If the International Day of Democracy is about anything, it is about not Parliaments but citizens. If democracy is to flourish in Britain and the world, we need to discover a mutual trust—a trust of citizens in their politicians and, perhaps most difficult of all, a trust of politicians in their citizens.
We may not have had a huge number of contributions, but we have definitely had some very powerful, thoughtful and varied ones. The hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Andrew Bowie) put me to shame: within three or four months of his election he has already participated in a trip to try to help support democracy abroad. It has taken me more than two years since my election even to speak about it, but I am inspired to put that right.
As ever, the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) made an incredibly powerful speech. He reminded us that democracy is about not just having a vote, but having a voice and other fundamental rights, including, of course, freedom of religion. In a previous life, I acted as an immigration and asylum lawyer, and I met clients from a number of the countries he mentioned. As ever, I pay tribute to the work he does in championing freedom of religion and other fundamental freedoms through his all-party parliamentary group and during debates.
I was very sorry to miss the Thomas Muir lecture of my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard), so I was very grateful to have the opportunity to hear some of it today. He was as eloquent and powerful as ever in raising questions about the democracy we have here—particularly relating to the House of Lords and the electoral system. More fundamentally perhaps, he spoke about the link we should see between democracy and other issues relating to empowerment.
The hon. Member for City of Durham (Dr Blackman-Woods) warned about the crisis of confidence that is emerging in some democracies—some very close to home, in eastern Europe—while rightly highlighting the EU’s good work abroad. I was very grateful to hear that we can work together to repeal the lobbying Act just as soon as we get rid of the Government—whenever that may happen.
Speaking of which, I am very grateful to the Minister, who made an incredibly thoughtful and eloquent speech. He answered most—not all—of the questions that were put to him in the course of the debate, but that is better than most Westminster Hall debates. We will perhaps get back to him about the lobbying Act on another occasion. Like the Opposition spokesperson, he highlighted the huge challenges we face in reversing the democratic slide in some countries. He also said that we should take pride in some of the institutions we have established here. He laid down a challenge to us all as parliamentarians to be honest, to engage our constituents properly, to support developing democracies abroad and, more than anything, to build trust among all those institutions. That is a task for us all, and I feel inspired to get on with it after our debate. I hope everybody else does, too.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the International Day of Democracy.
British Citizens: Consular Support
[Steve McCabe in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered consular support for British citizens.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr McCabe. I am grateful for the opportunity for this debate. My interest in this important issue was sparked by two of my constituents, who approached me with different issues but with one common theme: the help they had hoped would be provided by our consular services was not there when they needed it.
The first issue relates to my constituent David Greenaway, a former member of the British armed forces. Mr Greenaway contacted me by email on 28 October 2016 to tell me that he was being held in Iraq against his will and was not receiving assistance to remedy the situation. To summarise the case, Mr Greenaway was working in the city of Basra for Hannaford Construction, a company with headquarters in the United States. Unfortunately, after he started work in Iraq, he discovered that his employer had failed to pay a succession of outstanding invoices for his accommodation and an office that the company was using. By the time Mr Greenaway contacted me, it had also failed to pay his salary for four months, leaving him without the financial means of addressing his situation. That resulted in the owner of the hotel that Mr Greenaway was staying in confiscating his passport and holding him against his will until the arrears could be paid. At that stage, Mr Greenaway was also informed that he was banned from travelling out of the country until the debt was paid.
Mr Greenaway contacted the British embassy to request urgent assistance, but unfortunately the officials there did little more than advise him to seek legal advice, which of course he could not afford because his salary had been withheld for a significant time. No assistance with funding for legal fees or other ways of obtaining pro bono advice were offered.
On 31 October 2016, I wrote to the right hon. Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), then Minister with responsibility for the middle east, to request that urgent assistance be provided to my constituent. I followed that up with a question to the Leader of the House on 3 November, who undertook to raise the matter with his colleagues in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Following my intervention, an official from the FCO was able to speak with the chief executive of Hannaford, Shane Hannaford, on 4 November, who undertook to resolve the matter as soon as he could. However, that proved to be no more than another empty promise by Hannaford, like those Mr Greenaway had received on many occasions previously.
Mr Greenaway was again informed that he could not be assisted with access to legal advice, obtaining a replacement passport or funding to obtain an exit visa. Mr Greenaway had of course also been informed that even if he obtained a passport, he would be prevented from leaving the country due to the outstanding debts in his name. In the meantime, the situation in the UK was also becoming difficult, with Mr Greenaway and his wife unable to meet mortgage payments and struggling to keep food on the table for their two young children.
When I spoke to the FCO official handling the case, I was extremely disappointed that he kept coming back to the matter being a commercial dispute for Hannaford to resolve, and did not offer anything that I considered to be concrete assistance. I found that particularly concerning given that Mr Greenaway was being subjected to a travel ban, which I understand is unlawful. The FCO did however eventually undertake to speak with colleagues in the US embassy. In the meantime, I made a number of telephone calls to Hannaford in the United States.
Eventually, on 14 November I received an email from Shane Hannaford in response to my calls telling me that the funds were being transferred imminently. Sadly, that was much like his other promises; the money did not materialise. Fortunately, in the meantime, Mr Greenaway, with the assistance of his family, managed to obtain a sum of money that the hotel accepted as a down payment on the arrears that had been accrued, and it agreed to return his passport.
By 18 November, Mr Greenaway had finally managed to leave the hotel, but he was still unable to leave the country due to the travel ban remaining in place. I continued to lobby my constituent’s employer on his behalf for the funds, which were finally transferred by Hannaford on 7 December, enabling Mr Greenaway to return to the UK two days later.
I hope that the Minster will understand from the circumstances I have outlined why I am so concerned about the response that my constituent received. Despite having served his country in the armed forces for a number of years, at times Mr Greenaway felt that he had been left completely isolated. Sadly, I do not see that the matter would have been resolved without my intervention. Simply advising an individual who is subject to an unlawful travel ban and who has had his salary withheld for four months to speak to a lawyer is really not good enough. I hope that the Minister can assure me that the right lessons will be learned.
How can it be right that an individual who has done nothing wrong can be effectively detained in another country, without any judicial process and without access to legal advice? I accept that there are times when diplomatic channels mean that a direct approach may not be the best route, but in this situation there cannot be any justification for the lack of a robust approach. I hope that the Minister will acknowledge that the support my constituent received was just not good enough. I also hope that the debate will serve as a warning to anyone thinking of working in Iraq for Hannaford Construction, which acted outrageously at all stages and had no regard to my constituent’s safety or wellbeing at all.
The second situation relates to my constituent Paul McCann, and sadly it is still unresolved. Paul, along with his twin brother Gary, founded the charity Twin Vision, which undertook work in India with disadvantaged children. Tragically, on 30 October 2004, while on the way to a meeting with an American charity in New Delhi to discuss establishing an outreach photography project with the city’s impoverished street children, Gary was involved in a hit-and-run incident. After arriving at New Delhi following a lengthy train journey, Gary hailed a rickshaw to take him to his hotel, but at around 6 am a 30-seater bus jumped a red light and collided with the rickshaw, killing him instantly. The driver did not stop at the scene, but he was later apprehended by a witness and subsequently arrested.
I cannot imagine the hurt and distress that the incident caused Paul and the rest of his family, but sadly, 13 years after that tragic incident, Paul is still on a painful journey to obtain justice for his brother. Despite making very simple requests on repeated occasions, he has not been aided in that journey either by our high commissioner in India or by the Indian high commissioner here in London. Because of the intransigence of the authorities in India, it took him more than a decade just to obtain his brother’s death certificate. Sadly, despite multiple requests, he was not aided in that by our consular services. Despite us being almost thirteen years on from the tragic incident, he has still not been able to obtain any details at all about the status of the case against his brother’s killer.
Mr McCann initially approached my predecessor, Andrew Miller, before I took up the matter when I was elected to this place just over two years ago. However, despite the best efforts of us both over a number of years, and innumerable letters to both the Indian high commissioner and FCO officials, we have been unable to make significant progress. Mr Miller attended a meeting some years ago with a previous high commissioner, and I have met with another, who has also since moved on. We also both engaged in numerous exchanges with our own officials. However, what should be a simple request for information has still not been met, and none of this has resulted in anything more than promises for follow-up correspondence, which subsequently fail to materialise. To deny Mr McCann any sense of closure all these years on is a tragedy on a tragedy, and one that I am determined to help him address, however long it takes. All this is compounded by what he feels is a failure of our consular services to do anything to assist him.
I will first ask the Minister, as I have asked his predecessors in the past in writing, whether he will instruct his officials to make representations on Mr McCann’s behalf to the authorities in India, asking them to provide him with an update as soon as possible. I also ask him to look into this matter personally and assure us that he is satisfied that everything that can be done has been done.
I would also like to put on the record my anger and frustration with the Indian high commission in London, which has either given me undertakings that updates would be provided and then not met them, or ignored my correspondence altogether. I hope that today’s debate will be the final spur it needs to provide Mr McCann with meaningful information in the very near future. It may be that it will still not respond, and it may be that a more assertive approach from our consulate would not reap any rewards either, but if it could make a personal approach out in India, then at least my constituent would know that every avenue had been explored.
I commend the great work and the service that the hon. Gentleman is doing on behalf of the Greenaway and McCann families. He will be aware, as will the Minister, of the fate of the six British ex-service personnel languishing in jail in Chennai in India, including my constituent Billy Irving. Will he join me in asking the Minister to put pressure on the Foreign Office and the consular service in India to give as much support as they can to the families, and to seek a speedy resolution—the release of those innocent men?
I certainly echo those sentiments. My hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester (Christian Matheson) also has a constituent in that dreadful situation. It looks like it could drag on for many years, which is intolerable for the families. I understand that sometimes these things cannot be best discussed in an open forum—that does not always reap the best results—but we are in a much more open society now. Channels of communication across the world are much easier, and the information needed should be getting to those in this country, so that they can feel that some progress is being made. I understand the frustration and anxiety of the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O'Hara) that things do not seem to be moving as swiftly as we would like.
I know that the Minister is also aware of the very serious cases of British dual nationals Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Kamal Foroughi, who are imprisoned against their will in Iran, and that a request has been made of the Government in Iran for Mr Foroughi to be released.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for mentioning the case of my constituent Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who has been imprisoned in Iran for 18 months, separated from her daughter and husband. She is a dual national, as he said. She has been refused consular access countless times. Does my hon. Friend agree that where there is a pattern of a country denying consular assistance, the Government should commit to bringing cases before the International Court of Justice?
I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention and agree with her suggestion. It seems that only certain countries play by the same rules, and it is frustrating when what we think is the right way to deal with things is not replicated in various locations around the world. I know that she has been an assiduous supporter of her constituent, and I hope that the Minister can give some assurances on that case.
In conclusion, as we have heard from the two cases I mentioned and from other hon. Members today, these situations are complex, difficult to navigate and far from easy to resolve. Some of the situations I have referred to have been stretching on for years. I am sure that every Member of this place wants the assurance and confidence of hearing from the Minister that consular support, the Foreign Office and individual Ministers and Members are doing absolutely everything they can to assist our citizens when they are in these difficult situations abroad.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr McCabe.
Consular support is fundamental to British foreign policy. It is probably the very oldest element of British foreign policy. Before we had a Foreign Office, protecting British citizens abroad was in our DNA, and it remains for us a very fundamental responsibility. That is why we have hundreds of consular staff working across the world in very difficult circumstances. That obligation is going into a new world—a world that is changing.
When our consular in Aleppo set up in 1570, he saw 12 British citizens in a year. Today, 70 million trips are made by British residents in a single year. Nearly 43 million British citizens currently possess passports. This is one of the most travelled countries on earth, and we wish it to remain so. It is an adventurous trading nation. It is a nation where a lot of our citizens are dual nationals, and many are living in other people’s countries. There are 100,000 British nationals living in South Africa alone, and more than 600,000 British nationals living in the United States. It is not simply that we have more people travelling than ever before; it is that the world is changing. The world is becoming more dangerous.
There are people in this room who will have contemporaries who would have been able to take a bus from Victoria station to Delhi in the 1970s. They would have been able to drive across Syria, Iraq and Iran. They could have gone across Afghanistan, from Herat to Kabul. They would have been able to travel to the north-west frontier province of Pakistan. None of that is possible today for a British citizen. In fact, nearly 50 countries in the world are in a fragile or conflict-affected state. It has never been so dangerous.
At the same time, our relationship with other people’s countries is changing. In the 1850s, Lord Palmerston stood up in this House and established the principle that any British citizen getting in trouble would involve the deployment of a British gunboat. When a British dual national in Athens in the late 1830s was not paid for some damage to his property, an entire squadron of the Royal Navy deployed to Athens to try to deal with it. Today, we have a situation where even the United States of America—a country that is able to deploy 105,000 troops on the ground and spend more than $100 billion a year—frequently struggles to get even quite small countries to provide the respect to its citizens that it wishes. That is not just a problem for the United States, for Britain or for Europe; it is a problem for every country in the world.
Given the 70 million-odd trips that British citizens make around the world every year, the challenge for our consular staff is dealing with a huge variety of problems. For example, I have been to see the consular activities run out of Marbella, where we have to deal with hundreds of British citizens who end up in Spanish jails, frequently because they have had too good a night out. Consular assistance needs to extend from that to British citizens who are captured by Islamist terrorist groups and end up in a boiler suit in the desert, about to have their heads chopped off, in some of the most difficult and inaccessible countries on earth. In between, they have to deal with the fallout of Hurricane Irma, with earthquakes and with military coups. The cases that have been brought up by hon. and right hon. Members show exactly how difficult it is. Members of Parliament have advocated for these cases very powerfully. They are difficult cases. They show exactly where Britain is having to respond. Let me take them in turn.
The first case raised was that of a British national who, as we heard, travelled to southern Iraq. I served in southern Iraq. It is not a safe place. We advise against travelling there on our websites. British embassy staff basically cannot travel to those areas of southern Iraq; it is too dangerous. He went there with an American construction company. We absolutely support the commercial drive and adventurous spirit that leads a British citizen from the constituency of the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) to wish to travel to southern Iraq. He found himself in a situation in which his company had not paid the hotel, and the hotel had taken his passport.
The hon. Gentleman then championed his constituent’s case very powerfully with our Department, but our consular staff acted. They acted by calling the hotel repeatedly and pushing for the passport to be returned. They acted by calling the US embassy repeatedly, and they acted also by trying to provide support for his constituent to access legal advice. We feel absolutely the frustration of the hon. Gentleman’s constituent. If I were stuck in a hotel in southern Basra in a difficult situation, with my passport held, I too would feel extremely frustrated and angry with the company, with the hotel and with my Government.
We are very fortunate that the situation was resolved. I would like to pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for all his pressure and the telephone calls he made. I have no doubt that one of the reasons it was resolved was his very active work, but I also pay tribute to the consular staff in the embassy, because I believe that their telephone calls and the pressure they brought also contributed to it being resolved.
The second case raised is an even more difficult one, because it brings us into the Indian legal system. In this particular case, Gary McCann was in a rickshaw when it was struck by a bus in 2004. The consular staff at that moment—we are now going back 13 years through Government records, and it was not this Government but a previous Government who were then responding—identified a lawyer, tried to advise Paul McCann—Gary McCann’s brother—to contact that lawyer when he visited, and were able to identify a witness who had seen the rickshaw struck and introduce him to the witness. Mr McCann understandably feels real frustration and fury at the slowness of extracting promises from the Indian High Commission, getting hold of a death certificate, getting the prosecution done and making sure the lawyer from the Supreme Court brings the case fully forward.
The British Government must balance what we feel we ought to do with what we can do. The balancing act is difficult. We must respect the fact that India is not a British colony, but an independent, proud state with a rapidly growing economy and its own legal system. It does not want to be told what to do by a former colonial power and we must balance that with our belief in the rights and justice that are due to our citizens and the sort of support we can provide for them to work within that legal system.
That brings me to the Chennai Six. Six British nationals were on a ship that had arms on it—the intention was to provide support for actions against piracy in the horn of Africa—docked in an Indian port. The Indian Government, particularly the Q branch, argued and successfully won a prosecution in court that bringing arms into India in that way was illegal and the men were detained. At the very most, these man were guilty of being on a ship that docked in Indian waters. They have been cleared once. The case was then brought a second time and they were prosecuted a second time. They have appealed and it has taken nine months for that appeal to be heard. Meanwhile, they have spent nearly four years of their lives in jail. Some of them are very young. I went to see John Armstrong in Chennai and I met the deputy Chief Minister’s family, consular staff and all the men. These men are in a really tough and unfamiliar situation. An Indian jail is a challenging place to be.
I know how personally the Minister has been involved in this case, but does he think the Foreign Office and the consular staff in Chennai have done absolutely everything they possibly can to help the men currently in jail?
The honest answer is that we can always do more for British citizens, but the consular staff have done a great deal and they have done a great deal recently. They have provided a lot of support for families to have access to the jail and in respect of conditions in the jail. The High Commissioner has visited, the previous Minister has visited and the consular staff are putting an enormous amount of time and energy into the case. I have met the lawyers representing the men and, without being a lawyer, I have tried to give as much advice and support as I can to the families and men to make sure they get the right legal advice.
The problem is fundamentally within the Indian legal system and I believe the Government and Members of Parliament have an obligation to be honest with people about their expectations. One of the most tragic things that can happen in such situations is to raise expectations and to pretend that the Indian legal system will move faster. I believe that again and again the men have been promised a swift resolution, but it has not come and I am not sure that that has been the most honest or kind thing we can do.
I am very aware of the number of meetings that have been held. Our own Prime Minister raised the matter again with Prime Minister Modi at their latest meeting and it was raised by the Chancellor of the Exchequer when he was Minister for the Middle East and by the current Foreign Secretary, but the fundamental problem remains with the Indian legal system and we must keep pressing.
Unfortunately, the case is similar to that of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who is an Iranian-British dual national who unfortunately has been detained, like many American-Iranian dual nationals and many other dual nationals in Iran, by the Iranian Government on very unclear grounds, and consular access has been refused. My right hon. Friend the Minister for the Middle East has just paid a visit to Iran and raised the case directly with the Iranian Government.
Again, we are facing a struggle with how we exercise British power and influence in these very different contexts. We have heard about southern Iraq, Iran and India, but in fact our consular work takes place in nearly 200 consulates around the world, every one of them with different, specific local conditions.
I will end by being constructive. What must we do to improve the situation? How can we do better for British citizens going forward? How do we face this new world where 70 million people are travelling? How do we face a new world with these dangers? I have three ideas.
First, we need to focus much more on how we assess vulnerability. We will never be able to deal with every one of the 70 million trips that British nationals make worldwide, even with 700 consular staff, so we need to get much better at mixing compassion, intelligence and some difficult prioritisation to make sure the people in the toughest situations receive support. That means understanding the context, their family and financial situation and, above all, what we can actually do to help.
Secondly, we must try to work with British citizens to make sure they take responsibility and precautions, such as getting adequate travel insurance, following British embassy advice and not engaging in activities that are inherently risky. That means not just personal responsibility, but industry responsibility. How do we make sure travel agencies, employers and others fulfil their obligations to citizens?
The hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston asked about a company’s obligation. Again, with the Chennai Six, what on earth is the obligation of the company that employed these men? It has stopped paying their salaries, has not paid their legal fees and has made no attempt whatever to represent its employees. It has left six British citizens—as well as 10 Estonians and a dozen Indians—in jail because it has not represented them.
Finally, we must be clear about prevention. What can we do in advance to stop these situations happening? If there are problems with the prison systems of other countries, how can we work in advance with those countries to begin improving their prison systems? If there are problems with the legal systems of other countries, can we do things now to start working respectfully, diligently, persistently and courageously to drive change in those legal systems so that British citizens are not caught up in these problems in future?
The issue is important because we want British citizens to travel and to keep travelling as they never did before. We want to acknowledge the fact that the 70 million trips we make abroad are just the beginning. We want British citizens to be educated abroad, to trade abroad and to enjoy themselves abroad. The entire existence of my Department is predicated fundamentally on trying to enable that spirit of adventurous trading in an outward-facing nation whose citizens feel confident that wherever they go the strong arm and watchful eye of Great Britain is with them with realism, pragmatism and humility. The connection between the citizen and the state in some of the most difficult and dangerous situations on earth is one of the most challenging foreign policy challenges of our era.
That is why I pay tribute to Parliament and the way it has today—and for nearly 200 years—championed the interests of British citizens abroad. I also pay tribute to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and our consular staff who, for all the frustrations and bewilderment of so many constituents who feel let down, isolated and afraid abroad, continue in difficult circumstances to provide what support they can.
Question put and agreed to.
HS2: Phase 2b Route (Manchester and Leeds)
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the route of Phase 2b of HS2 to Manchester and Leeds.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr McCabe. I am pleased to have secured this debate on a matter of immense importance to me and my constituents. If phase 2b is to go ahead, it is vital that it be done properly. At such a high cost to the taxpayer—£55.7 billion—and with budgets having risen significantly since High Speed 2 was first announced, the route must be designed so as to avoid unnecessary cost to the taxpayer and with minimum disruption to the communities that it affects.
The proposed route of HS2 through my constituency of Eddisbury will not only cause significant environmental damage and noise disruption to many areas, but come at a particularly high cost to the taxpayer because of the unique geotechnical challenges of routing HS2 through an area of current and historical salt mining and across land with a long history of significant subsidence risk. HS2’s route through Eddisbury must be looked at again, and the serious and valid concerns raised by independent experts, academics and local people need to be taken into account to find a route that works better both for the local communities and for the taxpayer.
In addition, HS2 must improve the quality of engagement with communities, who feel that their voices are not being heard. That is a long-standing complaint and has been raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs Gillan). It is disappointing that those problems are still arising.
Moving on to the detail of the route, I wish to place on record my serious concerns and those of my constituents about the relocation of the western leg rolling stock depot from an industrial site—a former colliery—in Golborne, outside my constituency, to a greenfield site in Wimboldsley, in my constituency. The decision to site the depot in that quiet, rural area has caused a great deal of anxiety to local residents. The impacts on Wimboldsley appear to be greater than those at the Golborne site. I will add that the relocation was sprung on me and my constituents with no warning. That is no way to gain public trust and support for the project.
I very much endorse the thrust of what my hon. Friend is saying. I, too, am very much opposed to HS2 in principle and will be voting against it. On the specific points that she is raising, there are important questions about consultation; she is right about that. My constituents have similar problems, and we shall be fighting this all the way down the line, with petitions and so on.
I am very grateful for that point, which my hon. Friend makes well. Having long been involved in the process, he knows exactly how frustrating it is to deal with HS2 and the lack of engagement that is apparent in many of the meetings that are held.
At a proposed length of 4 km, the depot in Wimboldsley will be a significant visual and environmental blight on that tranquil rural area. It will be in close proximity to Wimboldsley wood and cause significant disruption to prime dairy farming land. It will impact on six grade II listed buildings, as opposed to one at the Golborne site; requires five demolitions, compared with one at the Golborne site; and an obtrusive and unsightly tunnel-type structure is proposed to cross the Shropshire Union canal. That is at a spot popular for its tranquillity that is well used by locals and tourists alike.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. I am all too familiar with this issue, having the constituency that is arguably the most affected by HS2. Does she agree that HS2 should give more consideration to bored tunnels? They have been requested by constituents in the Kingsbury and Polesworth action groups in my constituency and would help to minimise the impact on residents and the environment, but also on the road infrastructure, which will be severely affected.
I completely agree. HS2 ought to look at tunnelling much more. We know that one impact may be 375,000 lorry vehicle movements. That will cause chaos on the rural roads around Eddisbury and will significantly disrupt some of the arterial routes through Cheshire, impacting on local businesses and local towns, so I agree that much greater consideration of tunnelling is needed.
There are impacts on my constituents, particularly at Wimboldsley Primary School, which is directly next to the proposed 4-km rolling stock depot site. The HS2 sift document, which informed the decision to move the depot from Golborne to Wimboldsley, made no mention of the primary school at all, raising serious questions about the scale of the analysis underpinning the decision. I am speaking for the parents, teachers and children who will have to suffer the consequences of the construction of that large piece of infrastructure and all the associated environmental and noise impacts if my hon. Friend the Minister does not intervene.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. She talks about the construction phase. It has come to light that the construction phase may slow the redevelopment of the Rugeley B power station site—a key development site for new homes and new businesses that will create new jobs in my constituency. Does she agree that we are looking at many different implications from the construction?
One key aspect of the business case for HS2 involved consideration of the economic benefits that it could bring. I question whether the economic blight associated with it has been appropriately considered. It appears very often that, in effect, a line has been drawn on a map and only afterwards have the problems caused by that line been adequately identified. My hon. Friend gives a very good example of how the construction impacts are not being adequately thought about at this stage.
For the reasons that I have set out, I urge HS2 and the Minister to act early in relation to Wimboldsley, where there are clearly significant issues, and to move the rolling stock depot to a more suitable site, either its original proposed site at Golborne or a new location, such as Basford sidings, south of Crewe.
I also wish to raise the decision last year to realign the route through Eddisbury 800 metres to the west, and the concerns that have been raised about taking it through an area with a greater amount of wet rockhead—unstable ground liable to subsidence as a result of salt. HS2’s decision to move the route came about because the original 2013 proposed route went through the area where the UK’s strategic gas reserves are stored. It was of course practical to move the route away from the gas reserves, but moving it 800 metres to the west has caused other problems, because it still goes through an area with geotechnical challenges that are not easy to engineer around and where there will be a significant cost to the communities and the taxpayer.
TerraConsult Ltd produced an independent geotechnical report on the proposed change of route and concluded that there would be an increase of 11% in the route length over wet rockhead. HS2’s lead ground engineer has called the ground conditions in the Cheshire salt area “spicy”, referring to the engineering challenges of building a high-speed railway line in that area, and HS2’s own consultant, Wardell Armstrong, recognises the risks of building HS2 through Eddisbury in its report on salt-related ground instability.
The Government must recognise the risks in the area and move the route away entirely. Alarmingly, before making route choice proposals, HS2 had not done any detailed ground surveys for use as a baseline to track ground movement. As far as I am aware, those surveys have still not been carried out.
The engineering challenges require significantly increased height and length of the embankments and viaducts—up to 26 metres. There will be two additional crossings of the Trent and Mersey canal, one at the location of previous subsidence at Billinge. That comes at an estimated additional cost to the taxpayer of £750 million and significantly increases the noise and visual damage for communities.
The route alternatives set out in the TerraConsult report should be looked at and given serious consideration. The decision document issued in July, following the recent consultation, does not contain any reference to the TerraConsult report or the points made in it. Was it considered in detail before a decision on the route in Eddisbury was made? If it was, why has HS2 to date failed to disclose the AECOM report, to which the Minister has referred in correspondence, despite numerous requests to do so?
In raising such serious issues, I consider the impact on Eddisbury and my constituents first and foremost, which brings me on to community engagement and the levels of communication and transparency. Progress has been made with the appointment of a new director of community engagement last December, and the publication of a residents’ charter, but information on the route has been difficult to obtain and public meetings have often left local residents unsatisfied.
When my office has requested information from HS2, there has often been a lengthy delay in responding. Previously, I have had to resort to freedom of information requests. When information is provided, it often lacks the necessary detail and does not fully answer the request. For a significant government project with huge ramifications for the public, all that must improve so that genuine local concerns can be fed into the process adequately.
I congratulate my hon. Friend and neighbour on securing this important debate. I endorse all the points that she is making, in particular those about safety, security, suitability and cost. My constituency, too, is full of brine fields and wells where salt has dissolved and been pumped out, which creates craters underground. Ros Todhunter, a geologist who lives in Lostock Green in my constituency, has also discussed land movement. Railway engineers talk about permitted movement of 5 mm, but we could be looking at 0.5 metres. As my hon. Friend has said, there should be discussions with people who know the land well—their families have farmed this land for hundreds of years and they know about problems under the earth that, I am afraid, the Government have so far not looked into.
I am grateful for my right hon. Friend’s intervention, because I have met Ros Todhunter and am aware that Ministers and HS2 have had high-level technical reports from her explaining some of the real difficulties in my right hon. Friend’s constituency and mine. A deep worry is that HS2 does not seem to be disclosing the appropriate level of technical reports to experts who are meant to be giving expert opinion highlighting proper concerns which are right to express at this stage in advance of a serious engineering project. One such expert is one of the most eminent professors in the field of salt subsidence, who wrote to the Secretary of State more than 18 months ago to emphasise that ground-level surveys ought to be started now, so that HS2 can identify subsidence and problem areas.
I say to the Minister that it would be extremely beneficial for MPs across the House who are affected by HS2 to be regularly updated by the engineering team on the detailed design of the route, to ensure that there is an appropriate level of scrutiny and to allow valuable input in the process. Reports regarding route decisions and sift documents ought to be shared with Members as a matter of course, not kept from us. There simply has to be better engagement, and with an acute awareness and understanding of local issues.
Many constituents have raised legitimate concerns about the compensation schemes for properties that lose value due to their close proximity to the route. Those schemes are failing to recognise the true extent of the blight caused by HS2, and more needs to be done for residents. A number of tenants have particular problems and, as it stands, do not stand to be compensated at all—particularly tenants with agricultural holding tenancies and a tenant in a property owned by a charitable trust, who has a secure tenancy and may not be able to secure another similar to the one that he has now.
There appears to be an increasing trend in phase 2b of need-to-sell applications being turned down. The latest figures show that, out of 139 applications received, just 25 have been accepted, with 49 rejected and 52 pending. Those living beyond 120 metres from the line have no alternative but to rely on the restrictive need-to-sell scheme. I am seeing an increasing number of cases in which constituents are unable to sell their homes due to HS2 but are not fulfilling the highly subjective and restrictive compelling-reason-to-sell criteria. They are then trapped and unable to move, which is extremely unfair. That really needs to be looked at again, with further consideration given to a want-to-sell scheme for those who are blighted and cannot sell. More also needs to be done for tenants who are affected.
On a more general note, I raise the issue of the destruction of woodland in phase 2b. The Woodland Trust estimates that phase 2b alone will destroy or damage at least 18 ancient woods. HS2 must be seen in the context of being a project for the future, but the current mapping along the whole route sees 98 irreplaceable ancient woodlands affected. I urge the Department for Transport to do all it can to diminish the impact on rural areas and to promote a green agenda.
I urge the Minister to reconsider the route of phase 2b through Eddisbury. It would be much more sensible to craft constructive solutions to the issues I have outlined. The new proposed location for the western leg rolling stock depot is extremely unsuitable and will cause long-lasting damage to the local area. The 2016 route realignment through Cheshire raises serious environmental, noise and safety risks and cost implications, as highlighted in an independent geotechnical engineering report, and should be looked at again.
Finally, I hope that if we shine a spotlight on examples of poor engagement and a lack of transparency thus far by HS2, the Department for Transport will look at ways of improving collaboration with communities and local MPs who know and understand their areas. Then, not only will local aspects be fully taken into account, but public trust in the project will improve.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Eddisbury (Antoinette Sandbach) on securing a debate once again on this matter. Some Members will have heard in meetings that we have had with HS2 directly in this House that my constituency was to have been affected by HS2, which was going to go to Sheffield Meadowhall. Last year, the consultation on Sheffield Meadowhall ended, and for some strange reason, HS2 decided to consult on another route; how much this has cost the public purse, I have no idea whatsoever. The reason given as to why HS2 did not want the Sheffield Meadowhall station in South Yorkshire was that there had been objections from Sheffield City Council and local business organisations. Indeed, they had spent thousands of pounds of public money lobbying the Government for a second railway into the centre of Sheffield. They did not want to travel 10 minutes to Sheffield Meadowhall.
HS2 Ltd has now said that it will put HS2 into Sheffield Midland station; the line lands there and goes no further. At a consultation meeting on 12 July this year, Sir David Higgins said that the electrification of the line from Sheffield to Leeds, which would see a continuation of the HS2 route, was an aspiration. We were slightly disappointed, to say the least.
Last year, when I first questioned HS2 at the consultation meetings here in Parliament, Sir David Higgins said the development would not go ahead at Sheffield Meadowhall because there was a lack of consensus, so I asked him politely, “If there is no consensus on the new line on the eastern M18 route, which goes through my constituency, will that not go ahead?”. He would not answer me. I said to him, in Committee Room 20 or 21, “You don’t want to answer that question, do you?”, and he just shook his head and nodded up and down. Of course he did not want to answer that question. There has been very little consensus throughout the HS2 process.
The consultation on the M18 route ended earlier this year. There were 271 people who argued for the route, and 4,157 people who voted not to stop HS2, but to put the HS2 station back in Meadowhall, so that South Yorkshire would get the benefit of an HS2 station to help regenerate the local economy; that was what HS2, which I voted for in the House quite some time ago, was about. It is quite clear that the consensus arguments are not being accepted. We would not have a motorway or a railway anywhere in the UK if we first wanted consensus.
I believe that the decision is being based on data that, to put it kindly, are wobbly at best. I have raised the issue of the properties affected numerous times, both with Ministers and with HS2, and I have still not received an adequate answer. Chris Matthewman and Simon Cross from the local HS2 campaign groups have provided the Minister and HS2 with true property impacts, which were referred to on 29 August in a Yorkshire Post article that starts:
“HS2 is facing paying compensation to people and businesses in almost 1,300 properties along its revised route through South Yorkshire”.
“the ‘M18 route’ after current official estimates said just 51 properties on the route were due to be affected”.
My understanding is that it is not denied that these 1,300 properties are likely to be affected.
The fact that roads have been split in half between those who can claim compensation and those who cannot is already causing huge anxiety in my constituency. The reroute will go through three villages in my constituency: Wales, at the southern end of my constituency; Aston; and Bramley, where it goes through an estate that I live on, which was built about 20 years ago and is right next to the M18, which is a crucial part in all this. As I say, this issue is causing huge anxiety. This is a prime example of the poor community engagement that still exists, despite pleas from many Members across the House not to leave residents to worry for many, many months.
I have received an email dated 4 September from a constituent—I will not use his name because I have not spoken to him, but I will send him a copy of Hansard. I will not read it all out, but it says:
“We live on Sherbourne Avenue on the Broadlands estate and have done so happily for over 10 years. We have 3 young kids aged 12, 6 and 4 and it was mainly for the wellbeing of the kids that we decided to make the difficult decision to sell to HS2 under their scheme. We are only 40 metres from the proposed track and are well within their safeguarded zone…We started the process in late January and are now at serious risk of losing the new build house that we hoped to move into (in August) due to the baffling incompetence of HS2…We have had more bad news from our solicitors this morning saying that it could be another 20 days minimum before anything significant happens!”
That is just not acceptable. The people at HS2 have known about this reroute since July last year. This person has three young children; given their ages, I would be worried about their education and where the family ought to be living in years to come. I am not saying that the children will be at school in 20 years’ time. This is a disgraceful way to treat people when we have known about this situation all along.
At the 12 July consultation meeting with the HS2 chairman, Sir David Higgins, in Committee Room 20 or 21, we had a battle over issues of property impact—that is a nice way of saying it—and an HS2 senior manager named Leonie Dubois said, “The number of properties affected does not form part of the route decision-making process.” I have had reams of emails and letters from the Department for Transport and from HS2, and now HS2 says that the number of properties does not affect the route.
The Minister is new in his job, so I am not blaming him, but the Department for Transport, which obviously gets advice from HS2 from time to time, wrote to me in a letter of 23 July:
“Using this approach, HS2 Ltd’s advice is that the M18/Eastern route would require 35 residential and 16 commercial demolitions, including 16 residential properties at the Shimmer estate.”
I have written to the Minister about that, and I thank him for the letter I received, although I do not understand how somebody in a new property in Mexborough can be offered £30,000, while my constituents who have been living in their houses for 20 years are offered nothing. I still cannot work that one out, but let us leave that aside for the moment. The letter continues:
“The refined Meadowhall route would require 80 residential and 47 commercial demolitions.”
I will not bother the Minister with more at this stage. However, I am still waiting for the meeting that I should have had in April with the group and with Ministers, which was called off because of the general election. I hope the Minister will agree to have that meeting, so that he can come and listen to what people are saying about what is happening in South Yorkshire. How can the fact that 600 properties in one village will be affected by HS2 not play a role in the location of the track?
I have been very positive in this House about HS2, but I have to say that I am now a little tempted to change my mind. Last year I was at the Broadlands estate in Bramley with three HS2 engineers. We stood next to the M18 and they tried to convince me that HS2 could get within 30 metres of the motorway and the houses. HS2 has implications for hundreds of houses on that estate. Like my constituent, I would just get out now.
It seems that route decisions in Cheshire were made on the basis of the number of properties affected; I think that was recorded in official documents from HS2. The problem is that one thing is being said in one location and another thing is being said in another. The only thing we have in common is that our residents are not being treated in the timely manner that they deserve. There has been a massive impact on their lives, as the right hon. Gentleman has outlined.
I completely agree.
According to the article in The Yorkshire Post, HS2 told journalists that the figure of 51 properties affected on the whole route—it will actually affect hundreds of houses in my constituency—was a reflection of a “very early design stage”. I know that the Minister has inherited this, but as a taxpayer I have to tell him that it is not acceptable to use tens of thousands of pounds of public money to pay compensation to those in houses on the Meadowhall route while people are using excuses of non-consensus. I hope that at some stage we will look again at what is happening in South Yorkshire, because it is doing damage. It is not in the interests of my constituents, South Yorkshire or the public purse.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury (Antoinette Sandbach) on securing this important debate. We have already heard some of the complexities of the issue.
Like the right hon. Member for Rother Valley (Sir Kevin Barron), I have been supportive of HS2 in principle; but the more things go on, the more we start to wonder whether it is worth all the stress and uncertainty for our constituents. I hope that we can get things sorted out, because it is important. The major infrastructure project will be good for our economy, for connectivity and, above all, for people who are living and working in the midlands and the north. My main priority, however, remains securing the best possible deal from HS2 Ltd for those residents in my constituency who will be directly affected by the line of route. The line of route goes half way through the town of Long Eaton and will be on a 17-metre viaduct, so we can imagine what impact that will have.
On a practical level, because of the unique nature of the property market in Erewash, it is almost impossible for people whose homes have been acquired by HS2 Ltd for phase 2b to purchase a like-for-like property just two streets away. Houses just two streets away are too expensive for them, even with the plus 10% compensation. Many of the residents have lived in their homes for many years. They are elderly and cannot get another mortgage. Indeed, why should they get another mortgage? There is also a real lack of industrial land available to be developed for the businesses that are having to relocate. I fear that they will either move out of the area completely or end up closing, and that is the last thing that we want.
When the Secretary of State confirmed the final phase 2b route to the House just before the summer recess, he agreed with me that no one should lose out as a result of HS2. With that in mind, would the Minister consider scrapping the one-size-fits-all approach to property compensation and replacing it with a bespoke scheme that reflects the individual circumstances in each affected area? As we have already heard, it has already been done in Mexborough, so why not in Long Eaton and Rother Valley? I am sure that if we really want this project to happen, it is not beyond the realms of possibility to make sure that nobody loses out as a result of it, as the Secretary of State agreed.
Briefly, turning to the administration of the compensation scheme, I have found HS2 Ltd to be woefully inadequate. The way in which HS2 Ltd continues to treat residents and play with their lives cannot be allowed to carry on. I have witnessed the stress on the residents’ faces. That stress cannot be described. I know that my residents are awake throughout the night, night after night. They see that their neighbours are the same, because the lights are on in the kitchens. They are all making cups of tea, really concerned about what is going to happen to their futures, and end up ringing each other because they know that they are all awake. That is wrong. We live in the 21st century and cannot get right a major infrastructure project so that it really looks after our residents.
It is not just the fact that the residents have to move; it is the fact that they are not being offered compensation that allows them to move without an impact on their financial security. All that people have are the houses that they live in. When the properties are being valued at vastly different amounts by the chartered surveyors for HS2 Ltd and the renowned chartered surveyors that are being put forward to my residents, something has to be wrong. That starts suspicion and makes people think that HS2 Ltd wants to buy the properties on the cheap. There is a lack of information and lack of transparency.
I know a row of really old Victorian railway cottages. HS2 Ltd will not talk to the people at one property about compensation until it has settled with those at another property. Why is that? Why can they not get on? These properties will be demolished; they are in the safeguarded zone. Why not realise that if the project is going to move forward at a reasonable pace, those people should be paid what the properties are worth?
Just a few weeks ago one couple were going through the exceptional hardship scheme and the property was valued at £185,000. They have now been offered £150,000 for the same property by HS2 Ltd. It is the same company. Something has to be wrong, and it really needs to be addressed. The compensation is based on pre-blight valuation. For another property, a lady has been offered less than she paid for it 11 years ago, and yet we know property prices have gone up since then. Something must be done because people are losing confidence in HS2. People welcome what may come in future, but if we cannot get it right now people will lose confidence very quickly.
I hope the Minister will look at the requests for compensation. He has written to me recently and things have improved, but at a slow pace, one by one, and people cannot wait. They know they have to move out of their homes and find somewhere else. They cannot put their lives on hold any longer. We have some elderly people in Long Eaton and they want to start afresh now, not by the time everything has gone through the petition stages. They want to be able to move on. They are being forced out of their homes, so why should they lose out? I request that the Minister gets a grip of HS2 Ltd and does the right thing by my and other Members’ constituents.
I thank the hon. Member for Eddisbury (Antoinette Sandbach) for securing the debate today.
There is no doubt that HS2 has the potential to deliver some benefits to the economy, but the people in my constituency are less than convinced. Many constituents are already feeling short-changed by the unsympathetic and bureaucratic process of applying for compensation, and they agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley (Sir Kevin Barron) and the hon. Member for Erewash (Maggie Throup) that the Minister should look again at the compensation scheme. Many are rightly asking how Leigh will benefit from the scheme and how the impact to the environment is to be minimised.
Another concern is connectivity. How is it right that it will take longer on public transport to get from Mosley Common in my constituency to Wigan—they are both in the same borough—than it will to get from Wigan to Birmingham? I recently wrote to the Secretary of State highlighting these concerns and how investment in infrastructure in our towns is essential. His response was to admit that there is no plan for the future: no plan to realise the potential that HS2 can have in smaller towns.
Places such as Leigh have been consistently overlooked. While the scheme is blinkered into seeing the benefits to major cities, people fail to see the huge benefits that could be gained by investing in greater connectivity to the wider network and places such as Leigh. We need to kick-start local economies. We need to invest in our towns and make full use of HS2. We need to ensure that places such as Leigh are connected to HS2, and that Leigh is not somewhere it simply runs through.
The Government risk disenfranchising large parts of the north from any potential benefits from this large-scale national project. With most large infrastructure projects going to London and the south-east, there is little confidence in the north that the Government are serious about delivering an economy that works for everyone.
Thank you for the opportunity to contribute to this debate, Mr McCabe. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury (Antoinette Sandbach) on securing this debate, which is an important step in making sure residents and people across the country have confidence in this controversial and difficult project, but one that has the opportunity and potential to make some difference to our country if it is done in the right way. In the same way that HS2 is controversial in this House, HS2 is controversial in my constituency of North East Derbyshire as well. I genuinely welcomed the Secretary of State’s statement on 17 July, which helped to clarify matters in my constituency. The route has moved slightly further to the east, although that causes problems for the right hon. Member for Rother Valley (Sir Kevin Barron) in the constituency adjacent to mine.
I have three quick points on the change to the route. I hope the Minister will be willing to consider each of those. First, now that we are clearer about the route, following the statement on 17 July, my constituents’ thoughts and conversations over the summer have turned to what that actually means on a practical level. I recognise that, for all large infrastructure projects, a long period of design and development needs to take place so we understand what the implications are for the roads, the railway network, and the traffic and transport that is required to construct them. It would be very helpful if constituencies such as mine could obtain an understanding of the likely implications when the construction works begin. Which roads will be affected and how much is likely to come down them? That will enable people to start preparing and having discussions at this early stage. I fear that if we have yet more consultation meetings in North East Derbyshire and across the country in which such basic, practical questions cannot be answered, or are deferred for a couple of years, it will add to the weight of cynicism that is already in place in constituencies such as mine.
The second issue relates to where HS2 will link to existing track. In my constituency, given the changes that the right hon. Member for Rother Valley talked about—it will move into Sheffield directly—it is proposed that existing elements of the legacy track will be used. There will need to be significant changes to the legacy track, including electrification, one assumes. It would be useful to get more detail at the earliest possible stage, because residents who think that the track has moved elsewhere and are no longer quite as affected by it as they were still need to understand the great implications of the changes and upgrades to the lines on the existing network, and the implications for the midlands main line and the franchise that runs on the existing network.
Finally, villages in my constituency, including Killamarsh, Renishaw and Spinkhill, have previously faced the real challenge that many colleagues have talked about today. They were on the previously reserved route and have suffered the blight that has been described. Happily, most of the blight has been removed, at least for the villages in my constituency, because the route has moved elsewhere, but they have suffered for a number of years. We have had four and a half years of missed opportunities, economic consequences and decisions foregone. For example, for four and a half years the Chesterfield Canal Trust has not been able to make decisions about the restoration of a very important asset in north Derbyshire. I recognise that money is tight, and I promise the Government that, as a Back-Bench Conservative Member of Parliament, I will not make a habit of coming to ask for money, but I wonder whether consideration can be given to compensation schemes for those who were affected by the blight for several years. They may be no longer affected but their lives have been changed none the less. I hope the Minister will be willing to consider those issues.
I thank the hon. Member for Eddisbury (Antoinette Sandbach) for bringing this debate forward. It is so important that there is proper scrutiny in this House of the plans. After all, a Bill will not be laid before Parliament until 2019, so we have a window of opportunity to scrutinise every inch of track to make sure that the right decision is being made.
The clearest comment I have heard in this debate is that the Government have got to get a grip of what is happening. After all, it is the responsibility not of HS2 Ltd but of the Government to make sure that our infrastructure is right. That is why Labour wants to see the development of the UK’s infrastructure. We supported high-speed rail for that reason: to improve capacity and connectivity, and to boost the economies of cities, particularly in the midlands and the north.
We cannot have a siloed approach to HS2. It has to be embedded within a wider integrated transport strategy. Economic development across our towns and cities, which feel so ignored, has to be at the heart of everything. Therefore, while HS2 will provide a main artery, we cannot ignore that objective, which sometimes gets missed. The focus is often on the engineering expertise and the excitement around that, but that misses the point of what high-speed rail is all about. It is about moving goods and people to help the economy grow.
There is real disappointment among Labour Members at the Government’s strategy of late around rail, full stop. They are turning off the power in the north and we are not going to see the investment in HS3 that we were promised to make sure that there was east-west connectivity. Part of the original plans for high-speed rail was an inverted-A route, with high speed across the Pennines. There is a serious piece of the jigsaw missing. It was a deliberate ploy by the Government to make the announcement when even Network Rail had not made the decision. The Government jumped the gun, to cut off the north. Those kind of blatant decisions are really hurting people in my constituency and across the north.
We must recognise the need for investment in rail. We need to decongest the current networks and ensure better connectivity as we move forward, but not at any cost. That is what is so important. Points have been made powerfully today about ensuring that the details are right, understanding the engineering complexities and the environmental concerns that need to be at the forefront of the project, and making sure that people are at the heart of decision making.
Yes, we do want to see the economic benefit. I ask the Minister to ensure that clear economic benefit is mapped out from this development. If we get things in the wrong order and do not put the economic investment into cities in the north, I am concerned that their economies will be sucked down to the south-east and we will not realise the potential. I fear that that could happen to my city; we would just be another commuter zone. It is really important that we understand how the plans relate to the economy and economic investment, and that we get the sequencing absolutely right, to ensure that we see the benefit of high-speed rail. I take on board the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Leigh (Jo Platt) that HS2 cannot stop at every town along the route, but if it is well-connected—we do not even have a draft national timetable yet—it will serve those purposes.
Just south-west of my constituency, the little village of Church Fenton is now being described as a massive interchange. The origins of HS2 were very much about making sure that there was connectivity between the major conurbations of the north and the midlands. Although Church Fenton may have that elevated status, we have to look at the impact that that will have on a small village in North Yorkshire. Obviously, it does not want to just be turned into a car park. Those considerations are incredibly important.
There has been much discussion about Sheffield and that discussion must continue. I have real concerns about taking the line into the heart of Sheffield, because not having the electrification and connectivity going north makes a nonsense of HS2. We are not achieving the original aim of joining up the major conurbations, and therefore HS2 does not meet its objectives. Given the cost of the investment, if it does not even do that and is not even able to make those connections across a county, it is right that we ask serious questions of the Government. We must look again at the proposals and make sure that we get this absolutely right.
Where we place stations and routes will be crucial in how our economy grows in the future. I want to hear much more from the Minister about the connectivity issues. I also want to hear about why lines cannot be moved. As we have heard, 800 metres in one direction could make a huge difference to an area of environmental protection and present an engineering challenge. If we can move lines to reduce the risk to our environment and beyond—it sounds like that would reduce cost as well—the Minister has an absolute responsibility to do that.
I recognise that progress has been made on parts of the line through the consultation with HS2. We need to keep bringing HS2 back to the table time and again over the next 18 months to make sure that we make clear progress on the outstanding issues. Clearly we want to ensure that when we are making such a serious investment in the future of our country, at a time when perhaps we are most challenged as to where our economy sits in the wider sphere, there is a response on those issues.
I ask the Minister to site this issue within the rest of our investment in the rail network. The east coast main line is in urgent need of repair and upgrade, with the overhead lines needing power to run high-speed. We know that it will cost about £900 million for the southern route, but the northern route also needs a proper upgrade to take on the HS2 line heading north of Church Fenton, York and beyond. I want to know the timing of those upgrades. When will they happen? I also want to ensure that we bring real connectivity across the network, to make sure that it works.
Finally, I want to hear what the Government are doing about the cost of the project, which is, again, a matter of major concern to our constituents. It is a massive investment, particularly at a time when there are people in our constituencies who are hungry and starving. Billions of pounds are being spent on a rail service that perhaps will not connect to them. I want to hear how the Minister is keeping a lid on the costs and ensuring that the investment brings benefit to constituencies across the north and the midlands.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr McCabe. I shall do my best to cram as much as I can into the remaining 10 minutes. The hour-long debates in this place are neither fish nor fowl, I have rapidly learned.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury (Antoinette Sandbach) for doughtily providing her usual list of issues for me to consider. She is a firm champion of the people of Eddisbury, and I shall try to focus on her main concerns, but I want briefly to address some of the points made by the hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) from the Labour Front Bench. I agreed with much of what she said about economic investment and the need to ensure that things all join up. However, I must gently chide her on one key point: we have not stopped work on east-west links across the north. I met only the other week with both Network Rail and Transport for the North to talk about how they are bringing forward Northern Powerhouse Rail. I have always argued that HS2’s full potential will not be fully delivered unless we properly improve east-west links as well. It is not for me to determine the engineering solution that Network Rail will alight on for any particular line or stretch of line, but that work is ongoing—on a cross-party basis, as Transport for the North is also governed by Labour local government leaders across the north, who are also setting the objectives. That seems to me to be how things should be taken forward.
Will the Minister give way?
If the hon. Lady will forgive me, I will not; I am sure it will not be the last time we have the discussion, and I must give some time to the concerns of my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury. Her main concerns focused largely on some of the ground instability problems that we encounter in Cheshire, crossing the salt fields. As someone born and bred in Northwich I have been brought up on photos of houses that have collapsed because of subsidence, and have suddenly disappeared into the Bull Ring in the town centre. I am more than aware of those issues; but I reassure hon. Members that we are seeking to manage them actively.
HS2 has commissioned a specialist mining engineer, in consultation with the Cheshire Brine Subsidence Compensation Board, to undertake a study on the consultation route using available data such as those from the British Geological Survey, the salt industry and local authorities. Those light detection and ranging surveys have been completed by HS2 Ltd, identifying the wet rockhead features to which my hon. Friend referred near to the route, and will be considered with other LIDAR surveys. I think it is fair to say that between Crewe and Manchester every route option presents risks and issues. It is a matter of balancing those carefully and working out which offers the optimum solution. We carefully weighed those matters both in 2013, when we listened to concerns, and on the now-confirmed 2016 route. On our assessment those risks were more manageable on the latest version of the route. One of the key reasons for that was to avoid the gas storage caverns to which my hon. Friend referred. The route has been moved to better avoid salt brining and gas storage infrastructure, reducing underlying mining and geological risks during construction and operation. The route has also been raised to better allow for drainage and options for ground stabilisation. In terms of travel through Cheshire, other alternatives were looked at, including tunnelling options, but this was felt to be the best option of those on the table.
My hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury referred to the report by TerraConsult. Its first report was taken into account before the November 2016 announcement, as was its second report before the July 2017 announcement. I further understand that HS2 Ltd is meeting on Tuesday 12 September with TerraConsult and Mid Cheshire Against HS2 on how HS2 Ltd came to make its recommendation on the alignment between Middlewich and Pickmere. Senior engineers with a background in geotechnical engineering will attend that meeting. I also understand that HS2, accompanied by engineers, is more than happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss her concerns and is waiting to confirm a date with her office. Once she has had that meeting, I will still be more than happy to put myself—with my limited expertise—at her disposal also.
I recognise that this is a sensitive and complex section of the route. There is more work to be done to further assess geological risks and to provide suitable mitigations for them. HS2 Ltd plans to carry out early geotechnical investigation work in the mid-Cheshire area to gather more advanced survey information. We will continue to work with my hon. Friend to try to ensure that the best mitigation possible occurs.
I also want to touch briefly on my hon. Friend’s concerns about the siting of the depot at Wimboldsley and its proximity to the primary school. The re-siting of the rolling stock depot to Wimboldsley has taken into account both the potential risks of the previous site in Golborne, which saw the demolition of a grade I listed property, and the potential impacts in Wimboldsley. The site is strategically located on the HS2 network, south of the Manchester junction, so that it can receive empty trains from both the HS2 main line—from Preston and indeed further north—and the HS2 Manchester spur. It is also located at the point where the line deviates from the existing west coast main line, so it is also well placed to receive empty HS2 trains from Liverpool. Other locations around Basford and Crewe are less proximate to where empty trains from Liverpool and Manchester might be coming from.
While I understand that there will be impacts associated with the rolling stock depot, I very much welcome the fact that HS2 Ltd is in conversation with the headteacher at Wimboldsley Primary, and I hope that any outstanding concerns get fed into me as well, so that I am aware of them.
In particular, this proposal avoids direct impacts on the grade II listed buildings to which my hon. Friend refers and also proximity to sites of special scientific interest. I recognise that there are still concerns about the Leeds and Liverpool canal. Indeed, other canals were also mentioned. As someone born in mid-Cheshire, I have a great fondness for canals and want to ensure they do not suffer in this process.
If my hon. Friend has further information on where she thinks there might be impacts, I will happy to look into it.
Furthermore, significantly less infrastructure is required at this location than if it were at Golborne. In particular, there is no need for a northern chord from Manchester out to the HS2 junction. That reduces the overall infrastructure development requirements in the area and, indeed, creates more space in the HS2 budget for other mitigation elsewhere on this stretch of the route.
In the remaining two and a half minutes, I will not be able to do justice to everything that my hon. Friend said, so I am more than happy to meet her. I recognise her points about ancient woodlands and about some of the lowland deciduous woodland in Cheshire. There are woods around Plumley, Smoker wood and woods around Lostock Gralam. I know that HS2 is very keen to ensure that when it does the environmental assessment, it can put forward how it intends to mitigate that loss of woodland. I urge Members to look carefully at that assessment when it comes out later in the year, because it will be full of information, and I am sure that local people will want to have their say on whether the mitigation is adequate.
I want to finish on the most important point. I apologise to the right hon. Member for Rother Valley (Sir Kevin Barron) that he will not get any look-in in what I am saying, because I have run out of time, but I am more than happy to meet him as well. I know that there is an outstanding meeting, and I will be keen to meet him. There is a wider point here about how HS2 engages and consults with local communities and how it processes need-to-sell applications. This is a difficult area, but it is impossible to build infrastructure of this scale without inconveniencing someone. The key test is whether those people who are being inconvenienced and asked to sell or leave their homes feel that they are being treated in a fair and proportionate manner.
I urge all Members here today who have specific cases to come to see me personally, as my hon. Friend the Member for Erewash (Maggie Throup) did. It is only by properly understanding those individual cases that I get a more holistic sense of whether the system is working or not. I noted the concerns that my hon. Friend raised about how some specific local circumstances make the existing package not always appropriate. I have heard that message and will ask officials to look more closely at Long Eaton in particular. If Members have a specific local issue, they need to let me see the detail, because there have been examples already where I have been able to exert influence. I expect HS2 to get this right, and that will be my final word on the matter at this stage.
Motion lapsed, and sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(14)).