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Commons Chamber

Volume 629: debated on Wednesday 18 October 2017

House of Commons

Wednesday 18 October 2017

The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock


[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

International Development

The Secretary of State was asked—

Hurricane Relief (Caribbean)

The UK Government mounted an enormous cross-Government response to the devastating hurricanes consisting of more than 40 aid experts, 2,000 military personnel and more than 50 police officers, with HMS Ocean, RFA Mounts Bay and more than 600 tonnes of humanitarian aid. I give my thanks to our military and civilian personnel, whose efforts during the hurricane relief effort were simply heroic.

Will my right hon. Friend assure me that our friends in the Commonwealth who have been affected by these recent hurricanes are receiving support and aid as they recover?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. The hurricanes have been devastating, and I have seen their effect across our overseas territory. I can absolutely give the House an assurance that we are not just supporting the overseas territories; we are now working with them on the recovery and the rebuilding efforts, in addition to the relief efforts.

What progress is being made on the commitment that the Government made at the world humanitarian summit last year to increase spending on disaster risk reduction? How is that being implemented and in what countries is disaster risk reduction spending increasing?

The hon. Gentleman is right to point that out in terms of the grand bargain and the humanitarian work that Britain leads on around the world. He asks about progress. I can let the House know that enormous progress has been made directly with the humanitarian agencies that we work with, through the funding that we are putting in place. We are making sure that the grand bargain commitments are part of the funding performance that we now put in place with regard to the reform agenda.

My understanding is that military assistance to British overseas territories may not be paid out of the British aid budget. Is it not an absurdity that our defence budget has to pay for British military aid in the Caribbean?

Let me politely say to my hon. Friend that that is not wholly accurate. When it comes to support for the military budget, he will know that part of the official overseas development assistance goes to the Ministry of Defence, so, as I said earlier, this has been a cross-Government effort involving the Foreign Office, the MOD and the Department for International Development, and others, including the Home Office. We have all been providing a great deal of support to the overseas territories.

The Secretary of State is right that the scenes of devastation that we have witnessed are heartbreaking. As well as helping victims, we must try to prevent future damage, so will she reverse the recent trend in reducing DFID climate change funding, especially for the adaptation work that is so crucial to help vulnerable communities become resilient to hurricanes and other climate-related disasters?

We are very focused on resilience as part of the recovery programme and dealing with the challenges faced in respect of climate change. The implications of climate change for small island states are very much a focus of DFID, but also across the Government. We are leading many of the discussions internationally in terms of climate change—how we support resilience programmes through our aid budget, but also how to help countries have the preparedness that they need to deal with some of these disasters.

On Friday, the Secretary of State finally announced her big plans for the Caribbean’s recovery—a private sector taskforce, but not a penny of new funding. What are her plans to ensure that that taskforce helps those in need, rather than fat-cat profiteers? Is this really the best the UK Government can do?

I am disappointed by the tone the hon. Lady has taken, primarily because, having been to the overseas territory myself, I have seen the private sector absolutely wiped out. We are talking about not large sectors and industries, but men and women who have lost their livelihood—small shops and small businesses. That is effectively why we have established a private sector taskforce, which will work with the chambers of commerce and those grassroots organisations that will help small businesses to get back on their own two feet. She also asks about money and resources. Of course, we are providing all the support that is required.

Leaving the EU: Preferential Trade

2. What discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for International Trade on securing preferential trading access to the UK for least developed countries after the UK leaves the EU. (901227)

DFID and the Department for International Trade are working together to prepare and plan for the day when Britain finally leaves the EU in 2019, when we will start to secure duty-free access to less developed countries and work on trade preferences.

The oil and gas industry, which is important to my constituency, uses copper and nickel—major exports of less developed countries such as Madagascar and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Does my right hon. Friend agree that free trade with those countries is good for them and good for the UK?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I am well aware of his constituency’s links with the sectors he mentions. By increasing trade opportunities for UK firms, we can help the world’s poorest countries trade themselves out of poverty, which everyone in the House wants.

In many of the countries in which the Department for International Development operates, co-operation on the ground with the European Union is crucial to the impact of our efforts. Will the Secretary of State assure us that work is being done to ensure that that development co-operation with the EU continues?

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point about development co-operation. We lead in many countries, both bilaterally and multilaterally, but co-operation is vital to delivering on the ground for the world’s poorest. We will continue to work not only with the EU, but with other partners in some of the poorest parts of the world where they can add value and where there is great need.

The United Kingdom has historically imported 50% of the sugar that we consume on preferential terms from developing countries, and it is then refined by Tate & Lyle. Will the Secretary of State reassure the House that the jobs, both at home and abroad, that depend on that agreement will be given proper consideration in the Brexit negotiations?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right about trade preferences and the implications for securing jobs in this country and about creating new markets in developing countries and new trading opportunities. As part of the discussions, those subjects will be at the heart of securing a prosperous future for our country and for poor countries around the world.

What reassurance can the Secretary of State provide that post-Brexit trade agreements for the least developed countries will enshrine good-quality employment rights and high standards of health and safety, align with fair trade policies and support trade union recognition?

It is important for the hon. Lady to recognise that Britain is at the forefront of that, unlike the EU, which has yet to agree trade preferences and good trading opportunities with some of the world’s poorest countries. Britain will lead the world in free trade, but, importantly, we will also help the poorest countries to invest in skills, technical assistance and capacity building and create new markets. [Interruption.] The hon. Lady says no, but she should recognise that her party did little when in government to support trade in poor countries, which is exactly what this Conservative Government are doing.

11. Does my right hon. Friend agree that Brexit offers us the opportunity to go further than the EU’s rules and to strengthen the UK’s offer on trade with the world’s poorest countries, so that they can trade their way out of poverty? (901236)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The mission of this Government and of my tenure at DFID is to do exactly that. We want to ensure that economic development is at the heart of everything we do, meaning free trade, market access and helping countries to stand on their own two feet.

Natural Disasters: Emergency Funds

3. What steps she is taking to ensure that emergency funds can be made available from the aid budget to help British overseas territories to recover from natural disasters. (901228)

Overseas development assistance rules have not and will not stop Britain providing money needed for the hurricane recovery and reconstruction effort. The UK has committed over £60 million to the Irma and Maria relief efforts, and we are of course working with all our international partners to provide support.

Does the Secretary of State agree that recent events highlight the need for greater use of disaster recovery insurance to protect vulnerable nations, such as those in the Caribbean? Will she update the House on the Department’s work in that area?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The Caribbean Catastrophe Risk Insurance Facility has paid out $49 million in the last month alone to the islands affected by the recent hurricanes. Through the World Bank and other international financial institutions, Britain and the British insurance industry are leading the way in providing more insurance support internationally.

In recent years, 58% of deaths caused by disasters have occurred in fragile states. What assurance can the Secretary of State give us that the aid budget for disaster relief will remain compliant with official development assistance rules and will focus on resilience and recovery for some of the world’s most vulnerable people living in those fragile nations?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. He is right to highlight the fragility of many countries. Our aid budget is there to provide relief and the preparedness to help them to deal with many of the disasters and catastrophes that take place through climate change and conflict and through man-made disasters, too. That is effectively DFID’s focus.

Would a cross-departmental unit focused on the overseas territories, staffed by DFID, the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defence, help to solve some of the problems of co-ordination and provide a better response to our OTs?

My hon. Friend highlights the importance of co-ordination. The cross-Government hurricane relief effort was strong and co-ordinated. We have to respond accordingly to crises when they happen, and we work together effectively. We are joined up and are making sure that we deliver for the people who need help.

We are just 10 days away from the negotiations in Paris on changing the ODA rules, and the Government still cannot clearly tell us their position. Will the Secretary of State tell us what changes the UK Government are seeking? Can she guarantee those changes will not divert aid away from the poorest?

The hon. Lady is absolutely right. The House may have noticed that the secretary-general of the OECD was in town yesterday, and I met both him and the chair of the Development Assistance Committee to discuss this issue. They are the first to recognise that such small island states need resilience to the impact of climate change and that we need greater agility in applying the rules to many of those countries. We will have that discussion at the DAC in 10 days’ time.

Rohingya Refugees (Bangladesh)

4. What steps the Government are taking to increase long-term support for Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh. (901229)

The UK is the largest bilateral donor to the Rohingya refugee crisis in Bangladesh. DFID has worked in Cox’s Bazar for many, many years, and it has recently stepped up efforts with an additional £30 million in the light of the refugee crisis. We are working with many partners, and I am sure all colleagues in the House, including those who spoke in yesterday’s debate, recognise the difficulties we face in providing aid because of the scale of the refugee crisis. Britain is leading, and we are working with our international aid partners.

I accept that the UK is the largest bilateral donor, but the Secretary of State will know there is a United Nations conference on the issue next week. Will she clarify today the UK Government’s objectives at that conference? How will she put pressure on other countries to step up to the plate, too?

The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. I have already called for violence to stop and, importantly, for aid access to be granted. The point about the UN efforts is that we have to have a co-ordinated approach and response to the aid effort, aid delivery and aid access. It is also important that we ensure our voices are heard by the Burmese military, so that they stop the violence and introduce protections for the Rohingya people, rather than the persecution we have seen so far.

Although the majority of Rohingya Muslims have sought sanctuary in Bangladesh, 40,000 refugees in India face deportation back to Burma. Has the Secretary of State raised that with her Indian counterparts? If not, will she now guarantee that she will do so?

The hon. Lady is absolutely right about the plight of the Rohingya people inside India, which shows the level of dispersal and displacement. With my Foreign Office counterparts—the two Departments are obviously working together—I will pick this up with the Indian Government. Importantly, our focus right now is on the relief efforts in the light of the humanitarian catastrophe in Bangladesh.

What pressure can be applied to the authorities in the region and particularly to the office of Aung San Suu Kyi? Tributes have been paid to her in the past for her work to bring people together to try to bring an end to the onslaught and murder that continue in the region.

Of course Aung San Suu Kyi has an important role to play. She has a voice, and she needs to use it to stop the persecution and, with the Burmese military and with what is effectively her Government, to create routes home for the Rohingya people, giving them security, rather than the fleeing and persecution we have seen. It is not just for the British Government, although we are doing this, but for all international voices to step up, come together and make that abundantly clear to her.

Commonwealth Development

The Prime Minister and Secretary of State have made it clear that the Commonwealth is absolutely central to our future policy, and that is not just true in respect of forthcoming Commonwealth Heads of Government meetings; the 20 largest DFID recipient countries include Nigeria, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Tanzania, Malawi and Sierra Leone, in which our programmes extend from health and education, to economic development, without which there can be no jobs or growth.

Given the health and vibrant link between Commonwealth countries that open up to trade and their subsequent rapid economic development, does my hon. Friend agree that we have not only an economic imperative, but a moral obligation to do whatever we can with foreign aid to focus our efforts on supporting free trade? [Interruption.]

Order. We are discussing very serious matters appertaining to the livelihoods of our friends in Commonwealth countries, as we have been treating of a great many other serious issues. I am sorry that the hon. Member for Windsor (Adam Afriyie) had to contend with excessive noise, but I am sure the House will now be becalmed as it listens to the flow of the eloquence of the Minister of State.

Absolutely. In this, as with everything, the devil is in the detail. For example, through TradeMark East Africa, DFID is not just supporting light manufacturing and trade and tariff negotiations, but reducing delays at borders and investing in infrastructure. Of course, most importantly, we will be providing tariff-free access to the least developed countries in the world after Brexit.

School students from Lesotho are visiting Wrexham this week for the 11th year as a result of building on global school partnerships. Why is Lesotho excluded from the list of countries that the Department is supporting, which the Minister gave earlier?

This is a very good challenge. This is partly to do with Lesotho’s economic status, as DFID has tended to concentrate on the poorest countries in the world. However, we take the current difficulties in Lesotho very seriously, and I hope to visit it in the near future to look directly at this issue.

One practical way to promote development in Commonwealth countries is through DFID’s procurement, so will the Minister examine ways to increase procurement with businesses in developing countries to strengthen the private sector there and increase employment growth?

Procurement is central to the Secretary of State’s reforms in DFID. She has made open and transparent procurement, and a suppliers review run by my right hon. Friend Lord Bates, central to how we take this forward, and of course that is right. Getting procurement right can help not only businesses, but the poorest people in the world.

Does the Minister accept that there are many places in the Commonwealth where conflict is still ever present? Will he assure me that DFID will never cut back on moneys for peace and reconciliation before we even get to the opportunity of development?

Conflict is probably the biggest single driver of economic catastrophe, poverty and refugees in the world. We will continue to commit half our budget to fragile and conflict-affected states, because without peace there can be no development.

Topical Questions

Over the next five years, the UK is providing £175 million in life-saving humanitarian aid to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where political insecurity and increasing violence are forcing people to flee their homes.

Sustainable development goal 4 focuses on inclusive and quality education for all, but a recent joint report by Leonard Cheshire and the UN Girls’ Education Initiative has found that girls’ education, especially of those with disabilities, is being overlooked in many developing countries. Will the Government seek to advance this SDG with the utmost vigour to ensure equal educational opportunities for all across the world?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right about the value and importance of girls’ education around the world. DFID and the UK Government lead in this area. We have encouraged, through the UN and other international bodies, other countries to step up, and of course we will continue to do that.

T2. What action does my right hon. Friend believe is necessary to counter the rise in resistance to antimalarial drugs in south-east Asia? In the past 17 years, we have seen much progress on reducing incidences of malaria around the world. (901242)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right that tackling malaria saves lives. It has a positive impact on improving health services for the poor and increases economic growth and productivity in affected countries. In April 2017, the UK announced that we would protect more than 200 million people from the pain and disfigurement caused by diseases such as malaria. I was at a conference addressing this subject in Berlin last week. Dealing with antimicrobial resistance will play an integral part in ensuring that drugs remain effective and that the UK remains a world leader in tackling malaria.

T3. The village of Khan al-Ahmar and its aid -funded school remain under the threat of demolition. The international community has stood by while other aid-funded structures have been demolished. When will action be taken—when will Israel be billed for the demolitions? (901243)

The UK continues to make representations on demolitions in the west bank and ensures that Israel understands the relationship between the UK and funding. We support efforts to bring to the notice of the Israeli authorities the legal arguments against demolitions, and we will continue to do so.

T5. Oxfam marked its 75-year anniversary earlier this month. I am proud of the work that British charities such as WaterAid, which was founded here in 1981, are doing around the world. Will the Minister outline what the Government are doing to support charities’ excellent work on campaigns for women and girls to have a safe and private place, as they come of age, to keep themselves clean? (901245)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right, because DFID and Britain are working with many partners, including WaterAid. I pay tribute to this country’s great non-governmental organisations that provide wash and sanitation facilities for women and girls around the world, and protect their health and wellbeing. I pay tribute to what my hon. Friend and other Members are doing to work with them.

T4. DFID is prioritising getting humanitarian aid to the Rohingya Muslim refugees in Bangladesh, but will the Secretary of State say what she is doing to ensure that priority is also given to medical aid, including the psychological therapies that will be desperately needed for those very damaged people? (901244)

Of course, the medical aid and support that is going in is critical, because there are cases involving children, and parasites and diseases have really taken hold. Psycho-social care is now being put in place through many of the partners that I met just last week, including the Disasters Emergency Committee and other aid charities. A great deal of work is taking place, but there is much more to do in the light of the hundreds of thousands of people who are currently fleeing for their lives.

Many British scientists are leading collaborative research projects with partners around the world on diseases such as malaria, tuberculosis and HIV. Does the Minister agree that it is important that Britain continues to collaborate on science and research after we leave the EU?

As my hon. Friend would imagine, that is extremely important. From talking in Berlin last week to colleagues from throughout the EU and elsewhere about research collaboration, I was left in no doubt that those involved in the research and science community see every chance that we will continue to co-operate internationally, whether or not we remain in the EU.

T6. In its recent assessment of conditions in Cox’s Bazar, the International Rescue Committee found unprecedented levels of sexual violence against women and girls, and that 50% of pregnant women were not receiving the medical treatment they need. Will the Secretary of State tell us who will attend the critical conference in Geneva next week? Will she commit to mobilising the resources needed not only from DFID, but from international partners, to get these people the help that they need? (901246)

The hon. Gentleman is right to raise maternal health and protection for women, girls and children. We are working with the UN agencies, including the Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs, to make sure that child protection and the protection of women feature heavily in their work and at next week’s meeting. Officials are attending next week, and it is important to say that Britain has led the way in calling out these issues and providing resources to the agencies that are delivering on the ground so that they can protect women and children.

We should rightly be proud of the enormous holistic contribution that the UK has made in responding to the Syria crisis, but what effort has been made in parallel? What credit does my right hon. Friend give to the charitable effort that has taken place and what has it achieved?

My hon. Friend is right to make a point about the charitable contribution that has been made across the United Kingdom to all the aid efforts for Syrian refugees. There are many examples of that happening in which we have all been involved. The situation continues to deteriorate, and DFID and the Government continue to provide all the support that is needed. Through our aid match scheme, we are providing help directly to many of the charities, as well as contributing to the relief effort.

T8. A recent reply to a written question stated that nearly 11% of the aid budget is managed through the EU. Will the Secretary of State tell us what concrete plans she has to ensure that that money is properly used after Brexit? (901248)

The hon. Lady is right to point out that we make contributions through other organisations, particularly the European Union. After Brexit, we will ensure that that money is not only spent accountably and in a transparent way, but doing exactly what it is there to do: serving the world’s poorest and providing relief to those people who desperately need that aid support.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. What access can my right hon. Friend give to her Department’s procurement programme for innovative, UK-built food aid drones?

I thank my hon. Friend for highlighting the opportunity for DFID and the Government to use technology to provide much-needed food aid relief around the world, such as in refugee camps and crisis zones. Our procurement system has now changed. We are working with a range of suppliers to ensure that we can get the innovators to the Government to deliver the support that is needed.

Order. Khadija Arib, the President of the Dutch House of Representatives, is joining us in Parliament today. I know that colleagues will wish to extend the warmest of welcomes to my Dutch counterpart. I thank her for being here.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—


I am sure that Members throughout the whole House will wish to join me in marking Anti-Slavery Day. Slavery is an abhorrent crime and I am determined to bring it to an end.

This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in this House, I shall have further such meetings later today.

Will the Prime Minister reaffirm her Government’s commitment to the northern powerhouse? Will she set out the specific schemes—[Interruption.]

Order. The right hon. Lady has never been silenced and, as far as I am concerned, she never will be.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. The importance of the north will be heard.

Will the Prime Minister set out the schemes that she seeks to prioritise, and does she agree that the only norths that are in tune with the Leader of the Opposition’s political correctness and Marxism are Islington North and North Korea? [Interruption.]

Order. We have 32 questions to get through and I want to hear the Prime Minister’s answer. I ask colleagues to contain themselves.

My right hon. Friend referred to the voice of the north being heard, and it has indeed been heard by the Conservatives in government. It is a Conservative Government who committed—and remain committed—to the northern powerhouse, and it is a Conservative Government who are putting investment into skills and transport infrastructure for the northern powerhouse. We are backing business growth across the north, as I saw when I visited the north-west last week. We are putting £60 million into Transport for the North for looking at northern powerhouse rail; that is part of £13 billion of infrastructure investment. It is the Conservatives in government who recognise the importance of a country that works for everyone and of growth across the whole country.

I join the Prime Minister in recognising Anti-Slavery Day. The slave trade was one of the most grotesque times in the history of this planet and we must all be resolved to drive out slavery in any form whatsoever. I hope that the Prime Minister will join me in expressing sympathy to, and solidarity and support for, the people of Somalia following the horrific terrorist atrocity in Mogadishu last weekend.

I welcome today’s fall in unemployment—[Interruption]—but the same figures show that real wages are lower today than they were 10 years ago. Most people in work are worse off. Does the Prime Minister really believe that falling wages are a sign of a strong economy?

I join the right hon. Gentleman in expressing our concern about the terrible terrorist attack that took place in Mogadishu, killing nearly 300 people and injuring many hundreds. Terrorism in Somalia undermines the stability of the horn of Africa. We will continue to work with the international community to try to bring stability to Somalia and that part of Africa. Of course, an aspect of that involves dealing with the terrorist threat that people face there.

The right hon. Gentleman might have done a first in the House of Commons today, because I think this is the first time—certainly since I became Prime Minister—that he has actually welcomed a fall in unemployment. It is good news that more people are in work and that unemployment is at its lowest rate for more than 40 years. That means that people are taking more money in wages to their families.

The right hon. Gentleman asks about the cost of living. I will tell him what we have done in relation to that. Some 30 million people have been given a tax cut that is worth £1,000 to a basic rate taxpayer every year. We have given the low-paid the highest pay increase for 20 years through the national living wage. For those who take the full entitlement, the doubling of free childcare is worth £5,000 per child per year to every family. That is what we are doing to help people with the cost of living.

I wonder whether the Prime Minister could do a first—answer a question. The question I asked her was about falling wages. Christine, a worker in a village shop, wrote to me this week to say:

“I am worse off. I cannot afford to keep my car, which I struggled to buy, on the road. I need my car to attend appointments, job hunt for a better position, and take my son to activities. We don’t have a luxurious lifestyle and don’t want one. We just want to feel secure.”

When millions of workers are having to rely on the benefits system just to make ends meet, is not that a sign of not a strong economy, but a weak economy?

I have recognised since I came into this role that there are people in this country, like Christine, who are finding life difficult. That is why it is so important that the Government take steps to help people with the cost of living—the costs they find themselves facing week in, week out. It is why the measures that I just listed to the right hon. Gentleman, including tax cuts and the national living wage, are important, and it is why it is important that we have frozen fuel duty. We have ensured that we take some of the lowest paid people out of paying income tax altogether. We are going to introduce an energy price cap—[Interruption.] Yes. It is all about helping people with the cost of living, but you can only do that if you have a strong economy, and you only get a strong economy with a Conservative Government.

People struggling to make ends meet; private sector rental evictions up; wages down; universal credit in a shambles. Is Christine wrong or is she just an example of what it is like to live in modern Britain?

Last week, I asked the Prime Minister to scrap the unfair charges on the universal credit helpline. Today she has finally bowed to that pressure, but the fundamental problems of universal credit remain: the six-week wait, rising indebtedness, rent arrears and evictions. Will the Prime Minister now pause universal credit and fix the problems before pressing ahead with the roll-out?

Order. I have said before to the hon. Member for Brent Central (Dawn Butler) that, as an aspiring stateswomen, she must conduct herself with due decorum. Calm—perhaps she is another Member who should take up yoga.

I suggest that Opposition Members listen to the whole sentence.

Yes, it is absolutely right that we have announced this morning that we will change the telephone charge. I said last week that we were listening to a number of proposals that have been made—we have done that. It is right to do this now because there is a lot of emphasis and a lot of publicity about universal credit at the moment, and I want people to know that they can ring in and get advice without being worried. That is exactly what we are going to do.

The right hon. Gentleman talks about universal credit and pausing it. Why have we introduced universal credit? It is a simpler system. It is a system that encourages people to get into the workplace. It is a system that is working, because more people are getting into work. Pausing universal credit will not help those people who would be helped by moving to universal credit, getting into the workplace and bringing home more pay for their families.

There is a very long list of people urging the Prime Minister to pause universal credit, including Citizens Advice, the Trussell Trust, John Major and, I understand, two dozen of her own Back Benchers, who have a chance this afternoon to vote to pause universal credit and show that they are representing their constituents.

The public sector pay cap is causing real suffering and real staff shortages. Last week, the Health Secretary announced that the NHS pay cap was scrapped, but when asked if the NHS was going to get extra money to fund any agreed pay rise, he replied:

“That is something I cannot answer right now”.—[Official Report, 10 October 2017; Vol. 629, c. 163.]

Well, this is right now, and the Prime Minister is here right now. How about an answer right now?

As I have explained to the right hon. Gentleman and the House in the past, the way in which we approach the whole question of public sector pay is through the work of the pay review bodies. They have all reported for the current year, and they did their work against the remit set by the Government of a blanket cap of 1% on public sector pay. For the 2018-19 year, we have changed that remit to ensure that there is flexibility in the system for that period.

Perhaps I could just explain something else to the right hon. Gentleman, because I fear that for all his years in Parliament there is one thing that he has failed to recognise—Government has no money of its own. Government gets money—[Interruption.]

Order. Mr MacNeil, you are becoming over-excitable again, young man. Calm yourself. There is no need for excessive gesticulation; it serves no useful purpose whatsoever. Let us hear the Prime Minister’s reply. The Prime Minister will be heard, however long it takes.

Government has no money of its own. It collects money in taxes from businesses and people to spend on the NHS and on the services that people need. If businesses are not being set up, if businesses are not growing, and if people are not in work, Government does not have the money to spend on NHS pay, on schools, and on hospitals. Of course, the only way we ensure that those businesses are growing, and the only way we ensure that people are in jobs and that Government has the money to spend on schools and hospitals and NHS pay, is with a Conservative Government.

The Prime Minister seemed to have no problem finding £1 billion in a couple of days for the DUP. She needs to make it clear to the NHS workers what pay rise is being offered, when they will receive it, and what funding is being provided—and what cuts she is proposing to make elsewhere in order to deal with that.

Young people are in record levels of debt. This week, the Financial Conduct Authority warned of

“a pronounced build-up of indebtedness amongst the younger age group”

to fund “essential living costs”. Is not this yet another sign not of a “strong economy” but of a weak economy?

I have to say to the right hon. Gentleman that we have heard from the OECD that the deficit that the Labour Government left us was unsustainable. Since then, we have indeed found money for the people of Northern Ireland. We have also found, as I explained earlier, £20 billion to give a tax cut to 30 million people and £38 billion to freeze fuel duty. That is about helping ordinary working people, day in and day out. When it comes to students and young people and their fear about debt, there is one thing we know, and that is that we should not be racking up debts today, like Labour proposes, that those young people would have to pay off tomorrow.

It is very interesting that the Prime Minister talks about what happened 10 years ago. Her former friend George Osborne said earlier this week:

“did Gordon Brown cause the sub-prime crisis in America? No.”

He went on to say that “broadly speaking” the Government

“did what was necessary in a very difficult situation”.

Under this Prime Minister, we have a weak economy. UK growth is currently the worst among the 10 largest EU economies. We are the only major economy where wages are lower today than they were 10 years ago. Even without the risks posed by this Government’s bungled Brexit negotiations—it is very interesting to see that the Home Secretary is necessary to keep the two protagonists apart—we now have weak growth, falling productivity, falling investment, and falling wages. How does the Prime Minister have the nerve to come here and talk about a “strong economy” when the figures show the exact opposite?

I have to say to the right hon. Gentleman that the OECD says about the United Kingdom that we have the most efficient, accessible healthcare system, that fiscal sustainability has improved, that important steps have been taken to improve educational outcomes, and that jobs and earnings are good. That is what the OECD says about the strong economy under this Conservative Government. The way to get a weak economy is to borrow £500 billion like the Labour party is proposing. The way to get a weak economy is to ensure that you are promising spending after spending after spending and people are going to have to pay for that. The only way we get money to put into public services, and the only way we can give people tax cuts to help them with the cost of living, is to ensure that we deal with the deficit, get our debts down, and deal with Labour’s great recession which put us into this position in the first place.

Q5. Following the rather flaccid response from the Leader of the Opposition, may I welcome the announcement that the Government are scrapping the universal credit helpline charges—a move that demonstrates that the Government are supporting people who want to get up, work hard and get on in life? Can the Prime Minister now confirm that all welfare claim DWP helplines will be completely free to all claimants? (901215)

I am very happy to confirm that, and it is useful to be able to do so. My right hon. Friend the Work and Pensions Secretary announced this morning that we have taken the decision to change the universal credit helpline to a freephone number. I can also tell my hon. Friend that by the end of the year, DWP will extend freephone numbers to all its phone lines. I think that that will be welcomed and will be helpful to all who use them.

Will the Prime Minister do today what her Brexit Secretary was unable to do in this Chamber yesterday and rule out a no deal scenario on leaving the EU?

I can confirm that what we are doing is working for the best possible deal for the United Kingdom, but it would be irresponsible of Government not to prepare for all possible scenarios, and that is exactly what we are doing.

May I point out to the Prime Minister what her Home Secretary said yesterday—that a no deal scenario is “unthinkable”? I agree with the Home Secretary. Brexit has contributed to a fall in the pound and a subsequent rise in inflation, squeezing household budgets. Folk are getting poorer in Britain today. It has been reported that Government analysis shows that Scotland and the north-east of England would lose out from breakfast—I mean Brexit—but the Government responded to an FOI by saying that such analysis—[Interruption.] Well, there is hilarity on the Government Benches—

Order. A Government Whip from Staffordshire is forgetting his manners. He is gesticulating rather noisily, and he should calm himself. Let us hear Mr Blackford.

Members on the Government Benches are engaging in hilarity, but the reality is that the people of this country are going to pay an economic price for a hard Brexit. The Government analysis, which has remained secret, points out that people in Scotland and the north-east of England will suffer from a hard Brexit. What is the Government’s analysis of the impact and what will be the impact—[Interruption.]

Order. I must tell the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Angus Brendan MacNeil) that I know what I am doing. I am trying to help the right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford), but he must help himself by asking a brief question. [Interruption.] Order. I think the right hon. Gentleman has completed his question.

No? A last sentence, but it had better be very brief. The question has been far too long. Come on—quick, quick.

Once again, the right hon. Gentleman stands up and talks about the Scottish economy and makes reference to issues such as jobs in Scotland. I am sorry that in his rather lengthy question he did not make any reference to the fact that since 2010, nearly a quarter of a million more people in Scotland are in work. That is the result of the actions of this Government.

Q10. As the Prime Minister pointed out in answer to the first question, the northern powerhouse initiative has done a great deal to help the economies of northern areas. But our coastal communities are desperately in need of further investment and support. In north-east Lincolnshire we have established a private sector-led project board that benefits from the expertise of its members, who include a former Chancellor and a former head of the civil service. Could the Prime Minister give her support to the initiative for a town deal for north-east Lincolnshire, which might provide a model for other areas? (901221)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this, and I recognise and understand that ambitious regeneration plans are being developed by the Greater Grimsby project board. I welcome that because it is based on a very strong private-public sector approach and partnership that is being put forward, and I know my hon. Friend is himself playing an active role in that. I believe there have been some positive meetings with my right hon. Friend the Communities Secretary and my hon. Friend the Northern Powerhouse Minister, and I would encourage the board to continue engagement with officials about the details of their plans.

Q2. At the general election, both main parties committed to an energy price cap and the Government have now published a Bill for which I believe there is strong cross-party support, so will the 14 million customers on standard variable tariffs actually see their energy prices come down this winter, and if not, when will the Prime Minister get on the statute book legislation to ensure that this is the last winter when customers can be ripped off by their energy company? (901212)

I welcome the fact that the hon. Lady says she and others on the Labour Benches will support the legislation that the Government have—[Interruption.] No, it was not. It is important that we take action to deal with energy prices: the draft legislation will see those rip-off prices being capped for millions of households—all standard tariff customers—and while this will initially run to 2020, we will be able to extend it on an annual basis until 2023, on the advice of Ofgem. I think we have sent an important message to the industry, which I would hope is actually going to make changes even before we get the legislation on the statute book.

Does the Prime Minister share the great concerns that were expressed in this House yesterday, including by Ministers, about the implications for the one country, two systems principle in Hong Kong of the recent refusal of the authorities there to allow Ben Rogers, a UK national, entry? Will the Prime Minister confirm that the Government will work with the Hong Kong and Chinese authorities to ensure that the democratic freedoms in the one country, two systems principle are honoured and preserved?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right that we want to ensure that the principle of one country and two systems is preserved and continues to operate. On the specific case and the specific issue that she has raised, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary informs me that the Foreign Office has raised this issue at various levels in relation to Hong Kong and China, and we will continue to do so.

Q3. I refer Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. People in my constituency, many of whom work at Vauxhall’s Ellesmere Port plant, are devastated by the announcement of 400 job losses this week. PSA stated that clarity on the UK’s future trading relationship with the EU was needed before the company would be in a position to consider future investment at Vauxhall. Cabinet Ministers have plenty to say to each other about Brexit, but what have the Government got to say to the 400 workers at Vauxhall Ellesmere Port, who face losing their jobs in the run-up to Christmas? (901213)

Of course, we never want to see people in the position of losing their jobs, and if people do lose their jobs, support is available to them through the DWP to help them to get back into the labour market and to get back into work. We are in the process of a negotiation on Brexit. We will leave the European Union in March 2019, and we are negotiating for the best possible deal we can get for the United Kingdom. We have also indicated that we want an implementation period after that deal has been negotiated to ensure that businesses do not face a cliff edge but can have certainty about the rules under which they are going to operate in the future. If there is one thing that is certain it is that we will leave the EU in March 2019.

Given that the Self-build and Custom Housebuilding Act 2015 is now on the statute book—it is a very good piece of legislation—will the Prime Minister confirm that the community home building fund, available last year for group housing projects, is still available, and does she agree that providing service plots of land at scale is a good way to fix our broken housing market?

My hon. Friend has raised an important point. I know that he has campaigned long and hard on the particular area of self-build and of course has a great deal of expertise in it. He is absolutely right: if we are going to fix our broken housing market, we do need to build more homes. That is why we have made bold proposals in our housing White Paper—to make more land available, to build homes faster and to give local authorities the tools they need. I had a roundtable with house builders and others earlier this week, looking at how we can ensure that we unlock the potential of our housing market. I am sure my right hon. Friend the Communities Secretary will be happy to discuss with him the very specific issues that he has raised.

Q4. Prime Minister, you said that universal credit is working. I wonder what you would say to my constituent, Fred, who claimed universal credit for a short time more than two years ago and has been working ever since, but suddenly got a letter in August demanding that he repay £366. Despite spending hours on the phone line, Fred was not told why he was being charged, and more than £100 a month was taken out of his wages, meaning that he incurred bank charges. Will you take personal responsibility so that no more claimants suffer injustice and debt, as Fred has? (901214)

I will take no responsibility for those matters myself, and the hon. Lady will be advised on the protocol, but the Prime Minister may wish to respond.

As I have indicated, changes have been made to the phone line. I repeat to the hon. Lady that the evidence shows that on universal credit, more people are getting into the workplace than on jobseeker’s allowance. Universal credit is about helping people get into the workplace and ensuring that, as they earn more, they keep more of what they earn. That is exactly what universal credit does.

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the wonderful work at Twycross zoo in my constituency, breeding endangered species? Is she also aware of the critical problem of the demise of African elephants, which are being slaughtered at the rate of 20,000 a year? What will she do about banning ivory sales in London?

My hon. Friend raises an important point, and I commend those in his constituency who are doing that valuable work. Earlier this month, we set out proposals for a ban on ivory sales that we believe will help bring an end to poaching elephants. That would put the UK front and centre of global efforts to end the trade in ivory. I am sure that Members across the House are concerned about that issue. Ivory should not be seen as a commodity for financial gain or a status symbol. I think our proposals will make a real difference.

Q6. Universal credit is not just a benefit for jobseekers; it is for people in work to subsidise their low pay, for carers and those who cannot work. My constituents have endured the brunt of austerity for many years. Now the Department for Work and Pensions proposes to roll out the universal credit system in my constituency over Christmas—the toughest financial time for people. My question to the Prime Minister is this: is the roll-out a matter of gross incompetence or calculated cruelty? (901216)

The DWP has been rolling out universal credit. As it has done so, it has listened to the concerns that have been raised. I am pleased to say that we are seeing a much better performance from the DWP.

It is no good the hon. Lady shaking her head. The figures show that the performance in getting payments to people on time has improved substantially—more people are getting advance payments. We want to ensure that all those who need advance payments can get them. The fundamental reason for moving to universal credit—a simpler, more straightforward system—[Interruption.] The hon. Lady may not want to listen, but there is a reason for universal credit. [Interruption.]

Order. Colleagues know that I am determined to get through the list to help Back Benchers, but when questions are asked, the answers must be heard. Today is exceptionally noisy, and we are not setting a very good example to our Dutch friends. I am sure that they do it much better. The questions, and the Prime Minister’s answers, will be heard.

Finally, I would simply say to the hon. Lady that the purpose of universal credit is to have a more straightforward, simpler system that helps people to keep more as they earn more and encourages more people into work. That is what it does.

It is great to have the Prime Minister back in her usual fine voice. Will she join me in encouraging Members, who have demonstrated what good voices they have, to hold events in their constituencies for Singing for Syrians? The situation on the ground in Syria gets ever more desperate, and I am sorry to say that the Hands Up Foundation, which does great work, has an ever increasing list of prosthetic limbs that are needed.

I think we all recognise the desperate situation in Syria, which is why we continue to be proud of our country’s record of giving humanitarian aid to Syria and to refugees from Syria: £2.46 billion has been committed since 2012, our largest ever response to a humanitarian crisis. I am very happy to join my hon. Friend in encouraging Members of this House to support the Singing for Syrians initiative and various events throughout the country. This is another important initiative focused, as is our humanitarian aid, on helping those people who are in a desperate situation in Syria.

Q7. Notts fire service tells us that sprinklers save lives. Nottingham City Council plans to retrofit sprinklers in all its high rise blocks, but the Government will not provide a penny to support it. After Grenfell, the Prime Minister promised:“We cannot and will not ask people to live in unsafe homes”—[Official Report, 22 June 2017; Vol. 626, c. 169.] How safe would she feel living on the 20th floor of Pine View or Southchurch Court in my constituency with one staircase and no sprinklers? (901217)

Since Grenfell, much has been said in this House about sprinklers. There are a number of aspects that have to be looked at in relation to the safety of tower blocks. It is not the case that sprinklers are the only issue that needs to be looked at or addressed; nor is it the only solution to ensuring their safety. On expenditure by the hon. Lady’s local council, it is of course up to the council to make decisions about what it wishes to do. We have been very clear that discussions have taken place with the Department for Communities and Local Government and local authorities.

The mental health of our servicemen, servicewomen and their families is rightly gaining the attention it deserves. Will the Prime Minister join me in welcoming the initiative between the Royal Foundation and the Ministry of Defence to ensure targeted support across the whole armed forces family?

I am very happy to welcome the initiative to which my hon. Friend refers. We know we need to address mental health more carefully and with greater attention across the public in general, but mental health concerns for those in the armed forces and those who have left the armed forces are a very real challenge that we need to face, because they have put themselves on the line for us and we owe it to them.

Q8. A major Southampton housing association tells me that 65% of its tenants who are on universal credit are now in rent arrears averaging £700, hampering the association’s ability to get on with building new houses. What message does the Prime Minister have for my local housing association? Is it just “Tough, get on with it”, or has she got something more positive to say? (901218)

We are indeed giving support to housing associations to build more homes. That is why, a couple of weeks ago, we announced that an extra £2 billion will be going to housing associations to enable them to do exactly that.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that with the death of Sir Teddy Taylor the country has lost an outstanding parliamentarian, a great constituency Member of Parliament and a true patriot? Does my right hon. Friend further agree that if Sir Teddy were alive today he would be delighted to learn that the outgoing Labour mayor of Southend, plus three unaligned councillors, have all joined the Conservative party?

I join my hon. Friend in recognising the great contribution Sir Teddy Taylor made in his time in this House as a Member of Parliament for different seats, including Southend, although I have to say to my hon. Friend that one of my abiding memories of Sir Teddy is the number of times we had to evacuate Portcullis House because he had set the fire alarm off by smoking where he was not supposed to—in his office. I am very pleased to welcome the former Labour mayor and the unaligned councillors who have now joined the Conservative party. We welcome them to the Conservative party and look forward to working with them.

Q9. Government failure to fund schools adequately is hurting children in my constituency. Lancashire schools will lose £40 million of funding and 828 teachers by 2020. Will the Prime Minister explain how this will help raise standards and aspirations? (901220)

I will tell the hon. Lady what is helping with standards and aspirations: first, the record funding that the Government are putting into our schools, and secondly, our reforms to the education system which mean already that over 150,000 children are at good or outstanding schools in her area, which is an increase of nearly 40,000 since 2010. More children are in good or outstanding schools—that is what the Government are providing.

Earlier this year, I opened a state-of-the-art manufacturing training facility at Braintree’s further education college. On Friday, I opened a new training centre for Contracts Support Services, a family-run business. Now that unemployment is at a record low and employment at a record high, will the Government commit to supporting both public and private sector trainers to increase productivity in the British economy?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Increasing productivity is a key aim of our Government—it is very important for the economy and the future—and investing in skills is a key part of that. I am pleased to hear that he has been so active in opening new facilities in his constituency. The changes we are making—our support for FE colleges, the new T-level, the emphasis we are putting on technical education and the £500 million we are putting into it—will all help to increase the skills levels of young people in this country.

Q11. Trust for London’s latest property profile shows that levels of homelessness in Enfield have risen by 82% in the last two years alone and that the eviction rate is the highest in the capital. What hope can the Prime Minister give to those of my constituents who are in work in the private rented sector that they can achieve their reasonable aspiration for themselves and their children to live in a safe, secure and affordable home? (901222)

I will tell the right hon. Lady what hope we are giving to people. It was precisely why I sat with house builders, housing associations and others in No. 10 Downing Street earlier this week—to encourage a faster rate of building houses and homes in this country so that more people can reach their aspiration of having a safe and secure home—and it is why we are putting £500 million over a period of years into dealing with homelessness. It is all very well, however, her standing up in the House and asking the Government what they are doing. We are putting more money into house building. She should ask the Labour Mayor of London what he is doing.

Yesterday, the director general of MI5 said that internet companies had an ethical responsibility to deal with terrorist material online. The Prime Minister has previously indicated that if they do not meet this challenge she will consider regulation. Will she confirm that if regulations are necessary they will be robust and enforced?

I am very happy to give my hon. and learned Friend that confirmation, but there is work to be done before we get to that stage. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has done important work, for instance, with the tech companies, which have come together and formed a global forum looking at how to deal with terrorist material on the internet. It is a real issue that we need to address. I was pleased to hold an event on exactly this issue with President Macron and Prime Minister Gentiloni at the margins of the UN General Assembly this year attended by representatives of more than 70 countries and representatives of all the major tech companies. We need to work together, but I want those tech companies to recognise their social and moral responsibility to work with us to do something about this material.

Q12. Does the Prime Minister notice that I am wearing a red card in my pocket today? She will be aware that the hon. Member for Moray (Douglas Ross) is not in his place. Indeed, he is in Barcelona doing his other job—today of all days. What signal does she think this sends to hard-working members of the public who are expected to turn up for their day jobs or face sanctions? (901223)

Order. I trust that the hon. Gentleman notified the hon. Member for Moray (Douglas Ross) in advance of his intention to raise this question.

Let me say to the hon. Gentleman that I think the constituents of Moray will be very pleased that they have a Conservative Member of Parliament who is looking after their interests in the House. Let me also say to him that the Scottish Conservative Members are doing more for the interests of Scotland in this Parliament than the Scottish nationalists have ever done. [Interruption.]

Mr Spencer, what is the matter with you? My dear fellow! You eat home-produced food, you are a very respected farmer, and you are normally of a most taciturn disposition. I do not know what has come over you. Perhaps you should go and have a rest later. You must cheer up. Cheer up!

Along with the Scottish National party, the Labour party has said that it will not accept no deal with the European Union in any circumstances. That means that Labour will pay whatever final bill the EU demands, and accept any conditions on which it insists. Does the Prime Minister agree that no one with even an ounce of common sense would enter into a negotiation making such an announcement in advance, and does she agree that the stance proposed by the Labour party and the SNP is not a negotiation, but a capitulation?

My hon. Friend has put it very well indeed. We cannot enter the negotiations taking the stance that the Labour party and the SNP have taken. As my hon. Friend says, their rejection of a “no deal” means that they would accept a deal at any price to the British taxpayer, whatever the damage it would do to our economy, and we will not do that.

Q13. We are seeing the loss of skilled jobs at British Aerospace in Lancashire and more at Vauxhall in Ellesmere Port, as well as redundancies at Austin in Preston and Monarch in Manchester. What has happened to the northern powerhouse? Has its battery gone flat? If so, will the Prime Minister recharge it, as she rightly did in Northern Ireland? (901224)

As I said earlier to my right hon. Friend the Member for Tatton (Ms McVey), the Government are committed to the northern powerhouse, and, indeed, are putting money into it to encourage economic growth, particularly through our investment in infrastructure. The hon. Gentleman raised a number of cases, and the issue of Vauxhall was raised by one of his hon. Friends earlier. We are continuing to work with Vauxhall throughout the process to do all that we can to protect United Kingdom jobs, as we have done with BAE Systems and as we are doing with others. What matters, however, is ensuring that we have an economy that can enable more jobs to be created, and 3 million more people are in work today than in 2010.

Respectful and committed family relationships reduce poverty, improve wellbeing, and help the Government to live within their means. They are a key part of a country that works for everyone. Will the Prime Minister therefore implement the proposals of the recently published family manifesto?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We are, of course, looking into what more we can do to ensure that we see those stable families, which lead to the benefits that he has described. He has campaigned on this issue since he came to the House, and I welcome the valuable contributions that he has made.

Q14. Is the Prime Minister aware that INEOS, the fracking company, has been accused of creating a massive deterioration in the water supply, run by Severn Trent, on the Oxcroft estate in the Bolsover area? Will she, as Prime Minister, investigate this matter, and call on INEOS to halt the process while the investigation takes place? (901225)

I am sure that the issue will be properly looked into, but underlying it is the question of ensuring that we are able to have a secure and safe supply of energy in the future. That is why the fracking is continuing, and that is why we are supportive of the Shell gas exploration. There are opportunities there for the United Kingdom. As I have said, however, I am sure that the specific issue raised by the hon. Gentleman will be looked into appropriately.

Regulation of Property Agents

With permission, I shall make a statement on a call for evidence on protecting consumers in the letting and management agents market.

When our housing White Paper was published in February we committed to taking action to help people already on the property ladder or living in rented accommodation. The Prime Minister has also announced billions of pounds of funding for new affordable homes, including homes for rent. We are also taking action to create a fairer property management system that works for everyone. We have already announced plans to regulate letting agents, including banning fees for tenants, and we have made it clear that we want to see an end to the unjustified use of leasehold in new-build houses.

The time has come to address service charges. As the number of leasehold and private rented homes has grown, the market for managing agents has boomed. According to one estimate, annual service charges alone now total as much as £3.5 billion. While these managers provide an important service, the system in which they work is simply not suited to the modern age. Tenants and leaseholders—even some freeholders on new-build estates—hand over their money and receive services in return, but have little or no say over which agent provides them or at what cost. This matters because, while the majority of agents are honest professionals committed to delivering a high standard of service, a near total lack of regulation has led to the growth of a market where in places standards and safety come second to the pursuit of profit.

We have seen reports of broken windows being repaired with cardboard and sticky tape and of damp and mould simply being painted over. One landlord was billed £500 by his agent for repairing a shower door, while a group of leaseholders were charged 10 times the market rate to have a new fire escape fitted, with the £30,000 contract for the work being handed to the property owner’s brother.

People do not need any qualifications, training or experience to call themselves an agent. They do not need a criminal records check. They do not even have to know what a managing agent does. So it is no surprise that some experts believe such agents are overcharging by as much as £1.4 billion every year.

Today, we are setting out plans for fixing the problems in property management. We are publishing a call for evidence which outlines the challenges facing the sector, proposes some possible solutions, and asks for the views of the people who know the market best, from those who work in it to those who pay the service charges.

As part of this new call for evidence, the Government are seeking views on three key elements: first, whether regulatory overhaul of the sector is needed; secondly, measures to protect consumers from unfair costs and overpriced service charges; and, thirdly, ways to place more power in the hands of consumers by giving leaseholders more say over who their agent is.

The sector has done some good work to raise standards already, but there is more to do to professionalise the sector and root out poor practice, and through the call for evidence we will take views on whether we need an independent regulator to oversee property management. So today the Government are asking everyone who pays service charges and everyone who receives them to share their views on what is wrong and how we can fix it. We want to give power back to consumers, give agents a clear and consistent framework to operate in, and give landlords, renters and leaseholders the confidence they need to know that agents are complying with the rules.

As we build more homes, we need the right people to take care of them. That is why it is important that the Government act to recognise what works in the sector and fix what does not. Today’s announcement is about delivering better value and services for tenants, leaseholders, and hard-working people across the country.

The call for evidence will be open for six weeks and is the first step in creating a property management system that works for everybody. I commend this statement to the House.

My goodness, the Government really are now scraping the bottom of the barrel: an oral statement on a call for evidence about property managing agents—not a statement on the Grenfell Tower fire and why four months on only 14 of 200 surviving families yet have a new permanent home, on bold Government action in the face of home ownership hitting a 30-year low, on rough sleeping doubling, or on the lowest level of new affordable house building for 24 years.

More than 80 Members on both sides of the House want to speak next in Labour’s debate on universal credit, yet the House is being held up by the Minister telling us he wants to

“create a fairer property management system that works for everyone.”

If Mr Speaker were a football referee, he would book the Minister for time wasting. Where is the hon. Member for Moray (Douglas Ross) when he is needed?

In the face of the country’s housing crisis, this is a truly feeble statement. It is not even a commitment to act; it is a commitment to ask some questions. The Government are launching today, the Minister tells us, “a call for evidence”. He tells us that he is seeking views on

“whether regulatory overhaul of the sector is needed”.

Of course it is: managing and letting agents can set up with no expertise, no qualifications, no registration and no professional body membership. This is a market with no legal regulation, just partial self-regulation. It is a market in which the reputation of the best is dragged down by the worst, and a market in which consumers too often face unfair upfront fees, restrictions on what they can do to their own homes, and a system in which it proves impossible to get problems sorted out.

Better regulation of letting and managing agents has long been a commitment on this side of the House, so the Government’s concern now is welcome, but action needs legislation. Therefore, can the Minister confirm when the proposed legislation will be introduced, and when it will come into force? Can he confirm that this “call for evidence” today will not delay still further the announcement the Government made a year ago to ban letting agents’ fees? When will that legislation be introduced, and when will it come into force? As a result of today’s announcement, can the Minister tell us how much on average each leaseholder and private renter will save, and when—oh, when—will he act on the other protections leaseholders and renters need from this Government?

Finally, may I give the Minister his first response to this “call for evidence”? Rather than asking whether or not renters and leaseholders need better protections, will the Government instead act on Labour’s proposals to end the building of new leasehold homes and to cap rises in ground rents, and will they back our plan for new consumer protections for private renters, with longer tenancies and a control on rent rises, a ban on letting agents’ fees, and new legal minimum standards that all landlords must meet before they rent their homes?

We have a big housing crisis and small thinking from Conservative Ministers. After seven years of failure on all fronts on housing, when will Ministers come to the House and announce a proper plan to fix this country’s housing crisis?

I have not said this before, but I have enormous respect for the right hon. Gentleman. However, I am extremely sorry that he started his response to the statement with such rancour. There are 4.5 million households renting in the private sector. For them, this absolutely matters—it really does—so I hope he will reflect on how he started his contribution and on the fact that perhaps what we ought to be doing is working together on making this happen. He says we should do it. Of course, and that is precisely what we are doing, but I say respectfully that he was the Housing Minister—why did he not do it?

Let me talk about fixing the broken housing market. The right hon. Gentleman said that we are tinkering. We are not tinkering. He will have seen the work that has been done since the White Paper was published and he knows the announcements that have been made. I recommend to him that, instead of talking to his colleagues in the Labour party, he talks to the social housing sector to ask what it makes of the announcements made at the Conservative party conference—the £2 billion extra and CPI plus 1%. It will tell him that those announcements were a sea change.

I also say to the right hon. Gentleman that, in the work that we are doing, there is finally some joined-up thinking in Government. We have already announced—I am pleased he welcomes this—the ban on tenant fees from letting agents. We will publish the draft Bill very shortly, together with the consultation. He knows that, when it comes to rogue landlords, it has been possible since April to levy civil penalties of up to £30,000, and we are also looking at banning orders. A range of work is ongoing.

The right hon. Gentleman will also know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State made an announcement a few weeks ago on measures to help the private rented sector with landlords being required to be part of a redress scheme and housing courts being consulted on incentives to landlords for longer tenancies. We are doing a huge amount of work.

The right hon. Gentleman raised a couple of other points. He asked by how much leaseholders will benefit. He has seen the figures I talked about: £3.5 billion is charged, and some experts say £1.4 billion is overcharging, so if he does the maths he might be able to work it out for himself.

The right hon. Gentleman knows that we have just concluded a consultation on leasehold. I pay tribute to the all-party parliamentary group on leasehold and commonhold reform for all the fantastic work it has done. We have had 6,000 responses—a record—to this consultation, and we agree with him that this is an area that needs fixing, but I hope he will reflect and welcome what we are doing with this call for evidence.

Does the Minister agree that competition and choice are the best ways to drive standards up and prices down? Will they inform his work to empower tenants and to make the market function better?

My right hon. Friend is right. Of course competition is important, but we also need to ensure that there is the appropriate regulation in place to give fairness in the system for those who are renting privately. That is precisely what we are doing with a raft of measures, which I have already outlined, and this call for evidence.

The statement represents just another consultation on a proposal. People out there in the real world want action, because the problems in the housing sector are well known.

The Scottish Government legislated on this matter back in 2011, through the Property Factors (Scotland) Act 2011. The primary objective was to create a statutory framework to protect homeowners who used factoring services by providing minimum standards for property factors. This came into force in October 2012 and it applies to all residential property and land managers whether they are private sector businesses, local authorities or housing associations. A compulsory register of factors has been operating and registration helps to ensure that property factors are aware of the standards and that they comply with them. It is a criminal offence to operate as a property factor in Scotland if unregistered. Will the UK Government put that into legislation and follow that example?

A code of conduct sets out minimum standards of practice with which all registered property factors are statutorily obliged to comply. There is a route for redress to the Homeowner Housing Panel, which is an independent judicial body separate from Scottish Ministers and from local authorities. Homeowners can apply to the panel if they believe that their property factor has failed to comply with the code of conduct or otherwise failed to carry out their factoring duties.

That is another example of the Scottish National party leading the way for a progressive housing policy in Scotland and of how we are getting on with the day job while the Tories are off refereeing football matches.

Given that the UK Government are six years behind Scotland, will the Minister meet the Scottish Housing Minister, Kevin Stewart, to discuss what is already in operation in Scotland, what is working well, what we are doing and what the UK Government can learn from to represent homeowners across the UK?

I recognise that the devolved Administrations, including Scotland, have done work in that area, but this is a call for evidence and it is open to everyone to give their views. That is what we want—a comprehensive call for evidence. I do talk to the Scottish Housing Minister fairly regularly.

Will the Minister meet me and representatives of the three deposit protection schemes and of Shelter to discuss how we can better protect tenant deposits and put tenants in the driving seat when it comes to choosing the scheme that looks after their deposit?

Yes, I absolutely will. I know that my hon. Friend has a great deal of knowledge of and experience in this area.

When the Select Committee last looked at the issue of the arrangements for the regulation of letting agents, we recommended, simply as a first step, that letting and managing agents should be

“subject to the same regulation that currently governs sales agents.”

The Government response at the time was that this would

“impose a new burden on local authorities, increase costs for consumers”.

I welcome the Government’s change of heart, but that Select Committee report was published in 2013—four years ago. A consultation has been proposed, but today we want and need to know when we are going to have some action. Will the Minister commit today to act by a given date on the results of the consultation?

I am grateful that the Chairman of the Select Committee has welcomed this call for evidence. I hope that it demonstrates that we are open. He and his Committee should put forward any evidence that they have. As he knows, the consultation will last six weeks, finishing at the end of November. Once we have all the information in from the consultees, we will respond as quickly as we can.

Rip-off merchants, cowboys and those who seek to exploit often some of the most vulnerable people in our society have no place in a modern Britain, but does my hon. Friend agree that we must not throw the baby out with the bathwater? Lots of agents are thoroughly respectable and good—invariably estate agents who are small, independent, family-run businesses occupying important plots on our high streets. It is important that we do not destroy their businesses, but at the same time ensure that we have a proper system.

My right hon. Friend makes an important point, but I point out to her that support for regulation and the call for evidence has been welcomed by the Association of Residential Managing Agents, the Association of Residential Letting Agents, the National Landlords Association, the Residential Landlords Association and the Institute of Residential Property Management. Those are credible organisations and they are calling for reform.

Far from what the hon. Member for Broxbourne (Mr Walker) said, will the Minister have another look at the role of tenancy deposits and the way certain agents do not carry through their legal obligation to ensure that the money is safe? Will he ensure that landlords do not hold money back for ridiculous repair jobs that have nothing to do with the tenants? That is both unfair and a real slur as to how tenants have their money handled.

I am sorry if I was not clear, but I will meet my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne to discuss precisely those matters. We will of course keep this in mind.

Sorting out service charges once and for all means sorting out the section 20 process. Will the Minister update the House on his Department’s work on that?

I am happy to write to my hon. Friend to set out the details on that. More broadly, she should put forward whatever thoughts she has in the call for evidence and we will of course take them very seriously.

I encourage the hon. Member for Cheadle (Mary Robinson) to circulate her text book on succinct questions. It would be of great benefit to colleagues.

My constituents trapped in rip-off leasehold houses now look forward to swift action from the Government following the consultation that has just closed. Turning to this statement, more and more new estates are subject to management fees because developers are not transferring responsibility for common parts to local authorities, meaning that many homeowners are effectively paying twice for the same services. Will the new consultation examine ways of requiring developers to pass on those maintenance functions, which should properly be the responsibility of councils?

This is a call for evidence, and right hon. and hon. Members and others should put forward any evidence they have.

One good way of placing more power in the hands of consumers is to establish and support more mutual housing co-operatives, which work well in Germany and place real power in residents’ hands. Will the Minister consider steps to encourage the establishment of more such co-operatives here?

I am happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss such matters. He knows a great deal about housing, particularly custom-building.

I declare an interest in that I own a property in Rochdale that is managed by an agent. Clamping down on rogue property agents is long overdue, and the consultation is welcome. However, whether regulatory reforms are successful will be entirely down to how well they are enforced. Self-regulation has failed, and local enforcement on the ground is under severe pressure due to public sector cuts. Will the Minister confirm that extra funding will be made available to make the necessary enforcement possible?

We have already made £12 million available to local authorities for enforcement since 2012. As I said in the statement, local authorities are able to levy penalties of up to £30,000 on rogue landlords and that money can be used for further enforcement.

I have an interest in the register. No matter how welcome the proposals, the Minister will agree that his proposals for vastly increasing the supply will be a much more effective defender of tenants’ interests.

As ever, my right hon. Friend is absolutely right. The measures will of course help, but at the end of the day we need to fix the broken housing market by building more homes.

I welcome the Minister’s statement. Will the Department also consider what steps can be taken to protect the consumer rights of freeholders who pay management fees on new-build estates where managing agents are failing to deliver value for money, such as in Lawley Village in Telford?

Yes. We will, of course, consider all these matters in the round, but if my hon. Friend puts her thoughts forward as part of the call for evidence, we will review them.

The all-party parliamentary group on leasehold and commonhold reform, which I co-chair along with the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick), will be grateful for the Minister’s remarks. We will submit more evidence.

I put it to the Minister that it will be quite important for people to be able to submit their evidence to the consultation confidentially. There are so many crooks and dodgy people around that there may be threats of legal action, such as the one I received from Carter-Ruck on behalf of Barry Weir when I was looking after a park home resident. Ordinary people cannot face that; Members of Parliament can.

Will the Minister also consider whether Dudley Joiner of Team Property Management can be investigated? He was going to be thrown out of his judicial property role, but he escaped hours before the report was announced.

Lastly, will the Minister please give serious consideration to whether the chairman of LEASE—the leasehold advisory service—can properly remain in his role, or whether it would be better to let him retire and have him replaced?

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend. He and the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) have done brilliant work as co-chairs of the APPG. He talks about people being able to give information anonymously, and we will of course not release the individual names of those who give evidence when the consultation’s outcome is published.

As for the two references to particular individuals made by my hon. Friend, I suggest that we speak about those other matters after this debate.

In the 17 years that I have represented residents, both as a councillor and as an MP, this is easily one of the biggest issues that they have faced. Leaseholders are being ripped off left, right and centre, and the only defence is the right to manage. The best case scenario is that it is a complex process, but it is more often near impossible. Through the consultation, I hope that the Minister will prioritise empowering those residents who have suffered long enough.

As I said, we will publish the outcome of the leasehold consultation, but we will clearly be considering proposals to ban leasehold houses and, of course, to tackle onerous ground rents.

Leaseholders in Kettering will warmly welcome the launch of the Government’s consultation, particularly those who live in blocks of flats where multiple leasehold interests are involved. I am thinking in particular of a block in the middle of Kettering that is in an appalling state of disrepair and has become a magnet for crime. The leaseholders there have no possibility of selling their properties, so the Government’s announcement of proposals in this area will be warmly welcomed.

I welcome my hon. Friend’s comments. He refers to the power of leaseholders more generally, but I point out to him that we would also like to reinvigorate commonhold.

There is anger in Newark that the common areas and public spaces around almost every freehold property built in and around the town by major developers are subject to a management charge. As other Members have pointed out, such charges essentially mean that the community has to pay two council tax bills in perpetuity. National developers are profiting from the scam, and councils do not have the power to resist it. I am pressuring the local council to resist it—I think it actually enjoys the arrangement because it benefits from it—but we need to give councils powers so that local MPs such as me can say that the practice is unacceptable and has to stop.

My hon. Friend makes a powerful point. We will, of course, reflect on that matter when we respond to the leasehold consultation.

Is my hon. Friend able to reassure the House that any clampdown on excess service charges will not have an adverse impact on rents?

When we talk about the ban on letting agents’ fees and making the system fairer, the industry has talked about an increase in rents as a possible impact, but that did not come to pass in Scotland. We want to introduce fairness across the system, and I hope that that will ultimately mean lower charges and lower fees for tenants.

It cannot be right that those who visit a property agent to buy enter into an area of high regulation, but there is no protection for those who go to the very same agent to rent. Does the Minister agree that today’s announcement levels the playing field for homeowners on the one hand and tenants and leaseholders on the other?

I welcome the Minister’s statement, but I urge him to widen its brief to the practices of housing associations. In recent weeks, constituents of North Dorset have been to see me after their housing associations increased charges without any prior notice and certainly with no justification.

The call for evidence relates to the private rented sector, but we will be putting out a Green Paper on the social housing sector and we will consider such matters.