House of Commons
Monday 30 October 2017
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
Communities and Local Government
The Secretary of State was asked—
Coastal Communities: Economic Growth
Since 2012, we have invested £174 million in 295 projects for the coastal communities fund. These are forecast to help to deliver more than 18,000 jobs. In my hon. Friend’s constituency, £2.5 million has been provided through the fund to support economic growth and job creation.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the coastal communities fund helps to attract more visitors to our coastal communities so that they may thrive? Will he promise to consider very carefully any future bid to the fund to restore the front of Ramsgate Royal harbour in my constituency—the only royal harbour in the country—to its former glory?
I do agree with my hon. Friend. The £2.5 million already allocated to his constituency will help South Thanet to thrive, and will certainly help to attract more visitors. I commend him for the role he has played to secure that funding. He is a passionate advocate of Royal Ramsgate harbour, and I know he has a meeting with the Local Growth Minister, the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Jake Berry), coming up in which he can discuss his plans.
The Interreg North Sea Region Programme is funded by EU grants totalling €167 million. What plans has the Secretary of State made to replace that funding when the UK leaves the EU?
The hon. Lady will know that we have set out plans for a UK shared prosperity fund, which will eventually replace EU funding such as that of the European regional development fund and the European social fund.
Landlords and Letting Agents
We will make it mandatory for landlords to be part of an ombudsman scheme and we are increasing local authorities’ powers to tackle rogue practices. We also published on 18 October a call for evidence seeking views on regulating all letting and managing agents.
I refer to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. May I urge the Secretary of State, in clamping down on rogue practices in the private sector, to keep a weather eye on some of our housing associations, which often seem to think that they are above and beyond the rules and regulations that govern the private sector?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise the profile of social housing tenants. Last month, we announced that there will be a Green Paper on social housing, which will be a broad review of issues facing the social housing sector to ensure that tenants’ voices are heard. The Housing Minister is travelling across the country to listen to tenants and ensure that we truly understand all the issues.
Under Newham Council’s excellent landlord licensing, working with the police and Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs the council has issued 2,834 notices since January 2013 to address and abate serious hazards. The decision on reauthorising the scheme was due seven weeks ago. Will the Secretary of State assure me that from 1 January he will not deny private tenants in my constituency the vital protection provided by this scheme?
The right hon. Gentleman will know that selective licensing is an important part of ensuring that we can look after tenants, particularly those who might be more vulnerable. We consider every application we get carefully, as we want to make sure that that consideration is proportionate. We will take a careful look at the case he mentions.
I welcome the Government’s plans to reform the lettings market and the estate agency market. Given, however, that most firms undertake both lettings and sales, will the Government avoid the unnecessary duplication of rules and regulators? After all, separate regulatory regimes could be expensive for business and confusing for consumers.
My hon. Friend speaks with experience and makes a good point. Of course we want to avoid unnecessary and duplicative regulation, but I think he agrees with the Government that it is necessary to regulate letting agents and it is good that we are progressing with that.
Is not one of the first lines of defence against rogue landlords local government, particularly environmental health inspectors? How does taking an axe to local government finance help tenants?
The hon. Gentleman should know that when we changed the law in April 2017 so that local authorities had more power to intervene against rogue landlords, we also provided additional funding of some £12 million.
What steps are the Government taking to encourage private landlords to offer longer tenancies?
My right hon. Friend makes an important point. So many more people are renting today than ever before, and, as we fix our broken housing market, it is important that we listen to them and find ways to ensure that more of them are offered longer tenancies. That is why I recently announced that the Government are actively looking at the issue, and we will bring forward plans to ensure this in the Budget.
Residential Tower Block Safety
We have established a building safety programme and identified all unsafe aluminium composite material cladding on English social housing buildings over 18 metres. I have also asked all local authorities in England to identify such cladding on privately owned residential tower blocks and to report their findings to the Government. This is to ensure that appropriate action is being taken to keep all residents safe.
I thank the Secretary of State for that reply, but I want to ask him about other things that can be done to prevent fires from claiming lives. We know that sprinklers save lives, yet only 2% of council tower blocks have sprinkler systems. Is the Secretary of State content with that state of affairs, and if not, four months on from the Grenfell tragedy, when will he stop passing the buck and help local authorities fit sprinklers in high-rise buildings?
The hon. Lady will know that it has been the law in building regulations since 2007 that any new high-rise dwellings above 30 metres are required to have sprinklers fitted. In terms of whether that is appropriate and whether more can be done, the appropriate way to look at that is through the independent review of building regulations and fire safety that Dame Judith Hackitt is undertaking, and we will listen very carefully. She is gathering evidence, and there is a call for evidence right now—perhaps the hon. Lady would like to have an input into that.
A case in Cannock has highlighted the building of homes in very close proximity to a licensed recycling site that handles highly toxic chemicals, prompting real concerns about fire safety. Will my right hon. Friend meet me to discuss the need to ensure that fire safety is a top priority in house building too?
My hon. Friend is right to raise this issue. I am not aware of the details, but I would happily meet her to discuss it further.
The hon. Lady will know, first, that the Department’s responsibilities in this area are shared with other Departments, such as the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, and I am working with my colleague the Secretary of State there to look into this further. Also, the building regulations and fire safety review is a broader fire safety review, and I certainly expect it to look at those issues too.
Is it not an irony that it was not that enough money was not spent on Grenfell Tower, but that £10 million was spent on it to provide cladding to stop water ingress, and that that caused the whole problem? Is my right hon. Friend aware that, as experts have told me, sprinklers are not the sole solution to this issue? Sprinklers alone, without sound fire doors, will not work, and there are other provisions that can be made.
If my hon. Friend will allow me, I will not speculate on Grenfell Tower and the causes of that terrible tragedy—I am sure he understands that. However, in terms of his broader point about measures that are also important, such as fire doors, we found in Camden, for example, when fire safety checks were done, that hundreds of fire doors were not in place. There are other measures alongside sprinklers that certainly can be taken and should be taken where necessary.
What redress will be available to private leaseholders in a private residential block that has failed fire safety tests where the company does not have the money to carry out that work or goes into dissolution?
First, the hon. Lady will know that there are redress mechanisms available at the moment. Many of them depend on whether the freeholders or the managing agents are members of a redress scheme. This is one of the reasons why I recently announced the need to regulate all managing agents, who often look after these types of buildings, and to see what more we can do.
Housing Associations such as the Guinness Partnership, which operates residential blocks in my constituency, also have an important role to play in fire safety. Will my right hon. Friend join me in calling on them to review, and where necessary improve, their fire safety to make sure residents are safe?
Yes, I will join my hon. Friend in calling for that. He is right to point out the critical role that housing associations play. Ever since the terrible tragedy that took place at Grenfell Tower, I have seen an excellent response from housing associations, and certainly from the National Housing Federation, and I will continue to work with them.
The Scottish Parliament’s Local Government and Communities Committee this morning issued a report on building regulations and fire safety in Scotland. In terms of the recommendations and the support the Committee is giving to the ministerial working group in Scotland, it supports unannounced inspections by the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service and a national inventory of all high-rise domestic buildings in Scotland. Would the Minister support such recommendations for England?
I listened carefully to what the hon. Lady said, and I have followed developments closely in Scotland. We are working closely with our Scottish colleagues to make sure that we can share information and knowledge on this very important issue. As to whether we would take similar steps in England, it is important that I leave the first-point decision making for the independent building regulations review.
Children in Temporary Accommodation
Temporary accommodation ensures that no child is left without a roof over their head. Homelessness prevention is at the centre of our approach to protecting the most vulnerable. We are spending over £950 million until 2020 to prevent homelessness and rough sleeping, as well as implementing the most ambitious set of legislative reforms in decades with the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017.
I asked the Minister what recent estimate he had made of the number of children in temporary accommodation. The answer is that there are more than 120,000—up 66% since his Government came to power. Why?
The number of children in temporary accommodation is below its peak in 2006, but we are certainly not complacent. That is why we have put £402 million into the flexible homelessness support grant over the next two years so that local areas can plan strategically to reduce the number of people in temporary accommodation.
Three and a half billion pounds has been spent on temporary accommodation in the private sector in the past five years. Most of the cost of this is found from the Department for Work and Pensions, even for households that work. Would this money not be better spent on building and letting council homes whose rent would be less than half that of expensive, poor-quality, temporary accommodation?
That is exactly why we have introduced the flexible homelessness support grant and are devolving £402 million to local authorities over the next two years so that they can plan more strategically, as I said to the hon. Member for Luton South (Mr Shuker). The hon. Lady will be pleased to know that the use of temporary accommodation in her area is actually falling.
The number of families in temporary accommodation in Croydon has doubled in seven years. Right now, two thirds of families in Croydon in local authority housing are in debt and at risk of eviction directly because of universal credit. How will the Minister stop more families in Croydon on universal credit becoming homeless and spending the winter months in temporary accommodation?
The latest available figures show that the number of people in temporary accommodation in Croydon is actually falling. This Government have given £1 million to Croydon for the homelessness prevention trailblazer that it put in for. We have also given £870 million in discretionary housing payments to help people who have short-term difficulty in sustaining their accommodation.
Wealden District Council has provided a stellar service supporting vulnerable children and homeless children. However, pressure at East Sussex County Council may lead to a change in service provision in rural areas like Wealden. Will my hon. Friend agree to meet me and Wealden Council to help it to continue to deliver superb children’s services?
I hear what my hon. Friend says and I will certainly be willing to meet her. We will get that meeting into the diary.
Child victims of human trafficking are the responsibility of local government, but adult victims of human trafficking are dealt with nationally. Would it not be a good idea to make child victims of human trafficking looked after nationally, which would also free up the money for local government to look after other children?
My hon. Friend raises an important point. This is a very important issue that we are considering very carefully, particularly as we come up to the local government finance settlement. I certainly hear what he says, and no doubt his views will be considered as we take this area of policy forward.
Northamptonshire has a disproportionately large number of unaccompanied asylum-seeker children, who are very expensive for the local authority to look after. Will my hon. Friend look at the local government funding formula to make sure that Northamptonshire is getting its fair share of resources?
I am aware of the issues that my hon. Friend puts to the House, particularly those that relate to the motorway network that runs through Northamptonshire. He knows that we have undertaken to conduct a fair funding review to see how local government resource is distributed. We are still committed to that, and we will take the work forward shortly.
Despite the shocking increases in homelessness overseen by this Government, the recent National Audit Office report found that the Department has not produced a strategy to tackle homelessness. When is it going to come up with a plan and publish it, so we can finally see some action for the 120,000 homeless children in Britain today?
As the hon. Lady knows, the Government are doing a significant amount to change the culture across the country and make sure that we do far more in relation to prevention. Through the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017, we are confident that we are going to see significant progress. As I said at the start of this group of questions, we are putting £950 million into this up to 2020.
Mayors: Economic Growth
I have met or corresponded with every metro Mayor in England during the last month. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is the midlands engine champion, and he chairs an inter-ministerial group to drive forward its growth.
Does the Minister agree that one of the vital roles to be played by elected Mayors, such as Andy Street in the west midlands, is to focus on skills—particularly in areas such as the Black country, where we have a lot of young people without basic skills—to make sure that young people can take the opportunities and the jobs that are out there and drive economic growth?
As my hon. Friend is aware, Andy Street is already playing a vital role in tackling the skills gap. My hon. Friend will also be aware that we are devolving the adult education skills budget from 2019 to support all our metro Mayors as they drive forward skills in their area.
The Government’s devolution to city region Mayors has been a real success in the west midlands. Last month, Andy Street announced £2.1 million for the region’s creative and technology industries. Does my hon. Friend agree that devolution can bring only prosperity, jobs and a bright future to the people of my constituency and across Walsall?
I agree with my hon. Friend that Andy Street is a prime example of how the leadership and accountability of metro Mayors drive forward our country’s economy. Only this month, he approved a bike-sharing scheme in the west midlands. Move over, Boris bikes; it is time for Street cycles.
Does the Minister support the innovative work of Andy Street to boost the number of houses in the west midlands—absolutely key to economic growth—by intensifying the use of urban areas to take pressure off our green belt, particularly around Solihull?
The Mayor of the west midlands, Andy Street, is determined to build the houses we need. We are supporting development across our country through the £2.3 billion housing infrastructure fund, and the outcome of the bidding process will be available shortly.
The CBI, the Federation of Small Businesses, the TUC and many of the Minister’s colleagues in local government believe that there is a very strong economic case for a devolved settlement for One Yorkshire. When the Minister whiles away the wee hours working through his ministerial box, does he ever think that he might be on the wrong side of this argument?
The Government have been absolutely clear, not least in the letter from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State on 15 September, that we will not undermine or unpick the South Yorkshire devolution deal, which, after all, was legislated for by this House of Commons. However, I acknowledge that the hon. Gentleman and I have held recent discussions, which have been extremely helpful. We have also been clear that completion of the South Yorkshire deal does not preclude any other devolution discussions across Yorkshire.
I am pleased that responsibility for the health and work programme has been devolved in Greater Manchester to the metropolitan Mayor, Andy Burnham, but may I ask the Minister whether the funding that has been made available—£52 million, including European structural fund money—will be continued beyond the period of the SF funding, with the Government making good that money? Will responsibility for the programme continue to be devolved to the Manchester Mayor?
The Mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham—[Interruption.] We have to give Labour Members something to cheer about, don’t we? He is doing an exceptional job in driving forward Manchester and its economy. The hon. Lady will be aware that a recent guarantee was put in place for all European funding. What happens after that guarantee is ultimately a matter for this House.
Far from being devolution to the street, this is more like a devolution cul-de-sac. Is it not the truth—[Interruption.] The Secretary of State can learn something from this. Is it not the truth that devolution has stalled? That is bad news for those with devolved settlements, but it is worse news for the 32 million people in England who do not have any devolution settlement whatever. When can we expect to see the framework for devolution in England?
Some 33% of England now has an elected Mayor, and it is the Conservative party that is returning power back from London to our regions. Unlike the Labour party, which just wants to nationalise and centralise everything, I can say, like Citizen Smith, “Power to the people!”
It is clear from what the Minister says that Andy Street is doing a grand job in the west midlands, but what about areas that do not have elected Mayors? Will the Minister assure me that they will be considered when the Government look at further devolution projects? We urgently need one in northern Lincolnshire.
The Government’s manifesto committed to provide clarity about what devolution means for different administrations across England by setting out a clear devolution framework. As we set out the next steps on our industrial strategy, this is exactly what we intend to do, as well as clarifying things like town deals for places such as Grimsby.
Bristol is the only city outside London to make a net contribution to GDP, but we need money to invest in infrastructure if we are to make the most of that economic contribution. We now have a bid in for £250 million from the housing infrastructure fund. May I urge the Minister and the Secretary of State, who is very familiar with Bristol and the needs of the city, to look at that seriously, because the only way we can unlock the investment is to have that money?
The Mayor of the West of England, Tim Bowles, has worked closely with the Government in bringing forward his housing infrastructure fund bid. As I said in answer to an earlier question, decisions about that fund will be made shortly.
Council Tax: Non-payment
It is for magistrates courts to decide whether a custodial sentence should be imposed for non-payment of council tax, taking account of the particular circumstances in each case. There has been a slight reduction in the number of such cases since 2009-10.
I thank the Minister for his reply. Is it not time that the non-payment of council tax ceased to be an offence punishable by time in jail? How can it be right that anyone should have to do time for falling into debt?
I certainly agree with the hon. Gentleman that people in genuine hardship should be supported. That is why there are over 4 million people on local council tax support scheme payments throughout the country. However, we also need to recognise that every penny of council tax that is not collected means higher council tax bills for law-abiding citizens who do pay. There needs to be a form of enforcement and sanction, but it needs to be used proportionately. As the hon. Gentleman will see, the number of people getting a custodial sentence is actually falling.
Guidance to local authorities advises them to be sympathetic to those in genuine hardship. Does the Minister believe that a custodial sentence—with no right of appeal, no remission for good behaviour and no requirement for a pre-sentencing report—shows sympathy for those struggling to pay their council tax, and will it lead to more or fewer families being in genuine hardship?
Council tax, in real terms, is 9.1% lower than it was in 2010. During the Labour Government of 1997 to 2010, the cost of council tax doubled. As I said to the hon. Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma), 4 million people receive council tax support, and we are clear—we published guidance in 2013—about good practice. We want to make sure that those in genuine hardship are supported and that enforcement is proportionate.
I welcome the development of family hubs and we know that many areas are already moving towards this model of support for children and families. Local government and its partners understand the needs of their communities best, and they should be the ones to determine how they provide services for families.
As we know, the wheels can fall off any family’s wagon at any point; family hubs can be an essential part of the solution, to improve the lives of children up to the age of 18. Does the Minister agree that more local areas should upgrade their children’s centres to family hubs so that we can do this essential work?
I welcome my hon. Friend’s commitment to excellent services for children and families. Ultimately it is up to councils to decide on the best solution for their area, but it is important that the whole family has access to the right services to meet their needs.
On that point, of the 120,000 children in temporary accommodation across 77,240 families, 28% are housed in boroughs other than their own, and the receiving boroughs often have no idea that those children—many of them vulnerable—have entered their areas. Will the Minister consider the suggestion of providing family hubs at large-scale temporary accommodation centres outside home boroughs?
We are clear that when people are placed in temporary accommodation, access to things such as schooling is taken into account. We are also clear that when people are moved to a neighbouring or different borough, they should be informing the receiving borough and support should be given to those families. I am working to support London authorities that are working with the Greater London Authority to improve the procurement of temporary accommodation across London.
It is good to hear Members on both sides of the House talking about the value of early intervention and family hubs. I ask the Minister to come to Manchester to see the early years delivery model, which is now transforming lives in those early years, working across the voluntary and private sectors. Critical to those family hubs is the support of the local authority. Does he agree that the slash and burn approach to early intervention moneys is putting children’s lives at risk?
I am aware that under the northern powerhouse initiative we are putting £3.2 million into Manchester for early intervention. The next time I am in that neck of the woods I would certainly be keen to come and see what is working in Manchester. I can reassure the hon. Lady that the Government are committed to early intervention, both through children’s centres and the troubled families programme.
Across swathes of England, children’s services are now in crisis. Seven years of Government funding cuts to services supporting families is failing children and driving councils to the financial brink. Only last week, a poll showed that the majority of councillors in the Minister’s party did not back the cuts. When will the Minister finally admit the growing emergency in children’s social care and take some action, ahead of the Budget, to deal now with this major crisis for councils?
More than £200 billion is being given to local authorities up to 2020 to support local services. Children’s services and early intervention are among that funding stream. The Government are aware of the challenges in many areas with providing children’s services and safeguarding, and we continually look at ways in which we can support local government in that regard.
Assessment of Housing Need
On 14 September, we published a consultation that proposes a new standard approach to assessing housing need. The proposed approach will play a crucial role in helping to meet housing ambitions, reduce complexity and costs, and increase transparency.
I thank the Minister for that answer. Understandably, more and more people want to move to Cornwall—after all, it is the best place in the UK to work, raise a family or retire—and that is putting unprecedented levels of demand on our housing stock. We currently have over 20,000 people on the housing register and young people are being priced out of ever owning their own home. Does the Minister believe that the approach he outlines will help to deliver more housing for local people in Cornwall?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The starting point has to be an honest, open and consistent approach in assessing the number of homes an area needs. That is precisely what the new approach to housing needs assessment will deliver.
My constituency is also a beautiful place to live, but homes are not being sold because they are under leasehold arrangements. Will the Minister let us know when his excellent consultation on the crackdown on unfair leasehold practices will announce its results, so our housing market can get moving again?
The hon. Lady makes a very important point. We need to ensure fairness in the system, which is precisely why we launched the consultation. A very significant number of people responded to it and we will respond to it in due course.
The housing need White Paper also covers viability assessments. Their use by developers is referred to in the consultation as gaming the system to avoid section 106 contributions, such as affordable housing. Does my hon. Friend agree that we need to look at whether the assessments are appropriate for the market today, or whether they should be scrapped completely?
As my hon. Friend will know, we are consulting on proposed changes to viability assessments as part of the local housing needs assessment. The White Paper states that under our proposals we would expect assessments of affordable housing infrastructure needs to be considered at the plan-making stage, and that will ensure more certainty.
My constituents in the villages of Kidlington, Yarnton and Begbroke find themselves in a perverse situation. Cherwell District Council is proposing to build 4,400 homes in the green belt between the villages to meet Oxford city’s unmet housing need. Due to the sequencing of the plans, however, that unmet need is now down to go under the new proposed assessment. In short, the districts are putting the cart before the horse. Will the Minister agree to meet me, so I can explain the situation more fully and reassure my constituents that their grave concerns about this plan will be heard?
Of course I will meet the hon. Lady. We are committed to retaining the current green belt protections. There may be exceptional circumstances in which a local authority chooses to amend its green belt, but it has to take its local community with it.
A strong midlands engine is vital to Britain’s economy. We have provided the midlands with £1.9 billion of local growth funding, and in March we launched the midlands engine strategy to drive economic growth and improve quality of life.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that a clear focus of the midlands engine should be improving east-west connectivity—specifically, in relation to my constituency, a direct rail link to East Midlands airport and the new east midlands gateway?
I agree with my hon. Friend that transport links are critical to the success of the midlands engine. Midlands Connect predicts that improving connectivity across the midlands can secure a £1 billion-a-year boost to the regional economy and create some 300,000 jobs. The recently commissioned east midlands gateway connectivity study will consider carefully how to achieve this, and it will be looking at the East Midlands airport.
The Secretary of State has just said that transport links are essential if the midlands engine is to drive the economic growth we all want. Will he explain, therefore, why his colleagues will not allow the full electrification of the midland main line?
The hon. Gentleman will know that under this Government, since 2010, this country has seen record investment in transport infrastructure, including in the midlands. That includes the recent announcement about the help the Government will provide in creating the midlands rail hub concept.
From Tetney Lock to Chapel St Leonards, the coastline in my constituency is among the most beautiful in the midlands—and, dare I say it, in the country. Does my right hon. Friend share my hope, therefore, that the midlands engine will travel as far as the Lincolnshire coastline to invest in the vital infrastructure we need in our rural and coastal economies there?
I agree with my hon. Friend on many fronts, including how beautiful her constituency is, and the midlands engine does indeed travel that far. She is right to raise the particular challenges faced by our coastal communities, which is why we are launching a fifth round of our coastal communities fund early next year. I urge her to get her application in.
The midlands engine sits as a sister organisation to the northern powerhouse. In the light of the comments earlier, would the Secretary of State be willing to meet Yorkshire and the Humber MPs to discuss the future of devolution in the area, in order to drive economic growth in the region?
I recently received a request to meet Yorkshire and the Humber MPs and local council leaders. I have accepted that request and look forward to the meeting.
The Government are investing more than £9 billion between 2016 and 2021 to deliver a wide range of affordable housing, including homes for social rent, to meet the needs of a broad range of people. We have also confirmed long-term rent certainty for social landlords, which will create a stable investment environment to support councils and housing associations.
Local housing associations such as Saxon Weald in my constituency have welcomed recent Government announcements. What are the Government doing to help them to build more affordable homes?
Part of the £9 billion I just noted is the £2 billion of additional funding that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister announced, and that includes the clarity on rent. Housing association leaders I have spoken with are very positive about these measures, which will allow them to build additional affordable homes as well as improve current stock.
Will the Minister read something of the history of Harold Macmillan? He was a Prime Minister who actually built houses. This Government are not building houses and certainly not building affordable houses. When will there be an imaginative plan to build houses?
Almost 1 million homes have been built since 2010. The hon. Gentleman talks about our record. I can tell him that over the past six years more affordable homes have been built than were built in the first six years and the last six years of the last Labour Government. We will take no lectures from Labour on building affordable homes.
Has the Secretary of State had any further talks with lenders? Housing in St Albans is some of the most unaffordable in the country, and trying to get mortgages or extended lending terms is very difficult for those struggling to get on the housing ladder.
As my hon. Friend will know, we have announced an extra £10 billion for the Help to Buy scheme, and there are several other schemes in the market, but ultimately this is about making sure that more homes are built. That is what will drive affordability.
The City of York consultation on the local plan closes tonight, but it has failed massively on the tenure needed in the city and is 5,800 short of statutory guidance. Will the Minister ensure that if guidance is set it is followed?
We want to make sure that the right number of homes are built in the right places, and of course the plan will be assessed by an inspector.
Our housing White Paper “Fixing our Broken Housing Market”, published in February, sets out how we will build the homes this country needs. Broadly speaking, we want to do this by diversifying those building homes, increasing build-out rates, supporting homebuyers and releasing more land.
Some 4,500 homes have been built at Beaulieu Park in Chelmsford and another 5,000-plus are planned, but the roads are at capacity and we need a new railway station and a bypass. That is Essex’s No. 1 priority for the housing infrastructure fund. Will the Minister meet me to discuss this important infrastructure to unlock housing?
My hon. Friend is a passionate supporter of new housing for her constituents, which is very welcome. Of course I will meet her . As she knows, I am not able to comment on any particular bids, but I can tell her that there has been a great deal of interest in the £2.3 billion for the housing infrastructure fund.
Yes, of course we should be doing precisely that. I should add, however, that since 2010 we have strengthened the energy requirements for new homes by 30%, which has reduced energy bills by an average of £200.
Will the Minister clarify the Government’s policy in respect of building on the green belt?
I thought I had already clarified it, but let me make it clear again. We believe in protecting the green belt. There will be exceptional circumstances that local authorities can consider, but they will need to take their local communities with them.
I am sure that colleagues on both sides of the House will join me in warmly welcoming back to his place the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles).
Thank you very much, Mr Speaker. It is good to be back.
The Government have made remarkable progress in cutting the deficit from the 10.5% of GDP that we inherited in 2010 to 2.5% now. May I therefore urge everyone to back the Secretary of State’s call for special borrowing to put in place the infrastructure that will unlock the hundreds of thousands of extra houses that we need? This is the kind of borrowing that we should all be able to support.
Of course all of us in the House support the ambition to build more homes, but my hon. Friend should wait for the Budget announcement in relation to any specifics.
Has my hon. Friend made an assessment of the need for social housing, particularly in new towns such as Harlow, and will he consider tax incentives to ensure that housing associations can build more social housing?
I can tell my hon. Friend that housing associations have hugely welcomed our announcements about rent certainty—social housing rents will rise by the consumer prices index plus 1% from 2020—and the investment of an extra £2 billion, and we are engaged in a constant dialogue with them.
Women on Local Councils
I recently met my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Gillian Keegan), the right hon. Member for Barking (Dame Margaret Hodge) and representatives of the Fawcett Society to discuss this important issue. As a start, I shall be holding a round table with local government organisations, cross-party councillors and chief officers in November to discuss how we can break down the barriers that prevent women from engaging with local politics and standing in council elections.
Women are disproportionately affected by services that are controlled by local government, but just one in four directly elected mayors and 17% of local authority leaders are women. In order to address that imbalance, will the Government now legislate for all-women shortlists in local government elections?
As I have said, the Government take this issue very seriously. We want to see more women on councils, and in cabinets. I think that the political parties have a considerable part to play in that, and I think that Members of Parliament have a part to play in encouraging people to stand for election. As I have said, however, we will be looking at the position far more carefully.
I thank the Minister for meeting me and the right hon. Member for Barking (Dame Margaret Hodge). Will he consider introducing consistent maternity and paternity leave and adequate childcare policies throughout councils to encourage more women candidates to come forward?
I thank my hon. Friend for that meeting, and for the work that she has done with the Fawcett Society. As I said to the hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Vicky Foxcroft), we shall be looking at the issue very carefully, and I am sure that my hon. Friend will bring her ideas to the table when we meet in November.
Since my last departmental oral questions, I have announced plans to require all private landlords to join a redress scheme and for all letting agents to be regulated; a clampdown on rogue managing agents; and plans to improve the process of buying and selling homes. Anyone who works hard should be able to afford a place they can call their own, and we will continue to do everything possible to make this vision a reality.
Does the Secretary of State not understand that people outside this place simply cannot grasp his reluctance to accept that sprinklers in tower blocks are necessary fire safety works? Coroners for both the Lakanal House and Shirley Towers fires recommended them, yet his Department is turning down requests from councils and housing associations to pay for them. We do not need another review; we need common sense.
The hon. Gentleman says coroners recommended them for Lakanal House. It is worth reminding him that when the then housing Minister, the right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey), who is sitting opposite me now, was asked about the Government paying for sprinklers, he responded in Parliament:
“The resources local authorities receive for management and maintenance and major repairs should enable them to implement necessary fire safety measures”.—[Official Report, 16 September 2009; Vol. 496, c. 2209W.]
So there was no new money. What this Government have said is that we will help every local authority with any essential fire safety measures.
My hon. Friend is right to raise this. Some councils have already come together and put forward restructuring proposals. We are considering each of them very carefully, and if Northamptonshire comes forward with one, I will look at it very carefully, too.
Some 3.5 million families with a variable rate mortgage face higher costs if the Bank of England puts up interest rates this week, so why are the Government, at this of all times, scrapping support for mortgage interest payments?
This Government have made it clear that it is our ambition to have more people own their own homes. There are a number of areas of intervention; one of the most prominent is the Help to Buy scheme, which is helping hundreds of thousands of people, who otherwise might not have been able to buy a home, to get on the housing ladder for the first time. Ultimately, if the right hon. Gentleman, like me, wants to help more people own their own home, he should support this Government with our housing White Paper and the other measures we take.
The Secretary of State is flannelling. Home ownership is at a 30-year low, and he does not seem to appreciate that 126,000 households, including 60,000 pensioner households, get help from the current scheme. From April, they and anyone else struggling with their mortgage costs will be offered a loan, but a loan is no good for those already struggling with the cost of the loans they have. Under Labour, with our mortgage rescue scheme, help was there when it was needed for families facing repossession. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) is laughing; I ask this of the Secretary of State, who takes the subject more seriously: will he use the Budget to scrap the Government’s current changes and back instead a new home ownership guarantee scheme, as Labour proposed at the election?
The right hon. Gentleman talks about what happened on housing under Labour, so let me remind him: when he was the housing Minister, house building fell to almost its lowest level for almost 100 years, and the number of social units available for rent declined by 410,000. So we will not be taking any lectures from the right hon. Gentleman.
Planning conditions should, of course, only be imposed where they are necessary and meet the other requirements of national policy. What I can say more widely is that we are making changes in the planning system: planning fees are being increased, which will ensure there is more money in the planning authorities; and we are also looking at requiring an increase in build-out rates.
I can confirm to the hon. Lady that we have no plans to change business rates by bringing student accommodation into their scope as she advocates.
Young people in Sutton and across London are depending on local action to help them to secure affordable housing. What lessons can the Government learn from the Mayor of London’s poor record on housing?
My hon. Friend raises an important point. It has now become apparent that, despite all the talk from this Labour Mayor of London, not a single home for social rent was started during his first year in office. According to the National House Building Council, housing starts are down by a third in the last quarter. That is his track record. He needs to live up to his words and build more homes for Londoners.
This was part of an historic four-year settlement, to which 97% of local authorities signed up. Yes, there were some challenges relating to the transition that certain places would have to make as a result of the formula at that time, and it has been widely recognised that that was dealt with in the right way. Labour authorities such as Lancashire benefited from it at the time.
Last year, the Federation of Small Businesses reported on the untapped potential of women in enterprise. However, Analysis Legal in Bramhall in my constituency was set up by a group of female lawyers and is going from strength to strength. Does the Minister agree that encouraging more women into business and supporting female entrepreneurs is key to the success of the northern powerhouse?
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. That is why I am in active conversation with groups such as Northern Power Women, which have sought to find ways to champion visible and diverse role models of leadership in the northern powerhouse. After all, we should not ignore 51% of the talent pool.
Order. To be fair, new Members are often not aware of the fact that topical questions are supposed to be shorter than substantives. It is as simple as that, and Ministers are supposed to respond in kind. However, I thank the hon. Gentleman.
I hear what the hon. Gentleman is saying, although I think he should look back over the records of Warwickshire County Council, which clearly show a motion being put which was seconded by the then Labour group leader, who advocated the reduction in funding that the county council is now making in that area.
Can the Secretary of State confirm that his Department is liaising with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to ensure that ports such as Lowestoft have the necessary infrastructure and supply chain to take advantage of the opportunities arising from the forthcoming Fisheries Bill?
I can absolutely confirm that to my hon. Friend. We are working very closely with DEFRA and the Department for Transport to ensure just that.
Of course we will respect the powers and responsibilities of the devolved nations, and we will make a resounding success of Brexit.
The proposed revised housing formula will add a further 8,000 homes to the current target of 30,000, which is unsustainable and undeliverable without large investment in infrastructure. Will my hon. Friend agree to meet me and Medway colleagues to consider the disproportionate burden on the Medway towns?
I will of course meet my hon. Friend. I should just point out that Medway does not have an up-to-date plan at the moment, and I would encourage responses to the consultation proposals that we have set out.
As I explained to the House earlier, the local council tax support scheme gives help to over 4 million people who are on low incomes and may otherwise struggle to pay their council.
The Secretary of State will be aware of the concerns expressed by the leader of Leicestershire County Council about the letter he received about money going back to the NHS, rather than sticking with the social care authority, and about delayed transfers of care. Will he comment on that and on discussions he has had with his colleague the Secretary of State for Health?
My right hon. Friend is right to raise that. Delayed transfers of care are a shared endeavour between councils and the NHS. There has been good progress in Leicestershire, especially from using the better care fund, and this is a good opportunity to commend Leicestershire on its improving DTOC position.
I call Clive Lewis. [Interruption.] I am sure that what is on your iPhone is of very great importance, but your question is potentially of greater importance—get in there, man.
That would have been done sooner if the previous Labour Government had taken the private rented sector more seriously, which they refused to do. I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman welcomes our consultation.
Given the understandable short postponement of the business rates retention scheme, will the Secretary of State meet me to consider the particular funding pressures that changing demographics are placing on outer-London boroughs?
Scotland secured €941 million in the 2014 to 2020 funding period, split across the European regional development fund and the European social fund. What plans do this Government have to ensure that those funds are replaced post-Brexit and that the Scottish Government will be involved in discussions?
We have set out that there will be a UK shared prosperity fund that will eventually replace EU structural funds and ERDF funds, and we will work together with the devolved nations in developing it.
One thing that would help to drive further economic growth in Corby is a new enterprise zone, so will my right hon. Friend make a case to the Chancellor in advance of the Budget for another round of bidding opportunities?
My hon. Friend is right to raise the importance of enterprise zones, which have often been announced in previous Budgets. I am sure that he is making an excellent case, but if I can help him, I will happily do that.
Is the Secretary of State aware of the increasing number of people who are illegally sub-letting in social housing? Does he agree that it is dangerous if we do not know who actually lives in a house?
The hon. Gentleman is right to raise that. It is of course going on, which is why from April this year we have given landlords more powers to deal with it and more funding to consider such issues. In the forthcoming review and consultation that we have set out, we will be seeing what further action we can take.
Last week, developers pulled out of a plan to build 10,000 homes in Enfield and Haringey due to interference from the Mayor of London. Will my right hon. Friend undertake to consider that plan? We desperately need new homes in London, and the plan would seem to provide them.
We have already heard about the Mayor of London’s failure to provide a single property for social rent in the past year, so my hon. Friend is right to raise that. We will certainly be taking a much closer look.
I wish to make a statement about recent disturbing allegations about a culture of sexual harassment at Westminster between Members and those who work for Members.
Let me make it clear: there must be zero tolerance of sexual harassment or bullying here at Westminster or elsewhere, whether that involves Members, their staff, parliamentary staff or those working on or visiting the estate. If there have been assaults, they should be reported to the police here, as anywhere else.
The House of Commons Commission, which I chair, has a duty to provide a safe place to work. In 2014, in addition to introducing the Respect policy providing a proper regime for complaints by parliamentary staff of bullying or harassment, the Commission introduced a helpline for Members’ staff to raise personal and work-related concerns. And I have consistently supported the workplace equality networks as peer group support for staff. These have all been established since 2010 and are doing important work, which I know to be valued by staff.
At its monthly meeting this evening, I will be inviting the Commission to consider any further action. I also propose to refer the whole issue of sexual harassment to the Commons Reference Group on Representation and Inclusion, which I established last year.
Members’ staff are, of course, employed by individual Members. That means they cannot simply be treated as if they were parliamentary employees, nor of course can Members. I am therefore glad that the party leaders have, in statements made over the weekend, acknowledged their responsibilities to deal with such behaviour within their respective parties.
The Prime Minister’s letter to me, written as leader of the Conservative party, very candidly admits the difficulties the Conservative party has had in introducing the sort of mandatory grievance scheme that some other parties have introduced in recent years. It does not require my intervention for the party to adopt an effective grievance scheme. I hope that all parties will rapidly and thoroughly review the arrangements they have in place to ensure that those arrangements are credible, enforceable, accessible, transparent, and comprise an independent element. The latter notion, that any complaints system and grievance procedure must satisfy constituents as well as colleagues, strikes me as important.
The Prime Minister refers in her letter to the prospects of a House-wide “corporate” scheme. I would be happy to have the idea considered. In the first instance, I hope that parties will live up to their responsibilities by demonstrating both an appetite for change and a practical means of delivering that change without delay. Make no mistake, there is a need for change.
The House will also know that Members must abide by a code of conduct, which means that alleged breaches can be investigated by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards. The commissioner suggested, in her September 2016 consultation on the code, a new rule that:
“A Member must treat all those who work in Parliament with dignity, courtesy and respect.”
I hope that the Committee on Standards, comprising equal numbers of Members and lay members, will take forward suggested revisions to the code with appropriate urgency and come to the House for its decision.
I hope I have the support of the House in calling for these issues to be resolved swiftly and decisively; it should not require endless debate and discussion. For my part, as Speaker, I am happy to do whatever I can. Others must do likewise.
Sexual Harassment in Parliament
(Urgent Question): To ask the Leader of the House if she will make a statement about her plan to tackle sexual harassment in Parliament.
As you know, Mr Speaker, I was very keen to come to the Chamber to make a statement today, but I am delighted to respond instead to the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) and grateful to you for inviting me to provide a full response. It is absolutely right that the House must address the urgent issue of the alleged mistreatment of staff by Members of Parliament. These allegations make it clear that there is a vital need to provide better support and protection for the thousands of staff members working in Westminster and in constituency offices across the country. In tackling this problem, we also need to recognise that we have interns, those on work experience placements, House staff, clerks and civil servants, all of whom deserve to be afforded our care and our respect.
I can confirm that the Cabinet Office is urgently investigating reports of specific allegations of misconduct in relation to the ministerial code. I am well aware that the public rightly expect MPs to display the highest standards, and, as the Prime Minister outlined in her letter yesterday, there can be no place for harassment, abuse or misconduct in politics. Your age, gender or job title should have no bearing on the way you are treated in a modern workplace—and nobody is an exception to that.
As the Nolan principles outline, as public servants we must demonstrate accountability, openness and honesty in our behaviour. Regardless of role or position, a new approach will need to cover everyone working for Parliament. If someone is made to feel uncomfortable, or believes that others have acted inappropriately towards them, they should be able to contact an external, independent, specially trained support team—via phone, the intranet or face to face—so that any issue can be raised confidentially, and appropriate advice and support can be given. Everyone in this House must be clear that whenever a serious allegation is made, the individual should go to the police—and be supported in doing so.
However, it is clear that the current system is inadequate. It is for Parliament to come together to resolve this, but the Government believe there should be some guiding principles. First, as in any other workplace, everyone in Parliament should have the right to feel at ease as they go about their work, irrespective of position, age or seniority. Secondly, although we have had a confidential helpline in place for several years, it must now be strengthened as a dedicated support team, made more accessible, given more resources, and with its role and responsibilities highlighted to all who work here. Thirdly, the support team should have the ability to recommend the onward referral of a case—to ensure that appropriate investigation and action take place. Fourthly, the support team should recommend specialised pastoral support for anyone who is experiencing distress as a consequence of their treatment in the workplace. Fifthly, the support team should recommend reporting any allegations that may be criminal directly to the police. Sixthly, and in addition, there may be further action that government and political parties themselves can take to ensure high standards of conduct and that inappropriate behaviour is properly dealt with. This is the very least we can do.
As the Prime Minister outlined yesterday in her letter to party leaders, we must establish a House-wide mediation service, complemented by a code of conduct and a contractually binding grievance procedure, available for all MPs, peers and their staff, irrespective of their party banner. This will reinforce to those who work here, and to the public, that we are serious in our treatment of wrongdoing and in our support for those who suffer it. I know that all party leaders will work together, with the House, to reach an agreement and get these changes in place as soon as possible. We are Members of Parliament, and our constituents will be rightly appalled at the thought that some representatives in Parliament may have acted in an entirely inappropriate way towards others. These reports risk bringing all our offices into disrepute.
I know that this is an issue of great concern to you, Mr Speaker, and I know that you will do everything you can to tackle it. Members from all parties will want to work alongside you to investigate every claim, provide the right support in the future, and make sure that this never happens again. It is a right, not a privilege, to work in a safe and respectful environment. The plans I have outlined will ensure that Parliament takes a zero-tolerance approach. Parliament must take action in days, not weeks.
I fully endorse the words that you said, Mr Speaker, and I thank you for the commitment you have always shown on these issues.
I thank the Leader of the House for her answer. She is right: there is obviously a problem. It is a good thing that it has been exposed, and it has to be dealt with. No woman—or man, for that matter—who comes to work in this House should be subjected to unwanted sexual advances from those who are in a position of power over them. No one should have to work in a toxic atmosphere of sleazy, sexist or homophobic banter. No MP, let alone a Minister, should think this is something to make jokes about. This is not hysteria; it is something that is long overdue for all the parties in this House to deal with.
Does the Leader of the House agree that all parties should agree on clear, strict rules about what is not acceptable, make sure that everyone knows about them, and that there has to be independence in the adjudication of complaints? Does she recognise that it is almost impossible for someone at the bottom of the system to complain and make allegations about someone at the top? That gives those at the top impunity, of which some—few, but some—will take advantage. A young researcher would fear that if she made an allegation about an MP, her name would be plastered all over the newspapers and she would never get another job. A young journalist would know that if she made an allegation about a Cabinet Minister, she would be subjected to an immediate assault on her integrity, and that would be the only thing for which anyone ever remembered her thereafter. We must, therefore, have complainant anonymity at the heart of this.
Above all, does the Leader of the House recognise, as we all must, that Members of this House have an immensely important job and great responsibility? To speak up for our constituents and hold the Government to account—that is what we are here for. No one voted for me to come to this House to engage in high jinks; no one elected any of us to engage in sleazy, oppressive behaviour, so it has to be stopped. And now is the time to do it.
I absolutely share the right hon. and learned Lady’s concerns about allegations, and I share her determination to stamp this out. We are absolutely determined to get a grip on this. She is right that all parties must agree on the rules and that there must be an independent grievance procedure. I absolutely share the concern that it is particularly difficult for young people who come to work or to do work experience in this place to come forward themselves with allegations, for fear of what might happen to them. That has been the case throughout all areas of life in which those in power seek to abuse those who are younger and less powerful than they are. It is absolutely appalling and unforgivable. I also share the right hon. and learned Lady’s view that complainants should be given anonymity and that there should be proper and thorough investigations of all complaints.
May I, too, congratulate you on and endorse your comments, Mr Speaker? I thank the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) and my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House for all that they have said. We do indeed need change; things cannot go on as they are. I very much welcome the notion that we are going to set up an independent grievance procedure to provide to everybody who works in this place the same protection as any other worker would have. Will my right hon. Friend look into extending that protection to every parliamentary passholder or parliamentary email account holder? Will she set out a timetable? Does she agree that this is not only about sexual harassment but extends to other forms of abuse? It is important that we recognise that.
My right hon. Friend is exactly right that this must include all passholders and all work experience people and members of the media who come to this House. It is absolutely clear that there needs to be a proper means for people to come forward with grievances. She is also right that this is a matter not just of sexually inappropriate behaviour, but of bullying, accusations and all manner of inappropriate behaviour. The procedure should be all encompassing, and that is exactly what we intend to achieve.
I thank my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) for raising this very important issue: 35 years in this place and she is trying to take society forward in a leap. May I also thank you, Mr Speaker, for your statement? I welcome the statement of the Leader of the House and thank her for early sight of it. We on the Labour Benches are ready to work with the Government and with all parties on this, as the Leader of the Opposition made clear in his statement at the weekend.
We all need to come up with an appropriate safeguarding policy for everyone who works in this place. In her letter to you, Mr Speaker, the Prime Minister mentioned that there may have to be a new body. Any new body must encompass everyone who works in the House: it must look at complaints about Members, the staff of the House, including contractors on the estate, and Members of the other place. It must also work with trade unions, which certainly helped the Labour party draw up its code of conduct.
There must be due process: any allegations must be made and there must be a proper process of investigation, and some serious allegations may be referred to the police. If we have a streamlined process, everyone will be aware of it. I know that the House currently has the employees’ assistance programme, which was set up by you, Mr Speaker, in 2014 for Members’ staff, who also have a free confidential phone line, but it needs to go further. The new body needs to build on that. The Leader of the House made a number of recommendations, which need to be looked at by a working party, or another body, so that we ensure that we do not just react to the situation, but deal with it appropriately.
I ask the Leader of the House to ensure that the House looks at widening the scope of this helpline to include independent advice, including legal advice, on the next steps for the complainant. Currently, all the helpline can do is to give counselling to complainants and then refer the matter to parties. I am not clear what other parties do, but the Labour party has a code of conduct that is signed up to by every single member of the party—MPs and members of the party. This code has been sent around a number of times since I was first elected in 2010, and it has been sent around again today. If anyone wants to raise anything under that code of conduct, it is referred to the head of complaints at the Labour party, who will look at the nature of the complaint.
May I ask the Leader of the House whether she has seen the letter from the shadow Minister for Women and Equalities, my hon. Friend the Member for Brent Central (Dawn Butler), to the Prime Minister? Will she ensure that, when a Minister is said to have broken the ministerial code, it is clear that they were actually a Minister at the time? Can the Prime Minister’s response be placed in the Library?
It is not acceptable that, now in society, women are not treated equally even when we do the same work; it is not acceptable that names for women’s anatomy are used as swear words; and it is not acceptable that, every time unacceptable behaviour is challenged, it is closed down as political correctness. I know that all of us—every single one of us from all parts of the House—will use our strength and experience to protect the vulnerable.
I share the hon. Lady’s concerns. We met earlier today, and I am pleased that we are absolutely in the same place regarding our determination to tackle this issue very quickly. The hon. Lady is right that the House needs to look at broadening the resources available to the helpline so that staff in this place can get better support and more advice. The Prime Minister has not yet seen the letter from the Opposition Women and Equalities spokeswoman, but she will, of course, look at it very carefully. I share the hon. Lady’s concern about the way in which words for women’s anatomy are used as swear words. She is exactly right that it is deeply frustrating and irritating for women and for men. We must recognise that this issue does not just affect women; it also affects men. In dealing with the problems across both Houses, we need to have respect for all people—women and men.
In echoing the shadow Leader of the House, I should congratulate the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) because I think she marked—and, I hope, celebrated—the 35th anniversary of her election to the House on 28 October. That is a very remarkable achievement.
I welcome the statement made by the Leader of the House, and particularly the leadership shown by the Prime Minister on this issue. I welcome the idea of an independent grievance procedure for everybody who works in this place, but I also gently remind hon. Members that two thirds of girls in our schools experience sexual harassment on a regular basis, half of university students experience sexual harassment and half of women in work experience sexual harassment. What more support might the Leader of the House be able to give to debates on those issues and to encouraging the Government to take action? Mr Speaker, you will be aware that the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) and I are holding a debate in the Chamber on Thursday on sexual harassment in schools.
My right hon. Friend raises an incredibly important point, which highlights that we should be role models and that what we do in this House sets an example to those in the rest of the country. It is a pretty poor show if we cannot sort out our own house, particularly at a time when we are so concerned about sexual harassment in schools.
I very much welcome the statement from the Leader of the House and, indeed, your statement, Mr Speaker, which helpfully makes for a positive way forward. We support any call for a whole House response to this issue and the establishment of an independent grievance procedure.
Sexual harassment or abuse of any form and in any workplace must be condemned in the strongest possible terms, and this House is no exception. The Scottish National party agrees, of course, that we should adopt a zero-tolerance approach. We will ensure that any issue in the Scottish Parliament is robustly investigated. Indeed, the First Minister has written today to the Presiding Officer of the Scottish Parliament in regard to this. Will the Leader of the House confirm, and perhaps tell us a little bit more about, her plans to involve all the parties in this House? How will these talks be progressed? Does she agree that all staff working on the estate must have access to information, impartial advice and a means of raising these concerns, and that a safe space must at this point be created so that any concerns can be raised confidentially right now, immediately after this urgent question? Finally, does she agree that this is a watershed moment for the House—an opportunity for an institutional shift, whereby the historical culture of this House can be tackled positively—and that there must be no suggestion that this House considers itself above any investigation?
I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s contribution. He asks what plans there are to involve all parties. Obviously, this is all very recent news, and it is vital that we tackle it urgently. Meetings will be arranged between all parties in the very near future—I mean within days—to ensure that we are all agreed on a common approach. He is absolutely right that all staff must have suitable information and a safe space. I urge people, if they have allegations or if they feel they have been made to feel uncomfortable, to come forward and speak to my office, to their Whip or to your office, Mr Speaker. It is absolutely essential that people feel they have somewhere to go. The hon. Gentleman is right to point out again that the employee helpline must be more widely communicated to staff, and we will see that that is the case.
Finally, the hon. Gentleman made the point that this is an opportunity for Parliament to show that we can react quickly to problems and take a quantum leap forward in our approach to dealing with this terrible issue, and I would like to think that we can and will do just that.
May I first pay tribute to the Leader of the House and the Prime Minister for grappling with this issue so swiftly? The Leader of the House talked about this being a modern workplace, and is that not the rub? This is not a modern workplace; it is a very strange workplace. It is strange for Members and it is strange for our families, but most of all it is very strange for these members of staff. You, Mr Speaker, hinted at that when you talked about Members of Parliament being individual employers. There are 650 different employment relationships, so I urge the Leader of the House to reflect on the fact that any new organisation, which I warmly welcome, and which must be independent, needs to be nimble enough to consider how this place actually works and to deliver the institutional shift the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) has just talked about, and must not be like the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, costing the taxpayer £6 million a year.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. Any new body across both Houses will need to be nimble, it will need to have an understanding of parliamentary procedures and it will need to offer good value for taxpayers’ money.
Would the Leader of the House accept that, in any debate on sexual harassment, there is too much victim blaming? People blame women for not speaking out about harassment, rather than asking why they did not. We have seen young women who did speak out being targeted with abuse on social media. If we are to get the right kind of reforms—independent reforms—of processes, or the right kind of culture change in not just this place but institutions right across the country, there has to be a much stronger voice in any reform debates for the young women and men and the junior staff who too often end up being the victims of unacceptable abuses of power. Their voices must be heard.
The right hon. Lady makes a very good point—that it is vital that victims feel they have a safe place to bring forward allegations and that they are not the ones who end up being blamed for failing to come forward or for presumably making false allegations, which too often seems to be the case. I highlight the situation of my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Ms Ghani), who tried to raise some allegations and suffered unbelievable abuse for it. It is an appalling cultural trend in this country, and it really has to stop.
Sadly, those of us who have been in the House for some time know that there is nothing new about the exchanges today. I therefore welcome your statement, Mr Speaker, that of the Leader of the House and the Prime Minister’s intervention; indeed, I have agreed with all the exchanges in the House today. We should not forget that this issue applies to both Houses. We should not forget that it applies to our constituency staff and people beyond here. May I urge the Leader of the House, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry) did earlier, to come up with a timescale, because the matter is pressing? In the meantime, could she also make it clear to everybody working in this estate or connected to it what the interim procedures are for individuals who may be on the receiving end of the appalling treatment we have been reading about in the papers?
My right hon. Friend mentions the fact that any new procedure needs to cover both Houses, and she is right. She is also absolutely right that it needs to cover all staff working here and in our constituencies. She wants interim procedures to be clarified, which we will absolutely do. However, I would just point out to her that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has absolutely gripped this issue. While it may have been rumbling on for many years, we should all be pleased that we will be addressing it in the very near future.
I welcome these steps to eradicate harassment from this place. However, when I complained recently to an officer of Parliament who had some responsibility in this area that I knew a number of researchers, male and female, who had been made to feel deeply uncomfortable in the Sports and Social club by Members of Parliament, I was told that that happens in pubs all over the country. Will the Leader of the House confirm that the duty of care that we owe extends 24/7 and to every restaurant and bar in this place?
I am very happy to give that absolute assurance. There should be no place here on the estate, or in our constituency offices, where people can be abused or their allegations not taken seriously. I can assure the hon. Lady that I will be meeting Lord McFall to discuss the specific issues around the Sports and Social bar tomorrow.
Thank you for your statement, Mr Speaker. I am grateful for the consensus so far in all the statements made and questions raised in these exchanges. Let me point out that we would not be having these exchanges if the document I have here—the code of conduct of the House of Commons—was actually working and the machinery around the code was effective. May I draw my right hon. Friend’s attention to the fact that the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards is conducting a review of the code of conduct? The Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee has submitted quite radical suggestions about how the code, and the machinery around it, should be reformed so that we spend far more time in this House as Members of Parliament experiencing proper professional development and understanding the code of values at the front of this document—what they actually mean and how we should live those values as Members of Parliament—than just concentrating on all the other pages, which are about declarations of outside earnings, Members’ interests and all the other stuff that seems to preoccupy the regulatory authorities of this House.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to point out that there is already a code of conduct. I am grateful to him for sending me his Committee’s report on this matter over the weekend. I will certainly look at it carefully over the next couple of days.
Much has been made in the media this weekend of the inability of the Standards Commissioner, and therefore the Standards Committee, to look into many of the issues raised over the past week. In a report debated in March 2012, the Committee tried to give the commissioner a wider scope over these issues, but an amendment tabled by the three major parties’ parliamentary shop stewards and supported by Front Benchers was introduced to block this, and therefore the commissioner was left unable to look into these very important issues. When the Standards Committee re-forms shortly, we will again look at the code of conduct, and I hope that all parties represented here will be a lot more receptive to necessary changes.
The right hon. Gentleman raises a really important point. I can assure him that the Commission will meet under the chairmanship of Mr Speaker this afternoon and we will discuss these matters there.
I am delighted to hear that the Leader of the House will extend these measures to other forms of abuse. Will that include those MPs who go on rallies endorsing the lynching of other MPs? It is an absolute disgrace that senior MPs go about their business inciting violence against female MPs.
My right hon. Friend raises an incredibly important point, again, about the vital significance of what we do as MPs. Certainly, repeating slogans about lynching other MPs is incredibly despicable behaviour that is occasionally encouraged. That is deeply regrettable, and we all need to look very carefully at what sort of behaviour we endorse in this House.
Sexual harassment is a problem in Parliament—as it is, indeed, in workplaces and schools right across the country—and it is often worst where there are big discrepancies of power. I really hope that the news reports of the past few days will act as a watershed moment and help to catalyse the change that we so clearly need, not least in the outdated attitudes that exist, still, in some quarters. I welcome the cross-party agreement that we need an independent reporting mechanism for investigating complaints, but does the Leader of the House agree that if people are to have confidence in using it, the process needs to be very clearly set out, as do the outcomes, because repercussions in secret via the usual channels will not cut it in 2017?
The hon. Lady has been a big champion for women over several years, and I applaud her for that. She is absolutely right. The grievance procedure will need to be very clear and very well communicated. It will have to set out clearly established principles about how the procedure escalates, with very clear “So what now?” results at the end of it that everybody who participates in it can see for themselves.
Urgency is very important in how we deal with this issue. Nevertheless, will the Leader of the House confirm that it will not be dealt with simply by House officials and those working in the Palace of Westminster, but that best practice will be utilised and advice will be sought from external organisations as to how they deal with it? We need to get this right first time around.
Cross-party agreement and working closely with your office, Mr Speaker, are vital. Of course, the House officials themselves have some expertise in this area, but all ideas will be welcomed—bearing in mind, as a number of Members have said, that this is a very unusual workplace.
I welcome what has been said here today, and I look forward to working with you, Mr Speaker, on the reference group on this issue. As I rushed in here for this statement, I overheard two male colleagues walking through the halls wittering about a witch hunt that was going on in Parliament. We in this building must think of this not as a party political thing, but as something that absolutely has to happen. We should not just cheer when one of our opponents is the person getting attacked; we should cheer when everybody is bang to rights.
Will the Leader of the House touch on what she believes should happen to perpetrators of this crime—she did not mention this when she outlined what she and the Government felt needed to be done? Good referral lines and support for victims are obviously things that I support, but the fact of the matter is that nothing hurts a victim more than watching a perpetrator getting away with it.
The hon. Lady is exactly right, and I certainly welcome her desire for a non-partisan approach to the resolution of this matter. It affects all parts of the House, and we need to work together on it. What happens to the perpetrators is, of course, a matter for the House to debate, but it will include the following: where staff are the perpetrators, the normal contractual potential for losing their job, and where the perpetrator is an MP, the possible withdrawal of the Whip or the sacking of a Minister and so on. All those well-known things that can happen from time to time must and will be in scope.
Mr Speaker, I very much welcomed the mention in your speech of bullying and other forms of harassment. Sometimes victims are not empowered to speak up and make a complaint, so can we make sure that there is a form of reporting for other people who may observe harassment and bullying within an office or workplace and feel they could alert someone to it?
Yes. I think that if we can establish a proper grievance procedure, it should be perfectly possible to report observed behaviour, not just personal experience.
I welcome your statement, Mr Speaker, and the statements that have been made today. As others have said, this is nothing new. It comes about because of a political culture of preferment, in which people cannot speak about what has happened to them for fear of their career being stifled. To change that political culture requires all of us to show very strong political leadership. I say to the political leaders from all parts of the House that that means taking decisions against colleagues and others, even when that is inconvenient and even when it goes against their own allies or their own supporters. Does the Leader of the House agree that that requires strong leadership?
I absolutely agree with the hon. Lady.
I, too, welcome the statements and comments that have been made today. When I was speaking to my own researcher earlier this week, she highlighted some of the experiences that she has had in this place. As a new MP, I definitely find such experiences shocking and unacceptable. May I highlight the importance in the code of education both for staff and for us as Members? Many coming in as Members have not had the experience of employing people before. We need to be kept up to date with what is happening in society, including about what constitutes harassment. We may think such phrases are innocent, but they are not perceived as such. Our staff also need to be empowered completely to bring forward complaints. Does my right hon. Friend agree?
My hon. Friend raises a really important and thoughtful point. Very often, Members have not had experience of employing staff before coming to this place, and they themselves need some guidance. That could be a very useful contribution as a result of this experience.
A worker employed as staff of a Member told me today that she reported being sexually assaulted to the proper authorities earlier this year, who did nothing. She is deeply disappointed and distrustful, and she tells me that distrust is endemic. How can I assure her that her complaint would now be treated differently?
I can say to the hon. Lady that if the member of staff would like to talk to me about it, I will certainly take up her complaint personally.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement sending a clear message that sexual harassment is never acceptable. Who would have thought that, as we celebrate the centenary of women getting the vote, we have to address in this Chamber the conduct and language that intimidate and control women in particular? This is about the abuse of power and the status of women. I welcome the cross-party agreement to stamp this out, especially as we are all working in a climate where women on both sides of the House are being abused just for being in public office. Perhaps we can start by referring to the code of conduct, which I raised with the Leader of the House in business questions last week. With the privilege of being elected comes a duty, and that does not involve sexist language and behaviour, because all of us who have been elected know the power that we hold.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I deeply regret the horrible experience she has had in recent weeks merely for trying to raise her own disgust at the sexual harassment going on.
Parliament must act, but all political parties must act, too. Does the Leader of the House agree that every party should introduce independent reporting, so that women have the confidence to come forward not just in Parliament, but in local councils and our party activist bases, too?
The hon. Lady raises a really interesting point, which I will certainly take away and think about. My perspective is that we need independent review, because the problem with parties marking their own homework is always that that can in itself create an underlying lack of confidence on the part of victims. Having an independent review—a third-party, professional view—will be very important in resolving this.
The hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) was quite right to talk about confidence. There needs to be confidence in the system, and that is why there needs to be an independent body, because justice must not only be done but be seen to be done. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) talked about witch hunts, and we have to be careful to avoid them. One of the advantages of having an independent body is that it avoids just that: allegations made will have to be properly substantiated.
Yes, my hon. Friend is right. We do not want false allegations to be made and then become “facts” just as made, so absolutely proper investigation is essential to get to the bottom of allegations and find out whether or not they are true.
Thank you, Mr Speaker, for your leadership on this issue. I think we need to be clear that we are talking not just about activities that are criminal, but about making sure that a culture of sexual violence, harassment and misogyny and not believing those who come forward is not considered the norm. To do that means being clear about what happens not just to those who come forward, but to those who participate. Following up on the questions asked by my hon. Friends the Members for Leicester West (Liz Kendall) and for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips), I would like to hear from the Leader of the House a bit more clarity about what measures she expects political parties to take to make sure that we keep employees and volunteers not just safe from illegal activities but protected from a constructive dismissal case, or are we simply expecting the electorate to pick up the slack?
I have been clear that the issue is around, first, those who are made to feel uncomfortable: I am setting the bar significantly below criminal activity. If people are made to feel uncomfortable, that is not correct. In terms of the consequences for the perpetrators, I have also been clear that staff could forfeit their jobs, Members of Parliament could have the Whip withdrawn and Ministers could be fired from ministerial office.
If we do not call out bad, irresponsible or criminal behaviour, which we do weekly in our constituency surgeries, we are all part of the problem. The right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) rightly raised the question and has used her gravitas to highlight the issue. I have the pleasure of serving on your diversity committee, Mr Speaker, which looks at these issues, and we have made some great strides in making this a positive workplace for all.
Can I ask the Leader of the House and the Prime Minister to work with me and all Members from all parties to make sure that we have a strong voice on all the separate issues—whether misogyny, poor language or criminal behaviour—and do everything to give the public confidence in every party?
My hon. Friend has been a great champion of treating others with respect, and I would personally be delighted to work with her on this.
Will all cases that have been reported and not actioned—not just the one in north Wales, but others—be reopened? Will anybody who has been sexually assaulted have the right to say, “No, I don’t want the issue to go to the police. I want it treated in other ways?” In other words, will the victim control what the action is? Will compulsory training on the implications of the duty of care under the Equality Act be brought in immediately for all MPs, and if someone wishes to have trade union representation to assist them, will that be allowed?
The hon. Gentleman raises some really important and sensible ideas, and I will look carefully at them all. I urge anyone who has been made to feel uncomfortable or who feels that they have been improperly treated to come forward, and those issues will be taken up through the right channels. Until we have a proper independent grievance policy and a group of people able to take that up, the existing policies of the employee helpline, which can be expanded, and my offer that people can come to me personally will be appropriate ways to take things forward.
May I gently remind the House that this issue is not just about sexual harassment and it is not just about women? Bullying is systemic in the House. Earlier today, I received a text from someone describing a problem that he saw in this place. It said of a current Member:
“He is utterly foul and I am sure it’s a pattern of behaviour on his part, but in this instance I don’t think it would be fair on the woman in question”
to name him. My friend continues:
“Still, do your best to widen this to bullying and treating your staff like”—
I think he means dirt. I ask the Leader of the House to widen this issue to bullying, including historical allegations.
It is absolutely the intention that the review look at all issues of misdemeanour and misconduct, including sexual harassment and bullying, as well as other forms of uncomfortable behaviour that is perpetrated on members of staff in this place.
When I was a curate in the Church of England 30 years ago, one of my very close colleagues confided in me that he had been raped by a very senior member of the Church of England clergy. My friend was understandably terrified about telling the police or anybody else that this was the truth. He felt suicidal. He did not want others to know what had happened to him, quite understandably—he was the victim, not the perpetrator. I make absolutely no criticism of my friend. The senior cleric concerned had a great deal of protection from the establishment, including from certain members of the royal family. He subsequently —thank God—went to prison. The Church’s instinct was to protect itself as the institution. Is that not always the danger? Is not the one thing we must learn from all this that the best way to protect the institution is actually to protect the victims and to put our own house in order? May I make just one tiny suggestion? Anytime an MP interviews somebody for a new job, they should have a human resources professional sitting alongside them at the interview.
The hon. Gentleman raises a terrible and horrifying case. He is right to point out that the victim should not be the one to suffer in the way that his friend obviously did. The point he raises is very important. We need to ensure that this is not the House protecting itself, but Parliament protecting all those who come here to work and to try to make their country a better place.
I congratulate the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) on asking the urgent question and my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House on her response. How many calls have been made to the confidential helpline? If we are to get rid of this unacceptable behaviour, would a good place to start not be to contact those who have contacted the confidential helpline, to see how their cases might now be taken forward?
The employee assistance programme is intended as a safety net to complement the existing pastoral care and internal processes put in place by MPs themselves and the main political parties. In response to my hon. Friend’s specific question about how many calls have been made to it, I do not know but I can find out and place the figures in the Library.
When I visit one of the schools in my constituency, as we all often do as MPs, I am required to sign in and I am made aware of the safeguarding policies each and every time. I recognise that Parliament is not exactly the same as a school, but I am concerned that visitors brought on to the estate to socialise late at night must also be held responsible. How will the Leader of the House ensure that this is a safe place for all, by all, all the time?
The hon. Lady raises a different but equally very important point, which is the safety and protection of those who come on to the estate. I am looking at that carefully. As I mentioned to the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah), I will be meeting Lord McFall tomorrow to discuss exactly how we protect those who come on to the estate to socialise, often quite late at night.
I came to this place after working for some years at the BBC, an institution that has had its own challenges in this area. With that experience in mind, I want to endorse what the Leader of the House and you, Mr Speaker, have said about the importance of this institution having a robust procedure. It must not be left to individual components, whether individual employers or political parties. It is this institution, Parliament, that has to have a robust governance procedure. There are a few specific categories of people that this process must be sufficiently fleet of foot to be able to help. The first is members of staff who work in our constituency offices, who often feel isolated and vulnerable. The second is students who come here on work experience or to do internships. I would like to suggest that whenever a student, an intern or someone on a work placement begins here, there should be, as part of the basic induction process, a very simple instruction about where they go if, at any time, they feel vulnerable. I think that that is lacking at the moment.
Yes. My hon. Friend is right. I think some of us do have clear guidelines for the very often quite young people who come to this place for work experience. Having something we can all give to young people to provide them with reassurance is an extremely good idea.
I think across the House we all recognise that this is a fault of undiluted power: when someone holds another’s entire future in their hands, it is difficult to refuse or speak out. While it is sexual abuse and harassment that has brought this issue to people’s attention today, it is also about misogyny, dismissal and gender discrimination —and it is not just here. This place needs to start the change, but in the law, in the NHS—in any hierarchical system—we need to see change.
The hon. Lady is right that it starts at the top. If those in power abuse those beneath them, it creates a culture where abuse becomes endemic throughout the system. I would not say it is only from the top, but that is certainly where it starts and where leadership needs to be shown.
Those of us who have been in this place long enough to have seen the expenses scandal saw how that long-drawn-out process, often subject to apparent obfuscation by this place, was deeply damaging to the integrity not only of this institution but, by implication, of every Member, despite how innocent they might have been. Does the Leader of the House agree that if we are to tackle this problem, it is absolutely essential that our response be swift, robust and wholly transparent? We send out a message to the way the rest of society happens, and we all, however innocent, have a duty to perform in that.
My hon. Friend is exactly right. It is absolutely our intention to make very swift progress—within days. He is also right to point out that there is agreement across parties that this needs to be resolved, and I think, if we all work together, it can be.
I thank you, Mr Speaker, for your statement and the Leader of the House for her very forthright statement. She said earlier that this issue not only focused on Westminster but applied to politics across the country. In my own local authority, two female councillors were recently abused in a most sexually derogatory manner online, and the abuse was initiated by a fellow councillor. Will she talk to her colleagues in the Department for Communities and Local Government to ensure that the same robust policies and procedures she is outlining for this House apply equally to local government—councillors and staff?
The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government would be happy to meet him to discuss it.
I welcome the cross-party approach discussed today. As a doctor entering the House, I was quite concerned from my constituency experience to find that disclosure checks are not mandatory for staff in constituency offices, although such checks are quite rigorous for those working in Parliament. Does the Leader of the House agree that it is important that staff are kept safe right across the board and that we have a duty to protect constituents?
The hon. Lady raises a very interesting point, and I will certainly look into it.
I draw the Houses’ attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. You, Mr Speaker, and many other Members have mentioned the fundamental imbalance between parliamentary staff and Members’ staff. The former have one employer and are members of recognised trade unions, if they wish to be. There is, however, an active and well-organised trade union representing Members’ staff—I know because I used to be branch secretary. Would you, Mr Speaker, and the Leader of the House be willing to meet that union to discuss recognition? Such a thing would not be without precedent.
I cannot speak for you, Mr Speaker, but I certainly would be happy to meet the union.
Similarly, I am very happy to meet the union, and I look forward to hearing from the hon. Lady. There should be an opportunity for a troika, a quartet, or perhaps something larger—I don’t know. It is important and should happen sooner rather than later.
Many employers, as well as independent grievance procedures, have stand-alone independent bullying and harassment policies, so that complaints of bullying and harassment are dealt with separately under a different procedure. Is the possibility of a separate policy being explored, and does the Leader of the House agree that trade unions, if they have any Members’ staff coming to them with complaints, should be invited to bring them to you, Mr Speaker, and herself?
As a constituency MP myself, I am certainly aware that some trade unions have done excellent work in protecting their members from bullying at work, and in doing so they fulfil a vital role. As for how we should go about resolving our own House issues, I incline towards a two-House solution. I think that there should be an independent grievance procedure, allowing anyone to make any allegations about bullying, intimidation, sexually inappropriate behaviour and so on, rather than separate streams of activity.
Will the Leader of the House consider providing assertiveness training for staff, so that they may be better equipped to decide for themselves what constitutes good-humoured high jinks and what constitutes sexual harassment?
That is a very good suggestion, and I would certainly support it. Such courses are often made available, and individual Members can choose to send staff on them. I myself have sent staff for assertiveness training. Another Member raised the issue of training for Members of Parliament in how to treat their staff, and I think that that has equal merit. All these suggestions should be up for discussion.
May I add the support of DUP Members to the cross-party focus that we have seen this afternoon? May I also introduce a note of caution, and ask for a bit of clarity? Earlier, we were promised a completely confidential reporting mechanism. Can I assume that that would focus solely on the lack of reporting or publication of the name of a victim? I cannot see how it would be possible to proceed with a full accusation without revealing the victim’s identity.
l understand the hon. Gentleman’s point. What I suggested was that it should be possible for the accuser to remain anonymous, at least in the early stages. All too often, people have been afraid to come forward for fear of their names being all over the front pages of the newspapers.
When reflecting on the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester West (Liz Kendall), will the Leader of the House also take into account the fact that if we take a step forward here in Westminster, it will further perpetuate the gap, in terms of protection, between people who work in this place and our wider political constituencies—in other words, the culture of our political parties? We have a real duty of care to those activists, and bullying, intimidation and other forms of bad behaviour can often spread very easily against the background of a culture in which political parties seek to shut down allegations rather than bringing them into the light.
The hon. Gentleman is right to raise that point. I hope that if we can show leadership in this place, we shall then be able to tackle the wider ramifications throughout the country.
I agree with much of what has been said today, but I find it hard to believe that other Members were unaware of allegations such as those that have been made in recent days. The fact that incidents of this kind have not been reported until now indicates not only the macho image and atmosphere of this place, but the unwillingness of far too many men to report such behaviour. Does the Leader of the House agree that, in some cases, the men who remain silent are just as culpable as the perpetrators, and that men in this place and elsewhere must come forward to challenge and report abuse if we are to stamp it out once and for all?
I urge those who feel uncomfortable, and feel that they have been abused, bullied, intimidated or harassed, to come forward. However, I do not think the hon. Gentleman is right to suggest that the victims are somehow themselves guilty of anything in failing to come forward.
Will the Leader of the House ensure that the promised new procedures involve action on racism, misogyny, homophobia and bullying as well as sexual harassment? None of those types of behaviour has any place in our democracy. My hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich West (Mr Bailey) mentioned local government. Can guidance be issued so that other levels of government adopt similar procedures? We should also bear in mind the fact that Members of the European Parliament still exist. Unless swift action is taken, politics as a whole will be brought into disrepute.
I can absolutely confirm that all issues involving homophobia, racism, bulling, sexual harassment and so on will be within the scope of the work involved in the creation of an independent grievance procedure. The hon. Lady is exactly right: treating one another with respect throughout our politics is absolutely essential, and we will see what more can be done to ensure that that happens.
I welcome your leadership on this important issue, Mr Speaker, and the statements from hon. Friends on both sides of the House.
Is the Leader of the House aware of any allegations that would warrant police investigation?
I am not aware of any specific allegations that would warrant criminal investigation.
With my teacher hat on, I endorse what has been said about young inexperienced staffers often not knowing their rights, and also the idea that there should be some kind of induction. This House should be leading from the front, and there is something else we can do: ensure that sex and relationship education in schools is finally enacted so we can start to tackle this from the bottom up as well.
I share the hon. Lady’s concern that we need to set a good example and be good role models, and we need to do more to protect children and young people. On sex and relationship education, I agree with her up to a point: it is vital that relationship education is put up alongside sex education and the two are taught hand in hand.
I am beginning to realise the scale of the challenge you face in your attempts to modernise this place, Mr Speaker.
Will the Leader of the House work with the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, by way of example, to audit fully what procedures are in place and ensure that best practice is introduced, and to help modernise and professionalise this place?
The hon. Gentleman’s view will be shared by many across this House, in that it is difficult to pin down exactly who is responsible for what, which is why this urgent review is absolutely necessary. We are determined to come up with a coherent grievance procedure to which all Members and staff across both Houses can refer.
The proposal for an independent grievance procedure is a positive step, but we also need to consider what happens after it has been completed. It is quite possible that the complainant will still be employed by the person they have made a complaint against, which will make employment relations very difficult at best, and at worst they will have completely broken down. The Leader of the House has said that in certain circumstances the whip might be removed from a Member, but if the person who has made the complaint is still employed by that Member, that would put them in an impossible situation. Surely that cannot be right.
I certainly share the hon. Gentleman’s concern, and he will be aware that members of staff often move around and work for other Members of Parliament. Clearly, there should be different outcomes for different situations, but it is very important that victims feel that they are heard, understood, listened to and supported, and that their concerns are then acted upon.
Thank you for your statement today, Mr Speaker.
May I caution the Leader of the House about her focus on mediation? Mediation assumes there is an equality of power. Where there is a perpetrator and a survivor of sexual abuse there is a clear inequality of power. Will she look at this again?
To be clear, I am not talking about mediation; I am talking about an independent grievance procedure where independent people would investigate a particular situation, quite apart from the Members in this House. The victim would absolutely not be mediated with the alleged perpetrator of the crime against them.
I welcome the Leader of the House’s constructive proposals to tackle this serious issue, but over the weekend I read some worrying articles saying that Whips’ offices from all political parties and senior members of the Government held information about sexual misconduct by their own MPs but stayed quiet for fear of sabotaging their career and bringing the Government into disrepute. Is the Leader of the House aware of these reports, does she believe them to be true, and if so, what is she going to do about them?
I am absolutely not aware of any such wrongdoing, and I am absolutely confident that anybody who had serious allegations would be directed by the Whips Office or by Members of Parliament to go directly to the police.
Further to that question from my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq), may I press the Leader of the House a little further? Just yesterday, a current Government Minister appeared on the broadcast media and said that he was clear that what went on in the Whips Office stayed in the Whips Office. Can the Leader of the House tell us whether she still considers that approach to be appropriate in the light of these serious allegations? Furthermore, can she respond to the suggestion that the Prime Minister receives a briefing every week, perhaps from the Chief Whip, to advise her about spurious behaviour within the House?
The hon. Lady should really consider the logic of what she is saying, if she really thinks that the Prime Minister would be sitting there chatting with the Chief Whip in the way that she suggests. That is quite clearly not true. It is absolutely vital that we all take this seriously and give proper consideration to the allegations against Members of Parliament by their staff. Anybody who had prior knowledge of those things would encourage those individuals to go to the police or provide them with the support that they need. There is absolutely no covering up going on.
The Leader of the House has rightly recognised that these situations arise out of imbalances and abuses of power, and I therefore endorse the question from my hon. Friend the Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) about completely outlawing the use of mediation in the circumstances. Its use would be wholly inappropriate. Does the Leader of the House not recognise that this goes to the heart of the victims being believed when they make their allegations, and that it is important that that message is sent out loud and clear as part of this exercise that she is now undertaking?
I say again that it is important that there are independent investigations of allegations, not mediation, and that we use every effort to ensure that those who make allegations against another individual are properly listened to and supported, and that those allegations are properly investigated.
On the way to this debate, I overheard two Members joking about this issue and asking, in humour, about whether they had “fessed up” to their sexual harassment. As a man, I stand up to call that out. It is not “bantz”; it is unacceptable. I also understand that in response to some journalists presenting testimony from victims with evidence of sexual harassment, some Members of this House have instructed lawyers to gag the stories that those journalists are pursuing. Will the Leader of the House ensure that the members of staff who use this service will have access to legal advice? What will she do to ensure that victims’ voices are not silenced due to legal process?
I say again that it is vital that we take a grip of this issue and that we look quickly—I mean in a matter of days—at what can be done cross-party to establish a proper, independent grievance procedure that all staff across both Houses can access, so that their concerns can be heard, properly investigated and properly acted upon.
I am grateful to all colleagues who have participated in this important exchange.
Independent Review: Deaths in Police Custody
With permission, Mr Speaker, I will make a statement to the House on the publication of Dame Elish Angiolini’s independent review of deaths and serious incidents in police custody and this Government’s substantive response to the report and its recommendations.
In 2015, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, then the Home Secretary, met the relatives of Olaseni Lewis and Sean Rigg, who had died tragically in police custody. The families’ experiences left her in no doubt that there was significant work to do not only to prevent deaths in police custody but, where they do occur, to ensure that the families are treated with dignity and compassion and have meaningful involvement and support in their difficult journey to find answers about what happened to their loved ones. I know that everyone in the House will want to join me in expressing our sorrow and sympathy for all those families who have lost loved ones who died in police custody.
It is essential that deaths and serious incidents in police custody are reduced as far as possible and, when they do occur, that they are investigated thoroughly, agencies are held to account, lessons are learned and bereaved families are provided with the support they need. The House will want to join me in acknowledging the incredible efforts of our country’s police forces and officers, the vast majority of whom do their jobs well to give substance to the Peelian principle of policing by consent. However, when things go wrong, policing by consent can have meaning only when swift action is taken to find the truth, to expose institutional failings and to tackle any conduct issues where they are found.
It is for those reasons that the Government commissioned in 2015 the independent review of deaths and serious incidents in police custody and appointed Dame Elish as its independent chair. Dame Elish concluded her review earlier this year and, having carefully considered the review and its recommendations, the Government are today publishing both her report and the Government’s response. The report is considerable in scope and makes 110 recommendations for improvement, covering every aspect of the procedures and processes surrounding deaths and serious incidents in police custody. It is particularly valuable in affording a central role to the perspective of bereaved families and demonstrating beyond doubt that their experiences offer a rich source of learning for the police, investigatory bodies, coroners and many others with a role to play when these tragic incidents occur. As for the Government’s response, I stress to the House that the issues identified in Dame Elish’s report point to the need for reform in several areas where we have begun or set in motion work today, but her report also highlights complex issues to which there are no easy answers at this time. The Government response that I outline today is to be seen as the start of a journey—a journey which will see a focused programme of work to address the problems identified.
As the House will understand, I do not intend to go into the detail of the Government response in respect of all the report’s recommendations. Instead, I will highlight key areas of concern and our approach. The first relates to inquests, which are intended to be inquisitorial, to find out the facts of a death, and should not be adversarial. Despite that, Dame Elish finds that inquests currently involve legal representation for interested persons, particularly those connected to the police force, and little or no help for bereaved families. The Government recognise that legal advice and representation may in some circumstances be necessary in the inquest process, which is why we have protected legal aid for advice in the lead up to and during inquest hearings. However, it is also clear that the system needs simplifying so that legal representation is not necessary in all cases, and the Government will investigate how we can meet this ambition and take it forward over the coming months.
As an initial step towards addressing those concerns and ensuring that the bereaved can have confidence in the arrangements, the Lord Chancellor will review the existing guidance so that it is clear that the starting presumption is that legal aid should be awarded for representation of the bereaved at an inquest following the non-natural death or suicide of a person detained by police or in prison, subject to the overarching discretion of the director of legal aid casework. In exercising the discretion to disregard the means test, it will also be made clear that consideration should be given to the distress and anxiety caused to families of the bereaved in having to fill out complex forms to establish financial means following the death of a loved one. That work will be completed by the end of the year.
As a next step, the Lord Chancellor will also consider the issue of publicly funded legal advice and representation at inquests, particularly the application of the means test in such cases. That will form part of the upcoming post-implementation review of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, due to be published next year. Although there are cases where legal support is required, we believe we can go further towards building a non-adversarial inquest system, which I hope the House will agree is better for all involved. The Lord Chancellor will also consider, to the same timescale as the legal aid review, reducing the number of lawyers who attend inquests—without compromising fairness—and making inquests more sympathetic to the needs of the bereaved.
This country is proud to have world-leading police forces. The police put themselves in harm’s way to protect the public with honesty and integrity, upholding the values set out in the policing code of ethics. Police integrity and accountability is central to public confidence in policing, and a system that holds police officers to account helps to guarantee that. The Government must ensure that the public have confidence in the police to serve our communities and keep us safe.
When things go wrong, swift action is needed to expose and tackle any misconduct. Action must be open, fair and robust. The Government will therefore implement legislation later this year to extend the disciplinary system to former officers so that where serious wrongdoing is alleged, an investigation and subsequent disciplinary proceedings can continue until their conclusion, even where an officer has left the force. We will also make publicly available a statutory police barred list of officers, special constables and staff who have been dismissed from the force and barred from policing.
The Independent Police Complaints Commission has an important role to play, and it has undergone a multi-year major change programme that has seen a fivefold increase in the number of independent investigations it opens each year compared with 2013-14. On Friday 20 October, we reached another major milestone in reforming the organisation, with the announcement of the first director general of the new Independent Office for Police Conduct. The new director general will start in January 2018, when the reforms to the IPCC’s governance are implemented and it is officially renamed the IOPC.
The Government are strengthening safeguards in the custody environment. It is clear that police custody is no place for children. Provisions in the Policing and Crime Act 2017, shortly to be brought into force, will make it unlawful to use a police station as a place of safety for anyone under 18 years of age in any circumstance and will further restrict the use of police stations as a place of safety for people aged 18 and over.
The work of the College of Policing and the National Police Chiefs Council to improve training and guidance for police officers and staff in this area is to be commended. Also drawing on learning from the IPCC’s independent investigations, their work has contributed to a significant reduction in the number of deaths in custody in recent years.
Making improvements in other areas, however, requires us to tackle entrenched and long-standing problems that cut across multiple agencies’ responsibilities. The Government will not shy away from the long-term collaborative work that that requires, which is why we commissioned the Ministerial Council on Deaths in Custody to play a leading role in considering the most complex of Dame Elish’s recommendations—those on healthcare in police custody, on inquests and on support for families.
The ministerial council is uniquely placed to drive progress in those areas and has been reformed to ensure an increased focus on effectively tackling the issues that matter most. It brings together not only Ministers from the Home Office, the Department of Health and the Ministry of Justice but leading practitioners from the fields of policing, health, justice and the third sector. In addition, the ministerial council’s work is informed by an independent advisory panel that brings together eminent experts in the fields of law, human rights, medicine and mental health. This will introduce necessary oversight and external challenge to ensure that lessons are learned.
In my role as co-chair of the ministerial board, I am personally committed to helping drive through the ministerial council’s new work programme, and I will do so in a way that is transparent to the families. Every death in police custody is a tragedy, and we must do all we can to prevent them. The independent review of deaths and serious incidents in police custody is a major step forward in our efforts better to understand this issue and to bring about meaningful and lasting change.
I thank Dame Elish Angiolini for her remarkable contribution on this important issue, as well as Deborah Coles for her continuing commitment to preventing deaths in police custody. But I particularly thank the bereaved families who contributed to Dame Elish’s review. They have laid their experiences bare in order for us to learn from them and to spare other families the suffering they have endured, and I cannot commend them highly enough.
In addition to publication on gov.uk, I will place in the Library copies of the report of the independent review of deaths and serious incidents in police custody, its accompanying research documents, the Government’s response to the review and the concordat on children in custody.
I commend this statement to the House.
There are many aspects of the Government’s statement to welcome, but does the Minister agree that this long-standing issue of deaths in police custody is of particular concern to our urban communities and has been for decades? In my constituency, this goes back as far as the death of Colin Roach in 1983, and this year we had the very sad death of 20-year-old Rashan Charles, who died in July following contact with the Metropolitan police in Dalston. I, personally, have had to comfort too many families who said goodbye to their son in the morning and he never came back.
Can the Minister explain why we have had to wait two and a half years for the publication of this report, which I understand was completed 15 months ago? Does he agree with the United Families and Friends Campaign that officers must be held to account? In that context, however, I welcome what he said about dealing with former officers, as it will give some comfort to families. Is he able to explain why a disproportionate number of these deaths in custody happen to black men? The Minister has said that this is the start of a journey, but does he appreciate that this must be a journey with an end? Families want to see some prospect of the recommendations being implemented, or at least an explanation of why they are not implemented, and an end point to this journey? Does he agree that we pride ourselves in this country on policing by consent but if that is to be real for every community, we must deal with this long-running issue of deaths in custody? May I assure the Minister that I campaigned on this issue long before I was a Member of Parliament, and in my current role as shadow Home Secretary I will be pursuing him, both on the overall burden of his statement and on all the detail?
I thank the shadow Home Secretary for her constructive approach and for putting me on notice that she is going to hold my feet to the fire—I welcome that, because she has worked with victims of these tragedies. Together with the Home Secretary, I have met some of the families, and their accounts are overwhelming in terms of what they have had to endure, not just with the original loss, but the journey from that point. It has been absolutely unacceptable and the report is devastating, because it is a story of system failure and human failure going back over many, many years. This was recognised by the current Prime Minister and she was absolutely right to commission this report, and it is our responsibility now, after all these years of failure, to tackle this and do something right for families in the future—I am absolutely committed to that.
We did take some time to publish this review, because it is a very comprehensive review, with more than 100 recommendations that needed to be looked at seriously and worked through properly. It is a cross-government response, and I hope the shadow Minister will see it as substantive. On the accountability of police, yes, the families are very clear about that; they have worked and had to endure journeys of nine years to get nowhere in terms of a conclusion, and that is unacceptable.
I beg to differ a little on the point the shadow Home Secretary made about black and minority ethnic people being more likely to die in police custody; that is not what is suggested by the data I have seen, which is that the proportion of black people who die in police custody is lower than the proportion arrested. I believe the Independent Police Complaints Commission has published results of a 10-year study that bears that out, but I am more than happy to discuss this with her personally. But the most important point is that this report has to be a catalyst for change, and I hope that on both sides of the House we work together to make sure that finally happens.
I applaud my hon. Friend’s statement. He is clearly a man on top of his brief. As someone who has had the privilege to serve as a special constable in the past and who spent 25 days with Northamptonshire police under the police parliamentary scheme, may I say that we should applaud the work of the vast majority of custody sergeants up and down the land who take their job incredibly seriously and serve thousands of prisoners well each and every year?
My hon. Friend makes an extremely important point, drawing on his own experience. As I said in my statement, on every day in every force, the vast majority of the work that the police do is absolutely fantastic and is conducted to the highest levels of integrity and professionalism. Nevertheless, when things go wrong—and they do go wrong—we have to get to the truth and there has to be accountability. The report demonstrates that in the past the journey has been too difficult, there has been too much defensiveness and there has not been a strong enough feeling that the system is on the side of the families and the victims. That is what we have to change.
I thank the Minister for his statement, and like him I thank Dame Elish Angiolini and her colleagues for their invaluable work. In her report, Dame Elish speaks of the humbling dignity and tenacity of the families of those who have died in police custody, and like the Minister and the shadow Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott), I pay tribute to them and those who have supported them.
I have three questions. First, the report suggests that a national coroner service is required to overcome inconsistencies in funding and practice between different local authorities. What is the Government’s initial thinking on that? Secondly, the report emphasises how vital what happens in the immediate aftermath of a death in custody is. Will the IPCC be funded to ensure that an officer or a team can attend quickly after a death in custody to co-ordinate the initial steps, as recommended in the report? Finally, the report reminds us that we must also remember that in 2015 there were 60 deaths of individuals within two days of their leaving police custody. What steps will be taken to ensure that the risks of that happening are properly assessed and reduced?
The hon. Gentleman makes three important points. The recommendation on a national coroner service is one of the recommendations on which the Government are least persuaded at this time. The ministerial council will explore the idea, but the Government’s first instinct is to explore what further role the Chief Coroner can play in meeting some of the report’s recommendations and requests.
The hon. Gentleman asked about what happens after an incident and the role of the IPCC, and he is clearly critical of that. If he reads some of the Family Listening reports that came out with the review, he will see some really shocking stories of how bereaved families are treated at that deeply traumatic moment. That has to change, and it is one of the things I will be discussing with Michael Lockwood, the first director general of the new Independent Office for Police Conduct.
I welcome the report and the Government’s response. In West Yorkshire, we had the tragic case of Mark Camm, who died as a result of being held in police custody when he should have been sent to hospital as an emergency. His family campaigned for many years to uncover the truth about the lack of monitoring of him in a police cell. They also endured real difficulties because of the failure of the IPCC to investigate properly and in a timely way and ensure that lessons were learned from the case. I therefore welcome the Minister’s statement. Nevertheless, the report states:
“NHS commissioning of healthcare in police custody was due to have commenced in April 2016, but was halted by the Government earlier in the year. This report strongly recommends that this policy is reinstated and implemented.”
Will the Minister set out what the Government are doing in response to that recommendation? It is clear that appropriate emergency healthcare is immensely important in these cases.
I could not agree more with the right hon. Lady. Underlying a number of these tragedies is the fact the victims of these incidents were in the wrong place. They should not have been in police custody. We are trying to change the regulations to make it clear that police cells can be considered a safe place only in the most exceptional circumstances, and never for children. On healthcare in custody, there is different practice throughout the country. The short answer to her question is that it is one of the areas of complexity that we are taking to the ministerial council, which I co-chair. Its first meeting is on Wednesday.
The Minister is absolutely right that the provision of adequate healthcare is fundamental, but that must include mental healthcare. We know that far too many people who end up in police cells should be in mental healthcare somewhere else. What can be done that is practicable? This must go beyond simply policing. The second issue is that the delays in the Independent Police Complaints Commission and the coronial system are unacceptable both to families and police officers. We must shorten the time. Will resources be made available to ensure that that happens?
The hon. Gentleman uses his experience to make a very important point. I am sure that he is aware that additional funding worth some £30 million has been made available to secure alternative places of safety and I welcome that. On his broader point about mental health, he knows that, at long last and as a result of campaigning across the House, more investment is going into mental health. He will also know from talking to his local police force that more and more police time is being spent safeguarding and looking after people with various mental health conditions and that should not be their job. The discussion for us, both at a local and national level, is about responsibility, investment and resources to make sure that those who are suffering on the spectrum of mental health, anxieties and disorders are being treated in the right way and in the right place.
I thank the Minister for his statement, his personal commitment to following this matter through, and especially the better support for bereaved families. May I take him up on his point about making sure that we find the right places in which to detain people? We have heard about it in respect of people with mental health problems, but I want to press him on the point about those who are intoxicated. Dame Elish makes a very strong recommendation—recommendation 22—that the Government should consider drying-out centres, which international evidence suggests may be safer and cheaper than police custody. What is the Government’s response to that specific recommendation? Could not this idea reduce pressure on the police and A&E and provide a much safer environment for these people?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his point. I am very committed to this matter. Having sat and listened to families talking about their ordeal, it is impossible to leave the room with any sense of neutrality or indifference. This is the moment when we must drive change. On his point about drying-out centres and alternative places of safety and support, the Government must be open minded. If there are good examples of places where that works, and the evidence supports it, we must consider it. That will be something that we take to the ministerial council, which has been charged with the follow-up to this review.
May I associate myself with the positive remarks about Deborah Coles, who is my constituent? What is the Minister’s expectation of bringing the perpetrators of violence in police custody to genuine justice—not just retirement and what appear to the average person who sees it as a nod and a wink?
May I add my congratulations to the hon. Lady’s constituent, whom I am meeting again later this week, on doing a great job over many years? The hon. Lady raises an important point. The critical thing is that the investigations are, and are seen to be, genuinely independent of the police. She will know from accounts and from listening to families that that is not the perception. Things have changed, and they are moving in the right direction. The new director-general of the IPCC has the powers and the freedom to move the matter on further, and that is critical to building some trust in the system, which, for reasons I completely understand, is lacking at this moment in time.
I note what the hon. Lady says about Deborah Coles being her constituent. Clearly, Deborah Coles can be a constituent of only one Member, but I did know her at university 30 years ago, as did the hon. Member for Dudley North (Ian Austin). She was a formidable campaigner for social justice then, and she is clearly a formidable campaigner for social justice now.
I thank the Minister for his statement. The Police Service of Northern Ireland has an average of one death in custody every two years, and I have no doubt that it will learn lessons through the National Police Chiefs Council. Given that there are three separate legal jurisdictions in this kingdom, what thought has the Minister given to the devolution issues, particularly when we are seeking to give assistance through legal aid for inquests and families who most need that assistance?
The hon. Gentleman raises the important point of devolution, which I will certainly take to the ministerial council. I note the statistics for Northern Ireland. The figures for England and Wales are obviously significantly worse, so I am open to learning from examples of good practice in Northern Ireland.
One point that the Minister made about supporting bereaved families was the starting presumption that legal aid should be awarded for representation at inquest. Can he give me an indication of which facts would actually rebut the presumption that legal aid would be granted?
As I said, the director of legal aid casework will have some discretion. The key thing is to shift the default setting. At the moment, legal aid is available only in exceptional circumstances, and this is a shift in the assumption so that bereaved families in these situations will have access to legal aid. The Justice Secretary is working through the details of how that will work and the underpinning guidance, which will be published before the end of the year.
Every death in custody is a tragedy, and I hope that the journey to which the Minister refers is a quick one. There are 110 recommendations in the report. Will he confirm that the Government will respond to each and every recommendation? When will the response be forthcoming? He has not been specific in that regard.
I did make it clear in my statement that we published our response today and I am placing it in the Library. When the hon. Lady reads it, I hope that she will see that it is a substantive response to all the thematic considerations that Dame Elish has brought forward.
In Croydon, we had the tragic death of Seni Lewis in a mental health hospital, which was one of the cases that led to this important review. Following the lessons from the Seni Lewis case, does the Minister agree that non-natural deaths in a mental health setting should also trigger an independent investigation—with the emphasis on independent—as already happens when a death occurs in police custody and in prisons? Will the Lord Chancellor’s review of legal aid for bereaved families, to which the Minister referred, also cover the deaths of people in mental health custody?
I met the Lewis family, and it is impossible not to be moved by what they have had to endure. The announcement today about a change in assumption regarding access to legal aid refers to deaths in police custody and prison. The Justice Secretary is conducting a wider review of access to legal aid in other situations.