House of Commons
Monday 12 March 2018
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
Housing, Communities and Local Government
The Secretary of State was asked—
Tackling homelessness and rough sleeping is a key priority for me and my Ministry. That is why we are spending more than £1 billion through to 2020. We are implementing the most ambitious legislative reform in decades—the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017—and we have established the rough sleeping and homelessness reduction taskforce.
The all-party group on ending homelessness recently took evidence on the success of rapid rehousing models in Denmark. What consideration has my right hon. Friend given to the merits of rolling out such programmes alongside the faster and wider roll-out of Housing First in England?
May I first pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the important role that he has played as the co-chair of the all-party group on ending homelessness? He is absolutely right to point to international experience when looking at the huge challenge that this country faces. As he knows, Housing First has come from the experience of others, particularly Finland. I thank him for his support.
The rising level of homelessness in Manchester is the biggest issue that people raise with me on the doorstep and elsewhere. All the good work that we are doing to rehouse people does not matter when there are too many people coming through the system at the other end. What conversations is the Secretary of State having with other Departments, especially the Department for Work and Pensions, about stopping people becoming homeless in the first place? The situation is getting completely out of control.
The hon. Lady is absolutely right to raise this issue, which comes up in Manchester and many other parts of the country. She is right to point to the cross-departmental work that is required, including with the Department for Work and Pensions and others, such as the Ministry of Justice, given the number of offenders who sometimes end up on the streets. The work is being co-ordinated, and the taskforce that the Prime Minister has created is helping to achieve just that.
Does my right hon. Friend agree with Catherine Street of the Memorial University of Newfoundland that the causes of homelessness and sleeping on the streets are very many and complex, and that this is not just down to a lack of housing? Will my right hon. Friend take the opportunity to go to the west midlands to visit Mayor Andy Street to see the work and initiatives that he is undertaking to prevent the problem?
My hon. Friend mentions two Streets; I agree with him on both. Catherine Street is absolutely right about the complex causes of homelessness, particularly rough sleeping. Andy Street, the Mayor of the west midlands, has really led the way on this, including with the Housing First project.
Exeter has suffered a terrible increase in homelessness and rough sleeping since 2010, although strenuous efforts by its Labour council have led to a reduction in rough sleeping over the past two years. Will the Secretary of State and Government colleagues revisit the decisions to cut supported living and public health grants to local authorities, which fund alcohol and drug treatment programmes, because that is hampering local authorities’ attempts to tackle this problem?
I am happy to join the right hon. Gentleman in commending the work done in Exeter. We should all try to learn from one another, and councils can learn from each other. It is important that we keep up funding wherever it is necessary to address the causes of addiction, whether that is drug or alcohol addiction. That is why we are providing a total of £1 billion in funding up to 2020, including for a number of projects that are specifically designed to help with addiction problems.
Some 61% of rough sleepers in London are non-UK citizens. What can we do about the importation of homelessness?
My hon. Friend is right to point to the causes of homelessness. Of course, a number of people who sleep on our streets are not from the UK. Everyone deserves help, but we must look carefully at the causes of homelessness. My Department is working carefully and closely with the Home Office to see what more we can do.
LGBT young people are much more likely than others to become homeless. According to the Albert Kennedy Trust, they account for up to 24% of the young jobless population. What is the Secretary of State doing to address this particular problem?
I agree with the hon. Lady that anyone who is homeless, particularly anyone who is sleeping rough, deserves the help of central and local government. We have more than 48 different types of projects in place—many of them are community-led and many are funded directly by the Government—that are designed to reduce the number of people on our streets and those suffering from homelessness.
The last official survey in Cheltenham found nine homeless people, each of whom is a living rebuke to us to do more. Will the Secretary of State join me in thanking all the staff at the P3 charity who are ensuring that the £1 million social impact bond provided by central Government is being used to provide one-to-one support?
Yes, I commend the P3 charity for its work. I know that my hon. Friend has taken a lot of interest in this. The Government have helped to fund some eight social impact bonds to help with rough sleeping, including the one in Cheltenham, and they are making a huge difference.
In Scotland we have some of the strongest rights for homeless people in the world. The Scottish Government’s homelessness and rough sleeping action group recently reported, and it has been praised by charities for taking steps in the right direction, including with a £50 million fund to eradicate homelessness. What cognisance are Ministers here taking of the work that is going on in Scotland? Will the Secretary of State look at the group’s recommendations?
The hon. Lady rightly emphasises the point about learning from each other. Where Scotland has had success on homelessness and rough sleeping, we shall certainly look into that, and we will seek other examples in the UK. My hon. Friend the Housing Minister is visiting Scotland later this week and will be looking at that particular issue.
Homeowners: Mortgage Costs
One of the best ways in which the Government can support homeowners with their mortgage costs is by ensuring that the economy remains strong and competitive so that employment is high and interest rates are as low as possible.
At the end of this month, the Government are taking away mortgage support from 110,000 people, and only 7,000 so far have applied for the loan that replaces that scheme. What do the Government think that the other 103,000 people are going to do on 2 April?
I think that the right hon. Gentleman is referring to the support for mortgage interest policy, on which the DWP leads. The Government are right to strike the right balance between the needs of hard-pressed homeowners and the taxpayer. If he is really interested in helping homeowners, perhaps he can explain to his constituents why he voted against the stamp duty cut that this Government implemented.
The withdrawal of support for mortgage interest came as a bolt from the blue to my constituents who came to see me on Friday. Many thousands like them will struggle due to the withdrawal of the support and may not wish to take up an additional loan. What options will be open to these people? What assessment has the Secretary of State made of the impact on people who are forced out of a home that they have bought into social rented housing, and of the impact on waiting lists?
I think that the hon. Lady misunderstands the policy—at least it certainly seems so, given the way she described it. The Government are not withdrawing support; we are making it fairer and ensuring that it is still available. The support will be loan-based, with a soft loan secured on the individual’s property. This also protects the rights of taxpayers, and I would have thought that she would be interested in doing that.
Help To Buy Scheme
The Help to Buy equity loan scheme alone helped 116,000 first-time buyers to get on to the property ladder and stimulated the supply of new housing—both key aims of this Government.
My constituents, some of whom have been on the wrong end of aggressive behaviour by Persimmon, are concerned to know that since Help to Buy was introduced, the biggest private house builders have increased house prices by up to 10%, with almost all of that banked as profit and much of it paid out in senior managers’ enormous bonus payments. Should not the Secretary of State and his ministerial colleagues be doing more to tame the aggressive behaviour of developers such as Persimmon, rather than subsidising them through Help to Buy?
It is good news that Help to Buy has helped more homes to get built. It has contributed to about 14% of new build since 2015. I personally share some of the hon. Gentleman’s concerns about executive pay, but I gently remind him that it was this Government who introduced the corporate governance reforms in August, including to make sure that there is greater transparency and greater shareholder grip over directors’ pay.
The Minister will know that some 10% of those on the Help to Buy scheme earn over £80,000 a year. Even in London, they are people who can afford to buy without this taxpayer subsidy. In the light of the Secretary of State’s earlier comments about responsibility to the taxpayer, will he contrast the poorest homeowners who will lose help with mortgage interest with these heavily subsidised, well-off people up and down the country?
I think that some factual clarification would help the hon. Gentleman, because four out of five of those benefiting from Help to Buy have been first-time buyers, and three out of five households benefiting from Help to Buy had combined incomes of £50,000 or less. We are on their side; it is a shame that Labour is not.
Adult Social Care Funding
In addition to the spending review package, the Government provided a further £2 billion for adult social care at last year’s Budget and an additional £150 million in the most recent local government finance settlement. As a result, councils will be able to increase spending on adult social care in real terms each year until 2020.
Kirklees Council spends 35% of its budget on adult social care. It has just raised its council tax by 6%, and half of that is ring-fenced to fund social care, but the council will still have to cut tens of millions in the years ahead. So, ahead of tomorrow’s spring statement, will the Minister tell us what he has done to secure more funding from the Treasury for social care to alleviate the pressure on councils such as Kirklees?
In the most recent local government finance settlement, the Secretary of State listened to councils’ concerns and increased funding for adult social care by £150 million, with £26 million for Kirklees Council in particular. I recently met the Key Cities group, of which Kirklees is a member, to discuss its ideas for reforming the funding formula so as to adequately reflect the pressures faced by councils such as Kirklees.
When the then Communities and Local Government Committee adopted the Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) that became the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017, Ministers, to their credit, engaged really positively to make that Bill work. May I urge the Minister to be just as positive about the planned joint Committee inquiry into the funding of adult care? Indeed, Front Benchers on both sides of the House will need to engage with that process if we are to have a long-term answer.
I wholeheartedly agree with my hon. Friend. As he knows, the Government are committed to publishing a Green Paper on adult social care this summer. Alongside that, there is a workstream on working-age adult social care to which I am sure that he will be keen to contribute.
I agree with the hon. Lady that this is a challenge facing our country, and it is important that we get this right and put social care on a sustainable footing, not just for this year but for the years to come. That is exactly why the Government are committed to the Green Paper and to tackling this problem, and she should look forward to seeing the Green Paper’s contents this summer.
The Minister referred to the local government finance settlement, but this year’s settlement still means a cut of £177 million for adult social care compared with last year. Given that the National Audit Office’s report states that more and more councils are only just managing to balance their books by using their reserves to cover overspends on social care services, how does the Minister suggest that councils can avoid declaring themselves effectively bankrupt, as Northamptonshire County Council did last month, as in many cases their reserves will be gone by 2020?
I simply do not recognise those figures. The Government have increased funding for adult social care. Over these three years, £9.4 billion has been allocated for adult social care funding, with £150 million more at the last local government finance settlement. This Government are listening to councils and delivering extra resources to help them.
The Local Government Finance Act 2012 divorced local government funding from any assessment of need. The Government’s insistence that the problem can be solved by councils raising precepts is simply wrong, because councils in wealthier areas, which have more properties in the higher bands, can raise more money than those with more properties in the lower bands, which usually have the greatest needs, the greatest levels of long-term disease and so on. When will the Minister understand this and actually start to allocate social services funding on the basis of need?
I can reassure the hon. Lady that the allocation for social care funding does take into account the relative council tax bases of local authorities across the country. That said, I appreciate that the funding formula is out of date and in need of review, which is why we have launched a consultation on reforming it. That consultation closes today, but I would welcome her comments and input into it. We will reform the formula so that it can adequately take account of need, as she suggests.
Help To Buy Scheme
The number of first-time buyers was at an 11-year high in 2017, at 365,000 across the UK. That shows that our concerted action to get more people into home ownership through initiatives such as Help to Buy and the new stamp duty exemption for first-time buyers is working.
It sounds like my right hon. Friend agrees with me that home ownership is a fundamentally good thing. Some 86% of our fellow citizens aspire to it, and there is nothing like spreading the economic benefits of ownership more widely in society. Does he further agree that we should use every policy lever at our disposal to encourage home ownership and to give those all-important first-time buyers a leg up on to the ladder?
I could not agree more. The overwhelming majority of people want to own their own home, and we need to do more to help them to do just that. The plan that we have set out, including last week, to build 300,000 homes a year will help more and more people to realise that dream.
Why does the Secretary of State not wake up? So many people in my constituency and throughout the country know that this Government have failed to deliver enough houses to buy and enough to rent. The fact is that there are so many nimbys sitting on the Government Benches—he is speaking to one of them—that Ministers do not have the courage to do anything about it.
It is the Conservatives who are responsible for house building last year reaching its highest level in all but one of the past 30 years, and it was under a previous Labour Government that we had the lowest level of house building that this country had seen since the 1920s.
Last year, some 217,000 homes were added to our housing stock in England. We have set out bold and comprehensive reforms to deliver on average 300,000 homes a year by the middle of the 2020s in England, including in last week’s publication of the draft revised national planning policy framework.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the enormous progress that he is making. Does he agree, however, that it will not be possible to get the housing shortage completely under control until we have brought migration levels down from the completely unsustainable heights that were created by Labour?
My hon. Friend will be pleased to hear that we are committed to both reducing net migration to sustainable levels and building the homes that this country needs.
Telford is a rapidly growing new town in which thousands of new homes are built every year, but for too many new-build homeowners, the reality is unfinished communal areas, unadopted roads, failure to comply with section 106, developers failing to take responsibility and the local council passing the buck. What will the Secretary of State do to strengthen the rights of new-build homeowners?
First, let me commend my hon. Friend for the work that she does through the all-party group on new towns. She is absolutely right to raise that issue and to emphasise the need for infrastructure alongside new housing. I know that she welcomes the housing infrastructure fund. In terms of holding developers to their commitments, I hope that she will contribute to our consultation on that topic, which was launched just this week.
We are working with councils throughout the country to help them to meet their housing needs, including through more social housing where that is required. The proof of that was in the last Budget, in which we increased the housing revenue account—the amount that councils can borrow from the Treasury to build more council homes and other types of social housing. If York wants to take advantage of that, it can.
The hon. Lady is right to raise the importance of affordable housing and having the right mix of housing everywhere, including Bristol. We are currently working with the Mayor of the west of England and the Mayor of Bristol on a housing deal which, if it happened, would include a significant portion of affordable housing.
Green-belt protections around Bristol and Bath are displacing housing targets beyond the green belt into Somerset. Should the councils unable to build enough houses be required to deliver transport and infrastructure plans that will service the commuting needs of new Somerset residents needing to travel through the protected green belt on their way to work?
We want to help all councils meet their local housing need, and that includes helping with their plans as they develop them, but also giving them more options other than looking at the green belt, as we did in the recent draft plan that was published earlier this month, and helping with infrastructure, which means the £5 billion housing infrastructure fund.
The previous Conservative Mayor of London set up the London housing bank, a loan scheme so restrictive that housing providers could not borrow from it. Will the Secretary of State explain why, instead of responding to requests from the current Mayor of London over the past 18 months to remove some of the restrictions on this scheme to enable much-needed affordable homes to be built, he has decided to withdraw the funding for affordable homes altogether? Will he also explain how it is that the first the Mayor’s office heard of this was via an article in The Huffington Post?
We all want more affordable homes, including of course in our capital city, and that is why over £3 billion was given to London for affordable housing in the spring Budget. It was the biggest ever settlement, and it was welcomed by the Mayor. Yet despite that, we have seen a fall in affordable housing delivery under Sadiq Khan. That is not acceptable: he needs to do much better.
Last week, the Government published the national planning policy framework for consultation, which, with clearer guidance to councils and developers, will help to deliver more homes and do so more quickly.
I thank the Minister for that answer. Charnwood Borough Council—for the sake for disclosure, I should say that my husband is the leader, although I refuse to call him that—has planning permissions for 10 years of housing, but the difficulty is getting the developers to start building. If that does not happen, that affects the five-year land supply, which leaves other sites vulnerable to development. Will the Minister tell the House what the Government are planning to do to speed up delivery by developers on planning permissions they already have?
The good news is that, in 2017, we saw 160,000 new homes registered to be built, which is the highest number since the financial crash. My right hon. Friend is right about speed. The NPPF will help to deliver that through the housing delivery test, and my right hon. Friend for West Dorset (Sir Oliver Letwin) is reviewing build-out rates.
I have no wish to be unkind to the hon. Lady, but let me put it this way: we have had a dose from Bath, and by long-standing convention, a Member is not called twice on substantive questions. If the hon. Lady seeks to catch my eye during topical questions, she may be successful. I admire her persistence, but I hope she will understand that that is the way we operate.
She is greedy.
No, no. The hon. Lady is not greedy; she is just keen.
Local Authority Plans
In nearly all cases, it is for local authorities to take the final decision on a local plan. In the past two years, 50 local plans were deemed sound by planning inspectors, and one by the Ministry itself.
Yes, but let us look at this consultation from last week. According to the Government, neighbourhood plans can be overturned by local councils above them, and—above them—local council plans can be overturned by the Secretary of State and his faceless bureaucrats. What is wrong in this country with freedom and democracy, with local people making the decisions effectively, fairly and democratically? Is this Joe Stalin or English democracy that this Government are forcing upon us?
For all that thunder and lightning, we are investing £23 million to support neighbourhood planning groups. I gently remind the hon. Gentleman that 94% of councils have published local plans, compared with 32% when Labour left office. The previous Labour Government wantonly failed to deliver on encouraging the take-up of local plans, where this Government have succeeded.
Talking of planning ahead, two councils in Somerset—Taunton Deane Borough Council and West Somerset Council—are waiting to form a single council. They have already had major savings by sharing services jointly, but they now really need to know if they can form one authority. Will my hon. Friend update me on the progress of this process?
The issue is under imminent review. The Secretary of State is giving it his personal attention and a decision will be taken shortly.
Last week I attended a meeting of the Eaton Park residents association as part of the consultation on Stoke-on-Trent’s joint local plan. They are aghast at proposals to use the greenfield site of Berryhill Fields, while brownfield sites are left unlooked at. When it comes to looking for new housing development sites, what can the Minister say to ensure that those residents know that brownfield sites will always be chosen over greenfield sites?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. We have reinforced the focus on brownfield first, plus things like looking for extra density where it can be provided, through the national planning policy framework. I look forward to his supportive comments during the consultation.
New Homes for Social Rent
Since 2010 we have delivered 357,000 affordable homes, including about 128,000 homes for social rent. The Government are providing £9 billion for affordable housing, a £1 billion housing revenue account borrowing freedom, and rent certainty for social landlords. Those measures will support social landlords to build more affordable homes where the need is greatest.
The number of Government-funded homes built for social rent fell to 199 in the past six months—the lowest number since records have been kept. Is it not now clear that there is an urgent need for a major Government-funded programme of social housing?
I know that this is an issue that the right hon. Gentleman has championed, and it is a pleasure to do business with him. We absolutely recognise the critical role that supported accommodation can play in helping vulnerable people to live independently. In fact, we have delivered almost 30,000 new units and we have plans to increase the number in those areas that need it most.
I thank my hon. Friend for her answers. Will she explain why the Department is returning to the Treasury money that could be used to build desperately needed affordable new homes?
I am delighted that my hon. Friend has asked that question, because some people seem to be causing mischief. This is less than 3% of the total budget. The money has been re-profiled, to come back in in future years. When councils, local authorities and housing associations can bid in, the money is there to be spent. We want it to be spent.
Building council houses is a very effective and financially prudent way to provide houses for social rent, but it is being choked off by the Government persisting with only inching the cap up, when they could remove it completely. When will they remove the cap and let our councils get building?
I do not understand why people misunderstand what is going on in local government finance. For those areas with the most serious shortages of affordable housing, the cap has been lifted to £1 billion of borrowing. We need local authorities to step up. If the hon. Gentleman’s local council has projects, like mine does, they will be looked on favourably. Please ask local councils to step up.
Rough Sleeping: West Midlands
The number of evening rough sleepers in the west midlands has increased by eight people over the year from 2016 to 2017.
I have the figures, sir; please do not disagree with me. We have committed to providing £28 million of funding to pilot a Housing First approach in three major regions, including that of the West Midlands combined authority. I look forward very much to working with Mayor Street.
Anybody in the west midlands who hears the Minister say that the number of rough sleepers has increased by only eight will be absolutely staggered at this Government’s complacency. The fact is that rough sleeping has soared, not just in Birmingham but even in towns such as Dudley, where, tragically, a homeless man died in a tent in the past few weeks. The Mayor’s policy will not result in rough sleeping being abolished until 2027. We need a much more urgent approach. Are Ministers prepared to fund an expansion of Birmingham City Council and the Labour police and crime commissioner’s street intervention teams, which have helped hundreds of people over the past few months?
That was a really good question. Intelligent questions in this Chamber are helpful, because they mean we can give intelligent answers. The intelligent answer is that the Housing First project is about wraparound care, with £28 million of public money going to help to solve this desperate problem. The advisory panel is meeting for the third time in two weeks’ time and the taskforce has already met. This is an urgent matter for the Government and it will be solved.
Local Government Finance Settlement 2018-19
The 2018-19 settlement is the third year of a four-year deal providing funding certainty and is accepted by 97% of councils. The settlement sees a real-terms increase in resources to local government over the next two years, totalling £45.1 billion in the forthcoming financial year.
Hull is the third most deprived local authority in the country. Two thirds more Hull residents require social care compared with the national average. We have lost half our Government funding since 2010 and we will be getting the lowest amount per head from the social care precept of any Yorkshire and Humber council. With the Government having got it so wrong so far, will the Minister guarantee that Hull will now get a fair funding settlement?
The hon. Lady makes some comments about funding for deprived areas. She will be pleased to know that funding per household in her particular area is higher than the average for unitary authorities across the country and that in general the most deprived local authorities have funding per household that is 23% higher than the most well-off. On her point, I can reassure her that we are committed to introducing a new fair funding formula and I look forward to hearing the responses from her council as we develop it.
In a letter to the Secretary of State last month, the Conservative leader of Warwickshire County Council stated that in the council’s view the current funding model for local government is unsustainable. Is she correct?
I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman makes a point about the funding settlement and the formula. He will know from his membership of the Select Committee, which I have just had the pleasure to appear before, that we are looking very hard at the structure of local government financing, both increasing the amount of business rates retentions to 75% and introducing a new needs-based formula that takes into account updated needs and resources. I know his Committee will play a huge part in making sure that we get that right for Warwickshire and for the country.
Over the years, I have strongly supported the pressure we have rightly put local authorities under to improve efficiency and bear down on waste, and I am sure that elsewhere in the country there are examples of where more needs to be done. In the south-west, however, my impression is that the finances of Devon, Plymouth and many other local authorities have been cut to the bone. I think there is an opportunity for the Government to be more generous with efficient local authorities in the south-west to enable them to make sure their priorities are delivered.
I pay tribute to the work of local government across the country. Local authorities have done a commendable job over the past few years of delivering high quality services in a difficult financial climate. I thank them, as I know their constituents do. On my hon. Friend’s point, I look forward to the representations from Devon and the south-west as we reform local government financing through the fair funding formula which is coming soon.
The Department is in discussions with multiple local authorities on the requirements to improve the safety of buildings. My understanding is that the Department has not said no to any local authority thus far that is seeking flexibility with those plans.
My own council in Derbyshire has seen £180 million—over half of its budget—cut in the past seven years. It cannot now offer enough money for social care packages for terminally ill people to receive care in their own home. They are being forced to die in hospital away from their loved ones. What will the Minister do to make sure that councils receive the proper funding that they need to be able to free up hospital beds and support families in the most urgent need?
As we have been discussing, the Government have put extra financial resources into social care. It is pleasing to see that over the past year, delayed transfers of care across England attributable to social care have fallen by 34%, showing that the resources we are putting in are making a difference on the ground.
Since 2010, Hull City Council has been forced to cut its children’s services budget by £37.2 million, which means that it has not had the money that it has needed for early intervention support for families. It is no surprise that the number of looked-after children in Hull has increased by 140—that is 140 children’s lives changed forever. Will the Minister please give authorities such as Hull City Council more money, so that they can give those families support when they need it, before they enter crisis?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right to highlight the important work that prevention plays. Nobody wants to see a child in need in those circumstances, which is why this Government have committed almost £1 billion to the troubled families programme over this period in the spending review. As recent results have shown, that is reducing the number of children in need after heavy intervention from their key workers in the programme.
Last week, the respected National Audit Office published its report on the financial sustainability of local authorities. It made clear the significant challenges faced by councils and the vital services that they deliver. Can the Secretary of State prove that he is on the side of local councils and place in the House of Commons Library any submissions that he has made to the Chancellor ahead of the spring statement?
I also read the National Audit Office report with interest. I was pleased to see that it made very positive comments about the Department’s work in getting to grips with the challenges across local government and making sure that the sector is properly resourced and looks forward to the reviews that are being put in place to improve funding and business rates retention.
The Government are committed to delivering a new generation of council homes, and we are providing local authorities with the tools and resources to deliver them.
In 2009-10, the last Labour Government had 40,000 housing starts in one year. This Government have financed 199 in the last six months. Given that we have such a shortage of social housing and a homelessness crisis, how do the Government explain this risible performance?
For the record on the hon. Gentleman’s figures, local authorities have built over 10,000 homes since 2010-11 compared with under 3,000 in the 13 years of the last Labour Government. We are restless to do much more, and that is why we are raising the housing revenue account borrowing cap by up to £1 billion to make sure that we spur local house building as far and as wide as we can.
Is it in the interests of the private sector to build in sufficient quantity as to achieve a reduction in price?
It is a good question, and probably one for a symposium with everyone from developers to planners. The reality is that we want to see a stabilisation in house prices. We need to build more homes and deal with some of the demand issues that have been raised. There is no single answer; we have to yank every lever at our disposal 20% or 30% harder.
Support for Local Government
The 2018-19 settlement sees a real-terms increase in resources for local government over the next two years, increasing from £44.3 billion to £45.6 billion.
My hon. Friend will be aware that under Governments of both parties, Leicestershire has had one of the lowest per head of population funding settlements in the country. Will he ensure that as the new funding system is consulted on and brought in, it addresses this issue and provides fair funding for Leicestershire, alongside his Department continuing to support our councils in driving further efficiencies and service improvements?
In particular for Leicestershire but for all councils, there could be no better champion than my hon. Friend of fairer funding for the many councils, not the few. This evidence-based review will provide an opportunity for more accurate funding allocations for Leicestershire and other councils.
On 4 December, the Secretary of State told the House that
“the local government finance settlement is coming along shortly, and he can look to see what happens with that.”—[Official Report, 4 December 2017; Vol. 632, c. 684.]
Apart from our finding out that the Secretary of State is bad at maths and does not know what is happening in his Department, the settlement came and went with no help for children’s services. Since then, Tory Northamptonshire Council has effectively gone bust, citing children’s services as one of the main cost pressures, and only last week the National Audit Office published a damning report showing the worst crisis in the local government sector’s 170-year history. That is happening on these Ministers’ watch. With the spring statement tomorrow, what will the Minister do to ensure that our children’s services get the £2 billion that even the Tory-controlled Local Government Association says they so desperately need?
We have increased funding in real terms, which I am sure the hon. Gentleman’s constituents, like mine, will welcome. With the fairer funding review coming up, rather than trying to score political points across the Chamber, why does he not get involved with it so that local authorities can concentrate on delivery?
I can absolutely provide that assurance to my hon. Friend. Demographic change will be at the heart of the fairer funding review.
Children in Care
Over the spending review period, councils will receive more than £200 billion to deliver local services. This money is largely not ring-fenced, so local authorities can prioritise where they see fit, including for their statutory duties relating to children in care.
With the education disparity between looked-after and non-looked-after children being so wide, what more does the Minister believe local authorities can do to bridge the gap?
The hon. Gentleman raises a good point about the outcomes for children in care. The Government are consulting and are shortly to introduce the care leavers covenant, which will look to support companies, charities and local government to bring care leavers into employment after they leave care, and we are strengthening corporate parenting provisions under the Children and Social Work Act 2017.
Over 1 million homes have been delivered since 2010, but we are taking forward a range of reforms to build even more homes more swiftly, including under the national planning policy framework, which was published last week.
Two weeks ago, I asked the Department for the number of houses that will not be built because of land banking, and the answer came back:
“The Department does not hold the requested information.”
How can the Minister crack down on land banking if he has no information? I believe that the Minister does have that information, and I urge him to publish it so that he can monitor the builders and we can monitor his performance.
I welcome that scrutiny. It is very difficult to establish a negative in the way the hon. Gentleman suggests, but I can reassure him, first, that we have the housing delivery test in the NPPF, which will focus local authorities and developers on the delivery of new homes, and, secondly, that there is the review by my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Sir Oliver Letwin) of build-out rates, which will squarely address the point he is concerned about.
Devolution to Towns and Cities
For areas that have not agreed deals so far, we aim to be able to provide clarity on how best to take forward their ambitions for devolution and local growth over the coming months.
The Minister will be aware that the Greater Lincolnshire deal collapsed last year, despite its having the support of an overwhelming number of the local authorities. Will the Minister look favourably on a revised scheme from a smaller number of authorities in the county?
Devolution could almost be regarded as the golden thread of Brexit. If we want to take back control, we should bring powers not just from Brussels to London but from London back to our regions. Last Friday, I met borough and county councils in both Gainsborough and the city of Lincoln, and I was struck by the pent-up demand for devolution in Lincolnshire. I suggest that my hon. Friend use his considerable leadership role to drive forward devolution in his area.
Yesterday, we marked Mother’s Day, a few days after International Women’s Day and the 100th anniversary of women getting the vote. Hon. Members will want to join me in applauding the exceptional women who make this country great, including our Prime Minister, who last week launched bold and ambitious reforms of planning rules to help to build the homes this country needs. I am pleased to announce that since my last departmental oral questions the homelessness reduction taskforce has met for the first time and that the Government have confirmed their support for the national war memorial honouring Sikh servicemen.
Corby and East Northamptonshire have been at the forefront of the building of new homes, which is entirely in line with the agenda set out by the Prime Minister last week, but can my right hon. Friend reassure my constituents that the appropriate infrastructure will accompany those homes at all times?
My hon. Friend is right to raise the importance of infrastructure to the building of the homes that we need. That is why the housing infrastructure fund is so important. As a result of his hard work, Corby received £4 million in the first allocation, but I know that there is much more to be done, and I am listening carefully to what he says.
Nine months on from the Grenfell Tower fire, can the Secretary of State say—yes or no—whether every tower block with a social or private landlord which has Grenfell-type cladding has now been identified and tested?
The right hon. Gentleman is right to raise this issue. It is, of course, absolutely key that we ensure that we are helping local councils to identify those tower blocks. When it comes to social housing, we believe that all those tower blocks, whether owned by local councils or housing associations, have been identified. We continue to work with local councils, and that includes giving them additional financial support. Just last week we gave them £1 million to make sure that they had identified every single tower block in the private sector, and they will continue to receive whatever support they need.
I think that that was a long-winded “no”, and it was consistent with the recent building safety data release. How is it that, nine months after Grenfell, not all private tower blocks with suspect cladding have been tested? Why have only seven of 301 blocks with Grenfell-type cladding had it removed and replaced? Why has not one of the 41 councils that have asked for financial help with extra fire safety work even received an answer from the Department? The right hon. Gentleman is the Housing Secretary. What does he say to reasonable people faced with those facts who feel that he is failing the Prime Minister’s pledge in June, when she said:
“My Government will do whatever it takes to…keep…people safe”?
Reasonable people understand just how important this issue is, and they do not take kindly to the right hon. Gentleman’s playing party politics with it. If he actually cared about the issue, he would not raise it in such a way. He would not use numbers and twist the facts to try to scare the public. The truth is that we are working with local authorities up and down the country to locate every single building and take remedial measures, and also helping them with funds. Despite what he has said, not a single council has been turned away. We are talking to every single council that has approached us, and we have made it clear that they will all be given the financial flexibility, if they need it, that will enable them to get the job done.
I can give my hon. Friend the assurance for which she has asked. First, we have commissioned independent work from my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Sir Oliver Letwin) on speeding up building once planning permission has been granted. We shall hear more about that this week. Secondly, the consultation that was published earlier this week focuses on developer contributions in particular, and the need to ensure that developers stick to their word and can no longer game the system.
I reiterate that we are raising the housing revenue account borrowing limit to £1 billion for local authorities where there is the highest need for new council housing to be built. Again, please may I ask the hon. Gentleman to encourage councils in his area to apply?
I know that my hon. Friend has a long history of being interested in this programme. He will be pleased to know that the evaluation reports published in December showed promising progress, particularly with regard to children in need. Further findings will be published in the annual report, and I look forward to discussing them at length with my hon. Friend then.
I understand the issue the hon. Lady raises. I would just say that the numbers on social housing waiting lists are down by half a million since 2010, and the number of affordable homes in total, including social housing, is higher in the last seven years than in the last seven years of the last Labour Government. However, we are anxious to do even more. I am not sure that fiddling with the criteria for how these things are measured is the answer. We need to build more homes across the board and I welcome the hon. Lady’s support in that regard.
I very much agree with my right hon. Friend, and Leicestershire in particular has done much work on this, which will certainly feed into the consultation on fairer funding that is closing today. My hon. Friend the Minister for Housing recently met with Leicestershire and I would be very happy to meet my right hon. Friend to discuss this further.
We are having wide discussions with all Departments across Government consulting on the UK’s shared prosperity fund, which, crucially, in a post-Brexit world, will deliver on Britain’s priorities when it comes to local growth funding.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and through our planning reforms we are putting far more rigour into the system so that plans are clear about the obligations expected for infrastructure and affordable houses, and also so that developers can be properly held to account in meeting those aspirations and commitments.
It is extremely disappointing if TransPennine did not turn up to a meeting with Members of Parliament from the city of Hull. I hope that the hon. Lady will be encouraged, however, that we are investing £13 billion—more money than any Government in history—in our northern transport infrastructure, and we have also set up Transport for the North, a subnational statutory transport body, which is currently consulting on a 30-year plan to improve transport across the north of England. That is how to deliver a northern powerhouse.
I entirely understand my hon. Friend’s concerns, but I hope that I can give her some reassurance. I do not think that there is any need to amend the 1977 Act because local authorities are already obliged, through the Housing Act 1996, to consider those in need of social housing, so local authorities will make appropriate nominations to housing associations or offer tenancies in their own stock.
March is generally regarded as the start of the illegal Traveller encampment season. Given that the hon. Members for Reading West (Alok Sharma) and for Nuneaton (Mr Jones) are no longer in their posts in the Department, what has happened to the consultation and the timescale for action that the Government promised my frustrated constituents?
It is an important issue, and we are looking to see what more we can do with the challenges that it represents. We are planning to publish a consultation and will do so as soon as possible.
An article in The Sunday Times yesterday highlighted that some councils are still performing mass burials of babies. To be honest, I was appalled. Some research today has identified that, despite campaign efforts by colleagues across the House and charities such as CLIC Sargent, we have not yet been able to set up a children’s funeral fund. Will the Secretary of State meet me to progress the matter?
Nothing can be harder on a parent than losing a child, and we must always look to see what can be done to provide help. Local authorities do provide help in many ways, but my hon. Friend is right to raise this matter. I, too, was concerned by the article she mentioned, and I will be happy to meet with her.
Patience rewarded—I call Wera Hobhouse.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. Every day is a school day, particularly when it comes to parliamentary conventions.
Affordable housing and council housing are not the same. Instead of always mentioning affordable housing and council housing in the same breath, will the Minister consider amending the national planning policy framework to enable councils to specify in their strategic plans different housing types for each site allocation?
The hon. Lady makes an important point but, if she looks at the detail of the new revised national planning policy framework, she will see that there is scope for local authorities to make precisely the distinction that she mentions. I look forward to her support.
When are we likely to get a decision on the fantastic plans for expansion at the Mall at Cribbs Causeway in my constituency? With the greatest of respect, I do not know why the Secretary of State is taking so long, because I do not know what there is not to like about thousands of new permanent jobs, more housing and better transport infrastructure.
I should declare an interest, because I have been shopping at Cribbs Causeway many times and it is probably my mum’s favourite shopping complex. It is a live planning issue and we are considering it in detail. It is relatively complex, but we will try to reach a decision as quickly as possible.
It is very useful to learn about Ministers’ domestic habits, and we are grateful to the Secretary of State for providing further information on that score.
The Conservative-run Northamptonshire County Council has recently gone bust. Was that due to a lack of Government funding or local incompetence?
The council has not gone bust. Owing to concerns around its finances, I appointed an independent investigation weeks ago—a best-value inspection—and the inspector, Mr Max Caller, will report back later this week.
I welcome the Government’s encouraging words about the need to improve funding for the upper tiers, but will the Secretary of State congratulate the Conservative-run Broxtowe Borough Council, which has frozen its council tax yet again while delivering excellent services, reducing rents by 1% and spending half a million pounds on parks and open spaces? Does he share my amazement that the council’s Labour and Lib Dem members voted against this otherwise excellent budget?
I am not amazed by the behaviour of Labour and the Lib Dems, because such behaviour is sadly happening throughout the country. I warmly congratulate Broxtowe Borough Council on keeping taxes low and service delivery high, which is a reminder—so close to the local elections—that Conservative councils cost less and deliver more.
May I raise Grenfell and cladding in a nice, non-political way? I am sure that the Secretary of State will agree that the facts of the matter are that the Government have rightly increased the standards and that the costs should surely be borne partly by the freeholder, partly by the leaseholder and partly by the Government. Why not get the three parties together to do something about that?
We have made it clear that, when it comes to the private sector and this type of remedial work, it should take a lead from the social sector. It is the moral duty of any freeholder to meet any necessary costs. There are a number of legal issues. There is an important legal case that is going through the courts right now, so I will not comment much more, but it is something that we are keeping under review.
Councils in rural areas have received a raw deal on local government funding for many, many years, even though the cost of delivering services in rural areas is often significantly higher. Will the Minister assure me that in the local government finance review the true cost of delivering services will be considered and that rural areas get a fair deal?
I know that my hon. Friend is a doughty champion of rural areas. I am delighted to tell him that his point will be exactly considered in the fair funding formula. I am sure that he will be heartened by the local government finance settlement, where we increase rural services delivery grant to its highest ever level.
We have three remaining questioners if each of the three agrees to ask a single-sentence question not exceeding 20 words. I call Mr Robert Courts.
I know that the Secretary of State is well aware of the requirement for infrastructure when new homes are built. What can he do to include broadband in that?
We are working with the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport to do just that.
He is not a lawyer for nothing. I call Julia Lopez.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. Following revelations in The Sunday Times about fraudulent Grenfell aid claims, what assurances can my right hon. Friend offer that financial support is going only to those directly affected by this tragedy?
I will not comment on the particular claims—I am sure that my hon. Friend will understand—but it is important that both the council and the police are working together on any such alleged behaviour.
Under its new garden town status, Taunton Deane is delivering well above the national average for houses, which the Secretary of State will welcome. Does he agree that the best way to provide the infrastructure that those houses need is to succeed with the recently submitted housing infrastructure forward funding bid, put in with West Somerset Council?
I suppose that two probably did not amount to more than 41 words. I think that we are done. Are we done? We are done.
(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department if she will make a statement on hate crime in light of the inflammatory letters inciting a “Punish a Muslim day” on 3 April.
Mr Speaker, as you will appreciate, the letters described in the question are part of an ongoing investigation, and as such I am not in a position to comment on them. However, the Government condemn the content of the letters as clearly abhorrent, with no place in decent society. This Government take hate crime and Islamophobia extremely seriously, and the UK has a robust legislative framework to respond to it.
Freedom of speech, freedom of worship, democracy, the rule of law, and equal rights define us as a society. The Government are determined to promote those values actively, working in partnership and alongside Muslim and, indeed, all faith communities to demonstrate that what we have in common is the best defence against extremists who would seek to divide us.
Our hate crime action plan, published in 2016, sets out our comprehensive approach to tackling hate crime. We have a strong legislative framework to tackle hate crime, including offences of inciting racial and religious hatred, and racial and religiously aggravated offences. The legislation provides equal protection under the law for all ethnic and religious groups. We have sources of expert advice on the nature and causes of hate crime through the anti-Muslim hatred working group and the independent advisory group on hate crime.
We have committed £2.4 million over three years to help to protect places of worship that have been the subject of or are vulnerable to a hate crime attack. We also committed a further £1 million following the terrible Finsbury Park terror attack in June last year, to help to protect places of worship and associated community centres that are vulnerable to attack on racial, religious or ideological grounds. So far, we have funded 45 mosques under both schemes. We have also funded Tell MAMA to record anti-Muslim hatred incidents and to support victims. From this year, we have made it mandatory for police forces to disaggregate religious hate crime data held by the police to reveal the true scale and nature of the problem, which we are determined to tackle.
Thank you for granting this urgent question, Mr Speaker. The letter calling for an attack on Muslims on 3 April offers attackers rewards, ranging from 10 points for verbal abuse, 50 points for throwing acid and 1,000 points for bombing a mosque to 2,500 points for nuking Mecca. May I remind the House that millions of Muslims fought for us in the two world wars, including members of my family? Figures show that the number of Islamophobia hate crimes has increased by 40%, with 1,678 anti-Muslim hate crimes reported in London in the year up to January 2018. Can the Minister therefore explain why no Minister in the past eight years has made a speech on the rise of anti-Muslim hatred?
Recent surveys have shown that 50% of the British population believe that Islam is a threat to western democracy and more than 30% of young children believe that Muslims are taking over England. Given that such anti-Muslim views have gained such traction, what are the Government going to do to help to prevent the growth of such extreme views, which appear to have come from parts of the print, broadcast and social media? What concrete steps are the Government going to take to tackle this growth in hate crimes and hatred against Muslims? Will the Minister set out the amount of funding provided by the Home Office to tackle each form of bigotry?
I think every Member in this House will accept that there has been a sharp rise in the far right movement in Europe and beyond, with the USA’s President retweeting far right material. This is a really urgent situation and it needs to be urgently tackled. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response as to what concrete steps are going to be taken to deal with it.
I thank the hon. Lady for her urgent question. May I make it clear that this Government want to give a strong message of support to Muslim people across the UK that we are committed to their safety and security? I say to anyone who has received this letter, or a similar communication, please contact the police, where you will be treated with utmost seriousness and action will be taken.
I now move on to the points the hon. Lady made. The issue of anti-Muslim and far right extremism is of course a focus for the Government. As she knows, the Prevent strategy tackles extremism. It does not tackle Muslim extremism in and of itself; it tackles extremism, full stop. Sadly, more than a quarter of referrals in the Prevent strategy in 2015-16 concerned far right extremism. So this Government, and in particular this Prime Minister, with all the experience she brings to her position following her time in the Home Office, are focused on tackling extremism and radicalisation and how they affect any part of our community. That is precisely why we are refreshing the hate crime action plan this year.
I just want to put on the record the fact that the mayor of Broxtowe, Halimah Khaled, just happens to be a Muslim. She happens to be the first person of colour to be mayor of Broxtowe and she is its first Muslim mayor. She also happens to be a Tory. She has completed nearly one year in office, during which time she has had a warm welcome wherever she has gone in my borough, and rightly so. People are sick and tired of hate crime and Islamophobia. This is absolutely no longer to be tolerated. I commend the Minister for everything she has said in her statement, and I do believe this Government take this very seriously. We are not really talking about a hate crime here; it is actually an act of blatant incitement to terrorism. In any event, I am looking over at the co-chair of the all-party group on British Muslims, the hon. Member for Ilford North (Wes Streeting). We have worked together on this, and I am sure he will agree when I say that the time has now come for a proper legal definition of Islamophobia. Does the Minister agree?
I thank my right hon. Friend for her impassioned plea for recognition throughout the country of the role not only of her local mayor, but of many other people in public life who happen to practise the Muslim religion as part of their way of life and who contribute so very much to our community. I put on record my thanks to her local mayor.
There are many definitions of Islamophobia, but most people tend to adhere to the one used by the Runnymede Trust. We do not accept the need for a definitive definition, but we know that Islamophobia is clearly recognised and that we have very effective monitoring of race-hate crimes. Considerable work is done on these matters by Tell MAMA and the anti-Muslim hatred working group.
Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi) on securing it.
The despicable sentiments behind these sickening letters has caused revulsion throughout our communities. Although we can be confident that, thanks to the tireless dedication of community leaders, charities, faith groups and civil society, such deliberate attempts to divide us will not succeed, this act will have struck fear into the heart of communities—indeed, that was the intention. It is absolutely an incitement to violence and it cannot go unpunished.
As we have heard, hate crimes are rising nationwide. In London alone, there has been a fivefold increase in attacks on Muslims in the past year. As the outgoing counter-terror chief Mark Rowley has said, the threat from the extreme right wing is significant and requires urgent attention. We have seen the murder of our colleague and friend Jo Cox, the attack at Finsbury Park mosque, the proscription of National Action, the jailing of the leaders of Britain First, and the reports from the Anderson review, which suggested that the extreme right wing is engaged in credible attack planning, including bomb making. There is now overwhelming evidence that the threat from the extreme right is growing increasingly violent. We have to be clear that by threatening members of our diverse communities, these people are also a threat to our national security through their anti-democratic, dehumanising and murderous beliefs.
Given the overwhelming evidence, it is clear that so-called domestic extremism needs to be dealt with as a first-order threat, so will the Minister reassure us that, in line with the Anderson review recommendations, the Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre will start to produce national threat assessments of domestic extremism? Will she increase the role for MI5, JTAC and the counter-terrorism network in the monitoring and handling of investigations of domestic extremism? Is it not time to update the Contest strategy to reflect the growing threat from the extreme right?
More broadly, can the Minister assure us that counter-terrorism policing has the resources it needs? The Government’s funding settlement last month gave only half what the police requested for counter-terror purposes, while the police and our intelligence services are facing an unprecedented threat from terrorism in all its forms.
We all deplore these despicable letters. They are an attempt to divide us; in that, they will not succeed. We must be united as a House and as a country in bearing down on the insidious beliefs contained within these letters and be absolutely clear on how we are going to bring together the police, schools, colleges and all authorities to stand up to hate crime and terrorism in every single one of their forms. Finally, we must ensure that all of us, as elected politicians, are at all times responsible in our language and rhetoric and never seek to embolden those who hold such insidious and extremist views.
I am sure that everyone in the House agrees with the hon. Lady, particularly on that last point about the importance of using language very carefully. She asked me about police resources; of course, we have increased them and, as she will know, the Home Secretary reviews those resources constantly. We ask the police whether they have the resources that they need, and the Home Secretary acts accordingly. May I undertake to write to the hon. Lady specifically on JTAC and her other queries? Finally, let me say that it is gratifying to see so many Members present, unified in condemning these dreadful letters and their sentiments and in our determination to tackle them.
Hate crime in all its forms is to be condemned, as is this letter. Another group that is affected by growing hate crime is the Jewish community, and the Community Security Trust is having to go to ever greater lengths to protect local Jewish community centres. Can we ensure that all these forms of hate crime are combated as far as possible?
I thank my hon. Friend for his question. Of course, any group of people who are the victims of hate crime as a result of their religious beliefs deserve our sympathy and also our action. I, like him, condemn any form of anti-Semitism. I know that the police are as focused on that form of crime as they are on any other form of religious hate crime.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi) on securing this urgent question, and reassure her, and the rest of the House, that the Scottish National party joins in the condemnation of Islamophobia in the strongest possible terms? We believe that there is no excuse for any sort of hate crime, and we were as concerned as everyone else in this House to see the significant rise in hate crime statistics in England and Wales last year. We note that that followed a spike in hate crime figures around the time of the EU referendum, and as others have said, this is happening alongside a significant rise in right-wing extremism.
In Scotland, the police are committed to making victims, witnesses and partner agencies feel more confident in reporting hate crime, and they do so through a variety of methods, including a network of third party reporting centres. In Scotland, a senior judge has been appointed to lead an independent review of hate crime legislation, and he will be reporting to the Scottish Government later this year. What reassurance can the Minister give us that similar steps are being taken in the rest of the UK, where hate crime is rising, and in particular that similar steps are being taken to tackle the specific problem at issue here, which is Islamophobia?
I thank the hon. and learned Lady for her question and, indeed, for her contribution in relation to what is happening in Scotland. We very much look at how we tackle hate crime, particularly through our hate crime action plan, which was published in 2016 and will be refreshed this year. Its range of actions include: funding for security for places of worship; the disaggregation of religion-based hate crime data; taking further action in relation to education so that teachers can have sometimes difficult conversations with their students about beliefs and words; and funding programmes through the Anne Frank Trust and Streetwise. We are determined to ensure that our action in relation to hate crime is up to date and current.
As someone who visited a Syrian refugee camp in Malatya in Turkey over the weekend, I find it a little offensive that a Labour Member has said that no Conservative Minister had ever actually condemned any kind of anti-Muslim extremism. Is the Minister aware that her equivalent at the Department for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi), publicly rebuked the President of the United States for retweeting certain comments and invited him to visit Muslim communities in the United Kingdom?
I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend. I must say that I was not sure whether I had heard the hon. Member for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi) correctly. As I have said, the record of both the Prime Minister and Cabinet Ministers on the issue of tackling anti-Muslim sentiments is pretty clear. It may be that the hon. Lady can clarify her remarks at a later stage.
I do not think that the previous question represented the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi) was making. I hope that we can address this issue as a united Parliament, and not in a way that is divided. We should all stand together against this kind of vile threat and this illegal incitement to violence. Our whole Parliament, the police and our communities across the country should want to stand firm with Muslim families and Muslim communities against this kind of vile Islamophobia, because we know from history that an attack on some of us is an attack on all of us. That is why we stand firm.
What has the Home Office done since I raised last week the prevalence of National Action illegal propaganda videos on YouTube—still—and also, I discover, on Twitter and on Facebook? We know that the former counter-terror chief has warned of online radicalisation and the rise of far right extremism, and our Select Committee has heard in our inquiry about the serious issues around Islamophobia and hate crime. The Minister will know that we are allowing social media companies to collude with these far right extremists if action is not taken to take down this kind of vile illegal propaganda.
The right hon. Lady knows the work that the Home Secretary is doing with the large technology companies to improve their reaction. I think that pretty much everyone in this place—and certainly everyone outside—agrees that technology companies need to do more to remove these hateful pieces of incitement from their platforms much more quickly and working with police. I am sure that we have agreement on that.
Will my hon. Friend reassure the House that those spreading this fear and hatred, in whatever forum, should be investigated by the police and, where appropriate, dealt with severely by the courts?
Yes, of course. As I said, I must not comment on this case because it is a live police investigation. The principle is that if there is an incident of hate crime, the victim must—please—report it to the police, so that they can do all they can to bring the perpetrators to justice.
These letters are abhorrent and are causing immense distress across communities around the country. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) has indicated, this hate crime is being amplified via the internet. Social media companies are still taking too little action. I attended a roundtable co-ordinated by two Departments just before Christmas, but we are still to see action. I can tell the Minister about a case that went to court and a man was jailed for two years for the far right material that he put online. But that material is still online, as remains the case in many examples across the country. What action are the Government taking to ensure that we do not enflame the tensions in our communities by what is seen online?
I know that the hon. Lady has sadly been the victim of much hatred online, as have other Members. We are very clear that it is our expectation that technology companies will, in accordance with the law, remove such material as and when it is brought to their attention. We have had some progress, as the technology companies are getting better at this, but I do not for a moment pretend that we have the full response that we would like, which is to see these posts taken down as quickly as possible. That is the Home Secretary’s expectation when she meets the technology companies.
Has a national unit been established to check on hate crime, identify the people who are dealing in it and bring them to justice?
We take the view that hate crime is a matter for the whole community, given that it can take so many forms. It is not restricted to one’s religion; the five characteristics are set out clearly in the hate crime legislation. We ensure that the police and others are trained to spot this crime when it occurs and to deal with it seriously and, I hope, sensitively.
These letters are nothing short of a sick and cowardly attempt to divide our communities. We are proud of our communities living side by side in harmony. A clear message must be sent from across this House that we will never cower before any form of extremism and we will never allow it to threaten the very fabric of our society. May I urge the Minister to ensure that this Government do not sit idly by and let it happen? In this great time of need, allowing the propagation of such awful hatred would send the worst message of all.
I would hope that the hon. Lady has understood from my reaction that the Government are not sitting idly by. We are this year refreshing the hate crime action plan because it has to keep up to date with the new threats faced by all different types of people and communities. I can assure her that we take these allegations very seriously—as, indeed, we take very seriously the allegations of anti-Semitism, online hatred and so on that we have heard about in the Chamber today—and that the police do as well.
The rising tide of creeping Islamophobia and anti-Jewish sentiment should concern us all. How is improving the recording of this hate crime helping us to track what is going on in our society and how we can tackle it?
I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend for that question. Of course, increasing the amount of data helps to give us answers and helps to direct our resources in the right way. We very much hope that disaggregating the different types of hate crime that exist will help individual constabularies to work out how better to prioritise their resources to deal with them.
The level of hate and violence against Muslims has become utterly intolerable. For years, many of our constituencies have faced the onslaught of threats from the English Defence League, Britain First and others. What action will the Minister take, first, to provide protection for the communities who feel particularly under threat on 3 April and in the run-up to 3 April and, secondly, to proscribe groups that are actively seeking to incite violence and hatred across our communities?
Again, the hon. Lady will understand that I must not comment on the investigation going on at the moment, given that it is, by definition, a live investigation. Communities that may be affected by any such communication will be uppermost in the police’s mind with regard to protection and their vulnerability. Tackling far right extremism more generally is part of a cross-Government programme that also supports victims of such behaviour. This is where the Prevent strategy, which is a safeguarding programme for people who may be vulnerable to radicalisation, has such an impact, because, sadly, a quarter of the referrals to it in 2015-16 involved far right extremism. The strategy is about trying to lead people away from the path of radicalisation, so that they do not commit these terrible acts.
This House is at its best when it comes together to condemn evil action and we are not trying to score political points against one another. I think that we can all unite on this letter. We do not yet know who wrote it. For all we know, it is some sad individual in a bedsit playing with his computer, or perhaps it is something far more serious, but we are all right to condemn it as an incitement to violence, especially when it calls on people to throw acid in people’s faces.
May I ask the House to think of the office of the hon. Member for Bedford (Mohammad Yasin)? Earlier today, there was an incident in Norman Shaw North that involved him and his staff which may or may not be connected—but we think it might be—with this letter. We must pull together to ensure that this does not happen, not only here but throughout the country.
I thank my hon. Friend for raising this. I am sure that the thoughts of the whole House are with the Member of Parliament concerned and his members of staff, although I have received a note—I hope that it is accurate—saying that the package found in Norman Shaw North was not hazardous. That must be of significant relief to all those concerned. As ever, we give our sincere thanks to the police and others who went to the rescue of those members of staff when they found the package.
It was Friday night when I started to receive reports from residents in Walthamstow that they had received one of these letters, with the fear and the terror that that caused, at the very point when I was helping other residents to report anti-Semitic graffiti that they had found in our community. Will the Minister join me in welcoming the work that Tell MAMA and the Community Security Trust are doing to support these groups? Does she agree that we have to do more than condemn these individual instances? When we see Steve Bannon come to Europe and tell people that they should be proud to be called a racist, we in this House must speak up for the communities that we represent and the power of diversity and immigration to enrich all our lives. I tell the Minister: the people in Walthamstow need and demand nothing less from this Government.
They are getting it. I am extremely grateful to the hon. Lady for setting out the concerns of her constituents; she has highlighted the fear that people must have felt when they received those letters. She is absolutely right to say that Tell MAMA is an organisation that is universally recognised as playing a very important role in this field. I am told that from 1 January 2015 to 31 December 2015, 2,622 anti-Muslim hate incidents were reported to Tell MAMA by victims, witnesses, third parties or the police. That shows us the scale—certainly three years ago—of these worrying incidents of hate crime that we are facing in this country. We support Tell MAMA to the tune of £1.9 million, and its work is highly valued.
Order. I am keen to accommodate colleagues, but I would just remind the House that there is a further urgent question after this, and then no fewer than four ministerial statements, so there is a premium on extreme brevity from Back and Front Benchers alike.
I, too, condemn the despicable letters that have been sent out. Following a recent incident in my constituency that I would classify as racial abuse, will my hon. Friend reassure my constituent and the whole House that that crime will be classified correctly and not just washed away and classified as a public order offence?
Any such issue will be an operational matter for my hon. Friend’s local police force, but I know that she is a good advocate for her local community and I am sure that she will be asking searching questions of the police and the police and crime commissioner to ensure that that alleged offence receives the attention it deserves.
The Government are right to say that this is a hate crime that has no place in our modern society. I want to pay tribute to our communities in Hounslow, which have a track record of working together to build understanding between all our communities. Will the Minister confirm that the police will have the resources they need to work together effectively and fast across the country to track where these horrific letters are coming from, who is disseminating them and who is behind them, and will she ensure that our schools and communities have the resources they need to stop this activity in its tracks and to support those communities that will rightly feel at risk and under threat?
The hon. Lady has identified the fact that this has an impact not just on the people who receive these letters in their homes but also on the wider neighbourhood. I again ask anyone who has received any of these sorts of communications to please report them to the police. The Home Office is in constant communication with the police to ensure that they have the resources they need to tackle this.
I join my hon. Friend the Minister in condemning these letters. In view of the similarities between anti-Muslim hate crime and the anti-Semitism that we have seen, will she reassure me that the action plan proposed by the Government will be adequate?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question. He has a long and established record of supporting our Jewish communities. Yes, the hate crime action plan covers all forms of hatred, as defined by the legislation, and of course, sadly, anti-Semitism forms part of that.
These appalling letters have to be seen in the context of the flames of prejudice being fanned in mainstream newspapers and in the comments made by mainstream politicians against their Muslim opponents, as well as by bystanders, who are just as complicit when they see prejudice, either in person or online on Facebook or other social media platforms, and instead of tackling it, they choose to look the other way. Will the Minister make a commitment to the House that the Government will not only take action on online publishers of this kind of extremism, but, in the weeks leading up to the first week of April, ensure that every mosque and Muslim community centre in the country receives a visit from their police to give them adequate security advice, to ensure that the Muslim community know that the authorities are 100% with them and on their side?
The anti-Muslim hatred working group brings together all parties from across Government and further afield to try to tackle this specific form of hate crime. One of its initial achievements was to work with the Society of Editors to tackle anti-Muslim hatred and, more recently, with the Independent Press Standards Organisation to develop training for editors and journalists to tackle the negative portrayal of Muslims in the media.
On the hon. Gentleman’s point about ensuring that mosques are visited in the run-up to the date mentioned in the letter, we will happily send letters to each chief constable to ensure they are aware of this. It is a matter for chief constables, but we expect that mosques will be protected.
I join my hon. Friend in condemning these letters and welcome the £2.4 million that the Government have devoted to protecting places of worship from hate crime. Can she expand on how that will work and give assurances that it will be given all the back-up it needs?
I am happy to do that, and it follows on well from the previous question. The Government have committed £2.4 million over three years to help protect places of worship that have been subject to or are vulnerable to a hate crime attack. We hope that that money will help local communities to feel safe in their places of worship.
You do not have to have taught media studies or be a Muslim to have noticed that anti-Muslim sentiment is becoming quite common in much of our tabloid printed press. As well as dealing with the online platforms that spread this kind of hatred, will the Minister also have a word with her friends in the Tory press? These things feed people like those in Britain First and the English Defence League, one of whom has even made a video calling for my head.
I hope that everyone in the House knows that, as the Minister for Crime, Safeguarding and Vulnerability, I am of course against language that leads to the incitement of violence or hate crime. I hope that this debate has sent a clear message to the people with whom the hon. Lady is concerned.
As one House, we all find these letters abhorrent, and our constituents will feel exactly the same. Can my hon. Friend assure the House that police forces work collaboratively to tackle such hate crime?
I thank my hon. Friend, who, as always, shows an interest in policing matters. We expect police forces to work collaboratively, particularly in the online field. Of course, online extremism and radicalisation know no geographical boundary, so the police are well versed, sadly, in working together to tackle this form of hatred.
There has been horror and revulsion at these letters in Cardiff South and Penarth, not just from the Muslim community but across the community. I am very proud of our record in standing up against hate crime across the faiths and across communities in the diverse community in which we live. Does the Minister agree that words from social media companies are now simply not enough? Does she share my deep concern that representatives of Twitter, Google and Facebook attended the Home Affairs Committee and said to me that they were not routinely searching for proscribed organisations? That is a basic thing they should be doing. What is she saying to the social media companies?
The Home Secretary is absolutely focused on the conduct of technology companies and the assistance they can give to the police both nationally and locally in taking down this abhorrent material. Sadly, this goes across the line with not just hate crime but online child sexual exploitation, terrorism and so on. A great piece of work is going on at the moment between the Home Secretary and those companies to ensure that their reactions are as speedy as the public expect.
What these letters show more than anything is the gross ignorance, instability, bile and prejudice of the perpetrators, who hide behind the cloak of anonymity. As the Home Affairs Committee report has shown, that anonymity is even more damaging online. Is it not time not just to do more to take this material down once it has been posted but to stop it being posted in the first place and make sure that the identity of the people doing the posting has to be revealed before they have these accounts?
The Home Secretary was in California recently to discuss these matters with the online technology companies. We are looking at the issue of anonymity in terms of the internet safety strategy, because we are very clear that we want the United Kingdom to be the safest place in the world online.
The vile, abhorrent letters received by individuals across the country, including in my constituency, are just the latest addition in a long line of Islamophobic hate crimes. Sadly, the number of such crimes has been growing for several years, encouraged by the undeniable rise of the far right and endorsed directly and indirectly by leaders and powerful figures across the globe. Muslims are often the targets of hate crimes, but the targets can just as easily be those of another religion or another race. With an increase in religious hate crime of 267% since 2011, why has the Government’s record on tackling the root causes of hate crime been so poor?
Again, reflecting on the overall tone of this urgent question, I will not rise to the bait, as it were, in that question. Frankly, I think we can all work together to call out hate crime when it happens. We have already today, sadly, heard the forms it can take, including anti-Semitism. Last week, the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Melanie Onn) spoke about the experience of misogyny; it is not yet a hate crime, but was the cause of much debate last week. We are very clear, and I think the House has been very clear today, that these letters and their sentiments are wholly abhorrent and are to be condemned.
What practical support is being provided to help the targets and victims of hate crime?
First, we of course want victims to report their experience to the police. The police are sadly aware of these events. I hope the police are trusted by the groups of people concerned, who will receive a concerned and sensitive welcome from the police when reporting these crimes. As I have said already, there is much that we are doing in the hate crime action plan, and in trying to tackle the root of radicalisation so that these awful sentiments are not expressed in the first place.
With the number of anti-Muslim hate crimes and anti-Semitic hate crimes rising at such a shocking rate, these anonymous letters can really strike fear into whole communities. Is it not also the case, however, that anonymous social media is a similar problem on a daily basis? Do we not now have to confront the question of anonymity in spreading such bile? Will the Minister at least address this?
I have very much heard what the House has said. As the hon. Gentleman will know, the internet safety strategy was published last year. I will ensure that the sentiments of the House on anonymity are very much heard by the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.
What makes you British is not what you look like, where your parents were from or how you worship, but the contribution that you make to our country. Nowhere has the contribution made by British Muslims been greater than in the west midlands, which is why I will be spending 3 April—it has been identified as a day of hate—visiting as many mosques and community centres across the region as possible to ensure that Muslims in the west midlands have my support and solidarity and to show them that I am on their side. I hope other Members of the House will be doing the same.
The hon. Gentleman has set out beautifully the values that bind this House and our country together. I wish him luck on his visits across his constituency to the many mosques in the west midlands.
I welcome the funding that the Minister has promised for safeguarding mosques, but Muslims do not gather only at places of worship. What reassurance can she give the many Muslim community groups, schools and places where children gather—as well as places that are not specifically Muslim, but where there are groups of Muslims—that they will have funding for extra security, should that be needed, in Bristol West?
As I have said, the Government have not only pledged or, indeed, spent up to £2.4 million over three years, but have funded Tell MAMA, which is a very important intelligence tool, as it were, to help the police to understand where they should best focus their resources. If there are particular areas in the hon. Lady’s constituency about which she has concerns, I ask her to ensure that her chief constable and her police and crime commissioner know, because they are the ones who must make the operational decisions.
My constituents are very worried about the rise in hate crime. Is the Minister satisfied that, in light of the significant cuts, Dewsbury and, indeed, West Yorkshire and further afield have the necessary police resources to investigate and apprehend those responsible for this abhorrent crime?
It is about how resources are spent, which is particularly pertinent to the question of West Yorkshire. I cannot recall the figure off the top of my head, but I seem to recall that West Yorkshire has several million pounds of reserves in savings. Of course, how that money is spent is a matter for the elected police and crime commissioner. I very much hope he will take up the Home Office’s funding settlement suggestion of increasing council tax to ensure more money to deal with the resourcing issue.
I have been approached by many in my constituency who are deeply concerned about these letters. As with last year’s Muslim ban, they feel unfairly targeted and under siege. Although this is an obvious opportunity to target internet companies, social media websites and so on, this was snail mail. May I press the Minister to pick up on the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Feltham and Heston (Seema Malhotra)? Will she update us on who sent these letters and what is going on to find out how to stop them? Will she reassure my constituents that once those people are apprehended, they will feel the full weight of the law?
I must not and cannot go into more detail on the specifics of the ongoing police investigation, because the hon. Lady will not want me or anyone else to inadvertently endanger any future prosecution. I can reassure her, however, that the case is being investigated very carefully and that the full force of the law is being applied.
That anti-Semitic and Islamophobic hate crime is on the rise is well documented, but we also know that there is significant under-reporting—often by women, in my experience. Hijab-wearing Muslim women are often most vulnerable because of their visibility. On the need to reach women in communities and, as my Friend the Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire) has said, not just in mosques, what assurances can the Minister give that the Government are doing what they can to get out into those communities the message about the need to report all incidents of hate crime?
The hon. Lady has hit on a very important point. We must all do what we can to encourage victims of hate crime—whether it is to do with race, religion, disability or gender identity—to report it. Under-reporting is a real issue and I hope that the work of organisations such as Tell MAMA will help people find the wherewithal to report such incidents to the police so that they can be dealt with.
I welcome the fact that we are all united in condemning this despicable attempt to divide our communities. Since 2016, national rhetoric and language have led to a big increase in hate crime. Will the Government lead by example and encourage everybody to tone down their national language and rhetoric?
The Minister has referred several times to the £2.4 million of funding under the Government’s anti-hate scheme. She has also said that just 45 places of worship have received funding. Are there any plans to increase the amount of funding and the number of places of worship that will attract funding this year?
May I write to the hon. Lady, because I confess that I am unclear as to whether applications are in train and would not wish in any way to inadvertently answer incorrectly?
The best way to build belonging, tolerance and relationships is to invest in opportunities for people to come together and learn understanding. Oldham, which does that pretty well, was completely undermined by the Government snatching away the area-based grant in 2010, with no assessment made of the impact that would have on local cohesion in communities. Will the Government take seriously the need to invest at a community level in order to bring people together?
Of course we recognise the importance of bringing communities together, and there are many ways in which to do that. My constituency may enjoy being brought together in a very different way from another constituency elsewhere in the country. I am not clear about the direct impact asserted by the hon. Gentleman in relation to that project, but I will happily write to him about it.
May I, along with everybody else, condemn this absolutely abhorrent letter? It has been reported that since the EU referendum there has been a spike in hate crime, both in Islamophobia and in anti-Semitism, coming from the hard right and the hard left. It has also been reported by the Crown Prosecution Service that, against that increase in incidents, there was a drop by more than 1,000 in the number of prosecutions in 2016-17. What is the Minister doing with the CPS and the police to ensure that that is reversed?
The drop in referrals, recorded last year, has had an impact on the number of completed prosecutions in 2016 and 2017. The Crown Prosecution Service is working with the police at local and national level to understand the reasons for the overall fall in referrals in the past two years. The message to spread around our constituencies to people who have been a victim of hate crime is please report it, because that way we can try to do something about it.
Police forces such as Greater Manchester that have long targeted hate crime, and who work hard with the CST on anti-Semitism and with the Muslim community on Islamophobia, recognise that community policing is central to challenging hate crime. Will the Minister take that message back? Community policing is about trust, and trust is fundamental. We need our community police.
Of course local policing is important, but we also have to recognise that we cannot just rely on policing alone to reach into communities and build relationships. That is why organisations such as Tell MAMA and others are such an important part of the overall picture in ensuring that when people feel they have been victims of crime they know what to do, know where to go, and feel they will be listened to and their experiences acted upon.
It is clear that the whole House condemns the cowards who are sending out this letter. However, it is not just those sending this letter who are causing hate and it is not just groups like Britain First. At the end of last month, my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon) and I received a letter from the British National party, which included a racist poem. On the back of the letter it said that unless action was taken today
“Rebecca will be in an ethnic minority group when she grows up”
Will the Minister condemn the actions of the BNP and say there should be no place in British society for political parties that peddle such hate?
I am absolutely clear that the BNP and all the other far right organisations described today have no place in our society. Frankly, their showing at the ballot box, when they dare to stand for election, shows how little truck the British public have with them.
Treatment of House of Commons Staff
(Urgent Question): To ask the Leader of the House about the treatment of House of Commons staff.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her question. She and I worked together on the cross-party working group on an independent complaints and grievance policy. I thank her sincerely for her work on it.
Reports of bullying of House staff are of huge concern to me and to hon. Members right across the House. I am committed to stamping out all kinds of bullying and harassment in Parliament in order to create an environment in which everyone feels safe and is treated with the respect and dignity they deserve. We can only achieve our goals in this House with the support of others. A great debt of gratitude is owed by us all to the House staff who support us behind the scenes.
I myself have worked with a large number of civil servants and staff of the House during my time in Parliament. From the Clerks of the Treasury Committee to my private offices at the Treasury, Energy and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the team in the Leader’s office and the excellent secretariat who supported the working group, I have always been impressed by, and am very grateful for, the dedication, professionalism, high standards and courtesy that all the civil servants and House staff have shown. I know that many right hon. and hon. Members across the House, and in the other place, would say the same.
The House will be aware that significant progress has been made in recent months, following the shocking reports at the end of last year of sexual harassment, bullying and intimidation in this place. The working group I chaired, set up by the Prime Minister, has now published its report, and it has been agreed by both Houses. The work streams are now in place to get the new independent complaints procedure up and running within the next three months.
The hon. Lady will recall that the working group wanted House staff to be included in the new complaints procedure from day one. However, following evidence taken, and in consultation with the trade union representatives of House staff, it was agreed that the staff of the House would not immediately be covered by the new independent procedure, because they were already covered by the House’s own Respect policy. It was believed that the Respect policy was working well and that House staff were satisfied with it. However, it was acknowledged during the working group evidence sessions that the Respect policy did not cover complaints of sexual harassment and violence. The aspiration of the working group is to take up the question of whether House staff should have immediate access to the new independent complaints procedure now that the report has been agreed by both Houses. Following the “Newsnight” allegations and others, it is clear that the Respect policy may not be sufficient to protect House staff.
I am aware that, today, the Clerk of the House of Commons has written to House staff, saying that there are clearly unresolved issues over bullying and harassment, including sexual harassment, that need to be addressed, and this will include a review of the Respect policy. The Clerk of the House of Commons has also reassured staff who wish to come forward with complaints of bullying that they will be dealt with in the proper manner, with the support of their managers and colleagues. It is right that everyone working for or with Parliament, regardless of position or seniority, should have the same rights and protections and should be held to the same high standards.
The House Commission next meets on Monday 19 March and I have given notice to my fellow members that I will be recommending a short, independently led inquiry by the House Commission looking into allegations of systemic bullying of parliamentary staff. I will propose that the inquiry should hear from past and current staff members about their experiences and help to provide them with closure wherever possible. I will also propose that it should take soundings from current and former House staff on whether the Respect policy is fit for purpose and whether House staff would be better served by having access to the new independent complaints and grievance policy from day one. Mr Speaker, I am more determined than ever that we banish all kinds of harassment and bullying from this place, because make no mistake, there is a need for change.
Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent, cross-party question. This is not about party politics and it is not about political gain; it is about doing the right thing by the staff who support us on a daily basis and ensuring that the House of Commons leads by example when it comes to robustly tackling workplace bullying and sexual misconduct.
Members and the public will have been shocked by the revelations of bullying at Westminster that were highlighted by “Newsnight” last week. I commend the Leader of the House for her ongoing work to establish an independent complaints and grievance procedure. The need for that arose in part because the 2014 Respect policy did not apply to large numbers of those working in Parliament. There are now considerable grounds to assert that that same Respect policy does not have the confidence of the staff that it is intended to protect and that the new independent procedure must immediately be expanded to avoid a two-tier system.
I am grateful that the Leader of the House broadly agrees with that and I am pleased to hear about the new short inquiry, but will she also confirm specifically that there will be a presumption in favour of historical allegations being thoroughly investigated, should those affected choose to make formal complaints, either under the Respect policy or the new procedure? Will she acknowledge that the positive work that she has led to date risks being undermined if we continue to allow sanctions to be determined by a Committee on which MPs effectively hold all the power? Will she agree that the whole process, including sanctions, must be handled by an independent body? Will she revisit whether good employer and consent training as an important part of culture change should start before the next election? I think the evidence is clear that it should, and in the meantime, can she assure staff that any further complaints will be treated with the seriousness and respect that they deserve and will not be dismissed, as they were last Friday, as grotesque exaggeration?
As I have already mentioned, I certainly agree with the hon. Lady. It was the aspiration of the working group to cover all staff working in Parliament, including staff of the House, in our independent complaints procedure from day one, and I share her concern that we should now take steps to ensure that it does as soon as the independent policy is up and running, which we intend to be the case within three months from now.
The hon. Lady will recall that the working group has made it clear that we will deal with historical allegations, and it will be for the detailed policies and procedures of the new working group to establish how exactly that can be done. The Clerk of the House of Commons has made it clear today that he will look to reassure House staff that any historical allegations will be properly dealt with.
The hon. Lady mentioned that sanctions must be independent. That has been a core part of the work of the working group. We are now looking carefully at how that impacts on the work of the independent Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards and the Standards Committee itself, on which there are both parliamentary and lay members, and that work is ongoing. In fact, I am looking forward to meeting the Standards Committee later today to start those discussions.
The hon. Lady mentions consent training. The working group was very clear that all people, not only those who employ staff in this place but those who come into contact with others, should be very clear about what constitutes consent and precisely what does not. I can assure her that I am very keen to provide the carrot to ensure that people want to take up that training, but, as the working group agreed, we did not have the levers at that time to make it compulsory. Finally, I totally share her desire to see all staff here treated with the dignity and respect that everybody in this place deserves.
May I welcome what the Leader of the House said about her short inquiry? It seems to me that a good test for her to adopt would be to see that the House does what all organisations should do, which is make sure that everybody who works here, whether for Members of Parliament or the House, have the same processes and can expect to be treated according to the same high standards. I urge her to bring in that measure as soon as she can.
I completely agree with my right hon. Friend, and I can assure him and all hon. Members that that is the working group’s aspiration and my personal goal.
It is noted, Mr Speaker, that you have granted the urgent question, even though you are one of the people mentioned in media reports. No one—critics or otherwise—can deny your commitment to accountability and transparency or your attempts to move the House forward in recognition of diversity and modern customs and practice.
The Opposition take all allegations seriously. We want a workplace that accommodates and supports everyone. I do not want to comment on individual cases—it is a matter for the House authorities—but is the Leader of the House aware of any formal complaints that have been instigated on the basis of those cases that have been reported and, if so, when? I note that she has suggested an inquiry. I am very pleased that we can have this discussion on the Commission and we look forward to that.
Some cases predate the Respect policy, and I know that, as a result of the work streams following the report of the working group on sexual harassment and bullying, that, too, is being amended and there will be a new behaviour code and procedure that covers everyone working on the estate and in our constituencies. It is imperative that all staff working here feel that they can raise any complaints and grievances immediately. Can the Leader of the House confirm that she will agree to the president of the staff side attending the steering group, which I have previously requested and support?
The working group published its report on 8 February 2018. The steering group is monitoring the work that will be carried out. I am pleased that there is now a permanent secretariat and that the further work set out in the report that needs to be done is being progressed to ensure that the complaints and grievance policy that will be put into place is fair and robust. Only when that is tested will we know if they work. There will be a continual process to refine them so that they are effective and everyone has confidence in them. Can the Leader of the House say—she mentioned three months, but we need to balance speed with making sure there is an effective process—whether this work will be completed by the three months, or at least by the summer, before the House rises?
The Labour Opposition take all complaints about sexual harassment and abuse, and discrimination, extremely seriously. We want anyone with a complaint to come forward so that all allegations can be fully investigated, and any appropriate disciplinary action taken in line with the party’s procedures.
We all have the utmost respect for the House Clerks. Any of us who have had dealings with them on the various Select Committees, as I have, know that they are experts in their field and offer vital assistance and advice to everyone. I know that everyone who works here, in whatever capacity, knows that they play a vital role in ensuring that our Parliament and our democracy thrive.
I thank the shadow Leader of the House for what she has said, and I am grateful to her for the part that she played in the working group on setting up an independent complaints procedure. It was notable that there was unanimous support for the establishment of the procedure, and I think the whole House can be very pleased about that.
The hon. Lady asked whether I was aware of specific formal complaints. Consideration of specific complaints was not in the terms of reference of the working group; in fact, it was specifically excluded. In my role as Leader of the House, I have had a number of people come forward to me, and I sought to deal, as I can, wherever possible, with complaints that have been brought to me, but I do not propose to discuss any specific allegations in the Chamber.
The hon. Lady asked about a review of the Respect policy for House staff. In his letter sent to House staff today, the Clerk of the House says:
“there are unresolved issues over bullying and harassment, including sexual harassment, which need to be addressed…we will revisit and renew the Respect policy.”
The hon. Lady asked whether the House authorities trade union representative would be invited to join the steering group. I believe that that has already happened—he has been invited to join the steering group. She asked when the procedures would be finalised. At the first meeting of the steering group last week, we set an aspiration that the bulk of the work should be done within three months. There will be a final vote in the House on necessary changes in Standing Orders, and on the adoption of the behaviour code. We hope and expect that that will happen before the House rises for the summer recess.
Is it appropriate for Mr Speaker to remain in his place when there are allegations against him, which he is trying to suppress, using taxpayers’ funds, by sending letters through Speaker’s Counsel?
I think it vital for all colleagues to join together in supporting the efforts being made by the House to stamp out all bullying and harassment wherever we see it, and to ensure that in future everyone will be treated with the respect and dignity that they deserve.
I heartily congratulate the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) on securing this very important urgent question. She, like me, will find some of the issues that were raised by the BBC’s “Newsnight” programme depressingly familiar. It comes as little surprise to any of us who listened to the evidence that we secured on the harassment working group. It was only a matter of time before such issues would emerge, and it is quite surprising that it has been so short.
This endemic culture must be tackled, and I strongly support the call by the Leader of the House for an independent inquiry. Will she tell us a little about how it will be conducted? Does she agree that historical allegations must be considered, and does she support the view that we would be letting down victims past and present if we failed to respond to such allegations? Does she agree that this is all just part of the normalisation of bullying and harassment that continues to poison our politics, amplified by the archaic environment of grandeur and subservience in which we perform our roles as Members of Parliament?
Finally, will the Leader of the House ensure that all members of staff—whether they work for the House or for Members of Parliament—are covered by the new behaviour code, and have access to the new complaints procedure, as quickly as possible?
I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for his part in the working group; he assiduously attended meetings and took a full part in its work, and I am grateful to him for his contribution. He asks how an independent inquiry will be conducted: my intention is to make the proposal to the House Commission, and it will then be a matter for the Commission to agree whether to do that or not. The House Commission is made up of a number of Members from across the House, including one from the hon. Gentleman’s party. However, I would like to see the inquiry carried out by an independent individual who can hear from past and current members of staff of the House, so that person is free of any input from either employers or parliamentarians and people feel they can come forward in confidence.
I completely agree that it would be letting people down if we failed to deal with this, and it is vital that those who have past allegations who feel the time has passed for them to be dealt with seriously can achieve some closure by being able to come forward and be heard in that way. I also agree with the hon. Gentleman that it is demeaning to this House and to all of us if we fail to get a grip on this, and that is why this House has shown such commitment to setting up an independent complaints and grievance policy, which is the right way forward.
I welcome the Leader of the House’s statement. Does she agree that sometimes the accused can be victims, too, and that is why it is so important that we have an independent inquiry? Does she also agree that the House of Commons Commission would not be an independent judge or jury, and indeed would not be seen to be such, simply because of the very membership of that Commission, and that it does need to be an independent individual or group of individuals?
My hon. Friend raises an important point, and we were very conscious during the working group evidence sessions that it is important to protect both complainants, who are at the heart of the independent complaints procedure, and the alleged perpetrators. It is important that justice is seen to be done and that all parties are properly supported. My hon. Friend is also right that an inquiry led by the House Commission could not be independent, which is why my recommendation to the House Commission will be that it should be an independently led inquiry into allegations of bullying.
When the Leader of the House chooses, as she has done today, to focus on the thoroughness and decency of the process of dealing with these issues, she will get support from right across this House. She mentioned several times the involvement of trade union representatives, so will she join me in asserting that it is right that members of our staff and members of staff of this House are members of trade unions if they choose to be, and that their representatives ought to be involved at every stage of these processes?
The hon. Lady gives me the opportunity to thank and pay tribute to the very good staff representatives who were on the working group: a representative from Unite, who works as a researcher for a Member of the Labour party; a representative of MAPSA—the Members and Peers Staff Association—who works as a researcher for a Member of the Conservative party; and a representative of the National Union of Journalists, who works for the Scottish nationalists here. They all made a great contribution, and are to be commended on their efforts.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that, unfortunately, under the current system House of Commons staff believe that if they make a complaint about bullying or harassment it will not be taken seriously, and, perhaps more insidiously, believe that it will be seriously detrimental to their future career? I welcome the fact that we are going to have an independent investigation into the allegations we heard on “Newsnight”. When will that start and when will it complete?
The House Commission meets next Monday; I will be making that recommendation there, and the investigation will start as soon as possible.
I think it is a matter of common accord that the House is exceptionally well served by the Clerk staff, so I hope it goes without saying that these complaints require to be investigated with rigour, in a comprehensive way and independently. Mr Speaker, when you and I first entered the House, it was almost entirely self-regulating. The position today is very different, but that change has been piecemeal. What is now required is a proper comprehensive reconsideration of the question of parliamentary privilege and self-regulation. I welcome the short independent inquiry that the Leader of the House seeks to establish, but once that is done she should apply her mind to revisiting the work of the Joint Committee set up in 1998 to look at the question of the extent and definition of parliamentary privilege.
The right hon. Gentleman makes an interesting observation, and I will certainly look into it.
Does the Leader of the House agree that every individual complaint made against a Member reflects badly on each and every one of us? Given the “Newsnight” allegation that the policy was simply not up to scratch, and that it was certainly something that we decided among ourselves, does she agree that we need not only an independent investigation, but an external independent body to establish our future policy?
I hope I can reassure my hon. Friend that the independent grievance policy that we are in the process of establishing will ensure that the culture in this place changes to the benefit of all who work here. Many hon. Members are troubled by the allegations. It is, as ever, a small minority of people who behave badly, and he is right to point out that it demeans all of us when a few of us behave badly.
Having been in the House quite a long time, I recall that, in the early days, the warnings to young women in the House were about not just a small group of Members of Parliament, but some senior Clerks who were known to be bullies. I was chair of the all-party parliamentary group on bullying for some years and have been fighting everyone’s corner, and I have never known a Speaker as strong on reform in that particular part of our lives. I urge the Leader of the House to get on with things quickly. We want justice to be done and to be seen to be done.
The inquiry should know that a tiny minority of Members have used this like a new form of McCarthyism by naming someone and putting them into purgatory. People on both sides of the House have been affected, but there has been no redress. Dreadful things have happened to them and their families, probably including things that we do not know about. There is a danger of a new kind of political McCarthyism, and we must stamp it out.
I remind the hon. Gentleman that the independent complaints procedure will be exactly that. It will be independent and confidential, so that complainants, who often do not want to come forward for fear of then having to deal with the person they are accusing, can come forward in confidence. The alleged perpetrator will also be able to have their side of the story heard in confidence. Natural justice rules will therefore apply to the entire process, but there will also be serious sanctions for wrongdoing. I genuinely believe that this work will change the culture in Parliament, take us to a new stage where people can come forward, and make people think twice about some of their attitudes.
I appreciate that there may be problems with definition, that many cases will not have been investigated and that details will often be sketchy at best at this stage, but can the Leader of the House give an indication of the scale of the problem? How many cases of abuse of House or Members’ staff have been brought to her attention in her recent dealings?
I do not think that I can give my hon. Friend an idea of the scale of the problem. Different cases have appeared in the media, and it is difficult to understand the enormity and range of the problem. Suffice it to say, we are determined to see change for the better across the House.
I welcome the emphasis that the Leader of the House has placed on due process and the principles of justice. Complainants must be taken seriously, but the person who has been complained about also has rights, and it is important that cases should be heard on the basis of evidence. Will she also say a word about the independent Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, who hears complaints about hon. Members and can then put them to the Standards Committee? That route needs to be somehow incorporated into the new process that she envisages.
The hon. Gentleman is exactly right, and indeed that is part of the process. Very specifically, an independent complaint is heard in confidence; if there is a finding against the alleged perpetrator, in the case of a Member of Parliament being complained about, that would go to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, who would either carry out an appeal and look at the evidence again, or find against the Member, or find that there was no cause to answer. She will have expanded sanctions at a lower level, or indeed she will pass it on to the Committee on Standards so that it can consider the matter, including recommending suspension to the House, which could lead to the Recall of Members of Parliament Act 2015 being invoked.
Does the Leader of the House agree that any member of staff who feels that he or she has been bullied must have an absolute guarantee that their career will not suffer in any way if they make a complaint? If they have that guarantee, does she agree that the reputation of Members of Parliament should not be sullied by accusations that they are bullies unless a complaint against them has been made?
My right hon. Friend sums up the position very well. It is vital that complainants are protected so that they can come forward in confidence and not be further victimised, but it is also essential that people who are complained about have the opportunity to put their side of the story and receive proper justice.
I commend the Leader of the House, her counterparts and you as well, Mr Speaker, on the response to these issues so far. Does the Leader of the House agree that this is a moment for each and every one of us to reflect on our behaviour, and that we should constantly reflect on our behaviour, because the critical issue is not what we judge or deem to be the appropriate behaviour, but how we make others feel? That is why the independent nature of the right hon. Lady’s proposals is critical, because this process has to be without political fear or favour, or political campaigns against opponents or anyone else, so that people can come forward.
The hon. Lady is exactly right. The power dynamic—the idea that how we behave is not necessarily how we are seen to behave—is incredibly important. Certainly, in working group evidence, we took a lot of witness statements about exactly that, and it is vital that we take that into account.
Due process sometimes takes a very long time. May I ask the Leader of the House to ensure that due process should be as speedy as possible in the interests of everyone?
I completely agree with my hon. Friend. We are quite proud that we moved very quickly with the independent complaints procedure, but at the same time we are doing a thorough job, and that is our plan.
Every industrial tribunal has to be registered under the Ministry of Justice. In the interests of transparency, will the Leader of the House publish all industrial tribunal applications that have been registered against Members of Parliament, or indeed against the House of Commons?
I do not believe that that will be a matter for me, but I will certainly look into it.
May I put on record my support for the work that the Leader of the House, you Mr Speaker, and all members of the working group have done since November on this issue? Does the right hon. Lady agree that we need to take the politics out of this altogether? If people are to have confidence that we are truly listening, that victims will be believed and that we will have a proper process, it is time for professionals—not the press or political expediency—to lead that.
I completely agree with the hon. Lady. The independence is absolutely vital.
I can assure you, Mr Speaker, that I have great respect for all staff I work with. I was the guinea pig in 2012 after a difficult phone-hacking report, for the original Respect policy. I was flayed by selective leaking six years ago, and it has happened again now. I ask the Leader of the House and hon. Members, before they jump to judgment after what was a very one-sided, selective BBC broadcast, to approach the cases that have been raised in a more balanced way, to consider the reasons why the original Respect policy was scrapped in the first place as not fit for purpose, and to give consideration to the disparity of support for MPs who are complained against, especially when complainants have the backing of the resourceful and very well-resourced First Division Association in particular? Finally, may I ask the House to consider why old, historical allegations like this are being selectively recycled now, and by whom, because whatever is at play this is not a game for reputations or families?
The advantage of an independent complaints procedure is that it will exist for people to be able to come forward with confidence and with confidentiality. That means that at long last they will have somewhere they can go to make their complaint without just going straight to the press, which, as the hon. Gentleman says, has caused some difficulties.
The working group report recommends training by the end of this Parliament. Clearly, that is inappropriate. Will the Leader of the House bring it forward to ensure that every Member and manager has face-to-face training within this year?
The hon. Lady is not quite right about that: the working group proposes that training is essential for all Members across the House in a wide variety of areas, and measures are being brought forward to encourage people to undertake training. We have said that in their induction new Members in the next Parliament will receive compulsory training in certain areas.
Will the Leader of the House clarify something: if a House of Commons staff member raises a complaint today, or in the next few days, under what policy or procedure would that complaint be dealt with?
Currently, members of House staff who are making allegations of bullying or inappropriate behaviour will come under the House Respect policy, which was established a few years back. What the working group is creating is an independent complaints procedure. The House staff were not going to be subject to, or able to take advantage of, the independent complaints procedure, and we now want to look at that again.
I have huge respect for the staff of this House—whether they work in our catering department or the Clerks department, my experiences of them have been excellent—but may I add my voice to those who are calling for absolute due process in this? We need to respect the complainant and the complained against; that is the only way to deal with allegations of this nature. Will the Leader of the House join me in issuing a word of caution to Members of this House about conducting these matters in the media, whether off the record or on it, not least because that might prejudice any process or give the impression that it is politicised or personalised in its approach?
The working group put the complainant at the heart of this procedure, and what was very clear from the evidence we took was that people will come forward only if they feel they will be treated in confidence and they will not then be plastered all over the front of the newspapers.
Bullying and harassment occur in all walks of life and in all professions. What is important is that the person is listened to and the matter is investigated independently, but I say strongly that we must also remember the golden thread that runs through our English law: someone is innocent until proven guilty.
Yes, and the laws of natural justice have certainly been applied to the new independent complaints procedure.