House of Commons
Monday 18 June 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—
The Government believe that one person without a home is one too many, which is why we have committed £1.2 billion to tackle homelessness and why we implemented the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017 in April. We are producing a cross-Government strategy to tackle rough sleeping, and it is due to be published next month.
In December 2010, there were 22 homeless households in temporary accommodation in Coventry; in December last year, there was a massive 278 homeless households in the city, of which 210 were families with children, with a total of 505 children between them. Why does the Secretary of State think that the number of homeless children has risen so significantly under this Government?
I hope the hon. Lady will recognise the work that the Government have done and are doing with the commitment of £9 billion for affordable housing. This is partly an issue of supply and ensuring that we have the right number of homes, which is why the Government are taking action, investing and seeking to respond to the challenges of homelessness and, indeed, rough sleeping. I hope that the hon. Lady welcomes the Housing First initiative in the west midlands to tackle rough sleeping and ensure that we really respond to this important issue.
A recent Crisis report set out a comprehensive and practical plan for ending homelessness. On top of the excellent plans that the Secretary of State has already announced, I encourage him to work with Crisis so that we can tackle not only homelessness but its underlying causes.
I congratulate Crisis on its work, as it marks its 50th anniversary. Indeed, I spoke at the recent Crisis conference, where I indicated that I will work with the organisation on furthering its rough-sleeping initiatives, about which I have spoken. I note what it has said about homelessness and will continue to work with it and others.
The hon. Lady rightly speaks passionately about rough sleeping. I feel very strongly about it, too, which was why my first visit as Secretary of State was to a homelessness charity in Birmingham that was actively supporting people who were rough sleeping. That is why the Government are committed to eradicating rough sleeping and why, in recent weeks, we have committed a further £30 million to those areas most affected. It is a very serious issue and the hon. Lady is right to be passionate about it, as am I.
I welcome last week’s news that there will be £279,000 extra for tackling homelessness and rough sleeping in Torbay. Will the Secretary of State reassure me that the lessons from the previous pilot, which was carried out with the Torbay End Street Homelessness campaign, will be incorporated into the strategy that he is bringing out next month?
I commend the work that my hon. Friend’s local charities have done, along with all the organisations that are working locally in Torbay on this significant issue. Obviously, additional funding has been identified. Part of the issue is to ensure that that money is used effectively by learning from previous lessons and, indeed, by ensuring that local authorities are held to account for the moneys that have been applied.
High-rise Buildings: Cladding
As of 22 May, remediation had started on 107 buildings over 18 metres in the social sector that were identified to have combinations of aluminium composite material cladding and insulation that failed fire-performance tests. Work has been completed on 10 buildings.
I recognise the clear desire and intent to see to it that these buildings are made safe and that remediation is completed at the earliest possible opportunity. The works are complex and detailed, and they will take time. We continue to monitor and to work with local authorities to make sure that progress is made, recognising the real public safety issues that the hon. Gentleman underlines.
The Secretary of State is rightly consulting on banning all material that is not of limited combustibility from high-rise buildings, and the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee hopes that he will bring in such a ban after the consultation. If he concludes that it is right to ban such material from all new buildings, does he accept that it would be completely untenable to leave the same material on existing buildings, and, in such a case, does he accept that the Government will have the responsibility to financially compensate the building owners affected?
The Chair of the Select Committee will know that we have committed £400 million to support the public sector in remediation costs and that, therefore, we are committed to seeing that the work is undertaken well. Obviously, we will reflect carefully on the consultation that will be launched and therefore look at its application. The key message is that we need to make progress and to get on with this, so that buildings that have been identified in need of remediation are dealt with.
On behalf of the Scottish National party, I pay tribute to all of the Grenfell survivors and the people in that area whose dignified commemorations we all witnessed last week. There remains an issue about people in high-rise buildings in the private sector. What response has the Secretary of State made to Kevin Stewart MSP, Scotland’s Housing Minister, on his calls to exempt private buildings from VAT on materials to refurbish these buildings?
Obviously, that is a matter for the Treasury, but there is a need to make progress, and I look forward to continuing discussions with the Scottish Government. Equally, as the hon. Lady has said, I pay tribute to the incredible community of Grenfell for the extraordinary way in which they underlined the strength that they have together and how that has brought the country together as well and how we must very firmly continue to have that in mind.
I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. He will have seen, as we all have, the pictures from Glasgow over the weekend where the Glasgow School of Art also had a devastating fire. Fortunately, there was no loss of life, although local residents are still waiting to get back into their homes. Does he agree that we need to look again at exemptions for sprinkler systems in buildings, so that more public buildings can be encouraged to have them installed, not least in the building that we are in today, because it is built in a similar way to the Glasgow School of Art and could be as dangerous?
I am sure that we were all horrified to see the terrible fire at the Glasgow School of Art. We should think about what that iconic building has meant to so many people over the years. The hon. Lady highlights the issue of sprinklers. May I be clear on that: for existing buildings, it is for the building owner to decide whether to fit sprinklers retrospectively, as part of a fire safety strategy? Obviously, it is for building owners to make those determinations, but, clearly, it can be an effective safety measure, as part of an overarching strategy.
Mr Speaker, you and I and other Members of the House were privileged to be part of the Grenfell silent walk with survivors and supporters last Thursday. They, like this House, want Ministers to take every action necessary to prevent such a fire ever happening again, yet, since Grenfell, 1,319 suspect cladding samples sent to the Government’s testing centre have been refused testing, as Ministers say that they will only test the aluminium composite material the Minister spoke of earlier. Why?
I will happily look into what the right hon. Gentleman has said. The Building Research Establishment’s focus has obviously been on the ACM material that has been at the forefront of concerns to ensure that, in both the public and the private sectors, that can be tested so that where cladding does not meet the necessary standards, it is dealt with and remediation steps take place. I will certainly look in greater detail at the point that he has made.
That simply is not good enough from the Secretary of State. The BRE does what Ministers tell it to do. We know that other cladding and insulation materials have been found unsafe. We know that the Hackitt review has confirmed that the whole building regulation system from end to end is, as she says, not fit for purpose. Since Grenfell, Ministers have been too slow to take responsibility and too slow to act. This Conservative dogma of “hands off” is delaying the Government action necessary to deal with this national disaster. Will he give local authorities powers to demand that testing and recladding are actually done? Will he release the details that he holds on tower block owners who will not do this work, and will he set a deadline, as my hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Grahame Morris) says, for all landlords to make their buildings safe or make it clear that Government will step in and then make them?
I firmly recognise the right hon. Gentleman’s point about the urgency of the situation, which is why we have committed an additional £1 million to local authorities to identify the sites. In my time as Secretary of State, we have made an additional commitment of £400 million to the social sector to ensure that we get on with this remediation. I am intent on pursuing that level of action and focus to ensure that a sense of safety and assurance is given. Since the publication of Judith Hackitt’s report, I have announced that we are pursuing a consultation to bring into effect a ban on combustible cladding. The right hon. Gentleman and the House should be in no doubt that this Government gives priority to the issue, and we will continue to pursue that approach.
Homes for Social Rent
Since 2010, we have delivered more than 357,000 new affordable homes, including 128,000 for social rent. We are investing more than £9 billion in the affordable homes programme to support the delivery of new affordable homes.
More affordable homes have been delivered in the past seven years than in the last seven years of the last Labour Government. It is a bit rich to press us when we have delivered 217,000 completed new homes in the past year. This Government have committed £9 billion to affordable homes—the hon. Lady should reflect on that—as this issue is our priority.
Mr Speaker, I thank you and Members of all parties who supported the Grenfell community by attending memorial services and the silent walk, by speaking in the House and by wearing the green heart. Will the Secretary of State politely insist that all Members who have shown support by wearing the green heart support my request for a Backbench Business debate, so that we can discuss all these issues in one place and discuss the Grenfell response? We have a list of green heart wearers and will be writing to the Secretary of State today. Will he please show that he cares by supporting my debate?
I commend the hon. Lady for the work that she has done locally, as I commend the strength of her community in the face of this appalling tragedy. I cannot speak about the awarding of Backbench Business debates. If she seeks one, I am sure that it will be considered carefully. We have updated the House regularly on the response to Grenfell, and we will continue to do so.
The Secretary of State is quite right to disavow responsibility for the Backbench Business Committee. The hon. Lady could, however, usefully sidle up to and have a word with the hon. Member for Gateshead (Ian Mearns), who chairs that Committee. He is not in his place at the moment, but I dare say that he will be in due course. I am sure that she will find that a most useful conversation.
The Secretary of State has just talked of his affordable homes record, but we all know that this Government’s definition of affordable homes is a joke. It allows an illusion of genuinely affordable house building, which is simply not happening. Many of his own Back Benchers agree, and 10 of them are meeting the Prime Minister on Wednesday to call for more genuinely affordable homes. The number of new social rented homes funded by the Government is at its lowest ever level, with fewer than 1,000 started last year. Will the Secretary of State therefore match Labour’s commitment, in our social housing green paper, to scrap the bogus definition of affordable rent at up to 80% of market rents and to invest in genuinely affordable homes?
I hope that the hon. Lady will welcome the fall in housing waiting lists under this Government. I say to her very clearly that steps have been taken under this Government to respond to this challenge. I remind her again of the £9 billion that has been committed to affordable homes, with the change that that will bring to so many people in actually creating the vision of a home and making that a reality. That is this Government’s intent, and it is something that we will deliver.
Housing and Community Integration
On 8 June, the Department announced £1.75 million to help new refugees by funding 35 offices in 19 areas of England with some of the highest numbers of asylum seekers. This will support people granted asylum into housing, learning and work. The Department is very keen to share this learning widely, including with the devolved Administrations.
The Government’s consultation report, “Integrated Communities”, said that the Government will
“work with civil society and others to increase the integration support available to those recognised as refugees after arrival in the UK.”
What specific measures are being taken to ensure that newly recognised refugees get the same support as resettled refugees?
Funding for the pilot programmes is drawn from the controlling migration fund, which has no remit to finance the devolved Administrations, as funding is devolved in this area. The pilot programmes are now recruiting staff and getting their programmes up and running. The pilots will run for two years. They are funded in the first year by my Department and in the second year by the council itself.
Local Authority Funding: North-east
From 2015-16 to 2019-20, north-east councils will have access to £11.3 billion in core spending power. The 2018-19 settlement sees a 1.9% increase in the money available to north-east councils.
The Minister will be aware that north-east councils have had a 50% cut in Government grant since 2010. At the same time, the richest individuals in this country have had a £10 billion tax cut. Does he think it is right that these needless tax cuts are paid for by local government jobs, pay cuts and the loss of local government services?
On the subject of those who can afford it building up savings, I might point out to the hon. Gentleman that his local authority—I remind him, as I am sure he knows, that every seat except one is held by the Labour party—has increased its reserves by £7 million since 2010, so perhaps he should be addressing his questions on redundancies and closures to the local Labour party.
The Minister knows that the slashing of funding for Newcastle City Council can be seen in the increased litter on our streets, increased crime rates as youth services are cut and reduced public services generally. What will he say to my constituents who want to know why central Government care so little for their wellbeing?
On whether central Government care for people in Newcastle, I would say that surely they, like the hon. Lady, should welcome the £600 million of new money provided for the devolution deal; the Great Exhibition of the North, opening this Friday, which is set to boost her local economy by £184 million; the Budget announcement of £337 million for the Tyne and Wear Metro; north-east local enterprise partnerships having £379 million invested in them directly; and the north-east investment fund just announced, with £120 million. This is a golden era of Government investment in the north-east, but it takes the Conservative party to deliver it.
Adult Social Care
As part of the Ministry’s oversight of local government, we consider the financial stability and service delivery of individual authorities, liaising with the Department of Health and Social Care on adult social care. On that basis, we have no immediate concerns about the ability of local authorities to fulfil their statutory duties.
Wow! I am shocked by that response. This year’s precept of 1% raises only 0.8% of our total adult social care budget in the Borough of Rochdale. With nursing home beds being converted into residential beds because of providers’ difficulties in recruiting and retaining nurses, how does the Minister suggest that my local authority provides the nursing home beds that my constituents so desperately need?
This Government have increased funding for social care across the country. Rather than talking down the hon. Lady’s constituency and local authority, I point out that Rochdale’s performance in reducing delayed transfers of care is among the best in the country and deserves praise, rather than being talked down.
This weekend we heard the announcement of additional funding for the NHS, but there was no mention of funding to resolve the issues in social care as part of that package. What discussions were there with the Secretary of State about the future funding of social care in advance of that announcement?
This Government want to guarantee the security and dignity of people in old age and are absolutely committed to providing a long-term sustainable settlement on social care, on which the hon. Lady will know the Health Secretary is working. He will bring forward plans in due course.
Some 1.2 million older people in England are living with unmet care needs, according to Age UK. More than 400,000 fewer people are receiving publicly funded social care than in 2010. Council spending on adult social care fell by 10% in real terms between 2010 and 2015. A miserly £150 million in funding was announced for 2018-19 in the local government finance settlement, and now we hear that there is no funding for social care in yesterday’s NHS announcement. With social care in crisis, putting pressure on the NHS and sending councils across England towards bankruptcy, when is this Minister going to do his job and secure the resources that our councils need to give the elderly the dignity they so desperately deserve?
This Government are already responding to the pressures in social care, which is why we announced £2 billion in last year’s Budget for local authorities up and down the country. That represents a real-terms increase every year from last year to next year in social care spending, and we are seeing it translate into action on the ground, with a 40% reduction in social care delayed transfers of care just last month.
We have delivered 357,000 affordable homes since 2010, which is more than in the last seven years of the previous Labour Government, and we will be spending £9 billion on affordable housing, including social housing, until 2022.
Will the Minister join me in thanking housing associations across the country for all the great work they do on social housing, and in particular Rooftop Housing in my constituency, which has built 850 homes in the last six years, including substantial housing for elderly people and those with supportive care needs?
Housing associations played a key role in delivering more than 41,000 homes through the affordable homes programme last year. I certainly welcome the contribution of housing associations in my hon. Friend’s constituency. We are restless to do more, through measures such as long-term rent certainty and raising the housing revenue account borrowing cap.
Does the Minister recognise that for many people on low incomes, paying 80% of market rent is not affordable—it is simply unaffordable? When will the Government ditch this twisted notion of affordability and build more homes for social rent?
We are lifting the HRA borrowing cap. We are giving local authorities and housing associations longer-term certainty with their rents, and we also look forward to the publication of the social housing Green Paper, to address all these issues in the round.
Thank you, Mr Speaker, for your kind words.
Through the changes that we are making to the national planning policy framework, we want to streamline the process to get homes built and, particularly through our emphasis on the housing delivery test, to make sure that homes are built for the next generation.
To enable developers to build the right proportion of affordable housing, it is essential that they have the money for infrastructure. In that respect, I welcome the £7.6 million we have received for the spine road in Staplegrove. When will we know whether £18 million of funding will be announced following the joint bid by my council and Sedgemoor?
I thank my hon. Friend. The housing infrastructure fund is absolutely vital because people rightly ask local authorities with the ambition to build new homes where the roads, schools and clinics will come from. We are taking forward a whole range of bids for co-development. The business proposals will be analysed by my Department, and we will make further announcements in the autumn.
The Ministry’s own figures show that, at the end of 2014, the number of households in temporary accommodation in Bromley stood at 956, and by December 2017, the figure had risen to 1,501. There are simply not enough affordable homes in London, so when will the Government take real action to make sure that councils such as Bromley get building?
We are raising the HRA cap to give local authorities more flexibility to enable them to deliver the homes. The hon. Lady may also want to have a word with the Mayor of London, because we want the ambition from central Government taken right the way through. She is right to mention local councils, but we must also make sure that city hall is doing its bit.
This Government are continuing to identify ways to ensure that local authorities make full and efficient use of brownfield land, including through changing the national planning policy framework, supporting the reuse of buildings through permitted development rights, and requiring every authority to publish and maintain a register of brownfield land suitable for housing.
My hon. Friend is well known for his work in ensuring that brownfield land is prioritised for development. The Government are currently working up the details of a new £1.1 billion land assembly fund to enable Homes England to work alongside private developers to develop strategic sites, including new settlements and urban regeneration schemes. Homes England is also encouraged to use its powers of compulsory purchase, where necessary, to deliver community regeneration.
Again, my hon. Friend is a fantastic champion for her local area. It is very important that her local authority continues, with the Government, to identify ways to increase the take-up of these sites, especially for new homes, and to ensure that suitable brownfield land is prioritised for development.
Recent figures from the Campaign to Protect Rural England show that the amount of farmland, forest, gardens and greenfield land lost to development each year has increased by 58% over the past four years. What are the Government going to do to better protect our vital green spaces and redevelop our brownfield sites, which are so urgently in need of regeneration?
The hon. Lady makes a very important point. She will no doubt be aware of the protections in the NPPF to ensure that green-belt and greenfield sites are protected. I encourage all right hon. and hon. Members to remind their local authorities that there are protections in that policy framework.
As the Minister will know, I recently wrote to the Secretary of State to make a strong case for calling in a decision made by Labour-controlled Bradford Council to build 500 houses on the green belt in Burley in Wharfedale in my constituency. Given that Bradford’s Telegraph & Argus has reported today that Bradford Council is taking out of the plan a brownfield site in the city centre where more than 600 houses would have been built so that it can be used as a car park until at least 2024, will the Minister confirm that there can clearly not be “exceptional circumstances” to justify building 500 houses on the green belt in Burley in Wharfedale?
I am afraid that I have not read this morning’s Telegraph & Argus and seen that particular news; I shall try to get a copy by the end of today. I am sure that my hon. Friend realises that I cannot comment specifically on such a case. I understand that my colleague the Minister for Housing will be writing to him in very short order.
We are delivering economic growth across the northern powerhouse by devolving more power and investing more than any Government in history in our transport infrastructure. That is why, since the northern powerhouse was launched, we have grown the northern economy by £20 billion.
Cheshire West and Chester Council, Cheshire East Council, Warrington Borough Council, the local enterprise partnership and other stakeholders are determined in their quest to secure a devolution deal, yet increasingly frustrated. Will the Minister update the House on the timetable for the deal?
As I am sure the hon. Gentleman is aware, all the councils he mentions and the LEP have brought out what they refer to as the prospectus for growth, which is looking at how they can deliver real economic benefits for the people who live in Warrington and elsewhere in Cheshire. The Government remain open to ground-up locally supported devolution deals. I encourage the hon. Gentleman, the council leaders and the LEP to continue the discussions they have been having with me and my officials.
Last Friday it was announced that Siemens had won the contract for the new Piccadilly line trains and will now invest £200 million in a new train factory in Goole, creating 700 jobs—so not all investment in the south turns out to be all that terrible. However, can we make sure that the Department and the Minister in particular work with Siemens to ensure that the supply chain benefits the north of England in particular?
Should not the Government Front-Bench team learn this truth: that since the departure of the former Chancellor of the Exchequer, there has been no vision, no leadership and no result for the northern powerhouse? Can the Minister not provide some real leadership and let us catch up with some of these soft people in the south of England and London who get all the investment?
I am torn: I find myself partially agreeing with the hon. Gentleman, although I certainly do not agree that there has been no vision or leadership on the northern powerhouse. Since I became Minister we have announced a “minded to” deal for a North of Tyne combined authority, we have reaffirmed the commitment to the north Wales growth deal, we have announced that we intend to do a growth deal in the borderlands and the last Budget included £1.8 billion of new money going to the north of England.
We recently launched the £250 million midlands engine investment fund and agreed a second devolution deal with the Mayor of the West Midlands, Andy Street. We have also given £4 million to the midlands engine partnership to support a range of economic activity, including that of our very important ceramics sector.
The future health of our high streets is extremely important, which is why I am pleased to be able to announce today that my Department will launch a call for evidence over the summer looking at the future of our high street. We intend to establish an expert panel to diagnose the issues currently affecting the high street. I will be visiting my hon. Friend’s constituency shortly. I hope Longton and Fenton will make their voices heard.
Local Authorities: Children’s Services
Settlement funding has increased in recognition of pressures, including demand for children’s services. In addition, many local authorities have built up substantial reserves over recent years. It is absolutely right that they use those where necessary to protect high quality services for taxpayers.
Baby P, Victoria Climbié, Shannon Matthews—I am sure the House remembers those names. Child safety is a major concern right across our country, with councils starting no fewer than 500 child protection investigations a day. St Helens Council has almost twice as many looked-after children as the national average and has pulled £5 million from reserves to fund their care. That is unsustainable. Does the Minister really realise what is at stake? What will the Minister do to ensure that councils have the money they need to support our vulnerable children, instead of washing his hands of this?
This Government have ensured that all local authorities have increased resources to deal with all the various services they have to provide, including children’s services, on which, I am pleased to say, over £9 billion will be spent this year. The hon. Lady mentions reserves. She may know that last year reserves in her local authority were actually higher than they were five years ago.
We all want to live in a Britain where young people are safe, well cared for and nurtured, but for too many real life is very different. They rely instead on council safeguarding services to give them the protection they need, the very services that are facing a £2 billion funding gap and that have already overspent by £600 million. The question is simple: when can we see real action, with real money going directly to children’s services?
As I just said, £9 billion is going to children’s services just this year. As the hon. Gentleman knows, we are undertaking a fresh review of the relative needs and resources of all local authorities. As part of that work, there is ongoing work with the Department for Education to understand in detail the specific drivers for children’s services up and down the country. I look forward to his contributions to that piece of work.
Local Authorities: Vulnerable Children
Her Majesty’s chief inspector of education, children’s services and skills is responsible for the inspection of local authority children’s services. Last year, spending on the most vulnerable children increased to over £9 billion. I very much welcome the efforts of colleagues in the Department for Education and in local councils, who continually look for ways to improve their services.
Following the murder in Ipswich two weeks ago of a 17-year-old and the critical stabbing of a 16-year-old on Wednesday evening, does the Minister recognise the serious effects that cuts to support for looked-after children and other vulnerable young people are having on their ability to lead safe, productive and law-abiding lives?
I am sure the thoughts of the whole House are with the families of the young children the hon. Gentleman mentions at this difficult time. Matters of policing and crime are for the Home Office, but the Government and local councils agree about the importance of high quality children’s services. He will know that a new inspection framework was introduced earlier this year. I am pleased that Suffolk County Council, his local authority, was rated good in its most recent inspection.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that question. He will be pleased to know that just last week I met the Children’s Minister to discuss exactly the topic that he raised. In particular, one of the topics that we discussed was the care leavers covenant, which the Government are piloting and introducing to improve the educational and employment outcomes for children and young people leaving care.
Property Rental Market
It is hard to call somewhere home if you might not be living there in three months’ time, and for children, leaving home can also mean leaving school. Will my hon. Friend advise me what he is doing to increase the security of tenancies for people in rental accommodation?
The legal framework and guidance governing the relationship between lodgers and landlords has not been updated since 2006, pre-dating the growth in online lettings platforms and the affordability crisis, which has led many more people to become both landlords and lodgers. In this relationship, both parties can find themselves vulnerable. The current framework of protection is not fit for purpose. Will the Government take action to bring the framework that governs the relationship between landlords and lodgers up to date?
If the Government are serious about tackling rogue landlords, will the Secretary of State today back Labour’s plans to give local authorities the power to crack down on rogue landlords through private sector licensing, without authorities having to seek permission from central Government?
We are introducing the Tenant Fees Bill, which will not just make renting fairer but save tenants an estimated £240 million in its first year. My concern with Labour’s proposals is that Shelter has said that they would hurt some of the most vulnerable in our society.
There are 22,000 properties in Hull with a housing, health and social care rating hazard category of 1, the highest hazard rating that there is, and all these properties are in the private rented sector. The cost of repairing and removing these hazards is £23.5 million. Who does the Minister think should pay for that? Does he think it should be councils or private landlords? If he thinks that it should be private landlords, when will he start making it easier for councils to introduce private landlord licensing?
I thank the hon. Lady for her question. We absolutely think that the onus should be on the landlords. That is why we introduced civil penalties of up to £30,000 on rogue landlords and, in April, we are introducing banning orders and a database of rogue landlords and agents, so that we make sure that we protect tenants in the real world from that kind of abuse.
With Ramadan ending, I want to wish everyone Eid Mubarak. This week, we remember the Finsbury Park attack and, last week, we marked one year since the Grenfell Tower tragedy. The cladding thought to have been used on Grenfell Tower was unlawful under existing building regulations and should not have been used. To ensure that there is no doubt about which materials can be used on the external walls of high-rise residential buildings, today I am publishing a consultation on banning the use of combustible materials. Copies of the consultation are being placed in the Libraries of both Houses.
This Friday marks the 70th anniversary of the arrival of the Empire Windrush, and I hope colleagues from across the House will welcome the announcement of a national Windrush day to celebrate the contribution of the Windrush generation.
South Gloucestershire Council is planning to build thousands of homes, which local families need, but a slow build-out rate from developers is putting the whole of the authority’s plans at risk because of a shortage of five-year land supply. Will my right hon. Friend update the House on his strategy to ensure that permissions are built as quickly as possible?
I agree with my hon. Friend on the need to ensure that permissions are built out quickly. We will be taking that into firm consideration as part of the update to the national planning policy framework, which will be published before the summer. I hope he will also be aware of the work that my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Sir Oliver Letwin) is doing to see what the barriers are to prevent those build-outs from happening, and we will reflect on his ultimate recommendations.
The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the Prime Minister recently announced a growth deal for Ayrshire, and I am delighted to tell him that the negotiations, led by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland, are now under way, but it can only proceed as fast as the slowest actors, so I hope the hon. Gentleman will use his not inconsiderable influence to pressurise the Scottish Government to play their part in the negotiations.
My hon. Friend has been a long-standing advocate for rural funding in his county, and I am pleased to tell him that we will continue to pilot reform of the business rates retention system in the forthcoming year. We will publish details of the new pilot very shortly and would very much welcome Staffordshire’s application to become a pilot.
I thank the hon. Lady for raising this important topic. She will know that in the past I have spoken about greater provision of Changing Places in this House. Building regulations set the access requirements for new buildings, while the Equality Act requires providers to make reasonable adjustments. If someone feels they have been discriminated against, there are several means of redress, and the Equality Advisory Support Service can provide help and support in that process.
I certainly would encourage residents to take part in the consultation. My hon. Friend has rightly highlighted the challenge and need for the county to come together around this. We will obviously look to the consultation and the proposals as they are forthcoming to provide that long-term stability and solution.
I hope that the hon. Gentleman and his constituents have had an opportunity to make a submission on the revised national planning policy framework. We want to make sure that we give clear guidance, but ultimately it will be up to local authorities to get the balance right for the communities they serve.
Local authorities can submit their business cases from September and we expect to make the funding decisions later in the autumn. The £4 billion forward funding stream is an essential mechanism to unlock the delivery of 400,000 extra homes and make sure we carry communities with us.
I recently went out early one morning with the outreach workers of St Mungo’s, who help people newly sleeping rough to get into long-term support. Why is the Secretary of State pressing ahead with changes to funding for homeless hostels and other supported housing that charities such as St Mungo’s have said could threaten their hostels?
I, too, have visited St Mungo’s and seen the excellent work it does to provide first-night-out support to people on the streets. I will continue to work with it and other charities as we look towards our strategy for dealing with rough sleeping and at how that will need to reflect on all these important issues.
My right hon. Friend has made a powerful point about design. We have tried to bring people together on round tables to consider such issues, and to think about what the national planning policy framework can do to advance the agenda that he has highlighted.
As the hon. Lady will know, the Government have been consulting on that very issue. We are absolutely committed to reducing homelessness, and we will be able to provide further information in due course.
No, it is me. Up and down—you have to be quick.
On 9 May the Secretary of State announced the allocation of funds for the £28 million Housing First pilots, which will be in Greater Manchester, the Liverpool city region and the west midlands. Plans to measure the impact and value for money of the approach are also well under way, and the first beneficiaries of the pilots will be housed in the autumn.
The Government are currently consulting on sites for Traveller families. Rather than simply looking at more enforcement, which police chiefs and others say will not work, what positive solutions is the Minister considering, and will he meet the all-party parliamentary group for Gypsies, Travellers and Roma to discuss some of those positive alternatives?
I thank the hon. Lady for her question. I should certainly be very happy to receive any submissions from her. I think it is right that we increase the trend making authorised sites available and, at the same time, ensure that, through both local authority and police powers, enforcement and the rule of law apply to all members of our communities.
The draft national planning policy framework largely closes the loophole of viability assessments, which developers often use to avoid the requirement for affordable housing. Would the Minister consider introducing stronger compulsory purchase order powers, so that local authorities can step in and purchase sites when developers continue to refuse to meet their obligations?
I thank my hon. Friend for his question. I know how interested my hon. Friend is in this matter. CPO powers certainly have a role to play, although they must be exercised proportionately. The review conducted by my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Sir Oliver Letwin) will enable us to look at the issue in the round.
The discussions about any increase in funds for the NHS have been well publicised, but it is shocking that there is no extra money for social care. Was the Secretary of State aware that those discussions were taking place, and did he make any representations to increase funding for social care?
As I have said, the Government are committed to providing a long-term, sustainable settlement for social care. That work has been ongoing for a while and is continuing. It includes the Secretary of State, along with the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, and there will be a report in due course.
Corby and East Northamptonshire is at the forefront when it comes to building new homes, but there are currently a number of planning applications in the system that are completely unwanted and on green open space, although we more than exceed our housing targets. Does my hon. Friend agree that, in such instances, when local communities are doing all the right things, local developers should respect their wishes?
I congratulate my hon. Friend and his local authority. We want to see local authorities exercise their ambition, and we want to support them with the homes infrastructure funding that is available. Of course, once authorities have their local plans in place, they should have the protections to ensure that those plans are properly delivered and not abused.
I thank the Secretary of State for the letter that he wrote to me on 7 June about New Ferry. When I meet him, as he has invited me to do, will that invitation extend not just to me and to the Mayor of Liverpool city region, Steve Rotheram, but to residents of New Ferry?
The music industry, clubgoers, musicians and the Musicians Union all welcome the inclusion of the Agent of Change principle in the Department’s proposed revision of planning regulation. When will the Minister actually introduce that much-welcomed and much-needed change?
It is really good to see the northern powerhouse Minister on the Treasury Bench because in recent weeks there was a view that he had gone out of service when we were facing the rail chaos around the new timetabling, so could he tell us exactly what he has been doing to improve connectivity between the east and west of the north?
Apart from doing ITV, Granada, the BBC and local papers, including the Manchester Evening News, I do not know where the hon. Lady has been looking, but we continue to work with Transport for the North to improve transport connections across the north of England. This Government have been absolutely clear that the performance of Northern has been unacceptable, but I offer Labour Members the opportunity to condemn the RMT strike action, which is going to make a bad situation worse, or are they too heavily in hock to the unions to do what is right for the northern powerhouse?
Good public health is the best way of improving the wellbeing of the community, yet York City Council has slashed the public health budget by £1.3 million and we now have the highest level of in-service drug deaths in the country, so what is the Minister doing to protect public health, particularly given the removal of the public health grant?
These are all magnificent questions, but I hope the House will take it in the right spirit if I say that I do not think many hon. and right hon. Members have yet read the textbook on pithy questioning available on general release from the right hon. Member for New Forest West (Sir Desmond Swayne). It would be a very useful Christmas present.
The public health grant is not being ended; it is being folded into the business rates retention plan that the local government sector has welcomed and agreed for that process. Also, a new funding formula is being worked out with the Department of Health and Social Care specifically for public health, and I am sure we will welcome the hon. Lady’s contributions to that.
Has the Secretary of State yet personally had the chance to consider the important matter of Yorkshire devolution, and will he agree to meet the Yorkshire leaders from all parties before Yorkshire Day on 1 August—the Secretary of State personally?
We are seeing peace and harmony across the House on Yorkshire.
I have been having discussions with the Secretary of State on Yorkshire devolution and with the recently elected Mayor of South Yorkshire. The Government have been absolutely clear that, before “One Yorkshire” can proceed, the South Yorkshire devolution deal must be fully implemented. It is up to the Labour party councils in South Yorkshire to get on with that. Nearly £1 billion in Government funding could flow to South Yorkshire. Why do they not seem to want it?
As the right hon. Gentleman is aware—because he, like me, attended a meeting at the Wales Office just before Christmas—the North Wales growth deal is proceeding well, but it can only go as fast as the slowest actors, so I say to him that he has power and influence over the North Wales local authorities. This Government have been clear: we would like to see concrete proposals come forward for the autumn Budget, but we cannot do this without the support of the North Wales authorities.
I think the hon. Gentleman will, with all his years in this House, recognise the importance of this issue and that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has been taking important steps as well. Of course local government have a responsibility too, and I hope he will welcome the settlement that has seen more resources going to local government under this Government.
The following Member made and subscribed the Affirmation required by law:
Janet Daby, for Lewisham East.
Over the weekend, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary issued an emergency licence to allow Billy Caldwell’s medical team to access cannabis-based medicine. This was an emergency procedure, led by a senior clinician with the support of the medical director at Chelsea and Westminster Hospital. I am sure that the whole House will want to join me in expressing genuine concern for Billy’s health, and that they will be pleased with the news that he has been discharged from hospital today.
The course of action in this case was unprecedented. I should explain that our guiding principle is that any process in this context must be clinically led and evidence based. To date, Home Office policy has been to permit the production, supply and possession of raw cannabis solely for research purposes under a Home Office licence. The cannabis-based medicine Sativex is currently the only one that can be prescribed in the UK, because there is a proven case for its safety and efficacy. However, this case and that of Alfie Dingley and others have shone a light on the use of cannabis-based medicine in this country and highlighted the need for the Government to explore the issue, and our handling of these issues, further.
I recognise the need to ensure that the approach to licensing works more effectively. As a first step, I can announce today that the Government are establishing an expert panel of clinicians to advise Ministers on any individual applications to prescribe cannabis-based medicines. This is consistent with the principle that a clinician must be at the heart of the process. I have asked Dame Sally Davies to take forward this important work. Let me be clear that both the Home Secretary and I have, as fathers, been profoundly moved by Billy’s story and others like it, along with the rest of the House and the rest of the country. I want to reassure the families and the public that the Home Secretary and I are working together to do all we can to take forward the necessary steps at pace, and that more announcements will be forthcoming.
I would like to thank the Minister for coming to the House today to discuss this urgent question. The Home Secretary has now conceded that cannabis has medicinal benefits by granting the emergency licence for Billy Caldwell on expert advice. When can we expect to see more import licences to make medicinal cannabis available to all who would benefit from it? Moreover, will the Government support the Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn) on the legalisation of cannabis for medicinal purposes, when it returns on 6 July?
On 20 February, an urgent question was raised by the hon. Member for Reigate (Crispin Blunt) about Alfie Dingley’s case. Billy Caldwell is now in exactly the same situation. At that time, the Minister told the House that he would undertake
“to explore every option within the current regulatory framework.”—[Official Report, 20 February 2018; Vol. 636, c. 25.]
Now, 119 days later, the Government have still not granted Alfie Dingley his medicine. That medicine is available in 37 other countries. The Prime Minister met Alfie in Downing Street on 20 March and he was told that the Government would do all they could to help him. Billy Caldwell was hospitalised last week after his prescribed medical cannabis was taken away by customs officers, so it is excellent news that he left hospital today, but hon. Members will have been alarmed to hear the Health Secretary say this morning that it will be months before a system is in place to get medicinal cannabis to such children, and other patients who require it. Will the Minister give an assurance that Alfie Dingley will have had his medicine by the time he comes to Parliament with his mother on Wednesday?
Moreover, I also have two children in my constituency—the only two in Wales and two of just 15 in the United Kingdom—who have the rare genetic disorder NKH, which is a serious, life limiting condition. Charlie Jones, who is six, and Jace Newton-Sealey, who is just one, both suffer from frequent debilitating cluster seizures. According to their consultant neurologist, to whom I spoke earlier, both would benefit hugely from using medical cannabis. Charlie’s grandad, Ian Gilmore, has been in contact with the Home Office since 2014, when he learned of the benefits of cannabis for Charlie, but he has been given conflicting advice, pushed from pillar to post and fobbed off.
Will the Minister say when his Department will get a grip on the situation? Why the delay until now? Why is an announcement not being made today that this medicine will be available now to all who need it? Many patients—this is what I have a problem with—are illegally accessing cannabis, which opens them up to using the wrong form of the drug. The Government have a duty to protect patients and sufferers, so when will the Minister act? Why—
I thank the hon. Lady for that long list of questions, and I will do my best to answer them. She asked about the recognition of the medical benefits of some cannabis-based medicine but, as I said in my response, they are already recognised by the fact that, for example, Sativex can be prescribed in the UK. Its safety and efficacy have been proven, and it has been rigorously tested. She will know the responsibility of the Government and everyone involved in the process to ensure that medicines are safe, but the system allows for medicines to be licensed once they are established and tested.
The hon. Lady mentioned the case of Alfie Dingley, with which I am familiar, and I made it clear that, however we may feel about the current rules, I undertook to try to find a solution for Alfie within the existing rules. Again, it is an unprecedented situation, because this is the first time that we are considering a personal licence, so this is new ground for everyone. I can confirm to her, as I confirmed to the family, that the process of applying for a licence to find a long-term sustainable legal solution for Alfie is well under way. It is clinically led, and I have given assurances that we will drive the process as hard as possible. Indeed, a date has been set for a compliance visit, which is a necessary part of the process. We are pushing things as hard as possible, and I want to place on the record my thanks, appreciation and respect for the dignity and patience of Alfie’s family in this difficult situation.
The hon. Lady challenges the Government to change fast, and I think I have made it clear that, as the Prime Minister said this morning, we have to look hard at our processes for handling such situations. We must ensure, as the Health Secretary made clear today, that our policy is fully up to date with the best possible understanding of the most recent and relevant evidence. As I am sure the hon. Lady will appreciate, the Government have to take a bit of time to think things through. We have to get the detail right. We do not have the luxury of opposition; we have to work through the detail to get this right. My statement recognises not only that we are taking immediate steps to improve our processes so that they become more clinically led, with the introduction of a new clinically-led panel of experts to advise Ministers, but that we are taking a wider look at policy processes and will be making a forthcoming announcement.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement. I am by no means a supporter of recreational cannabis use. However, a woman I know, Amelia Powers, was given two weeks to live with a diagnosis of a tumour of the brain. There was nothing more they could do, and she took to using a form of this and, for the last seven or eight years, has not just reduced the tumour but has got rid of it. She now runs her own company, which she started.
The point I would make is somewhat wider. The biggest problem the Minister faces is that in the Department of Health and Social Care it is still not considered a good thing to investigate the medicinal properties of this particular drug. I urge him, if at all possible, to try to get a coalition on getting this investigated, because clearly there are medicinal preparations that could be used. It would be helpful if he drove that.
I suspect that every Member has personal knowledge, directly or indirectly, of people who swear by the benefits of cannabis-based medicine that has helped them in very difficult circumstances. I completely understand that.
My right hon. Friend talked about building a coalition across Government on updating the evidence, and I signalled in my statement that that is exactly what is happening. The Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Steve Brine), is sitting alongside me, and I refer my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr Duncan Smith) to this morning’s comments by the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, which make it clear that the Government are seriously looking again at our processes and how we handle these cases.
Is the Minister aware that the public are increasingly dismayed by the Government’s handling of the question of cannabis oil for medical use? I remind him that the concentration of the relevant compounds in cannabis oil is so small that nobody could possibly get any recreational use from it.
I accept that the Home Secretary moved swiftly to allow a short-term supply for Billy Caldwell but, overall, the Government’s management of the current system of issuing licences for cannabis oil has been lamentable. It has left people in pain and suffering, and it has left families anxious and distraught. It seems to Opposition Members that the current system, even with the expert panel to which he refers, is simply not fit for purpose.
That is why a Labour Government, mindful that this oil is legal in many other jurisdictions, will move towards a legal framework that allows the prescription of cannabis oil for medical use. We believe that such a move, taken with all due care, tests and so forth, would have support on both sides of the House and would be welcomed by the British public, who are weary of the chaos, confusion and personal tragedies caused by the Government’s current management of the system.
I thank the right hon. Lady for recognising the speed of movement by the Home Office this week in response to an emergency request from clinical leads at the Chelsea and Westminster Hospital. The Home Secretary overruled nothing in this process. We worked together very closely this week and responded, as I said, very decisively to an emergency request for a limited licence in a direct call from the senior clinician and the medical director at the Chelsea and Westminster.
I understand the right hon. Lady’s point about public sentiment on this. People are unsettled by what they have seen, and we totally understand that. What I regret is that she is trying to make a party political point. Of course, she was in power and Labour was in power for a long time, and they did the square root of very little in this context. The system we are now trying to work with is basically the rules we inherited from the last Labour Government.
I do not think anyone in politics is in a position to take a high moral stand on this issue. We need to give an undertaking that the policies and processes will be informed by the most up-to-date evidence, and we challenge ourselves harder to make sure these processes are more clinically led than they have been in the past.
I refer Members to my declaration of interest, as a consultant paediatrician. Some compounds within cannabis have anticonvulsive properties. Cannabidiol has been shown in animal studies to have an active anticonvulsant compound, but THC, the one that is illegal in certain concentrations, has been found to have both anticonvulsant and proconvulsant properties in animal studies, and there are concerns that it may also be responsible for causing significant psychological problems, such as psychosis, if used over a longer period. Epidiolex is a pharmaceutical grade, quality-assured product that contains cannabidiol but less than 0.1% THC, and it is both legal and used in clinical trials in this country, including with children. The oils available on the internet or at health food shops are not subject to that sort of scrutiny, do not have the same level of quality assurance and have variable levels of concentrations. Does my right hon. Friend agree that there is a huge difference between these two products—the quality-assured one and the not quality-assured one—and that we need to investigate the best possible scientific evidence on the usage and benefits of cannabis-based medicines, so that they can be used safely and properly to the best effect for our patients?
I defer to my hon. Friend’s medical knowledge, and her intervention just reinforces the point I am trying to make about the need for this process to be clinically led, as far as is possible. She is making the point about there being certain cannabis medicines and certain conditions, and the evidence is at best mixed on this. She makes the fundamental point about our responsibility, as regulators, being to make sure that people are accessing and using products that are tried and tested, and as safe as possible. Let us imagine the consequences of prescribing an unregulated medicine that goes wrong—imagine the scene in this House at that point. In our, understandably, emotional response to recent events, we must also make sure that we do policy right and get it right. That is why we require a little more time to come back to this House with more detailed plans.
The Scottish National party is in favour of the decriminalisation of cannabis for medicinal use, given the evidence of the benefits it has in alleviating some serious conditions, such as that suffered by young Billy Caldwell and young Alfie Dingley. We would like the Government to look seriously at the evidence for decriminalising the use of cannabis for medicinal use. If they are not prepared to do that, we would like them to devolve the power to Scotland to do it, so that the Scottish Government could take steps. However, I stress that we would like to see this done for everybody in the UK. I therefore have two questions for the Minister. First, when can we expect the Government to look seriously at the evidence and to bring forward these matters for proper debate in this House? Secondly, if that is not going to happen, when will he allow the Scottish Government to take the appropriate steps for people in Scotland?
I thank the hon. and learned Lady for that question; she is right to insist on the importance of an evidence-based approach. Of course, the Home Office regularly keeps the evidence under review. As I have said at this Dispatch Box before, one key milestone in this process is to review what the World Health Organisation feels about this issue, because it is conducting a major review of it. We are actively considering whether there is an argument for taking a more urgent step in terms of reviewing the evidence, the processes and the way we handle these cases, and I will keep the House informed on that.
Does my right hon. Friend accept that there is nothing new, and no inherent contradiction, in having available for medicinal use addictive drugs that one would not allow for recreational use? May I illustrate that by describing my personal experience of 32 years ago? When recovering from severe back surgery, I was given a rather pleasant drug and I asked for a repeat prescription, only to be told that as morphia is related to heroin, there were limits on how much they were going to give me. So why can common sense not prevail in the case of marijuana, as occurred in that case?
I thank my right hon. Friend for sharing his personal experience and bringing back what were clearly some happy memories for him. I understand the point he makes and come back to what I was saying: we are absolutely serious about reviewing urgently our processes and policy in this area, to make sure that we are as consistent and up-to-date as possible. I have signalled today that we recognise, as did the Prime Minister this morning, that we need to make some changes to the way we handle these cases, which is why I have introduced the first step that we have taken today.
Is it not utterly shameful that in this country we continue to criminalise people who use cannabis in various forms for medicinal purposes, including the relief of pain, thereby pushing people into the hands of criminals who have no interest at all in their welfare? And what on earth is a Home Office Minister doing responding to an urgent question on a health issue? Surely it should be the responsibility of the Department of Health and Social Care.
The right hon. Gentleman and I go back a long way and I have a great deal of respect for his position and experience. I simply make two points. First, the rules are as they are and, as a former Minister, the right hon. Gentleman knows that Ministers are bound by the rules. We can debate and challenge in this place—as we are beginning to do—whether the rules are fit for purpose, and that is the right thing to do in a representative Parliament. Secondly, in respect of my role, I have today signalled clearly that we are looking again at our processes and how these cases are handled. I have signalled clearly that we believe strongly that the handling of such cases needs to be more clinically led, hence the appointment of a panel. As to which Ministers decide and where the decision sits inside the system, that will be part of our consideration of how we handle these cases more effectively than we have done in the past.
Will my right hon. Friend assure the House that, with the Government having taken this important initiative, other similar cases will now be treated with similar leniency and that we will not have to wait for the wheels of Government to grind along slowly?
I do not think that the wheels of Government moved slowly this week at all—far from it. In response to an emergency request, we issued an emergency and limited licence very quickly, in recognition of the very difficult situation that we were in. I assure my hon. Friend that we will always seek to treat cases as consistently as possible, and that goes for Alfie Dingley and Sophia Gibson and the others. It is important that we are consistent, but in this case we were dealing with an emergency request for an emergency licence.
Alfie met the Prime Minister eight weeks ago and she instructed the Home Office to act; on Saturday, he had 30 seizures. Will the Home Office give the right hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Sir Mike Penning)—who is seeking to catch your eye, Mr Speaker—Lady Meacher and me the authority to go through border control with the drugs that Alfie needs? If the Minister will not act, may we?
I do not think that that will be necessary. With respect to the right hon. Gentleman, he is a lawmaker and should not be a lawbreaker. On the Alfie Dingley case, we have made it quite clear that we will do everything that we can, within the existing law, to find a solution. We have had a bit of a stop-start process because this is new ground and it is very complicated. It has to be clinically led. The right hon. Gentleman possibly does not know the underlying details, but I assure him that I am assured that the process is now firmly on track. I hope that we will be in a position to make a positive decision as soon as possible.
My constituent’s two-and-a-half-year-old son was having 300 seizures a day. He described each one as resetting his son’s brain like a computer hard drive being wiped. Following the use of CBD, the seizures have been reduced to between 30 and 50 a day. Will the Minister meet me to discuss this case, and will he perhaps meet my constituent, because he has an outstanding application for a medical licence for his son?
I can certainly give my hon. Friend that assurance. I will of course offer to meet her constituent, as I have met every single family who have come forward, because we are absolutely serious about trying to help, as far as we can, because these cases are deeply difficult. I come back, though, to the point that I am sure my hon. Friend will absolutely respect, which is that it should not really be down to politicians to make these decisions; it has to be a clinically led process. When the clinicians came forward this week on Billy’s behalf, we were able to respond to the request for emergency help, but it has to be a clinically led process.
The fact is that, had Billy Caldwell’s family not taken this to the limits at the weekend, the Government would still be sitting on their hands. The good news is that, for the first time, the Government have acknowledged the therapeutic value of medicinal cannabis. I ask the Government to expand this to people suffering from multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s and certain cancers. It is happening in 30 American states, and 12-plus countries in Europe are already doing this. I ask this Government to legislate to bring forward medicinal cannabis under prescription in the United Kingdom.
The hon. Gentleman is expressing the view, which is held in many places across the House, that legislation needs to be revisited and that this is the right place in which to debate that. I refute what he was saying about the Government sitting on their hands in relation to the Billy Caldwell case. We worked very hard during the week to try to find solutions to a very difficult situation. The Government will always be bound by the rules of the day whatever people think about them. I am just very glad that we could find a temporary solution for Billy and I hope that it is a step towards the long-term solution that he deserves.
Of course this process must be driven at pace, as it was this weekend by the team at the Home Office. I wish to place on record my thanks to the officials who worked extremely hard to find a solution and respond to this emergency. I come back to the point that this needs to be clinically led. In asking Dame Sally Davies to take forward the important work of setting up this panel, I am not talking to a plodding bureaucrat.
Further to the question from the right hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis), does the right hon. Gentleman agree that it is unfathomable that medicinal opiates, which are the same family as heroin, can be prescribed for medical reasons—usually for pain relief—yet medicinal cannabis cannot be despite the strong evidence base that it should be? Crucially, can the Minister give us the evidence base that is informing the Government’s position?
The evidence base comes from the official advice from the advisory council and others and it has been set for some time. The rules that we are having to work with have been around for a while under successive Governments. If this is the moment to revisit and challenge those rules, that is the role of a parliamentary democracy. What I am saying is that the Government have reflected deeply on the events of the past few weeks. They are constantly updating the evidence from the World Health Organisation and others, and are actively discussing changes to the way in which we handle these cases. I have made one announcement today and expect others to follow.
I thank my right hon. Friend for the way in which he personally intervened on Friday afternoon as the deterioration in Billy Caldwell’s condition became clear, and the Home Secretary for his response within hours of his becoming aware of the situation. My right hon. Friend knows that he has received advice from me, as co-chair of the all-party group for drug policy reform, about how the Government should navigate their way out of this. I offer to assist in the review that is going on. Will he also take advice from Charlotte Caldwell, whom I have met a number of times before this week? She is a redoubtable campaigner and, of necessity, an expert in this field. I hope that he will take up her offer of engaging with her in this process.
Finally, I do have an anxiety that the framework of this review, if it is within the current law, could end up with the wrong answer. The problem is that the current law is based on the wrong premise, which is that there is no value in this medicine.
I thank my hon. Friend for his comments and his extremely constructive approach to a very difficult situation. He will get a reply to his helpful letter. I fully undertake to engage with him and with anyone who has strong views, opinions, and particularly expertise in this area. As I have said, we must make sure that policy and process are up to date and informed by the best and most up-to-date evidence, and that is what we undertake to do.
The Minister has referred to the role played by the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, and he announced an expert body to look at the matter. Will he tell us what the advisory council is currently saying to the Government about this issue?
The advisory council’s advice on the lack of evidence around the medicinal benefits of cannabis and cannabis-based medicines has not changed, but the process needs to be reviewed constantly in the light of the evidence, and that is what we do. I should clarify that the clinical panel that I have announced today will advise Ministers on specific claims and applications that come to us.
The Minister knows that I was at No. 10 with him and the Prime Minister, Alfie and his family. I cannot see why there should be a difference between the wonderful news that Billy has been given his drugs on clinical advice, and the advice in the cases of Alfie and others. The reason for the difference is that these medications come under schedule 1 of the Misuse of Drugs Regulations 2001. That is why the issue is being dealt with by the Home Office, but it should not be in the Home Office; it should be in the Department of Health and Social Care. I am sure that Alfie will get his drugs very soon, but it is not soon enough for many others.
I understand my right hon. Friend’s point. He has been a tireless and persistent campaigner for Alfie and others in this situation. I share his hope that we can process Alfie’s application as quickly as possible; it is now on a much better track. This is complicated and it is new ground for everyone, not least the clinical and medical community, but we are finding our way towards a legal, sustainable, long-term solution, as well as reviewing our processes in the handling of such cases, as I have outlined today.
Is it not the case that it is becoming policy by public outcry? It should not take such desperate cases for the Government to revisit and relook at their policy. A constituent of mine has relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis, and suffers serious pain every day. Her specialist thinks that medicinal cannabis is the way forward for her pain relief. Will the Minister look at her case if I write to him, and will he look seriously at expediting provisions as quickly as possible for all our constituents?
I hope that I can do better than that by inviting the clinical panel, once it is set up, to look at the case raised by the hon. Lady. The point is that, within the rules at the moment—as we are trying to demonstrate through the Alfie Dingley application—we are prepared to look at individual licences in exceptional cases. Will it be as quick as I, or anyone, would like? No, but this is new and difficult. We need to get it absolutely right, not least to ensure that these licences stand up to scrutiny and legal challenge. I hope that we are going to get there very soon. I have given the family my absolute assurance that we are going to drive this process as hard as possible, as we will with other applications in the new system that we are setting up.
As the former Minister for medicines regulation, may I welcome the intervention of the Home Secretary and the Policing Minister this week? When I tried to look at this issue as a Minister, the message that I got was that it was the Home Office that was so tough on cannabis law that it would not countenance changes. I welcome the fact that Ministers are looking at this issue and, more importantly, the Prime Minister’s announcement today that she is supporting a review. I urge the Minister not to overcomplicate this. Patients around the country are suffering from acute conditions. It should not be beyond the wit of Ministers to put together a simple licensing and registration scheme so that those people are able to possess appropriate cannabis oil in a way that does not open up the market for recreational use.
I thank my hon. Friend for his comments and recognise his passion and leadership on the subject. I come back to this point: it is all very well for politicians to express their passionately held views on this subject but, at the end of the day, the people we have to hear from are the clinicians.
I welcome this first step from the Government, but the Minister has just said that the Government recognise the medical benefits of cannabis, so the question is: why on earth is cannabis still a controlled drug under schedule 1, which is for drugs with no medical benefit? It is time for an urgent rescheduling of cannabis, which would make life easier for the Government and for patients.
As I was at pains to point out in my opening remarks, cannabis-based Sativex is prescribed in the UK because there is a proven case for its safety and efficacy. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman, like me, will not want to have the market full of unregulated or untested products if we do not know their long-term impact. We have to proceed with some sense of responsibility and get the detail right. We have shown at the Home Office that we are prepared to be flexible on these issues out of compassion for exceptional cases.
We have only announced it today. I have only just asked Dame Sally Davies to take forward this important work. There is a lot of detail to be filled in, in consultation with her and others. We will return to the House to fill in some of the detail that my hon. Friend asks for.