House of Commons
Monday 23 July 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 is a key Government priority, and we are spending more than £1.2 billion through to 2020, including committing more than £2 million of funding to Torbay. We are also committing a further £279,000 this year through the rough sleeping initiative. We will announce more on the rough sleeping strategy shortly.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his answer. Work supported by his Department to look at ways to end street homelessness has produced a recommendation that Torbay should adopt a Housing First approach. Is he happy to meet me to discuss whether Torbay could be the next pilot area for such an approach, which has already happened in three major urban areas?
I am sure the Minister for homelessness, my hon. Friend the Member for Selby and Ainsty (Nigel Adams), would be happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss the matter further, but, as he highlights, the Government are supportive of the Housing First approach and are investing £28 million in a large-scale pilot in three main regions of England.
Latest departmental figures show that 6% of rough sleepers in London are aged between 18 and 25 and that more than 120,000 children are living in temporary accommodation in England. Young people are suffering as a result of the Tory housing crisis. Why does the Secretary of State think that the number of homeless children fell under Labour, but has risen under the Tories?
This Government are committed to tackling homelessness. That is why we have committed £1.2 billion to do so, pledged to end rough sleeping by 2027 and changed the law so that councils can place families in private rented accommodation. That is action by this Government to deal with this important issue.
I very much welcome the £28 million to trial or pilot Housing First and the £192,000 to my local authority for a micro-Housing First project. Given that we know this approach works, in particular for rough sleepers with very complex needs, what steps can my right hon. Friend take to accelerate the roll-out across the United Kingdom?
I commend my hon. Friend for his work on the all-party parliamentary group for this important issue. As he highlights, we are piloting in three areas, but we are reflecting carefully on the issue of complexity and the challenges that those who are rough sleeping face in getting accommodation, and we will propose further measures as we bring forward our rough sleeping strategy.
The Secretary of State has to do so much more, especially on the rough sleeping crisis. We see that in particular in the warmer weather, and it is very visible in all our cities, including in Nottingham city centre. The issue is particularly related to the massive fall in the number of mental health overnight beds, with 6,000 fewer than in 2010. Will he give a commitment to speak about this with his opposite number at the Department of Health and Social Care?
The hon. Gentleman will welcome the £420,000 committed to Nottingham through the rough sleeping initiative, which underlines the practical steps we are taking, including the £30 million that has been committed. We will bring forward further proposals through the rough sleeping strategy. He is right that this is an important issue: this Government take it seriously, and I take it seriously personally. That is why my first visit as Secretary of State was to a rough sleeping charity to see the work it is doing. We will be coming forward with more work.
My right hon. Friend’s immediate predecessor was very familiar with the work being undertaken by the Mayor of the West Midlands to eliminate rough sleeping and homelessness. Will my right hon. Friend pick up the reins and visit Andy Street to see what the west midlands is doing on that?
That first visit that I referred to was to the west midlands, where I met Andy Street to see some of the very good practical work taking place in Birmingham, and I commend that work. Equally, I commend some of the work we are doing around the west midlands through the Housing First pilots.
Shelter England said this morning that 33,000 people living in temporary accommodation in England are in work, which is up 73% since 2013. Shelter believes that that is down to expensive private lets, the housing benefit freeze and a chronic lack of social housing. How does the Secretary of State respond to that?
I agree with the hon. Lady that everyone deserves a safe and decent place to live, and we are providing more than £1.2 billion so that all those left homeless get the support they need, but the broader issue she raises on social and affordable housing is germane. That is why the Government have increased the funding around that. There is now up to £9 billion to deal with affordable homes.
The Secretary of State missed the point entirely, which was about people who are working but unable to afford accommodation and a roof over their head. Is it not the case that under this Government work no longer pays?
No. As I have already highlighted, I recognise the issues of supply and of affordability. That is why we have invested more heavily in this and, indeed, given councils additional borrowing flexibilities of about £1 billion in England. Yes, of course, we recognise the challenge, and that is why this Government are responding.
In 2016-17, we added 217,000 homes to the housing stock in England—the highest level in all but one of the past 30 years. We have set out an ambitious package of reforms to create a housing market that delivers 300,000 homes a year on average by the mid-2020s.
I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. A recent report by the think-tank Onward proposes that more of the land value created by housing development needs to be captured for the community, not just by developers. Does he agree?
My hon. Friend makes an important point in that developers should be held to account on, for example, delivering their commitments on infrastructure and affordable homes for communities. That is why we are proposing a new approach to viability assessments in the revised national planning policy framework, and we have consulted on further reforms to developer contributions.
May I help the Secretary of State? The fact is that every part of the country is not like Maidenhead. May I tell him that if we want new homes for people in this country who do not have a home, we need homes that are the right homes for the right people? We need social housing and housing for the elderly. We do not just want a large number of houses built in places such as Maidenhead; we need them in real towns and cities up and down this country.
I agree with the broad thrust of what the hon. Gentleman highlights about the range of homes that our country needs. Indeed, our ambition is to deliver 300,000 homes by the mid-2020s, looking at all the different sectors of our communities, and we have been consulting on that in the national planning policy framework to help to deliver it.
If my right hon. Friend looks at the draft national planning policy framework, he will see that it is about plan policy: setting the high-level objectives and then allowing local areas to form their plans. I hope that when he sees the final NPPF he will recognise that.
While the new homes are being built, will the Department consider looking at a requirement on all local authorities to place families within a reasonable distance of schools, as so many children in temporary accommodation are travelling for over two hours to get to their schools?
I acknowledge the broad point that the hon. Lady highlights. That is why we are very firmly committed to providing infrastructure around new homes, and schools are very firmly a part of that.
Further to that question, in east Hertfordshire we recognise the need for more homes, but they must be matched by additional investment in infrastructure and public services. What are the Government doing to make sure that this investment in these vital services is directed to areas where housing development will be at its greatest?
As my hon. Friend will know, the Government have provided a £5 billion housing infrastructure fund to ensure that more homes mean better, not more stretched, local infrastructure. The draft national planning policy framework does make it clear that local authorities should ensure that the necessary infrastructure supports developments that they approve.
So many people’s dream of buying their own home has been dashed, yet the number of new low-cost homes built for first-time buyers has halved since 2010. Why?
I would say to the right hon. Gentleman that we are dealing with what has been a broken housing market—something that has existed over many years, with that lack of investment—which is why this Government are committed to investing £44 billion on the home building agenda in the coming years. That is about transforming life chances, and actually delivering the homes that our country needs and such opportunities for generations to come.
This Government have had more than eight years to do the job, and what they are doing is not working. Home ownership rose under Labour, but has now hit a 30-year low under the Conservatives. We cannot just stoke prices with tax cuts and home-buy loans; we need to build more low-cost homes to make home ownership more affordable. More than three years on from the Government promising 200,000 cut-price starter homes, why is the total number so far built zero?
Last year, we saw the homes that are being delivered at a high, and that has not been any greater, other than in one year, over the last 30 years. The right hon. Gentleman glosses over Labour’s record, but what did we see when Labour was in power? House building—down by 45%. Homes bought and sold—down by 40%. Social housing—down by 400,000. However, there was one thing that kept going up: the number of people on the social housing waiting list. It is this Government who are determined to deliver.
Planning Viability Assessments: Council Houses
Local authorities have built 12,340 dwellings since 2010, up from 2,920 over the previous 13 years. However, we recognise that viability assessments can be used to reduce contributions towards affordable housing. That is why we are introducing a new approach to viability, through changes in the national planning policy framework.
The current framework means that last year the number of affordable homes provided under section 106 agreements was only half the 32,000 peak in Labour’s last year in office. Despite that, Southwark’s Labour council has built 535 council homes in just four years, with over 1,000 more in the pipeline. However, the waiting list is 11,000, so will the Minister tell us whether right to buy will now be banned for those seeking not a home to live in, but a cash cow to rent out? Will he also say how the imminent Green Paper will empower Southwark to build the genuinely affordable council homes that local people need?
The right to buy has been a powerful and important initiative in ensuring that people have places that they can call their home. We will set out an approach in the new NPPF that will reduce delays from the use of viability assessments to negotiate developer contributions by front-loading that. The Government are taking steps to speed up home delivery, which is something the hon. Gentleman should welcome.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the number of council houses, and indeed any other houses, being built would be greatly improved if the Government insisted on a far higher standard of design and layout? Will he therefore favour, in planning applications for council houses and all other houses, developers who insist in those plans on the highest possible standards for the design and layout of those houses?
A Chartwell standard, perhaps.
I do agree with a lot of what my right hon. Friend highlights about the importance of design and style to ensuring that we create homes for the future that we can be proud of. This is something that we are considering carefully as we finalise the national planning policy framework. We will publish that shortly, and I hope he will see that in the final version.
At a time of national housing crisis, as developers continue to exploit the viability loophole, a staggeringly small 2.5% of homes completed last year were for social rent—the lowest number since the second world war. The Government continue to disregard this place, particularly on housing, in failing to deliver the revised NPPF, along with a raft of other documents promised before the recess. Thousands of people who desperately need social housing are being abandoned, as this Government entirely pull out of social housing, so will the Secretary of State tell us whether he will change his draft NPPF explicitly to include social rented homes in the official definition of affordable housing? If he will not, any warm words of support for social housing will ring hollow.
I entirely reject the hon. Lady’s characterisation of the Government’s approach to dealing with affordable homes and social housing. She will see that from the funds that we have committed to secure for the homes agenda. Under this Government, we have seen 1.1 million additional homes delivered since April 2010. Over 378,000 of those are affordable homes, including 273,000 affordable homes for rent. This Government are delivering and we will continue to do so.
Children in Temporary Accommodation
Temporary accommodation provides an important safety net and ensures that no child is left without a home. In 2011, we changed the law so that councils can place families in decent and affordable private rented homes. This now means that homeless households should not have to wait as long for settled accommodation and should spend less time in temporary accommodation.
A constituent of mine is living in temporary accommodation with her children, aged two and seven, opposite a nightclub. The noise keeps her children scared and awake at night. Shelter Scotland says that 13% of homeless households spend over a year in temporary accommodation, and that those with children tend to spend more time in temporary accommodation than those without. What does the Minister think the long-term impact is on children who spend a long time in temporary accommodation?
First, I acknowledge the work the hon. Lady did before coming to the House, working for Shelter Scotland, which is an organisation we work with very closely on wider homelessness, most recently on our rough sleeping strategy. We acknowledge there has been an increase—a 2% rise in the latest figures to March 2018. No one wants to be in temporary accommodation too long, especially children. However, there are good examples of local authorities leading the way in ensuring families spend less time in temporary accommodation. One such example is Barnet Council, whose targeted approach to support has seen the number of children in temporary accommodation reduce by 11%.
We are committing an enormous amount of money—£1.2 billion over the spending period—and we expect local authorities to follow the example of councils such as Barnet, which has managed to achieve that reduction. I encourage the hon. Gentleman to talk to his local authority and perhaps to approach Barnet to see an example of best practice.
Local authorities are ignoring circulars from the Department and housing children in temporary accommodation many miles from their place of education. What can my hon. Friend do to enforce circulars and make councils take into account educational requirements when housing children and their families?
My hon. Friend makes a superb point. I can be absolutely clear from the Dispatch Box that local authorities must take account of circulars. It does seem nonsensical that councils are taking this approach. Youngsters are being taken away from their local areas and their schooling is being affected.
The Government want the leasehold system to be fair and transparent so that a person feels their home is their own. We will legislate to ban the sale of new leasehold houses and to reduce ground rents to a peppercorn as soon as parliamentary time allows.
I thank the Minister for his answer. This Parliament and this Government are the first in over 15 years to seek justice and to offer the prospect of help to vulnerable residential leaseholders. Action is welcome on fair terms for new leases and to promote commonhold. However, how and when will there be beneficial steps for current leaseholders, including the many in retirement who suffer a reduction in capital values because of high event fee charges?
My hon. Friend raises a very important issue. I congratulate her on her work, with her colleagues, on an ongoing campaign in this area, not least via the all-party group on leasehold and commonhold reform. We will shortly announce our response to the Law Commission report on tackling event fees to help those in retirement housing. The Law Commission will also consult on how we can make it easier and cheaper for existing leaseholders to buy their freehold or extend their lease.
I, too, welcome the Law Commission report, because for too long leaseholders have been dealt a very, very poor hand. When looking at the report and developing a response, will the Government for once put leaseholders at the front of their mind, rather than the freeholders who only seem to rip off leaseholders?
The hon. Lady makes a very good point. We also welcome the Law Commission proposals, which include recommendations to ensure that we make leaseholds cheaper and fairer. The Government will continue to work with the Law Commission to ensure that this practice continues and we get a better outcome for leaseholders.
I speak as a contented leaseholder in my constituency. Following the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Gillian Keegan), will the Minister say when we might expect private leaseholders in tower blocks to hear that the cladding problems are going to be paid for by the developers, insurers or others, and not by them? They are always told that they are tenants and yet have to carry all the costs for everything.
My hon. Friend raises an absolutely important issue. Leaseholders are facing massive bills over cladding following Grenfell. Families are going to lose their homes and are faced with enormous bills; we should be helping them and are determined to do so. In the private sector, remediation costs will fall naturally to the freeholder. Where they do not, we have urged those with responsibility to follow the lead from the social sector, and private companies are already beginning to do the right thing. They should not be passing on these costs to leaseholders.
In response to my written questions, various Ministers in the Department have confirmed that the majority of developers have agreed not to use Help to Buy loans to finance the purchase of leasehold properties in future. However, they have admitted that not all developers have agreed to do that, so what are the Government going to do to stop any taxpayers’ money being used in this way?
Of course, certain contractual obligations are already in train. We have made it absolutely clear that no more public money will be used in such a way.
New Homes for Social Rent
Since 2010, we have delivered over 378,000 new affordable homes, including 129,000 for social rent. We are investing over £9 billion in the affordable homes programme to deliver over a quarter of a million new affordable homes, including at least a further 12,500 for social rent.
In the Housing Secretary’s council area of Bexley, 270 social rented homes were built in 2010, but not a single one was built last year. There is a housing crisis in his area, just as there is in Peterborough and across the country, so would it not be better for his constituents and mine if he reversed the huge funding cuts that this Government have made to social housing?
I do not know if the hon. Lady heard my initial answer to her question; I pointed out the enormous amounts of money that are being invested in the provision of affordable homes. Pleasingly, the area that she represents has responded with some alacrity, putting in place some significantly ambitious targets—100,000 new homes over the next 20 years, of which 40,000 will be affordable. It is to be congratulated on doing so. She is right, though, that there is some pressure to be brought to bear particularly on councils to bid into the extra borrowing allowance that we have made available to them for the provision of social rent. I will meet them at my earliest opportunity to understand when and why they will do so.
Between 2012 and 2017, Labour-controlled Redditch Borough Council failed to build a single home for social rent. Does the Minister therefore welcome Conservative-controlled Redditch Borough Council’s intention to build more homes for social rent, because we believe that everyone should have a decent home of their own, whatever their income or background?
I am sure that there are many in Redditch who breathe a sigh of relief that the Conservatives are in control of that particular part of the country, championed by such a wonderful Member of Parliament. My hon. Friend is absolutely right: it is still the case that more affordable homes have been delivered in the last seven years than were delivered in the last seven years of the previous Labour Government.
National Trust Housing Stock
I will be more than happy—in fact, it would be a pleasure—to meet the National Trust.
My constituent, Maria Bentley-Dingwall, has lived in her rented National Trust property for the last 12 years. She pays rent of £850. This is now going to increase to £1,450 per calendar month, which will be considerably in excess of the local housing allowance. As she is a disabled person, when she is eventually evicted for rent arrears, she will become the responsibility of the local authority, quite apart from the personal distress that that will cause her. Does the Minister agree that he should intervene with the National Trust to find out what it is doing and that, as a much loved body, it has a greater responsibility than tearing out the maximum amount of rent from its properties?
The hon. Lady makes a strong case for her constituent, as we would expect, and as I say, I would be more than happy to meet the National Trust. I know that it is reviewing its property policies generally and has decided to overcome the problems created by the modern ground rent regulations that are affecting many of its tenants. It is, however, a charity and it has to balance its legal obligation to maximise its income against its charitable obligation to those it cares for.
Earlier this year I met the Charity Commissioners to discuss the issue of ground rents and the National Trust on the Killerton estate, a National Trust property in my constituency. I am very pleased that the National Trust has agreed not to increase the ground rent of long-standing tenants, but I hear what my hon. Friend says about it. I am a member of the trust, which is, as it has just been described, a much-loved body. Does my hon. Friend—another much-loved body—agree that he should meet its representatives and encourage them to meet Members with National Trust properties in their constituencies to discuss how the trust can be a better neighbour and companion and conform with the Government’s housing agenda in the future?
I have absolutely no doubt that the National Trust’s shifting its position on modern ground rent was due to the pressure exerted and the highlighting of the issue by many Members, not least my right hon. Friend himself, on behalf of his constituents. As I have said, I should be more than happy to meet representatives of that august body and discuss its property policies generally.
Public Services: Local Authority Funding
Our local government finance settlement will increase resources for local government over the next two years because we recognise the pressures on local services, but it is right for decisions about funding priorities for individual local services to be made by local area representatives.
The Cabinet has followed your example by visiting Newcastle today, Mr Speaker, but rather than giving its members the welcome that they deserve, I came here to hear the Minister’s totally out-of-touch answer. Central Government funding for Newcastle has halved since 2010. The number of looked-after children has increased by a fifth since 2014, and the number of vulnerable adults has risen by the same proportion in the last year alone. Given a funding gap of £300 million in 2020 just to keep services running, how does the Minister think Newcastle can deliver good public services?
As we have discussed before, the hon. Lady’s local authority actually receives more funding per household than the average local authority similar to hers. Today of all days, I was hoping that she would welcome the meeting of the Cabinet in her area, the extra £1 billion for the northern powerhouse, and the continuing success of the Great Exhibition of the North, chaired admirably by my constituent Sir Gary Verity. In her area, the sun is shining, the visitors are pouring in, and the local economy is booming. It is a good time to be in the north-east, and that is being delivered by a Conservative Government.
I hope that one of those Ministers, in the course of this away day—which I am sure is a meeting of the utmost importance—will take the time to visit Newcastle University, which is a most admirable institution. They could benefit greatly from a visit. I mean that the Ministers could benefit, as much as the university.
I welcome the Government’s commitment to a fair funding formula, and I thank the Minister for meeting me and representatives of Leicestershire County Council. Will he confirm that the review that is under way will look at the balance of funding between districts and counties? After all, it is the counties that are bearing the burden of a growing older population and the growing burdens on children’s social services.
I can confirm that I have met representatives of my hon. Friend’s council regularly to discuss this topic, including just the other week at the local government conference. We received more than 300 submissions to the recent consultation on fair funding. That is one of the topics raised, and the Department is considering all responses with a view to replying later this year.
There is a great deal of concern in local government about the financial cliff edge that is facing a number of authorities. The Public Accounts Committee recently asked the Department to do two things: to explain by the end of September why it believes that local authorities are sustainable in the current spending round; and to agree with local authorities within 12 months a definition of financial sustainability and a methodology for assessing risk. Those are both important requests. Will the Minister ensure that his Department complies with them?
I thank the Chair of the Housing, Communities Local Government Committee for his question. As he knows, the Department is considering the Public Accounts Committee’s report as we speak. As for his broader question, the Department is constantly evaluating local government sustainability, and in the upcoming meetings, and ahead of the spending review, the topics that he has raised will of course be closely scrutinised.
How does the Minister justify an emerging system of negative rate support grants under which councils that have made themselves financially self-sufficient are now being told to make net contributions to the Government?
I am pleased to tell the right hon. Gentleman that the Government will be launching their consultation on negative RSG very shortly, and I look forward to his contribution.
Last week the Municipal Journal reported the Minister as saying that councils will be unhappy with the outcome of the fair funding review, so can he clarify just how unfair his review is likely to be and which types of council will be hardest hit?
What I can confirm is that the fair funding review will be a bottom-up fresh look at how we fund local government in this country. It is long overdue, as the current formula is 10 years out of date with over 120 different indicators. It is right that that formula is fair, transparent and objective, and I am sure all councils will have a fair crack at persuading me of their case.
I am very glad that the Minister is in such a good mood; he really is a very cheery, upbeat fellow who positively exudes optimism about all things and all around him. We are delighted to see him.
But it will not wash, Mr Speaker. The Tory-led Local Government Association is warning that the funding gap for councils is now due to grow to £8 billion and the Public Accounts Committee has damned the financial capability of the Ministry to sort out this mess. With Northamptonshire the first broken shire and other local authorities of all types teetering on the cliff edge, when, rather than managing down expectations about fair funding, is the Minister going to stand up for the sector and demand the resources our public services so desperately need?
If the hon. Gentleman had been at the local government conference just the other week he would have heard my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State describe to the sector exactly what this Government are doing to support them. We acknowledge the pressures on local government over the past few years; they have done a commendable job of maintaining high-quality public services in a difficult environment, and we will ensure that they continue to get the backing they need from this Government to deliver for all our local communities.
New Housing: Leasehold
The Government cannot see any good reason for new-build leasehold houses other than in exceptional circumstances. Earlier this month the Secretary of State announced that no new Government money will fund them. We intend to consult over the summer on how a ban on new leasehold houses will be implemented.
Last year the then Secretary of State promised that by the summer the Government would make concrete proposals for banning the sale of new leasehold homes, yet they are still being sold in my constituency. The buyers thereof are unable to sell their homes and are also unable to afford to buy out their freehold at the extortionate rates being demanded by the freeholders. How and when will the Government fix this?
The hon. Lady raises an important point, and that is why we are acting: we are introducing legislation to stop the development of new-build leasehold houses and will restrict ground rent to a peppercorn. We are also planning to fix the loopholes in the law, to increase transparency.
With more problem leaseholds being sold, what is my hon. Friend doing to determine the scale of the problem and inform householders of that problem?
That was why I mentioned the issue of transparency. It is very important that leaseholders get as much information as is practically possible. We are currently working with the Law Commission on how best to support current leaseholders because we want to make buying a freehold easier for people going forward, but we also want to ensure that those with leases are helped out.
New homes should be built out as soon as possible once planning permission is granted, and under this Government net additional dwellings are at their highest since 2007-08. We are building on progress made so far by revising the national planning policy framework and diversifying the market to increase the pace of development, and I have commissioned my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Sir Oliver Letwin) to lead a review of build-out rates.
One of the councils in my area has been without a local plan since 2005 and is currently consulting on a draft plan that over-inflates housing need and unnecessarily builds on the green belt. Does my hon. Friend agree that one way to speed up house building is to put in place local plans that have the confidence of local people?
My hon. Friend fights hard for his constituents’ interests, as he does at all times. He is right to say that a local plan is vital not only to progress housing in an area but to protect residents from the predations of speculative developers. I find it astonishing that authorities can be so dilatory in producing such plans.
Does my hon. Friend agree that it is essential that we build the homes that the country needs, and that we build the right homes in the right places, which means protecting the green belt and investing in the infrastructure that we need to accommodate those homes?
With her usual perspicacity, my hon. Friend has put her finger on the button and enunciated the cocktails required for successful development, with the omission of one, which my right hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex (Sir Nicholas Soames) mentioned —namely, design. If we can put all those things together, we will create the houses that people need.
I think the right hon. Member for Mid Sussex enjoyed the reference to cocktails.
I did, Sir.
And that is demonstrably apparent.
The building of new homes is being choked off in Nottingham by the refusal of the Department to remove the cap on the housing revenue account. I put this to Ministers on 12 March, and was told that if Nottingham stepped up and made a strong case, it would be looked upon favourably. Such a case has been made, but it has not been looked upon favourably. Why not?
As a person who is new in post, I am happy to look at the specifics of that matter, but we have obviously given an extra £1 billion of funding to local authorities to bid into, and we are inviting bids at the moment for housing revenue account expansion. I would also point out that, across the whole piece, local authorities already have about £3.6 billion of headroom, and I am at a loss to understand why they are not using it.
The people who come into my surgery are looking for social rented housing, and we need to speed up the building of those homes. This Government inherited a £4 billion social housing building programme, but the Chartered Institute of Housing says that that has now gone down to less than £500 million, which represents a cut of nearly 90%. How does the Minister intend to increase the supply of social housing that people in my constituency so desperately need?
We are committed to a vibrant housing market with tenures of all types, and for all types of people. In particular, we have emphasised that housing for social rent should be an area of growth. As was stated in an earlier answer, we are targeting a further 12,500 social rent housing for provision in the next few years, but if the hon. Gentleman has any ideas about where, when and who I need to push, prod or harass in order to build more, I will be more than happy to do that.
Local Government Funding Allocation
We are undertaking a fair funding review of local authorities’ relative needs and resources to address concerns about the fairness of the current system, and I am pleased to say that we are making good progress in collaboration with the sector in order to introduce a simple, fair and transparent funding formula.
Councils across Derbyshire have suffered under the previous funding formula, and I welcome the consultation and the fact that Derbyshire is one of the business rate retention pilots. Does my hon. Friend agree that local councils could achieve a double whammy by encouraging local growth and creating more jobs, and also by raising their own funds through the increased business rates?
It is refreshing to hear my hon. Friend talk about growth in the context of local government funding. Economic growth is the only sustainable way to ensure the vibrancy of our local communities and to raise the vital money that we need to fund our services. I am delighted to tell him that the Government are committed to implementing further retention of business rates, so that his local authority, like all others, will have both an incentive and a reward when they drive growth in their local areas.
I am grateful to the Minister for those replies, but recent work by the County Councils Network has found that, despite additional funding provided to the last funding settlement at the beginning of the year, county areas including Suffolk will face £3.2 billion-worth of funding pressures by 2020. What can the Government do, in advance of the fair funding and comprehensive spending reviews, to ensure that councils are able to meet the essential needs of their residents?
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s work on representing counties in this place, and I am delighted to have met him to discuss this topic on multiple occasions. I agree with him that county councils have done a tremendous job of maintaining services in this climate. I recognise the pressures that he identifies, and I can confirm to him that, in the short term, the Government will soon be publishing a technical consultation for local government finance in the upcoming settlement. As I said to the right hon. Member for Twickenham (Sir Vince Cable), we will be including a consultation on the issue of negative revenue support grant, and I can also confirm that there will be a new round of business rate retention pilots.
Since early 2015, the Government’s troubled families programme has contributed funding to help with early support and preventive support for priority families in Nottingham, which is vital given the high levels of deprivation and the pressures on children’s services in our society. By intervening early, family support workers have helped to tackle crime and antisocial behaviour, helped parents to get back into work and reduced the need for care proceedings. Will the Minister meet me and my hon. Friends the Members for Nottingham East (Mr Leslie) and for Nottingham North (Alex Norris) to discuss his plans to support councils working with families when the programme funding ends in 2020?
I thank the hon. Lady for her question, and I completely agree with her on the importance of this vital programme, especially with regard to prevention work. I am pleased to say that recent reports show that the incidence of children on the programme has declined by 13% as a result of intervention work by councils such as hers, and I would be delighted to meet them to learn what they are doing on the ground.
What assessment has the Minister made of the length of time it takes to reach a decision on business improvement district appeals, such as that of the Harborne BID in my constituency?
Like the hon. Lady, this Government believe that business improvement districts can be a fantastic asset for local businesses to ensure that their area remains a vibrant place to trade. She has strongly supported the application from her area, and I am pleased to tell her that a reply will be sent to her imminently after questions.
Support for Local Government
Over the spending review period, councils have received more than £200 billion for local services, and the 2018-19 settlement sees an increase in resources to local government over the next two years, increasing to £45.6 billion in 2019-20.
I thank my hon. Friend for that answer, but can he set out how his Department will support local councils to regenerate valuable coastal communities such as Clacton, which is positively Caribbean at the moment?
I am pleased to say that the Government have spent £174 million through a fund to support local communities over the past few years. I pay tribute to the great progress made by the Jaywick Sands coastal community team in my hon. Friend’s constituency in bringing forward its proposal for a new coastal village. He has been intimately involved with that proposal, which is a model for others to follow.
Local councils, including Bath and North East Somerset Council, are facing a funding gap of £2.2 billion for adult social care. What measures is the Department taking to incentivise preventive services to reduce the burden of adult social care on councils such as ours?
Work between the NHS and local authorities through the better care fund is addressing the issue that the hon. Lady mentions. I am pleased to say that the most recent statistic shows a 37% fall in delayed transfers of care relating to social care, which shows that the approach we are taking is working, and local authorities should be commended for delivering that.
Social Care Funding
The Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government has many conversations with the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, and most recently they have been discussing the fact that effectively targeted NHS spend can reduce the need for social care, just as effectively targeted social care spending can reduce pressures on the NHS.
Bedford Borough Council has the country’s lowest rate of delayed transfers of care. Instead of being congratulated, the council has been told that it will now be penalised if it fails to meet zero delays, when other authorities have much more generous allowances. Does the Minister agree that he should be supporting Bedford Borough Council to be the best in the country, instead of making that as difficult as possible through the delays in funding and the unfair targets?
I am happy to look into the specific issue that the hon. Gentleman mentions, but I join him in paying tribute to the work that has led to Bedford delivering a fantastic performance on delayed transfers of care.
Does my hon. Friend agree that it is essential that both local authorities and the health service work more closely together to provide a seamless combined service? That requires a change in culture at local level, similar to the one in Gloucestershire, where we have an excellent joint commissioning board.
My hon. Friend is right about that and right to highlight the work of his local authority, which is a pioneer in collaborating more closely with the local NHS. That is showing tremendous results on the ground in reducing delayed transfers of care, which are stopping people from getting into the NHS in the first place. I hope that others can learn from Gloucestershire’s example.
This Government are serious about tackling homelessness, which is why we have allocated more than £1.2 billion to tackle homelessness to 2020. We have implemented the most ambitious legislative reform in decades: the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017. We have also committed to halving rough sleeping by 2022 and to ending it by 2027, and we will shortly be publishing a strategy that sets out our plans to do that.
Homelessness has doubled nationally since 2010, but the increase is greater in the north-west. Why is that?
I know how seriously the hon. Gentleman takes this issue, and I am very encouraged by the work he is doing collaboratively with his local authority and organisations such as Chester Aid to the Homeless and Share. They will welcome, as I am sure he does, the £1.15 million that has been recently provided to help on this issue. Like me, he will be encouraged by the latest figures, which show a 9% fall nationally in statutory homelessness acceptances in the past year.
A total of 128,317 first-time buyer households have purchased a home through a Help to Buy equity loan from its launch in April 2013 to December 2017. Some 69,000 first-time buyers have benefited from stamp duty relief between its introduction in the autumn Budget 2017 and the end of March 2018.
One of the greatest concerns raised by young people in West Oxfordshire is whether they will ever be able to afford a home in their town or village. I welcome the stamp duty cuts, which have helped people across the country. Can the Minister tell us how many have benefited from our changes?
My hon. Friend is well known for his championing of young people and their causes, particularly in his constituency, and he is right to point out that this move will benefit young people in particular. The stamp duty relief will help 95% of first-time buyers who pay it—that will be more than 1 million households over the next five years. Between the relief’s introduction and the end of March, 69,000 first-time buyers have already benefited. I would also point out that we are at an 11-year high in the number of first-time buyers, which stands at 363,000.
Well, I am keen to get through the Order Paper today. I call Nigel Huddleston.
A thriving midlands is essential to our economic success. The Government are committed to delivering the midlands engine strategy, including through £392 million for local growth projects to create more jobs and prosperity, and a £20 million midlands skills package.
Does the Minister agree that infrastructure investment is key to the success of the midlands engine? Will he therefore tell me what conversations he is having with the Department for Transport to improve key arteries such as the A46?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that. I am having a number of conversations across government about the delivery of that infrastructure. He highlights the A46 corridor. Initial work has shown that 700,000 jobs could be created by improvements. The case for individual schemes on the route is being developed.
Home ownership has been stable over the past four years at about 63%. The right to buy has helped more than 86,000 council tenants into home ownership since 2012, under the reinvigorated scheme. This summer we launch a major pilot of the voluntary right to buy for housing association tenants.
Since 2010, we have seen home ownership levels fall to a 30-year low, while homelessness has doubled. If we want to end this dual failure to meet housing need and aspiration, and put choice in the hands of the many, not the few, should we not invest in building and renovating enough council and affordable homes to rent and buy, without taking away the rights that council tenants’ have had for 38 years under the right to buy scheme?
The hon. Lady is definitely right to say that the solution to everybody’s housing problems is to build more homes—as many as we can—across those parts of the country that need it.
Private Landlords Regulator
We are determined to crack down on the small number of rogue landlords—that includes banning the most serious offenders from letting properties. The database of rogue landlords and property agents supports local authority enforcement action. We have committed to requiring private landlords to join a mandatory redress scheme.
I have an indirect interest in this question, as my wife is a private landlord. Selective licensing schemes are good as far as they go, but a side effect is that they force bad landlords elsewhere. Therefore, whether we have a regulator or not, the answer, as outlined in my private Member’s Bill, is a national register of private landlords and licensing scheme to ensure that they provide the good-quality homes that people deserve. I know from working with Ron Hogg, Durham’s police and crime commissioner, of the effect that rogue private landlords have on local communities. Will the Secretary of State meet us both to discuss the need for a more robust approach to registration and licensing, both locally and nationally?
I am more than happy to meet the hon. Gentleman to discuss the issues he raises, but I carefully suggest to him that this House has to strike a balance between bureaucracy and regulation—the two are often very different.
The Government are taking steps for a more inclusive economy and society, and promoting local growth. With that in mind, we have today announced our attention to lay legislation to make the £600 million North of Tyne devolution deal a reality.
Following significant and sustained progress, I can also confirm to the House that I am minded to remove commissioners from Rotherham Metropolitan Borough Council and hand back remaining executive functions. That follows positive reports from the commissioners and important steps forward in delivering children’s services.
Tonight, I will address the Tell MAMA parliamentary reception, where I will underline that racism and xenophobia, in whatever form, have no place in our society and should be confronted in the strongest terms.
Will the Secretary of State consider how the sale of public sector land could be used to get homes built more quickly?
My hon. Friend rightly raises the issue of releasing public sector land, which is a priority for this Government. The land for homes programme aims to release centrally held land for 160,000 homes over the coming years. We are also supporting local authorities to release land for a further 160,000 homes.
We have all seen the shocking impact of police cuts and rising crime, but that has to be put together with real-terms cuts of 59% to crime reduction, 85% to community safety and 33% to CCTV monitoring, plus very deep cuts to youth services and community development. Does the Secretary of State believe that any of those cuts have had an impact on the increase in crime and antisocial behaviour?
Yet again, Labour fails to understand the reason why we have had to make savings—because of its public service delivery failures when in government. Steps such as this Government’s troubled families programme are about preventive work, as we heard earlier, and they are having an impact on our communities.
I am certainly willing to meet my hon. Friend, who is right to champion innovative ways in which we can build and innovative techniques within the construction sector. That is why we have the £3 billion home building fund to provide loan finance to builders using those methods, as well as our modern methods of construction working group looking at ways in which that can be advanced.
I thank the hon. Lady for highlighting those particular cases, the details of which I am not intimately familiar with. I would be happy to look into the matter. She is absolutely right to highlight the important role that local authorities play in prevention, particularly when it comes to public health. As we approach the spending review and the fair funding review, I would be delighted to talk to her to see how we can best capture the role that local authorities play in delivering that.
The Government are clear that the Mayor can and should do more to increase housing delivery and it is vital that the new London plan provides the strategic framework to achieve that. The Mayor must show strong and proactive leadership and take responsibility for creating the right conditions for development, but it is also about Labour councils in London. It is notable that, in Haringey, it appears that the council has put left-wing ideology in the way of 6,400 more homes. It is really concerning that Labour appears to be putting politics ahead of people.
I am hesitant to anticipate the release of the new planning framework that will be released, hopefully, shortly, but the hon. Lady will know that there is significant commitment by this Government to the green belt and, when that plan emerges, I will be more than happy to have a conversation with her about her plans.
I am very happy to look into the point that my hon. Friend has raised. I know that his commitment to self-build is second to none. We believe strongly in, and are committed to, self and custom house building, and I will certainly look into the issues that he has highlighted to the House today.
I will certainly look into the point that the hon. Lady has raised. We have obviously published some guidance around some of the building regulations and a revised simplified version of some part of that in the last week, but I will certainly reflect further on the point that she has raised.
The Help to Buy equity loan scheme has helped more than 3,000 buyers in Northamptonshire, a part of which my hon. Friend ably represents, to purchase their first home. The action undertaken by this Government has led to an 11-year annual high in the number of first-time buyers across the UK.
It is important that each local council makes those decisions itself. It was the responsibility of the statutory officer to decide on the appropriate level of reserves. I am pleased to see that, in the hon. Gentleman’s own local authority, non-ring-fenced reserves are up 30% in the past six years. I am sure that his council will use those reserves prudently as required.
Will my right hon. Friend update the House on what progress has been made to select sites for HS2 garden villages in the east midlands, especially around the Toton hub?
I can confirm to my hon. Friend that we will publish a prospectus in the summer inviting ambitious, locally supported proposals for high-quality new garden communities at scale. We are keen to assist as many as we can in locations where there is sufficient demand for housing, and I look forward to continuing that conversation with her and others.
The Government intend to consult on strengthening building regulations’ energy efficiency requirements where it is cost-effective, affordable, safe and practical to do so. We do not provide energy efficiency grants. Developers should bear the costs, which is why we need to ensure that the proposals are cost-effective and do not compromise housing viability.
Would Ministers look into the considerable length of time nationally-set local government officer disciplinary procedures are taking, so that they can be reviewed and fairness can be appropriately balanced with the cost to local council tax payers?
I recognise my hon. Friend’s point and I will certainly look into these matters. I could write to her with some of the details, if that would be helpful.
In the last year, just 12% of homes delivered by housing associations—the very organisations set up to deliver affordable homes—were built for social rent. Will the Secretary of State confirm that the social housing Green Paper will acknowledge that the combination of viability assessments and a completely broken definition of affordability is letting down communities across the country that desperately need new social homes to rent?
I do expect the social housing Green Paper to be wide-ranging and to deal not simply with issues of supply, but with issues of stigma for those living in social housing; I expect it to confront that very firmly. I remind the hon. Lady that we have delivered more council housing than in 13 years of a Labour Government, and we are committed to all forms of tenure.
The recent conclusion of the Greater Grimsby town deal was a welcome boost to the economy in Cleethorpes and Grimsby. A further boost could be provided if a way could be found to revive the failed Greater Lincolnshire devolution deal. Will the Secretary of State meet me and fellow Lincolnshire MPs to discuss a way forward?
I would be happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss how we can support local growth in Lincolnshire. As I have highlighted, this is a priority for the Government. I look forward to talking to my hon. Friend and other colleagues.
Will the Secretary of State agree to meet me, as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on refugees, to discuss the impact and implications of his Department’s integration strategy for refugees?
I would be happy to meet the hon. Lady to discuss the issue of the integration strategy. As she knows, we have been consulting on this over recent weeks, and I am considering next steps in that regard. If there are specific issues that she wishes to flag in relation to refugees, I will be pleased to hear them.
As the Secretary of State and the Minister for Housing know, I have requested that they call in a planning application passed by Bradford Council to build 500 houses on the green belt in Burley in Wharfedale in my constituency. Since then, Bradford Council has accepted that it does not need to build as many houses as it first thought and has actually allowed a building development in Bradford city centre that was earmarked for hundreds of houses to be turned into a car park, so will the Secretary of State agree that there is now clearly not an exceptional case to build those houses on the green belt and will he call in this application? When can my constituents expect a response?
As my hon. Friend will know, it is difficult for me to comment on issues in respect of individual planning applications because of the quasi-judicial function of Ministers, but I note his comments.
Half of the residents made homeless in the Grenfell Tower fire are still in temporary accommodation. Is the Secretary of State embarrassed by that? If he is not, why did he sneak out at the end of last week two pages of waffle on Grenfell as a written ministerial statement, instead of making an oral statement to the House when his predecessor said that we would be kept updated in that way?
We have sought to update the House on a regular basis on the progress in seeing that those involved in the Grenfell Tower disaster are rehoused. Two hundred households have accepted temporary or permanent accommodation, and I can say that 97 households have now moved into permanent accommodation. I want to see this speeded up and I want to see progress being made, because it is important that those families are in permanent accommodation and the homes that they deserve.
Despite a new road being built between Bexhill and Hastings, in part to house new developments, the developers have failed to build any of the houses. What more can the Government do to incentivise developers, perhaps by charging them council tax from the time that a planning application is delivered, and allowing local authorities to compulsorily purchase land and build on it themselves if developers will not?
I commend my hon. Friend for the urgency with which he requires more housing in his constituency, which I know his constituents will appreciate. He is right that one of the issues that this country faces is that the structures that we have put in place have created more of a land speculation industry than a house building industry. We will be looking at a number of solutions to address that problem.
My local authority, Westminster, has indicated that it would rather give up £23 million from mayoral funding than hold a ballot on a scheme in Church Street that involves the demolition of 700 homes. Will the Minister have a word with the council and encourage it to involve and consult its communities on major regeneration schemes?
I have already been in communication with the leader of Westminster City Council about this issue, which is alarming. I understand that there is a dispute about whether or when a ballot was held. I understand that, with regard to the Church Street regeneration, a ballot has been held in the past. One has to wonder why the Mayor would seek to withhold £23 million from one of the most deprived areas of the city that requires this regeneration.
Two recent planning appeals were won in my constituency on the grounds that planning permission should not be given
“where a planning application conflicts with a neighbourhood plan”.
Will the Minister ensure that this is the rule for the future?
Like my hon. Friend, I bear the scars of just such a number of decisions. In particular, there was a decision in my constituency—in Oakley, in my patch—where the planning inspector allowed a development seven days prior to the referendum on a neighbourhood plan. I am determined, however long I am given in this job, to make sure that neighbourhood plans are landed extremely well and are adopted by as much of the country as possible, and that local people know they can rely on them to make sure that planning is done with them and not to them.
I know that the shadow Secretary of State wanted to raise a point of order, which he has promised to do with commendable brevity.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. We have just had over an hour of oral questions on the day before the long summer recess, yet we have had no update from the Secretary of State on a number of promises he made about when important policy announcements would be made. On 9 May, he said:
“The Government will bring forward a Rough Sleeping Strategy in July”.
It has not been published. On 11 June, he said:
“we’ll be publishing a Social Housing Green Paper by recess.”
It has not been published. On 9 July, he said that he would come forward with the finalised national planning policy framework before the summer recess. It has not been published. What assistance can you give me and the House to make sure that, when promises are made by Ministers, they are honoured, and that important policy announcements are not dribbled out over the recess when this House is not sitting and cannot scrutinise them?
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his attempted point of order. I do not wish to treat it with levity because it is a matter of the utmost importance. He seeks assistance from me and asks what I can do. I suppose I ought to begin by saying what I cannot do. I cannot delay the summer recess; the summer recess will be a fact. It is not entirely without precedent for Ministers to issue policy announcements during periods of recess. The Secretary of State is in his place and will have heard with crystal clarity what the right hon. Gentleman said. If the Secretary of State wants to give any earnest of his good intentions in this matter, he can do so, but alternatively he can remain—and apparently is remaining—glued to his seat, from which the right hon. Gentleman, Sherlock Holmes-style, must make his own deductions.
Foreign Fighters and the Death Penalty
(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department to make a statement on the Government’s policy on the rendition of UK citizens who may be subject to capital punishment.
The Government take their responsibility to protect the public seriously. We have been consistently clear, where there is evidence that crimes have been committed, that foreign fighters, for example, should be brought to justice in accordance with due legal process regardless of their nationality. The specific process followed will always be dependent on the individual circumstances of the case.
The case of Alexanda Kotey and El Shafee Elsheikh is ongoing and obviously sensitive. In handling this case, the Government and Ministers have complied with the European convention on human rights and with due process, and we must be mindful to protect the integrity of the criminal investigation. In this instance, and after carefully considered advice, the Government took the rare decision not to require assurances in this case. It would be inappropriate to comment further on that specific case. Foreign fighters detained in Syria could be released from detention without facing justice. We have been working closely with international partners to ensure that they face justice for any crimes they have committed.
I can provide little further detail to the House beyond what the Government have already outlined in previous statements, but I can reassure the House that our long-standing position on the use of the death penalty has not changed. The UK has a long-standing policy of opposing the death penalty as a matter of principle regardless of nationality and we act compatibly with the European convention on human rights. In accordance with the Government’s overseas, security and justice assistance guidance, we have taken into account human rights considerations. The OSJA provides that where there are strong reasons not to seek death penalty assurances,
“Ministers should be consulted to determine whether, given the specific circumstances of the case, we should nevertheless provide assistance.”
On Guantanamo Bay, again our position has not changed. The UK Government’s long-standing position is that the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay should close. Where we share evidence with the US, it must be for the express purpose of progressing a criminal prosecution, and we have made that clear to the United States. We have planned and prepared for the risk posed by British nationals returning to the UK as Daesh is defeated in Iraq and Syria, and we are using a range of tools to disrupt and diminish that threat in order to keep the public safe. Each case is considered individually to determine which action or power is most appropriate.
I cannot say more about individual cases in this circumstance, but the Government have set out the extent to which these tools have been used in our annual transparency report. We will also be introducing new offences in the Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Bill, which is being debated by parliamentary colleagues and which will strengthen our terrorism legislation to increase our ability to prosecute returning foreign fighters.
Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question.
The whole House is united in condemning terrorism and the work of ISIS, and anyone found guilty of terrorism should face the full force of the law, but in an increasingly dangerous and unstable world, one of our strengths as a country is our willingness to stand up unflinchingly for human rights. It is a key aspect of our soft power. The Minister will therefore understand the widespread concern that the Government seem willing to abandon their long-standing, principled opposition to the death penalty in this case.
Ministers claim that the decision in this case does not reflect a change in our policy on assistance in US death penalty cases generally or the UK Government’s stance on the global abolition of the death penalty, but I put it to Ministers that they cannot be a little bit in favour of the death penalty. Either we offer consistent opposition, or we do not. So let me remind the Minister: capital punishment is not the law of this country; we do not extradite people to countries where it is potentially a sentence for the crime; the death penalty is outlawed under the Human Rights Act 1998; and it is in breach of the European convention on human rights.
Successive Governments have always sought assurances that those who face justice in other countries will not face the death penalty. Extradition is expressly prohibited where the subject could face the death penalty under the Extradition Act 2003. The UK is a signatory to the United Nations convention against torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, and extraordinary rendition is unlawful under this convention, but in his letter to the US Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, of 22 June, the Home Secretary reportedly wrote:
“I am of the view that there are strong reasons for not requiring a death penalty assurance in this specific case, so no such assurances will be sought.”
Can the Minister explain why the Home Secretary did not come to Parliament to disclose this change of policy, what his strong reasons are, what advice he has taken, whether the Law Officers have been consulted, what assessment has been made of the impact of extradition arrangements with third countries where capital punishment is outlawed and what steps he has taken to ensure there has been no torture in this case, unlike in the more than 200 cases of abuse of detainees identified by the Intelligence and Security Committee in its report of 28 June?
The Minister will be aware that the mother of one of the cell’s victims has said that she is “very against” the use of the death penalty. Diane Foley said:
“I think that you just make them martyrs in their twisted ideology…I would like them held accountable by being sent to prison for the rest of their lives. That would be my preference.”
This decision to abandon our principled opposition to the death penalty is abhorrent and shameful, and I call on Ministers, even at this late stage, to reverse the decision.
I have listened carefully to the right hon. Lady’s statement, and I agree with much of what she said. It is not a matter of extradition, as she will know if she has read the news reports; it is a matter of whether we were going to accept a request by the United States to share evidence on individuals not within the United Kingdom and not within the European Union, but abroad. No one is extraditing anyone in this country, and we are not talking about UK citizens, so the premise of her question in the first place is, I am afraid, skewed.
However, I will try to answer the questions the right hon. Lady has put to the House. First, she asked why the Home Secretary did not come to the House to announce a change in policy. That is because he has not changed the policy of the United Kingdom Government. The overseas security and justice assistance guidance clearly states
“that there will be cases where, as an exception to the general policy and taking into account the specific circumstances, Ministers can lawfully decide that assistance should be provided in the absence of adequate assurances”.
That has been the policy for many, many years. All Ministers have done is consider, in response to a request from one of our allies to seek evidence on individuals detained elsewhere, whether we should share that evidence and whether we should seek assurances in doing so.
I notice that the right hon. Lady mentioned Mrs Foley. I heard that interview this morning, too, and Mrs Foley also said that she thought it was right that these people face justice in US courts. Who are we to deny that to those victims in the United States, if the United Kingdom holds some of the evidence that may make it possible? The United States has the rule of law and due process, as do we in this country. In our many mutual legal assistance requests—there are more than 8,000 a year among countries and police forces around the world—we do it on a case-by-case basis, in accordance with the law. Throughout the process, other Ministers and I consulted lawyers. We constantly checked with existing guidance and the policy.
We should not forget that the crimes we are talking about involve the beheading, and videoing of the beheading, of dozens of innocent people by one of the most abhorrent organisations walking this earth. It would be bizarre to say that if we were unable to prosecute them in this country, we should simply let them be free to roam around the United Kingdom so as not to upset the right hon. Lady. Not to share our evidence with the United States would be simply bizarre and would not be justice for the victims.
Daesh/ISIL is a proscribed organisation still committed to waging acts of terrorism against this country. On the wider point, if it is still too difficult to prosecute here at home those who have gone to work for or to assist Daesh/ISIL abroad, and if that is because of some obligation under the European convention on human rights, is it not time to take back control?
I hear my right hon. Friend. I do not believe it is necessary or right to withdraw from the European convention on human rights. I believe it is incredibly important that we all follow the rule of law—both our obligations under the ECHR and United Kingdom law—and that is what we have done in this case. Where we have gaps in our statute book, we are seeking to fill them. The Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Bill is passing through this House to make it easier to prosecute and to ensure we are able to do so, and it includes changes to extraterritorial legislation so that our offences reach such places. In this case, however, it was decided—because of the horrendous crimes being alleged, with victims on both sides of the Atlantic—that it was important to seek the most appropriate jurisdiction. When the request came in for sharing the evidence, this Government took the decision, rare as it is, to share that evidence without seeking assurances.
It goes without saying that we all condemn terrorism and that we all believe terrorists should be brought to justice, and it really is not good enough for the Minister to imply that any of us in the House is against terrorists being brought to justice. The issue is why and in what circumstances the UK Government are departing from their long-standing policy of opposing the death penalty “in all circumstances”. In using those words, I am reading from the UK Government’s death penalty strategy. Curiously, it was not of course renewed when it was due for renewal in 2016, so will the Minister tell us when it will be renewed?
Not only Members of Parliament but the public are getting increasingly frustrated by the failure of Ministers in this Government to answer questions at the Dispatch Box. I will give him another chance: what are the strong reasons that the Home Secretary says exist for departing from the policy? I have another question for him: what requests were made by the Trump Administration with regard to the waiver of our long-standing policy? Was the decision to waive our long-standing policy on the death penalty signed off by the Prime Minister, and will the Minister tell us whether the waiver will happen only in relation to the United States, or will it happen in relation to other countries and allies, such as Saudi Arabia?
The hon. and learned Lady is a wise and knowledgeable barrister in her own right, and she will know that coming to this House to discuss individual cases that are subject to ongoing investigations does two things: it puts the investigation and the potential to bring charges at risk; and it could undermine the likelihood of those individuals getting a fair trial if we comment on it. I am sure that she, as a student of justice, would not wish that to happen. I will therefore not comment further on the cases involving these individuals. As we have said, it is incredibly rare in the first place that such issues are brought to the House or discussed in it.
There was no request from the US Administration for us to vary our assurances. That decision was taken within the United Kingdom by Ministers, and the Prime Minister was aware of that decision.
I have no doubt that my right hon. Friend, who is a distinguished former soldier, would have shot these two people had he engaged them on the battlefield, but these are not comparable circumstances and there are important and long-standing conventions in play. Will he bear in mind that, on human rights, we cannot distinguish between good and bad people? Human rights are indivisible and belong to everybody.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. In fact, I would not just have shot such people on the battlefield; I would have acted within the law and with the powers I was granted by Parliament and by the Government of the day, as he and I did under emergency deployment. We acted within the law, and just being a soldier on the battlefield did not exempt us from the law or human rights obligations.
I totally agree with human rights, and that is why Ministers have acted in line with our legal obligations and, indeed, taken advice in relation to the European convention on human rights. The right hon. Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) mentioned rendition, but no one is rendering. The UK Government fundamentally oppose rendition and will continue to do so.
The whole House would agree that those who commit barbaric crimes should be locked away for the rest of their lives, but what the Minister has said is a contradiction of the long-standing abolition of the death penalty strategy—No. 10 have reaffirmed these words today—which says:
“It is the longstanding policy of the UK to oppose the death penalty in all circumstances as a matter of principle.”
In this case, the Home Secretary seems to have unilaterally ripped up those principles on a Friday afternoon in the summer. What does the Minister think “principle” and “all circumstances” mean if somehow these circumstances are not “all circumstances”? Is he not actually saying that principles mean nothing to the UK Government any more?
No, I am not saying that, and my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary did not rip up anything unilaterally. My right hon. Friend followed the advice, as did other Ministers, of the OSJA—the guidance that has been in existence for very many years—which does allow Ministers to sometimes seek the ability to share evidence where there is an absence of assurances. That is what the OSJA has done, as part of the guidance for the Government, and it has been there for many years.
The UK is a proud member of the Council of Europe, which has made the abolition of capital punishment one of its main priorities. It has been fighting for 30 years to outlaw the death penalty, and it now wishes to extend that to countries with observer status at the Council of Europe, including Japan and the United States of America. Will the Minister confirm that he will support that policy of the Council of Europe and say whether he is convinced that the actions relating to these two men are compatible with our membership of the Council of Europe and the priorities we put on its activities?
In answer to my right hon. Friend, yes and yes.
The Minister just referred, in quoting the code, to the absence of assurances. What the Home Secretary wrote in the letter to the US Attorney General was that he was not even going to seek assurances. Therefore, the question that has been asked by many Members still holds: why have the Government decided to breach a long-standing policy against the death penalty in all circumstances in this case? We all want these individuals, if there is evidence, to face justice, but it is precisely because of the barbaric nature of the crimes of which they are accused that we as a country have to show that we are better than them and what they did. That is why there is so much unhappiness, I suspect in many parts of the House, about what the Home Secretary has done.
I am not going to take a lecture about being better from a right hon. Gentleman who sat in a Government when people were being rendered from Libya and across to Libya. I think that is outrageous. As I have said to other Opposition Members, I cannot go into the exact details of this case because it is currently under investigation and to do so would risk undermining the operation. The OSJA is the guidance that Ministers have followed in the past and will follow in future. That is absolutely the case.
The right hon. Gentleman asks questions about the semantics of the letter and whether we asked or did not ask. We have said in this case that it is the judgment of Ministers, based on the operation, the investigation and the evidence before us, that we will not seek assurances in this matter.
It was my understanding that it was a policy decision of the United Kingdom Government—which I do not criticise in any way—that we would not seek the return of these two individuals to the United Kingdom for public interest reasons, and indeed have deprived them of their UK nationality. However, is it not the case that to move on from there to facilitate their going to the United States to face trial for capital offences is a major departure from normal policy, if we are doing so by providing evidence under a request for mutual legal assistance? When was the last time that we departed from these principles—I am not aware of this ever having happened before—and why have we not asked for an assurance when it would be perfectly proper to do so? Those are the two key questions, and until they are answered, I have to say to my right hon. Friend that this issue will continue to haunt the Government.
My right hon. and learned Friend, having produced plenty of advices in his previous role as Attorney General to Her Majesty’s Government, will recognise the challenges that Ministers face in balancing the need for making the decision about trial—[Interruption.] Opposition Members chunter from a sedentary position. The reality, as my right hon. and learned Friend said, is that we all desire these people to face trial. If Ministers are faced with the prospect of not being able to try them in the United Kingdom but an ally seeks evidence that could lead to them being tried, Ministers have an obligation to the citizens of this country to balance that request and the likelihood of trial with the extent to which they will seek assurances, if we think that is important for keeping people safe in the United Kingdom. In this case, Ministers have made the decision that we are not going to seek assurances, because we do not think we have the evidence here to try them in the United Kingdom and we hope that a trial will be carried out in the United States. That is the balance. My right hon. and learned Friend may disagree with the balance we have chosen to take, but that is the responsibility of the Ministers holding the onerous task of trying to keep us safe, while balancing that with human rights.
Why did Ministers not seek death penalty assurances?
Because we are interested in seeking criminal justice in line with international law and our law. Where we feel the assurance might get in the way of being able to do that—[Interruption.] No, no; if the right hon. Gentleman faced the choice of either having to see these people go free and potentially wander around his constituency or go to trial, he might take a different view. In this case, Ministers looked at the request before them and, acting lawfully and in line with the OSJA, chose to take that decision.
My right hon. Friend, at the beginning, stated Government policy. I agree with the Government policy, and I am glad that the Government do as well. Will the Minister confirm that people accused of murdering British nationals can be tried in this country if there is evidence, even if they are not UK nationals?
Yes. Citizenship is not a factor. If we have the evidence and we can try them, we will. However, the point was made earlier about rendition and so on. It is one thing to share evidence with an ally or international partner, but the question arises about how you bring them back. The individuals we are talking about, and foreign fighters in general, are currently being held by non-state actors in Syria. How those people are brought back is a big challenge for all European states—and indeed the United States.
The Government have quite rightly tried over the past year to persuade China, Russia and Pakistan to suspend the death penalty. Is that not going to look like arrant hypocrisy if we adopt a different standard when it applies to the United States of America’s request? Will the Minister now please answer—if he does not have the detail now, will he write to all of us?—the question that the right hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve) asked: when did the Government last choose not to seek such assurances?
In my time as Security Minister, they have not. I will write to hon. Members and let them know on how many occasions we have done that. It will be for their summer reading.
Amid this whole debate, is it not absolutely essential that the perpetrators of these crimes should be brought to justice and punishment? That is the most important issue in all of this. Does the Minister not agree with that?
My hon. Friend is right. There are countries around the world that we recognise have due process, the rule of law, separation of powers and values we agree with. That is why we share intelligence with some of those powers and why, in the 8,000 mutual legal assistance requests a year, we often share evidence that leads to prosecutions in court. We will always do that where we think it is about seeking justice and the best place for that justice to be delivered. In this case, we felt the best place was the United States of America.
Everybody in this House agrees that the crimes being talked about are abhorrent and that there is a desperate need for justice, but no straw man should conceal the fact that that should never come at the loss of our principled opposition to the death penalty. If the Minister is so confident that this is the correct decision, will he publish the legal advice that he and other Ministers have had that confirms they do not even need to ask the question for this country? On that point, he says that the Prime Minister is aware of this decision. Does she agree?
On the first point, the hon. Lady will know that it has been the policy of numerous successive Governments not to publish legal advice. On the second point, the Prime Minister was aware of the decision. The decision was made between the Home Office and the Foreign Office, and she agrees.
I remind my right hon. Friend that the United States shares English law with us. A particularly ridiculous point was made by the SNP spokesman, the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry), when she mentioned Saudi Arabia, which patently does not. I also tell the House that there are widespread reports in the press that these people were responsible for beheading 27 western hostages with a serrated knife. If the evidence is not available in the United Kingdom but is available in the United States, I tell my right hon. Friend that it is absolutely right that they be tried there, because the last thing we want is these people being tried here, and then, through a lack of evidence, being found innocent and allowed to roam free in this country.
My hon. Friend makes a really important point. At the end of the day, this is about the security of our country and about justice being delivered where that can be done. For all the stories about the United States of America, it has a robust judicial system, a lot of which is based on English law, and for that reason we should not fear that sharing evidence with the United States is somehow comparable with sharing it with some other states that have been mentioned, or indeed that justice will not be done and that these people will not be given a fair trial if a trial is to happen. That is why I have said repeatedly from the Dispatch Box that I cannot comment in too much detail about these individuals.
The point about a principled opposition to capital punishment is that it exists in all circumstances—not just in areas where there might be a miscarriage of justice, but in the most hideous, heinous crimes of the kind we are describing, where very clear evidence is available. Will the Government tell the House whether, when they spoke to the American authorities, the American authorities told them that no such assurances would be given if the Government sought them?
In this particular case, much of the potential for a trial was based on a comparison of the United States’ statute book and ours, and whether the US had the suite of offences that would achieve a conviction and we did not. As I said to my right hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Sir Michael Fallon), that is why we are bringing in some new offences in the Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Bill, which is currently going through the House.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that one of the great shames in this is that we have not brought a charge of betrayal against these people? Fundamentally, what they have done is not just to bring violence against people in Syria but to undermine community cohesion in this country. That betrayal against our own state—that sense of wrong done to the citizens of this country—is a crime in itself and should be tried as one.
I can give my hon. Friend the assurance that throughout the whole process of this and many other cases that we have to make decisions on, we try to keep in balance the security of the nation from people who pose such a threat, whether they betray our values or betray their nation. We do that all the time and work incredibly hard to try to make sure that where we achieve justice, we do not do it by cutting corners and breaking international law, which we have seen happen in this House previously. The consequences that flowed from that are significant, which is why I can say, and said earlier, that the Government’s position on Guantanamo Bay is not as was reported in the media this morning. We absolutely oppose its existence. We wish it to be closed down and we would not, and will not, share information with the United States if individuals were going to end up in Guantanamo Bay.
I am baffled as to which of the many questions running through my head to ask. I could ask why the Minister had no answer for the right hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve), because surely precedent is extremely important in this case. The Minister does not even seem to know when the country last made such a serious decision not to seek reassurances. May I press him to commit himself to finding out those reasons, and to expressing at least some understanding of why it baffles so many of us, on both sides of the House, that he will not seek those reassurances in this case, given that he has just said that he would have done so if there had been the possibility of a prisoner’s going to Guantanamo? It makes no sense.
First, I have given that commitment. I will find out how many times this has been used in the past, and, as I have said, I will write to Members. As for the seriousness, the reason the Government oppose Guantanamo Bay—as, indeed, do the Opposition Front Benchers—is that it is not an institution that follows due process. It is set outside the bounds of international law. It is not in compliance with nearly everything that this country stands for. That is very different from the justice system of the United States.
Like, I suspect, the majority of my constituents and those in the country as a whole, I am perfectly comfortable with the position of the Home Secretary. These people are not United Kingdom citizens, and they are owed nothing by this Government. May I urge my right hon. Friend to ensure that the unrepresentative grandstanding that we have seen from some today will not knock the Government off its course of assisting the United States in the prosecution of these murderous terrorist scum?
My hon. Friend is right to point out that it is our constituents who face the consequences of not getting this right. The last thing on my mind at night and the first thing on my mind when I wake up in the morning is the balancing of risk—the balance between people who we know pose a risk, trying to plot to bomb us and kill us every single day; and the needs of my constituents and the constituents of the United Kingdom. The duty of Ministers is to balance that risk, and to try to get that balance right.
Like other Members in all parts of the House, I am proud of the role that successive UK Governments of all political persuasions have played in fighting against the death penalty. Is there any evidence that the Minister can give to challenge the assertion quoted in The Times this morning, from a “ministerial source”, that the Home Secretary’s decision
“is contrary to all government policy, and negates over a decade’s unequivocal FCO statements and DFID programme spending principles”?
I do not think that I need to guide the right hon. Gentleman not to quote from a ministerial source on any day of the week, and I would advise any colleagues against doing so. That ministerial source, whoever it may be, is wrong.
Will my right hon. Friend confirm that it is a vital strategic priority of our Government to work as closely as possible with the United States on a range of national security issues, and to assist us in our fight against international terrorism and extremism to help to keep our people safe?
My hon. Friend has made an important point. Every week, the United States and our European allies share evidence and intelligence that keep us safe. They are our friends in this ever-unstable world. It is incredibly important that we stay close to all our allies and continue in partnership both to prosecute people where they pose a threat—if it is here, then here, but if it is not, elsewhere, in the countries that share our values—and to share intelligence in order to make sure that all of us keep safe.
In the case of Abu Qatada, the Prime Minister, in her former guise, secured a special guarantee that evidence gathered through torture would not be used against him. Whatever these people are accused of, will the Minister give the House an assurance that there are the same guarantees for Alexanda Kotey and El Shafee Elsheikh?
On the basis of all the evidence that the United Kingdom holds, we would not hold evidence that we knew resulted directly or indirectly from torture; nor would we share that evidence if we had it.
Having taken the mood of the House this afternoon, will my right hon. and gallant Friend ask our right hon. Friend the Home Secretary to reconsider the action that he has taken, given the specifics of this case?
I am glad that the Minister intends to write to the right hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve) to answer his question, but can he confirm, as he was unable to answer today, that no precedent played any part in the decision made in this case?
The hon. Gentleman is correct. As I said in answer to a question from the right hon. Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott), all cases are taken on a case-by-case basis, and that will be the case in the future as well.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the key human right in this case is access to a full and fair trial, and that the UK Government must do everything they can to make sure that is possible? If UK agencies and authorities were to withhold evidence they have in their possession, it would put that fundamentally at risk?
My hon. Friend is right that it is very important that anyone detained on suspicion of being a foreign fighter faces a full and fair trial in accordance with our values and laws and international law, and that is what we are trying to achieve.
Last week the Foreign Office confirmed the Government’s position that the death penalty undermines human dignity and that opposing it was in all circumstances a matter of principle. So that confirms what I think the Minister has said, which is that this is an individual decision by this Home Secretary. But the only reason the Minister seems to have given for why the assurance was not sought is that that would not facilitate trial in the United States, so has the US imposed a condition that that assurance is not sought in this case?
No, I did not say that. This is a Foreign Office-Home Office-led decision of the two Ministers, so quoting from the Foreign Office I would say that the true guidance for the policy is in line with the OSJA guidance.
One of the biggest challenges we face today as a society is countering violent extremism. What is my right hon. Friend’s Department doing to strengthen the sentencing framework for terrorism-related offences?
The new Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Bill increases some of the maximum sentences available. On the wider area of my hon. Friend’s point about prevention, that is why we embrace and promote the Prevent policy in Contest.
These terrorists sneaked out of the UK to join a bunch of murderers who were at war with this country, and they then publicly boasted about beheading and torturing innocent hostages. Does the Minister not agree that it would be a betrayal of their victims and of this country if he did not supply information to the United States which would enable these people to be brought to justice and held to account, and that our only concern should be that that is what happens and that the US courts hand out whatever sentence they believe these people deserve?
It is of course a general policy and principle that we will do what we can to help acquire or share evidence with our allies to bring to justice people who have perpetrated violence through terrorism or any other offence against citizens, whether our citizens or those of other countries. I will not talk about this individual case and the United States, but the reality is that we should, of course, work to make sure that people face justice, but that justice must be in line with international law and our values, and with the due process that should be awarded to people who are innocent until proven guilty.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that any trial under any circumstance should always be fair and transparent because the relatives and friends of the victims deserve the best?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. Often in all of this—and, indeed, often in the media reporting—people forget that there are victims. The right place for the victims to see what is going on and understand the full picture is at a trial. That is why sometimes leaks in the media do not help anyone. Victims can certainly be upset when all these details come out in trials, and that is what we are trying to help by the sharing of evidence with the United States.
A number of us mourned the death this month of Cardinal Tauran, who told us that the conflict with radical Islam would be an intergenerational struggle that would require education, dialogue and, yes, force. Does the Minister not agree that facilitating vengeance in the judicial system via the use of the death penalty will make our world a much less safe place?
I do not believe that the death penalty is something that this country should have. I do not think it is what the public, or indeed this House, would support. However, I also respect the will of a number of countries around the world, including the United States, that have decided to have the death penalty in certain circumstances. As an ex-soldier, I am also aware that all states, including those that oppose the death penalty, use lethal force when they have to do so to keep themselves secure. We risk being seen as hypocrites if we say that we will never make an exception for assurances, while being prepared to use lethal force on the battlefield to kill people without due process. That is the balance that we always have to strike. It is not easy, but we do it to try to keep people safe.
While I understand the concern of those who oppose the death penalty, I also understand the concern of my constituents that if this country has information or evidence that is not passed on to our closest ally, the United States, that will send out a very wrong signal indeed when this House calls for more action in countries where there is a war that directly impacts my constituents. Will the Minister confirm, in order to reassure us all, that if advice has been taken and if decisions have been overreached in terms of ministerial responsibility, they will of course be subject to the courts?
Yes, my hon. Friend is correct. All Ministers took these decisions in line with the law. They were acting lawfully, within international law and within our domestic obligations.
Sending people to face the death penalty is unacceptable, and to be party to doing that undermines our own credentials. The Minister did not answer the question put by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry). When will the Government renew their own policy on the death penalty? When will that be brought before this House?
The hon. Lady makes one fundamental mistake. The two individuals in question are not under our control. They are not in our jurisdiction. We have no contact with them whatsoever. The reality is that this is based on a request from the United States Government to share evidence so that those individuals can potentially face trial in the United States.
I thank the Minister for his comments so far. Those two men are not UK citizens. If the evidential base is as strong as the media suggest, they will be charged and tested in the US courts for the murder of two Americans. Is it not right that it should be the US courts that deliberate on those horrific murders?
There are American victims of this crime, and whoever the right people to face the consequences of that are, they should of course face justice where those victims are, as should be the case in relation to British victims here. It would have been good if we could have done that, but in this case, the decision was reached that the United States was the best place for those individuals to face justice, in the United States criminal system.
(Urgent Question): To ask the Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasury if he will make a statement in relation to Government policy and practice with regard to pairing arrangements, especially as they relate to Members on maternity, paternity or adoption leave.
I want to start by reiterating without reserve the apology for the error that was made last week in respect of pairing with the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson). Both the Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasury, my right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Julian Smith)—the Government Chief Whip—and the Minister without Portfolio, my right hon. Friend the Member for Great Yarmouth (Brandon Lewis), have apologised publicly, and I acknowledge that that apology was accepted by the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) during questions to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House last week.
The Government’s policy on pairing remains that these are long-standing informal arrangements between business managers in different political parties in this House, co-ordinated through the usual channels. That has been the position of successive Governments of different political compositions, and this Government have no plans to change those underlying arrangements. Indeed, it is worth noting that almost 2,000 pairs have been agreed since the general election in June last year. Of those, the overwhelming majority have worked as intended, with the Government actually having a better record of upholding pairing arrangements than most other parties.
During the passage of the Trade Bill last week, seven of the eight pairs remained in place, including two other pairs provided for two Members on maternity leave. As my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House said in response to the urgent question last week, there are clearly questions and different opinions in the House on whether and, if so, how changes should be made to our current voting arrangements.
The Government have therefore confirmed that there will be a general debate on proxy voting in September, following the debate’s cancellation earlier this month for an urgent statement on the Amesbury incident. That will give Members the opportunity to consider the various questions arising from the recent report of the Procedure Committee into proxy voting. In particular, as came through from the exchanges following the Leader of the House’s business statement last week, I know that Members have questions about whether such arrangements should be extended beyond maternity, paternity and adoption leave to those who, for example, have been bereaved or who have caring responsibilities for close relatives. It is important that the House be given time to debate those questions as, from my experience, such changes are made most effectively when they command consensus across the House.
The Government remain committed to providing a pairing system with Opposition parties, and I reassure the House again that the errors of last week will not be repeated. I hope the House will look forward to the debate in September as a chance to discuss in greater detail what changes might be made to ensure that Members on both sides of the House are supported through periods of absence.
Thank you for allowing this urgent question, Mr Speaker. I thank the Minister for his answer. I mean no disrespect to him, but I am disappointed that he is at the Dispatch Box today and not the Chief Whip.
There are serious questions still outstanding about the events of last Tuesday evening, and the only person who knows the truth about them is the Chief Whip himself. There is a serious lack of confidence today in the system by which we run our business, and the only person who can restore that confidence is the Chief Whip.
I understand the convention that the Chief Whip does not normally speak in this Chamber except to move a by-election writ. Under normal circumstances I would see that as a sensible protection for the office of Chief Whip, but the House should not lose sight that there is an important distinction to be drawn between a protection for the office and a protection for the holder of that office.
When I was first made aware of the presence of the right hon. Member for Great Yarmouth (Brandon Lewis) in the Division Lobby last week, I was quite relaxed about it. We all know these things happen from time to time and, in a system that relies on the best of faith, these things should not be the source of excitement. My view started to change, however, when I learned that any mistake was made not by the right hon. Gentleman but by the Chief Whip himself. It may have been a mistake to cancel the pair, but it was not an inadvertence; it was a deliberate act. We now understand that the instruction to the right hon. Gentleman that he should vote came from the Chief Whip himself. The explanation from the Chief Whip that he did not know this was, as he terms it, a “pregnancy pair” neither clarifies nor excuses what is a prima facie act of bad faith. A pair is a pair, whatever its purpose. If the system is to work, it should be honoured and not broken at the 11th hour.
The House should be aware that I gave the Minister advance notice of these questions. When was the decision made to cancel the pairing arrangements for the votes on new clauses 17 and 18, and when was the right hon. Member for Great Yarmouth informed of this? Did the Chief Whip inform either the Liberal Democrat or official Opposition Whips Office that the pairs would be broken? My information is that neither office was informed. Was the right hon. Member for Great Yarmouth aware that he was paired with my hon. Friend the Member for East Dunbartonshire for the day’s votes? Was the decision made to cancel pairs taken in consultation with the Prime Minister or the Leader of the House? When were the Prime Minister and the Leader of the House informed that the pairing arrangements would be broken? Crucially, was the Prime Minister informed of the Chief Whip’s decision to instruct Conservative MPs to break pairing arrangements before she told the House at Prime Minister’s questions that it was an honest mistake? Do these repeated references to an “honest mistake” refer to the decision to break the pairing across the board or specifically to the decision to break pairing with a maternity/paternity leave MP? If it is the latter, is it now Government policy that the breaking of pairing arrangements at the insistence of the Chief Whip for non-pregnancy-related pairs is acceptable?
There is an old truism that there is no smoke without fire. In fairness to the Chief Whip, we see no flames today—[Interruption.]
Order. There are a lot of people in the Chamber and quite a lot of people probably want to take part—we will make an assessment of that. Meanwhile, the right hon. Gentleman will be heard. No attempt to shout him down is going to work and therefore it is just a waste of breath.
I had said, “In fairness to the Chief Whip”, so perhaps that was what got them excited, Mr Speaker. In fairness to the Chief Whip, there is no flame apparent today, but there is surely enough smoke to fill the sky.
First, my right hon. Friend the Member for Great Yarmouth, as the Minister without Portfolio, is a member of my ministerial team in the Cabinet Office, so I think it is perfectly appropriate that I should be answering the urgent question from the right hon. Gentleman.
The right hon. Gentleman asked a number of specific questions. First, let me say that my right hon. Friend the Member for Great Yarmouth was not at any point aware that he was paired with the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire. Indeed, that is the normal state of affairs when a colleague is paired: they do not know with which particular Opposition Member they happen to be paired. That is a matter dealt with by the usual channels, through the respective Whips Offices. My right hon. Friend was asked to vote shortly before the Divisions that have caused this particular controversy. As has been said both by him and by my right hon. Friend the Chief Whip, he should not have been asked to vote. An error was made within the Government Whips Office, for which my right hon. Friend the Chief Whip has taken responsibility, hence his public apology to the right hon. Gentleman, as Liberal Democrat Chief Whip, and to the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire. Every other pair that evening was honoured, so the error meant that the right hon. Gentleman was not notified beforehand, because there was not some sort of deep-laid plot to deny the pairing arrangement. Neither the Prime Minister nor the Leader of the House were consulted about the matter. The Government policy remains, as I said earlier, that pairing is an informal and voluntary arrangement between the political parties. We do take the issue of pregnancy pairing particularly seriously, for the very reasons that have led both the business Committee and then the Procedure Committee to highlight this as something that the House ought to address. That is why we will be taking forward the debate on proxy voting in September.
Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the broken pair did not alter the result of the vote and the Government would have still won the vote? Will he confirm that when these things happen the House has to learn lessons from them, but it must be wary of trying to scrap the whole system, as that would mean that Select Committees in this House would not be able to work and a lot of the work that takes place outside the confines of the Chamber would be impossible to continue?
My right hon. Friend speaks with considerable experience. It is true that what happened last Tuesday did not actually affect the outcome of the vote. It is worth pointing out that, of the 66 pairs that have been broken since the general election, 14 were broken by the Government and 52 by the Opposition.
Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting the urgent question, and I congratulate the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) on successfully bringing another Cabinet Minister to the Chamber to answer a question about breaking a pair. It clearly shows the seriousness of the political situation facing the Government Chief Whip that the deputy Prime Minister has to come to answer the urgent question, to try to avoid another damaging Cabinet exit. Clearly, the Government Chief Whip decided to phone a friend, and it was not the Leader of the House.
The deputy Prime Minister said that the Government had a better record on pairing. Could he explain what that means because a pair is twice—you have two pairs? The issue is simple: it comes down to the integrity of the word of a member of Her Majesty’s Government, the Government Chief Whip. You will recall, Mr Speaker, that a former Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, demanded a rerun of a vote—and got it—from a Labour Government.
The answers in the statements made by the Prime Minister and the Leader of the House on 18 July confirmed that the Government Chief Whip was less than candid with his fellow Ministers, including the Prime Minister, by not declaring that he actively instructed Conservative MPs to break pairing arrangements. It is clear that the Prime Minister and the Leader of the House have unwittingly misled the House by characterising the Government Chief Whip’s action as an “honest mistake”. This is a serious breach of the ministerial code.
Does the Minister for the Cabinet Office believe that the Government Chief Whip’s integrity is above reproach? We are asked to believe that the breaking of the pair for the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) was an “honest mistake”, while he admits that he ordered others to knowingly break their pairs. Can the Minister confirm that that is the case? Can he confirm that the Government Chief Whip rang those who refused to break their pairs to demand an explanation as to why? If that was the case, that in itself is a clear breach of a number of the Nolan principles, such as integrity and honesty, that form the basis of the ministerial code.
In her foreword to the latest version of the ministerial code, the Prime Minister states that it
“sets out the standards of behaviour expected from all those who serve in Government…In abiding by this Code, we will show that Government can be a force for good and that people can trust us”.
I reiterate our offer on Wednesday, following the previous urgent question, to discuss implementing a system of baby leave today without the need for a vote. How do the Government think that the business of the House—including Select Committee visits, international delegations, important ministerial negotiations, and even having a baby—can proceed when they admit that, under this Government Chief Whip, no one can or should trust them?
I have to say that when the hon. Lady complained about my right hon. Friend the Chief Whip not being here, I glanced across at the right hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne East (Mr Brown) and wondered why he was not at the Dispatch Box instead of her. I suspect that, when he whispers in her ear afterwards, he might suggest to her that trying to apply the Nolan principles to the inner workings of any Whips Office over recent decades would raise a number of difficult challenges.
I will address the serious points made by the hon. Lady. First, only one pair was broken last Tuesday. That was done because of a genuine error in the Government Whips Office, for which the Chief Whip has publicly apologised. Despite that breach having taken place—it ought not to have taken place—the outcome had no effect on the decision that was taken by the House in the particular votes on which the controversy centres. Had that breach not taken place, the Government would still have lost the first vote and would still have won the second vote last Tuesday evening.
We are more than willing to talk to Opposition parties and indeed to Back-Bench Members across the House about how to forge a consensus on the way forward on parental and perhaps other forms of absence but, as I said earlier, exchanges in the House already have indicated that this is not necessarily a straightforward matter. Finally, I have full confidence in the integrity of my right hon. Friend the Chief Whip.
The key is that this is an informal arrangement and it will always remain so. Mistakes will be made on both sides of the House—that is what happens. I was not allowed to have a pair for my father-in-law’s funeral. My duty was to be here to vote and I stayed here, notwithstanding the fact that I would have liked to have been at his funeral. A lot of nonsense is being talked at the moment. May I also say that the Chief Whip is doing an excellent job?
I am very grateful to my right hon. Friend.
The whole issue of this pairing arrangement stinks to high heaven, and we still have not had an acceptable explanation as to why the right hon. Member for Great Yarmouth (Brandon Lewis) observed some whipping arrangements but not others on much more critical votes. The Chief Whip needs to come to this House to explain himself fully because, with all due respect to the Minister, all we are hearing from him is what the Chief Whip has told him. After all of this, surely the Chief Whip should be considering his position today.
We in the Scottish National party are just so grateful that we have absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with this broken pairing arrangement. The more we learn about the insidious workings of this broken arrangement, the more pleased we are that we have nothing to do with it. Members of the public are watching with increasing alarm and horror as this House is being dragged into the gutter and into disrepute once again. What we need is a total review of all our broken voting arrangements in this House. Will the right hon. Gentleman commit himself to that today, to make sure that we can conduct ourselves fairly and equitably and end this nonsense in this House?
The hon. Gentleman seems to be working himself into a lather of indignation about an informal practice that he says that he and his party have no intention of participating in. I suspect that that question was an intentional distraction from the recent publicity on the dismal attendance and voting record of SNP Members in this House.
This is, of course, more about Parliament versus Government than anything else. I absolutely accept the assurance of the Chief Whip and the chairman of my party that they made a mistake. The problem is that, until I came to the Chamber today, I had no idea that there had been 2,000 pairs since the general election. The arrangements are made behind closed doors and in secret. If this pairing system was public, and if, each day, the people who were paired were listed or perhaps even removed from the possibility of voting, this would never occur again. What we need is transparency, and I hope that the deputy Prime Minister will look into this matter.
I understand the case that my hon. Friend makes and the arguments for greater transparency, but I ask him also to reflect on this point. In my experience in this House, Whips Offices in all political parties exercise a very important pastoral role. As in any large workplace, there are often Members who are going through periods of ill health or great family and personal stress, and in those circumstances it is not always right for the pairing arrangements to be made public in a way that might draw attention to the predicament of those Members. I do think, despite what he says, that it is best for these matters to be left to informal agreement between the usual channels.
We know things are bad for the Government when they send out their wisest head and safest pair of hands, but unfortunately the Minister for the Cabinet Office has been sent out to defend the indefensible. In addition to the very serious questions that still surround the pairing arrangements for the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson), it is clear from comments made by Conservative MPs to national newspapers that the Chief Whip ordered them to break their pairs. It is only because of their honour and integrity—and the Chief Whip’s misjudgement and inability to orchestrate a proper stitch-up—that that did not happen. Does the Minister for the Cabinet Office understand the damage that this has done not just to our confidence in the pairing system and with its impact on Members’ welfare, but to the integrity and public perception of this place? What are the Government going to do to repair the reputation of Parliament and to accept that, because they did not win a majority at the last general election, they have to win votes by argument rather than by stitching things up behind closed doors?
At the risk of repeating myself, the breach of pairing that took place last Tuesday did not make any difference to the outcome of either of the Divisions in question. My right hon. Friend the Chief Whip has undertaken to use the summer recess to carry out a review of the internal arrangements within the Government Whips Office to try to make certain that this type of error, which should not have occurred, can be prevented in the future. I would just say to the hon. Gentleman that perhaps I am getting somewhat cynical over the years, but I do tend to take with a pinch of salt reports in the newspapers about what my colleagues are alleged to have said.
I feel that I must fess up. I am a pair breaker. I have done it once—by accident. I was told off by the Whips very quickly. The event that I was due to attend had been cancelled and I simply forgot, so honest mistakes do happen. But this whole incident proves two things: first, that this is a process issue that interests the Westminster bubble, but certainly does not interest my constituents; and secondly, that this system, which has existed for a very long time, generally works. I urge my right hon. Friend to be very careful in changing a system that, despite the odd breakdown here and there—most of which have been committed by the Opposition in recent times—generally works. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. The very fact that we are talking about 66 pairs having been broken for one reason or another since the general election, out of a total of around 2,000 agreed pairs, tells its own story.
Allegations have been made and it is clear that there was a
“misunderstanding about the pairing and voting arrangements”—[Official Report, 22 June 1976; Vol. 915, c. 1361.]
Those words were uttered in 1976 from the Government Dispatch Box by the then Prime Minister, James Callaghan, during a similar controversy. He and the then Leader of the Opposition agreed that the only way to resolve matters was for the Chief Whips to meet and the vote to be rerun. Precedent has been set. When will the Government show the integrity that I know the Minister for the Cabinet Office and many Government colleagues possess in abundance?
The difference between the incident in the 1970s that the hon. Gentleman cites and what happened last week is that the majorities—both against and for the Government—in the two Divisions were completely unaffected by what happened over pairing.
I have probably not always been the blue-eyed boy of the Whips Office, but I have found that this Chief Whip and his predecessors have always behaved with the utmost honesty and integrity. Confected anger and attacking my right hon. Friend does not help the House—in fact, it does not help anybody—because this system generally works. We should be very cautious about moving towards proxy voting because, had I taken the paternity leave due to me, I can think of no one I would have less liked to have held my vote than the Chief Whip.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, although I have to give him this warning: those who start out not being the blue-eyed boys of the Whips Office usually end up being recruited into it.
Well, the hon. Member for North East Somerset (Mr Rees-Mogg) does not exactly look heart-warmed by the prospect that redemption awaits him.
It would be frightfully good for him.
Good for him? Well, that’s a divisible proposition.
The Minister says that we should not believe the press reports that we have seen, so can he settle this matter once and for all? Did the Chief Whip also call other MPs and ask them to break the pair alongside the right hon. Member for Great Yarmouth (Brandon Lewis)? Because if he did, that is not a mistake, it is a policy.
I say to the hon. Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy) that this does matter, because if the public cannot trust the Government to organise themselves, how can they trust them to organise a country?
Every pair other than that with the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire was honoured last Tuesday.
As you will know, Mr Speaker, if I think that someone in government should lose their job, I am not afraid to say so. As you might imagine, I, like my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Mr Rees-Mogg), have had my fair share of run-ins with the Chief Whip. However, I have always found him, even when we have fundamentally disagreed, to be a man of complete honour, of his word and of integrity. That also goes for the other members of the Whips Office with whom I have had fundamental disagreements. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Chief Whip’s integrity should not be questioned in any shape or form, and that anybody who knows him as well as we do would know that to be the case? Is this not really an attempt by the Liberal Democrat Chief Whip to avoid the embarrassment of the fact that he could not get the leader of his own party, or his immediate predecessor, to vote in a Division last Monday that the Government won by only three?
I do not know whether that was an eloquent bid to be the beneficiary of future pairing arrangements, but my hon. Friend makes an important point. I think it is true that Conservative Members right across the spectrum, from left to right of my party, have always found the Chief Whip to be someone with whom they can do business and whose integrity and honesty they can completely trust.
With four Members of the House on maternity leave at the moment, this issue is particularly poignant, and I fear that many of those people will have lost faith in the system as it currently exists. When I was on maternity leave with my first child, the campaigning group 38 Degrees contacted my constituents criticising me for not attending a vote, but at least I knew that I was paired and that it was cancelled out. The right hon. Gentleman says that we will be discussing proxy voting in greater detail in the autumn, and that is welcome. However, when does he expect reform to take place to allow proxy voting, as recommended by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) and the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller), so that it actually happens and we are not reliant on this informal system?
I think that after the general debate on the matter there will need to be, at some stage in the not too distant future, a substantive motion on which the House can take a view. Important questions were raised in the Procedure Committee report—for example, about the exclusion from a general proposal for proxy voting while on maternity, paternity or adoption leave of particular categories of Division in the House. The Committee discussed various approaches to how a proxy vote might operate in practice. The House needs to consider those things, as well as the points about the potential for bereavement leave or carer’s leave that other hon. Members on both sides of the House have raised.
We know that the system actually works pretty well. The Minister has given the figures that show that occasionally, for a variety of reasons, pairs get broken. In those cases, an apology is required, very quickly, and we had an apology from the two individuals in question that should settle the matter. The reality, though, is that this is the worst system except for all the alternatives.
My hon. Friend has hit the nail on the head.
I do worry about what happened last week and about the explanations that have subsequently been given. It is certainly true that, as the hon. Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy) suggested, sometimes people do, inadvertently, accidentally and without any malice aforethought, break the Whip—[Interruption.] I am sorry—break the pair. People frequently break the Whip—that is a common feature on all sides these days. Sometimes people break the pair, and then they are always told off by the Whips for doing so, because it is the Whips’ own honour that is then in question—that is the point. The difference in this case is that the Chief Whip deliberately—not as an error but deliberately—sought to get somebody he knew to be paired to break that pair. That is a fundamental difference.
I say to the Minister that we need to get this sorted before the autumn, not just have a debate about it. The temperature in politics this year and in this Parliament—as well as the physical temperature—has already been very high, and we really do need to get it sorted. Otherwise we will be putting temptation in the Chief Whip’s way every single day of the week, all the way through to 29 March next year.
As my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House said in business questions last Thursday, she is willing and indeed keen to engage with right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House to see whether we can agree, as consensually as possible, a way of addressing these matters in the future.
I declare an interest: I have always had considerable time for the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael), not least since we served together as senior Whips in the Government Whips Office during the days of the coalition Government. As he will recall from those halcyon days, occasionally—incredible though it might sound—things in the Whips Office went wrong, and it was usually the result not of a conspiracy but of a mistake. I submit to him and the House that that is what has happened here, and it would be a great mistake on our part to change our well-established procedures because of an unfortunate incident for which both of those responsible have profusely apologised.
It is a good principle that hard cases make bad law, and I think my right hon. Friend is right.
What matters for present purposes is that two senior members of the Government conspired to break the rules to win a vote they thought they might lose. If I am wrong about that, can the Minister explain why? If I am right, why are they still in their posts?
An error took place. Full apologies have been given.
This looks to have been a genuine error, for which a sincere apology has been given. My right hon. Friend has made it clear that this type of error has happened not just on the Government side but on both sides of the House, so I find the level of faux outrage in some quarters very strange. The system generally works well, and I would encourage him not to throw the baby out with the bathwater but to work with his counterparts, particularly in the Whips Offices of other parties, to make sure that the system can be looked at and improved on to avoid these types of errors, which are clearly happening on the Government side and in other parties.
My hon. Friend gives good advice that I am sure my colleagues in the Whips Office will wish to follow.
If the Government are prepared to take advantage of pregnant women and women who have recently had babies, surely we can have very little trust in their integrity. Would a good way to restore integrity not be to circulate something before the recess so that we can have a votable motion when we come back in September to allow baby leave and proxy voting to go ahead?
As I have repeatedly said, what happened last week was a genuine error. It ought not to have happened. The Whips Office is taking steps through its internal procedures to try to prevent a repetition, and the Leader of the House is eager to talk to Members from all parties in the House about the way forward to address the points the hon. Lady refers to.
Like my right hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois), I served for four years in the coalition Whips Office, including for two years with the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael), and he and I will remember all kinds of cock-ups, for want of a better term: people inadvertently paired twice, people who thought their pair was transferable, and so on. All these things can and do happen. In my view, this is much more likely to have been a genuine mistake, so does my right hon. Friend agree that it would be a poor decision to base long-term practice on this one case, however high-profile?
Consciously telling an MP to break a pair is not an error; it is cheating. Was the Chief Whip offered the opportunity by the Government to come to the House today to explain his error?
For the reasons I explained earlier, I am responding on behalf of the Government. I ask the right hon. Gentleman to accept what his right hon. Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland accepted last week, which was the public apologies given by the Minister without Portfolio, my right hon. Friend the Member for Great Yarmouth, and the Chief Whip.
With 2,000 pairs granted, does my right hon. Friend agree that mistakes, while rare, are far from unknown? They are even not unknown to the Liberal Democrats.