House of Commons
Wednesday 23 January 2019
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
EU Withdrawal Agreement
With your permission, Mr Speaker, before I answer the questions, may I say that I am sure the House will want to join me in paying tribute and respect to Assembly Member Steffan Lewis, who sadly died just over a week ago? He was a bright and dedicated politician who had an exceptional future in front of him, with so much to offer Wales. My prayers and thoughts are with his wife, Shona, and son, Celyn, at this most difficult time.
I can update the House that the UK air accidents investigation branch is working with the relevant rescue and transportation authorities in relation to Emiliano Sala and the pilot who went missing on Monday evening. I am sure that the whole House wishes to join me in hoping for a positive outcome.
The Government are working to identify the broadest possible consensus on a way forward so that we leave the European Union in a smooth and orderly manner. We are engaging with Members on both sides of the House and with representatives of business groups, civil society, trade unions and others.
A recent report by The UK in a Changing Europe has found that almost half of all respondents oppose the Prime Minister’s deal, with only 23% in support. How can the Secretary of State reconcile his position of being Wales’s champion in Westminster when this place is working contrary to Welsh public opinion?
In the first instance, I remind the hon. Lady that Wales voted to leave the European Union in even stronger numbers than the rest of the United Kingdom. The withdrawal agreement sets out the basis on which, and how, we will leave the European Union. In the light of last week’s votes, we are determined to make amendments and to develop a document in consultation with colleagues across the House in order to win the House of Commons’ support.
May I associate myself with the Secretary of State’s comments about Steffan Lewis? He and I worked together as young researchers in the National Assembly for Wales. We must remember the words of our colleague Jo Cox that we do have a lot more in common across this House and across the devolved institutions.
Will the Secretary of State simply rule out now, and make representations to the Prime Minister to rule out, no deal, so that the automotive industry in Bridgend—Ford in Bridgend employs many of my constituents—can have certainty beyond March? This continuing planning for no deal is providing no certainty to anybody.
I would say to the hon. Gentleman that the best way of avoiding no deal is obviously to get a deal. It was interesting that the hon. Gentleman voted against the deal last week. We will continue to engage across the House and with the devolved Administrations, and we are optimistic that we will continue to make amendments to the document that will gain a deal with the European Union.
In an excellent briefing on the 9th, organised by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, on the effects of leaving the European Union on businesses in Northern Ireland, I was told the slightly unknown fact that 40% of Northern Ireland perishable food exports come through Holyhead. This fact was not known to the people I met then, and is perhaps not known to other Members of this House. What assessment has the Secretary of State made of the impact of a no deal on the supply chains that sustain the exports of such foods through the port of Holyhead, and will he confirm what steps he is personally taking to mitigate that impact?
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point about the port of Holyhead. It is the second busiest port in the UK during the summer months, but of course all year round it is pretty critical to the supply chain, particularly for foodstuffs that come from both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. A ports working group has been in place for quite some time—it involves the UK Government, the Welsh Government and the relevant UK Government agencies—to plan for a deal, and also to plan for no deal, as a responsible Government would do.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that voters in Wales will not forgive this place if we fail to respect the outcome of the 2016 referendum, and that businesses in Wales will not forgive us if we create a set of circumstances that makes their job of creating jobs in Wales even harder? Given those two imperatives, does my right hon. Friend agree that actually passing a withdrawal agreement—passing a deal—is absolutely essential now?
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his question. He obviously recognises the importance of gaining a deal, and I have no doubt he will play a significant part in working with the Government and influencing colleagues in understanding the opportunities and the challenges that we face. He is absolutely right: the ports in Pembrokeshire are extremely important to the Welsh economy—my right hon. Friend regularly highlights those—but he also understands the importance of agriculture and manufacturing, and why a deal is so important to those sectors, too.
What assessment has my right hon. Friend made of the opportunities for Wales, once we leave the European Union, of more jobs and investment, and also of the potential for Wales to boom, as opposed to the doom and gloom of the Labour party?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that question. He will be well aware that, in the past quarter, the UK economy was growing faster than the eurozone economy—the UK grew by 0.6% while the German and Italian economies went into decline. That highlights some of the opportunities that we face but, of course, we can grasp them in the smoothest way only if we manage to get a deal with the European Union.
Given that the Wales CBI has said that a no-deal Brexit will see a £7 billion annual fall in Welsh manufacturing output and output generally in the economy, will he, for goodness’ sake, simply admit that a no-deal Brexit will be bad for Wales? Before he responds, let me say that I do not want a Maybotic answer.
The hon. Gentleman will know that there are many predictions in economic forecasts, but they are forecasts rather than fact. He will have predicted a recession after the 2010 general election—he may well have even predicted a double or treble-dip recession—but I hope that he will recognise the fantastic employment data that was published yesterday showing record numbers of people in work in Wales. The inactivity rates in Wales are at staggeringly positive numbers, matching the rest of the UK for the first time since records began.
I echo the words of the Secretary of State with regard to Steffan Lewis and Emiliano Sala.
The Secretary of State voted for the Prime Minister’s disastrously flawed withdrawal agreement—he was one of the few, not the many. Will he explain why the Government pretend that nothing has changed, despite their suffering the biggest defeat in parliamentary history?
It is no secret that the House did not support the deal that was presented to it last week, but we are committed to working with colleagues across our own Benches, and across the House, to come forward with a proposal that can gather the support of the House of Commons and, obviously, to negotiate with the European Union in order to get a deal. I am sure that the hon. Lady would much prefer to see a deal and I challenge her to say whether she was comfortable being in the same Lobby as some colleagues, from all parts of the House, who would like to see no deal.
I think that that was a Cairnsbotic answer.
Yesterday, the First Minister of Wales, Mark Drakeford, cleared Government business in the Welsh Assembly so that he and his Cabinet Ministers could make urgent statements on how a no-deal outcome would be so disastrous for the people of Wales. Will the Secretary of State tell us if he will be voting for amendments put forward in this House to avoid a no-deal outcome, or will he, like his Prime Minister, put party before country?
I can advise the House that the UK Government have laid 75 statutory instruments at the Assembly’s request. We have had countless meetings of the Joint Ministerial Committee and the Prime Minister has agreed to invite the First Minister to the European Union Exit and Trade (Preparedness) Sub-Committee. I hope that that demonstrates the joint work that is taking place. The hon. Lady talks about putting party interests first. I cannot understand why the First Minister of Wales is happy to meet the Prime Minister—they will be meeting later today—but the Leader of the Opposition refuses to meet her to discuss the prospect of a deal, yet seems always happy to meet the IRA.
UK Shared Prosperity Fund
I have regular discussions with Cabinet colleagues and Welsh Government Ministers on a range of issues affecting Wales, including on the UK shared prosperity fund.
EU structural funds have been crucial for communities across Wales, and it is vital that Wales must not be left behind—we need that assurance. Why has it taken so long to get any detail from the Government on the shared prosperity fund, not least the consultation, which was promised by the Government before Christmas?
I agree that the UK shared prosperity fund will be extremely important to all parts of the UK. My specific interest is protecting Welsh interests in the development of that policy. On 14 January, I spoke to the Welsh Government’s Brexit Minister, Jeremy Miles, to update him on the latest stages of the plans for consultation, and I also committed to sharing that with him before we formally consult. Of course we want to engage with a whole load of stakeholders. There is widespread recognition that the current structure does not work, and we have an opportunity to get it right.
Between 2014 and 2020, Wales will have received £2.4 billion in structural funding, or over 20% of the total UK allocation of EU funds. Will the UK Government ensure that Wales continues to receive at least an equivalent share of funding from the shared prosperity fund?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question, in which he highlights some of the most recent data. The complete data on the period since European structural funding was introduced show that more than £4 billion has been spent over 17 years, but I am sure he agrees that we have not always got the best value out of that investment—there are several audit reports to that effect. Of course, any quantum of the UK shared prosperity fund is a matter reserved for my right hon. Friend the Chancellor during the comprehensive spending review.
Given the not unreasonable concern in north Wales about Hitachi’s decision to suspend development of Wylfa B, is my right hon. Friend willing to meet representatives of the North Wales Economic Ambition Board to discuss ways in which the shared prosperity fund may be used to support the regional economy?
I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend’s work in securing Hitachi’s interest in Wylfa when RWE and E.ON withdrew their interest from the project. Although last week’s decision is disappointing, our focus is on maintaining momentum towards the development consent. Of course I am happy to meet the board and my right hon. Friend to discuss how we can best use influences such as the shared prosperity fund and the north Wales growth deal. We will happily keep an open mind, but these matters are project-led, and the strength of resource depends on the quality of the project.
The UK shared prosperity fund should be just that—a UK-wide fund. What discussions have my right hon. Friend and the Secretary of State for Scotland had with the Treasury to ensure that the UK Government have a positive impact on the lives of the people of Wales and Scotland?
My hon. Friend has highlighted inefficiencies in the current proposal, and there is a range of options for how we can best work on those. We are going out to consultation very soon. We have cross-Government discussions and consideration of this subject, but I do not want to pre-empt the consultation. I encourage my hon. Friend to engage with me, the Secretary of State for Scotland and the Treasury.
In the late 1990s, the Secretary of State’s party was voting against the existence of the National Assembly. In 2005, it had a manifesto option of abolishing the Assembly. Can he understand why many Opposition Members do not believe that he truly wants to involve our National Assembly for Wales in the governance of the UK shared prosperity fund?
That question is a bit rich coming from the hon. Lady, given that her party’s Government left us with the famous legislative consent order motions, which meant that the Welsh Government could not even pass primary legislation in certain areas without Parliament’s explicit control. I point to the Wales Acts 2014 and 2017 and to the referendum, which extended the powers of the Welsh Assembly, as well as countless Joint Ministerial Committee meetings and this afternoon’s meeting between the Prime Minister and the First Minister to discuss how best to manage Brexit.
Universal Credit: Low-income Families
Universal credit is available in every jobcentre in Wales. Our welfare reforms are incentivising work and supporting working families, and employment in Wales is at a record high.
Twenty-six per cent. of people in Wales have a disability and 39% of them are in poverty—both the highest proportion in the UK. What assessment has the Minister made of the number of people who lost severe disability premium when they transferred on to universal credit and the impact on those individuals, their families and their communities?
In recent weeks, an assessment has been conducted by the Department for Work and Pensions and the Secretary of State has made it clear that it is vital that we reform to deliver a fair and compassionate welfare system. This is an ongoing piece of work. It is essential that people who have been trapped out of work by a confusing and complex mix of tax credits and benefits are helped into work.
Many organisations in my constituency do great work mitigating the effects of the universal credit roll-out, but it is still causing great hardship. Have Ministers asked the Prime Minister to fully stop the roll-out, or are they simply not standing up for Wales?
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions is fully committed to not rushing the migration of universal credit; she will proceed with the utmost care and attention. As she has announced, managed migration will be piloted this year, involving 10,000 people, following which the Government will report on their findings. Migration beyond the pilot number will not occur until my right hon. Friend has brought legislation back to this House to extend that migration.
Severn Bridges Tolls
The removal of the tolls from the Severn river crossings will drive the biggest economic stimulus Wales has seen in decades, putting over £1,400 a year back into the pockets of hard-working motorists and boosting the south Wales economy alone by £100 million.
I am delighted to hear that positive assessment from my right hon. Friend of the impact of removing the tolls, which add a significant cost to doing business between the south-west of England and Wales. Will he advise on what discussions he is having to exploit this opportunity by identifying any job-creating developments this might inspire on the M4/M5 corridor?
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his work in this area to encourage closer working between this super-region that is being developed. The great western powerhouse allows the south-west of England and south Wales to market themselves jointly to start competing with the northern powerhouse and the midlands engine. I know that he has a strong interest in the M5 and the business around it. I obviously have a strong interest in the M4, and together we will attract more investment.
May I begin by associating myself with the comments that the Secretary of State made about Steffan Lewis? As his local MP, I always admired and respected him, and his passion for Wales will be greatly missed within the Assembly. It is a loss to Welsh political life.
The closing of the tolls at the M4 bridge creates massive opportunities. What discussions has the Secretary of State had with other Government Departments to bring regional offices and Government jobs to Wales?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for such a question. A number of discussions are going on across Government Departments about the drive to decentralise civil service opportunities from London. He will be aware of the Cardiff hub, and we are looking to where other opportunities exist. But abolishing the Severn tolls has also created challenges. We need better integration for projects such as the Chepstow bypass and other road projects that work cross-border, and we need to harness those as priorities.
The Welsh economy has shown significant progress in recent years. The rate of employment in Wales is at a record high and increased by more than that in any other part of the UK over the last year, with 64,000 more people in work. There is a wealth of world-leading innovation in Wales, with Welsh businesses spending over £450 million on research and development in 2017.
The decision on Wylfa Newydd is a massive setback, not only for Anglesey but for the whole north Wales economy, and the project was a central plank of the north Wales growth deal. When it comes to major infrastructure projects, the Secretary of State has a record of unmitigated failure; he has a kind of reverse Midas touch. When will he start to speak up for Wales in Cabinet? If he is not prepared to speak up for Wales, will he step aside and let someone else have a go?
I can tell the right hon. Gentleman that there is no greater champion for Wales than my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. However, the hon. Gentleman raises a very serious and important point regarding Wylfa. This does affect the whole region. The Government were willing to offer a significant and generous package of potential support, but despite that, Hitachi decided that the project was still too great a commercial challenge. We are still committed to nuclear sites as part of the UK’s future energy mix, and we will also continue to support the Isle of Anglesey with initiatives such as the north Wales growth deal.
I understand from my colleague Rhun ap Iorwerth AM that, given the economic uncertainty now surrounding Hitachi’s future at Wylfa Newydd, the Welsh Government have indicated that they are prepared to commit further funds to the north Wales growth bid if Westminster makes the same commitment. Will it?
The hon. Lady makes an important point. We are certainly open-minded. Commitments such as this must be project-led. I reiterate that we recognise the significant impact that Hitachi’s decision will have on the region and planned investment, some of which could be co-dependent on the growth deal. We are committing £120 million, as the hon. Lady knows, and we will certainly talk to our partners in Wales. In fact, I am going there next week to talk with Ministers and stakeholders.
I greatly appreciate that the Minister sees the importance of the north Wales growth bid, particularly in relation to the news at Wylfa. It is interesting that the British Government offered Hitachi a one-third equity stake in the £20 billion nuclear power development in Ynys Môn. Now that Wylfa Newydd looks set to be the latest project to join the Welsh infrastructure scrapyard, will the Minister guarantee that his Government will use the previously promised equity to create 850 alternative, permanent and well-paid jobs in north-west Wales?
The hon. Lady raises an important point. We are certainly not abandoning that area of Wales. I reiterate that this was a commercial decision. We are committing £120 million to the north Wales growth deal, which we hope to get over the line as soon as practically possibly. The Government’s decision to agree to take an equity stake, to secure a strike price and to underwrite the debt on that project, was incredibly generous.
Since 2013, we have seen the cancellation of the Atlantic Array wind turbines off south Wales, the cancellation of the Celtic Array wind farms off north wales, the cancellation of the Cardiff-Swansea rail line in 2018, the cancellation of the Swansea bay tidal lagoon in 2018 and—to cap it all, the cancellation of cancellations— the cancellation of Wylfa Newydd last week, which was a £16 billion investment that would have transformed the economy of north Wales. Will the Secretary of State support the establishment of an inquiry, which the CBI in Wales has called for, to uncover why this Conservative Government are incapable of delivering large infrastructure projects in Wales?
The hon. Gentleman seems to miss the fact that these are commercial decisions to put these projects on hold. In terms of Hitachi, it is a suspended project. We will continue to engage with Hitachi regarding options for the site. We are absolutely committed to creating a broad-based, resilient economy through our industrial strategy, and we will continue to work with the private sector, local partners and the Welsh Government to ensure that Wales prospers. I hope that Members across the House welcome the news this week that the employment rate in Wales now matches that of the UK for the first time since my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (John Redwood) was the Secretary of State for Wales.
Fuel Duty Freeze: Low-income Families
The Government recognise that transport is a major cost for households and businesses, so it was announced at last year’s Budget that fuel duty across the UK will remain frozen for the ninth successive year.
Despite the excellent fuel duty freeze from the Government, oil companies are still hitting motorists across Wales and the UK by increasing petrol prices hugely when the international oil price goes up but taking a long time to reduce it when the oil price goes down. Will my hon. Friend work with the Secretary of State for Transport and the Treasury to introduce a “pump watch” regulator, as recommended by FairFuelUK, so that there are fair prices for motorists at the pumps?
There is no greater champion for consumers than my right hon. Friend, but we do not believe that setting up a regulator would be justified, given the costs of doing so. This sector, like every other, is subject to the normal competition and consumer protection law. We are committed to passing on savings to commuters and, due to nine years of fuel duty freezes, the average car driver in Wales and the UK will have saved a cumulative £1,000 by April 2020.
Can the Minister confirm that 30,000 low-income families in Wales will lose £2,500 a year as a result of the imposition of the two-child policy? Does he think that that is fair?
The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions has announced that she will not extend the two-child limit on universal credit to children born before April 2017, when the policy first came into effect. That will benefit about 15,000 families, and the decision restores the original intent of the policy, which will give parents in receipt of universal credit the same choices as those in work.
Leaving the EU: No Deal
As we leave the European Union, our economy is growing faster than the eurozone, employment is at record high levels, and economic activity in Wales is at the highest level since records began.
May I associate myself with the Minister’s comments on Steffan Lewis, who was one of the most able and talented politicians that Wales has ever had?
With days to go until we crash out with no deal, we know the devastating impact. The CBI is warning us, the Army is on stand-by to slaughter lambs set for export, and the Government are refusing to rule out no deal. What does the Minister say about that, given that the Prime Minister is not going to get her deal through?
My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has set out our position and is determined to work not only on our side of the House but across the House to introduce proposals that will allow the House of Commons to support a deal. It is interesting that the Welsh First Minister, Mark Drakeford, is prepared to meet her to discuss the proposals, but the Leader of the Opposition refuses to do so, in spite of being more than happy to meet the IRA on other occasions.
I am calling the right hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) in spite of time constraints. I know that she will ask a commendably brief question.
Baby Deaths and Stillbirths: Cwm Taf University Health Board
I thank the right hon. Lady for raising this very important issue, and my thoughts are with all those families affected. I recognise her continued and passionate dedication to this issue and to ensuring that we have a health service that is fit for everyone. It is imperative that both the internal and external reviews of maternity services in Cwm Taf are both comprehensive and timely. Those affected will rightly be looking for urgent answers and clear action to ensure improvements in patient care and safety.
I am grateful for that answer. Will the Secretary of State continue to monitor the investigation and report the findings back to the House?
Of course. At present, this is a matter for the Welsh Government and for the health board, but we await the findings of the review, and we will act accordingly. In the meantime, the Government will continue to ensure that the NHS has the funding that it requires. I can assure the right hon. Lady that we will work with her to ensure that we get the right outcomes.
The Prime Minister was asked—
I am sure that Members across the House will wish to join me in marking Holocaust Memorial Day this Sunday. It is an opportunity for us to remember all those who suffered in the holocaust and in subsequent genocides around the world. It is a reminder that we must all challenge and condemn prejudice and hatred wherever it is found.
This morning, I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in this House, I shall have further such meetings later today.
May I associate myself with the comments that the Prime Minister made in relation to Holocaust Memorial Day? May I also say as a proud Scot that the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is the most successful political union that the world has ever known? That said, does the Prime Minister agree that, when Nicola Sturgeon demands a second independence referendum, only four years after we had the last one, the UK Government should side with the majority of the people of Scotland and firmly tell her no?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. As he points out, Scotland held a referendum in 2014. It was legal, fair and decisive, and the people clearly voted for Scotland to remain part of the United Kingdom. More than that, at the last general election, the people of Scotland again sent a very clear message that they do not want a second divisive referendum, but the SNP sadly is out of touch with the people of Scotland and has not yet heard that message. The last thing we want is a second independence referendum. The United Kingdom should be pulling together, and should not be being driven apart.
Sunday is Holocaust Memorial Day, a time for us all to reflect on the horrors of genocide and to recommit to never again allowing the poison of antisemitism and racism to disfigure our society in any way. The Prime Minister was also right to acknowledge the other genocides that have happened since the second world war. It is up to us to try to prevent such horrors from ever happening again anywhere in the world.
After the overwhelming defeat of the Prime Minister’s deal, she says she wants solutions to the Brexit crisis that command sufficient support in the House. The Chancellor and the Business Secretary agree that there is a “large majority” in the Commons opposed to no deal, so will the Prime Minister listen to her own Cabinet members and take no deal off the table?
What I, members of the Cabinet and the whole Government are doing is working to ensure that we leave the European Union with a deal. That is the way to avoid no deal: to leave the European Union with a deal. I say to the right hon. Gentleman that what I have wanted to do—I have been doing it with Members across the House—is sit down and talk about how we can secure support in this House for a deal. He has been willing to sit down with Hamas, Hezbollah and the IRA without preconditions, yet he will not meet me to talk about Brexit. In this case, he is neither present nor involved.
Actually I reached out to the Prime Minister last September when I offered to discuss our deals with her. It appears that, while the door to her office may well be open, the minds inside it are completely closed. She has shown no flexibility whatsoever on taking no deal off the table.
The Chancellor reassured businesses that amendments would be put down that
“would have the effect of removing the threat of no deal...which is binding and effective”.
Given that those amendments are now tabled, will the Prime Minister confirm that, if passed, they would rule out no deal?
We have seen amendments that seek to engineer a situation in which article 50 is extended. That does not solve the issue that there will always be a point of decision. The decision remains the same: no deal, a deal or no Brexit. I am delivering on Brexit. I want to do it with a deal. Why will the right hon. Gentleman not come and meet me and talk about it?
The only consistency in the Prime Minister’s strategy seems to be running down the clock by threatening no deal as an alternative to her dead deal.
The CBI says that the “projected impact” of no deal on the UK economy “would be devastating”. Leaving with no deal would be a hammer blow to manufacturing in this country, costing jobs and damaging living standards.
Last week, the Justice Secretary was asked whether he ruled out a customs union. He said:
“I don’t think we can”.
However, that same day, the Leader of the House said that we cannot be in a customs union. Can the Prime Minister be clear? Do her Government rule out a customs union with the European Union?
The right hon. Gentleman talks about a customs union and I note that he has tabled an amendment. The Labour party used to refer to a comprehensive customs union, then it was a new customs union and now it is a permanent customs union, but the question—[Interruption.] I am happy to sit down to talk to him about what he means by that. Does he mean accepting the common external tariff? Does he mean accepting the common commercial policy? Does he mean accepting the Union customs code? Does he mean accepting EU state aid rules? If he will not talk about it, there is only one conclusion: he hasn’t got a clue.
My question was: does the Prime Minister rule in or rule out a customs union? It is not complicated. She could have said yes, she could have said no. It is a key part of what Labour is putting forward and it is backed by the TUC, representing millions of workers; by the CBI, representing thousands of businesses; by the First Ministers of Wales and Scotland; and indeed by many members of her own party, including apparently her own chief of staff. So can the Prime Minister explain why she is ruling out a customs union as a solution to the crisis? She could for once actually answer the question.
Perhaps I can try to help the right hon. Gentleman here. When many people talk about a customs union, what they want to ensure is that businesses can export to the EU without facing tariffs, quotas or rules-of-origin checks. I agree, and the deal we negotiated delivers just that, but it also allows us to have an independent trade policy and to do our own trade deals with the rest of the world—the benefits of a customs union and the benefits of our own trade policy.
The International Trade Secretary promised 40 trade agreements the second after Brexit. This morning, he could not name a single one. His own Business Minister said that he was not impressed by “sham trade agreements” and
“not prepared to sell business down the river for other people’s political dogma.”
So why is the Prime Minister prepared to sell people’s jobs and living standards down the river, rather than negotiating a customs union that would be part of a sensible deal for the future?
The deal that we negotiated did protect jobs—[Interruption.] And it was rejected by this House. There are some specific issues that Members across this House have raised in relation to that deal and we work on those. We have already responded on a number of issues—parliamentary involvement, workers’ rights, citizens’ rights—as a result of the conversations that we have had with Members of this House. What we want to ensure is that we get a deal that protects jobs, but the right hon. Gentleman is doing exactly what he always does. He just stands up and uses these phrases. The honest answer is that I do not think he knows what those phrases mean and what the implications of those phrases are. We will be protecting jobs in the UK with a good trade relationship with the European Union—enhancing and increasing jobs in the UK, and by the way I see that the right hon. Gentleman has not referred to this week’s employment figures, which show employment up in this country as a result of this Government.
What the Prime Minister clearly did not have time to mention was the rising levels of in-work poverty, personal debt and the problems that people face in surviving at work. The door of her office might be open, but the minds are closed—[Interruption.] The Prime Minister is clearly not listening—[Interruption.]
Order. People making an extraordinary noise from a sedentary position do not have the slightest prospect of being called to ask a question, unless it is on the Order Paper. I hope that they realise that and recognise their own folly.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. Across the country, people are worried about public services, their living standards and rising levels of personal debt. While a third of the Prime Minister’s Government are at the billionaires’ jamboree in Davos, she says she is listening, but rules out changes on the two issues where there might be a majority: against no deal and for a customs union—part of Labour’s sensible Brexit alternative. If the Prime Minister is serious about finding a solution, which of her red lines is she prepared to abandon? Could she name a single one?
The right hon. Gentleman makes claims about minds being closed and asks about red lines. Why does he not come and talk about it? He talks about what people up and down this country are seeing. I will tell him what we have just seen this week: borrowing this year at its lowest level for 16 years; the International Monetary Fund saying we will grow faster than Germany, Italy and Japan this year; UN figures showing foreign direct investment in the UK up last year; the employment rate up; the number of people in work up; and wages up—and the biggest threat to all of that would be a Labour Government.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Not just he, I and all Conservative Members, but all Labour Members stood on manifesto pledges to respect the result of the referendum and to leave the EU. I have set out several times my concern about returning to the British people in a second referendum. People sent a clear message. We asked them to make a choice, they made that choice, and we should deliver on it.
I join the Prime Minister in marking Holocaust Memorial Day. It is important that we reflect on man’s inhumanity to man at that time and subsequently, most recently towards the Rohingya people. More must be done to eradicate the risk of genocide that is suffered by peoples throughout the world.
Last November, the Government published an economic analysis of Brexit that looked at four scenarios, but it did not include the Prime Minister’s deal. Has she done an economic analysis of her deal?
The right hon. Gentleman obviously looked carefully at the economic analysis, and he will have seen that it looked at the impact of different issues in relation to the trade relationship and set that out very clearly. It made it absolutely clear that the proposal the Government had put on the table was the best in terms of delivering on the referendum result, maintaining people’s jobs and enhancing the economy.
I can only take it from that answer that there is no analysis of the Government’s plan. According to the paper last November, Brexit will lead to the loss of up to 9% of GDP throughout the UK. That will cost jobs. It is the height of irresponsibility for the Prime Minister to bring to Parliament a deal for which we have not seen the economic impact. People up and down the UK are going to lose their jobs and economic opportunities because of the ideology of this Government. It is important that the House reflects on that and on the economic security of our citizens. We have to be honest with people. We need to go back to them, have a people’s vote and let them determine what should happen.
We have been reflecting on the economic security of our citizens across the whole of the UK, and that is why we put forward the proposals that we did last summer and why the proposals in the deal—in the political declaration—we negotiated with the EU set out an ambitious future trade deal. If the right hon. Gentleman wants to reflect on the interests of the citizens of Scotland, he should reflect on the fact that being part of the UK—[Interruption.] He says he wants to know the figures and the economic analysis. In that case, it is no good his dismissing the figures and the economic analysis that show that being part of the UK is worth £10 billion in additional public spending and nearly £1,900 for every single person in Scotland. If he is interested in economics, he should want to stay in the UK and stop his policy of independence.
Yes. My hon. Friend is absolutely right. This is not just an arbitrary date. It is a date to which the House effectively agreed when it triggered article 50, because it understood that the article 50 process was a two-year process, and, as I said in response to the Leader of the Opposition, that process will end on 29 March 2019. I do not believe that extending article 50 resolves any issues, because at some point Members must decide whether they want a no-deal situation, to agree a deal, or to have no Brexit.
Let me first thank Denis for his commitment to serving in our armed forces. All our armed forces do an incredibly important and brave job for us.
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will not expect me to be able to look at the details of the case at the Dispatch Box on the Floor of the House, but I will ask the Home Secretary to look into it and respond to him.
I have heard some job applications in my time, but that was quite an interesting one.
My position, and the position of this Government and Ministers across this Government, is very clear. It is our duty to deliver on the vote of the British people to leave the European Union, and the two-year process ends on 29 March. That is the position of the Government. Of course I am always happy to consider job applications from my hon. Friend, but I have to say that the basis of his application was not correct, because the Government are committed to taking the United Kingdom out of the European Union.
As the hon. Gentleman will know, there are many cases in which some of the measures that have been used do not properly reflect the situation on the ground, but obviously we look very carefully at the formula to ensure that we have that fair funding between local authorities.
I thank my hon. Friend for raising this important issue and highlighting that case, which shows the horrors that so many people went through during the holocaust. We welcome the Chichester choir to Parliament performing “Push”, and I commend it on its work in keeping alive the remarkable story of Simon Gronowski. As I have just indicated, his story reminds us of the millions who were killed in the concentration camps and the absolute horror of the holocaust. We should all remember that, and remember genocides that have, sadly, occurred since, and condemn hatred and prejudice in all its forms, including antisemitism wherever it is found. There is no place for racial hatred in our society. I apologise because I suspect I may not be able to attend the performance my hon. Friend referred to, but I hope she will pass on my thanks to the choir for coming here and for the work it is doing.
It is obviously very important for all of us that people are able to feel and be safe in their homes, and I understand residents’ concerns over this issue of cladding. We fully expect building owners in the private sector to take action and make sure that appropriate safety measures are in place. Interim measures are in place where necessary on all of the 171 high-rise private residential buildings with the unsafe ACM—aluminium composite material—cladding, but permanent remediation is rightly the focus, and we have repeatedly called on private building owners not to pass costs on to leaseholders. As a result of our interventions 212 owners have either started, completed or have commitments in place to remediate; 56 owners are refusing to remediate. We are maintaining pressure on this but we rule nothing out.
First, may I extend my deepest sympathies to Rachael Knappier? We recognise that this growth in non-surgical treatments increases the need for consumer protection, and we are currently working with stakeholders to strengthen the regulation of cosmetics procedures. We are committed to improving the safety of cosmetic procedures and there are a number of ways in which that can be done: better training and robust qualifications for practitioners, but also clear information so that people can make informed decision about their care. We would urge anyone seeking a cosmetic procedure to take the time to find a reputable, safe and qualified practitioner who is subject to statutory regulation or on an accredited voluntary register. My hon. Friend has raised an important issue.
First, it is not the case that that is the only way to provide frictionless trade between the United Kingdom and the European Union. Other options have been put on the table. The question of the extent of that frictionless trade will be a matter for the second stage of the negotiations.
West Midlands Economy
I am pleased to say to my hon. Friend that thanks to our economic record there are 90,000 more small businesses in the west midlands since 2010, that the national living wage is giving more than 170,000 people a pay rise in the west midlands this year and that employment in the west midlands has risen by 252,000 since 2010. I can also tell him that we will continue to support the region by investing more than £430 million as part of the Greater Birmingham and Solihull local enterprise partnership.
As ever, that is great news for the west midlands and it shows our firm economic policy, but will my right hon. Friend now welcome the new Birmingham airport masterplan, which addresses its growth in services for businessmen and holidaymakers for the west midlands? Will she also commit the Government to work with the airport to help it to expand its long-haul route network, which is so important for the businesses and holidaymakers of Lichfield and beyond?
We are certainly supporting airports beyond Heathrow, such as Birmingham, to make the best use of their existing runways. I am happy to welcome Birmingham’s decision to publish this masterplan because I understand that, as my hon. Friend says, it aims to attract new long-haul routes in addition to the routes that it already runs. We are also committed to improving access to Birmingham airport. For example, by 2026 the airport will be served by HS2, which will significantly reduce journey times to London and dramatically increase the catchment area of the airport.
What we are saying is that this House overwhelmingly voted to have the referendum in 2016 and for people to be asked for their choice as to whether to leave or to stay in the European Union. There will have been a variety of reasons why people voted to leave the European Union in 2016. Many wanted an end to free movement, and that is what we will be delivering. For many, it was about sovereignty, and that is why ending the jurisdiction of the European Court is important. Independent trade policy is also part of it, and that is what the Government are delivering. We are delivering on the vote that took place and ensuring that we do it in a way that protects jobs and gives people certainty for the future.
My hon. Friend’s experience shows exactly why it is so important for women to take up this test. We need to do more to encourage women to take up their cervical screening tests, and Public Health England will shortly launch a national campaign to highlight the risks of cervical cancer and encourage women to attend the screening appointments. I can stand here as the Prime Minister and say that I know what it is like to go through a cervical smear test, and it is not comfortable. For some it will be embarrassing, and it is sometimes painful, but those few minutes can save lives, so I would encourage all women to take up their smear tests.
On the Monday before Christmas, my constituent Nathan Garrett, aged 18, was referred by his GP for emergency mental health support. On the Tuesday, he was helping others and delivering my Christmas cards, just as he had delivered many election leaflets over the years. Later, he asked the crisis team for emergency help, but none was forthcoming. On the Wednesday, Nathan went missing. On the Thursday, I learned at the volunteers’ event that we hold every Christmas, when I was expecting to see Nathan, that it had all got too much for him and that he had taken his own life.
Nathan Garrett was a brilliant, engaging, kind young man. He was a county athletics champion, a talented and brilliant musician, and incredibly popular. His parents and his grandmother are here today. Does the Prime Minister agree that when a teenager needs emergency mental health support, that support should be available within 24 hours? Will she ask the appropriate Minister to meet me and Nathan’s family to push that matter forward today?
I am sure that all Members will join me in sending our deepest condolences to Nathan’s family and friends and to all those who knew him. From what the hon. Gentleman said, it sounds as though he was an incredible young man. Every life lost is a tragedy, and incidents of suicide are deeply concerning, which is why we are taking action in relation to suicide prevention. The hon. Gentleman has also raised the issue of mental health provision. We recognise the importance of increasing provision for people who are suffering from mental health problems. I am happy to ensure that the hon. Gentleman can meet the appropriate Minister to discuss the matter.
My hon. Friend has raised an important issue. The crimes were utterly appalling. That is why we have given tackling child sexual abuse and exploitation the highest priority, and it is concerning, as my hon. Friend said, that the inquiry has taken so long to start, having been announced in the spring of last year. It is in the interests of victims and survivors that the inquiry is up and running as soon as possible. People deserve to see that inquiry taking place, and I will ensure that a Home Office Minister meets my hon. Friend to discuss that further.
At Prime Minister’s questions last October, I asked the Prime Minister about my constituent Hassan Mirza and his 10-year battle simply to renew his passport. I wrote to the Prime Minister and received a holding response two months ago. Since then, Hassan’s uncle has passed away, but he could not attend the funeral. His wife is ill, but he cannot visit her or his children. This is unacceptable. When will the Prime Minister finally give me a detailed answer, and when will she get a grip on the failings in the Home Office?
I can only apologise to the hon. Gentleman that he has not had a detailed answer from me before now. I will ensure that he gets one but, more than that, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is happy to meet him to discuss the case.
Will my right hon. Friend join me in paying tribute to my constituent Bob Woodward, who sadly died on Sunday? When Bob’s son Robert was diagnosed with cancer aged eight in 1976, he founded the charity CLIC—Cancer and Leukaemia in Childhood. Over the following decades, he changed lives by raising over £100 million in support of worthy causes. He was an inspirational figure and a great and compassionate man, and he recently had a new Great Western Railway train named after him. Will my right hon. Friend also join me in offering our condolences to his friends and family?
I am certainly happy to join my hon. Friend in expressing our sympathies and condolences to Bob Woodward’s friends and family and in paying tribute to Bob. After tragically losing his son to cancer, as my hon. Friend pointed out, he dedicated his life to young cancer patients and their families and was able use his success as a property developer to provide residences where families of young cancer patients could live while their child is receiving treatment. It is a fitting legacy that there are now 10 of these properties in the UK, and CLIC is now a global organisation raising funds for the care of families around the world. Bob Woodward suffered a terrible tragedy with the loss of his son, but he ensured that his work throughout his life is benefiting others.
This morning I received a letter from Santander saying that it is closing the branch in Middleton and suggesting that my constituents should avail themselves of banking services at Middleton post office, which in turn is being franchised into the back of WH Smith. Can the Prime Minister say what her policy is for our high street, other than just managed decline?
Obviously individual banks take commercial decisions, and it sounds as if there will still be post office services available on the high street to which the hon. Lady refers. We are concerned about helping to manage our high streets and ensuring that we have good high streets for the future. That is why, in the Budget, the Chancellor announced funding that is available to local authorities to work on plans for their high streets.
Will the Prime Minister join me in reassuring the people of North Wiltshire and, indeed, the nation that, despite yesterday’s announcement that he is to move his corporate headquarters and two senior executives to Singapore, the commitment of Dyson to Britain remains undiminished, as evidenced by the £200 million he is investing in his research and development site at Hullavington and by the £40 million he is investing in the engineering and design college at Malmesbury? He is totally and utterly committed to Great Britain, and yesterday’s announcement has no effect at all on that commitment.
Dyson is clear that it will continue to have a long-term future in the UK, and it has trebled its workforce to 4,800 over the past five years. Of course, what matters to companies like Dyson is having a Government who are unapologetically pro-business, which this Government are, and a Government who are ensuring that our balanced economic policy sees increasing employment, exports and foreign direct investment in UK companies at record highs.
Mr Speaker, may I wish you, the Prime Minister and everybody here a very happy Cumbria Day? A vast array of produce is available: beer from Kirkby Lonsdale; relish from Hawkshead; deli.sh pies; and tea and coffee from Penningtons—all the stuff the Prime Minister might need for a packed lunch if she is considering a walking holiday anytime soon. I remind her that, after London, Cumbria contains Britain’s biggest tourism destination, but today Cumbria has come to London. I invite her and, indeed, everybody here to come and join us in the Jubilee Room straight after PMQs to sample the best of Cumbria.
The hon. Gentleman is a one-man tourist board, and we are grateful to him.
The hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) has done a good job of promoting the benefits of Cumbria, and I am sure he will be joined by my hon. Friends and others from across the House. I thank him for listing the very many items I might want to put in my packed lunch when I go on a walking holiday, but I am afraid I am bound to say that, although I recognise that Cumbria has good produce, Berkshire has good produce, too.
Courts IT System
(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Justice if he will make a statement on the failure of the central courts IT system.
I am grateful for the opportunity to update the House on the IT issues facing the Ministry of Justice over recent days.
I start by apologising to those who have been affected by the intermittent disruption, which was caused by an infrastructure failure in our supplier’s data centre. Although services have continued to operate and court hearings have continued, we know how frustrating this is for everyone. The issue is that some of our staff in the Courts and Tribunals Service, the Legal Aid Agency, probation and Ministry of Justice headquarters have been unable to log on to their computers, but we have contingency plans in place to make sure that trials can go ahead as planned.
The Prison Service has not been affected and—to correct inaccurate reporting—criminals have not gone free as a result of the problem. We have been working closely with our suppliers, Atos and Microsoft, to get our systems working again, and yesterday we had restored services to 180 court sites, including the largest ones. Today, 90% of staff have working computer systems. Work continues to restore services and we expect the remainder of the court sites to be fully operational by the time they open tomorrow morning. We are very disappointed that our suppliers have not yet been able to resolve the network problems in full.
This afternoon, the permanent secretary, Sir Richard Heaton, will meet the chief executive of Atos and write personally to all members of the judiciary. I am very grateful to all our staff who have been working tirelessly and around the clock, alongside our suppliers, to resolve the issues.
I thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting the urgent question, and the Minister for her reply.
Members will be concerned by the failure of the multiple vital IT systems that our courts require, including systems supplied by Atos and Microsoft. Indeed, I saw those failures at first hand last week, when I visited one of the Crown courts. The chair of the Criminal Bar Association described our courts system as being “on its knees” following that failure, and blamed
“savage cuts to the MoJ budget”.
Reports in The Times suggested that there is a risk of defendants being released before trial. Will the Minister confirm whether any defendants have been released without trial? What costs has the failure incurred? Have Atos and Microsoft paid any penalties for failures on the contracts so far? Can the Minister guarantee that all costs arising from the failures will be recovered from the suppliers?
Of course, such failings do not happen in a vacuum. The Ministry of Justice has faced cuts of 40% in the decade to 2020. The Government are pursuing a £1.2 billion courts reform programme, which has seen hundreds of courts close, thousands of court staff cut and a rush to digitise many court processes. Are the plans to cut 5,000 further court staff by 2023 still being pursued?
Will the Minister explain why the Government ignored the Association of Her Majesty’s District Judges, which called for courts closures to be stopped until
“fully functioning IT systems are demonstrated to be up and running successfully”?
Finally, will the Minister now commit to a moratorium on further cuts, closures and digitisation of our courts until a Bill has been brought to the House so that we can fully scrutinise the Government’s plans?
I am grateful for the opportunity to answer the points that the hon. Member for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi) raised. She suggested that the problems are related to cuts—they are not. They relate to an issue in a contractual supplier’s system. She suggested that defendants were being released. I hope she heard in my initial reply that that was incorrect reporting. No prisoners have been released. The prison system is different from the MOJ’s and I repeat that no prisoners have been released as a result of the problem.
The hon. Lady asked about penalties. As I said, the permanent secretary is meeting the supplier’s chief executive this afternoon and of course we will look carefully at the contracts, which include penalty clauses.
The hon. Lady suggested that the issue is related to a rush to digitalisation. I would like to clarify that Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service operates on a legacy system, which needs to be updated because issues arise in it, and we are therefore investing significantly in our digitalisation programme to ensure that our courts system runs well in the future.
The hon. Lady talked about cuts. I started with that and I will end with it, as she did. We are not cutting our justice system and our Courts Service. Indeed, as she rightly identified, we are putting £1 billion into it.
I am glad to have the Minister’s reassurance that this situation has nothing to do with the common platform, as that is indeed the case. Does she accept that senior members of the judiciary, as I know from my conversations with them, are most anxious that the roll-out of the common platform proceeds, because the difficulties come from the failures of the old system? Will she ensure that the new initiatives that we are bringing in, such as digital portals, are fully and robustly tested before they come into use, so that court users can have full confidence in them?
As always, my hon. Friend the Chairman of the Justice Committee makes important points. I am pleased to clarify that the common platform is not affected—it is being trialled—and that in fact the reform programme in its totality is not affected by these issues. Our divorce and probate application systems are not affected. As I said, the point of reform is to ensure that these systems work in future—my hon. Friend referred to the need to ensure that our systems work—and we will be carrying out a rigorous evaluation of our court reform programme.
Prisons being issued urgent notifications, private probation services needing bailouts, trials collapsing because of disclosure failures, MOJ staff on strike over the failure to pay them the London living wage—and now the court system is in disarray. When will the Minister finally understand that the 40% real-terms cut to the MOJ budget since 2010 has consequences, and that austerity has left the justice system at breaking point?
As I identified at the start, this issue was caused by an infrastructure failure in our supplier’s data centre. It is not the result of cuts. My Department received some funding in relation to the building of a prison in the recent Budget, and it received investment into the courts service and into its estates. We are investing £1 billion in our courts service.
I should declare that as a judge my husband has been affected by these outages, and I am lobbied heavily on this matter at home. In the light of that, I would be grateful if the Minister could confirm my understanding that 75% of court staff are now back online and working normally. When will the rest of them be?
I am disappointed that my hon. Friend’s husband, whom I should declare I know, is affected, and I send my apologies to him. Indeed, more seriously, I send my apologies to all court staff, judges and professionals who have been affected. This has obviously been a disruption to their business and I am truly sorry for that. As my hon. Friend mentioned, we are working hard to ensure that these issues are resolved, and in fact 90% of staff have working computer systems today. We expect our court sites to be fully operational by the time they open tomorrow morning.
It looks as though an end to domestic lobbying is in sight. I am sure the hon. Member for Banbury (Victoria Prentis) is extremely appreciative of that important fact.
We have heard that this incident has caused a great deal of disruption for the judicial system, and the Minister has apologised to staff, but will she also take into account the very many individuals who are awaiting court sentencing and appearances? They have undergone unbelievable stress and gone through a great deal of personal sacrifice and disruption because of this incident, so will she apologise to them and ensure that future investment in the Ministry of Justice ensures that this does not happen again?
The hon. Lady makes an important point. It is of course users who are at the heart of the justice system. Professionals work in the justice system, but they and the system work for justice for individuals. This morning I was at a court that was functioning—I was sitting at a hearing—and of course there is that continuous reminder that we are there to serve people who want to get justice done.
I declare an interest, because I am still a member of the Criminal Bar Association. I am grateful to the Minister for her assurances that this situation is not related to cuts, but the simple truth of it is that if we had a better, more fully funded system, there would be proper back-ups and this rumbling problem would have been sorted out a long time ago. I am afraid I share the views of the chairman of the Criminal Bar Association. The system is now reaching crisis point and funding is primarily a problem, but it is not just about money; we could spend the money in better ways. I would be grateful if the Minister would meet me and other members of the criminal Bar in particular to discuss how we can sort out what is, I am afraid to say, a broken system.
My right hon. Friend has a great deal of expertise in this subject area and I am always happy to meet her and to speak with her. She talked about back-ups, and I should say that it is because we have recently invested in the courts service that we had wi-fi back-up. The issue was in relation to the server, but because we have invested in wi-fi in courts up and down the country, many staff could continue to work during this incident.
My right hon. Friend mentioned the criminal Bar; I am a big supporter of the independent criminal Bar, as I am of solicitor advocates, who play a vital role in the delivery of justice, which is why we have recently given them £23 million more for the advocates’ graduated fee scheme. We are investing in encouraging them and hope that they continue to do their work.
My right hon. Friend mentioned the CBA; I work closely with the CBA and have met its representatives on several occasions recently, and I also work closely with the Bar Council. I want to continue to work closely with them as we move forward.
As we must do this, may I declare a personal, rather than a pecuniary, interest? I have been married to a senior member of the west London magistracy for many, many years. Mrs Pound is incandescent with fury, because those on her particular bench find it impossible to operate within the common platform. The iPads with which they have been issued are useless, and many defence barristers and solicitors are having to print out copies of the documentation before they come to court. Will the Minister accept that it is our unpaid magistracy who have been making this system work despite the IT nightmare? Will she take this opportunity, on behalf of Her Majesty’s Government, to pay credit to and thank the magistrates for making a broken system work?
I am honoured that we have so many well-connected Members of Parliament present in the House to share with us their personal knowledge of the justice system. I thank the hon. Gentleman’s wife for all the work she does. I do indeed recognise the significant contribution that the magistracy makes. I was pleased to go to the Magistrates Association annual conference late last year. Magistrates do indeed make a significant contribution to our criminal justice system.
I very much hope that the hon. Gentleman will present a copy of the Official Report, when it appears tomorrow, to Mrs Pound, or Maggie, as I think she is known.
Very good, Sir!
The listing team in Chelmsford administers the calendars and diaries for all Essex and Suffolk magistrates and county courts—that is more than 30 different courts sitting every day—so when the computer systems have been down it has been an administrative nightmare. I am glad to hear that nine out of 10 computers are back up and running and that we expect full service back tomorrow. Will my hon. and learned Friend confirm that this incident was not because of a cyber-attack and that there has been no loss of data, and will she let us know what is being done to make sure that this situation does not recur?
As a diligent MP working for her constituency, my hon. Friend raised the particular issue of the Chelmsford courts with me yesterday, and I was pleased to tell her yesterday that Chelmsford Crown court was included in the sites that were fixed last night. We are currently working on, and perhaps might even have fixed, the combined family and county court, and hope that they will be online. I can confirm to my hon. Friend that this incident was not the result of a cyber-attack.
Does the Minister accept that it is not quite fair to characterise this as a single or unusual event, and that her Department has been receiving reports of failures in the criminal justice secure email service for at least six months now?
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. In fact, there were two separate incidents in relation to the HMCTS-MOJ site: one that occurred on Tuesday night, which was fixed by the weekend; and a separate incident that occurred on Sunday, which we are continuing to work through. The issue he identifies in relation to the secure system is, again, separate and unrelated. Some 75,000 people were affected by that, which is only 12.5%. By Monday, we had restored user access to 40,000 of those people. We restored access to the remainder on Tuesday, and we have dealt with the issue. I hope people will identify that issues are occurring, and HMCTS is working through the night to resolve these issues. As I have mentioned, we hope that they will be fully resolved by tomorrow morning.
I, too, declare my interest as a member of the Bar and one who well remembers the frustrations caused by the legacy system. Will my hon. and learned Friend reassure me that her teams are working around the clock to make sure that all court users have access to the reliable IT system they need?
I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. Issues have arisen, but HMCTS staff have been working around the clock to resolve them. They have been working extremely hard, and I would like to thank them for that work. Issues have arisen, but we have attempted to resolve them as quickly as possible.
What compensation will be made available to victims of crime who wait so long to get justice, and to other court users who often give up days of work? There is a massive loss of productivity in the system already, and issues such as this continue to aggravate the situation. Will there be a compensation system that is open, so that people can claim back for such lost productivity and make other claims they may have in relation to this matter?
The issue that has arisen relates mainly to email systems. There has been minimal disruption, I am told, to the courts system as a whole. Obviously, where issues arise, we will investigate them and look into them thoroughly. Our whole programme of reform is intended to ensure that the users are at the heart of the system and that we ensure swift justice, with effective hearings delivered in the most efficient manner to ensure justice for everybody.
I must say it is a relief to hear that the Prison Service was not affected by this problem. Will the Minister reassure me completely that there is no prospect that any criminal hoping this may allow them to escape justice or be released slightly earlier will benefit? In essence, they will be very disappointed.
I am very glad to give the confirmation that the Prison Service system is a different IT system and no defendant has been released as a result.
My constituents have contributed £43 million to the stalled digitisation process, thanks to the closure and sale of Hammersmith magistrates and county courts. Their reward is to travel for an hour or more to courts at Clerkenwell or Hendon. The Minister says the courts system is running well; it is not: it is in freefall. Will she at least postpone any further closures until she can guarantee a working service?
I know the hon. Gentleman does a great deal of work in this area; he is very involved in the local law centre and has a great deal of knowledge. He will therefore be aware that we have recently consulted on what our guidelines should be in relation to any future closures. We will be guided by the response to that consultation, which is due out shortly.
Remote and rural constituencies will often benefit most from technology—especially in my own constituency, where the regrettable closure of Skegness court means there is even greater reliance on it. May I urge the Minister to bear in mind that the use of technology will always produce more good than harm if it is done properly, and that she should proceed on the basis of that maxim?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. Technology has opened the door—not just in justice, but in all areas of our lives—to more efficient and progressive ways of doing things. However, technology should always be our servant, not our master. We in the Ministry of Justice would like to ensure that technology will enable answers, not frustrate traditional ones. The technology that will be rolled out in hearings—if we have video hearings, for example—will always be used at the discretion of the judge, and we will ensure that it enables, not restricts, justice.
Earlier this week, a constituent contacted me because of MOJ cuts. He is concerned that Newcastle county court is at least 22 staff short and is two months behind with its workload. As well as overstretched staff having the added problem of the IT failure, he is extremely concerned that they cannot deliver for the people they are there to serve. How does the Minister respond to these legitimate concerns?
Of course, where there are particular concerns in any particular court, I am happy to look at them. If the hon. Lady would like to write to me or meet me, I would be happy to discuss any particular concerns.
The Minister says that she wants the user at the heart of the system. Under this Government, Wrexham in north-east Wales is run by an administrator in Llanelli in south-west Wales. That has led to our having a magistrates court without any cells—the equivalent of a pub without any beer—and the result is that the users have to go to a different town. All of this is as a result of Ministry of Justice incompetence. How can we have confidence in the administration of the justice system when this sort of chaos is an everyday occurrence?
A number of people, such as the hon. Gentleman, have referred to court closures. In circumstances where 41% of our courts were used at less than half their available capacity last year, it is incumbent on a Government to look at where they should use their resources and where they should use their resources well. All money from court closures goes back into the courts system, and we ensure that the money is spent and spent well on our justice system.
When the Government closed Scunthorpe magistrates and family courts, against the wishes of local people, much was made of the way in which digitisation would mitigate the risk of threats to access to justice. Given this shambles, what evaluation is being done of whether, where there have been court closures, access to justice is still being delivered effectively?
It is vital that we continue to reform our courts and to take advantage of what technology offers us. We have had extremely positive reports from people who are using our online services, such as our online applications for probate, online applications for divorce and—I was in a social security tribunal this morning—online applications for social security tribunals. There is the fact that people can get updated on their social security hearing on their mobile phone, and the fact that we are now piloting the ability of a judge to email and liaise with a tribunal applicant before they get to court so that their hearing is ready, effective and useful when they get there. We of course evaluate this at each stage. Our systems are user-based and have been adapted because of the feedback we have had from users in the course of using them, but we will be evaluating the reform programme overall.
Ancient Woodland Inventory (England)
Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)
In the year that the Government have designated the year of green action, I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make provision for the periodic updating of the Ancient Woodland Inventory for England; and for connected purposes.
Colleagues may be relieved to learn that this Bill is all bark and no Brexit, so it is going to be a change. As any Member of this House who has watched my recent videos on YouTube explaining parliamentary Committees will know, I am a tree hugger, and I am proud of it. I am a member of the all-party group on ancient woodlands and veteran trees, which is so ably led by my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow), because I am fighting to save them—all of them.
Ancient woodlands are an irreplaceable habitat and cover only 2.6% of land in the UK—that is 2.6% that we know of, so there could be a lot more. I cannot say whether that is the case, because the database that records ancient woodland in England, the ancient woodland inventory, is out of date.
I am introducing this Ancient Woodland Inventory (England) Bill because the present inventory is outdated and, as a result, has many inaccuracies and omissions that need to be corrected. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government introduced an updated national planning policy framework last July, which included long-overdue protections for ancient woodland. The framework makes it clear that developments that damage or destroy ancient woodlands should be refused except in exceptional circumstances. That is fabulous news, and the Secretary of State has my thanks for that, but, in order to protect those ancient woodlands, we do need to know where they are.
The existing inventory has become an essential reference tool for planners, developers, landowners, foresters, conservationists and others who are keen to protect and restore these irreplaceable wooded habitats. It tells us, for instance, that HS2 will destroy at least 56 hectares of this irreplaceable habitat. Indeed, the number of hectares of all threatened ancient woodlands is now at 811.
The inventory was originally developed back in the 1980s when computerised mapping was in its infancy—as were a good many hon. Members—and the lack of updates to it has meant that it is missing data. This has, in some cases, resulted in ancient woodlands being lost or damaged by development or mismanagement simply because they are not recorded in that inventory. That is particularly true of smaller sites that are often not yet recorded. Our knowledge of different types of wooded habitats and their values has increased, particularly our understanding of ancient wood pastures.
Significant steps have also been taken to restore some ancient woodlands damaged by conifer plantations, yet these positive changes also go unrecorded. The basic methods for identifying ancient woodland have not changed but, as I mentioned earlier, the policy and technology have—as have public awareness, appreciation, expertise and research—which makes a full update both more feasible and more urgent.
Small sites have regularly suffered due to this inaccuracy. There are few sites smaller than 2 hectares—that is 5 acres in old money, so not that small—recorded in the inventory, yet we know that they exist, and they are often the most at risk of loss or damage. A simple comparison between ancient maps and the inventory, which can be done relatively simply in this computerised age, shows countless small sub-2-hectare copses of ancient woodland that are on one map but not on the other. They are unregistered, unprotected, gone. That is the wrong attitude.
Give us examples, I hear you cry—[Hon. Members: “Give us examples!”] I will. In the Derbyshire Dales, just two months ago, a 1.25-hectare wood—that is 3 acres —stood for sale near the village of Middleton. On either side of it, ancient woodlands of some 40 hectares still stand proud. In the middle, this little clump lies forgotten. Its size means that it does not come up on the current inventory, so any planner or developer would not notice it, and could well decide to cut it down and put up some houses, caravans or even glamping pods among its hallowed groves—and do so unimpeded. Three acres is significant. It also appears on ancient maps dating back to the 1600s, so it is ancient. If it is on those ancient maps, it should be available on the inventory to planners. If the inventory were updated, the wood would be recognised. Without recognition, there is no protection.
The Government pledged to improve protections for ancient woodlands, and that means all of them. We cannot rely on out-of-date data to prop up a system that has seen countless hectares of this irreplaceable habitat lost. We have to update it.
I do not intend this to be any sort of blocking Bill to good, well-sited and much needed construction. I merely wish to ensure that the protection we have pledged ourselves to provide is backed up by the information required to make such protection real and meaningful on the ground. Indeed, it will actually help to speed up development, helping to avoid lengthy disagreements and costly proposals that have been put forward on the basis of incorrect and outdated evidence.
Much of my own constituency of Lichfield is filled with wonderful ancient woodland, which provides so many benefits and so much public good that cannot be replaced. Untilled soil is capable of storing carbon and provides a nutrient-rich mix for thousands of species of plants, fungi and lichen, and ancient oaks, alder, hazel and birch, which provide the very air we breathe as well as food and shelter for the creatures that we care about. These and so much more may be lost. This is a loss that my constituents, and doubtless hundreds of thousands of fellow constituents across the country, including those who made their voices heard in support of various Woodland Trust campaigns, are unwilling to accept. This is what the Bill will address. If people need numeric costs—figures to satisfy their minds alongside the compelling arguments for the intrinsic value of ancient woodland—they need look no further than the strategy that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will be introducing through the forthcoming England tree strategy, which will establish and confirm the benefits that we value from the trees that we cherish. Then they may see for themselves the irreplaceability of these ancient woodlands through the numbers that they well understand.
Frustratingly, ancient woodland inventories are a devolved matter, which is why this Bill applies only to England, but hon. Members from across the House have kindly sponsored it. I hope that they might provide the necessary leadership so that the devolved Administrations can update their own inventories in my beloved Wales, as well as in Scotland and Northern Ireland.
I am introducing this Bill now because, even as I speak, unregistered, unnoticed and ignored ancient woodlands are at risk of being lost, much to the dismay of our constituents who do cherish these forgotten vales of tranquillity. Only by updating the inventory will that not happen. We need to let the people know that, by the power of this Bill, when a tree falls we will hear it.
Question put and agreed to.
That Michael Fabricant, Sir Oliver Heald, Liz Saville Roberts, Rebecca Pow, Mr David Jones, Angela Smith, Stephen Timms, Mr Clive Betts, Henry Smith, John Mc Nally, Jim Shannon and Mr Jim Cunningham present the Bill.
Michael Fabricant accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 15 March, and to be printed (Bill 324).
Tenant Fees Bill (Programme) (No. 3)
Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 83A(7)),
That the following provisions shall apply to the Tenant Fees Bill for the purpose of supplementing the Orders of 21 May 2018 (Tenant Fees Bill (Programme)) and 5 September 2018 (Tenant Fees Bill (Programme) (No. 2)):
Consideration of Lords Amendments
(1) Proceedings on consideration of Lords Amendments shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion three hours after their commencement at today’s sitting.
(2) Any further Message from the Lords may be considered forthwith without any Question being put.
(3) The proceedings on any further Message from the Lords shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion one hour after their commencement.—(Jo Churchill.)
Question agreed to.
Tenant Fees Bill
Consideration of Lords amendments
I remind the House that the Bill has been certified as relating exclusively to England and within devolved legislative competence. Any Divisions will be subject to double majority voting, whole House and Members representing constituencies in England.
I beg to move, that this House agrees with Lords amendment 1.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
Lords amendments 2 to 35.
Lords amendment 36, and amendment (a) in lieu.
Lords amendment 37, and amendments (a) and (b) thereto.
Lords amendments 38 to 47.
Lords amendment 48, and amendment (a) thereto.
Lords amendments 49 to 60.
I draw Members’ attention to my entry in the List of Ministers’ Interests.
I am delighted that today we have a final opportunity to scrutinise the Tenant Fees Bill. I am grateful for the considered contributions from hon. Members to date. In particular, I thank the members of the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee, chaired by the hon. Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts), for their pre-legislative scrutiny. I also thank the Opposition Front Benchers, the hon. Members for Great Grimsby (Melanie Onn) and for Croydon Central (Sarah Jones), for their constructive engagement.
It has been clear throughout that the Bill is one that we all support and that will deliver important changes in the private rented sector, improving the lives of millions of tenants. Letting fees can impose a significant burden on tenants, who often have little choice but to pay them time and again. The Bill will put a stop to such practices by banning unfair and hidden charges, making it easier for tenants to find a property at a price they are willing to pay, and saving renters an estimated £240 million in the first year alone. I know the changes may worry some in the lettings market, but agents who offer good value and high-quality services to landlords will continue to be in demand and play an important role in the sector.
Before I speak to the Government amendments made in the other place, I want to put on the record my thanks to my noble Friend and ministerial colleague Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth, who ably steered the Bill through the House of Lords, and to my noble Friend Lord Young of Cookham, who assisted. I also thank all peers who contributed positively to the debate. The Bill has benefited from their constructive engagement and scrutiny. Finally, I thank the Under-Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond (Yorks) (Rishi Sunak), for his efforts in leading the Bill through this House last year.
I believe the Lords amendments strengthen the Bill and respond to many concerns raised during the debate in this House. Lords amendments 1, 2, 5 to 12, 15 to 18, 28 to 35, 49 and 55 are minor and technical inclusions that ensure consistency in the Bill and that the Bill best delivers on the policy intent. Lords amendment 5 clarifies that letting agents are prohibited from requiring a tenant or relevant person to enter into a contract with themselves—for example, for additional services such as providing an inventory. Lords amendment 1, 2, 6 to 12 and 28 to 35 replace references to “tenant” with references to “relevant person”. Amendment 55 changes a reference to “incorrect and misleading information” to “false and misleading information”, to align with other references in schedule 2. Amendment 15 to 18 ensure that the language around “day” and “date” in clause 11 is consistent, and amendment 49 makes it clear that the definition of a television licence in paragraph 9 of schedule 1 applies to the entire Bill.
I know that many hon. Members feel passionately about capping tenancy deposits. The issue has been discussed in great detail in both Houses, and we have listened carefully to the arguments made. That is why we tabled Lords amendments 36 and 37 to lower the cap on deposits to five weeks’ rent for properties where the annual rent is less than £50,000; where the annual rent is £50,000 or more, the deposit cap will remain at six weeks’ rent. The vast majority of tenants will be subject to a deposit cap of up to five weeks’ rent. The higher six-week deposit cap will apply only to properties where the monthly rent is £4,167 or more. Valuation Office Agency data show that across England the median monthly rent is significantly less than that. The upper quartile monthly rent for properties with four or more bedrooms in London is £3,142. The higher deposit cap is intended to apply not to the bulk of the private rented sector, but to high-end rentals—a niche area of renting where the costs involved are greater, making a deposit cap of six weeks’ rent more appropriate.
The Government took a balanced view. We wanted to ensure that landlords had sufficient financial security and flexibility for their properties, but recognised concerns that a six-week cap for all tenants might not best deliver the changes to affordability that are needed at the lower end of the market. Importantly, a cap of five weeks’ rent for properties with an annual rent of less than £50,000 extends the benefits of the deposit cap to an estimated one in three tenants. I am sure hon. Members agree that that is a laudable outcome. Also importantly, a cap at five weeks’ rent also aligns with a recommendation made by the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee.
The amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Great Grimsby would lower the tenancy deposit cap to three weeks’ rent for all tenancies. Above all, the amendment would not help tenants and it risks distorting the market and causing behavioural change. Using data from deposit protection schemes, we estimate that some 93% of deposits now exceed three weeks’ rent. A cap of three weeks’ rent would greatly increase the risk of the deposit not fully covering damage to the landlord’s property or any unpaid rent.
As a member of the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee, I am delighted that the Government have adopted the recommendation of five weeks. Does my hon. Friend agree that having a three-week cap is a rather peculiar notion? I do not recall a single piece of evidence from any expert citing that cap. Does she agree that the evidence for such an amendment needs to be produced?
My hon. Friend is completely right. The evidence to the Select Committee showed that there was no reason to have a three-week cap and that five weeks was better.
The Minister is absolutely right: the Select Committee was clear in its recommendation, and when the matter was discussed in the Public Bill Committee, a lot of evidence was produced to demonstrate that five weeks was a good compromise, which landlords could accept and which would benefit most tenants. The Opposition’s object in proposing three weeks is purely political, enabling them to say to tenants, “We tried to get it much lower,” when in fact the result would surely be many fewer properties available in the market for renting, which would hurt our constituents.
I could not have put it better myself. We do not want to create a situation that encourages landlords to withdraw from the market or ask tenants for more rent in advance, thus decreasing the overall net benefit of the ban on unfair charges. Also, we do not want to legislate in a way that would disadvantage certain groups, including pet owners and those who have lived abroad or have a poor financial history.
The real risk, as we have heard throughout the parliamentary process, is that a cap of four or three weeks’ rent could encourage tenants to forgo their final month’s rent payment. The Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee and peers in all parts of the other House recognised that risk and agreed that a deposit of five weeks’ rent was the right compromise. Lords amendments 36 and 37 are the result of cross-party discussion and agreement. It is worth noting that the hon. Member for Great Grimsby publicly welcomed the five-week deposit cap when it was announced. With that in mind, I hope hon. Members recognise that the Government have already proposed the best solution to the tenancy deposit cap.
Is my hon. Friend aware of anywhere in the world, and certainly any part of the United Kingdom, where deposits are capped at three weeks’ rent? Indeed, as she knows, the cap in Scotland is eight weeks’ rent.
I thank my hon. Friend. He has great knowledge of these matters and it is always helpful to hear that. In Scotland, it is eight weeks. We are putting forward five weeks. No, I am not aware of a cap at three weeks.
With this in mind, I hope that hon. Members can see that the Government have already brought forward the best solution to the tenancy deposit cap—one that works both for tenants and landlords and does not risk distorting the market. I therefore hope that the hon. Lady sees fit not to press her amendment.
Lords amendments 42 to 47 deal with default fees. The provision permitting landlords and agents to charge default fees was another area of concern for many hon. Members. We amended the Bill in this House to be clear that landlords and agents can only charge default fees that reflect reasonably incurred costs that are evidenced in writing. Many hon. Members thought that this still did not go far enough to mitigate the risk of abuse by rogue landlords and agents. We have listened carefully to the evidence and arguments made. Although we believe that a landlord or agent should be allowed to charge fees where costs arise from the fault of the tenant, we do not want inadvertently to create a back door to other charges.
That is why Lords amendments 42 to 47 limit the default fees that can be charged to late rent, or a lost key or another security device giving access to the housing. This makes it clear where a default fee can be charged. For a late payment of rent, that payment needs to have been outstanding for 14 days or more. Where applicable, landlords or agents will be permitted to charge interest at no more than an annual percentage rate of 3% above the Bank of England’s base rate for each day that the payment is outstanding. Any fee charged in respect of replacing a lost key or other security device must not exceed the landlord’s or agent’s reasonable costs, and must also be evidenced in writing to the person who is liable for the payment. I hope we can all agree that this approach gives landlords and agents the assurance they require while giving tenants enough certainty over what can be charged.
The Minister will recall that, during the pre-legislative scrutiny in the Select Committee, one of the issues raised was about enforcement of rights. Does she agree that it is necessary to properly fund local authorities so that they can challenge landlords who seek to charge unfair fees?
Yes, indeed. I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. I will get on to that point later in my speech, so she will have to stay and listen to the end, I am afraid.
I must draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests on this matter. The Minister talks about agents and landlords having reassurance about being able to make reasonable charges where their action or work is required through the fault of the tenant. The Bill does make provision for this in a situation with the loss of keys, but it makes no provision for the costs of chasing late rent, despite the fact that it may take several attempts to collect it. In effect, that means that charges would be increased on the landlord at the expense of good tenants, on the basis that some bad tenants who do not pay their rent on time create a lot more work for the agent or the landlord.
Again, I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. He is so deeply imbued with knowledge of these issues that I take note of it. I think he will find that later in the Bill there is a clause that might be helpful to him.
There is also a power in clause 3 to amend the list of permitted payments, including the level of the deposit cap and types of default fees that can be charged, should this be required.
Lords amendment 48 clarifies that landlords and agents will still be able to charge for any damages for contractual breaches as they do now. On this point, the hon. Member for Great Grimsby has tabled an amendment seeking to ensure that, where a landlord or agent wishes to charge a payment for damages, they must provide evidence in writing to demonstrate that their costs are reasonable. I would like to reassure her, and other hon. Members, that that amendment is not necessary. It has never been the intention that the Bill affects a landlord or an agent’s right to recover damages for breach of contract under common law. That is why we brought forward Lords amendment 48 to clarify the position and to ensure that such payments will not be outlawed under the ban. I want to reassure hon. Members that this does not create a back door to charging fees. I repeat: it does not create a back door to charging fees. Damages are generally not meant to do anything more than put the innocent party back in the position they would have been in had the contract not been breached. No reasonableness test is therefore needed. There are already large amounts of case law that deal with what is appropriate in a damages case. If an agent or a landlord attempts to insert a clause that requires a payment—for example, saying, “If you do X, you must make a payment”—this will be prohibited under clause 1(6)(b) or clause 2(5)(b). Further, landlords or agents are required to go to court if they want to enforce a damages claim, or they could seek to recover them from the tenancy deposit. In both cases, they would need to provide evidence to substantiate any claim, and they would only be awarded any fair costs.
As such, the hon. Lady’s amendment is unnecessary. It would also not be appropriate for this Bill to start tweaking years of existing case law regarding damages payments. We are more likely to confuse the landscape than to clarify it. We are committed, on this matter, to working with Citizens Advice, Shelter and other industry groups to ensure that tenants fully understand their existing rights with regard to paying and challenging contractual damages. We have already taken steps to update our guidance to make this point clear. I hope that, with those reassurances, the hon. Lady feels able to withdraw her amendment.
Hon. Members will be aware that the Bill introduces a clear set of rules around holding deposits. This will improve transparency and provide assurances from both tenant and landlord around the commitment to entering into a tenancy agreement. To minimise the risk of abuse, Lords amendment 54 introduces a formal requirement for landlords and agents to set out in writing why they are retaining a deposit. This will empower tenants to challenge decisions that they believe to be unfair. It will also ensure that tenants do not continue to apply for properties and risk losing their holding deposit time and again without understanding why.
We also agree that it is not right that landlords and agents accept multiple holding deposits for the same property. That is why Lords amendment 41 ensures that a landlord or an agent can only take one holding deposit at any one time for a property, unless permitted to retain the earlier deposit. Lords amendment 50 will ensure that a tenant receives their holding deposit back when the tenancy agreement is entered into. Previously, it could have been the case that a landlord might have had grounds to retain the holding deposit, and done so but entered into the tenancy anyway. Further, Lords amendment 59 clarifies that a holding deposit must be refunded where a landlord or an agent imposes a requirement that breaches the ban or behaves in such a manner that it would be unreasonable to expect the tenant or relevant person to enter the tenancy. This will, for example, give tenants greater power to object where a landlord or agent has asked them to pay an unlawful fee or to enter into an agreement with unfair terms.
This is a very stressful time for tenants; I have had a case raised with me very recently. That is particularly so for those who are forced, for one reason or another, to move frequently, which seems to happen more often in London than elsewhere, including Taunton Deane. Does the Minister agree that these amendments and this Bill are going to make a real difference to their security, particularly the fact that they have redress over the deposit issue, which is incredibly stressful if they have to try to claim it back?
My hon. Friend is quite right. It does seem to be a bit more of a thing in the south-east than anywhere else. Nevertheless, this Bill, which we hope to get through tonight with no ping-pong, will apply across the whole of England, and it will help tenants going forward, so I thank her for her question.
Lords amendments 13, 14, 19, 20, 38 to 40, 51 to 53 and 56 to 58 are consequential to those on holding deposits that I have just described.
I would like to discuss some amendments made to ensure that the Bill does not adversely affect organisations that were never intended to be in scope. We have taken local housing authorities and the Greater London Authority, or any organisation acting on their behalf, out of the definition of “relevant person”. Lords amendments 3 and 4 ensure that those authorities and those acting on their behalf will be able to make payments in connection with a tenancy when acting on behalf of a tenant or guaranteeing their rent.
Local authorities have a duty to help the homeless find accommodation. We recognise that, as part of this, councils may need to provide assistance to applicants—financial or otherwise—to access private rented accommodation. We do not want inadvertently to prevent a local authority from carrying out that vital work.
Further, Lords amendments 24 to 26 exclude certain licences to occupy where advice or assistance is provided in connection with the grant, renewal or continuation of the licence by charities or community interest companies. The types of licence that will be excluded are those that have been granted primarily for the provision of companionship or companionship combined with care or assistance where no rent is paid. This ensures that the important work of schemes such as Homeshare can continue. Homeshare matches a person in housing need—often a young person—with a householder, who is often elderly and needs companionship, sometimes combined with low-level care or assistance. I am sure we all agree that that is a worthy cause that was never intended to be in scope of the ban on letting fees.
Lords amendments 21 to 23 and 27 ensure that the forthcoming client money protection provisions work as intended. We want to give landlords and tenants financial security, but not in such a way as to impose disproportionate and unnecessary burdens on industry, which might adversely impact tenants and landlords. We have clarified that money that has already been protected through a Government-approved tenancy deposit scheme is not required to be doubly protected by a client money protection scheme. That was never the policy intention.
We will also not require schemes to pay out where certain risks are excluded by insurers. Those policy exclusions typically refer to events such as war, terrorism or confiscation by the state. Neither can we expect schemes to hold insurance for every penny held by agents. Our amendments ensure that the level of insurance held by schemes is proportionate to the risk of client money being lost. We are permitting schemes to impose limits per individual claimant and aggregate limits, where they are at least equivalent to the scheme’s maximum probable loss. That is an accepted industry practice, and the Financial Services Compensation Scheme imposes such limits.
The amendments on client money protection also provide for a transitional period of 12 months after the requirement to belong to a scheme comes into force, permitting agents to join a scheme where they are making all efforts to apply for a client account but have not yet obtained one. We want to give agents sufficient time to find a bank that offers a pooled client account. Schemes will be able to work with agents to find an appropriate banking provider where they are having difficulty. I would like to be clear that the 12-month transitional period only applies in relation to applying for a pooled client account and not the requirement to belong to a client money protection scheme more broadly. That is intended to come into force on 1 April 2019, prior to the ban on fees, and as long as we do not have ping-pong.
Lords amendment 27 clarifies that the lead enforcement authority set up under the Bill can also enforce the client money protection regulations, and Lords amendment 60 is a consequential amendment to the title of the Bill. These amendments will ensure that client money protection gives tenants and landlords the financial security that they want and deserve, without imposing unreasonable and disproportionate costs on industry, which could increase costs for tenants and landlords.
Above all, these amendments improve affordability, strengthen protection for tenants and minimise the risk of abuse by the minority of rogue landlords and agents. They ensure that the Bill’s key provisions are clear and transparent on the face of the Bill, offering tenants the certainty and security that they deserve. I hope that Members will welcome the changes that have been made, which I firmly believe address the key concerns raised in this House. I am confident that the measures in the Bill will help to deliver the fairer and more affordable private rented sector that we all want to see for tenants, but also for decent, professional landlords and agents who are providing a vital service.
It is in all our interests to see this crucial legislation become law as quickly as possible and avoid any delay that ping-pong would inevitably cause. We need to allow a short period following Royal Assent to enable agents and landlords to become compliant with the new legislation. We therefore intend the provisions in the Bill to come into force on 1 June 2019, which means that the ban would apply to all new tenancies entered into on or after that date.
Does the Minister feel, as I do, that the Bill will incentivise private landlords to give more tenancies, particularly to people who are on social benefits?
I thank my hon. and gallant Friend for his question.
Not so gallant today.
Always gallant. The Bill will help enormously to ensure landlords’ safety, while financially benefiting tenants.
It is for both sides.
I think my hon. Friend is coming to the conclusion of her contribution. She mentioned when these measures will come into force for new tenancies. Could she clarify that the Bill will apply to not only brand new tenancies, where a tenant moves into a property, but also existing tenancies that are renewed by being rolled over or where the tenant remains in situ and enters into a new tenancy agreement?
I thank my hon. Friend, who has been assiduous in his time on the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee. The intention is for the Bill to apply to all new tenancies signed after 1 June. As he said—he must have better eyesight than anyone—I am close to concluding.
The exception to the 1 June date is the client money protection provisions in the Bill, which, as I have said, come into force on 1 April 2019. Ahead of that, we will continue to work closely with key stakeholders to support implementation of the ban. We will work with industry groups to ensure that the ban is properly communicated, and we continue to work with local authorities to ensure that they are ready to enforce it. I have already shared the draft consumer and enforcement guidance with Members, and it is now being updated to reflect the Lords amendments.
I am pleased that the Government want to act quickly on this. Given how hard-pressed local authorities are, what will the Government do to help them manage this situation?
Like my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman), the hon. Gentleman is prescient about what I am about to say. We are working with National Trading Standards to appoint the lead enforcement authority under the Bill. That will be a local trading standards authority appointed by the Secretary of State, and we intend the body to be in place ahead of implementation.
In conclusion, I very much hope that Members will support the amendments made by the Government and look forward to seeing the legislation implemented. I also hope that the hon. Member for Great Grimsby, having heard and accepted my assurances, will withdraw her amendments.
It is a pleasure to speak in this important debate. I would like to thank the Minister for her approach and the Under-Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Richmond (Yorks) (Rishi Sunak), who steered the Bill through Committee and was open to hearing the Opposition’s views on this small but very important Bill.
I shall speak in support of amendment (a) to Lords amendment 36; amendments (a) and (b) to Lords amendment 37; and amendment (a) to Lords amendment 48. I shall also pay tribute to the work that has been done in Committee, where there was a lot of fruitful conversation and consideration, and in the other place, which has resulted in the Bill arriving back in the Commons in a far better state. It is not just my hard work or the Minister’s hard work that has gone into the Bill. We are backed up by an enormous number of people, including charities, members of the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee, who are listening keenly to our debate, and civil servants, who have put in many hours to make sure that the Bill is fit for purpose. I am very grateful to all those people who have participated.
In Committee and on Report, we discussed at length the default fee clause. Originally, the Government fought very hard against opposition from Labour and charities such as Shelter to remove a gaping loophole, which would have left the definition of a default to the discretion of those drafting tenancy agreements. It is interesting that Lords amendment 47 bears a striking resemblance to amendment 3, which I pressed on Report. Back then, the Under-Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Richmond (Yorks), said:
“We believe it is for the tenant and the landlord to determine what it is necessary and fair to include as default charges, on a case-by-case basis. There are other potential default charges besides those for late payment of rent and lost keys.”—[Official Report, 5 September 2018; Vol. 646, c. 208.]
It is welcome that the Government have rowed back on that, despite being so bullish about it during the Bill’s passage through the Commons. I do hope that they bear that in mind when considering amendments to future housing Bills, in which I hope to play a role, and are more thoughtful. If amendments are tabled in good faith, I hope that Government Members would accept that, and if they are worth adopting, do so at an early stage, so that we do not appear conflicted on measures that are positive overall, particularly in this case for people in the private rented sector who are seeking a home and trying to access one.
As the Under-Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for South Derbyshire (Mrs Wheeler), pointed out, Labour always welcomes Government acceptance of the principles and details of our ideas, and we welcomed their acceptance of a Labour proposal in Lords amendment 47 to enshrine what counts as a default fee in the Bill. We believe that that will close a significant loophole in the Bill, moving it far closer to the type of tenant fees Bill that Labour has been proposing since 2013.
We have a number of concerns about the Lords amendments, as the Bill still does not reach its full potential to protect tenants from unscrupulous landlords who want to charge unfair fees. We are very keen to point that this is about the unscrupulous few, not the fair-minded, reasonable and proper many who exist out there. First, Lords amendment 48 adds a new permitted payment of damages to the Bill. The Minister touched on that, so I may have to revise what I am going to say—I hope that hon. Members will bear with me. We tabled an amendment because we are concerned about Lords amendment 48, but that does not extend to a belief that damages in principle are fundamentally wrong. Landlords should not have to pay for repairs when tenants cause damage to their properties, but we do not understand why the Lords amendment is necessary, and why it seemingly misses out a number of protections that are present in other parts of the Bill.
When we discussed this matter in Committee the hon. Lady was very reasonable, and seemed perfectly happy with the five-week proposal that the Government have made in the Lords amendment. It would be much easier if the hon. Lady did not press her amendment, so that we may secure confirmation across the House that this is the best way forward, especially given that there is not a single Labour Back Bencher present to support the hon. Lady’s amendment
It is a busy day in other parts of the Palace of Westminster; we should give colleagues credit for the fact that they have other work to do. I shall come on to the detail of my amendment and the issue of five weeks. I think that the hon. Gentleman has misremembered the extent of my acceptance of the five-week period. It was a reluctant acceptance at the time, with a view to tabling a further amendment if we thought that necessary. Having heard the Minister’s explanation, I think that it is still necessary to press that point, and I shall address it further in my speech.
I am discussing the damages that landlords can claim if a tenancy agreement is breached, rather than the issue of deposits. I urge the hon. Gentleman to bear with me and allow me to finish making that point. The fact that this is the first reference in the Bill to claiming damages shows that the Government were confident until recently that the Bill as originally drafted would not interfere with the current system. Indeed, the Government’s draft guidance, which we received from the Minister on 5 November, said:
“The Act does not affect any entitlement to recover damages for breach of contract…If a tenancy agreement does not permit a landlord or agent to charge default fees, the landlord or agent may still be able to recover damages.”
“What is the difference between a default fee and damages? A default fee is a payment that can be required by a landlord or agent under an express provision in the tenancy agreement and would therefore be permitted under the Tenant Fees Act.”
Finally, it said:
“Can a landlord or agent recover costs for damages if they didn’t write them into the tenancy agreement? Yes. The Act does not affect the landlord’s entitlement to recover damages”.
The draft guidance that we received from the Minister’s Department only two months ago indicated on multiple occasions that the Bill would not impact on a landlord’s ability to claim damages, and it spelt out the difference between a default and a deposit. There is therefore a concern, because what was seemingly settled has become unsettled as the result of an addition which, to all intents and purposes, and given the explanation that we received, does not need to be made. What is the purpose of that? However, the Minister’s assurance on the intention to reassure landlords and innocent parties that they are simply going to be in the position that they were in before any such harm was caused perhaps gives me reason to reconsider.
Does the hon. Lady think that good tenants who comply should subsidise poor tenants who do not comply?
I think it is absolutely right that if a landlord experiences a breach of tenancy, those tenants are considered responsible for the situation. It should not rest on others who adhere to the tenancy agreement that they signed, so I concur with the hon. Gentleman.
I really do not see why Lords amendment 47 on default fees necessitates change, as the Government clearly defined damages as separate from defaults. I therefore wonder why Lords amendment 48 is necessary in the first place. Without it, would the Bill impede the current system? Would it prevent landlords from claiming damages through deposits or the courts? Can the Government reassure me—I would say that perhaps they have done so to some extent—that Lords amendment 48 will not create powers for landlords to bypass current systems and charge as they see fit? I certainly hope that the Minister believes that to be the case. If Lords amendment 48 is not necessary, perhaps it is in the Minister’s gift to reconsider the position and remove the provision, rather than adding confusion, as it is not necessary, and previous statements have made it clear that it is not necessary.
My amendment (a) to Lords amendment 48 would bring that into symmetry with powers in the Bill and add a requirement for charges brought under the amendment to be reasonable, and to be evidenced by invoices. That is just to ensure that no loophole is sought. Throughout the debate we have discussed the need for permitted payments in the Bill to be subject to rigorous checks and balances, to ensure that unscrupulous landlords and letting agents cannot continue to charge unjustified amounts for things such as a lost key. Thanks to the hard work in both Houses, we have closed a number of loopholes that could have been exploited to allow some landlords to profit from tenants by unfair and unjustified means.
Lords amendment 48 does not contain those protections and seemingly could allow for open-ended charges without mind to the cost to the landlord, and to whether the charges could be backed up by evidence. I do not intend to press the amendment to a Division, but I would welcome additional reassurances from the Government that the principles discussed throughout the Bill will not be undermined by the Lords amendment, and that it is not a new loophole that landlords and letting agents can exploit for profit.
I am always willing to give the hon. Lady greater reassurance. Lords amendments 42 and 47 ensure that landlords and agents can charge default fees only in specified circumstances, which are listed in the Bill. Lords amendment 48 permits landlords and agents to recover costs for damages only in breach of contract.
I thank the Minister for that very helpful further explanation.
Another Opposition concern about the Lords amendments is that the Bill still does not go far enough to remove the barriers that high deposits pose to millions of renters across the country. Our amendments seek to address two points. The Minister says that reducing the deposit cap from five weeks to three would not help tenants, but I believe it would. A reduction of two weeks’ advance payment will of course help tenants to access properties. It would reduce barriers for private renters and enable them to access the rental markets, including for the first time. Turning that into a negative takes some extraordinary creative gymnastics, on which I congratulate the Minister.
The Select Committee looked at the Bill in detail in pre-legislative scrutiny. We all signed up to five weeks, including six distinguished Labour Members, including the Chairman, the hon. Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts), who knows the subject well. Why does the hon. Lady believe they are wrong?
Having served on that Committee with the hon. Gentleman previously, I absolutely support its work and congratulate it, but it is always in the interests of a Select Committee to achieve consensus whenever possible and to try to agree a report that has unanimous support. That is the purpose and intention, and this case is a demonstration of excellent chairmanship and co-operation.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on playing his part in that, but it is the Opposition’s role to speak up for tenants. If we can make the process better, and if there is an opportunity for the Government to go further in assisting tenants—tenants are hard-pressed and this is a very expensive period of their lives—it is right that we speak up for them. We should try to encourage the Government to accept that they can reduce the barrier of high deposits to assist people directly. I just cannot support the view that charging more will assist renters in any way.
The Minister mentioned that I welcomed the Government’s reduction. I am delighted that they have listened to common sense and reasonableness, and that they have reduced the cap to five weeks from six, which was far too high, but it is not enough. If the Government can go further, I believe they always should.
I will move on because I am absolutely convinced that hon. Members will want to address these points in their speeches—they are committed to the subject and have taken a close interest, whether in the Bill Committee or in Select Committees. I look forward to hearing their comments in the remainder of the debate, but I will move on if that is okay.
I have already given way generously.
The first point that our amendments seek to address is the financial staggering for the cap level that landlords are allowed to impose. I have sympathy with the Government’s aim of prioritising a reduction of the deposit burden on those at the cheaper end of the market, but the specific provisions in Lords amendment 36 could mean that those in joint tenancies end up being subject to the higher cap, despite individually paying significantly less in rent than is used as a threshold in the amendment. It is counterintuitive to create a cap that allows deposits to be relatively higher for someone paying £5,000 a year in rent in a 10-bed large house in multiple occupation than for someone paying £45,000 in an individual rent, so I would welcome reassurance that joint tenants will not be short-changed by the differential cap. If they will be, I would welcome an explanation of the logic behind the decision to allow those in joint tenancies to be charged relatively more.
Regardless of the functioning of the differential cap, the Lords amendment will do little for the majority of tenants in this country. The cap will have a negligible effect on the majority of deposits in the country and will allow the current system to function virtually unchanged. For the graduate who cannot afford the up-front costs to move to a city for a new job, or for the family given just two months to save enough money to find a new flat and avoid homelessness following a section 21 notice, the system is simply not fit for purpose and needs urgent change.
According to the English housing survey, a five-week rental deposit will set new tenants back an average of almost £1,000 across the country, and over a staggering £1,500 in London. For many in society who are living pay cheque to pay cheque, saving that sort of money would take an enormous amount of time, and certainly far longer than the two months that tenants are given when they are served with section 21 notices. That means that many struggle to access the flexibility that renting should offer. They fear being served notice to vacate because that could result in homelessness. That is simply not how the private rented sector should function.
Our amendments would change that. Lords amendment 36 introduces an ill-thought-through staggering system. Amendment (a) in lieu would reduce the cap on deposits from five or six weeks to three, and our amendments together will reduce deposits to three weeks for all, closing the loophole that could be opened by Lords amendment 36.
I was interested to hear the Minister’s announcement of the enactment date. A written statement is due today, which I look forward to reading. I was also interested to hear her comments in response to my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Withington (Jeff Smith), who is no longer in his place, on enforcement and trading standards. She said that the consumer money protection measures in the Bill would be in place before enactment. I would appreciate clarity on whether she meant enactment on 1 June 2019, which is rapidly approaching, or whether she was referring to the commencement date of April next year.
Labour’s amendments would give private rented sector tenants a very welcome helping hand at a very expensive time. If passed, the amendments would reduce the deposit barrier by almost £400 across the country, and by over £600 in London, offering significant change to tenants from all backgrounds and building a better private rented sector for the many.
I draw the attention of the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Melanie Onn). I had the opportunity to chair—and the challenge of chairing—the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee during pre-legislative scrutiny in the absence of the elected Chairman of the Committee, the hon. Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts), who unfortunately was undergoing health treatment at the time. I take absolutely the praise that the hon. Lady pours on me for reaching the judgment of Solomon—[Interruption.] It was possibly unintended at the time. From the outset of our pre-legislative scrutiny, on an all-party basis, we sought to balance good landlords and tenants, who are the overwhelming majority, with the small minority who are rogue landlords and rogue tenants. The risk here is the balance that is struck.
I do not intend to go over all aspects of the Bill but, clearly, I am absolutely delighted that the Government have seen fit to endorse all the Select Committee’s recommendations, especially the reduction of deposits from six to five weeks’ rent. I will again set out why we came to that conclusion. As Members might recall, we had a long discussion about it in Committee. Some promoted the concept of a six-week deposit and some a four-week deposit. No one but no one on the Select Committee promoted less than four weeks, for very good reasons.
Our view was that a six-week deposit was clearly too onerous for tenants. I accept what the hon. Member for Great Grimsby says about the cost to tenants of a six-week contribution, but there is also a clear risk with only a four-week deposit—or, worse still, her proposed three-week deposit—because we might get to a position in which, in the last month before the end of a six-month assured shorthold tenancy, a tenant has no incentive whatever to pay their last month’s rent. Tenants could just skip, and the landlord would then have to pursue them through the courts, bearing incredible costs unreasonably.
The issue for us was that four weeks would lead to a position whereby the tenant had an incentive to say, “Okay, I won’t pay the last month’s rent—just take it out of the deposit,” and then if the landlord could reasonably wish to claim money from the deposit because of damage or other reasons, they would have to pursue court action to recover it. That would be grossly unfair on good landlords, who are the vast majority in this country. Other members of the Committee promoted six weeks, so we ended up with the view that five weeks struck a balance between giving tenants an incentive to pay their last month’s rent, in the knowledge that they would get back their deposit had they been good tenants, and landlords being forced to go through a proper claim process to recover moneys as a result of damage by a tenant.
I am afraid that the Opposition spokesperson, the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Melanie Onn), will not give way on this matter because she is making a purely political point by wishing to appear to be helping tenants more, but the interesting silence in the debate so far has been from Scottish National party Members, because of course there is an eight-week deposit in Scotland. What does my hon. Friend think about that?
Clearly we are not talking about the position in Scotland, but I suspect—I might be wrong—that rental levels in Scotland are very much lower than elsewhere in our urban conurbations, and certainly in London. Scotland also perhaps has a lot more social housing than England—
I see the hon. Lady nodding about that point. Those two things are equally important.
Another consideration, which has not yet come out in the debate, is the economic impact of what happens with deposits. If we lowered deposits, I suggest that landlords would likely increase the rent over the period and—this is the key point—tenants would end up far worse off as a direct result, because landlords would have inflated the rent in order to recover the moneys due.
Let me clarify something about the ban applying to all new tenancies from 1 June. There will be a 12-month transition for tenancies signed before 1 June during which tenants can be charged. After 1 June 2020, no tenants can be charged fees banned under the Bill, which gives a clear date for when the provisions of the Bill will apply to all tenancies.
I thank the Minister for that helpful intervention, which clarified her earlier remarks and what was said when I intervened on her speech.
It is reasonable to set a position whereby we are abundantly clear in the Bill—I hope it will soon become an Act—that letting agents, estate agents or whoever are working on behalf of landlords, not tenants. I therefore warmly welcome the Lords amendment on holding deposits that was wisely tabled by the Government. What happens at the moment is an absolute outrage: some unscrupulous letting agents take a variety of competing holding deposits to inflate rents by almost having an auction for rental properties. That is grossly unfair on prospective tenants who are just looking for a property, so I warmly welcome that decision. It will be a welcome change for tenants throughout the country.
I am glad about the clarity of the Lords amendments that ensure that we are clear about the charges a landlord can make, what their purposes are and what the standards of evidence must be so that tenants do not bear a ridiculous price for, say, a lost key. Any charge will have to be evidence-based—the cost of replacing keys or other such security devices will be set out—and any cost will be reasonable, not inflated. One of the problems has been that certain unscrupulous individuals have been getting away with ripping off tenants with such charges in a grossly unfair way.
I warmly welcome the Lords amendments. The whole Select Committee welcomes the fact that the Government have finally got to where we were in the first place on deposits. I trust that we will reject the spurious Opposition amendments and ensure that the Bill, which has been warmly welcomed throughout the country, rapidly becomes law so that we can implement a process that is fair for tenants.
One thing that we desperately need to introduce is a national rental deposit scheme. My hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Will Quince) and I managed to convince the Chancellor to do that at the time of not the most recent Budget, but the one before, and money was allocated to the Department to make that happen. When the Minister sums up, I would welcome her assuring us that we will speed up the process of introducing such a scheme so that those for whom the deposit is the key issue in getting a tenancy can be funded by public money, thus protecting them and giving them the opportunity to get a tenancy and a home of their own.
As the lonely Member on the SNP Benches, and given that the Bill applies solely to England, I will endeavour to keep my comments brief. The Government’s Bill is, however, welcome.
This Government are playing catch-up with the Scottish Government, who abolished tenant fees in 2011. The Scottish reforms gave tenants longer notice periods, indefinite security of tenure and limited rent rises, so it is most welcome that this Government are making changes here now. In Scotland, in many instances, money has gone back into the pockets of Scottish renters, but renters in England are currently losing out due to this Government’s inaction and failure to offer the same protections.
The Government have maintained the right-to-buy policy, but they must recognise that to give people the greatest choice and flexibility, they have to ensure that the opportunity of the right to buy is matched with an increase in home building and access to socially affordable housing. I am afraid the Government have not quite hit the mark on that yet, and people are simply being driven into the private rented sector, which limits their options and opportunities.
The Bill is very welcome. As we heard from Conservative Members, there remains the fear that this policy will mean that the costs of the abolished fees will be passed on to tenants in an underhand way, but that concern is unfounded. It has not happened in Scotland, where there has not been a significant spike in rents since the ban on fees, so I hope that the Government will take heed of that fact. Independent research commissioned by Shelter found that since 2012 landlords in Scotland had been no more likely to increase rents than landlords in other parts of the UK. Between 2012 and 2016, rents increased by 5% in Scotland, compared with 9% in England, so the abolition of tenant fees does not appear to have had a significant impact on costs.
That said, although such a policy has been shown to work in tenants’ favour, we must be vigilant about rent prices, so I hope that the Minister will outline how the Government will ensure that their policy puts tenants first. Landlords in Scotland can only increase rents with three months’ notice and no more than once a year, and tenants can contact a rent officer if they think that a rent increase is too high. I would be interested to know whether the Minister envisages similar protections and criteria for the policy in England. In Scotland, other than rent and a refundable deposit, which is capped at no more than two months’ rent, landlords cannot levy any additional charges, which means no holding deposits, administration fees, premiums or additional charges, whether refundable or not.
Tenants are secure when landlords can end a tenancy only on strict eviction grounds. The Scottish National party commends the work of charities and campaigners who secured additional renters’ rights from the Government in the House of Lords, and both Shelter UK and Generation Rent are happy for the Bill to pass with the Lords amendments. These rights include a short definitive list limiting default fees to charges for chasing late rents and for replacing lost keys or equivalent security devices. I noted the comments made by the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) and I hope he is reassured that welcome mechanisms are in place. The provision closes the default fee loophole so that landlords will no longer be able to charge for a whole host of spurious defaults. It is also clear to landlords that they can continue to recover damages as they do now.
I welcomed the comments of the hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman), who, when comparing the position with the cap set in Scotland, rightly mentioned the greater availability of social housing in Scotland. He observed that a five-week cap was welcome, especially given that rents in England and Wales can be two to three times higher than those in Scotland. A five-week deposit cap is reasonable and will help renters to meet the initial fees needed to secure a home. Although Shelter originally argued for a lower cap, even it has said that it is
“pleased that the government didn’t stick at 6 weeks and we believe the 5-week cap will be a big improvement”.
That takes heed of the fact that costs are substantially higher in England, meaning that a five-week cap is much more reasonable.
Holding deposits are now illegal in Scotland, and that ought to be the case in England as well. Under the Lords amendments, if a tenancy does not go ahead, landlords or letting agents will be required to set out in writing the reasons why—they will also be required to give reasons for withholding some of a deposit—and they will have to do so within seven days of the decision not to progress with the tenancy. That will give tenants some clarity on exactly what happened to their money and ensure that there is a paper trail, which will make challenging unfair practices easier. Ultimately, both the landlord and the tenant will have more protection.
The ban on tenants fees in Scotland has made the rental sector fairer and easier to access. While I congratulate the Government on taking this positive step in the interests of people in rented accommodation, I urge the Minister to consider my points about abolishing tenant fees, while balancing protections for landlords with the rights of renters. The Bill will protect renters, many of whom do not have the luxury of owning their own home, and that ultimately is what we all want.
I will try to keep my comments brief—apparently time is pressing—although there is much I would like to say about the Bill. I draw the House’s attention yet again to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
I am in principle and in practice very supportive of the Bill—I have been right from the start—despite my business interests and despite the extreme consternation within the industry at my support. It is absolutely right that there be a firewall around a tenant’s ability to shop around when they have found a house or flat they want to rent. We are right to believe in free and competitive markets. This was not a free and competitive market, and it is right that we act in this area. It is right that landlords pay for their own tenancy agreements, inventories and referencing. I support all those things. I also want to put on the record my support for the Minister. She has done a great job on the Bill and engaged with me and other colleagues who have had concerns about some of its provisions.
I would like to touch on two things: deposits and default fees. I will begin with Lords amendments 36 and 37. To say that three weeks would be an appropriate deposit length, as the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Melanie Onn) has done, shows a complete misunderstanding of the issues. She is absolutely right to want to protect tenants—everyone in this place wants to protect tenants—but to do that we must be fair to landlords as well. She asked how a longer deposit period would help tenants. It would not help tenants not to be able to find properties to rent. If we deterred landlords from entering the marketplace, as a three-week cap would do, that would not help tenants.
I speak as somebody who has been in this business for 30 years. When I started, the only thing I could find in the marketplace was a shabby, damp, dark terraced house in the middle of York. It was not like today’s marketplace; tenants now have a breadth of choice, and that is because landlords have invested because they are treated fairly. The hon. Lady wants to treat tenants fairly, as I do, but we would not be treating them fairly if our policies resulted in their being refused tenancies by landlords worried about not getting their rent, not regaining possession of a property that had had significant damage done to it or not having enough deposit left for the remedial work. Her proposals would potentially put landlords in that situation, given that many tenants use their deposit as the last month’s rent, meaning there would be nothing left.
I still have concerns about restricting the deposit length to five weeks. As we know, it is eight weeks in Scotland. The average deposit in London is five and a half to six weeks, and in the rest of England it is not far below that, so the Bill will mean a change for many landlords, and we will have to keep this under review to make sure it does not have adverse consequences for tenants—that is the principle. Landlords are happy as long as they keep their properties well maintained and the rent is paid. If that is not the case, landlords will exit the market, which is not good for the tenants the hon. Lady looks to protect.
Does my hon. Friend recall that, during the Select Committee process, one of our considerations was that, if we set a six-week deposit limit, every landlord would rapidly move to six weeks from the current UK average of between four and a half and five and a half weeks?
No, I do not agree with that because at the moment we have some flexibility. Under the Bill, we have no flexibility above five weeks. The trouble with that is this. I could charge a tenant five weeks, but what if they have a pet or certain other circumstances that make me less likely to want to rent it to them? I, as a landlord, will be less likely to rent to that person, under this measure, whereas with six weeks I would have some flexibility. We must make sure that this does not deter landlords from renting properties to people with pets. We do not want that, but it could happen. The Minister has promised to keep this measure under review, and I am absolutely sure that she will.
I want to touch on default fees and amendments 42 to 47. I welcome the clarification from the Minister in the letter she sent me a couple of days ago. She assured me that landlords and agents would still be able to charge for things above and beyond their existing obligations, and that is absolutely right, but the Bill itself only makes a couple of provisions on default fees, and one of those is for the replacement of keys. It sounds like a simple process, but it is possible to spend hours and hours chasing the tenant, chasing the keys, and then chasing the tenant to come and collect the keys. Someone has to pay for that work. It is not a question of the keys themselves; it is a question of the time and labour involved in their delivery.
I welcome the Minister’s clarification of the fact that “reasonable charges” can be made, although I think that “reasonable charges”, on an hourly basis, should be defined in the guidance to prevent agents from exploiting that particular opportunity. This is about not making profit, but ensuring that the people doing the work—the letting agents or the landlords—are paid if tenants do not meet their obligations, or breach contracts. In particular, there is currently no provision for a landlord or agent to make reasonable charges for collecting late rent. That too may take many hours, and as a result the charges will go up across the board. As I have said before, in those circumstances, good tenants who do comply will subsidise poor tenants who do not. We often hear about the Scottish example. Deposits in Scotland amount to eight weeks’ rent, and Scottish agents can charge for chasing late rent and chasing keys that need to be replaced. I do not know whether that is covered under “breaches”; perhaps the Minister will provide clarification at some point.
The provision on “variation, assignment or novation” is very important, because it allows for a change of sharer. Someone who has taken on a tenancy agreement and wants to break it early can go to the agent or the landlord, who will consider a change of sharer because it will be possible to make a reasonable charge in connection with the change in the agreement. That is only fair, but I think that an hourly rate should be defined in the guidance.
I believe that the Lords meant well in tabling some of their amendments, but I also believe that some of them are unfair and potentially unworkable, and might have unintended consequences, particularly for tenants in adverse circumstances. I think that we should keep this under review to ensure that the rules are fair for landlords, agents and tenants, and that those who are on the margins when it comes to affordability are not disadvantaged.
I, too, draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
The Bill has returned to the Commons in a much better state than it was in when it left. The loophole relating to default fees has now gone. The detail on default fees will be on the face of the Bill, which will specify
“a key…or other security device”.
There is much more transparency in relation to the holding of deposits, with a fairer transaction between letting agents and tenants, and the deposit levels are better aimed at people on low incomes, having been reduced to five weeks’ rent.
I listened carefully to both sides of the argument about the length of deposits. I listened to what was said by the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Melanie Onn), but I also listened to the counter-arguments. I entirely agree with the hon. Lady that we need to protect tenants and make the system easier for them, because there is a tough world out there for people on low incomes. I also agree that we should not inadvertently disadvantage renters. As long as we do not have the number of affordable and social homes that we need, they will always be in that tough world in which, ultimately, they are at the mercy of landlords when it comes to charges. This is only the beginning of an overall improvement for renters, and I hope very much that we will continue to make changes in the law that will make life easier for them, but I also hope that we will eventually provide the number of homes that we need in order to create an entirely fair rental market.
I pay tribute to my colleagues in the House of Lords, Lord Shipley and Baroness Grender. Lady Grender initiated these proposals in a Private Member’s Bill in 2016 and, with Lord Shipley, worked assiduously with the Government to improve the Bill. I also congratulate the groups that have long campaigned for this change in the law, including Shelter, Generation Rent and Citizens Advice.
For too long, upfront costs—often rip-off fees charged to tenants by unscrupulous lettings agencies—have pushed people into unmanageable levels of debt, and sometimes into homelessness. The current system means that people, particularly those on low incomes, must pay as much as £3,000 to move, even if they will be paying a lower rent. Some have predicted that we will see a rise in rents as a result, but evidence from Scotland suggests that that is unlikely. If rents rise, the relatively small amount per month will be manageable in comparison to the extortionate amount that it costs to move.
For too long people living in the private rented sector have been treated as second-class citizens, and the Bill goes some way towards putting that right. The Liberal Democrats welcome it, and welcome the Conservatives’ change of heart. We look forward to its introduction on 1 June, with only the small regret that it has taken so long for it to reach this stage. As I said earlier, I hope that we will continue to make changes in the law to make it easier for people to rent in a fair market where there is a good number of affordable and social homes.
With the leave of the House, Madam Deputy Speaker. I shall be very short and very pithy.
I thank Members on both sides of the House for their passionate and constructive contributions to the Bill’s passage. I also thank the civil servants who have worked so hard to bring the Bill to this successful stage. We particularly wanted that to happen quickly so that the lady who is pregnant would not give birth in the Box. I have told her that if the baby is a boy, it must be called Bill!
I hope we can all agree that improvements have been made, thanks to the work of many Members on both sides of the House, and that as a result the Bill will be even more effective in delivering its promise to protect tenants from unfair charges. I hope that the assurances I have been able to give will mean that the Commons amendments will not be pressed to the vote.
Lords amendment 1 agreed to.
Lords amendments 2 to 35 agreed to.
Motion made, and Question put, That this House agrees with Lords amendment 36.—(Mrs Wheeler.)
The House proceeded to a Division.
I remind the House that the motion is subject to double majority voting of the whole House and of Members representing constituencies in England.
23 January 2019
The House having divided:
Question accordingly agreed to.View Details
Lords amendment 36 agreed to.
Lords amendments 37 to 60 agreed to.
We now come to motion 4 on private Members’ Bills.
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. That motion would have given us some certainty that this House would be sitting on Friday week, for example, to consider private Members’ Bills. Is it not extraordinary that we now have no certainty about that? The presumption now is that we will not be sitting on Friday 1 February. At one stage we were told that we would be sitting on Friday 25 January. My point of order relates to the amendment that I tabled to the business in motion 4. Prior to hearing that the motion was not going to be moved, I sought to find out whether my amendment had been selected. It is the convention of this House that if someone has tabled an amendment, they get advance notice prior to the debate as to whether it has been selected. We often get printed papers telling us which amendments have been selected and in what order. Can you tell us, Madam Deputy Speaker, whether my amendment and/or the one tabled in the name of the Labour environment spokesman, amendment (b), were selected for debate, subject of course to the debate starting at the behest of the Government? The other point I would like to make is to ask whether I am correct in saying that the only way in which we can avoid this sort of scenario is for Back Benchers on both sides to sign Government motions so that they cannot be withdrawn?
Order. I beg the House to be a little quieter because, as a matter of practicality, I could not hear the hon. Gentleman—[Interruption.] I am politely asking for a little bit of quiet. Just talk quietly among yourselves.
The hon. Gentleman makes a perfectly reasonable point. As to whether it is extraordinary, I cannot possibly comment from the Chair. However, he has asked me, as a point of order, whether his amendment (a) to motion 4 was selected and, indeed, whether amendment (b) was selected, and I can tell him that I do not know the answer to his question. The selection of amendments is entirely a matter for Mr Speaker, and the Deputy Speakers have no part in the consideration or discussion of whether an amendment should be selected. I do not know whether either amendment was selected, but I have every sympathy with the hon. Gentleman.
Further to that point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I accept your ruling in relation to the prerogative of the Speaker to decide which amendments are selected and which are not, but what I was really concerned about was the fact that the Member who tabled the amendment was not notified as to whether it had been selected. Is there now a new convention in this place that a Member does not know whether their amendment has been selected until the debate starts? If that is a new convention, let us all be clear about it, but my understanding, after more than 30 years in this place, is that if a Member moves an amendment, they normally get advance notice of whether it has been selected.
The hon. Gentleman again makes a perfectly reasonable point about his experience over the past 30 years, but we live in ever-changing times, and I genuinely do not know the answer to his question.
Further to that point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. First, if the Government Whip had not said, “Not moved,” we would now be in the debate on the motion. If we had had that debate, I would have spoken against the amendment of the hon. Member for Christchurch (Sir Christopher Chope), so at what point would those who had put down amendments have known that they would be put to a vote? Secondly—maybe the Leader of the House can assist with this—have you had any indication that the Government intend to move the order relating to private Members’ Bills days at some point in the future? If so, when might that be?
Again, the right hon. Gentleman makes a perfectly reasonable point. I should point out to him and to the House that Mr Speaker ‘s selection of amendments is published as a provisional selection of amendments. It is then up to Mr Speaker which amendments he finally selects. That would be the normal course of action. I am unaware of a provisional selection of amendments having been published in relation to motion 4 today.
Further to that point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. As you can well imagine, there may be a lot of interest in this House about the selection of amendments over the next few weeks, so this is not merely some esoteric question. Now, I have been here for only 18 years—I am a relative newbie—but the Speaker’s conference would have taken place this morning, and the usual practice is that a provisional selection of amendments is issued thereafter. As you say, it is provisional, but it can at least guide the House as to what is likely to be available for debate.
Now, today’s Bill was relatively uncontroversial. Being able to rent a home is important, but it was not as controversial as, say, some of last week’s debates, so it was not beyond the wit of man to work out that the debate on the Tenant Fees Bill would end early. The Speaker’s conference should have practically been able to foresee this situation. That being the case, why was no provisional selection of amendments issued in the normal way?
I appreciate the right hon. Gentleman’s point, and I can give him a very direct answer. I will not disclose to the Chamber or in any other way what happens at the Speaker’s conference in the morning. It is a private meeting between Mr Speaker and his Deputies and senior Clerks, and I will not and cannot answer questions about it.
Further to that point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. As someone who has been here for 27 years, my service is obviously larger than that of the right hon. Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois). Can the—[Interruption.]
Order. The hon. Lady is making an important point. Just be quiet.
While we are living in an era of some creativity with respect to the House’s Standing Orders, can you confirm that we have not been so creative so far that amendments can survive the main motion being withdrawn?
I am delighted to answer the hon. Lady’s perspicacious point of order. She is absolutely correct that amendments cannot survive the withdrawal of the main motion. I will say it again that the selection of amendments is entirely a matter for Mr Speaker, and I am sure that if Mr Speaker had been here, as he will be at some future point, he would have been delighted to answer these questions.
Further to that point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Can you confirm that it would be in order for the Government to propose a future motion—hopefully very quickly—that would allow the Service Animals (Offences) Bill finally to make progress and get its Third Reading? The Bill has support on both sides of the House and had cross-party support in Committee last week.
I am happy to confirm to the right hon. and learned Gentleman that that would be perfectly in order. He also reminds me that I did not answer the second point of the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) about whether the Government intend to bring forward motion 4 again at a future time. I am not aware at this point of any such intention, but one would hope so.
Business without Debate
Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 118(6)),
Exiting the European Union (Atomic Energy and Radioactive Substances)
That the draft Transfrontier Shipment of Radioactive Waste and Spent Fuel (EU Exit) Regulations 2018, which were laid before this House on 28 November 2018, be approved.—(Jeremy Quin.)
Question agreed to.
Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 118(6)),
Exiting the European Union (Legal Aid and Advice)
That the draft Civil Legal Aid (Amendment) (EU Exit) Regulations 2019, which were laid before this House on 28 November 2018, be approved.—(Jeremy Quin.)
23 January 2019
The House divided:
Question accordingly agreed to.View Details
Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 118(6)),
Exiting the European Union (Financial Services)
That the draft Over the Counter Derivatives, Central Counterparties and Trade Repositories (Amendment, etc., and Transitional Provision) (EU Exit) Regulations 2018, which were laid before this House on 5 December 2018, be approved.—(Jeremy Quin.)
Question agreed to.
Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 118(6)),
Exiting the European Union (Civil Partnership)
That the draft Equality (Amendment and Revocation) (EU Exit) Regulations 2018, which were laid before this House on 13 December 2018, be approved.—(Jeremy Quin.)
Question agreed to.
Fire Safety and Cladding
Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Jeremy Quin.)
I am grateful for the opportunity to raise the issue of fire safety, which is of great concern to many people in my constituency and throughout the country, particularly since the Grenfell Tower fire 19 months ago. The debate is happening somewhat earlier than we envisaged. I hope that means that there will be more opportunities for other Members to participate, because I know that the issue affects many constituencies.
I want to cover two areas: first, the major fire that happened at the Shurgard self-storage centre in my constituency on new year’s eve; and secondly, fire safety and the use of flammable cladding in residential and other buildings throughout the country, about which there has been great disquiet since the Grenfell Tower fire.
The fire at the Shurgard self-storage centre was massive. More than 1,200 people had stored their goods and possessions in that facility, which was one of the largest in London. When I was first alerted to what had happened, my first thought was, “I hope everybody is safe,” and it was reassuring to hear that there had been no loss of life. However, a couple of weeks later I had the opportunity to meet a group of Shurgard customers who had lost everything they had put in storage at that facility. The scale of loss, devastation and harm that that caused cannot be overstated. The losses were enormous.
As with all self-storage centres, the Shurgard facility was marketed as a safe place to store goods. It was even advertised as a place for those who had suffered a bereavement to store the belongings of a loved one.
I thank my hon. Friend for bringing this important debate to the House. Constituents of mine had their goods burnt in the Shurgard fire. I am sure that hon. Members will be interested to know that, having advertised as “safe and secure”, since the fire the Shurgard website has removed 35 mentions of that phrase. Its use is nothing short of mis-selling.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend and neighbour for her intervention. It is telling that Shurgard saw fit to remove all the language about safety from its website after the fire. I hope that, during the debate, we will expose the fact that the facility was far from being as safe as it was marketed to its customers.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising this important issue in the Chamber. Like the constituents of my other neighbour, the hon. Member for Croydon Central (Sarah Jones), many of my constituents had possessions at the facility. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is essential that the London fire brigade carries out a full investigation to establish whether the operators of Shurgard had implemented all the relevant fire safety measures? It seems that the fire spread so quickly and so extensively that it requires a thorough investigation.
I completely agree and am grateful for that intervention. Everybody who uses self-storage facilities needs to know that their possessions are safe when they put them in storage. We need to know that Shurgard and other providers of such services abide by the regulations, and that the regulations are sufficiently robust to provide the reassurances that customers deserve and need.
When I spoke to the group of customers, I found that the single biggest reason for storing possessions at the facility was being between homes. People were not just putting some spare goods into self-storage; they had left the place where they were living and had not yet moved into their new home, so everything they owned was stored at the facility. As a result, everything was lost; everything was destroyed in the fire. As one of them said to me, “It’s bad enough to lose a sofa, a bed or a sideboard, but at least you can replace those things. What about your keepsakes from loved ones who have passed away?” The company advertised its facility as a safe space to leave keepsakes for those who had suffered a bereavement. What about someone who has lost a lifetime of family photographs—all their memories of their family experiences and of the people they most love? A price cannot be put on that. It cannot be insured. If it is gone in a fire, it is gone forever and it is irreplaceable. The devastation, pain and stress of losing such things can be incalculable.
I met one family—a husband, his wife and their three children—who, because of benefit-system failings, had been evicted from the home that they rented just before Christmas. They had put everything they had into this Shurgard self-storage facility, and they were penniless because of the problems with universal credit, so they could not afford insurance. They have now lost absolutely everything that they owned. They have been left absolutely devastated, without any possessions at all, and they are living in bed-and-breakfast accommodation. That family need help, and they need it urgently, because they are facing critical hardship as a result of what happened.
I thank my hon. Friend for securing this debate. He has picked up on a crucial point—that the storage centre claimed that it was safe, and so on. Does he agree that when the Minister responds he should refer to the specific case of those individuals, who have lost everything because of the social system and are now living in a bed and breakfast? These must be considered special cases, in which the Government need to step in and act.
I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s intervention and completely agree with her. I hope that when the time comes the Minister is able to respond to that point. People who have been left in severe hardship as a result of what happened have had nowhere to go for the help that they deserve.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for bringing this issue to the House. It is important that evaluations are made of properties where the same thing might occur. Does he agree that there has been ample time to assess the number of buildings that are in danger? My local authority in Northern Ireland, Ards and North Down Borough Council, carried out evaluations and provided reports within six weeks of the disaster. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that additional funding must be put in place to help local councils to make evaluations and to help those people who need compensation, and that that needs to be done as a matter of urgency? Furthermore, on the changes to fire safety regulations, does he agree that the real, live testing of materials in the construction sector is urgently required?
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, with which I have great sympathy. I believe that in this particular case the investigation is also in the hands of the police, because we do not yet know whether arson lay behind the tragedy at the Shurgard facility on Purley Way in Croydon.
My hon. Friend is making a strong point that—I am sure he will come on to this—applies as much to residential fires as to the case he is talking about. First, there is the issue of insurance, with people in these situations often underinsured or not insured. There is also the issue of who is liable. As he says, the case he is describing may be a criminal matter. At Shepherd’s Court in my constituency, there was an obvious cause—it was a tumble-drier fire—but the manufacturer denies liability and will not pay out. As a consequence of cases like that, people can lose everything and go for years and years without being able to replace their belongings.
My hon. Friend makes an important point indeed. I am also interested in the insurance aspects of this case, including whether people were wrongly advised by the self-storage company about the level of insurance that they should have taken out and, indeed, whether there was mis-selling of insurance. I have contacted the relevant authorities—the Financial Conduct Authority and others—to seek their advice. I hope we can bring that issue back to the Chamber at the appropriate time, and I would be delighted to work with my hon. Friend on that, because he has an interest in it.
I return to my attempt to establish the extent of the harm that has been caused to people’s lives by the fire. I met another woman—a customer—who had stored in the facility her mother’s and her grandmother’s ashes. One simply cannot imagine what it would feel like for an individual to lose something of such enormous human value to them.
My hon. Friend is giving way generously. On that terrible point, last weekend I met some people who were affected, and I have a constituent whose pictures of her deceased children were burned. These things are so irreplaceable and so sad. People really did believe that their things would be kept safe, and that everything would be okay. We cannot emphasise enough what a horror they have been going through.
I am grateful again to my hon. Friend for her intervention. One really cannot exaggerate the pain that has been caused. When anybody puts their most beloved and treasured possessions in a facility and is assured that it is safe, they deserve to know that it actually is safe. I met an artist who had lost a lifetime’s artworks, which she had created. I met a DJ who collects first-edition reggae albums on vinyl. All of that is gone in the fire, all of it irreplaceable. No money can replace that.
Of course, many businesses today keep their stock in facilities like these, and many businesspeople have lost their stock. Even if it was properly insured, the short-term loss of that stock means that they have lost a whole quarter’s trading, which is enough to put many small businesses under. I really do think that the Minister needs to consider what emergency support is available for the people facing real hardship and crisis as a result of the fire.
Many colleagues have raised concerns about fire safety at the Shurgard facility, and I share those concerns. When I met a group of customers, that was one of the biggest areas giving them cause for concern that they raised with me. A customer putting their possessions in a self-storage facility would assume that there had been some effort, when designing it, to prevent the spread of fire, should a fire take hold. In fact, the walls in the individual units in this facility did not go right up to the ceiling—there was a gap between the top of the unit and the ceiling—so a fire that started in one unit could quickly and easily move into the next, and then the next and beyond. It seems to me shocking that these facilities are built without designing in measures to prevent the rapid spread of fire.
Customers using that facility reasonably assumed that a sprinkler system was installed in case of fire. In fact, there is no sprinkler system in that facility, and there is no requirement for self-storage units to have sprinkler systems. Another point is that Shurgard did not ask their customers to report or keep a record of what they were storing in that self-storage facility. Someone could put all their most treasured possessions in the unit they were renting, but the next-door unit could be filled up with barrels of oil or something equally flammable, and nobody would ever know.
If we put all this together, there were in effect no fire safety measures whatsoever in this facility. It was advertising a service as safe and secure for people to keep their goods in, but it simply was not. It was taking money from people, and then not providing the service that people expected. If things had gone wrong—and on new year’s eve in Croydon they went severely wrong—everything people owned would have gone: it would have been taken away, and they would have lost it.
Shurgard has been very clear with me—I have met it to discuss this—that it has complied with all UK fire safety regulations. I do not know whether that is true, but that is the point it has made to me. If what it says is true and it was fully compliant, those regulations need to be reviewed and tightened as a matter of urgency.
At the meeting with customers last weekend, they made two really interesting points. One was that Shurgard in other European countries has to have sprinklers, because in other European countries there are regulations requiring a building of a certain size to have sprinklers, so the same company would have sprinklers in another country but not here. They also made the point—I do not 100% know whether this is accurate—that, looking at storage in general, about 40% of Europe’s storage is in this country. There is something about the nature of the cost of housing and the fact that people have to put so much stuff into storage, perhaps because of the value of land, that means our country has a particular problem in this area and needs to look at the regulations for the storage sector in particular.
I am sure many people who keep their possessions in such self-storage centres will be astonished to learn that the multinational companies, where they are multinational, operate safer and more secure facilities abroad than they operate in the United Kingdom. That seems to me entirely wrong. I hope the Minister, when he responds, will explain to the House what he intends to do about conducting a review of the levels of fire safety in these facilities, and whether he believes there is a case for tightening those regulations.
Many, many people use these facilities. They are very common all over London, and we all know about them and have them in our constituencies. The customers include people who are between homes—moving from one place to another—either as buyers or as renters. Many newly built flats are very small and are built without adequate storage, so people use self-storage centres instead. If people have suffered a bereavement and have lost a relative, they need somewhere to store their possessions; we do not all have the space in our home to store these things. All those people need to know that their possessions are safe, and if the regulations are not allowing that to happen right now, the regulations need to change.
My concern is that the fact that the regulations are inadequate has created a race to the bottom in fire safety standards, as self-storage companies compete with one another on price. The way in which they reduce price is to reduce staffing in the facility and reduce the level of security and fire safety measures that they put into the facility. They do so to minimise their costs, so that they may offer as low a price as possible. The only thing that will maintain minimum standards—and people need know what they are—is to ensure that there are adequate fire safety regulations for self-storage facilities. I am afraid that we do not have those at the moment.
Finally on this particular issue, does the Minister see the case, or the need for, providing specific help to people facing severe financial hardship—whether it be from the relevant public authorities, the Government, or even perhaps the company itself, which must bear some responsibility towards their customers for what has happened to them?
I will turn now, if I may, from the subject of self-storage towards wider issues of fire safety in residential blocks. The issue of cladding in particular has become very significant and of great concern throughout the House ever since the tragic fire at Grenfell Tower 19 months ago.
In today’s Prime Minister’s questions, my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon Central (Sarah Jones) reminded us that, days after Grenfell went up, the Prime Minister promised to do everything in her power to keep people safe. Since that time—19 months have passed—the Government seem to have done precious little in concrete terms to reassure people that they are safer now than they were then.
I thank my hon. Friend, who is being generous with his time, for giving way once again. He rightly points out that, 19 months on, we still have many blocks covered in this cladding. Residents in my own constituency are living in an unsafe block, and they might have to pay tens of thousands of pounds for fire safety remedial work. Does he agree that it should not be the leaseholders who foot the bill, and that the Government need to intervene to ensure that freeholders or the Government themselves can implement it? They must take the pressure and the burden off leaseholders.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her intervention. I completely agree: the leaseholders seem to be the innocent party in all this. They certainly should not be forced to bear the cost, the stress or the worry of having flammable cladding on the place in which they live.
It very clear—the Government have made this clear—that leaseholders should not be left footing the bill. When the developer is also the freeholder, as was the case in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, and is prepared, because of the potential reputational damage, to step up to the mark, the problem is resolved, but, as he will know from experience, a difficulty arises when the freehold is sold on, often to a trust company or a financial institution. Unlike a firm of developers, such a body will not be trying to sell houses to the public and is not subject to any reputational pressures, and will use very common clauses in their leases to pass back to their leaseholders any cost that, say, the local authority or Government push on to them. Do we not need a legal mechanism to override that, which is difficult to do with leases, or, in such cases, to compensate leaseholders directly so that they do not lose out? It has to one or the other.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I know that he is fighting very hard on behalf of his residents who are living in these circumstances, and he makes a point with which I agree. That is at the heart of our problem with the Government’s response. The Government can say what they like in support of leaseholders, but if they do not act, they are not actually helping them and, unfortunately, a moral obligation is not enforceable in court. We need a legal means of redress for people who have been damaged.
My hon. Friend is making a very powerful and moving speech. I am sure that his constituents are incredibly grateful to him for his tireless campaigning to support them. We are talking about residents, but I wish to draw the House’s attention to a different issue—schools. Hundreds of schools across the country are also covered in combustible material, and the Government have not included them in the building safety programme. [Interruption.] Well, that is the latest report. The Minister suggests that there are not hundreds, so I would be very happy to send him the report that I have read that gives that evidence. When he responds to the debate, will he also talk about how he can ensure that our children are safe when they attend school?
I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for her intervention. I, too, look forward to hearing a response from the Minister. I have tried to find out whether a newly rebuilt school in my own constituency has flammable cladding, but it seems impossible to do so. If I, as the local Member of Parliament with the access that I have to the relevant authorities, cannot find out, I pity those poor parents who are trying to find out whether their children will be safe after they have taken them to school each morning. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response on that point.
I came to this subject because a block in my constituency, Citiscape, has the same sort of cladding—aluminium composite material cladding—that was on Grenfell Tower. The cost of removing and replacing the cladding was £2 million. The managing agents wrote to leaseholders in the block, who received estimates of up to £30,000 each for the work to be carried out. Of course the vast majority could not afford that—not many people have £30,000 lying around in the bank, particularly not those who have just bought their first flat and are stretched on their mortgage—but they were told that unless everybody paid up, the work would not happen. In effect, nothing would be done to keep the people in the block safe. We approached the freeholder, but the freeholder is not legally liable to carry out the work and there was no way to compel the freeholder to do it. The builders also are not legally liable to carry out the work. They can rely on the fact that there are concerns about lack of clarity in the building regulations and guidance, and they had been following the guidance that they believed meant that the cladding was safe. It turned out at Grenfell that ACM cladding is absolutely not safe.
When the case came to the housing tribunal, it ruled that the leaseholders were liable. We hear welcome words from Ministers at the Dispatch Box saying that leaseholders should not be made to pay, but in fact the housing tribunal—the legal body responsible for adjudicating on the matter—said the leaseholders were indeed responsible and would have to pay. In the case of Citiscape and others where not all the leaseholders can pay, the work will not be done. People are stuck living in blocks with Grenfell-style flammable cladding strapped on the outside; they are living with their families, their children and their parents in absolute terror.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on his speech and the argument he is making. It has long been argued that there should be some reform of leasehold law. We have tinkered with it over the years, but it needs to be dealt with properly, and Governments have shied away from doing so. I thought that the Secretary of State had said that he would discuss leaseholds with the people involved, some of the companies and so on. About 12 months ago, I said to the previous Secretary of State that what the Government should have done after Grenfell was to take emergency powers. Had they done so, we would not have some of these problems now. They did not do it and the rest is history.
I am grateful for that helpful intervention and look forward to hearing the Minister’s response.
I said that there were concerns about the state of the building regulations and the guidance, and it is worth exploring briefly how we got into a position where the regulations were so lax or could be interpreted in such a way. Back in 2009, there was a fire in Lakanal House in Camberwell, central London, that resulted in the death of six people, including a baby. An inquest conducted an inquiry, which took a number of years, and reported in 2013 in a very long document that contained some very clear recommendations. The inquiry said that the fire safety regulations—specifically, part B of the building regulations, which cover fire safety, and the associated guidance—were unclear, and that that was the reason why unsafe and combustible cladding was being strapped on buildings where people lived with their families. The coroner was absolutely clear that if that lack of clarity was not remedied, we would be running the risk of further fires and further deaths.
I mentioned Lakanal House, where six people died 10 years ago, yesterday. There was combustible material involved, but it was not ACM cladding. Is it not extraordinary that the Government’s building safety programme is only tracking identification and remediation of residential buildings over 18 metres with ACM cladding? Should not the programme apply to all potentially combustible cladding?
I agree with my hon. Friend. It is absolutely extraordinary that we are not looking, right now, at a ban on all forms of flammable cladding. It is now 10 years later.
What we see now is still evidence of a go-slow and foot-dragging approach by the Government that is highly inappropriate—I would almost say negligent—given the risk to life that we know exists from the deaths that happened at Lakanal House and those that happened in even greater numbers at Grenfell Tower. [Interruption.] It is no good the Minister shrugging his shoulders and grunting from the Front Bench. Grenfell happened after Lakanal because Ministers refused to act on the guidance—the instruction—that they were given by the coroner. Eric Pickles, who was the Secretary of State at the time, refused to act on the advice given by the inquest into Lakanal House in 2013. In 2016, because it had not been banned, ACM cladding was strapped to the outside of Grenfell Tower. In 2017, it went up in flames and 72 people lie dead as a result. It could not be more serious.
We need properly to understand how this came to be, why the Government did not act, and why the Government still have not acted to ban that type of cladding from buildings. They are talking about banning it, but all flammable cladding has not been banned from all buildings—[Interruption.] The Minister will have an opportunity to respond later in the debate, and we look forward to hearing him. [Interruption.] If he wants to intervene, I will take his intervention.
I am quite happy to intervene, and I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. It should be clear that in December last year, we banned flammable cladding of all types on buildings over 18 metres. This is an absolute and complete ban, and nobody should be under any illusion about that, or represent it as being anything other than that.
As I will come on to say during what remains of this debate, a partial ban is not a ban. This kind of cladding is still permitted on far too many buildings, and too many people are not safe. There has been no action to take flammable cladding off buildings where it already exists. Those are the issues that I want to come on to. In fact—
I will take an intervention in a moment, but I want to make this point, because it is linked to the issue that we are debating right now.
In fact, there are still thousands of terrified residents living in blocks with the same kind of cladding, or a very similar kind of cladding, as that which went up in flames at Grenfell Tower. There are still 56 private blocks of flats around the country—that is 56—that have no clear plan in place to remove and replace it. People are left living in fear. There is no point in the Minister standing up and telling me the Government banned it last December when right now, in 56 blocks around the country, people are living with flammable cladding strapped to the outside of their homes and no plan whatsoever to remove it.
We went through this yesterday during the urgent question. I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman is seeking to make an issue of it. We have made it very clear that while he is correct that there are still a number of private sector residential buildings that do not have a clear plan for remediation, it is the case, as I said yesterday, that 100% of those buildings have temporary measures in place that have been agreed and certified by the local fire and rescue service as appropriate for the building. My primary concern, and the Department’s primary concern, has been to make sure that people are safe tonight. As I am sure he would acknowledge, it is not possible, by some feat of magic, to make this cladding disappear overnight. We must, however, make sure that everybody is safe overnight. That is where we have been focused.
The hon. Gentleman says that thousands of people are living in terror in blocks, but that should not be the case, on the basis that every local fire and rescue service has visited, inspected and agreed temporary measures with every residential building over 18 metres in height that has this cladding, and they are going back to check and monitor to make sure that they are in place. I really would urge him not to cause undue alarm among this residential population, because steps have been taken to keep them safe.
I have to say, with all due respect to the Minister, that I find that comment rather complacent. It is all well and good to say that this cladding cannot be taken down overnight, but it is 19 months since Grenfell Tower went up in flames, it is 10 years since Lakanal House went up in flames, and it is eight years since the coroner told the Government that there needed to be a ban on this kind of cladding—that is not overnight. The Government have not acted with anything like the requisite speed, given the scale of threat to human life. It is completely unacceptable.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. I apologise for missing the start of his speech, but I have been watching it from outside the Chamber. Notwithstanding the Minister’s defence of the position, he accepted yesterday during proceedings on the urgent question that there are 42 blocks whose freeholder is saying that leaseholders have to pay for remedial works, as my hon. Friend said. The dangers may be temporarily resolved—there are big question marks about that—but the financial distress that has been caused to leaseholders by the prospect of hundreds of thousands and sometimes millions of pounds of debt has not been resolved.
I absolutely agree. The level of stress that this is causing is making some people so ill that they cannot continue to work. We cannot allow this to go on.
I am sorry to keep intervening—my hon. Friend is being incredibly generous—but I just want to make a point about waking watch. Having talked to the fire services, I know that it is not an ideal situation. The fire services are worried that companies have come out of the woodwork and started doing waking watch, but people are not always well-trained and there are not always enough of them on site. Waking watch is very much a temporary measure. To have 19 months of waking watch is expensive, but also not ideal, and we cannot be 100% sure that these people are trained and doing what they are supposed to be doing.
I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s intervention. As the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) will know, residents in Northpoint Tower in Bromley face bills of up to £70,000 each. People simply cannot afford that, and the stress they suffer from receiving that bill and knowing that, unless they find a way to pay it, they will be left living in a block with potentially flammable cladding on, is simply unacceptable.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way again and for mentioning the problem at Northpoint. There is a certain insecurity about the risk of human error at the very least with a waking watch, but the difficulty is compounded by the cash flow impact. Most of these leaseholder groups will have a sinking fund that has been set up over the years, but that is quickly dissipated by the cost of the waking watch. In the case of my constituents, there is an enforcement notice running out in April. They could have the waking watch until then, which will exhaust all the reserves and will mean further calls on funds from people who often have mortgages, because they are often first-time buyers, and who effectively cannot raise any more money because the flats are currently valueless. It is a Catch-22: the money is exhausted, and they have no means of raising any more.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention; he makes an important point well. The other course of action that would normally be open to a homeowner—selling their home—is not open, because their homes are unsellable. Nobody will buy a flat in a block that has flammable cladding strapped to the outside of it. Whatever the Minister tells us, if we speak to people living in these blocks, they say that they feel abandoned by a Government who told them in the aftermath of Grenfell that everything would be done to keep them safe. They do not feel that they have been kept safe, and they manifestly have not been.