House of Commons
Monday 28 January 2019
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
Housing, Communities and Local Government
The Secretary of State was asked—
Homelessness: Death Rates
Every death of someone who is homeless is one too many. That is why we are determined to end rough sleeping altogether. We have committed £100 million to the rough sleeping strategy, and we are spending over £1.2 billion to prevent and reduce homelessness.
Official figures released by Office for National Statistics just before Christmas shockingly revealed that 597 people died homeless in England and Wales in 2017—an increase of 24% over the last five years. With further cold weather expected, will the Secretary of State back Labour’s £100 million-a-year plan to make cold weather emergency accommodation available for every rough sleeper in every area?
As I said before Christmas, these figures are hugely shocking. As I have already indicated, one death is one too many. That is why we are committed to taking action across the board; I pointed to the £100 million rough sleeping strategy. At times like this when we have colder weather, we have also allocated an extra £5 million over and above some of our additional work with short-term capacity to support councils to ensure that we are actually giving the help that is needed to some of the most vulnerable in our society.
This week I spoke to the Hepatitis C Trust and my local homeless charity, Porchlight, who highlighted rough sleepers as a significantly vulnerable group in terms of alcohol and drug dependency. What steps are the Secretary of State and his Department taking to help homeless people to access mental health and addiction services?
The hon. Lady is right to highlight the issues of mental health and addiction, with a much higher proportion of people who are rough sleeping having those particular needs. That is why in the NHS long-term plan there was the commitment for an extra £30 million designed specifically for health support for rough sleepers, because sometimes access can be really difficult. We are determined to ensure that that type of support is able to be provided to rough sleepers.
We know that homelessness is getting worse. According to Shelter, 36 new people become homeless every day. One way to address this is to make more social housing available. To do that, England should be suspending the right to buy as we have already done in Wales. Does the Secretary of State agree?
I do agree that we require more social housing. That is why we have our affordable housing programme. We have also already taken off the restrictions on councils in England to enable them to borrow to build a new generation of council homes. [Interruption.] I would just point out to Opposition Members, with regard to some of their comments, that this Government have built more council houses in their time than in 13 years of the last Labour Government. But we know there is more to do and we are committed to doing it.
Homelessness is rising, and that is why we need action to stop it reaching the peak levels that we saw under the last Labour Government. What progress is being made to ensure that all councils—not some, but all councils —are taking the preventive approach envisaged in the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017?
I agree with my hon. Friend about the Homeless Reduction Act—a really ground-breaking piece of legislation very much emphasising a preventive agenda to prevent people from becoming homeless at all. Local authorities have received an additional £72.7 million to implement the Act, and the homelessness advice and support team has been providing support. But we need to ensure that more is done and we will certainly be reviewing the implementation of the Act by March next year.
It is often alleged, perhaps anecdotally, that a disproportionate number of rough sleepers are people with a military background, perhaps suffering from drug or drink abuse or from post-traumatic stress disorder. Does the Department have any statistical method for checking whether that allegation is correct? If so, there would be things that could be done with the armed services as well as through the Department.
I can assure my hon. Friend that we are working with the Ministry of Defence on support that can be provided to veterans who need our help and backing because they have ended up, for whatever reason, on the street. He is right to say that we need better data, and that is what we seek to achieve.
Of the 600 homeless people who died last year, 85% were men, one third died of drug overdoses and 10% died from alcohol poisoning. Will the Secretary of State ensure that those groups and factors are specifically prioritised in order to tackle this issue?
I am pleased to say that our rough sleeping strategy is intended to give that prioritisation, through work not only by my Department but across Whitehall. My hon. Friend is right about that need, and that is what we are determined to provide through the strategy.
Centrepoint estimates that local funding for Bath and North East Somerset Council would need to double to deliver on new duties for homeless young people under the Homelessness Reduction Act. Can the Secretary of State confirm whether he will bring forward proposals to ensure that post 2020 Homelessness Reduction Act funding is based on the level of local demand for homelessness support?
As I have indicated, we will conduct a review of the implementation of the Homelessness Reduction Act and look at evidence about local authorities’ pressures and needs. I want to ensure that the Act is implemented well and that we are preventing people from becoming homeless.
To deal with homelessness, we need to deal with the housing shortage. Will my right hon. Friend join me in applauding the work of North West Leicestershire District Council, which has overseen the construction of more than 1,000 new homes in the last 12 months, including the first council houses to be built for more than 30 years? Does he think it is a coincidence that we again recorded no rough sleepers in the district over the last 12 months?
I commend my hon. Friend and his council for the work they are doing to build the homes that our country needs. Of course it is about the supply of affordable and social housing, which is why we are taking steps across the board to get people building.
Last year, nearly 600 people died homeless in this country. The Secretary of State was right to admit, in response to my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Preet Kaur Gill), that this is truly shocking. In a country as decent and well off as ours, this shames us all. We cannot stop homeless people dying if we do not grasp the reasons why it is getting worse, so why does the Secretary of State think that the number has risen in the last five years?
I share the right hon. Gentleman’s understandable and rightful concern about the number who were shown to have died and the increase in rough sleeping. I have certainly not hidden from that or from the challenges and responsibilities that we have as a Government to look at the complex issues that lie behind this. We also need to look at what we can do in terms of other issues, such as social policy, where changes have been made, and to look at the evidence, to ensure that we are making a difference and eradicating rough sleeping, preventing people from becoming homeless and ensuring that the most vulnerable are well supported.
The Secretary of State is a decent man, but that was an answer of sheer irrelevance. People are dying on the streets, and the Government are ducking the hard truth that their decisions on hostel funding, on housing benefit, on social housing investment and on protections for private renters are the root causes of the homelessness crisis. With the first widespread winter snow forecast this week, there are still areas of this country where no extra emergency accommodation will be available. Will the Secretary of State think again? Will he save lives this winter and make Labour’s plan the country’s national plan, with £100 million for extra emergency accommodation for every rough sleeper in every area as the temperatures are set to hit zero?
I take the issue of rough sleeping, ensuring that lives are saved and that steps can be taken to provide further accommodation and support, extremely seriously. It is one of my priorities. It is why the rough sleeping strategy looks not only at accommodation, which of course is important, and we have taken steps through our rough sleeping initiative, with additional accommodation and additional support workers out there as a consequence, but at issues of health, addiction and mental health. That is why I am determined to make that difference; and our rough sleeping strategy will make that difference and will make rough sleeping a thing of the past.
UK Shared Prosperity Fund
UK Government Ministers meet the devolved Administrations regularly to discuss EU exit matters, and the UK shared prosperity fund has been discussed several times in those conversations. Discussions have also been held by officials with their counterparts in the devolved Administrations and key external stakeholders.
On 15 November, we were promised details of the replacement for EU structural funds, but more than two months on, groups across the country still have no idea what funding will be available to them after next year. Will the Secretary of State at least assure the House that the Government on this occasion will respect the devolution settlement, and that the Scottish Government’s role in delivering the structural funds will not be subject to a power grab?
The Government will of course respect the devolution settlements in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and we will engage with the devolved Administrations to ensure the fund works for all places across the UK. The hon. Gentleman will be aware of the guarantee that has already been given for structural funds through the 2014 to 2020 allocations, and we will certainly continue to discuss those issues with the devolved Administrations and others.
It is incredibly important that the UK Government do not confine their engagement in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to the devolved Administrations. Will my right hon. Friend reassure me that, in developing the UK shared prosperity fund, they will engage fully with businesses and third sector organisations in those three nations?
We are intending to move forward with the consultation on the UK shared prosperity fund, which will allow everyone to be able to participate—obviously with the devolved Administrations, but with other stakeholders too, as I have indicated—to ensure that this fund is well structured, delivers on the new arrangements for our priorities as the UK as we leave the EU and ensures that those funds are well used.
Has the Secretary of State taken cognisance of the recommendation of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation that the UK Government should at the very least match the £2.4 billion a year that communities across these islands currently receive as a result of EU structural funds?
We will look very carefully at the representations we receive. Obviously, the UK shared prosperity fund is designed to tackle inequalities between communities by raising productivity following our departure from the European Union, harnessing those opportunities and making sure that we have a new fund—according to our own priorities—that is easier to administer and therefore better able to deliver.
I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. For the period 2014 to 2020, Scotland received €476 million from the European regional development fund and €465 million from the European social fund. We are losing this because Scotland is being dragged out of the EU against our will. Will he commit today to matching this at the very least, and will he devolve the shared prosperity fund in full to the Scottish Government?
Obviously, we will consult widely on the UK shared prosperity fund. We still have the spending review to be conducted later this year, but we are determined that, as we leave the European Union, we will have these new funding arrangements in place to deliver for all of our United Kingdom, to raise the sense of opportunity and prosperity, and to make a success.
Housing Ladder: Young People
Since 2010, over 500,000 people have been helped into home ownership through Government-backed schemes, including Help to Buy and right to buy. Our recent evaluation of the Help to Buy equity loan scheme found that 58% of people using the scheme were under 35 years old.
As well as challenges, the Oxfordshire Cotswolds garden village provides a real opportunity for us to have the affordable starter homes that for so long have been lacking in places such as West Oxfordshire. What are Ministers doing to provide district councils such as mine with support to provide the housing mix that our area needs?
I warmly welcome the plans for the homes in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds garden village. My hon. Friend asks about supporting local authorities, and I would say to him that we have abolished the housing revenue account borrowing cap. That, alongside the £9 billion affordable homes programme and the revised national planning policy framework, empowers local authorities to deliver the right mix of homes for their area.
When young people find themselves homeless, they are often sofa surfing and living in risky accommodation because of the lack of council homes. Living in a rented room is more affordable than renting a private flat. Will the Secretary of State say what steps the Government are therefore taking to protect vulnerable young people seeking housing accommodation in houses in multiple occupation?
As the hon. Lady will know, we have raised standards on fitness for human habitation in legislation that was supported across the board, and improved the support to ensure that we have a stronger, more positive private rental sector market. Conversations are continuing, and I recognise the point that she makes about raising standards and ensuring that the sense of opportunity is firmly in place.
For many young people, the biggest obstacle to getting into the housing market is the value of the land. What discussions will the Secretary of State have with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs about grading agricultural land to see if we can utilise some of the less good land for house building? [Interruption.]
Yes, firmly in Cornwall. The national planning policy framework is about empowering some of those local decisions and choices, in Cornwall and elsewhere. I am continuing to discuss how we can have that additionality—that positive benefit that we can unlock from our national environment through our planning work—with colleagues at DEFRA and others across Government.
The Government’s Help to Buy scheme has undoubtedly helped many families on to the housing ladder, but it has also driven many other families off it by pushing up the market price. How do the Government respond to research that suggests that the net impact is at best neutral and probably negative?
No, through our schemes more than half a million households have been helped into home ownership through Help to Buy and right to buy. The number of first-time buyers rose 82% between 2010 and 2017, and we have seen the first sustained rise in home ownership among 25 to 34-year-olds in 30 years. That is a positive step forward, although we know there is more to do. It is through initiatives such as Help to Buy that we are making that difference.
If you are ever thinking of moving, Mr Speaker, do let me know.
Councils across North Yorkshire, such as Richmondshire and Hambleton, are delivering more affordable housing to purchase through the category of discount market sale. What plans does the Secretary of State have to roll this policy out nationally?
I congratulate my hon. Friend on the veritable skills he clearly has in so many different areas, and on championing this particular course of action. It is right to recognise that we have delivered more affordable homes in the last eight years than there were in the last eight years of the last Labour Government. It is the sort of schemes that he identifies that are helping to make that difference, and we are examining carefully how such initiatives can be rolled forward.
The average mortgage for today’s 27-year-old on the Government’s living wage is more than half of their pay packet, but the Government are still allowing “affordable” to be defined as up to £450,000. Why do the Government not take a leaf out of Labour’s book and support our first-buy homes for which mortgages are no more than a third of average income?
I will take no lectures from the Labour party, given that when it was in government it saw house building fall to levels not seen since the 1920s. We are taking various steps to see more homes built and to ensure that people can get on the ladder to fulfil their dreams. That is something that we as a Government are committed to doing.
Local Authority Funding
We are undertaking a review of local authorities’ relative needs and resources to develop a new, more transparent funding formula that will be fit for the future. We are making good progress in collaboration with the sector and recently launched a consultation that will close on 21 February.
This financial year the Government have granted Crawley Borough Council more than £700,000 for homelessness reduction, and this coming financial year it will be more than £800,000. However, the leadership of the council are complaining about a lack of capital funding for a homeless shelter when it has reserves of more than £21 million. Can I have an assurance from the Department that local authorities will be asked to properly deploy their resources to help the most vulnerable?
The people of Crawley are lucky to be represented by someone who had a very successful career in local government. My hon. Friend is excellently well placed to know that any council should look at using its excess reserves first, rather than refusing to invest in local services or unduly increasing the burden on hard-working taxpayers.
This Government support communities that wish to take greater ownership of local decision making. I encourage my hon. Friend and Southport residents to formally petition the council to undertake a community governance review. That will ensure they have the opportunity for their views to be properly considered.
Getting back to helping the most vulnerable, in the consultation document, the Secretary of State proposed to remove deprivation completely as a means of allocating resources from the foundation element of the formula, the non-care element, and rely totally on per capita allocation. Does the Minister not accept that people in the most deprived communities are more likely to use public transport, more likely to need the help of a housing officer and more likely to use council leisure facilities because they cannot afford those in the private sector? If he will not reinstate deprivation as part of the formula, does he accept that the whole review will become known as the very unfair funding review?
This is a consultation, and I would be happy to receive informed opinion from the hon. Gentleman, the Chair of the Select Committee. I would point out, however, that the funding formula covers broadly universal services used by the majority, if not all, of a council’s residents. As we disclosed transparently in the consultation document, population is by far and away the most important factor driving the need for those services. Deprivation was shown to account for less than 4% of the variation in spend in the area.
South Cambridgeshire District Council, deprivation rank 316, has seen a spending power cut of just £21.85 per household this year compared to 2010. Knowsley Council, deprivation rank two, has seen a spending power cut of £1,057 per household, while Hackney, deprivation rank 11, has seen the largest cuts in spending power of £1,406 per household. How is that fair?
There are lies, damned lies and statistics. The Minister cannot get away from the fact that poorer areas are poorer on his watch and that health inequalities are widening on his watch. The situation is set to get worse as he seeks to continue with his reverse redistribution, shifting funds from the poorest communities to some of the wealthiest. Will he now agree, in the interests of transparency, to Labour’s call for the National Audit Office to independently scrutinise the fairness of his so-called fair funding review before it is implemented?
I do not think that I heard a rebuttal of the statistics I outlined. It is clear that the Government are supporting people in every part of the country. We are providing £1 billion of extra funding to deliver social services and a real-terms increase in funding for local government in the next coming year.
Leaseholders: Removal of Dangerous Materials
We have been clear that owners and developers should protect leaseholders from costs. As a result of our action to date, owners and developers have made a commitment to fund the cost of remediation, or have had a warrantee claim accepted, for 80 buildings so far.
Although that is indeed admirable for those leaseholders, my constituents in Premier House in Edgware are still being told by the freeholder of their building that they must pay for the removal of the dangerous cladding. That has resulted in thousands of pounds of costs for legal fees and safety measures, and it has rendered their properties unsaleable. Will the Minister assure me that the Government have a plan B for leaseholders who are held liable for costs? Will she advise me when my constituents can reasonably expect their situation to be resolved?
My hon. Friend will have to excuse me for speaking with my back to him.
My hon. Friend works tirelessly to support the residents of Premier House in Edgware on the removal of cladding. I understand that that case will be brought before a tribunal at the beginning of April. The Government have made it clear that we expect building owners in the private sector to protect leaseholders from remediation costs. A growing list of companies, including Barratt Developments, Mace Group and Legal & General, are doing the right thing and are taking responsibility, and I can announce that Aberdeen Asset Management and Fraser Property have also joined that list. I urge all other owners and developers to follow the lead of those companies. I will consider all other options if they do not do so.
Last week, the Minister told me that the Department is keeping pressure on Ballymore Ltd, following the Secretary of State’s letter of 19 December, for which I am grateful. However, the leaseholders have now received an offer from Ballymore saying that the bill is £2.4 million for fire safety work. They can have half a million pounds off, but they must pay the rest. That offer is only open until 31 March. What more can the Department do to help my constituents? Time is clearly running out.
Local Authorities: Vulnerable Children
Local authorities have been given access to more than £46 billion for the forthcoming year. That funding is largely unring-fenced, so councils can spend it on children’s services as they see fit. I am pleased that the number of local authorities whose children’s services are ranked good or outstanding is continuing to increase.
More than 50,000 British-born children with parents legally in the UK are denied access to central Government support under pernicious Home Office rules. Councils are then forced to step in to provide emergency support through children’s social services. London councils spend £53 million on that, and there is no recourse to public funds. Last year, my council spent £6.5 million. When will Ministers end their wilful blindness to the penury that the policy causes and stand up for councils in the face of this blatant Home Office cost-shunt?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. We engage with the Home Office regularly to deal with the funds for unaccompanied asylum seekers and other such people. I am happy to realise that issue in the next of my regular meetings with the Immigration Minister.
Permitted development rights have been a disaster for my consistency of Harlow, as London councils have socially cleansed their residents and sent 400 troubled families to our constituency. We do not have the resources to look after them in the way they should be. Will my hon. Friend look at permitted development rights, undertake a review and ensure Harlow Council has the resources it needs to look after those 400 extra troubled families?
Thank you, Mr Speaker. I was frantically trying to think of a question when you called me just now. I refer Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
The number of children in need is up, the number of looked-after children is up and the numbers of child protection plans and child conferences are up, yet the Government grant has gone down. This year, children’s services face a £1 billion funding gap—£3 billion by 2024-25—and the Local Government Association, the Children’s Commissioner, Action for Children and our councils have all warned that children will be at risk. So where’s the money?
The hon. Gentleman should know that last year £1 billion more was spent on children’s services than when we came into office and that the recent Budget announced an extra £420 million that could be spent on children’s services. Government Members are, however, concerned with outcomes, not just the amount of money we plough into things, which is why the Department for Education is working closely with the best-performing areas to spread best practice across the country.
Ongoing discussions before the autumn Budget led to the Government announcing £420 million of additional funding for highways authorities to fill potholes and carry out other works. The Conservatives: the party of filling the many potholes, not the few.
The national problem of potholes has been caused by this Government and their 50% cut to local government funding for tackling it. While the new money is welcome, it is a drop in the ocean. North-east councils alone need £1 billion to sort out their pothole problem. Will the Minister press the Chancellor for more?
Cycling UK estimates that it costs an average of £53 to fill a pothole, so the money announced at the last Budget in the north-east alone is enough to fill over 400,000 potholes. Rather than complaining about it, perhaps it is time those north-east councils got on with it.
Potholes are not a joke for cyclists; many are killed on our roads every year. The roads in Britain are becoming more dangerous, and our very good record in road safety is being lost to other countries. Is it not about time the Minister talked to the Home Secretary and others not only about potholes but about the number of police on our roads catching people who break the law?
I am about to pick up my new bicycle tomorrow, so the issue of potholes is close to my heart. The Government are working cross-departmentally to tackle the problem, which is why we have created this £420 million fund—to fill potholes up and down the England.
New Homes for Social Rent
The Government’s pledge to replace homes sold under the council right to buy scheme has been a failure, with only one home being built for every four sold. Why should anyone believe that things will be different when it is extended to housing association tenants? Is it not time to suspend right to buy?
There are plenty of signs that the Labour party is detaching itself from its historic supporter base, but one of the saddest is its inability to grasp the aspiration of working families to own their own home. The concerted attack on one of the most popular policies of the past 30 years—the right to buy—is a very sad spectacle. I am perfectly willing to acknowledge that the one-for-one replacement policy has not been sufficient to provide the number of social homes the country needs, and we are reviewing that policy at the same time as taking the cap off the housing revenue account and allowing councils, which frankly were induced out of council house building by the Labour Government, to get on and build the new generation of social homes.
Our excellent Housing Minister will know that parishes and towns with neighbourhood plans in place will have 15% more houses built as a result. He may also be aware that they are quite cumbersome to put in place. Does he have plans to make them easier to deliver, and will he hear representations from my parishes of Ticehurst, Robertsbridge and Salehurst about how they can be delivered a lot faster?
I was wondering who my hon. Friend was referring to then—I thank him for that compliment. As somebody who represents a beautiful part of the country, he has long been a champion of local people ceasing to be victims of the planning system and taking control of it themselves, and he is quite right that neighbourhood plans are the way to do that. From my own experience in my constituency, I have been concerned that they take some time and effort to put in place. We are reviewing what we can do to smooth their passage, and we have some funding available to assist in that, but I would be more than happy to meet him and take representations from him and his constituents.
City of York Council has presided over a net loss of social housing, and, according to a report published today by Centre for Cities, its level of house building has been one of the worst in the country. We have a serious housing crisis. What steps will the Minister take to ensure that our Tory and Liberal Democrat-controlled council builds the housing that is so desperately needed in our city?
As I hope the hon. Lady knows, we have set aside significant resources to help councils achieve their housing aspirations. We will be helping with infrastructure and providing other assistance to help them over the line. Critical to that, however, is ensuring that they have a local plan. I am sure that the coalition that is in control of City of York Council would welcome the hon. Lady’s participation in their creation of such a plan, rather than her antagonism towards it.
Park Home Residents
The Government are committed to ensuring that park home residents are better protected. We have set out a range of measures to review the park home legislation and tackle the abuse and financial exploitation of residents. New legislation will be introduced when parliamentary time allows.
Residents of leisure park homes in my constituency appear to have been mis-sold their properties by rogue site owners, and they are now vulnerable to exploitative charges and intimidation. Will my hon. Friend consider extending the provisions of the Mobile Homes Act 2013 to give leisure home owners more rights and protections, and will she take a broader look at the mis-selling and misuse of leisure homes?
My hon. Friend has been a thorough champion on behalf of residents of leisure park homes. The situation is iniquitous. The Mobile Homes Act applies to residents of sites with residential planning permission, but leisure home owners are protected under consumer rights legislation. My Department is working with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, which is responsible for consumer issues, to better communicate those protections to leisure home owners. I look forward to meeting my hon. Friend shortly to discuss the matter again.
New House Building
As many Members will know, my mantra is “More, better, faster”, and we are very keen to accelerate the delivery of housing. Across England, house building is at its highest level in all but one of the last 31 years. We are going further by streamlining the planning system, creating more certainty for developers and local communities and looking at the recommendations of the build-out review conducted by my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Sir Oliver Letwin).
There have been some real delays in the Shropshire planning authority. What is the Minister doing to give Shropshire Council more resources so that it can attract more and better-qualified staff to streamline the planning process? This is starting to be a real problem.
I applaud my hon. Friend’s impatience to build more new homes in his constituency. He recognises that the next generation of Salopians would welcome the provision of those homes as soon as possible. We have already given local authorities a 20% uplift in planning fees, and we have consulted on further resources in the past, but I have given a public commitment that if it becomes clear that resources in planning departments are a constraint, we shall be more than happy to talk to our Treasury colleagues about what more can be done.
It is always a pleasure to be greeted by impatient Members who, as I say, want more housing for the next generation. My hon. Friend is right: we need to constantly examine the effect of the planning system on the production of new homes. As he says, we issued a new planning framework back in July. We are carefully assessing the impact of those policies, but if my hon. Friend has useful and constructive suggestions, I shall be more than happy to hear them.
The Government’s expansion of permitted development rights has caused multiple problems across the country. Such developments make no section 106 contributions towards new social housing. There are reports of homes of appalling quality, with children forced to play in car parks on industrial estates, and of homes in some areas being used only for short-term holiday lets, while developments in other areas are causing the loss of valuable employment space. Last week, the permanent secretary confirmed to the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee that the Government had undertaken no evaluation of this policy. Will the Secretary of State call time on the policy, so that a full evaluation of the impacts can be undertaken?
We will not call time on a policy that has produced tens of thousands of homes for people who need them. We are aware that there have been some difficulties with properties converted under permitted development rights, but we are not entirely sure that local authorities are using the tools at their disposal to make sure that standards are maintained. However, as I said earlier, we keep all our policies under constant review and I would be more than happy to look at specific situations if the hon. Lady wishes to raise them.
Bristol was one of the sites for the first ever council houses built under the Addison Act 100 years ago—in Hillfields in my constituency. We are now building council homes again, but nobody from the Department has been prepared to come for our centenary celebrations this year—you have turned down the invites. May I ask why?
Will my hon. Friend the Minister pay tribute to the work of Homes England in its support for Mid Sussex District Council in providing the key that will open the development of 4,000 new houses in Burgess Hill? Will he see what further work Homes England, in its very constructive approach, can adopt to deliver more new housing?
My right hon. Friend is to be admired in displaying yet more impatience for homes to be built, and he is right that the newly revamped Homes England is an impressive and entrepreneurial organisation which is using its skills to unlock sites across the country. In the six months that I have been in this job, I have been impressed by its work and I am now busy touring sites, as I was in Poole in Dorset, where it is applying its skills and industry to unlock precisely the kind of problem that he talked about.
There is a three-year period for a one-to-one replacement to start at a site, but what is the average time for completion of one-to-one replacements? Of the one-to-one replacements that the Government say are in progress, how many are actually occupied?
I am afraid I am going to fail the hon. Gentleman: I do not have that precise number at my fingertips at the moment. But I am more than happy to write to him about it. He will know, however, that we have consulted on changes to the one-to-one replacement policy and we will be coming forward with a response, and hopefully improvements, soon.
Private Parking Sector
The Government fully support the Parking (Code of Practice) Bill of my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Sir Greg Knight). It will create an independent code of practice for private parking companies and deliver robust accountability, providing a much better deal for motorists.
I was pleased to support and sit on the Committee for the Parking (Code of Practice) Bill, which my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire so expertly steered through Parliament, but parking scams have been operating in Clacton for many years and it is literally driving my constituents around the bend; they want a solution. When this Bill completes its journey and receives Royal Assent, how quickly can it be implemented?
I thank my hon. Friend for his work on the Committee and for highlighting his constituents’ problems. I am pleased to tell him that I have already placed a draft outline of the code in the House of Commons Library and as soon as Royal Assent is achieved a full code will be issued for formal statutory consultation.
The current system is one of self-regulation and, sadly, the behaviour of some rogue operators using questionable or intimidating practices means that change is required and we must act. The new code will mean consistency and higher standards for parkers and will ensure that rogue operators are driven out of business.
My constituents—particularly disabled constituents and those, for example, attending hospital appointments—also suffer from punitive cowboy parking operators. What efforts can be made in the code to give special protection to them?
Local Government Funding: Low-income Families
The Government regularly publish analysis of the impact of changes in funding on households of different income. Next year’s local government settlement sees a real-terms increase in funding and beyond that there is a range of council tax support schemes to assist those with low incomes.
Up until now, Ealing Council has ring-fenced child and youth services, but seven of its 13 libraries and 11 children’s centres are on a hit list for community management, which many see as the slippery slope to closure. The council says that it has been forced to do that because it only has 36p in every pound that it used to have. Will the Minister help to match up social enterprise buyers with these services, which help so many low-income families? Better still, when will the Government properly fund local authorities, as the age of austerity is meant to be over?
Having campaigned for it, I am delighted that the Secretary of State has approved a new business rates retention pilot from Northamptonshire that is anticipated to lever in an additional £17 million for local services. What difference does he believe this will make for frontline services in the county?
I am delighted that Northamptonshire will benefit from the new business rate pilot. Of course, that money can be used by the councils, working together to invest in the future prosperity of their communities. Beyond that, it promotes cultural change to ensure that all local areas have a stake in the economic future of their community.
I welcome the cross-Government work on this issue. As the House knows, a couple of years ago the Government announced the £15 million annual tampon tax fund to support women’s charities. There are no current plans to provide extra money to local authorities, but of course the Government keep that under review.
Business Rates Relief Scheme
Working with Sir John Timpson before the Budget, we set out the action plan to support the transformation of high streets. That included a business rate discount of some £900 million for eligible retailers and a £675 million future high street fund.
I am grateful to the Minister for the answer. I recently visited a new start-up in my high street that runs escape rooms and panic rooms—I commend them to the Prime Minister. They do not qualify for small business rate relief and will not qualify for the retail discount as they are deemed a leisure business. Is it possible that small business rate relief can be extended to such innovators on our high streets to ease the pressure as they start up their businesses?
Rough Sleepers: Cold Weather Accommodation
The severe weather emergency protocol provision ensures that people sleeping rough are provided with emergency shelter during cold weather. Alongside the £30 million rough sleeping initiative funding for 2018-19, we have launched a £5 million cold weather fund to help authorities to provide additional emergency and longer-term accommodation this winter.
I thank the Minister for that answer. New Life Church, together with North Lincolnshire Council, is providing temporary support for people in really bad weather. Good work is also being done locally with the Forge project. What will the Government do to ensure that such projects continue into the future to help homeless people?
Local councils will play an important role in supporting communities as we leave the EU, and I am committed to working with them to ensure that they are prepared to respond to any Brexit scenarios. I can therefore confirm that local authorities will receive an extra £56.5 million to help them with their Brexit preparations and to help deliver essential services and keep residents well informed. We also remain in close contact with local councils through our rough sleeping initiative to support some of the most vulnerable in our society and help them to get the support they need.
Yesterday, Members across the House remembered Holocaust Memorial Day. I had the privilege to attend the incredibly moving national commemoration of those who lost their lives in the holocaust and subsequent genocides. Those dark events of the past call on us all to confront racism, bigotry and hatred wherever it may occur and to stand up for tolerance, reconciliation and stronger communities.
Councils in deprived areas such as mine are desperately scrambling to find the funds to meet their needs while facing almost double the spending cuts of the least-deprived area. The Minister says that this is about population, but London is home to 16% of the population and has suffered 30% of the cuts. This Government still favour wealthy areas over poor ones. Is that because they are mostly Tory areas?
The hon. Lady should look at the settlement that we have provided, which involves an extra £1 billion for local government across the board. Indeed, it represents a real-terms increase that is intended to make a real difference to how we support councils to meet pressures and challenges.
Embedding residential communities on our high streets is part of the future health of the high street, and I will with pleasure meet my hon. Friend and representatives from his constituency to take the discussions forward.
I share the hon. Gentleman’s passion for ensuring that councils have adequate early intervention services. I have been championing the troubled families programme since I arrived in this job, and I would be delighted to hear from him and others about how best to ensure that a successor programme is available to councils.
We absolutely support the role of rural post offices, particularly as a hub at the heart of our communities. That is why the most recent Budget cut business rates for most small post offices, and through our support for “Pub is The Hub” we have helped post offices move into people’s locals. Pints and parcels, Mr Speaker.
It was a pleasure to meet the hon. Gentleman and his constituent, who made a powerful and compelling case for Government action. I am pleased to tell him and all campaigners that we will outline the consultation before the Easter recess to take this important measure forward, and I look forward to his contribution.
My hon. Friend is continually effective in bringing the issues of his constituency to this House. He will know that I am unable to comment on a specific neighbourhood plan, but I confirm to him that planning policy is clear that planning done through neighbourhood plans should be safe and should take coastal change into account.
How typical it is of the Labour party to measure success only by what is put in. We believe in the northern powerhouse, which is about creating a growing northern economy. We have created 200,000 jobs since 2010, we have created an historic mayoral devolution deal, including across Liverpool, and foreign direct investment in the north is growing at twice the national rate. Our approach has grown the northern economy by £22 billion in two years; the approach of the last Labour Government grew it by £4 billion in three years.
I note my hon. Friend’s experience of this, and we are working carefully across the board to implement the Hackitt review to ensure that building safety standards are raised. Indeed, we are currently consulting on approved document B. We are looking at continuing experience and, if there is experience from Scotland, we will certainly reflect on that, too.
Today’s Centre for Cities report is absolutely devastating, highlighting that cuts have fallen hardest on deprived communities in the north of England—including Liverpool—that are enduring the highest poverty rates. It is very disappointing to see the Minister grimacing and laughing, because this is a very serious matter for the communities we represent. Does he agree with the conclusion of the Centre for Cities that the Treasury review of public spending, which is due for the autumn, must find extra funding for all councils if authorities are to remain sustainable?
Issues of future funding are, of course, for the Treasury. As someone who was born and bred in the city of Liverpool, I delight every time I visit to see that this Government’s mayoral devolution is driving Liverpool’s economy in a way that we have not seen for a generation.
My hon. Friend is to be applauded for the constant pressure he keeps up on the Government on safety issues. He is right that we are looking at the introduction of carbon monoxide detectors. We have gathered evidence, which we are looking at, and we will be coming forward with a response shortly.
We had two debates in the Chamber last week on dangerous cladding, which shows the incompleteness of the Government’s response. Can we have a comprehensive strategy from the Government this year that deals with all types of building, all types of cladding and all types of landlord?
We provide regular updates that specify the work taking place through the remediation programme to deal with this very serious issue of combustible cladding. The hon. Gentleman will well know the work that is in place, both in the public sector and in the private sector, but I underline to him the urgency I attach to this and how I am not keeping anything out of consideration in making sure that people are safe and feel safe.
I understand the desire to build a lot of new homes, but I share the concern of many of my constituents that this could lead to large housing developments of identikit houses. What steps is my right hon. Friend taking to enable small builders to bid for smaller areas of development? That would support our excellent small builders and encourage a more beautiful built environment.
I recognise and appreciate my hon. Friend’s championing of good design and the sense of place and space, which is something the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission firmly intends to achieve. We have specific funding to support small builders so that we can have a strong, diverse economy in housing.
As the Under-Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond (Yorks) (Rishi Sunak) said, we are consulting on the fair funding review in setting out that new arrangement for local government. As he has already set out, that is a means of ensuring that spending is felt effectively and fairly across the country and there are different ways of doing that.
On council tax and rent to be paid during the migration period of universal credit, will the Minister confirm that local authorities will be asked to take into account these exceptional circumstances and provide leeway when tenants fall behind on payments?
We are working closely with colleagues at the Department for Work and Pensions on the implementation of universal credit, issues relating to housing and the connection that local government has on the frontline in the delivery of these issues. We are therefore ensuring that this will be done effectively, as my hon. Friend appropriately says.
This Government are committed to ensuring that every resident in this country gets the funding they need to have the services they deserve. The upcoming fair funding review is based on transparent, simple analytics and I am happy to hear from any colleagues if they disagree with the numbers.
Residents across my constituency and beyond are extremely concerned about the Rivenhall incinerator development, which was originally approved by the last Labour Government. With revised planning applications being considered, will the Secretary of State listen to my constituents and act by calling this application in?
I note the way in which my right hon. Friend is championing her constituents in her customary powerful and passionate way. She will understand, on the issue of calling in, that this is quasi-judicial and I am therefore unable to comment. However, I note the way in which she has championed the cause.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. Can the Secretary of State tell me whether any assessment has been made of the number of homeless people who have a history of special educational needs that may not have been appropriately supported in the past?
I recognise the hon. Lady’s own experience in raising that issue, some of the background, some of the challenges and some of the issues that may have led to someone falling through the gap and ending up on the street. We are determined to get better data and better analysis, so that we can provide more targeted help. That is precisely what we are committed to doing through the rough sleeping strategy.
Residents of Goxhill in my constituency are mindful that the village needs to expand and that new homes are needed, but does the Minister agree that local authorities and planning inspectors need to be mindful of the fact that there must be a limit on new homes in villages?
Goxhill is lucky to have such an assiduous representative in my hon. Friend. I agree with him that we need to balance the aspiration for new homes for the next generation against the need for sensitive and appropriate development. I urge him to work with the residents of Goxhill to put in place a neighbourhood plan, which would mean that they would no longer be victims of the planning system, but its bosses.
The Secretary of State will know that the battering of Birmingham next year will be all the more severe for his decision to rule out access to the council’s reserves. Birmingham’s MPs have written to him to ask for a meeting. When he finally wrote back, he refused to meet. May I say to him that he can take these decisions but it is incumbent on him to front them up to Members of this House?
I say to the right hon. Gentleman that I am happy to meet him and his colleagues because, obviously, I am focused on ensuring sustainability and stability in the finances in Birmingham. We took that decision carefully and in a considered way, but I recognise the points he makes and I am happy to meet him.
Last week, hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans took to the streets to protest against Nicolás Maduro’s continued presidency, after deeply flawed elections last May and his unmerited re-inauguration earlier this month. Those demonstrations were the latest of many that have taken place over the past two years, and represent what can be interpreted only as a cry for change in a country that has been rendered destitute by Maduro and his cronies. Venezuela is becoming a state that is run by cartels and criminal gangs. We know that it harbours groups such as the ELN—the National Liberation Army—that threaten to destabilise Colombia’s hard-won peace agreement, and increase the threat of terrorism and the proliferation of weapons and drugs. The bomb attack in Bogotá last week was perhaps a recent example of just that.
Last Wednesday, on 23 January, Juan Guaidó, the president of the Opposition-controlled and democratically elected National Assembly, condemned the illegitimacy of Maduro’s regime and declared himself, under the Venezuelan constitution, the interim President. Within 24 hours, regional countries from the Lima Group and the Organisation of American States, along with the United States and Canada, had declared their support, recognising Mr Guaidó as the interim President. The EU also issued a statement saying that the voice of the Venezuelan people could not be ignored, and called for new credible elections to take place.
On 24 January, the Foreign Secretary made it clear, in a statement made in Washington ahead of his meeting with US Vice-President Pence, that we no longer regard Maduro as the legitimate leader of Venezuela. On Saturday, I attended an emergency UN Security Council meeting in New York, where I said that we believe that Juan Guaidó is the right man to take Venezuela forward and that we will recognise him as constitutional interim President if new elections are not announced within eight days. This is a position shared by the French, German, Spanish and Dutch Governments. On 26 January, the EU also called for the urgent holding of free, transparent and credible presidential elections in accordance with international democratic standards and the Venezuelan constitutional order. We are in close consultation with our EU and international partners on this issue, and the Foreign Secretary will discuss Venezuela with EU Foreign Ministers later this week in Bucharest.
The UK and our partners cannot and will not stand by and allow the tyranny of Maduro’s regime to continue. He has caused endless suffering and oppression to millions of his own people. He has grossly mismanaged the economy for his own benefit, and his regime stands accused of serious crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court. Alongside others in the international community, we must urgently help to pave the way to a brighter future for the Venezuela that Maduro has so culpably ruined. We stand shoulder to shoulder with the United States and other allies in saying that the National Assembly and its president, Mr Juan Guaidó, are best placed to lead Venezuela to the restoration of its democracy, its economy and its freedom.
Venezuela should be one of the richest democratic countries in South America and the world. It has the largest proven oil reserves of any country, with 297 million barrels—more, even, than Saudi Arabia. It also has an educated population and large areas of arable land, yet today there is mass poverty and the economy has collapsed under the rule of the United Socialist party. The daughter of the late President Hugo Chávez, María Gabriela Chávez, is the country’s richest woman, with an estimated worth of $4.2 billion.
The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation says that there are 4.1 million people with malnutrition in Venezuela. The Catholic charity Caritas says that 41% of Venezuelans are now feeding on waste in markets. There is a shortage of medicines, including vital antibiotics for children, and blood banks are collapsing. Two thirds of buses in Caracas are out of action because there are no spare parts. An estimated 1 million people have sought refuge in neighbouring Colombia.
The economic collapse, as the Minister says, is a direct result of the corrupt, incompetent, kleptocratic regime of Nicolás Maduro. The Democratic Unity Roundtable coalition won the National Assembly elections in November 2015. It is a centre-left alliance, including two Socialist International member parties, the Popular Will and A New Era. It won 112 out of 167 seats, and that should have led to the end of 16 years of PSUV rule, but it did not. Maduro refused to co-operate and doubled down on his repression, and the country continued its economic collapse. The rigged presidential re-election has rightly been criticised by international observers. The decision by National Assembly president Juan Guaidó to be declared interim President is correct—it is a game-changer. So far, as has been said, that has been recognised internationally by many countries, and to that list, I add Australia and Israel, which have also done so recently.
The people of Venezuela do not need the weasel words of a letter to The Guardian, from assorted Stalinists, Trotskyists, antisemites and, apparently, dead people, and also from members of Labour’s Front Bench. What they need is our solidarity with the legitimate, elected, social democratic president of the National Assembly: interim President of Venezuela, Juan Guaidó. The European Union has called for credible elections, but Nicolás Maduro has already rejected that. What humanitarian assistance will we give to people in Colombia? What steps will we take within the UN? What further action can we take with the European Union? And when will our Government recognise Juan Guaidó as the President of Venezuela?
Order. These are most serious matters. I know that the hon. Gentleman will take it in good heart when I say that he is deeply versed in the history of Stalinism and Trotskyism, as many Members of the House can testify, because they have heard him expatiate on the subject, usually one to one, over many years, but I notice that he did manage to include in his oration two or three questions right at the end. The normal form in an urgent question is to make a brief commentary followed by a series of inquiries. I have a sense that he was perhaps slightly more interested in what he had to say to the House than in what the Minister might have to say to him, but we shall see.
May I profoundly thank the hon. Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes) for enabling this urgent question to be discussed today in the House? I also thank him for his knowledge of, and passion and concern for, Venezuela, which we admire. They are, I can tell, widely shared across the House, except in some corners of it, which is, I think, to be deplored.
The hon. Gentleman is right that Venezuela should be pretty well the richest country in Latin America. It used to be, and it could be still. He painted an accurate picture of the human misery that has been caused by what he describes as the corrupt, incompetent and kleptocratic regime of Nicolás Maduro.
The National Assembly, which was elected, is legitimate, but as soon as it won and had a majority against Maduro, Maduro trumped it with the fake election of a Constituent Assembly, which he deemed, against the words of the Venezuelan constitution, to be more powerful than the National Assembly. The world knows that the National Assembly is legitimate, and the Constituent Assembly, and hence the subsequent flawed election of Nicolás Maduro, is not legitimate. As the hon. Gentleman rightly says, we should all be saddened that, in our midst, there are people who still seem to have sympathy for the regime of Nicolás Maduro despite what it has done to poor people. It has made them not just poorer but destitute, and, in many cases, has forced them to flee. Let the signatories of that letter in The Guardian today be pinned on every wall as a list of signatures of shame.
I pay enormous tribute to my colleague on the Foreign Affairs Committee, the hon. Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes), whose voice of clarity in this House has been missing for some time on the question of Venezuela. I also pay tribute to the Minister, whose work at the United Nations in co-ordinating a joint response against tyranny has been so essential. Does he agree that those Members who side with the despots and the dictators against the democrats and the free people should be ashamed of themselves? This is appeasement. This is wrong: it is a crime and it cries out for justice. Thank God we have the Minister in his place, and no one else.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. As Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, he has been following the situation closely, as have all members of that Committee. I am pleased to say that I am not the only one who is doing what he says. The entire Government are, and I sense that our view is shared by many Opposition Members.
We have clear opinions about what the plight of the Venezuelan people is, but some say that our concern is based on a colonial mentality. It most certainly is not; it is based on genuine concern for the plight of millions who have had their faces driven into the dirt by Maduro. The steps that may have to be taken are based on law, and we are looking at the legitimacy of their Government, not just our view of the state of the people.
Thank you for granting this urgent question, Mr Speaker. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes) for securing it.
Last Saturday, I condemned Venezuela as one of those countries where democracy has ceased to function in any meaningful way. Sadly, what we have seen over the past week has simply confirmed what I said then. The political, economic and humanitarian crisis in Venezuela is totally dire and will get ever worse as long as the Maduro Government continue to ignore human rights, free speech and the rule of law. What the Venezuelan people need instead is a Government who respect the rule of law, and uphold human rights and democracy—a Government who understand the scale of the crisis they face and who have a clear plan to resolve that crisis. Judging by their record in recent years, the Maduro Government fit none of those descriptions.
I also believe that it is a mistake in such situations simply to think that every problem will be automatically solved by changing the leader, let alone the kind of US-led intervention being threatened by Donald Trump and John Bolton. Instead, if we all genuinely believe in resolving the crisis in Venezuela and in restoring peace, democracy and stability, I hope that the Minister will agree that our chief priorities should be encouraging all parties to engage in dialogue, working towards a peaceful resolution and, ultimately, allowing the Venezuelan people themselves to decide the way forward through the holding of new free and fair elections.
The Minister will be aware that, across the Caribbean sea in Honduras, there were similar violent protests this weekend against another repressive, authoritarian Government who abuse human rights and jail their opponents. But our Government do not criticise them; instead, they sell them arms and surveillance equipment. Only two months ago, they sent them what the Foreign Office boasted was
“the most senior British trade mission in…years”.
Will the Minister tell us why this double standard exists and why the Government are not consistent in their condemnation of all Governments who abuse human rights?
May I, at the very least, welcome the right hon. Lady’s condemnation of the Maduro regime? In that, at least, we find common ground, which I hope can be shared across the House. I am only sorry that it is not even shared across her own Front Benchers, as it is quite clear that the sympathies of the shadow Chancellor are at odds with the tone of her contribution to these proceedings.
This is not just about changing the leader, as the right hon. Lady put it; it is about applying the proper constitution of Venezuela, which is why the legitimate claimant to the presidency has been very careful to describe himself as the interim President, which is exactly what is stated in the constitution. On the back of that he, like every right thinking person, is calling for prompt fair and free elections so that the people of Venezuela can properly elect the leader they want to govern them.
The catastrophe that has befallen Venezuela under Maduro—cheered on, incidentally, by the Leader of the Opposition, his chief lieutenant and various other Poundland Lenins—has led to the ruin of a nation. Does the Minister agree that we must take the greatest care that such ruin never happens here?
I certainly share the opinions of my right hon. Friend in all senses. The sympathies of the Leader of the Opposition with the likes of Maduro are very distressing. Clearly, in terms of his sentiment, he finds himself more in line with Cuba, China and Russia than he does with all democrats across the world.
I thank the hon. Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes) for bringing this urgent question to the House and the Minister for his statement.
We would like to reflect the calls of the Minister and of Federica Mogherini that democracy cannot and should not be ignored. There is a desperate need for free and fair elections. We condemn the violence and we condemn the regime carrying out the violence. That has also been condemned by Amnesty International, and we would do well to reflect on its remarks. Venezuela should be a wealthy country, yet so many people have been left in dire poverty.
Let me say to the Minister—I am glad that he reflected on this, as did the hon. Member for Ilford South—that we cannot ignore the humanitarian situation and the millions of refugees, with 1 million, as the Minister rightly said, in Colombia alone, which is going through its own peace process at the moment. How are we working with our European partners, in particular, and what is our long-term strategy in terms of free and fair elections and standing up to this regime? Will the Minister set out his response to the unfolding humanitarian crisis, as some humanitarian organisations are concerned that that has been lagging a little bit in the past?
May I thank the hon. Gentleman for—if I may put it this way—the responsible nature of his questions and observations? I had a very extensive conversation on Friday evening with High Representative Federica Mogherini on exactly his question. We obviously want to see the maximum possible unity between the views of the Lima Group, the Organisation of American States, the United States and the EU. The EU, of course, has many citizens living in Venezuela and therefore has a direct interest in the plight of that country.
As the hon. Gentleman rightly says, those who have left Venezuela are in staggering numbers: well over 1 million have gone to Colombia; well over 1 million to Peru; nearly half a million each to Ecuador, Argentina and Chile; and 180,000 to Brazil. This is the biggest movement of population we have ever seen in Latin America, certainly of those caused by one person’s bad government rather than some kind of drought, famine or natural disaster. As I said, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary will speak at length to EU colleagues in Bucharest on Thursday, when he will be at the Gymnich meeting, and we will do all we can to make sure that there is unity of approach should the eight days not be met with a promise of having elections from President Maduro.
Our thoughts must be with the people of Venezuela at this extremely difficult time, and they must also be with our embassy staff. Caracas is already a very dangerous capital. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that everything will be done to ensure their safety? Furthermore, will he look at reinstating the Foreign Office budget that allowed regional ambassadors to meet in the region at least twice a year so that they can come up with a better co-ordinated response? This budget was cut and I believe that that should be revisited.
My right hon. Friend was a very distinguished Minister for the region when he was himself in the Foreign Office, and he knows an enormous amount about the subject. I can assure him and the House that I have been in regular contact with our excellent ambassador in Caracas, Andrew Soper. I am confident that, certainly at the moment, their wellbeing is fine and that they are not under threat. That must remain the case, of course. In terms of the budget, we are of course looking at where we will be when we leave the European Union, and Latin America is a very important focus for many of the bilateral and regional relationships that we want to develop and enhance.
I was appalled by the letter in The Guardian this morning, but more importantly, it was factually incorrect. America still buys 500,000 barrels of oil a day from Venezuela and props up the economy. It could withdraw from that, but has declined to do so because it would have an impact on the Venezuelan people.
I am concerned about the 4 million migrants, half of whom are children. I think that Members will be deeply concerned about their welfare, because they are destitute and struggling in the countries that the Minister has named. I have written to him many times since we came back from the summer recess about what the United Kingdom is doing. We are organising nothing; we are not involved in anything. Ministers come to the Dispatch Box with warm words, but it appears from the replies that he has given to me that our aid programme is no more than £10.2 million. When are the Government going to step up to the plate and look after these vulnerable people whom we should be looking after and caring for?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his concern for those who have fled. We have to recognise the extraordinary generosity of the neighbours of Venezuela, who have had to take these people on. Our scope to do an enormous amount is limited, in that we have to work largely through multilateral organisations, as this is not an area in which the Department for International Development has had much historical involvement. We cannot just turn that on a sixpence, as I well know from my time in DFID, but the UK always steps up to the plate when it comes to helping people who are in trouble. Most of all, we should applaud countries such as Colombia that have welcomed well over 1 million refugees and ensured that they have been able safely to escape the perils of remaining in Venezuela.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes) on securing the urgent question. Maduro is presiding over a corrupt regime after rigged elections and is inflicting misery on his own people. He has no legitimacy. While the shadow Foreign Secretary suggests that recognising the democratically elected president of the National Assembly, Juan Guaidó, would be interventionist, does the Minister agree that these exceptional circumstances merit such an approach if no free and fair elections are forthcoming, not least because of the intensity of the human tragedy that is unfolding and the rigged elections that the presidency of Maduro is based on?
I totally agree with the hon. Lady. What the Venezuelan people have had to suffer at the hands of Maduro is beyond contempt. Across the Floor of the House, we all believe that it is very important to champion human rights. I remind those who think that it is appropriate to support Venezuela at the moment on the one hand, and then on the other believe that they are also champions of human rights, that it is Venezuela’s neighbours who have referred not only the person but the entire state, for the first time ever, to the International Criminal Court, citing 8,000 extrajudicial executions, 12,000 arbitrary arrests and 13,000 political prisoners in custody. If people want to champion Venezuela, they are also championing that, and they should be ashamed of themselves.
I have been listening carefully to these exchanges because I visited Venezuela quite frequently until about 10 years ago. I remember it as a very attractive place with a rapidly emerging economy and a reasonably democratic constitution. Does my right hon. Friend share my slight trepidation and sense of powerlessness about exactly what the United Kingdom and our various allies are going to do? When he is consulting with the United States and the European Union, will he advise against just imposing more economic sanctions, which will cause even more poverty to the population of Venezuela, probably without moving the Maduro Government unduly? Will he consider targeted sanctions aimed at shifting the military elite, who are obviously solely responsible for keeping this dreadful Government in power? Will he consult not only the European Union and the United States, but friendly countries in the rest of Latin America? Governments such as that of Colombia will be the best guides to what might be done to change something in this completely failed and disgraceful regime.
As usual, my right hon. and learned Friend offers the House some very wise advice and guidance, and I am able to say yes to pretty much everything he said. First, when it comes to sanctions, it is important to target individuals rather than cause increased pain to the citizens of Venezuela. On the other hand, most of the money that goes in gets stolen anyway and goes to the elite, so although one might think that sanctions would in normal circumstances often cause more damage to the country, they in fact do more broadly target the elite.
When it comes to talking to Venezuela’s neighbours, that is exactly what we in the Government and I personally have been doing for well over a year. The Lima Group, which is championed, as the name suggests, by the Foreign Minister of Peru, have been acting very closely together, and they are the ones that have been very tough on Venezuela—in some cases, removing ambassadors and calling for early elections and the removal of Maduro—and we are talking to them. It is from Venezuela’s regional neighbours that we perhaps take our most detailed steer and guidance in knowing how to approach this very difficult issue.
The Maduro regime has clearly been a disaster for the people of Venezuela, with the humanitarian catastrophe, as we have heard, and the appalling abuses of human rights documented by Amnesty International and others. I agree that pressing for fresh, free and fair elections must be our priority, but may I urge the Government to tread carefully in how we get there? Let us be honest, United States interference in Latin American countries has a pretty tragic and troubled history. Surely it is best for us to pursue the correct objective of seeking fresh elections via negotiation and mediation first.
Yes, I think pressure is also needed to bring about those elections, which is why countries across the world are working very closely together. I think the unity of opinion among such a broad collection of different regions—America, including Canada; the EU; and the immediate neighbours—has the same view. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that we should be cautious, because the narrative of US interference in Latin America can stir up counterproductive voices. At the moment, what we want to do is solve the problem, rather than relive some of the difficulties of decades ago.
It is only two weeks since the BBC 2 film “Revolution in Ruins”, on the legacy of Hugo Chavez, was broadcast, previewing what became worse with Maduro. Will my right hon. Friend invite the socialists who had the letter in The Guardian to come and see him to get them to explain whether they think things went wrong because of the personalities of Chavez and Maduro, or because of the policies and practices followed by those two Presidents?
Tempted though I am by my hon. Friend’s suggestion that I should meet the signatories, it is a temptation I will choose to resist. Instead, I might send them the speech I gave in Chatham House last November about Venezuela so that they can learn a little bit more about history than they could perhaps impart to me.