House of Commons
Monday 8 April 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—
Leaving the EU: Local Authority Funding
We have made £58 million available to support local authorities’ preparations for Brexit, and £20 million has already been distributed to all local authorities in England to undertake preparatory work, with another £20 million to follow. Also, £3.14 million has been allocated to 19 local authorities facing immediate impacts from ports.
The Secretary of State will be aware of the Select Committee report published last week that highlighted that local authorities should have new burdens funded in full. It also highlighted the fact that port authorities such as Portsmouth needed substantially more than the average of £136,000 that is being granted to ports. Portsmouth would need £4 million in the case of a no-deal scenario. Will the Secretary of State undertake to provide that funding and to reimburse any costs that have been spent on no deal that have proved to be unnecessary?
I note the right hon. Gentleman’s approach, and I am interested in the fact that he is perhaps now interested in delivering Brexit, even though everything he has said thus far suggests that his party is trying to stop it. I take on board what he has said. This is why we have made funding available to ports such as Portsmouth, and discussions have taken place between Portsmouth and the Department for Transport. He also raised the broader issue of support for local authorities, and this is why we remain in close contact with local government and why we still have £10 million available for any immediate pressures that may emerge in the forthcoming year.
Councils have been preparing for a range of issues. As we leave the European Union, changes to regulations might be required and training and support might be needed, as well as contingency planning so that we have a smooth transition from where we are today to leaving the European Union.
I am interested to hear that response from the Scottish National party. I hope that it will be able to guarantee that all moneys that have been given to Scotland are actually being spent on Brexit preparations. As I understand it, no guarantees on funding have been given to councils. The hon. Gentleman will know that the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster has been in contact with the Electoral Commission in relation to those preparations, but I hope that we will be able to avoid holding European elections.
I hear what the Secretary of State says, but when I talk to my local councils, they seem to have an endless stream of directives coming from the centre but very little guidance as to what to do if significant numbers of their staff suddenly decide to go. What contingency preparations are the Government making to support local councils in the care sector, for instance, if those people suddenly are not here next week?
I hope I can give the hon. Gentleman an assurance in relation to the regular and detailed contact we have had with local councils through the ministerial delivery board, which I chair, and through representatives of local government. We also have regular contact with the nine chief executives around the country. We are giving clear advice to assure EU workers of their ability to stay and information on the settled status scheme that the Home Office has put together.
Cabinet Secretary Michael Russell MSP has confirmed that moneys allocated to Scotland through Barnett consequentials have been distributed primarily to meet the costs of work already being done by local government in Scotland. The Chair of the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee has said that the UK Government are not giving sufficient support to local government for Brexit. As the chaos of Brexit unfolds and local government continues to identify need, can the Secretary of State confirm whether Westminster will bring forward new moneys to meet that need, because the £10 million that he has mentioned is but a drop in the ocean? Local government and the Scottish Government should not be left out of pocket by the UK Tory Government’s incompetence.
I am sorry—the hon. Lady has I think set out a request for further funding, but my understanding is only £27 million of the initial £37 million allocated to Scotland was spent, and that none was given to councils. Perhaps she can clarify the priority and intent of the SNP in Scotland to ensure that Scotland is well prepared.
Can the Secretary of State not understand the scepticism about his comments, not just from the Select Committee but from many Members on both sides of the House? After all, it was his Department that left bidding for Brexit contingency funding to the very last minute, it was his Department that diverted council funding away from some of the most deprived communities in England, and it was his botched announcement on the Stronger Towns fund that has left many of those communities feeling left behind. Can he now, without any spin or bluster, confirm to the House whether the most deprived communities in England will see a share of the shared prosperity fund that, pound for pound, is less than, equal to or greater than the share of the European structural development fund it replaces?
Before responding to the hon. Gentleman’s question, may I say how pleased I am to hear that his grandson is now recovering and returning to full health? I am sure that the whole House will cherish and treasure the fact that that young child is back on the road to recovery.
The hon. Gentleman highlights broader issues on preparation. I have already underlined the extensive work that we have done with local government. I look forward to consulting on the UK’s shared prosperity fund in detail. Those allocations will be allocated and set out through the spending review. I hope even now that his community will apply for funding through the Stronger Towns fund so that it gets the support it requires.
Homes for Social Rent
Through the affordable homes programme, Homes England will deliver at least 12,500 social rented homes in areas of affordability pressure by March 2022. That is part of our £9 billion affordable homes programme, which will deliver approximately 250,000 additional affordable homes by March 2022.
In Lewisham, 625 families are currently housed in temporary accommodation outside the borough, and many are at breaking point, due to having to travel for hours to get to work or school. Having had its budget cut by 60% since 2010, how does the Secretary of State expect Lewisham Council to build the housing we so desperately need?
By ensuring that the Mayor of London delivers on the £4.8 billion that has been provided to him to build 116,000 affordable homes in London. We have given the Mayor significant funding to deliver on London’s housing agenda. I want to support him and see that happen. Clearly, the responsibility to do so lies with the Mayor.
The Secretary of State will have noted that the question is specifically about social rented housing. If we are to achieve an overall target of 300,000 homes a year, does he accept that it is imperative that more than 100,000 of those have to be social rented houses, built by housing associations and councils? Lifting the housing revenue account cap is welcome, but does he accept that if we are to deliver that number of homes, the Government will have to give more financial support to councils and housing associations?
I hope that the hon. Gentleman will recognise the £9 billion affordable homes programme, and equally the extra £2 billion that has been provided on long-term funding. He will have noted in the recent spring statement that we now have £3 billion to enable housing associations to have funding guaranteed for the delivery of those homes. I hope that he also recognises that the flexibility of the affordable homes programme allows more homes for every pound of Government investment. Clearly, I want to see more homes built, and I want to see more council homes built for social rent too.
My hon. Friend highlights the need for the Mayor to step up to the mark and ensure that he delivers on the housing agenda in London. I recognise that delivery has increased in recent years, but the latest net additions data for 2017-18 are worrying; London demonstrates a 20% drop, compared with a 2% rise nationwide. I hope that the Mayor will focus broadly on the housing agenda. We are providing support on infrastructure and other aspects to see that London does deliver.
The right hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point about viability assessments, which we addressed through the national planning policy framework—effectively the high-level planning guidebook —to provide greater certainty for councils and developers. Such assessments can slow the delivery of housing, which is why we took steps within the NPPF.
Two years ago, the Prime Minister at long last admitted that
“we simply have not given enough attention to social housing”.—[Official Report, 22 June 2017; Vol. 626, c. 169.]
Will the Secretary of State confirm that, since the Prime Minister’s admission, his Government have recorded the two worst years for social house building in the 74 years since the second world war?
What I can confirm is that we have delivered more affordable homes over the past eight years of this Government when compared with the last eight years of the previous Labour Government. Indeed, 407,000 affordable homes have been delivered since 2010, which is 40,000 more than the comparable period under the previous Labour Government.
What the Secretary of State is doing is not working, which is why we have a housing crisis. One thing that he did not confirm is the hard fact that social house building has hit a record low under this Government’s watch. He told me recently that he has committed to funding only 12,500 new social rented homes over the six years to 2022, which will not even replace the homes lost through sales in the last year alone. This Government are failing on all fronts; we have a crisis with Brexit and a crisis with housing. When will the Government get serious about building the social rented homes that this country needs?
I can say categorically that this Government are serious about building the homes our country needs. Indeed, that is we why we have committed funding to housing associations and given councils the flexibility to borrow to build. I challenge the right hon. Gentleman when he seeks to compare this Government’s ambition with that of the previous Labour Government. This Government have lifted the cap on council borrowing, and the number of local authority dwellings built under eight years of a Conservative-led Government is over four times the number built under the 13 years of the Labour Government.
Council Tax Increases
Local authorities decide council tax levels and are responsible for managing resources to deliver services. The Government set referendum thresholds to protect voters from excessive increases in council taxes without their authorisation. Overall, this year’s settlement gives local authorities access to £46.4 billion.
When will this ministerial team wake up to the fact that we do not all live in Maidenhead or the New Forest? The fact is that the central Government grant has been cut and cut again, and we cannot keep on getting more for less. Only this morning, Shabir Pandor, the leader of Kirklees Council, said, “Why doesn’t this Government see local government as an ally, not the enemy?”
I do not recognise the hon. Gentleman’s characterisation of the situation. I absolutely see local government as an ally, which is why I have championed its work and what it delivers for local people. I should hope that he notes that Kirklees Council will have access to £302 million in 2019-20. It is also worth highlighting that average spending power per dwelling for the 10% most deprived authorities in 2019-20 will be around 22% more than for the least deprived. It is not right to say that this Government focus on one area over another. We want local government to perform for communities across the country.
I declare an interest as a member of Kettering Borough Council. Despite cuts to central Government funding, Kettering council has now frozen its share of council tax all the way through to April 2020—it has been frozen since 2010—while enhancing the delivery of local public services. Does that not show that we do not need to increase council tax to improve the delivery of local public services?
I commend Kettering Borough Council for the work it is doing, and indeed Conservative councils up and down this country. It is worth highlighting that, on average, Labour councils in England impose bigger council tax increases than Conservative councils, reminding us that you always end up paying more under Labour.
Council tax has increased by a whopping 18% over the past five years, hitting families on lower incomes the hardest, taking 8% of their income compared with just 2% for higher earners. As people are asked to pay more and more for less and less, they will quite rightly look at the likes of Google with its £1.5 billion tax gap—which, by the way, is roughly the equivalent of what the current council tax increase will generate. Whose side are this Government on—hard-working families or the very, very few?
The Government are on the side of hard-working families. I remind the hon. Gentleman that under the last Labour Government band D council tax more than doubled. It is also worth highlighting that council tax in England is down 6% in real terms since the last Labour Government.
Conservative-controlled West Oxfordshire District Council has one of the lowest council tax rates in the country and some of the best services due to its innovative cost-saving measures. Does that not show that Conservative councils save money on back-office costs and provide better services for local residents?
Homes for Social Rent
Since 2010 we have delivered more than 407,000 new affordable homes. That includes more than 293,000 affordable homes for rent, of which 135,000 are for social rent. There is always more to do and I look forward to hearing from the hon. Gentleman what that might be.
Between 2016 and 2017 a total of 138 two- bedroom properties were let in my Warrington South constituency through the social rent scheme, and about 1,100 families bid for them. What is the Minister doing to meet those unsustainable levels of demand in my constituency?
The hon. Gentleman is quite right to raise the fact that demand in all parts of the housing market outstrips supply—social, affordable and, indeed, all ownership models that we put out there. We are putting significant resources behind all parts of the country to build the homes that the next generation needs. We have managed to get net output up from 124,000 after the crash, to 222,000. Indicators for next year are looking pretty good, too, but as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said, significant resources are being applied to this problem and we will do our best to try to address it.
The Minister will agree that every opportunity should be taken to increase the stock of social houses for rent, so will he acknowledge the great work of Rugby Borough Council, which is currently arranging for the replacement of old high-rise blocks with a greater number of houses on a conventional streetscape?
I applaud any local authority that is putting its shoulder to the wheel of solving the housing crisis. A great sadness of my time as a borough councillor—I was a councillor for eight years—was the fact that the then Labour Government put an end to council house building. We were all induced, effectively, out of that business with decent homes money. We had to get rid of our housing and transfer it to housing associations or other formats. Fortunately, some councils did manage to hang on and I am very pleased that they are now doing their bit.
Some 66,000 council homes have been sold through right to buy since 2012, and just shy of 18,000 have been started—that is one replacement home started for every four sold, and they are not like for like, either. Are the Government ditching their promise for one-to-one replacement, and when are they going to come clean about that?
The hon. Lady is quite right to point out that we have not hit our one-to-one target. That is correct—it would be foolish to deny it—but at the same time those 66,000 homes that have been sold have satisfied a legitimate aspiration among all those people to own their own home, and we are committed to that. The lifting of the housing revenue account cap was specifically designed to set councils free to build a new generation of council houses, so that in time a further generation of council house occupants can also experience home ownership.
Coastal Communities: Funding
On 23 March we announced 70 grants, worth £36 million, from our coastal communities fund and coastal revival fund. This will mean that, by 2020, we will have invested over £200 million in coastal communities across England.
First, I take the opportunity to congratulate my hon. Friend on her recent wedding to Bob.
The Government are aware of the impact of tidal flooding in Looe. The Environment Agency and Cornwall Council are working on an integrated flood defence scheme as part of the £20 million wider regeneration of the area.
The recent House of Lords Select Committee report on the funding of coastal communities shows that our coastal towns and communities are hardest hit by austerity. Will the Minister take the report’s recommendations seriously and look at how we can redistribute wealth and power from the centre and into coastal communities, especially those in the far south-west such as Plymouth?
I saw the Select Committee’s report with interest—in fact, I had the privilege of giving evidence to the Select Committee—and it well identifies the fact that coastal communities across the country face shared challenges. That is, of course, why we have our coastal communities fund, which is looking at individual projects that can drive jobs, growth and prosperity in coastal communities, including those of Plymouth.
Cleethorpes is benefiting considerably from the coastal communities fund and has great potential for regeneration through the Greater Grimsby town deal. Can the Minister give my constituents an assurance that he will continue to look generously towards Cleethorpes?
I congratulate my hon. Friend, who is a redoubtable campaigner for his constituency. No Question Time passes without him talking about Cleethorpes, and I can say that, when considering investment in our coastal communities, I always have the biggest fish and chip shop in Britain at the forefront of my mind.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. It is always sunny on the south coast.
May I ask the Minister to consider the fact that, when people retire, they tend to move to coastal communities, which impacts on our social care and council tax bills? Will he consider long-term funding that properly looks at the age range in coastal communities? And will he also look at the radical reform of social care to make sure we have social care insurance, which would bring more money into the system?
I recently visited Bexhill and Battle for a brief jaunt to the seaside with my family, so I know my hon. Friend’s constituency well. We have recently confirmed that we will invest an additional £650 million in support and care in communities such as Bexhill and Battle, and I hope he will also look at the Government’s new stronger towns fund, which may be able to support his area.
On top of our £9 billion affordable homes programme, we have reintroduced social rent, removed the housing revenue account borrowing cap and announced £2 billion of long-term funding, and we are setting a long-term rent deal for councils and housing associations.
There is currently a prohibition on the inclusion of residential properties in personal pensions such as self-invested personal pensions, which leaves potential accommodation over shops empty or unconverted. Will my hon. Friend work with his colleagues in the Treasury to reform these rules, provided that the properties are let out at a social rent?
No one, but no one, works as hard as my hon. Friend on housing policy. There is not a time when I appear at the Dispatch Box that he does not badger me with some new idea. He obviously takes his moral duty to the next generation to build the housing they need very seriously, and I would be more than happy to walk arm in arm with him down Downing Street to No. 11 to propose exactly that idea.
It is disappointing that the Government have scrapped their one-for-one target. My local Labour-run council, Hyndburn Borough Council, wants to build some social houses on the Clayton triangle. What support can the Minister guarantee to make sure that those social homes are built on the Clayton triangle?
Of course, one change we have made is to allow local authorities to bid into the affordable homes programme, specifically to support their house building aspirations. We have lifted the HRA borrowing cap, so the hon. Gentleman’s local authority is free, in a way that it was not before, to borrow that money. I point out to Opposition Members that one of the most debilitating parts of the debate about housing is their inability to accept that this Government and the coalition Government before us were faced with a catastrophic financial framework within which to build the homes that the next generation needs. It has taken time to recover capacity in the house building industry and in local authorities to achieve the kind of aspiration he wants to see.
I congratulate the Government on their ambitious targets, but is the Minister aware that on the Isle of Wight there is deep concern about the housing targets and the lack of affordable housing? Fewer than 100 units were built between 2015 and 2018. I hope that my council will apply for exceptional circumstances to lower its targets in the interests of our tourism economy and quality of life, but to ensure that a much higher proportion of that is built for social housing. Will he meet me to discuss this issue further?
I think a feeling that everybody shares across the House is the desire to address what is undoubtedly a housing crisis. Governments of all stripes over the past 30 or 40 years have failed to build the houses that the country needs. We are applying significant resources to try to correct that problem.
My hon. Friend raises an important issue, in that local authorities also have a duty to put their shoulder to the wheel to deal with the housing problem. Through the national planning policy framework, we have put the power to do so in their hands. It is perfectly possible for his local authority to produce an authoritative and ambitious local plan that both satisfies the aspirations of local residents for the kind of housing they want and sends a signal to the development community about what it should be doing on the Isle of Wight.
The Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee has advised the Government that they need to do more to support neighbourhood planning in deprived areas. Does the Minister agree that he should give additional powers to town and parish councils to facilitate that and to ensure that all areas, especially those with acute need, are able to plan for and deliver the homes, including the social housing, that they desperately need, while also improving their wider built and natural environment?
The hon. Lady identifies a significant intention of ours on planning policy, which is to put local communities of all types and in all parts of the country in control of planning. It is the case, unfortunately, that over the past 30 or 40 years many neighbourhoods have felt that they are victims of the planning system rather than its masters. We are keen to promote the use of neighbourhood plans in all sorts of areas—urban, rural or wherever it might be—so that local people are in control of the disposition, size, place and type of housing they want, subject to their joining us in the general mission to satisfy what is undoubtedly a huge desire in the next generation for new homes.
Homeless People: Death Rates
Every death of someone who is homeless is one too many, and we have a moral duty to act. We are committed to ending rough sleeping for good and aim to halve it by 2022. Our strategy, which commits us to £100 million to tackle rough sleeping, is funding more than 1,750 bed spaces and 500 new staff through the rough sleeping initiative.
I thank the Minister for that response. An estimated 120 homeless people in the north-east have died since 2013—a staggering increase of 71%. Those 120 lives mattered and they deserve some recognition. The Government have said that local authorities need to investigate fully the circumstances of such deaths, yet have failed to provide any funding or support to ensure that those investigations happen. Is that because people dying on our streets are not really a priority for this Government?
Obviously, the figures that the hon. Lady reads out are desperate and sad news. We are working with the Department of Health and Social Care to ensure that when a homeless person dies, a safeguarding adult review takes place, where appropriate. The safeguarding adult review process was set up not to review every death of an adult considered to require safeguarding but as a process for learning lessons where the safeguarding adults board is of the view that local partners could have done more to prevent a death resulting from abuse or neglect.
I thank my hon. Friend for that question. The Housing First pilots are in the Greater Manchester, Greater Birmingham and Greater Liverpool areas, and £38 million has been put aside to assist with them. The Mayor of the Greater Birmingham area, Andy Street, phones me regularly to tell me about the progress on the Housing First pilots in the west midlands. The pilot in Liverpool is going quite well too but, sadly, the one in Manchester is not going as well, but I like a bit of competition between the three Mayors and I am sure they will all step up.[Official Report, 9 April 2019, Vol. 658, c. 2MC.] [Official Report, 11 April 2019, Vol. 658, c. 6MC.]
The Hull Daily Mail reported that in Hull alone 35 homeless people died between 2013 and 2017, part of the 24% increase in rough sleeping deaths across England and Wales in five years. That has happened on the Government’s watch. Why does the Minister think that has happened?
Again, I say that anyone dying is a tragedy. For the hon. Lady to give those numbers is a salutary lesson on how councils need to work very hard. The rough sleeping and homelessness reduction taskforce is driving forward the implementation of our cross-government strategy to achieve our commitment to halve rough sleeping by 2022 and to end it altogether. The latest figures, in 2018, show that the number of people sleeping rough on our streets has fallen for the first time in several years, and that the number sleeping rough in our specialist areas has reduced by 19%.
No one wants to see people sleeping rough on our streets. Will my hon. Friend join me in congratulating the huge teamwork going on in Cornwall across the public and private sectors? That has seen a reduction in rough sleepers by over 40% in the last year.
My hon. Friend is a true champion for her area. The statistics in Cornwall show how this matter can be dealt with successfully when partners come together—a reduction of 40% in rough sleeping in one year alone is a true testament to the reason why we need to tackle this. We will not let it rest.
Leigh: Local Authority Funding
The local government finance settlement for 2019-20 confirmed a real-terms increase in resources available to local authorities. I am pleased to say that the hon. Lady’s own local council, Wigan, will see its core spending power increase by £4.6 million in this financial year.
Under this Government, Wigan Council has seen £160 million taken from its budget—that is £160 million less to spend every single year. With children’s services as a top immediate pressure, how do the Government intend to respond to my local authority when it has to deliver services to some of our most vulnerable children without the funding that is so desperately needed?
The recent Budget provided more than £400 million for children’s services but, beyond money, it is important to note that it is quality of leadership that makes the difference in providing for vulnerable children. The hon. Lady’s own council recently won a prestigious award for being the best council in the country, and its leader remarked that
“we are still able to give residents first class care”.
Vulnerable Children: Local Authority Support
I am working closely with colleagues at the Department for Education to ensure that local authorities can properly support vulnerable children. I recently gave evidence to the Communities and Local Government Committee together with the Children’s Minister on that very topic.
As the Minister is aware, the Select Committee is doing an inquiry into children with special needs and disabilities. One of the things that comes back from all the evidence is the fact that support is often based on the resources available and not on the child’s needs. Will the Minister ensure that funding for the high needs block is based on need and not on historical data?
Essex County Council is set to carry a £15 million deficit for special educational needs and vulnerable children. I hear what the Minister says about working with the Department for Education, but what are it and MHCLG doing collectively to ensure that the Treasury looks at the long-term needs of the many children who are currently not funded?
I thank my right hon. Friend for that question. Her county council is a leader when it comes to dealing with vulnerable children; it is an example for others across the country to follow. I assure her that we are working very closely with the Department for Education. We are jointly undertaking a review to understand the exact drivers of the increased need that she mentioned, and we will make a compelling and evidence-based pitch to the Treasury come the spending review.
I am sure the Minister will agree, as he said to my hon. Friend the Member for Leigh (Jo Platt), that political leadership is exactly what is needed when we look at children’s services. He will therefore be as upset and aghast as me that Stoke-on-Trent City Council was rated “inadequate” in all four areas of its Ofsted inspection of children’s services. The opening line of the Ofsted report said that children were not being kept safe from risk. A failure of political leadership has meant that children have been put into unnecessarily risky situations. On top of that, the leader of the Conservative group—the deputy leader of the council—has failed to attend any corporate parenting committee meetings in the past two years. Does the Minister agree that it is time for change at Stoke-on-Trent City Council? If they will not change, the electorate will do it for them.
When we talk about vulnerable children, it is important that all councils take the precautions that are required. Of course I will listen very carefully to the findings of that Ofsted report. The Department for Education has recently made available £80 million in innovation funding. All councils can avail themselves of it to improve their practice and ensure that vulnerable children everywhere get the support and care they require.
I thank my hon. Friend for raising that issue. We all recognise the value of strong families, and she champions that cause especially well. I welcome the development of family hubs. I am pleased to tell her that our troubled families programme specifically enables a family-centric approach to supporting those in need. That often involves the use of family hubs, which we encourage.
We are absolutely committed to giving parish councils the tools they need to shape their communities’ future. Neighbourhood plans are giving them a real say in the future of the areas that they represent. Through the general power of competency, we have made it easier than ever for them to work on behalf of their communities. We are also making it easier for people to petition to create a local parish council if they so desire.
Hankelow parish council in my constituency is facing developers seeking to avoid their responsibility to build affordable homes on the only brownfield site in the village. What powers can be given to parish councils to enable them to ensure that affordable housing development is met?
My hon. Friend is an exceptional champion of the people of Eddisbury and has been extremely active on this very local issue. Local planning authorities must consult parish councils before deciding on an application. Parish councils can offer important insights, and are closely connected with the community. We have revised our approach to viability in national policy to strengthen that position.
I hope that everybody in the House wants to see new build quality improve, and we will soon consult on the details of a new homes ombudsman to make it so. We are also cracking down on unfair leasehold practices. Most recently, on 28 March, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State unveiled an industry pledge to end the doubling of ground rents, and there have been more than 40 signatures from the sector so far.
But the Minister surely recognises that every week there are continuing reports of shoddy workmanship, long delays in putting them right, extortionate leases, which he mentioned, and unfinished roads, lights and pavements. On top of that, we have seen unaffordable housing and eye-watering profits and bonuses. He should not just hive this off to an ombudsman; we need direct action from his Department. This scandal has been going on for far too long.
As a constituency MP with a large amount of house building in my patch, I regularly deal with exactly the sort of problems that the right hon. Gentleman raises, and I make my views known to the house building industry about its duty to produce a high-quality product for its customers, notwithstanding whatever the Government may do. He is quite right that other tools may well be available to us, and we are looking, for example, at what we could do with the Help to Buy scheme to encourage house builders to produce greater quality. I am pleased to note, however, that the recent Home Builders Federation star rating system has shown a general improvement, particularly among the larger house builders, with three now in the five-star zone.
I chaired the all-party group on excellence in the built environment, which recommended a new homes ombudsman, but it was October when the Government agreed to introduce one. Five months on, can I press the Minister to get a move on before he gets promoted to the Cabinet?
My hon. Friend is quite right to point out that Housing Ministers do not last that long, and I am certainly pushing the envelope at nine months, but I will do my best in the time that remains to me to fulfil his desire, because it is an important one. If we are going to get to building 300,000 homes a year for the next generation—I know this is of particular importance to him given his background—these houses have to be fantastic, of great quality and of brilliant design, so that communities will continue to accept them in significant numbers.
Economic Growth: Midlands Engine
We have confirmed up to £2 million to further the delivery of the east midlands HS2 growth strategy around Toton station. To increase business engagement, we are supporting the midlands engine’s campaign to raise the region’s profile nationally and internationally, and to highlight the economic potential of the midlands.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer, but local authorities in Mansfield are hoping to secure funding through the future high streets fund to help reinvigorate what was once a thriving town centre. That support would be very welcome, as would the opportunity to access the recently announced stronger towns funding. What will the criteria be for that funding, and will my right hon. Friend commit to working with our local council to give Mansfield the best possible chance of accessing it?
My hon. Friend rightly champions Mansfield, and we will look very closely at the expression of interest that has been expressed in relation to the future high streets fund. The stronger towns fund will support towns to grow and prosper, and we will obviously be working with communities. I can certainly give a commitment to work with him and with Mansfield as we continue to shape that, and get the right feedback to ensure that that money delivers what we want it to.
I acknowledge my hon. Friend’s ingenuity in putting her question. Her council has submitted a £14 million bid to the housing infrastructure fund, which we obviously want to see delivering more homes and building the homes our country needs. I can assure my hon. Friend that we will look carefully at this bid. It is a competitive process, but I am encouraged by what she says.
I publish my constituency casework on my website, and every month since I was first elected in 2010, housing has been one of the top three issues constituents bring to me. Does the Minister agree that to deliver choice and affordability for my constituents, the right resources and powers need to be devolved to the region as part of the North of Tyne deal? We know what our housing need is.
Given that Newcastle is one of the two mighty northern cities that made me the person I am, the hon. Lady will understand that I am keen to see that wonderful city, where I spent three fantastic years at university, achieve its aspirations. I know that the local authority has constituted a housing delivery board, and we are doing our best to give it the resources it needs to deliver housing from Ousemouth to Kenton Bank Foot to the Helix development in central Newcastle. I am certainly more than happy to help her in chivvying it on to fulfil the aspirations of the Geordies who need homes.
Homelessness: Former Armed Services Personnel
This Government are committed to ensuring that armed services personnel do not become homeless or end up rough sleeping. We have recently allocated an additional £1 million to support ex-members of the armed forces who are, or are at risk of becoming, homeless. That additional funding goes hand in hand with the £1.2 billion that has been set aside to tackle all forms of homelessness.
The Minister will be aware that too many of our brave veterans, who have served this country, have been failed in post-service life. What discussions has the Department had with the Ministry of Defence, so that clear pathways are set out to prevent homelessness in the first place? Will she give a cast-iron guarantee that the military covenant will be upheld?
My hon. Friend is quite right. A joined-up response is essential to ensuring that veterans can access the prevention and relief services available to them. I am pleased to say that the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017, which was introduced by our hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman), places a statutory duty on the Secretary of State for Defence to refer members of the armed forces to local authority services for tailored support, including a personalised housing plan, to prevent them from becoming homeless. Where veterans are homeless and vulnerable as a result of having served in the armed forces, local authorities have a duty to house them. I sit on the Veterans Board, and it is my pleasure to do so.
In the United States, many former armed services personnel are housed in dedicated veterans communities run as housing co-operatives, giving them control over the cost of the housing provided to them and enabling them to live their lives in the way they want to. Will the Minister undertake to look at the potential for using housing co-operatives to house armed forces personnel here in the UK?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that innovative idea. We have already agreed some money for ports down on the south coast, where there is a predominance of naval people, who have come together to build a number of units as one group. I think this idea has legs—if not sea legs, then Army legs.
The proportion of under-45-year-olds owning their own home was 50% in 2010-11. That fell to 42% in 2016-17, in the aftermath of the crash, but happily it has since risen to 45% in 2017-18. Supported by Government schemes including Help to Buy and right to buy, the number of first-time buyers rose to more than 370,000 in 2018, an 86% increase since 2010.
Many of my constituents are simply priced out of the housing market. Rental properties and mortgages are out of reach to all but the wealthiest, meaning that families who have lived for generations in villages such as Bridge, Chartham and Sturry, where their parents and grandparents grew up, are now simply unable to afford a property. Will the Minister acknowledge that we urgently need realistically priced affordable homes for the next generation, especially in rural areas?
Last Wednesday, I joined the New Zealand high commissioner and other hon. Members to remember victims of the Christchurch mosque attack, reaffirming our solidarity with our Muslim brothers and sisters. As in New Zealand, our diverse communities make us stronger. That is why we will always stand up against hatred, bigotry and extremism. It is also why I have reaffirmed the Government’s commitment to the holocaust memorial and learning centre next door to Parliament. I met holocaust survivors last week to set out more details of the plan for that.
On a very different note, the issue of tree netting on development sites and its impact on wild birds has caused concern across the House. That is why I have written to developers today to underline their responsibilities to protect wildlife and to ensure that netting is kept to an absolute minimum.
May I associate myself with the Secretary of State’s remarks about New Zealand? We had a similar remembrance event in Keighley only yesterday.
Will the Secretary of State carefully consider the compromise proposals for Yorkshire devolution, as put forward by the mayor of South Yorkshire, for the period to 2022? Will he also consider the request from the councils in the Leeds city region to extend their devolution deals for that period?
I will look and am looking carefully at the submissions that have been made. I want to see greater devolution across Yorkshire. I recognise Yorkshire’s ambition to have those powers transferred down and I look forward to continuing discussions with the hon. Gentleman and others on how best that can be advanced.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for highlighting this issue, which he and I met and discussed directly. He knows that we made a commitment in the recent spring statement to examine permitted development rights in relation to the conversion of office to residential property, but I am content to look more broadly at where the burden lies with some of these transfers, because it is important that we get this right.
First, may I say that my thoughts are with those affected by the Clutha helicopter crash? The fatal accident inquiry is starting in Glasgow today.
The UK Government’s shared prosperity fund is still something of a mystery box. We do not know how much will be in it, who is going to administer it or what its priorities will be. Will the Secretary of State commit today that the Scottish Government will get to control the fund and that Scotland will not get one penny less than we would have received under EU funding?
I certainly agree with the hon. Lady about the need to ensure that the UK shared prosperity fund works for all parts of our United Kingdom, and we will certainly work with the Scottish Government and other devolved Administrations on the preparation for that and in advance of the spending review.
We have already invested £10 million in the Chelmer Waterside development in my hon. Friend’s constituency, but she is still insatiable for more Government funding for her fast-growing constituency. As she knows, HIF bids are a competitive process, but I will look carefully at the proposals put in by Chelmsford; and, given her support, let us be hopeful of success.
New figures today show that 40,000 people are still trapped in privately owned blocks wrapped in Grenfell-style aluminium composite material cladding. That is 40,000 lives on hold—weddings cancelled, mental ill-health rife—because people are trapped in properties that cannot be sold. The Prime Minister repeatedly said that she rules nothing out, so when will the Government finally say, “Enough is enough,” set up a loan fund for private blocks and get the job done?
I firmly recognise the stress, strain and anguish that so many people continue to live with as a consequence of ACM cladding on the outside of a number of these blocks. A growing list of companies, such as Barratt, Mace and Legal & General, are doing the right thing and taking responsibility. In addition, warranty providers have accepted claims on a number of buildings. I urge all owners and developers to follow the lead of those companies and step up to make sure this work is done. This is a priority for me; I know the work needs to be advanced more quickly, and I am considering all other options if it is not.
I thank my hon. Friend for his engagement with the process of reorganising local government in Northamptonshire. I am pleased to tell him that the Department’s consultation on this matter has now closed. The Secretary of State is considering the responses and he intends to announce his decision to the House as soon as is practical.
As I hope the hon. Gentleman knows, we are putting enormous emphasis on the regeneration of brownfield land. It should be a first call for all local authorities trying to deliver new homes. As I recall, 56% of all new homes last year were delivered on brownfield land. Through Homes England, we are putting significant money behind remediation required in areas such as coalfields and other sites that might be contaminated. I am happy to write to the hon. Gentleman with details of how his area could access that funding.
I wholeheartedly agree with my right hon. Friend. We very much back the recent Daily Mail campaign to keep our country tidy. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is responsible for increasing fines for fly-tippers. We will do our bit to ensure funding for our parks and green spaces.
Having visited the York Central site, I know how key it is in delivering the northern powerhouse. That is why it is with the greatest pleasure that I will meet the hon. Lady.
First, I thank the hon. Lady for all the hard work she put in when she was on the Opposition Front Bench and for the principled stand she has taken. It has been a pleasure working with her. Secondly, we have declared that we want all sites to take off “No DSS”-type adverts. I have been very encouraged by what has happened with Zoopla and National Westminster bank. This work is ongoing, but I would be delighted to meet the hon. Lady to see what we can do to spread it further.
I agree with my hon. Friend that maintaining records of the UK’s landscape heritage is important. I would be delighted to raise her point with colleagues at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport to ensure that in future we can surmount any bureaucratic hurdles and that vital archives are preserved.
Further to earlier answers about the housing ombudsman scheme, there is considerable consumer scepticism that the scheme will not end up being industry-driven and will favour house developers rather than buyers. What assurances can Ministers give us that it will be consumer-led and that consumers will have input into the consultation?
I firmly recognise the consumer interest. That is what motivated me to put an ombudsman in place. I want the ombudsman to first be established in a shadow format, leading into the statutory ombudsman scheme I want to create, so we create some momentum and give a sense of confidence to consumers.
My hon. Friend will have to excuse me for turning my back—there are not too many daggers in it today. We have been asking councils to nominate a senior councillor in every single council to be a veterans’ champion. I will audit that and ensure that it happens. The Veterans Board—the inter-ministerial Government board—meets regularly; in fact, we have our next meeting in only about three weeks’ time.[Official Report, 14 May 2019, Vol. 660, c. 2MC.]
I thank my hon. Friend for making me aware of that point and the new advice from Citizens Advice. I have enjoyed my meetings with him, and I am pleased to tell him that we are looking at his proposals and hope to make an announcement when we reasonably can.
The Housing Minister has a make-it-so attitude. Will he therefore meet with me, as chair of the all-party parliamentary group for the timber industries, and the group to discuss timber’s role in hitting the future carbon target as well as the housing target?
Given the emphasis the Government are putting on new and innovative construction techniques in building the homes that the next generation needs, I am more than happy to meet the hon. Gentleman. Notwithstanding the problems we had with timber-framed buildings back in the 1980s, there is significant potential for its use in future house building.
Thank you, Mr Speaker—very ageist, but welcome anyway. One of the worst things for people who have a house is the house next door being empty, derelict and lost. What progress are we making to identify empty, unused houses given there is such great scarcity? Is it compulsory purchases? How can we unlock these houses as a resource?
I hope to reassure the hon. Gentleman. The number of long-term empty homes is down by nearly a third since 2010, but it is important that we take further action. That is why we introduced the empty homes premium in 2013, which gives councils the option to increase the premium from 50% to 100% of nominal council tax, and we are seeing that increase this month. We acknowledge the important point he makes about empty homes.
The following Member took and subscribed the Oath required by law:
Ruth Lorraine Jones, for Newport West.
Access to Medical Cannabis
(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care if he will make a statement on the return of medical cannabis that was seized from Emma Appleby at Southend airport on Saturday 6 April and which is needed to treat her very ill daughter Teagan’s extreme epilepsy, and to take steps to make sure that medical cannabis is available for prescription around this great country.
My sympathies go out to the patients and their families who are desperately seeking to alleviate their symptoms with medicinal cannabis. We are working hard to get the right approach. The law was changed on 1 November last year to ensure that it is now legal for doctors on the specialist register of the General Medical Council to prescribe cannabis-based products for medicinal use in the UK.
Whether to prescribe must remain a clinical decision to be made with the patients and their families, taking into account the best available international clinical evidence and the circumstances of each individual patient. Indeed, prescriptions have been written for the products that the family attempted to bring into the country and these have been supplied to patients. Without clinical authorisation, it is of course not possible to import controlled drugs, which is why the products were seized by Border Force on Saturday. However, we have made available the opportunity for a second opinion and the products have been held but not destroyed, as would normally be the case.
In relation to childhood epilepsy, the British Paediatric Neurology Association has issued interim clinical guidance. NHS England and the chief medical officer have made it clear that cannabis-based products can be prescribed for medicinal use in appropriate cases, but it must be for doctors to make clinical decisions in the best interest of patients, to balance the risks and benefits of any proposed treatment—including cannabis-based products—and to make a decision with patients and their families on whether or not to prescribe.
To date, research has centred on two major cannabinoids, tetrahydrocannabinol and cannabidiol. There is evidence that CBD may be beneficial in the treatment of intractable epilepsy, and over 80 children have already been supplied with CBD products in the UK on the basis of a specialist doctor’s prescription. I entirely understand how important this issue is to patients and I have met and listened to families. I know just how frustrated they are. Therefore, after meeting parents, I have taken the following actions.
First, I have asked NHS England rapidly to initiate a process evaluation to address barriers to clinically appropriate prescribing. Secondly, to improve the evidence base and to get medicinal cannabis to patients in need, I have asked the National Institute for Health Research and the industry to take action to produce that evidence in a form that will support decisions about public funding. The NIHR has issued two calls for research proposals on medicinal cannabis and I look forward to the responses to those consultations. That is in addition to the training package being developed by Health Education England to provide support to clinicians to enable them to make the best decisions with their patients.
This is a very difficult area, with some heart-rending cases. I look forward to working with all Members of this House to ensure that patients get the best possible care.
I thank you for granting this urgent question, Mr Speaker, on behalf of constituents around the country who need help from medical- prescribed cannabis, and I thank the Secretary of State for coming to meet the families and their loved ones who feel that medical cannabis on prescription may help.
Some of these young children—though we are not talking only about children—have 300 seizures a day. They are given drugs that do not seem to work at all. There is not a cure, but these medical oils can and often do reduce the number of seizures. Many colleagues in the House will know of the case of Alfie Dingley—the only young boy that has an NHS prescription for the medical use of cannabis oil. He is now a relatively naughty boy. He has learned to ride a bike. His sister has a brother she has never really experienced before.
This is not a cure, but these parents are absolutely desperate. When the Government did the right thing and changed the law, they thought the situation was going to get better. In my capacity as joint chair of the all-party parliamentary group on medical cannabis under prescription, I warned them that this was just the start of the journey, and that it would be a long one.
Anyone who saw the footage from Southend airport at the weekend—any father, any parent, anyone who has a loved one in their family who suffers—would understand what that family were trying to do. Cannabis had been prescribed by a consultant abroad because it could not be obtained in this country. Many families are relying on charity to raise the money—in some cases, £1,500 a month—to obtain it on prescription. As the Secretary of State knows, prescriptions are being issued by the relevant experts, but the clinical commissioning groups and the trusts are refusing to honour those prescriptions. It is a disgrace that that should happen in this country, and we should all be ashamed.
I welcome the trials and I welcome the review, but, sadly, people need these medicines now. Can we unlock the door? The Border Force staff at Southend airport were very polite and very helpful. They thought they were doing their duty. We should do our duty, and get that medical cannabis back to Teagan.
I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend and the all-party parliamentary group for their work in bringing this issue to the attention of the House and the country, and in supporting the parents involved. My right hon. Friend has been characteristically emphatic and reasonable in providing that support, and I entirely understand his concern. Meeting some of the parents as part of the APPG delegation was a very emotional experience.
Of course the Border Force staff were doing the right thing—and I am glad that they were doing it in a reasonable way—according to the existing rules, under which if a controlled drug is to be imported it needs a licence, and the import of an unlicensed controlled drug therefore requires a prescription from a specialist doctor. There are just over 95,000 registered specialist doctors in the UK. Any one of them who has the relevant experience can prescribe the drug, and it will be then allowed in. That can happen now. The guidance is not a barrier, and it is not a barrier to prescription. However, it is clear to me that this process is not working. I have therefore initiated a process evaluation, which is NHS language for looking at exactly why it is not working and what we need to do about it.
It is shameful that we saw those scenes at Southend airport, and that families continue to suffer because the arrangements are so slow. It is, however, appropriate that we are discussing this issue on the day on which my hon. Friend the new Member for Newport West (Ruth Jones) has taken her seat, because her predecessor, my friend Paul Flynn, was an indefatigable campaigner for many important causes, including the legalisation of cannabis for medical use.
Last year Charlotte Caldwell, the mother of another sick child, Billy Caldwell, said:
“It’s absolutely incredible, it’s amazing. The compassion and speed that the Home Secretary has moved with is just incredible.”
That is the impression that Ministers sought to give, but it was a misleading impression, as the plight of the Applebys revealed this weekend.
Is the Secretary of State aware that cannabis oil is not the same as cannabis, and that it has no psychoactive or addictive effects? Is he aware that in other jurisdictions a range of conditions qualify for treatment with cannabis oil and related products, including cancer, AIDS, muscular dystrophy, Crohn’s disease, epilepsy, Parkinson’s disease and arthritis? Is he aware that the Home Secretary has previously commissioned Sally Davies to examine the scheduling of cannabis as a whole? She reported as long ago as June 2018. Is the Secretary of State aware that Ms Davies’s report has been with the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs since that time? Is the House to understand that the Home Secretary has just been sitting on it?
What is the Secretary of State going to do to speed up the processes around this issue? Parents will not be impressed to hear of further reports or further enquiries. We need to resolve the Appleby case quickly, but we also need to make sure that no other families of sick children have to suffer in the way the Appleby family is suffering.
I did set out the answers to those questions in my initial response. There are a number of smaller active agents in medicinal cannabis, but there are two major ones: THC and CBD. The vast majority of those who now have access to medicinal cannabis have access to CBD, and that is different as an active agent. Clinicians have to make a judgment according to the personal circumstances and needs of the patient, and I am trying to remove all the barriers to those clinical decisions.
We have taken action. I absolutely understand the history here, because the Home Secretary and I signed off on the decision to allow medicinal cannabis to be available at all on 1 December, following the chief medical officer’s report. What we need to do now is ensure that there are no further barriers to prescription where a clinician judges that that is the right thing to do.
My right hon. Friend will be aware of the case of my constituent Indie-Rose Clarry. She is a four-year-old girl who suffers from Dravet syndrome, a very severe form of epilepsy. Her parents, Anthony and Tannine, are also crowdfunding on the internet to raise thousands of pounds to buy drugs from Holland. That is not because they are criminals, but because they love her, they want to ease her pain and they are desperate.
On Friday, as it happens, I met Indie-Rose’s consultant—not only her consultant but one of the leading specialists in the country in severe forms of child epilepsy. He made the point that there is a barrier to prescribing cannabinoids that include THC, because there is insufficient evidence in that case. Will the Secretary of State confirm that there is evidence on CBD but not THC, which Indie-Rose’s parents have found has the greatest impact in reducing seizures?
Characteristically, my hon. Friend makes an excellent point. The clinicians consider that there is a much less evidence on THC, as opposed to CBD. I have therefore instructed the National Institute for Health Research to do the research. Doing the research will of course require some cases where the drugs can be legally tested. I had already put that in place, and I am telling the House about it today.
I am glad this urgent question has moved from the Home Office to Health, where it should be, but one has to ask why drugs are being seized when they are no longer illegal—that is what changed in November.
In medicine, we use many controlled drugs, such as heroin, morphine, ketamine and diazepam which have a street value, but that has never stopped them being used in medicine. The problem is that the way cannabis was treated for 50 years means we have had almost no research and almost no experience.
The problem is also that expectations were raised in November, as if every GP would be able simply to write a prescription, but a prescription for what? We have to have a pharmaceutical quality of drug so that we know exactly how much CBD and how much THC we would be prescribing. That is not yet generally available. It is important that we look, through the Government, to get that pharmaceutical grade licensed, with reliable formulations.
This issue is under inquiry in the Health Committee, and we have heard from patients who were advised to go to Holland to get drugs, costing them £30,000 per visit. That is unacceptable. The Government will have to stimulate research, and I am grateful that calls for research are going to go out. However, we need specialist centres in paediatric neurology for children with epilepsy, we need adult neurology for multiple sclerosis, and we need pain specialists for chronic pain.
These preparations are unlicensed; that means there has been no testing on their efficacy—whether they work—and on whether they are safe. That is quite scary for doctors, particularly as if it is an unlicensed drug, they have to sign a form to say that they accept personal liability. I can tell the House that that is quite intimidating, as I have done it myself. The Government need to push for centres of excellence to help to stimulate the research they say they are calling for. That is the only way we will get randomised controlled trials, and get the answers that will lead to these drugs being licensed, rather than our just having a temporary fix for now.
In an outbreak of cross-party unity, I agree entirely with the hon. Lady. The approach she has taken is incredibly sensible; it is also the one that has been recommended to me by my clinical advisers. We need to ensure that we take an evidence-based, pharmaceutical-grade approach to prescription. I will take away her idea about centres of excellence, because I entirely see the point there. In the case of most drugs, it is the pharmaceutical industry that pushes for, and pays for, the randomised controlled trials. In this case, because the industry is in a different shape for other reasons, it is we who are making this happen, and we are pushing it as fast as we can
I would like to thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Sir Mike Penning) for bringing this question forward, and I thank the Secretary of State for his answer. My constituents the Levys came to see me about their daughter, Fallon, who has LGS epilepsy. Her consultant neurologist has told the family that
“the actual logistics of the prescribing has not yet been worked out”.
Why is this the case, and what can be done to ensure that Fallon has access to the necessary medication as soon as possible?
I should like my hon. Friend to write to me with the exact details of that case. The process for prescription by someone on the specialist register is well trodden; it is used for all sorts of unlicensed drugs, and it should be available. We are making a second opinion available to ensure that it can be brought to bear in cases such as these. I am interested in hearing about specific cases—this applies to everyone, not just to my hon. Friend—so that we can ensure that the appropriate clinical decisions can be made.
I warmly welcome the measures announced by the Secretary of State today, but will he go further in discussing the importance of clinical trials and answer some of the many questions about striking the right balance between THC and CBD? We have heard in the Select Committee that some pharmaceutical companies are refusing to make their products available for clinical trials. Will he look specifically at that point? We need to ensure that safe and consistent products are regularly available and that they are of a predictable pharmaceutical grade, as we have heard.
If I may, Mr Speaker, I would like to add to my previous answer by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Watford, the former Business Minister, on all that he did to support business, enterprise and the case for capitalism while he was in his former job. I regret his departing from the Government, because he was a brilliant Minister.
On the question ahead of me, so to speak, the Chair of the Select Committee, the hon. Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston), is right to say that it is vital to bring forward these clinical trials, and that the pharmaceutical companies that provide the oils have not pushed forward the trials in the way that would normally happen. We have therefore stepped in to try to make them happen, but we do need the calls to be answered.
The Secretary of State talks about removing barriers, but it is clear to me that the main barrier is the British Paediatric Neurology Association itself. When its president came to give evidence to the Health and Social Care Committee a couple of weeks ago, he was arrogant, he was dismissive of the families’ experience, and he misled our Committee by denying that Members of this House had sought a dialogue with him, which he had refused. What is the Secretary of State going to do to remove the obstacle of the BPNA?
I am sure that the BPNA will have heard that testimony from the right hon. Gentleman. Of course, the BPNA is independent of Government, and we have to follow the clinical judgments made by the relevant organisations, whether a royal college or, as in this case, an association. What I have done is ensure that a second opinion is available, because the BPNA guidance is merely guidance; it is not absolute. A clinician on the specialist register can make a decision according to what they think is best for the patient in front of them.
There are lots of warm words circulating here today. My question relates to the point that was just made. We have this problem today, but clinical trials will take six months, nine months or a year. What can we reasonably do legally to get certified products that we know will work into the hands of parents with children who desperately need them today?
I entirely understand the hon. Gentleman’s point, and I feel the same way as he does about the urgency of these cases. The need to get a second opinion can be actioned immediately, and it will be, because the crucial point is that unlicensed medicines cannot be prescribed without a clinician. There are just over 95,000 clinicians on the specialist register, and any of those who have expertise in this area can, if their clinical judgment allows, make these prescriptions. That can happen right now.
I was very supportive of the case of Alfie Dingley and the change in the law. The Secretary of State is absolutely right that this must be based on clinical decisions. However, given that there are several hundred children suffering from severe intractable epilepsy, is not the problem that the guidance from NHS medical bodies is just too stringent? Is it true that only two NHS prescriptions have actually been issued to date? Given that Teagan Appleby has had at least a dozen prescribed drugs—I will not list them, to avoid stressing Hansard—as well as a nerve stimulator, what would be the downside of allowing her access to medical cannabis now?
My hon. Friend makes a good point. More than 80 prescriptions have been made, but that is for both THC and CBD. Of course, THC brings risks—the active elements within cannabis do bring risks. There are also benefits, as I have seen very clearly. It must be for a clinician to decide the balance of those risks. I have enormous sympathy for the families, having heard their personal testimony about the massive benefits for their children, who sometimes, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Sir Mike Penning) said, have 300 seizures a day. Having seen that and looked them in the eye, I understand the benefits. However, it has to be a clinician who makes that judgment. I am not medically qualified and cannot overrule a clinician, but there are clinicians available who can provide a second opinion, and that is what I can ensure.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for what he has said so far, but I have spoken with a neurosurgeon in my constituency who says that one of his anxieties is not being able to give good advice to parents whom he suspects might be trying to access medical cannabis through not wholly legal routes, because he is unsure what the law is. I agree with the Secretary of State on the need for clinical evidence, so what more information can he give us on the timescale? When will we see the health education research that he talks about? In the meantime, why can we not use the evidence of clinical trials conducted elsewhere?
The evidence of clinical trials from elsewhere can and should be used. All international clinical evidence should be brought to bear on such decisions and has been in the case of CBD. As for how quickly things will happen, the answer is, as the hon. Lady would imagine, as soon as possible.
The SNP spokesman was spot on. This is about not just drugs such as ketamine and diazepam, but beta blockers, which can also be extremely dangerous in the wrong hands. Will my right hon. Friend speak to the Home Secretary and say, “Look. This is a medical treatment. It shouldn’t be a controlled drug as such”? This treatment should not be stopped at our borders, particularly when it appears that not enough people are prepared to prescribe it.
I spoke to the Home Secretary this morning about the issue, and we proposed to see it as a health matter, not a borders matter. The Border Force officers were merely following the rules, and the question is about whether the drug is licensed. If it is not licensed, but it is controlled, the question is about whether it has clinical sign-off. The truth is that the compound does have negative effects, so it must be a controlled drug. I do not support the legalisation of all cannabis. Unless one supports the legalisation of cannabis in all cases, it has to be a controlled drug, which leads us to where we are. We must get the evidence of the medical and clinical benefits that the families have emphatically explained, and I want to see this situation dealt with properly.
Some reports suggest that even Alfie Dingley, whose case gave rise to the new legislation, probably would not be eligible for medicinal cannabis under the new regulations because they are so strict. The Health and Social Care Secretary says that 95,000 clinicians are ready and waiting to sign off prescriptions, but can he explain why they are not doing so? If it is as easy as that, surely they would be doing it, so what else will he do to look at the barriers?
We have ensured that all the patients who received access to medicinal cannabis on an exceptional basis before the law changed on 1 November can continue to access it. If that is not the case in any instance, I want to know about that so that we can fix it. Alfie Dingley would be eligible for these drugs if a clinician were prepared to sign off the benefits for Alfie, and such decisions must be led by clinicians. I am doing everything I can to get the evidence and second opinions in place and to ensure that the process works as well as possible. That is what I can do. What I cannot do—it would be unreasonable for any Health Secretary to do so—is overrule clinical decision making in individual cases. That would be wrong, and I do not think that any Member of this House would propose that I should do it.
A number of us have been written to by constituents about such cases, and I have corresponded with the Secretary of State about Julie and Stuart Young, the parents of Lloyd, for example. Clinical trials have been mentioned across the House, but a piece of legislation is already in place. The Access to Medical Treatments (Innovation) Act 2016, which was sponsored by me in the Commons and by Lord Saatchi in the other place, seems ideally suited to help us through this sticky situation.
Yes, we are looking carefully at how we can use that legislation as effectively as possible. Understanding the medical consequences of any use of a drug is incredibly helpful evidence for where it should be prescribed further, and that is the thrust of the 2016 Act.
I congratulate the right hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Sir Mike Penning), my co-chair of the APPG on medical cannabis under prescription. The situation is, frankly, intolerable. I have spoken with all of the families requesting medicinal cannabis with THC—let us not forget the THC. I am sure that Teagan will get a second opinion and that she is another child who will get access to medical cannabis, but what about all the others? They cannot wait. My right hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw) spoke truthfully about the inquiry and the evidence it has taken. The BPNA has not spoken as it should have and it has not done enough to support the families.
The BPNA is going to have to answer for itself about the way in which its representatives conducted themselves in front of the Select Committee. It is independent. Understandably, in medicine the bodies that make clinical guidance do not direct the answer for that clinical guidance to the Secretary of State. I understand the hon. Lady’s strength of feeling and that of others. I also understand the strength of feeling of the parents. I understand what a desperate situation they are in, and I am trying to make sure that it can be resolved and that they can get the drugs. I make one point to the hon. Lady: the very exercise of a clinical trial requires us to get the drugs to some children. I very much hope, therefore, that the start of a clinical trial can help to get the drugs to the people who need them. We do not have to wait for the results.
Although medicinal cannabis can have great benefits for some epileptic children, we should not forget the devastating impact that cannabis can have and its long-term impact on psychosis and schizophrenia. [Interruption.] I speak from personal experience of living with an affected family member. It is right that this is dealt with on a case-by-case basis. How soon will updated training be available for our health professionals?
The updated training will be available imminently. There are risks as well as upsides, and it is absolutely right that it is clinicians who make the judgment in respect of every decision and based on the individual patient. That, I am afraid, is the way in which medicine always has been—and, I imagine, always will be—practised in this country.
Will the Secretary of State confirm whether it is true that if a Dutch mother brought the same medicine to the United Kingdom, she could administer it to her own Dutch child without the import licence that Emma Appleby is saying that she must have? If that is true, is this not just another example of how shambolically this policy is being implemented?
I have heard that accusation being made by a couple of the parents. I am advised that that is not the case, but I am very much looking into it because in these circumstances I always think we need to listen to the people who are trying to resolve the issue. I am looking into that very point.
I have previously raised the case of my constituent, 11-month-old Nathaniel Leahy, who, owing to his extremely rare form of epilepsy, lives in great pain. His mum told me today:
“I am living in fear each day that Nathaniel will not make it to the next day. We were promised in November of last year that this medicine would be available.”
Does the Secretary of State understand the powerful sense of frustration felt by families such as Nathaniel’s, and will he address the question of the guidelines so that we can have fewer stringent guidelines, to benefit patients?