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.
What is all this money for?
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.
The hon. Member for North Wiltshire (James Gray) is another mentee of the right hon. Member for New Forest West (Sir Desmond Swayne).
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.
I certainly agree with my right hon. Friend. Focusing on land that has already been developed, and indeed on brownfield land, rather than green-belt land, will allow us to cherish our green spaces and the natural environment around us.
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.
Three years ago the Mayor of London clearly promised to build 14,000 more low-cost homes every single year, but he has never touched that target. What has gone wrong and what needs to change?
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.
Does not the evidence suggest that the viability assessment system is suppressing social house building and that it is unnecessary given the high profitability in the development sector?
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?
I totally agree with my hon. Friend’s message. I am sure that others outside this place will have heard it, too, as we look towards local council elections, with Conservative councils delivering more for their residents and better value for money.
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.
Flooding is a real threat to our coastal communities. Will my hon. Friend ensure that construction of new infrastructure in Looe is fully funded to maintain the town’s economic viability and future prosperity?
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.
Yes, but we must not forget Bexhill and Battle either.
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?
Responsibility for high needs funding rests with the Department for Education, but I would be more than happy to raise that point with my colleagues.
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.
Will Ministers support vulnerable children through to adulthood by enabling them to access integrated services through the roll-out of family hubs?
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 with 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 sincerely hope that the hon. Member for Eddisbury (Antoinette Sandbach) will have the Minister’s tribute framed and displayed in an appropriate place in her home, for she is not merely a champion but an exceptional champion.
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.
Last time I looked, Taunton Deane was a considerable distance away from the midlands, but I am in a generous mood, so we must hear the hon. Lady.
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.
Since 2010, over 21,850 new homes have been delivered in Tyne and Wear. In March, we announced over £16 million from the housing infrastructure fund, which will help to unlock a further 5,000 homes.
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.
New developments have to meet the needs of local people, not developers. Will the Secretary of State meet me to discuss the plans for York Central, which fail on transport, housing and climate credentials?
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.
The application from my hon. Friend to be the high-profile supporter of the new south-western powerhouse is now complete. I look forward to working with her to ensure we provide support for her ambitions and those of the people she represents.
Online agent Rightmove continues to allow discrimination against low earners, single parents and the disabled by declaring “No DSS” on its portals. Will the Minister please take action to end this potentially unlawful practice?
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.
Lack of knowledge of the armed forces covenant and of joined-up working in some cases is one of the key barriers to veterans getting the help that they need. What more can we do to increase joined-up working and awareness?
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.]
Do the Government consider it fair and reasonable for devolved local authority areas to charge people living outside those areas more for exactly the same services?
No, and if the hon. Gentleman writes and gives me details I will look into that.
Citizens Advice reports that local authority debt collection practices are a growing factor in those approaching it seeking help on problem debt. What can the Minister do to roll out best practice to local authorities?
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.
Yes, young Hughes—Eddie Hughes.
Thank you again, Mr Speaker. Will the Minister consider allowing local authority licensing committees to authorise the use of digital ID for the purchase of alcohol?
We are always keen to embrace whatever technology we can to improve service to our constituents. I would be delighted to meet my hon. Friend and look at his suggestion.
Another new young Member requiring cultivation: Mr Barry Sheerman.
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.
There was I thinking that the Secretary of State would be the first to congratulate the hon. Member for Watford (Richard Harrington) on his prodigious efforts and output as a Minister, but I am sure that that will come ere long.
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.
Can the Secretary of State give some more detail on the time line for this very welcome review? I am sure that we all sympathise with parents such as Mrs Appleby, who is doing everything she can for her daughter.
Yes, the call for randomised control trials and the process evaluation are both being conducted very urgently by NHS England.
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.
My hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Chris Heaton-Harris) was a good Minister, too.
Another ex-Minister to compliment. I am bit surprised by the Secretary of State. He is slipping from his usual standard. I thought that he would be busily cultivating his hon. Friend. [Laughter.]
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.
I will not use that word, but I totally agree with my right hon. Friend. I say to the Secretary of State that this has got to stop. We cannot wait for clinical trials. There is medicine out there—get it to the children who need it.
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 do not know whether that is true—that is a question of Home Office policy on controlled drugs—but all in all that does not change the fact of the matter, which is that we need to resolve this issue as soon as possible.
If the principal issue is that doctors will not prescribe, is there a secondary problem when there is a prescription but the bureaucracy is failing to honour it?
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?
I entirely understand that sense of frustration. I went to meet some of the parents to hear directly from them the pain and suffering that they and their children are feeling, which I entirely understand. That is one of the reasons why we are pushing so hard to try to resolve this. Resolving the questions around the guidelines is also important but, as the hon. Gentleman knows, those guidelines are written independently of Ministers.
My constituent Teagan Appleby suffers horrendously with one of the worst cases of child epilepsy in the United Kingdom. It has been heartrending to go round to her house to see her suffering. To see how her mother, Emma, copes with the challenge is inspiring.
Legal heroin, morphine, has been prescribed in this country for many decades. Why can we not have legal cannabis, too? Is it not high time that the NHS got on with changing the guidelines to make sure that medicinal cannabis is available, rather than wasting time arresting Emma at Southend airport, which is quite the wrong thing to see?
My hon. Friend represents Teagan Appleby, her family and her parents, and he speaks for the whole House in what he says. He has captured the essence of this debate. I am trying to resolve it to his satisfaction and to the family’s satisfaction as soon as possible. There are barriers to that resolution, and I am happy to work with him, with the APPG and with all others who have constituency cases to try to resolve this significant problem.
The Secretary of State will be aware of the case of my constituent Cole Thomson, aged six, who has battled repeated epileptic seizures every night and has had terrible periods of deterioration. In order to gain the prescription, we have had to battle the system as well as the illness. Parents do not have the energy, when they are looking after a sick child, to battle the system, so can the Secretary of State ensure the streamlining of this process to make sure that specialist training is available? In the meantime, will he make available to parents a register of the specialists who can prescribe medicinal cannabis? The postcode lottery cannot go on.
Yes, I would be very happy to do both those things.
I commend the Secretary of State for his statement. I, like many others in this House, have had constituents visit me to make powerful, personal cases on the impact they think cannabis oil could have for their children. Will he join me in praising the work of the campaign group End Our Pain, which has done such a good job of highlighting this issue and making sure that we in this House are aware of the situation and of the benefits it can bring?
I have already paid tribute to the APPG, and today’s urgent question has demonstrated the breadth of concern in this House. Those who are independent of Government need to make sure that they listen to this level of concern. I am certainly determined to do everything I can to try to resolve this issue.
It has always been the case that the Home Secretary could issue a special licence to allow the medical use of cannabis oil. I understand that the Health Secretary may be seeing him this evening, and I wondered whether he will ask him to consider this course of action.
One of the great frustrations for me, for the Home Secretary and, of course, for the families is that, before the law was changed on 1 November, that course of action was open. For a few dozen cases, the Home Secretary made those special licences to allow for the use of medicinal cannabis. He and I changed the law together to try to make sure that medicinal cannabis is available on a mainstream basis. Now it is available on a mainstream basis, as a normal drug, it therefore needs clinical sign-off. The problem is there are so many cases where that clinical sign-off has not been forthcoming. That is a source of immense frustration to me, as I hope the hon. Lady can imagine, and it is what we are trying to resolve.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that we should be led by evidence? As our scientific knowledge continues to progress, so should the views and the laws made in this House. Will he provide more clarity, not just in this instance but as new and more radical drugs become available in the near future, on how our constituents and this House could benefit and push through laws more quickly?
My hon. Friend makes a very important point. To ensure that the use of medical cannabis becomes mainstream, we need to ensure that the evidence base is there. Essentially, doctors think there is a much deeper evidence base for CBD than for THC. There is a broader point, which is that the medical profession and this House need to keep up to speed with the evidence as it is developed. In this case, that means going out of our way to develop the evidence and to have clinical trials in which some of the patients who want the drug can participate. That will provide the evidence base that allows the vast array of specialists to prescribe it.
It was clear from the evidence given to the Health and Social Care Committee that the Government raised public expectations when they rescheduled medical cannabis. I wonder whether it is time for the Secretary of State to ensure that there is a public awareness campaign, with full information about what the Government are trying to do.
I will look at that idea and discuss it with the NHS. The training programme that we are putting in place is intended to raise awareness of the evidence and the change in rules among the profession—among doctors and the specialist prescribing doctors on the register. Ultimately, it is only with clinical sign-off that we allow any drug to be prescribed. That is where the training needs to be in the first instance, but I will look at the hon. Lady’s suggestion of doing it more broadly.
Anyone who goes through the heart-rending experience of seeing a very sick family member suffer will know that they would do anything to help that person, often reaching the point of desperation. People need to be confident that they can get hold of cannabis-based medicines if it is appropriate and that those medicines are safe. In this instance, there is a lot riding on the shoulders of our doctors. Will my right hon. Friend assure us that doctors are being given the right guidance to do what is right for patients, but also that they will not be blamed if something goes wrong?
Yes, I think that is exactly the right approach and it is what we are working towards.
I thank the right hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Sir Mike Penning) for raising this important issue, which affects one of my constituents, Murray Gray, directly. His mother is one of those parents who is now desperate, having been given hope.
Does the Secretary of State agree that we have the evidence from abroad that these medicines can work and we have the willingness of everybody in this House to make it work, but somehow there is a gap between our willingness and our ability to make it happen? Will he assure the House that he will speak to the Home Secretary and to the devolved Administrations who have NHS responsibility to try to get some kind of action through co-operation to reassure the parents who are desperate not just because their children will suffer but because they may not survive?
Yes, of course; I am very happy to do that. Perhaps I should take this opportunity to welcome the new public health Minister, the Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, my hon. Friend the Member for South Ribble (Seema Kennedy) to her post. She will, no doubt, have listened to all the questions today. She and I will be working on making this happen.
I would add to the hon. Lady’s list, because this is not just about the Home Office and the Department of Health and Social Care; it is about making sure that the independent medical establishment has confidence in the evidence that is presented. It is not enough for her and I to have confidence as lay politicians; it is important that the professionals who put their signature on the line have confidence in the evidence as well.
Does the Secretary of State appreciate the public’s concern that, at a time when several police forces have openly admitted that they will not take action against those involved in recreational cannabis use, the full weight of the Home Office’s Border Force is deployed to intercept medication for a seriously ill young child? Surely getting medication to a seriously ill young girl should never be a crime.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. The Border Force should not be criticised in this case, because it was following the rules: if a clinician has not signed something off it cannot come in. It is incumbent on us on the health side to sort out this problem. He makes a broader point, however, that this is a completely separate issue to the recreational use of cannabis. I do not support a change in the rules on the recreational use of cannabis; this is about the specialist provision of drugs to some children who are the most vulnerable people in society, and the need to ensure that the medical benefits of such drugs can be brought to bear on people who really need them.
Like many colleagues, I have spoken with parents of children who have profound challenges that could be ameliorated by medicinal cannabis. They are at their wits’ end, and it is no surprise to find that some in this country resort to desperate measures. I have listened for 45 minutes now and I cannot tell the answer to this question: is the Secretary of State really saying that we have a clear, universal, safe and compassionate approach to this issue and, if we do not, when will we?
I am saying that if a patient needs medicinal cannabis, and if a clinician will sign off on that need, the prescription can happen. The guidance from the association does not override the individual judgment of that clinician. That can happen but, because it has not been happening in many cases that have been brought to light, some privately and some very publically, I am putting in place a system of second opinions to ensure that we can get that clinical decision right, at the same time as developing a stronger evidence base for the future.
Reuben Young is an 11-year-old boy in my constituency who suffers from myoclonic astatic epilepsy, which is a severe and rare form of epilepsy. His mother, Emma, is at her wits’ end. Conventional medicines do not work and she has tried to get a prescription for Epidiolex, which is a cannabis-derived medicine. She tells me that she is unable to get it because the physicians involved say that the guidelines prevent them from prescribing it. I do not know why, but for some reason the change in policy last November is not leading to a change in practice. I ask the Secretary of State to speak with the Home Secretary and to have an urgent—I mean in days or weeks—review to see how the existing guidelines can do better.
Those guidelines are not a matter for the Home Secretary; they are guidelines in the health space, although the association that writes them does not report directly to me but is independent. Those guidelines do not prevent a physician who is on the specialist register of the General Medical Council from prescribing. If anybody has been told that they do, they do not; it is up to the individual professional judgment of a specialist clinician on the register to prescribe or not.
Lara Smith, my constituent, is really upset about what happened to Teagan and her family at the weekend. Lara travels to Holland every three months to get a schedule 2 drug, Bedrocan, for her seriously debilitating illness. It could be imported but, if it was, unfortunately, she would have to bear the licence fee. Will the Minister say whether anything can be done for her?
Yes. My heart goes out to the hon. Lady’s constituent and her family. One of the purposes of the evidence gathering that we are doing, and of the calls of the national institute for trials, is to provide the evidence on which the NHS could routinely provide those medicines. At the moment, we have the ability for specialists to prescribe in the interim, but I want to get the evidence base in place for the longer term.
One of my constituents—one of many who has been in touch with me about this issue—has multiple sclerosis and found previously that cannabis helped his symptoms immensely, but he does not want to break the law and he cannot get a prescription. What would the Secretary of State advise him to do?
If the hon. Lady will write to me with the case, we will get a second opinion from a clinician who may be able to make that prescription.
I agree that we need to remove the barriers for clinicians. We need evidence, but the problem with randomised control trials is the nature of cannabis. The fact that it contains many different compounds that interact makes it difficult to isolate the compounds that work for individuals. Cannabis is a unique treatment, and should really be in a licensing and scheduling category of its own to allow different approaches. I urge the Secretary of State to encourage observational trials so that we can allow patients to get access to the medical cannabis that will work for them.
We looked at observational trials, but the problem is that they do not build the evidence base that a full RCT does. A full RCT also allows some patients to get access while the trial is ongoing, so it is in fact a better proposal. It means that some patients can get the treatment now for the purposes of the trial, and then we can get a full evidence base for the long term, as was mentioned previously.
The law may be an ass, but it does not have to be applied in an asinine way, as it was in the case of Emma Appleby. Will the Secretary of State have words with the Home Secretary to make sure that it is not repeated? My constituent, Bailey Williams, is 16 years of age and suffers from the most severe form of epilepsy. He has multiple seizures every day. His parents, Rachel and Craig, are absolutely convinced that we need observational trials and more immediate action. I accept that this was unintended, but sadly the change in the law has made things worse, not better, for those parents. What will the Secretary of State do to turn that around quickly?
It is a source of deep frustration to me that the change in the law to normalise the use of medicinal cannabis has, exactly as the hon. Gentleman says, meant that, because a clinical decision is needed for a prescription, and because in many cases clinical decisions are not forthcoming, many parents who entirely understandably think that their child would benefit from medicinal cannabis now find that they cannot get a clinician to sign it off. That is at the root of the problems that we are trying to tackle today.
Although the Secretary of State is adamant that the guidelines are not a problem, it is clear that they and the associated liability are an issue. Let us hope that the review will pick that up. Four-year-old Logan Chafey in my constituency is the only child in the whole of Europe who has chromosome 7p duplication syndrome. One of the current rules is that there needs to be a proven benefit before a clinician can prescribe medicinal cannabis. How can we get to a position where Logan can get medicinal cannabis?
He will be able to get it now if a clinician is prepared to sign off on it being the right thing for him. If that is not forthcoming now, I have announced today a system of second opinions to allow people to get the clinical sign-off that they need.
Order. It is in the interest of the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald) that I call his Chief Whip before him.
The expectations of too many families have been raised by the Government’s previous announcements. It really is time that they get a move on. I will write to the Secretary of State about my young constituent who has Aicardi syndrome. Her parents firmly believe that medical cannabis would help her symptoms and seizures. What steps is he taking to ensure that those kinds of rare syndromes are taken into account at trial stage?
They must be taken into account. It comes down to the question of the complexity of cannabis and the many dozens of active agents in it; CBD and THC, which we have mostly been discussing today, are the main ones. Many drugs have similarly complex interactions. Modern science and medicine are capable, in a controlled environment, of getting to the bottom of which ones have the effect. That is why it is better to do a full RCT with the full scientific structure around it, rather than an observational trial. That will get the drugs to the people who need them quickly, and will provide the evidence base. I hope that that satisfies the hon. Gentleman that, in that space, we are doing as much as we can. On the timing, I want it to happen as quickly as possible.
It was a very wise decision. Thank you, Mr Speaker.
I, too, have constituents who have been exiled to the Netherlands to secure medicinal cannabis for a severely epileptic child, and others who are spending a fortune importing cannabis oil from Canada to help slow the progression of a terminal brain tumour. Will families such as these soon be able to take part in proper clinical trials, as they would be able to elsewhere, so that they can have some hope and we can all benefit from the evidence that will be gained?
Yes, absolutely. If the hon. Gentleman will write to me about the specific case, I will ensure it is dealt with appropriately.
(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will make a statement on the situation in Libya.
Yet again, this is a dangerous moment for Libya. The UK has wholeheartedly supported the UN’s tireless work under its own action plan to prepare the ground for the national conference due to take place in Libya on 14 April. The UK has warned that any Libyan national army advance on Tripoli would be catastrophic for this political and diplomatic process and risks a descent into more widespread violence. I am afraid I have to tell the House that this scenario appears to be developing, following the LNA advances towards the west and south of Tripoli and the subsequent mobilisation of forces loyal to the internationally recognised Government of National Accord, headed by the Libyan Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj, to oppose that advance.
General Haftar, who is the leader of the Libyan national army, and his aligned forces retain control of Gharyan, which is only 75 km from Tripoli, and have taken the international airport to the south of the capital. I should say that that is not the central Mitiga airport, which is more usually used by those travelling to the city. It was reported only yesterday that some 21 people were killed, and I understand there is ongoing fire almost as we speak.
General Haftar appears to show no sign of stalling his advance, despite urgent diplomatic efforts to urge de-escalation, including a meeting with UN Secretary-General Guterres last week in Tripoli. We continue to focus our diplomatic lobbying on key international partners, and I know that the Foreign Secretary—he is at the Foreign Affairs Council in Brussels today—has worked together with the other G7 nations, which have come out with a notice on this matter. We therefore call on regional counterparts, in particular in Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, to have an eye on the peace plan that has been proposed.
There of course remains a severe risk of escalation between pro-LNA and anti-LNA armed groups. For our purposes, political staff in post have been withdrawn for some time to the Libya office in Tunis in neighbouring Tunisia. The House will appreciate, I hope, that we will not go into great specific detail about exactly what remaining diplomatic staff we have in that country. Obviously, we are keeping these matters under review.
All Libyan parties need urgently to pursue de-escalation to avoid further miscalculation and to recommit unashamedly to the UN-led initiative and political process. There is still time to prevent further violence and to find a political solution. Any party whose actions precipitate violence and bloodshed should now be held accountable by the international community. I call on all our international partners to send the strongest possible message to the LNA commander, Haftar, to back down and to re-engage with the UN process. Indeed, it was at the instigation of the UK, as the penholder at the UN Security Council, that a special session was held at the Security Council in New York on Friday.
The UN reports that the violence has caused the displacement of more than 2,800 people in recent months, which has meant that emergency aid cannot reach casualties, including civilians. It is imperative that all parties respect international humanitarian and human rights law. The UK will continue its concerted diplomatic efforts to urge de-escalation in Libya. We will work in the UN Security Council, the European Union and all other international forums to urge all parties in Libya to re-engage with the political process.
I thank the Minister for his answer, and I thank officials in his Department in particular for their ongoing work.
Despite everything else that is going on in Government, I am sure the Minister agrees that the UK has a special responsibility to Libya after the military intervention under the coalition Government. In the aftermath of that conflict and the overthrow of Colonel Gaddafi, Libya has indeed joined the list of failed and fragile states around the world, and, as during the current violence, it is the people of Libya who have suffered the most.
Back in 2011, before the military action, Mr Cameron warned at the Scottish Conservative party conference that if we did not take action,
“Libya will become once again a pariah state, festering on Europe’s border, a source of instability, exporting strife beyond her borders”.
My concern is that the lessons of Iraq clearly were not learned in Libya, with spending on military action far outstripping spending on rebuilding. One UN official described the UK’s efforts as
“paltry bone-throwing from a European country whose bombers reaped so much destruction”.
What lessons have been learned from Iraq, and from Libya previously, as we respond to this latest crisis? More specifically, What bilateral support are the UK Government providing for the UN peace process, good governance in Libya, and internal and external security measures in that country?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his contribution. I think the whole House recognises, as he does, that despite all the other excitement there are a number of areas where the Foreign Office and other elements of Government still have a very active role to play. I think we can be very proud of the work we do. He will know that we are also a penholder at the UN in relation to Yemen, and of course I answered an urgent question on that matter in the House only 10 days ago.
The hon. Gentleman is pretty robust in his views about what happened in 2011. He will remember that, although the intervention was international—it was called for by the Arab League and authorised by the UN Security Council—this Parliament voted in support of UK involvement to prevent attacks on civilians. However, he is correct that after that intervention, although the UK played a role in trying to ensure that there was further planning for a Libyan-owned, UN co-ordinated stabilisation effort, that did not come to pass in the way we would have liked.
There were clear early successes in the immediate aftermath of 2011 that were not sustained. As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, General Haftar, who was himself in exile for some 20 years, having fallen out with the Gaddafi regime at the beginning of the 1990s, returned and was regarded as an international operator, with close connections with the US Administration. Obviously, he was not able to make as much progress as he would have liked immediately in 2011, and then, when the civil war broke out in 2014, he had a part to play.
The concern one has about the Haftar regime is whether another strongman is what Libya requires. I think Libya requires democracy. It requires the sort of work the UN will continue steadfastly to do and try to bring about. My biggest concern is that it is very evident that General Haftar does not regard democracy as an important way forward for Libya. Clearly, a number of other groups associated with him are working in a rather negative way, not least given their religious connotations, whether they are from Egypt, the UAE or elsewhere. As a result, I do not think that is the right way forward.
I wanted to give a full answer to the hon. Gentleman, who requested this urgent question. Please be assured that the UK continues to work with international partners in this regard. We take very seriously our responsibilities in that part of the world. As the hon. Gentleman is well aware, the implications of Libya becoming a failed state in terms of migration flows, which have already been fairly substantial over the last three or four years since the civil war broke out, are obviously very worrying. It is evident that the international contingent will need to work together for quite some time to try to bring stability to that country.
I observe that there is considerable competition between cerebral colleagues—very challenging for the Chair. I call Andrew Mitchell.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. The Minister is surely right that all members of the international community should line up behind the proposals put forward by António Guterres, the Secretary-General of the United Nations. The Minister is equally right to underline the point that the earlier British intervention was a humanitarian intervention, approved by the United Nations, to stop a terrible massacre of people in Benghazi, which would have taken place had we not intervened.
I thank my right hon. Friend for what he has said. We were exchanging notes earlier—we were both abroad this weekend and rushed back, from Rwanda in his case and Bangladesh in mine, for this statement.
Let me say a little about the broader aid work that has been done. As part of the Department for International Development’s £75 million migration programme, working along the whole route from west Africa via the Sahel to Libya, up to £5 million has been allocated for humanitarian assistance and protection for migrants and refugees in Libya, including targeted healthcare. We will continue to do that important work into the future, with humanitarian measures in mind.
Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question. I also thank the hon. Member for North East Fife (Stephen Gethins) for securing it. I can only echo what he and the Minister said about the latest disastrous turn of events in Libya and what must be done to address it. As things stand, Libya faces the worst possible choice, between a return to autocratic military rule and permanent civil war. I join others in urging the Government not just to put pressure on Egypt and the UAE, as the Minister mentioned, but to put pressure on France to cease its support for Haftar’s assault on Tripoli and to get the UN peace process back on track.
In the short time that I have, I want to ask the Minister of State, as the hon. Member for North East Fife did, whether he agrees that what we are seeing today shows that the lessons of our intervention in Iraq have not been learned—not truly, not really—and also shows how wrong David Cameron was to suggest that they had been when he published the Chilcot report in 2016. As I said back then, so many of the same disastrous mistakes made by the Governments of the UK and the US over Libya were made by their predecessors over Iraq, most importantly the total and inexcusable failure to prepare for the aftermath of intervention and regime change and to prevent the descent into civil war and instability that Libya still faces today.
How ironic that, a week after he published the Chilcot report, David Cameron left office having created another total mess, with no planning for the aftermath and leaving it to others to face the consequences. As well as everything that must be done now to deal with the situation in Libya today, does the Minister of State agree that it is time for the Government to revisit the recommendations of the Chilcot report to ensure not just that there are no more Iraqs, but that there are no more Libyas?
The recommendations of the Chilcot report were accepted by the Government of the time and I am sure play an active day-to-day part in all the work done in places such as Libya and will continue to do so.
The right hon. Lady asks about the message that we might have for the French Government, who, as she rightly points out, have a stronger relationship with General Haftar and his group. We are working together, as she will be aware, both at the UN Security Council and in the EU, and the G7 have issued a joint statement to bring everyone to the table.
Many hon. Members in all parts of the House would not disagree with much of what the right hon. Lady says. Our engagement and involvement in Iraq and Libya have turned out to have calamitous outcomes. Some progress has been made—one looks to Iraq, where Islamic State has been taken out of the picture. The concern that many rightly have now is about an escalating conflict in Libya. One reason for the urgency behind trying to get everyone round the table to secure a peaceful and diplomatic solution is the concern that Libya could again become a recruiting partner for Islamic State and strengthen Islamic State, which has been wiped out in Iraq and Syria.
We all recognise how interconnected all these issues are. It is important to try to work together constructively. I would like to think that there have been lessons learned, and I think that Chilcot provides an important blueprint and template to ensure that we learn those lessons in future.
I very much welcome the Minister’s comments on the UK’s actions and potential actions in Libya in coming days, but will he touch on the actions of other nations? We have already heard France mentioned and perhaps the United States should be asked whether it has a view, but surely the most important thing is to ask the Kremlin what it is doing. It has troops on the ground, provides military assistance and is already playing a very important role in destabilising the country. Perhaps he could ask his Russian opposite number what Russia is doing to try to bring peace to the country.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right: Russia has clearly been supportive of the Haftar initiative. It is therefore all the more important that it is kept on board. There is no doubt that the US has a major interest. General Haftar spent 20 years in the US, so is clearly well-connected in that Administration. We are trying to do as much work as we can within the UN framework. As my hon. Friend will be aware, António Gutteres was literally in Libya at the end of last week for the preliminary stage of trying to work through the conference that we still hope will take place at the end of next week. The UN is clearly the right way to do this. I very much hope that my line manager, the Foreign Secretary, will, in the course of the next few days, have options to speak with various counterparts, including those from Russia.
The lesson from Libya and many other countries is that after a long period of brutal dictatorship it is not uncommon to see different factions fighting for power to see who will take over. As the Minister said, we must do everything we can to support Prime Minister al-Serraj’s Government. The question I want to ask the Minister is on humanitarian assistance. I welcome his announcement about the money DFID will provide, but given the proximity of General Haftar’s forces to Tripoli, who will actually be able to provide that humanitarian assistance on the ground if, heaven forbid, there is even more fighting in the suburbs of Tripoli, given that we hear reports that many people from the international community are in the process of being, if they have not already been, evacuated from Tripoli?
The right hon. Gentleman makes a very good point, which I alluded to in my reply to the hon. Member for North East Fife (Stephen Gethins). It is a concern that some humanitarian aid, which is so desperately required for the most recent incidents, cannot reach people. We will work with the international community. Through our aid efforts we already work with a number of NGOs with long-standing connections on the ground, but this is a fluid situation that will require a long and concerted international effort. We are watching what is happening on a day-by-day basis. It is in everyone’s interests that all parties get around the table at the earliest possible opportunity for the reasons the right hon. Gentleman points out. The worst of all options for the humanitarian situation is that there are ungoverned spaces in Libya where terrible atrocities have taken place and will continue to take place.
The proud author and owner of a doctorate in strategic studies, Dr Julian Lewis.
Thank you, Mr Speaker, for that introduction. Which side are our sworn Islamist enemies backing in Libya?
My right hon. Friend, I know, feels strongly about these matters. They are backing different sides. All sides have, in a quite disparate way, elements of Islamic State or other extremist Islamist groups. This is the nub of the problem. Faustian bargains have been made by most of those who would either be warlords or would run Libya. They are building very unstable coalitions, which I think are very destructive for the reasons he alludes to.
There is significant evidence that the United Arab Emirates is supporting Haftar’s efforts in east Libya. Surely we, as candid friends of the Emiratis, should make it clear to them that that is unacceptable. Does that take us to a point where, as candid friends, we may need to be a bit more candid and a bit less friendly?
There is little doubt that the influence of the United States only last year in the Benghazi region was profound. At that point, when it looked as though Haftar was going to move forward, it was made clear that the US would not just be unsupportive but would prevent such efforts. As I have said, the situation is now very fluid. We will make strong representations to those from the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Russia who have essentially backed the Haftar efforts in east and south Libya. We also very much hope that they use whatever diplomatic efforts they can to bring him to the negotiating table.
Not a doctor, but a former Minister, no less: Sir Henry Bellingham.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. First, I declare my interest as the Prime Minister’s trade envoy to Libya. I congratulate the Minister and the UK on the role they played in helping to secure the recent UN Security Council resolution condemning the military advance. Does he agree that it is extremely disappointing that Haftar ignored the recent EU delegation at Benghazi that urged him to allow the forthcoming national conference to go ahead? He has mentioned this already, but will he give more details about those countries—the UAE, Egypt and Russia in particular—that have actively supported General Haftar? What more can we do to ensure that they play a constructive role?
I thank my hon. Friend, who was the Minister for Africa and is our trade envoy to Libya. As he said to me earlier, there is understandably not a lot of trade going on between the countries at the moment, but I know he has a strong interest in and love of Libya and that he wishes that country all the best.
We are doing all that we can within the international community. There is a united UN front to try to ensure that we move ahead and that the conference takes place next week. It is the only game in town to ensure a better life for all Libyans going forward.
With tensions escalating, what concrete action are the Government taking to deal with the terrible conditions in the camps on the coast of Libya where people are being trafficked?
As I pointed out to the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn), the difficulty is that, as conflict starts, suddenly other parts of Libya become difficult to reach for many involved in humanitarian aid-giving. As the hon. Lady will know, we are doing all that we can within those camps. I touched on the substantial amount of money we have put in through our DFID budget in years gone by, and we will continue to do so in as accurate a way as possible. She rightly points out that issues such as people trafficking and sexual violence in conflict are at the forefront of our mind. We recognise that there are major issues in Libya as it stands.
The Lincolnshire knight: Sir Edward Leigh.
Here we go again, making the same mistakes as we made in Iraq and Syria. I agree with everything the shadow Foreign Secretary said. The Government of national accord is actually a Government of national chaos, deeply infiltrated by jihadism. Does the Minister think that Egypt is safer, and the people happier, with the Government of General Sisi or the Government of the Muslim Brotherhood?
As a relatively new boy to this brief, I will not speculate on that issue. On the point my right hon. Friend alluded to, which came up earlier, I am afraid the truth is jihadists are playing a part in almost all of these organisations. Things are much more factionalised than meets the eye, so compromises are always being made in supporting one side or another. There is an elected Government in Syria headed by the Prime Minister, Fayez al-Serraj, and we are rightly doing our best to support that Government.
I call the president of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, Mrs Madeleine Moon.
Is it in fact time to look at events in Libya as a wake-up call in relation to Russia’s increasing involvement in Africa? It is looking for bases for its troops and access to Libyan ports. It already has naval logistics centres in Eritrea and Sudan, military co-operation agreements with Burkina Faso, Burundi, Mali and Madagascar, and contracts for its mercenaries in the Central African Republic, Sudan, Niger, Chad and Mauritania, all of whom, coincidentally, give it support at the United Nations. Is it not time to look at the bigger picture?
I thank the hon. Lady for her question. I like to think that we do try to look at the bigger picture, but she is right. Increasingly, for economic and other reasons, including diplomatic reasons, as she rightly says—having support at the United Nations is important to both Russia and China, for example—we do need to look at the bigger picture. The opportunities that are there because of the rising population of Africa mean that it will receive more and more attention, which is sometimes paid, I am afraid, in a rather nefarious way, as she pointed out.
Recent developments in Libya are very worrying for the Libyan population, but in recent years Libya has been a route for many economic migrants, asylum seekers and those fleeing war in other parts of Africa. What assessment has the Minister made of the likely impact on migrants seeking to come across in very perilous conditions to places such as Lampedusa in the Mediterranean, and what discussions has he had with our still EU partners about the precautions that can be taken to deal with a potential flood of further refugees?
I am afraid that my hon. Friend is absolutely right: the porous borders in other parts of Africa and the fact that Libya is on the seafront of the Mediterranean makes it an attractive proposition. The British Government have allocated some £12 million in this financial year for Libya through the conflict, stability and security fund, which is designed to boost not only political participation but economic development, which is key to providing opportunities to generations of Libyans as well as, hopefully, in other parts of Africa. We are trying to support the delivery of greater security, stability and resilience in the entirety of this region.
It is simplistic to draw analogies between Libya and Iraq, but does the Minister agree that the intervention in Libya was to stop a potential massacre in Benghazi, as the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) said? The Minister also made the point in his statement that 260,000 people have been displaced. What assessment have the Government made about further displacement and the effect on migration and refugees travelling across the Mediterranean?
There is an ongoing assessment of migrant flows, and clearly we work closely with many of our EU partners—not least Italy, which is often the recipient of large numbers coming through. Just to touch on the issue of detention centres, there are appalling conditions in many of them. While we do not fund Libyan detention centres—they are the responsibility of Libyan authorities —we recognise that that becomes the starting point for many of the migrant journeys to which the right hon. Gentleman refers.
I thank the Minister for the update and I am glad to hear that he is encouraging restraint on all sides to avoid bloodshed and violence. Does he have a message for the Government of France, who have a close relationship with General Haftar?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right about the French, and as I pointed out, the United States, or aspects of the US Administration, also has a close relationship. We are calling on all international partners to use whatever influence they have to implore General Haftar to back down and to promote the peace process, which is obviously handled at the UN. I know that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has spoken to his French counterpart only today in Brussels and has made that case.
Would it be correct to say that this recent move is driven by a 75-year-old general in a hurry, who wants to create facts on the ground, supported by a coalition of anti-Muslim Brotherhood countries from the Arab world, including Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, and others who wish to exploit the oil if General Haftar takes control of it?
The hon. Gentleman knows much about this subject, and has obviously kept an eye on Libyan affairs for quite some time. General Haftar may not be the only old man in a hurry, in certain ways.
I think that the hon. Gentleman is broadly right, although I fear that the situation is less linear than he suggests. There may be groups who do not like the Muslim Brotherhood, but I think that some Faustian bargains are being made when it comes to the coalitions that are being formed. As the hon. Gentleman says, given that the strength of General Haftar’s work has tended to be in the Benghazi region, oil is clearly very much at the forefront of his mind.
The Secretary General of the United Nations said that he was leaving Libya with a heavy heart, and that he was deeply concerned about the escalation of the conflict there. However, a diplomatic and political conflict is going on behind the scenes between France and Italy. Given that both those countries are members of the European Union and of NATO, what more can the UK Government do to bring about political and diplomatic consensus, especially in view of the fact that the Russians are now very close to the new Italian Government?
I think that there is consensus among our European Union neighbours, and, as I have said, the G7 have issued a statement. It was greatly to be regretted that, for safety reasons, the Secretary General of the United Nations had to flee literally 10 days before we were hoping to get the conference under way. However, I think that a lot of diplomatic work is going on. There is a great deal of concern in the international community, which recognises that if Libya were to become a failed state, all the migration issues—as well as, obviously, the massive humanitarian issues—that we have seen in recent years would only worsen. However, we are working very closely with all our international partners, and will continue to do so.
It pains me to say that in 2011, in a speech that I made during a debate about the military intervention in Libya, I predicted everything that has been happening there since that intervention. Members are welcome to read the speech in Hansard. It is also disturbing—and has been confirmed by a report from the Foreign Affairs Committee—that there was no immediate humanitarian need requiring a military intervention. What practical assistance are we providing for the refugees—especially children—who have been caught in Tripoli?
I think it a little unfair of the hon. Lady to suggest that there was no humanitarian issue in 2011. We went in because of what was happening in Benghazi. I accept that the early optimism and successes were not sustained, and that would clearly have to happen at UN level.
I mentioned earlier the amount of aid that we continue to put into Libya. We have invested some £75 million in the migration programme, working across the whole route from west Africa to Libya via the Sahel. As I have said, we will also do all that we can in the camps that are not run by the Libyan authorities. We are all very concerned that a further outbreak of hostilities will only lead to even more humanitarian misery.
Whatever the result of the power struggle in Libya, the priority of our Government will still be to work towards compensation for the victims of Semtex supplied by Libya to the IRA. I welcome the appointment of William Shawcross to look into the whole issue, but will my right hon. Friend assure the victims that it will not be sidelined, and that the Government will continue to pursue it to ensure that justice is done and compensation is paid to those who suffered so horribly at the hands of the IRA?
May I first correct something that I said earlier? The UN Secretary General did not flee Libya, and I am sorry if I gave that impression and there was a misapprehension. Obviously, the UN still has a significant presence in Libya.
We all want to see a just solution for all the victims of Gaddafi-sponsored IRA terrorism, but the political and security situation in Libya has, I am afraid, effectively stalled further discussion with the authorities about a resolution of the important legacy issues to which my hon. Friend referred. He also referred to the appointment of William Shawcross as the special representative on UK victims, which forms part of the UK’s ongoing commitment to helping the victims of Libya-supported IRA terrorism. I share many of his concerns and much of his impatience: we would have liked to see more progress. I think he will understand that the general instability in Libya has made that difficult, but we are working steadfastly and will continue to do so.
The situation in Libya is looking increasingly desperate, as the country is on the brink of slipping back into authoritarian control. Will the Minister therefore tell us what the outcome of the discussions at the United Nations on Friday was in terms of preventing a humanitarian as well as a political crisis?
To be fair, the reality was that the United Nations Security Council was trying to enhance, and make clear that we were keen to continue with, the action plan, which would obviously have involved the conference taking place on the 14th, and to redouble the united voice of the United Nations in that regard. Clearly, the humanitarian aspects are part of the ongoing work at the bilateral level—through DFID, for us, and through other organisations—and are increasingly required at the UN and non-governmental organisation level.
Will my right hon. Friend please tell the House what measures he and his Department are taking to ensure that UK staff based in Tripoli and elsewhere in Libya are being kept safe throughout these events?
I thank my hon. Friend for that important question. Our embassy in Tripoli has remained closed since 2014, but we do have a permanent diplomatic presence, and a lot of work involving Libyan issues is undertaken from Tunis, in neighbouring Tunisia.
We do try to update the travel advice on a factual basis, and the message that we have broadly for British nationals in Libya—clearly, there are relatively few still there—states at the moment that consular assistance is not available, for obvious reasons, and that we are therefore unable to provide any form of assisted departure. That is a fairly strong signal for UK nationals that, unless it is absolutely necessary for them to be in Libya, we would advise them not to be there.
Libya is on the edge of a precipice. It is the biggest arms supplier to ISIS, Daesh, the Fulani herdsmen and criminal gangs. North Africa and middle Africa are in danger of being sucked into terrorism at levels never seen before. Can the Minister outline how he intends to use any available diplomatic and financial pressure to ensure that there is a crackdown on the international black market in the sale of arms?
The hon. Gentleman is right. One of the depressing things is that Libya has been at the edge of a precipice for more years than any of us cares to remember. As the penholder for Libya at the UN Security Council, the UK has made it and will continue to make it a priority to ensure that there is meaningful action against the illegal flow of weapons into and out of Libya. We led on Security Council resolution 2292, which authorises all member states and regional organisations to take specific and measured steps to interdict suspected embargo-breaking vessels off Libya’s coast
Following Russia’s decisive and successful intervention in support of President Assad, it now appears that Russia is backing General Haftar in Libya. What is to stop the west’s strategic foreign policy objectives being just as much of a failure in Libya as they were in Syria?
I thank my hon. Friend for his rather bleak analysis of the situation. Clearly, there are fundamental differences between what is happening in Syria and in Libya. Each of those is unique, and it would be unwise to draw too many direct parallels. As I pointed out, there are other nations involved; this is not just about Russian-led support for General Haftar—as I say, there is support from Egypt, France and the United Arab Emirates. We will do all we can in our role in the UN Security Council to try to broker an international solution, and that, I am afraid, can be the only sensible way forward.
One of the worst consequences of the conflict in Libya has been the re-emergence of an open slave trade in parts of the country, with many media interviews showing open auctions of humans. What is the British Government’s assessment of the scale of the problem, and what can be done with our international partners to break down the supply chain in humans?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right: the most bleak aspect of the humanitarian side is modern-day slavery and people trafficking. I do not have the information that he requests. The precise nature of the problem is obviously in part a matter for the Department for International Development, but I am afraid it is clear that this has become prevalent not just in Libya but in a number of neighbouring countries, and that the supply lines also cross the Mediterranean.