House of Commons
Monday 22 July 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—
More housing was delivered across England last year than in all but one of the past 31 years. We have examined the recommendations of my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Sir Oliver Letwin) on the build-out review, and the Government responded in full at the spring statement earlier this year with a commitment to speed up the planning system and introduce new guidance to encourage diversification.
May I give the Secretary of State some feedback from architects and planners in Cornwall? The community infrastructure levy is having a detrimental impact due to not only the onerous nature of the number of forms that need to be filled out, but the fact that sites that could be deliverable are not coming forward because of the money. Will he look at that to see whether he can bring forward more sites, because we all want more houses in Cornwall?
I thank my hon. Friend for the input from Cornwall, which, as he knows, is where my family hail from, so I take particular interest in it. Small developers can benefit from exemptions for self-build homes and developments of less than 100 square metres. The CIL contains flexibility and some exemptions, and we introduced guidance in July, but I will certainly listen to my hon. Friend and, indeed, other hon. Members about the community infrastructure levy.
I do, in short. Modular building is an essential part of our work to get speedier build out, to ensure diversification of materials, and to get skills for people. It has been good to see how housing associations and the private sector are starting to embrace it. There is more to do, but I recognise my hon. Friend’s point.
It is not just about how much time it takes to build a house, but about the types of house being built. Will the Secretary of State further outline whether a scheme is in place to provide smaller apartments close to town centres for elderly widows and widowers and those with mobility issues?
The hon. Gentleman will know that housing is devolved in Northern Ireland, but I recognise the absence of an Executive and therefore the need to be able to respond to such local issues. However, our policy in relation to England is clear: we want to see diversification and we want to see that local authorities are able to meet the needs of their communities.
If we are to tackle the housing crisis, we cannot just focus on the large developers. Small developers used to build two thirds of the new housing in this country, but that has gone away. Instead of just having the Help to Buy scheme, why not have a “help to build” scheme that supports or underwrites small and medium-sized construction companies to get rid of some of the difficulties that they encounter?
I totally agree with the hon. Gentleman about ensuring that smaller builders are able to play their part, which has implications for localities and for the supply chain. Indeed, funds are available for smaller builders, but it is a challenge to see how we embody that. Councils are also able to use their new flexibilities to borrow to build, and we will continue to champion that, because the diversification that he highlights is critical.
Leasehold Properties: Mis-selling
I am pleased that the Competition and Markets Authority is investigating mis-selling and onerous leasehold terms and looking at whether such terms are deemed to be unfair, and we will consider further action when it reports. That work supports a strong package of reforms to promote fairness and transparency for leaseholders.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for his comments but, despite those efforts, buyers of brand-new properties in Kidderminster in my constituency still believe that they have been misled in terms of leasehold contracts and contracts relating to communal services charges on new build estates. Given that we agree that we need to increase house building significantly across the country, does he accept that the apparent mis-selling must be properly investigated and brought to an end once and for all before the scandal affects millions upon millions of future homebuyers?
I absolutely do. Unfair practices in the leasehold market have no place in modern housing, and neither do, for example, excessive ground rents that exploit consumers who get nothing in return. I called on the Competition and Markets Authority to look into this issue, and I am pleased it has now responded, also reflecting the calls from the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee—I note that the Chair of the Committee, the hon. Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts), is in his place this afternoon.
It is right that we get to the bottom of this, that we challenge it and that we respond to these unfair practices firmly and effectively.
When will the Secretary of State introduce regulation to give leaseholders redress? The leasehold valuation tribunal is toothless and, frankly, worthless. Whether it comes to erroneous charges, mis-selling, dangerous cladding or expensive charges, leaseholders have nowhere to go. There needs to be urgent regulation.
I recognise the hon. Lady’s call, which is why we have taken a number of steps and will be bringing forward legislation to ban new leases on houses and to reduce future ground rents to zero monetary value. The Select Committee obviously highlighted the issue of existing leases as well, and we therefore now have a pledge in place and a number of people are coming forward to provide that direct response. I keep this issue under continual review as to what further steps are needed to change the situation for the future, as well as providing support for those already in this situation.
My right hon. Friend and his team have, over the past year or so, made more progress than was made in the previous 20 years, which is greatly to be welcomed. May I ask that he continue showing the open-mindedness, flexibility and drive that are necessary to undo some of the past misdeeds, whether by declaring clauses to be unfair, and therefore unenforceable, or by finding simple, low-cost ways of righting wrongs that have been around for far too long?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his comments. We have firmly focused on this issue of leasehold, and I know the close attention he pays to the steps that have been taken. Obviously, the Competition and Markets Authority will be looking at this issue of unfairness. In relation to the Select Committee’s response, there are legal complexities with existing contracts, but I assure him that we will continue to focus on this to provide that effective response.
Hundreds of my constituents have written to me similarly feeling that they have been mis-sold their freehold, so I have written to the Competition and Markets Authority asking it to extend its inquiry to cover freehold, where people have to pay excessive and ever-escalating management and service fees. Will the Secretary of State support me in this?
I certainly support the hon. Lady in seeing that inappropriate or unfair practices are properly investigated and properly responded to. If she is willing to share with me the details of the complaints she has received from her constituents, I would be happy to look into this further.
I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall North (Eddie Hughes) for his private Member’s Bill setting out the steps that are needed to bring the leasehold market into an appropriate space. He will have heard what I said about bringing ground rents down to zero. We have given that commitment, and the right thing is that we move forward with our proposed legislation. I am sure that, with his ingenuity, he will be able to scrutinise it and, no doubt, come up with further proposals to ensure that legislation is effective.
The CMA’s inquiry is certainly welcome, but it is action by Ministers that homebuyers ripped off in the leasehold system need most. The Secretary of State’s predecessor said in 2017 that the Government would stop new leasehold houses, but nearly 3,500 were sold last year. The Secretary of State himself said a year ago that he would end the use of Help to Buy for new leasehold houses, but he had to admit to me afterwards that that will not happen until 2021.
As the Secretary of State reflects on his time in this job, will he concede that any Government action has been too slow and too weak and has totally overlooked the needs of current leaseholders locked into unfair contracts?
No, I do not accept that. I direct the right hon. Gentleman to the action that has been taken and the fall that has been seen: the proportion of new build leasehold houses has fallen from 11% in quarter 4 of 2017 to 2% in quarter 4 of 2018, which was the lowest quarter so far for leasehold houses in the Help to Buy equity loan scheme.
The right hon. Gentleman issues a challenge on the existing Help to Buy scheme; he will note that I have asked Homes England to look into how we can renegotiate some of those contracts, because I was clear that there should be no new Government funding for schemes that promote leasehold, and that remains a firm commitment. Equally, we are taking action on the scheme now to confront some of the abuses that there are.
Well, lots of warm words and fresh reviews, but no action. There have been 19 Government announcements on leaseholds in the 15 months that the right hon. Gentleman has been Secretary of State, but there is still no sign of change for current leaseholders, or of the legislation to make it happen. Is not the hard truth that Conservatives cannot help leaseholders because they will not stand up to the vested interests in the property market? Do not homeowners who are looking for justice and radical, common-sense changes have to look to Labour to set a simple formula for people to buy their own freehold; to crack down on unfair fees and give homeowners the right to challenge high costs or poor performance from management companies; and to put an end, finally, to the broken leasehold system?
Clearly, the right hon. Gentleman has not been looking at the practical steps we have taken and, indeed, the performance that we have seen. Perhaps that is because of the turmoil in his own party—there has been plenty on the Opposition Benches. I direct the House to the steps that have been taken, the commitments that have been made and the effect that all that is now having. We are championing the cause of leaseholders and confronting some of the really unfair practices. We are seeing the effect that that is having as a result of the steps we have taken, rather than the hyperbole from the Opposition and the continuing turmoil that we see among them.
Children’s Social Care Funding
My Department regularly meets council representatives to understand the services that they deliver, including children’s social care. Although the Department for Education has policy responsibility, we work closely with it and sector representatives in our spending review preparations. The Under-Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Jake Berry), is meeting the hon. Gentleman this week to understand his concerns.
I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. Social care accounts for two thirds of Plymouth City Council’s budget, and with more and more children with more and more complex needs relying on social care provision, that spending is only going to go up. It is hard to plan for rising social care costs if we have uncertainty, so will the Secretary of State set out when Plymouth City Council and other councils throughout the country will find out their allocations for 2020-21?
Obviously, the hon. Gentleman will be able to discuss this matter further with my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary; indeed, I believe that meeting will take place later today. Plymouth has seen an increase in funding this year, with a core spend of £198.4 million. The hon. Gentleman issues a challenges on the need for certainty for next year; I understand that challenge and responded to it firmly at the recent Local Government Association conference. I am working with colleagues across Government to see that we have that certainty as early as we can possibly get it. Yes, it is linked to the spending review, but we know that planning is needed, and I am championing the issue so that we get it.
A National Audit Office report this year showed that there is huge variation between the costs of and the activities delivered by local authorities throughout the country. The same report showed that there is no link at all between per pupil funding and the quality of the services delivered, according to Ofsted. Does my right hon. Friend agree that funding alone will not sort out the problems in either children’s or adult social care?
I agree with my hon. Friend and am grateful to him for highlighting the evidence that he rightly raised. We are working with the Department for Education on the review of relative needs and resources, including by jointly funding specific research on the need to spend on children’s services. We want to champion good practice and to ensure that it is there to drive change and improvement in children’s services. My hon. Friend is right that it is about delivery and not simply looking at the funding.
The Secretary of State says that he is working desperately hard to give certainty, but does he recognise that officials in Newcastle City Council are also desperate to ensure that the children in our city receive adequate care from next April, and they cannot do that job if they do not know how much funding will be available to support children in Newcastle?
The point that the hon. Lady makes is one that I recognise and one that I did address at the Local Government Association conference. We are approaching a spending review—a new period for the overall funding for local government—and I want to ensure that we give certainty as early as possible. That is what we are working to achieve, so the planning that she and others want for councils is absolutely what I want, too, and it is why I am doing all I can, within my powers, to see that that happens.
Northamptonshire has the second most expensive children’s social services in the country and is one of the very worst performers, so it is not about money but about management and leadership. In welcoming the appointment of a Children’s Commissioner, will the Secretary of State work with the Department for Education to speed up the implementation of the Children’s Trust rather more quickly than is presently envisaged?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for highlighting the issue in his own area in Northamptonshire. Equally, I can say to him that I will continue to work with him and colleagues in relation to advancing this issue in terms of the reforms that are needed and implementing them speedily. I can give him the assurance that he seeks on working with colleagues at the Department for Education. Indeed, I can confirm to him that I will continue to listen to him and see that changes are implemented as effectively and quickly as we can.
When the Secretary of State looks back on his record in the current Government, which will be his biggest regret: savage cuts to funding of children’s services, or the wider impact of austerity pushing more children into needing those dwindling services in the first place?
One thing I will not regret is ensuring that I did not listen to some of the advice that I have been hearing from the Opposition. Indeed, we saw this weekend that, on the issue of the contracting out of services, their approach is effectively one that does not look at value for money or at the quality of service; it does not look at anything, it but just based on dogma. That is not our approach, which is about delivering quality services, sticking up for communities and making sure that we have well-run councils. Indeed, it is also about seeing that we are getting that funding going into social care and other services, too. That is what motivates us; that is what motivates me. I will certainly take no lessons from the Opposition.
I asked the right hon. Gentleman about children’s services. Of course, we can see that the Secretary of State just does not get it. His cuts have had dire consequences. The Public Accounts Committee says:
“Children’s social care is increasingly becoming financially unsustainable. The proportion of local authorities that overspend…increased to 91% in 2017-18.”
The Tory-led LGA also says that there is a £1 billion funding gap for children’s services this year. When will he understand that his sticking plaster approach will not fix the broken children’s services?
Again, we hear the same from the hon. Gentleman. When I look at the real-terms increase in core spending that councils have received this year, what do I get from Labour Members—opposition to that. They did not support it. They did not support that additional funding going into social care—children’s and adults’. We on the Government Benches have listened and responded. We will continue to take that forward, with the funding that has gone in over five years to support 20 local authorities to improve their social work practices, in addition to my commitment to listen to the sector and to advance its cause as we look to the spending review ahead to see that social care—children’s and adults’—is effective and delivers for our councils and our communities.
Local Authorities’ Statutory Care Duties
Mr Speaker, I join you in wishing the hon. Lady a very happy birthday—what better way to spend it than at MHCLG questions.
It is the responsibility of each individual local authority to ensure that it can fulfil its statutory care duties. We have, however, supported councils to meet those duties by giving them access to several billion pounds of incremental dedicated funding for this purpose.
I am very grateful for those birthday wishes, but I would be even more grateful if the Minister agreed with me that local authorities have a statutory responsibility to ensure that care workers they have commissioned are paid the minimum wage. The all-party parliamentary group on social care has heard increasing evidence that, despite guidance issued by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, care workers are still not receiving the minimum wage because they are not paid for travel time in between their contact hours. Will the Minister give me a great birthday present by announcing that he will review the way care workers are paid and that he will ensure they are paid the basic statutory minimum wage?
I thank the hon. Lady for raising this important issue. It is absolutely right that those who are carrying out this vital activity in difficult circumstances get exactly what they are entitled to. I have not seen the report, but I would be delighted to take a look at it later today and to talk to my colleagues at the Department for Education and the Department of Health and Social Care to see what we can do to take this forward.
If I had not been sitting down, I would have fallen over when the Secretary of State talked about the injection of extra cash for local authorities. This is, of course, on top of about 40% cuts in just under a decade. Local authorities are very squeezed in delivering their statutory care responsibilities and others. Will the Minister look seriously at all the work that is being done on homelessness and community building and assess the impact of these cuts in delivering wider Government policies on prevention and ensuring that people have decent homes to live in?
I would echo what the Secretary of State said. This talk of cuts is simply not right. The amount of money that local authorities have to spend in this financial year is up in real terms over the last year. This was reinforced by the recent Budget, where we announced over £1 billion in incremental funding for local authorities, particularly targeted at the areas of immediate pressure in adult and children’s social care.
Local Authorities: Adopted Local Plans
Under the current plan-making regime, 37 local authorities have yet to adopt a local plan. Of these, 27 have submitted their draft plan for examination. We continue to monitor progress and offer support where appropriate in all these areas.
The Minister’s Department is taking action against only 15 local authorities where no local plan is actively in place. The Department also has an ambitious target of 300,000 homes a year—about 80,000 a year short. What action will he take to ensure that local authorities like Stoke-on-Trent that are failing to get a local plan in place do so quickly, so that they can develop and address this country’s housing need?
As the hon. Gentleman pointed out, we commenced a formal process of intervention in 15 local authorities to ensure that they fulfil their obligations. I have spent the last 12 months touring the country, exhorting local authorities not only to get a local plan in place, but to do so on a long-term basis so that people can see the kind of decadal-scale planning that is required to get to 300,000 homes a year. If local authorities remain sluggish in producing a plan, as the hon. Gentleman claims his local authority has been—I think that its plan is due for submission in August 2020, which does seem a little tardy—action may be required, beyond just a stiffly-worded letter.
When district councils do not have a local plan and a five-year land supply in place, it is villages and parishes that face the consequences of planning development. What protections will the Minister and his Department put in place for communities trying to establish neighbourhood plans, and will he reflect on his Department’s recent decision to grant planning permission to two sites in Hatfield Peverel that go against the neighbourhood plan?
My right hon. Friend, with her usual skill, puts up a stout defence on behalf of her constituents. She is quite right that protections that would otherwise exist for neighbourhood plans recede where a local plan is not in place, particularly when there is not a five-year land supply. I would point out that having a five-year land supply is not a necessary condition of having a local plan. It is possible to have one without the other, and I hope that her local authority will seek to do so. We will shortly be issuing planning guidance on plan making, wherein I hope we will include measures to strengthen neighbourhood plans, either in the absence of a local plan or where they are not co-terminus.
York has not had a local plan in place since 1954, despite being one of the worst cities for investment in economic and housing opportunities for my constituents and the council’s aspiration to build 20% affordable housing but developing just 4%. What steps will the Minister take to ensure that the plan developed for York will address not only the jobs needs but the housing needs in our city?
I have been in this job for just over 12 months, and I have developed a sense that in some way people have an expectation that I should be planning the country from my desk in Whitehall. Fundamentally, the decisions about the local plan are for the local democratically elected representatives, and they should be examined by a planning inspector to make sure that they are compliant with national planning regimes. In the end, the fundamental arbiter of the local plan in York—whether there should be one and what it should it contain—is a decision by the people of York. I would urge them to vote for a council that will produce the kind of the plan to which the hon. Lady aspires.
In relation to local plans and housing, Isle of Wight Council wants to set up a company to build council housing—I strongly support this—but says that it cannot access the necessary funds because it does not have a housing revenue account. Does the Minister agree with that statement, and, if so, what will he do to help my council to build council housing for Islanders?
I congratulate my hon. Friend, who works very closely with his local council in its aspiration to build more council homes. This is exactly the sort of action that we want to see from local authorities, which were, frankly, induced out of council house building by the previous Labour Government. I am aware that quite a lot of councils in this situation do not have a housing revenue account, despite our lifting the cap and enabling them to access the funding that they need. I would be more than happy to arrange for his councillors or council officials to meet my officials to determine how they could establish just such an account.
The Government are committed to supporting people into home ownership. The most recent English housing survey saw the first rise in home ownership for 35 to 44-year-olds in over a decade. Government schemes have supported over 553,000 households to purchase a home since 2011.
With house prices in the region almost seven times the average annual salary, people in Coventry and the wider west midlands are struggling to get a foot on the housing ladder. What steps are the Government taking to ensure that more genuinely affordable homes are being built in the region so that home ownership is not out of reach for all but the best-paid and those with significant capital?
May I start by saying what a pleasure it is to hear an Opposition Member who believes in the concept of private property—not something that is shared by everybody on the hon. Lady’s Front Bench or, indeed, her leadership? I am pleased that she shares Conservative Members’ obsession that people should have the ability to own their own homes where they want to. In the end, the solution to the problem that she poses is a massive increase in housing supply. We are committed to building 300,000 homes a year by the mid-2020s, not just for one year but for a series of years—perhaps for decades, if we can get there—to address this issue. In the meantime, the Government have put significant funding—billions of pounds—behind schemes such as Help to Buy to make homes more affordable. I hope that as many of her constituents as possible will avail themselves of the assistance that is there.
That is all well and good, but 30 years ago, when I bought my first house in Dudley, people were able to do so because the average cost was about three times the average income. As we have just heard, the average cost is now seven times the average income. At the same time, the number of homes for shared ownership and low-cost home ownership has fallen. So what is the Minister going to do to enable people like the ones I meet in Dudley every single week who are working hard in low-paid employment, desperate to own a home of their own, to fulfil their ambitions?
The hon. Gentleman puts his finger on an enormous problem for the country that we have not shied away from. He is quite right in pointing out that over the past three, possibly four, decades this country has failed to build the homes required by its population, and as a result we have seen unaffordability rise, particularly in London and south-east, but beyond that in the rest of the country as well. In the end, the fundamental solution is a massive increase in supply, which we are committed to. The Government have put significant resources behind lifting the number of homes being built in this country in a way that has not been seen for a generation. Last year’s net new additions to the housing stock were 222,000, and the leading indicators for next year are pointing towards something over 240,000. That will represent the largest expansion in house building in this country since the war.
We are spending more than £1.2 billion to 2020 to reduce homelessness. We have implemented the most ambitious legislative reform in decades, the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017; we are taking immediate action to begin to reduce the number of people on the street through the rough sleeping initiative; and last summer, we published our rough sleeping strategy.
Schemes such as Somewhere Safe To Stay are having success, but will the Minister take on board the feedback that I am receiving from Access Community Trust, Lowestoft Rising and the Salvation Army? They say that to eliminate homelessness, short-term one-year pilots must be turned into longer-term funding commitments and supported accommodation must be provided for those facing mental health challenges.
My hon. Friend is a doughty fighter for his constituency, and he never shies away from meeting the right sort of people to make a difference in his community. I have met the Salvation Army and several of the other bodies that he mentioned, and he is quite right. I recognise the importance of giving local areas security around funding, and that remains a priority for the Government. Decisions about the future of homelessness funding will be made at the spending review later this year. We were clear in the rough sleeping strategy that accommodation, alongside the right support for people with needs, is vital. That is why we are funding a range of initiatives, including the rapid rehousing pathway, through which we directly fund almost 140 areas.
Earlier this month, a young homeless woman in Forest Hill, Stefania Bada, died after contracting an infection. Since 2010, the number of rough sleepers in this country has more than doubled. There has been a steep drop in investment for new affordable homes, billions of pounds cut from housing benefit and significant cuts to services for homeless people. What immediate action will the Government take to prevent any further loss of life?
Any loss of life is to be pitied, and we all apologise for that. It should not happen on our streets, particularly when rough sleepers are being looked after but drug dependency is involved. If an issue happens, it is tragic. We have put in £1.2 billion up to 2020 to solve these issues, and we are not shying away from them. We now give specific support to more than 240 councils, and that is a huge jump.
First, may I declare my interest? There are real fears that the proposed abolition of section 21 in the private rented sector will lead to rent controls and a significant reduction in investment and supply, which may well exacerbate homelessness. Will my hon. Friend consider these fears before pressing ahead with the proposals?
I hope my hon. Friend will excuse my back; as we all know, we talk to each other through the Speaker.
This is a very difficult issue, and one that we want to get right. People from all sides are asking questions about it, which is why the consultation is so important, and I encourage my hon. Friend and other people to take part in it. A very interesting report from 2010 suggested that rent control would make matters an awful lot worse, but the consultation is important.
As Members might imagine, as the Minister with responsibility for veterans in MHCLG, I have taken a great interest in this matter. In London, we have data from the combined homelessness and information network—so-called CHAIN data—which gives us very good and specific data about the number of veterans who are on the streets. Similarly, the homelessness case level information classification, or H-CLIC, contains data that all councils put into it. It is still experimental, because it has been going for less than 18 months, but the latest figures show that the number of veterans on the streets is lower than it has ever been, and lower than 3%.[Official Report, 5 September 2019, Vol. 664, c. 4MC.]
Home Office contractor Serco is intent on making 300 vulnerable asylum seekers homeless in Glasgow. Some have been able to get interim interdicts through the efforts of the Govan Law Centre, the Legal Services Agency and Latta & Co, but some, including a constituent of mine, have not. Will the Minister speak to her colleagues in the Home Office to stop these evictions, which will result in people being put on to the streets?
As the hon. Lady agrees, this is a devolved matter. However, as regards the Home Office, I will of course do so. I recall a question that was asked at Prime Minister’s questions last week about it, and I need to refer the hon. Lady to the answer given then.
A lot of this is not actually a devolved matter, because it is to do with the Government’s hostile environment, which will make it incredibly difficult for these 300 individuals, once made homeless, to be rehoused. That is a damning indictment on this Government. Will the Minister apologise for a policy that denies people the right to a roof over their head and is actively causing homelessness in my city of Glasgow?
Fracking: Planning Policies
Fifty seven earthquakes of up to 1.5 magnitude were detected in Lancashire last year in the two months when Cuadrilla was fracking at Preston New Road. Will the Minister commit to listening to communities such as mine in Lancashire and act in their interests to prevent permitted development rights being granted for shale gas exploration?
As the hon. Lady will know, we have consulted on these permitted development rights. I am hopeful, once consideration by colleagues at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy has finished, that we will be able to issue our response to that consultation. I would, however, point out to her that our ability to access gas allows us to stop burning coal. This country has just been through its longest period of not burning coal, by far the dirtiest of fuels, since the industrial revolution.
I hope there will not be any changes that make it easier for fracking to be permitted through the planning system. Like many of my constituents, I am deeply concerned about some of the associated impacts on the environment that come with fracking. Can the Minister assure my constituents that an industrialisation of our countryside, which is what fracking is, will be treated in the same way in the planning system as any other industrial development in open countryside would be?
My hon. Friend has been a persistent advocate for his constituents on this issue. As he knows, alongside the consultation on permitted development rights for exploration, we also consulted on pre-application consultation steps that may have to be taken should an application proceed. Both those matters are under consideration by colleagues, and I hope we will be able to issue a response to them shortly.
I remind the Minister that the consultation he refers to closed last October. Twelve months ago, the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee did a report opposing permitted development rights and opposing transferring part of the fracking regime to the national infrastructure regime. Given the amount of opposition on his own side, as well as on this side of the House, and in local communities, is the Minister now considering withdrawing those proposals and instead giving greater powers to communities to decide whether they want fracking in their areas?
The Chairman of the Select Committee is quite right to point out the timescale on which these measures have been under consideration, and I will certainly pass on his concerns to colleagues at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.
I will give the Minister another chance. Everyone—from the Royal Town Planning Institute to Friends of the Earth—has criticised the Government’s plans to allow fracking to take place under permitted development, rather than by achieving planning permission, not least because it bypasses the views and concerns of local communities. Given the Government’s silence on this matter since the consultation last year, will the Minister confirm today that the Government will not proceed to use permitted development for fracking and will not dilute regulations covering seismic activity—as requested by Cuadrilla, again, today—but will accept that fracking is environmentally unsound and invest more in renewable energy sources instead?
The hon. Lady is normally quite precise, but I should correct what she said at the start. We consulted not on fracking taking place under permitted development rights, but on exploration in advance of a full application being made for fracking. Those consultations are still under consideration by colleagues, in particular those with whom we work closely at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. I will impress upon them the House’s demands this afternoon that a response be forthcoming.
The Government are investing £1.6 billion through the nine midlands local enterprise partnerships and have established the £250 million midlands engine investment fund. Some £217 million of the local growth fund is being invested in the Black Country, and projects such as the Elite Centre for Manufacturing Skills, with Dudley College, will drive economic growth in the area.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that response, but businesses and residents in my constituency are frustrated at a lack of connectivity. Does the Secretary of State agree that a priority for the midlands engine and the Government as a whole must be to invest substantially in connecting our region, whether by rail, by road or digitally?
I agree with my hon. Friend’s point about connectivity, and he will know that I visited Dudley recently to hear about those issues directly. That is why £215 million of the transforming cities fund has been made available to the West Midlands Combined Authority to support extending the midlands metro tram links to Brierley Hill, enhancing accessibility across the Black Country and helping to drive growth.
Local Government Funding: Removal of Deprivation Measures
The Government have consulted on changes to the local authority funding formula and have heard from over 300 bodies. We are in the process of digesting those responses and will of course listen carefully to what the sector has said.
I am somewhat astonished that the Secretary of State and the Minister can stand at the Dispatch Box and keep a straight face while downplaying local government cuts. My local authority, Bradford Council, has been decimated by nine years of Tory austerity, which has stripped vital services of funding and dragged hundreds of our children into poverty. Does the Minister really think that cutting funding further and devasting our communities is an example of fair funding?
As I have already said, funding in aggregate for local authorities has gone up, but it is worth bearing in mind too that funding for the hon. Gentleman’s local authority is up this year. I have noticed also that its spending power per household is higher than the average for metropolitan districts. Indeed, in Bradford’s latest accounts it boasts of the area having
“Better skills, more good jobs and a growing economy”.
This Government are backing local councils to deliver for their local communities and will continue to do so.
When will the Government review the empty homes premium, a hypothecated tax that is unfairly distributed between deprived precepting boroughs and shires? Hyndburn is about the 24th most deprived area in the country and collects about £600,000, the majority of which is given to wider Lancashire to spend, not the deprived area. This is totally unfair. Does the Minister recognise it as unfair and will he do anything about it?
I am happy to talk to the hon. Gentleman about his specific concern, but in general it is for local authorities themselves to decide how to implement the empty homes premium. They are accountable to their electors, and this is not something that central Government have any execution over.
Our recent reforms gave local authorities the tools to make it more difficult for developers to renegotiate contributions after planning consent. Where developers do not deliver on contributions, these can be enforced through legal proceedings. Finally, local authorities are required to consult on planning applications before consent is granted.
As part of a planning agreement, Persimmon is responsible for building a relief road for Towcester as part of that town’s expansion in my constituency. Highways England is providing £4 million to try to bring forward delivery of the road, but that now seems to be at risk due to problems between the developer and Highways England. Will my right hon. Friend meet me to discuss how we can work together to ensure that the road gets built?
I would be very happy to meet my right hon. Friend to discuss the point she makes. We want to ensure that there is a tie-up on infrastructure; the £5.5 billion housing infrastructure fund is there precisely to support that activity. On section 106 agreements, the Housing Minister and I firmly believe that transparency —publication and making them available, so there is direct accountability—is really important. I will certainly meet my right hon. Friend.
The Secretary of State will know that over my time there have been serious problems with the non-delivery of section 106 agreements, so could we not look at them? When building houses, land tends to be cleared and trees cut down. Under a new kind of section 106 agreement, we could make developers put money into building new forests, such as the Great Northern forest and the White Rose forest.
The hon. Gentleman will be aware that how we create stronger, greener environments is a part of the delivery we firmly need, so that we have a relationship between built and natural environments. I believe very strongly in creating communities. The new planning guide, with the national planning policy framework, provides greater certainty, but we continue to review this area with an accelerated planning Green Paper later this year. If the hon. Gentleman has specific points he would like to raise on how we ensure that that sense of greenness within development is upheld, I will be very grateful to hear from him.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for highlighting neighbourhood plans, which I believe in very strongly, and how we garner that greater consent for development to take place. I underline the sense of how we speed up the process with planning, with development and with those plans. That is what the accelerated planning Green Paper is all about. I would be delighted to continue to discuss this matter with my hon. Friend and others to ensure that we make that effective.
Just over a week ago, I visited the Buchenwald concentration camp in Germany where my children’s great grandfather was held by the Nazis after Kristallnacht. He was one of the lucky ones. He was able to leave Germany and be reunited with family, but millions of others were not so fortunate. The visit redoubled my determination to deliver the national holocaust memorial and learning centre.
There is a duty on all of us across the House to stand up against antisemitism, racism and bigotry. Through initiatives such as the communities framework, which we have just published, we must stand up for our shared values of openness, understanding and decency. We reaffirm those values, as we mark the centenary of the Addison Act this month, with plans to end the practice of the segregation of social housing tenants through new guidance on development to prevent people from being denied access to shared facilities such as playgrounds. I will continue to champion the values of fairness that underpin my work as Secretary of State.
What steps is my right hon. Friend’s Department taking to ensure there is a co-ordinated cross-Government plan to make sure that areas with very significant housing growth, such as Corby and east Northamptonshire, receive the investment in infrastructure they need?
The £5.5 billion housing infrastructure fund is a cross-Government effort to unlock housing by supporting infrastructure development. With the Department for Transport and the Treasury, we are looking at ways to build capability across Government to make that as effective as possible. My hon. Friend is right. It is about that sense of delivery and consent, and seeing that homes are supported by the infrastructure they need.
On Thursday, it was confirmed that high pressure laminate cladding, exactly like Grenfell-style ACM cladding, is lethal in certain combinations and must be removed from buildings. This could affect up to 1,700 additional blocks. The Secretary of State has known since last October that this cladding failed a fire test. No building should be covered with lethal materials and there are lives at stake, so I ask the Secretary of State: how many buildings are covered in this lethal cladding? What is the deadline for the removal of that cladding? Will the Government fund its removal?
The hon. Lady needs to be careful about the detail of what she has said, because she will equally know that there has been a BS 8414 test in relation to high pressure laminate, with different types of insulation, where the finding was not the description that she has set out. We provided advice in December 2017 and December 2018. We have now reaffirmed further advice to building owners to see that they take appropriate action to make buildings safe. That is what we have taken action to see and secure, and further steps are being taken with local government to test the type of materials that are in buildings. There is certainly no sense on this side of not taking the action that is required to make people safe.
I thank my hon. Friend for her question. We have asked the Law Commission to look at making it easier, quicker and more cost-effective for people to buy their freehold or extend their lease. It is also examining the options on reducing the premium that leaseholders must pay to do that. We look forward to its recommendations in the early part of next year.
We believe that the £200 million, which was an exceptional sum, based on the extreme risk that this ACM cladding has, is sufficient to provide the necessary support to make the necessary remediation, the reason being that commitments are already in place from a number of private sector developers and builders, as well as other insurers, to see that that work is undertaken. It is on that basis that that sum has been ring-fenced.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that. He sets out that need for improving the energy efficiency of new and existing homes—that aim is very much shared by the Housing Minister. We plan to consult this year on uplifting the building regulations’ energy-efficiency requirements for new homes and work to existing buildings. Policies are also in place to improve existing homes, and these include the energy company obligation scheme.
We want to get this right in the private rental sector, which is why we have launched the consultation today on section 21 and how we provide that reform. If the hon. Lady wishes to draw the circumstances of this case to my attention, I will be happy to receive the details, because the sense of fairness underpins the action we are taking and is why these reforms are necessary.
I am pleased to say to my hon. Friend that some further positive steps have been taken since my visit to India last October to forge those relationships between the midlands and Maharashtra in India. I hope to be able to give him some positive news very shortly on signing a memorandum of understanding to really regularise that and underpin how we ensure we have that shared expertise to create jobs, boost trade and take other steps to cement this and create that positive sense of prosperity that I know he strongly advocates.
We cannot wait for primary legislation; we have to get on with it now. In particular, there are lots of things in the Letwin review that can work with the grain and the weave of current planning policy. For example, we will shortly be issuing guidance on housing diversification, which is one of the key suggestions in the review. We are encouraging local authorities to introduce local plans, as the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Gareth Snell) urged us to do, so that landowners can realise the obligations placed upon them and so that the value of community contributions and affordable housing can be factored into the land price.
Permitted development rights have damaged the economic and social fabric of Harlow, increased crime and placed intolerable burdens on our education and social services. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said he would review them. What has happened to that review and what is the outcome?
I appreciate my right hon. Friend’s question, having recently visited Harlow to discuss this matter with him. In the round, 42,000 homes were delivered in the three years to March 2018 under permitted development rights with a change of use from office to residential. Earlier this year we announced a review of the quality standard of homes provided through permitted development rights for the conversion of buildings to residential use. The review is expected to conclude later this year. Today, I have written to all local authorities to remind them of their responsibilities regarding out-of-borough placements.
Currently, town and parish councils are not compensated in the council tax formula grant for providing student discounts, which means that parish councils in villages with large student populations, such as Kegworth in my constituency, are providing services used by students for which there is no precept. Will the Minister look into this inequity?
We will take this away and look into it. My hon. Friend makes a valid point. More widely, in our communities framework, we have come forward with a plan for expanding the number of parish councils in this country to ensure they play their full part in delivering for the communities they represent.
The Government are still allowing the use of flammable cladding on school buildings up to 18 metres high, which of course means most school buildings. A disabled child would have great difficulty getting out if there were a fire. Why won’t the Government do what every parent wants and bring in a total ban on flammable cladding on schools?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for flagging this up in the way he has. I took the step to introduce the ban on combustible materials on the surface of walls of high-rise residential buildings and others. We keep this under review. The Department for Education takes the lead on some of these standards, but I will certainly impress upon it the issues he raises, because safety and security are paramount.
As my hon. Friend knows, the Department spends an enormous amount of time and energy promoting Help to Buy to those who are eligible, and the new Help to Buy scheme, which will come in once the current scheme finishes, will be targeted very carefully at first-time buyers. I am more than happy to take any suggestions she may have for how we can focus it more on those on lower incomes.
There is a £3.1 billion gap in funding for children’s services and a £4.3 billion gap in funding for adult social care, but, eight months before the start of the new financial year, local authorities have no idea what their funding settlement will be for the coming financial year or beyond it. What is the Secretary of State doing to address this crisis in local government funding, which is affecting the most vulnerable residents in communities up and down the country every single day? Why is he being so complacent?
Far from being complacent, the Government are working hard to ensure that local authorities receive the support that they need, as we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for North West Leicestershire (Andrew Bridgen). We know about the importance of children’s services, and the importance of ensuring that all authorities benefit from best practice from places such as Leeds, Hertfordshire and North Yorkshire. We are funding those authorities so that they can spread that best practice throughout the country, transforming the lives of children everywhere.
I do not want to assume that Ministers have seen the letter that was sent to the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) and me today by the director general for housing about the chairman of the Leasehold Knowledge Partnership and LEASE, the Leasehold Advisory Service. It deals with one issue satisfactorily. May I ask Ministers to see whether the alleged social media comments that pose a difficulty can be sent to the chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on leasehold and commonhold reform to establish whether he can overcome the second difficulty?
Representatives of nearly 50% of children’s services have said that they no longer feel able to keep children safe. Recent research has shown that private fostering, children’s homes and social worker agencies have amassed an estimated annual profit of £220 million, while simultaneously costing local authorities £20 million. At what point will the Government put the needs of vulnerable children before private profit?
It is for local authorities to decide how best to conduct children’s services in their areas, and it would not be right for me to stand at the Dispatch Box and tell them exactly how to contract. I will say this, however. When it comes to protecting the most vulnerable children in our society, the Government have ensured, through the troubled families programme, that hundreds of thousands of the most vulnerable families are receiving the targeted, intensive support they need so that their children can be kept out of care and they can stay strong together.
The crisis in adult social care is likely to become worse as it becomes harder to recruit staff from the European economic area to work in that sector post Brexit. What discussions has the Secretary of State had with the Home Office to ensure that the sector has access to the long-term labour supply that it will need?
I have had discussions with not just the Home Office but the Department of Health and Social Care, and we have pursued the issue with our local government delivery board, which brings together councils from across the country to ensure that such issues are well planned. We keep this issue under careful review, but I believe that councils will rise to the challenge and ensure that the services on which their communities rely will not be disrupted.
Hull is proud of its maritime history, and our relationship with the sea has shaped not only our culture and our economy, but even our character. What support and encouragement can the Minister give Hull City Council in its bid to become an official maritime city?
As someone who was born and bred in the city of Liverpool, I know that the connection between coastal communities and the sea is very strong. What support and encouragement can I give? Well, having visited Hull on many occasions and having had the privilege of experiencing some of the events that took place during its city of culture year, I can say that it seems extremely well placed. I am sure that the hon. Lady, and her colleagues in the constituencies surrounding hers, will let no opportunity pass to bang the drum for Hull, its place in our nation’s story as a maritime city, and its role in driving the future economy of our northern powerhouse.
There have been a number of developments in Hong Kong over the weekend. On Friday evening, the police seized a quantity of explosives from a warehouse in the New Territories along with knives, petrol bombs, corrosive acids and T-shirts supporting Hong Kong independence. On Saturday, there was a large rally in the area known as Central in support of the Hong Kong police. Yesterday, hundreds of thousands of people took part in a largely peaceful march on Hong Kong island; however, some protesters diverted from the approved route and there were clashes with the police, including outside the Chinese Central Government liaison office. Last night, there were disturbing scenes in the New Territories town of Yuen Long: a group armed with chains and poles attacked pro-democracy protesters and other passengers at the metro station; 45 protesters were reportedly injured, one critically. We were all shocked to see such unacceptable scenes of violence.
There has been a great deal of speculation about the identity of the group who attacked people at Yuen Long metro station, but it is important that we do not jump to conclusions on their identity until a thorough investigation has taken place. I welcome Carrie Lam’s statement today saying that she has asked the commissioner of police to investigate this incident fully and pursue any law breakers. We will be keeping a close eye on this, as I know will hon. and right hon. Members.
I condemn all violent acts, but I stand by people’s right to protest peacefully and lawfully. We must not let the violent actions of a few overshadow the fact that hundreds of thousands of people took part in the march yesterday and did so in a peaceful and lawful manner. In doing so, they were exercising their right to peacefully protest and stand up for their freedoms. We fully support this right, which is guaranteed under the joint declaration. Successive six-monthly reports in this House have highlighted that Hong Kong’s political freedoms have been coming under increasing pressure, and the House is right to reflect this in its appetite for urgent questions, parliamentary questions and statements.
Let me assure the House that the Government remain fully committed to upholding Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy, rights and freedoms under the one country, two systems principle. They are guaranteed by the legally binding joint declaration. We will continue to be unwavering in our support for the treaty and expect our co-signatory to behave in a like manner.
Rights and freedoms and the rule of law are vital for Hong Kong’s future success; for its people, we will continue to stand up and speak out.
I agree with the Minister that the peaceful nature of the demonstrations must be paramount. Does he agree that there has been some doubt as to the wording of the governor of Hong Kong’s promise to suspend the plans around extradition, and that that could do with some clarification? Does he also agree that huge numbers of people are taking part, which reveals a deep concern about these ongoing proposals, and is there any way that he can use his office to assist in the clarification that the extradition plans will be 100% dropped?
Obviously this month saw the 22nd anniversary of the handover of Hong Kong from Britain to Chinese rule, and the day was marked by real fear among many people in Hong Kong that the principle of one country, two systems is being reneged on. Media reports paint an alarming picture: 45 people were injured, and of significant concern is that one of those was a journalist, and there is a question over press freedoms and the fact that the police were very slow to respond.
Coupled with the escalation in violence, reports also came out this weekend that the UK Government approved an export licence for £1.9 million-worth of telecommunications interception equipment to Hong Kong. Will the Minister tell the House what human rights assessment was made before the approval of that licence given the concerns raised previously about the Hong Kong authorities’ treatment of protesters during student protests in 2014, and how the Government intend to address the ongoing urgent concerns about the protests and the way they are being handled? Finally, will the Minister once more provide assurances that we stand with the people of Hong Kong in defending their democratic right to protest?
I shall start with the hon. Lady’s last question, about our standing shoulder to shoulder with the people of Hong Kong in their right to protest. I know that it was a rhetorical question, but it is worth emphasising that of course this country stands shoulder to shoulder with the people of Hong Kong, as I laid out in my opening remarks. On her point about interception equipment, I could find evidence of one licence, but it was an extant licence connected to counter-narcotics, counter-trafficking, search and rescue and counter-terrorism. I would say to the hon. Lady with the greatest of respect that if you will the ends, you have to will the means. She will be familiar with the safeguards that this country has in relation to equipment that a country could use to disadvantage people internally or to pose a threat to its neighbours. They are well rehearsed, and I probably do not have time in responding to her question to rehearse them again.
The hon. Lady mentioned the governor, but I think she meant the Chief Executive. That was a Freudian slip and it is perfectly understandable that she would use that term, but it is important to understand the UK’s position in all this, because we are simply a co-signatory to the Sino-British joint declaration. We cannot impose things, as was perhaps the case in the past, and nor should we. It is important to understand Hong Kong’s autonomous behaviour, which we stand fully behind in accordance with the tenets of the joint agreement.
On the status of the extradition arrangements associated with Carrie Lam, I think that she has made it fairly clear that they are dead in the water. On the undertaking on one country, two systems, it of course remains our view that that is in the interests not only of Hong Kong but, I humbly suggest, of China. We will continue to point that out in our discourse with Beijing.
The hon. Lady rightly commented on press freedom. Of course that is at the forefront of the mind of Ministers in the FCO right now, given that we have recently hosted with Canada the media freedom conference, at which many of these issues were aired. I do not think anybody can be left in any doubt as to the position of the United Kingdom in this matter, which is four-square behind the journalists who serve us so well in articulating concerns and reflecting on world events in the manner that they do.
The hon. Lady mentioned police behaviour. It is important that police behaviour in the UK or any country should be fully scrutinised. We have a proud tradition of that in this country, and we want to inculcate those norms and practices elsewhere.
In general, Hong Kong is a peaceful place with a good record for safety as a city. It has an independent judiciary that ultimately would be tasked with forming a view on whether the police have behaved appropriately, but before that, it is important that matters of concern are investigated internally, and I am pleased that the police commissioner and the Independent Police Complaints Council in Hong Kong have undertaken to do just that.
Regarding Hong Kong citizens’ fundamental rights and freedoms, the Chinese Government have warned the UK to
“know its place and stop interfering”
in what is a
“purely internal affair”.
Does my right hon. Friend disagree with that assessment, and will he make that clear to the Chinese Government? Will he also make it clear to them that it is perfectly in order for parliamentarians here in the UK to engage on this issue? May I put it on record in this place, Mr Speaker, that UK parliamentarians will not be warned off doing that, no matter what warnings we receive individually?
Indeed, and I hope that I made my views on the matter plain in my opening remarks. I agree with my hon. Friend that China and the United Kingdom are co-signatories and equally responsible for the Sino-British agreement, and we expect our co-signatory to honour it as we have done. In general, I believe that China has attempted to do that, and we will continue to impress on it the importance of that in our discourse with China, as I know the Prime Minister did in Downing Street with China’s Vice Premier on 17 June.
Thank you for granting this urgent question, Mr Speaker, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West) on securing it. The situation in Hong Kong is getting more and more serious by the day. The temporary suspension of the extradition laws was never going to be enough to appease the protesters. Their demonstrations are the culmination of years of frustration and based on the fear of interference by Beijing in Hong Kong affairs. It is time for some significant change.
Yesterday’s vicious attack by a mysterious armed mob on pro-democracy protesters making their way home is a new and sickening low in this sorry chapter. It was nothing less than an attempt to bully and frighten peaceful protesters into submission. The Hong Kong police have come in for a lot of criticism since June for their heavy-handedness and brutality, but they were nowhere to be seen on this occasion, and over 40 people were injured in the attack. Why was it allowed to happen?
Our call for an independent inquiry has so far been met with a less than satisfactory response. I therefore wonder whether the Minister can update the House on the Foreign Secretary’s call for an independent judge-led inquiry into the conduct of the Hong Kong police. We do not know who these people were or who put them up to it, but it is vital to find out. Does the Minister have any information as to the identity of the attackers and from where their orders came?
I share the hon. Lady’s assessment of the deteriorating political situation in Hong Kong. I also share her revulsion at the scenes we saw on our television screens over the weekend. We have called for an independent inquiry, and we would like to know what the scope of such an inquiry would be. That is important, particularly since the situation is evolving. When we originally called for such an inquiry some time ago, we were presented with certain facts, and we were calling for such an inquiry on the basis of what we knew at that time. Things have changed since then, and different things have happened, and we would like such things, including the weekend’s events, to form part of that inquiry.
This is a rapidly evolving piece, but we need to know to what extent the inquiry will be full, comprehensive and, as the hon. Lady is right to say, independent, which is crucial. It probably is not sufficient simply to have an internal police inquiry, which is what the IPCC would be in a Hong Kong context, and it really does need to involve Hong Kong’s excellent and well-respected judiciary.
I cannot really speculate on the nature of the individuals who are responsible for last night’s attacks, and it would be very premature to do so. Those things would need to be explored in any comprehensive inquiry, and the hon. Lady will understand that it would be unwise and unreasonable to speculate at this stage, although she will have seen the same press reports that I have.
The Minister is absolutely right to say how much he deeply regrets the events in Tsuen Wan and Yuen Long in particular over the past couple of days. All of us who wish Hong Kong well will be dismayed at what has become the seventh consecutive weekend of protest and violence. In many ways, the proposed extradition Bill has become a catalyst for deeper frustrations, and it is clear to all of us that the protesters’ five demands are going to have to be addressed, at least in part. Is my right hon. Friend aware that the Hong Kong general chamber of commerce has now come out in favour of two of them—that the Hong Kong Government formally withdraw the extradition Bill, even though they have acknowledged that it is effectively dead, and that there is a judge-led commission of inquiry into all the events? If so, does he agree that we should support such calls?
My hon. Friend is an acknowledged expert in this House on Hong Kong, and the sense of his remarks is pretty spot on. On the extradition Bill being a catalyst for other things, it is a bit like uncorking a bottle. He is right to say that the Bill is important but has brought to a head wider unhappiness in relation to mounting events in Hong Kong. His judgment is spot on in that respect.
My hon. Friend asked about a judge-led commission, and our sense is that an inquiry needs to be independent, and needs to be seen to be independent by the international community. It would be wrong of me, from this Dispatch Box, to ordain the terms of reference of such an inquiry, although, as I have already said, the judiciary in Hong Kong is held in high regard and is generally regarded as being absolutely independent. One is perhaps drawn towards judicial involvement as a way of assuring the international community that these matters, in the fullness of time, will be investigated fully and comprehensively.
The juxtaposition of this question with the statement later today on the Gulf illuminates what will be an increasingly geostrategic workload for the incoming Administration. The Minister should know that the entire House supports the Government’s standing up to China to ensure the rights of Hong Kongers, as guaranteed in the handover agreement, but if I may say so, previous attempts have been hindered by a lack of wider UK strategy in the Indo-Pacific region to address the weighty issues of the rise of China that our allies have been dealing with for more than a decade. Will the Minister therefore be willing, at some point, to bring forward a China strategy for debate on the Floor of the House, to stop the continual oscillation of successive UK Governments between “fill-yer-boots” appeasement and knee-jerk Trumpianism?
I think that is very harsh. It is clearly our endeavour to work with the Chinese Government, and it would be bonkers not to do so, wouldn’t it? The hon. Gentleman is tempting me down a road that would cause all sorts of difficulties in trying to advance the human rights issues that he and I both hold dear.
We will be critical of China, if we think it appropriate, but the important thing is to insist on the tenets of the 1984 joint agreement and hold China’s feet to the fire as a co-signatory. We respect that agreement, and I know China will want to respect that agreement if it wants to continue working with the UK on a range of issues and common interests. On that basis, I hope we will move forward.
Does the Minister agree that the rule of law is essential to the economic stability of Hong Kong? Does he also agree that our definition of the rule of law—the definition generally understood by the international community—is not the one that China always understands?
I certainly agree with my hon. Friend that working together to ensure prosperity in Hong Kong is vital. On the rule of law, we have to work with a number of systems across the world, and we need to be a little careful about insisting on a particular model. I am proud of our norms and values, and I have no difficulty in trying to inculcate them, but we have to be respectful of our partners. Particularly when engaging on human rights, we need to make it clear where we are coming from and the importance we attach to them, including when we come to strike trade deals. It is perfectly legitimate for such agreements to contain reflections on human rights, but we also have to respect our interlocutors.
One of the people injured at Yuen Long was a journalist. Just over a week ago, the Government set up a committee to protect journalists, which is clearly very welcome. Will the Minister set out how in future the committee might be able to help journalists in Hong Kong who want to cover this matter impartially?
The right hon. Gentleman will, I hope, have admired the Foreign Secretary’s personal efforts in respect of media freedom, which came to a head with the conference to which the right hon. Gentleman refers. If it was in doubt before, Britain is now widely respected around the globe as being in the lead on this matter.
On the committee to which the right hon. Gentleman refers, it would be perfectly reasonable for such a body to take a view on the treatment of journalists who had been abused. There is a worrying tendency around the world for journalists who are doing their very best to promote an open and transparent society and world order to be abused in the way that they sadly have been in Hong Kong recently, as they have in other parts of the world. I share the right hon. Gentleman’s concerns. It is clearly up to the committee to work out how it is going to do its work, but no doubt it will take note of the particular abuse to which he refers.
Hong Kong is a peaceful place, but there is growing evidence that the Chinese Government are quite prepared to throw their weight around. If these so-called triads were indeed triads, they would not have just gone around attacking people on the station. That does not happen unless they are instructed to do so. Does the Minister share my concern for the future of the island? If this sort of thing is happening now, what is going to happen in 2047, when the island is handed back to China full-time?
My hon. Friend is right to say that in 2047 the formal period covered by the Sino-British joint agreement will come to an end. The Government hope that the good practice in that agreement, which we hope will continue during the timeline of this particular agreement, will continue thereafter. In particular, we hope that the commitment to the one country, two states system, and the basic law and everything that is contained within that, including measures to further democracy beyond that which currently exists, will continue. I do not necessarily share my hon. Friend’s pessimism, but there is real benefit in the special status of Hong Kong as far as China is concerned. I very much hope that if China wants Hong Kong to continue to be a place where business is done and foreign revenue is earned, it will insist on the continuation of human rights and democracy, which underpin the uniqueness of Hong Kong to the mutual advantage of Hong Kong and mainland China.
The Minister will be aware of the horrendous level of artificial intelligence-enhanced digital surveillance under which Chinese citizens, and Uyghur Muslims in particular, are obliged to live. Does he know to what extent that applies to Hong Kong and whether it contravenes elements of the Sino-British agreement? Will he confirm that whoever is the next Prime Minister and however desperate they are for a trade agreement with China, Britain will always stand up for human rights in Hong Kong and China?
The hon. Lady will forgive me if I do not comment directly on security matters.
On human rights, I hope I made it clear in my opening remarks that human rights and trade and prosperity are two sides of the same coin. I indicated that there is nothing to prevent human rights from forming part of any agreement that we might have. That is not to say that any agreement would necessarily contain clauses along those lines, but there is nothing to prevent the United Kingdom from insisting, in such an agreement, on particular measures of the sort that I think she would find very acceptable.
I am pleased that the Government have suspended the licences for sending riot control equipment to Hong Kong. Are there any indications that our diplomats or, indeed, the media are being restricted in their movements on the island of Hong Kong?
My hon. Friend is right to say that on 25 June my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary gave an undertaking to ensure that the material to which my hon. Friend refers would not be the subject of any UK licences. Sometimes, the material that has been sold to Hong Kong has been misunderstood. For example, both my hon. Friend and I would agree that bomb disposal equipment and body armour are perfectly reasonable things to export to Hong Kong.
On the freedom of journalists, Hong Kong has been a place within the region where, historically, there has been a free press, and it would be very disturbing if there were a significant reversal of that. The hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) made reference to the deteriorating political situation in Hong Kong, and, in my answer, I agreed with her—that is my assessment as well. Clearly, that would include the situation with respect to a free press, as it is difficult to see how a deterioration in the way journalists go about their business would, in any way, be compatible with political freedom.
Will the Minister consider referring the worsening democratic deficit in Hong Kong to the United Nations Human Rights Council?
What I would like to see is greater attention being given to articles 45 and 68 of the Basic Law—that is to say a situation where we can look forward to an election of the Chief Executive and a fully democratic Legislative Assembly. I am an optimist. I would actually like to see democracy in Hong Kong greatly improved in the years ahead, and that has to be our ambition. Unfortunately, the events of the past few days have made that rather less likely.
As I said to the hon. Member for St Helens South and Whiston (Ms Rimmer), I am an optimist and I want to see democracy improved in Hong Kong. I would hope that China agrees that its special nature is good for China, too. It is good for Hong Kong, and it is good for China. It is good for China’s prosperity. Articles 45 and 68 of the Basic Law contain within them the seeds of advancing democracy. That is why they are there and were signed up to by both the Chinese and the UK Governments in 1984. That is where I would like to see the attention focused in the years ahead, running up to the end of the Sino-British agreement. If we can move towards that, I think China will come to see that it is to its advantage, as well as to the advantage of the people of Hong Kong, that we should advance democracy further in Hong Kong rather than see it pulled back. Unfortunately, that is, as the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland said, the trajectory that we are on at the moment.
In light of the increasing aggressiveness of the Chinese Government, the influence that the Chinese Government have had on Hong Kong, and even the Chinese Government’s condemnation of any comment by the UK Government on events in Hong Kong, many people rightly believe that the rights that they thought that they had under the joint declaration are being slowly strangled. The Minister has said that he is going to hold the Chinese Government’s feet to the fire on this issue. Will he tell us in what practical ways that is being done?
The joint declaration was lodged with the United Nations-the primary cockpit of international affairs and the highest body that we can possibly lodge such an agreement with. The eyes of the international community are on China. It is true to say that, traditionally, China has been fairly reluctant to make statements of the sort that the hon. Gentleman was expecting from Beijing, but I hope that I have made it clear that we talk constantly with China, with our interlocutors; that we have a good and productive dialogue in the main with Beijing; and that we will continue to enforce the importance of that. That is the way that diplomacy is done. I am confident, because I am an optimist, that China will come to see that its interests, as well as the interests of the people of Hong Kong, are best served by preserving the one country, two systems status that was agreed in 1984.
It is very important that institutions such as this House and Governments such as the UK Government make it very clear that we see a clear distinction between a legitimate protest—which is something that we would all welcome as part of the way in which we carry out our affairs in a country such as this—and violence, bullying and subjugation of the sort that, unfortunately, we appear to have seen over the weekend. The two are very different, and it is important that legislatures such as this make that difference very clear indeed, as we are doing today.
I thank my hon. Friend for his question; he is a great champion for his constituents. We must ensure that all children with Batten disease receive world-class care and support. The Secretary of State has met families of children who suffer from the condition and has seen at first hand how cruel the disease can be. I pay tribute to my constituent Melanie Moffatt, whose amazing care for her daughter Matilda has been truly inspiring.
The whole House will recognise that a key element of providing world-class care is getting access to the most effective new medicines. The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence is the expert body, independent of the Government, that provides authoritative, evidence-based guidance for the NHS on whether new drugs and treatments represent an effective use of resources. If they do, the NHS is obliged to provide funding. In 2013, NICE introduced its highly specialised technologies programme, which supports access to drugs for very rare diseases such as Batten disease, through additional funding—up to £300,000 per quality-adjusted life year. However, companies still need to price their products appropriately and fairly. In this instance, Brineura has not been made available at a price that could be recommended by the NHS. NHS England stands ready to do a deal at a reasonable price, but this has not been possible so far. I urge BioMarin to sit down again with NICE and NHS England, as NICE has not yet published its final guidance, so that a fair and reasonable price can be agreed.
I assure the House that my Department and the NHS are working as hard as possible to improve the broader care and support for patients with rare diseases, including Batten disease. I reassure all Members that the Department is committed to ensuring that all patients with rare diseases have access to world-class medicines, care and support.
I thank the Minister for her response. I am grateful that she has not hidden behind sub judice on this occasion. Could she confirm to me that, while NHS England is obliged to follow a positive recommendation from NICE, it has the legal discretion not to follow a negative recommendation and can decide to pay for a drug? In the event that NHS England will not do this, what powers—if any—does the Secretary of State have to ensure that a drug is made available? If that cannot be done, in what way is NHS England accountable to Parliament for the decisions it makes, or is it entirely above accountability?
The point at issue today is that Brineura has now been available for two years and it is available in many other countries at a price that has been agreed between their authorities and BioMarin. We now know that three more children—leaving five altogether in this country, including my constituent Max—who ought to be receiving this drug are not. They suffer from a condition that means that they degenerate relatively quickly, and this drug can stop the decline in their condition. It is therefore urgent that this matter is addressed quickly, rather than continuing to allow time to pass with sick children getting worse. It really is a most important and pressing issue. In instances where the drug companies and NHS England cannot agree, but where other countries have agreed, I wonder whether there could be any system of arbitration to determine what is a fair price, because the development of these drugs is exceptionally expensive.
I thank my hon. Friend for his questions. I will attempt to answer all of them.
In terms of governance, no, NICE is not above accountability. Ministers set the framework for NICE, which is a non-departmental body. The reason it was established was to have fairness—so that there was no postcode lottery on access to various drugs. It is important that medical experts and scientists make these decisions rather than politicians. Regular governance meetings are held between the Department and NICE. There is a framework agreement. Where the Secretary of State considers that NICE is failing, or has failed, to discharge its functions or to do so properly, he can direct NICE to discharge functions. If NICE were to fail to comply with the Secretary of State’s direction in those circumstances, he could discharge such functions himself. There is therefore a strong and robust governance system with regard to NICE.
It is not always very helpful to use other jurisdictions as a comparison because we do not know the exact price that has been agreed. In addition, different systems have different healthcare populations and do not necessarily have the equivalent of our national health service.
Turning to access to Brineura, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend and to Max’s family. I know from the very moving testimony by him and by other hon. Members such as the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) and from speaking to my constituent Melanie on numerous occasions that this is an absolutely dreadful disease. That is why we want the NICE process to be able to bring drugs to market as quickly as possible. Drug companies find this drug difficult to develop—that it is very expensive. It is not necessarily a drug that will be paid for by having millions of sufferers globally, and therefore a different system needs to be in place. That is why the bar for QALY is so much higher.
My hon. Friend’s suggestion on arbitration is very interesting, and I will take it away. On NHS England and the negative procedure, yes, in theory we could do that, but it is unlikely if NICE does not recommend a process. Overall, where a drugs company and NICE are unable to come to an agreement—we see this with other medication as well—Ministers urge the company to carry on negotiating to have a fair price, because every pound spent on one drug is a pound that we cannot spend on a drug for another sick person.
Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question. I thank and congratulate the hon. Member for North East Somerset (Mr Rees-Mogg) for securing it following his Adjournment debate last week. I do not doubt that he would have preferred the Minister to have come before the House voluntarily, rather than being forced to come here today for his urgent question.
Time and again, we come to this place to talk about a drug and its benefits to patients, only to be told that no matter how good it is, people cannot access it on the NHS. Among all the politics, there are people, including children like Max, who are suffering. No parent wants to hear a critical diagnosis for their child who has not yet really experienced childhood, let alone reached adulthood.
As we have heard, Brineura, a drug made available by BioMarin, could stop the progression of Batten disease. An assessment by NICE has found that Brineura could provide 30 extra years of good-quality life to patients. But, as has become expected when we discuss drugs for rare diseases in this place, Brineura is not available for patients on the NHS. NICE confirmed earlier this year that it was unable to recommend the use of Brineura on the NHS because of cost-effectiveness. The drug costs over £500,000 per person for each year’s treatment. BioMarin has another drug for rare diseases—Kuvan, for patients with phenylketonuria, or PKU. PKU patients do not have access to Kuvan, because it is also deemed not to be cost-effective. Does the Minister agree that the NICE appraisal process is just not fit for purpose when it comes to assessing the suitability of drugs and treatments for rare diseases?
Access to Brineura would help to give patients and families their child back, and it would allow them to enjoy time with their child and treasure special moments with them. As time ticks on without access to the drug, parents will witness their child’s condition deteriorate. No parent wants to see that, so we really need an appraisal process that captures rare diseases effectively.
Will the Minister step in and personally urge BioMarin, NHS England and NICE to meet and come to an agreement? Families do not want just warm words from the Minister; they want and need access to medicines now. I hope that this urgent question will result in real change in how we address rare diseases.
In answer to my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Mr Rees-Mogg), I urged BioMarin to get back around the table with NHSE and NICE and come to a fair and reasonable price. NICE has already approved drugs for 75% of rare diseases through its technology appraisal programme, including drugs for idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis and neuroblastoma. NICE’s process and review methods are constantly reviewed, and they are internationally respected. NICE knows that it has to keep up to date with developments in science, medicine and healthcare. There is a periodic review going on at the moment, and that includes extensive engagement with stakeholders.
I thank the Minister for coming today and providing more information. On Friday, I met the parents of Michal, one of my constituents. Michal is four years old, and he was diagnosed with Batten in February. He has already lost almost all his ability to walk and speak, and his parents are desperate to get him access to this drug.
I understand what the Minister says about it not always being helpful to compare access to drugs in different countries, but this drug is available in 20 countries, including Wales. If Michal lived in Bangor rather than Burton, he would be getting the drug that could stop the progression of this disease now. It is simply not acceptable to say, “Let’s not compare what happens here with what happens in other parts of this country, the United Kingdom,” and we need to know more about that.
The Minister talks about her desire to get BioMarin around the table. Time is of the essence for these children —every single day matters when it comes to stopping this disease in its tracks—so will she agree to pick up the phone to BioMarin and personally ask it to come around the table to negotiate with NICE? If Wales can afford to give children this drug, the Minister must have an idea about the scale of the difference between what we can afford to pay in England, and what Wales is paying. We have to find a solution to make this drug available to parents and children here in England.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend and to the parents of Michal. This dreadful disease is so upsetting, not only for the children affected and their families, but for their wider communities. Health care in Wales is devolved. I again urge BioMarin to get back round the table, but I reassure my hon. Friend that I will make contact with the chief executive of NHS England to make sure that he is taking forward negotiations with BioMarin—he is the negotiating party—and I will let my hon. Friend know when I have done so.
Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question. I thank the hon. Member for North East Somerset (Mr Rees-Mogg) for securing it. The families of children with Batten disease have been left dangling for far too long, and the delay in a positive decision being arrived at—for what is a really obvious use of NHS funding, if we were to ask any taxpayer out there —is just too painful for many of them to bear. The stress and anxiety they are being caused is completely unacceptable.
The Minister acknowledges that this is a dreadful disease, but it is a dreadful disease that has a treatment—a highly effective treatment. It does not just score 30 QALYs; it has been acknowledged that it scores way beyond that. NHS England is adhering to an arbitrary cap set by NICE. Will the Minister please confirm whether NHS England can use a budget exemption in these circumstances to deal with the very tiny number of children who are affected, and what will she do practically—and what has she done since last week—not just to urge but to get BioMarin round the table with NHS England and NICE to get a positive outcome for these families and these children?
I thank the hon. Lady for her question. She has spoken to me and spoken in this House about Nicole and Jessica Rich. I agree that it is a highly effective treatment, but NICE sets the guidelines because it is made up of the independent experts and they are the ones responsible for the number of QALYs. However, as I have already said, it is constantly reviewing its guidelines in the light of the best available evidence. I have already reassured the House that I will make sure that I make contact with NHS England so that it is driving forward the process with BioMarin.
I have looked after a number of children with Batten disease in my career, and no one should underestimate the horrific nature of this condition with which a child develops apparently normally and then gets the horrific diagnosis that they will suffer neurodegeneration. I completely respect the importance of NICE being independent, and in general I do not get involved in these debates, but I believe I should do so in this one, because I actually think that NICE has this wrong. This drug does not make a little bit of difference—it does not have the effect of making someone die a couple of weeks later; it makes a phenomenal difference to the quality of life for these children. Yes, the trials have been short so far, but over a reasonable period it makes a massive difference, and I think we should do everything we can. I have heard the Minister say that she will ask the chief executive of NHS England to get BioMarin back round the table. How long will she give him to achieve that, and if he does not succeed, what will she herself do to ensure that these children get these drugs as soon as possible?
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for all the work she has done as a clinician. I can only say again—I know this is very disappointing for the House—that we have to rely on the NICE process to be independent. I hear what the House is saying about some people having doubts about the process, but, again, it is under review. NICE is internationally respected, and it has been going for 20 years. Yes, these are exceptionally difficult cases, but this is why, as custodians of NHS funds, we have to be very careful, because every pound we spend on one drug is a pound we cannot spend on another. I hear what my hon. Friend says about this being a life-changing drug, and I hope that BioMarin, NHSE and NICE will, and we would urge them to, carry on with their negotiations.
There can be very few things as painful for a parent as knowing, once their child has been diagnosed, that there is potential treatment out there that may make a radical difference to their life, and it feels as though some bureaucrats—whether or not they are medical bureaucrats—are saying no. These little things in my hand, which would not have been prescribed for me if I had gone to the doctor a year ago, now cost £7,000 a month to the NHS, and I am delighted that I am able to receive them. However, I do want to make sure we have a proper system to ensure, for the most rare conditions, that there really is a possibility of making things available.
There may be only three dozen cases in the UK at the moment, which means there are probably about 900 in Europe, and if we include the Commonwealth, probably several thousand more. Why do we not have Governments in the world sitting round the table together with people from the pharmaceutical companies, who are not the baddies in this—these are the people, I think including the hon. Member for North East Somerset (Mr Rees-Mogg), whose investment made these pills available for me, in part; investment in these pharmaceutical companies is a good thing—to make sure that more of these rare—disease conditions can be treated?
We are determined to improve treatments for people living with rare diseases. As the hon. Gentleman pointed out, they have to be treated differently because fewer people are affected by them. We have the rare diseases strategy, and we are trying to use genomics better to diagnose and treat diseases. We are trying to be the first health service to put genomics into day-to-day health delivery, which will enable us to diagnose and treat diseases such as Batten more quickly. We have care co-ordinators for patients with rare diseases and we are trying to ensure that those who live to adulthood are cared for better, but what the hon. Gentleman said about having an international approach is valid.
The Minister rightly speaks about NICE’s important role in eliminating postcode lotteries. Does she agree that NICE’s independence is vital to ensuring availability to patients once an agreement is reached with BioMarin, wherever those patients are from, whether Penwortham in her constituency or Pensnett in mine?
My hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) made the point about international co-operation, which already exists. A European agency examining the treatment of rare diseases was established in January. It is funded by €101 million and the UK is currently a participant. My question for the Minister is, will we still be, in the event of withdrawal after 31 October?
Sadly, this is not the first time that we have been here discussing how to make a highly specialised drug available for people generally and the talks with companies. May I add my request to my hon. Friend to act urgently to ensure that the review of NICE is undertaken with speed and that the full range of appropriate stakeholders is included in the discussions to take NICE forward?
I completely agree with my hon. Friend. I have answered debates here and in Westminster Hall about the medical treatments for rare diseases. To reassure both patients and their families and Members of this place, we need to ensure that the review of NICE processes is robust and transparent.
Less than half of all available rare disease treatments licensed by the European Medicines Agency are reimbursed in the UK for patients to access freely through the NHS, compared with 93% in Germany and 81% in France. With respect, Minister, the parents of those young children with Batten disease have seen those figures as well. They are desperate for the medication for their loved ones, so will she agree to an urgent review of the funding for such treatments for UK citizens?
We are putting record amounts of funding into the NHS, but I would rest again on the independence of the NICE process and the fact that it is experts and clinicians who are making these decisions. I agree that these are dreadful decisions and it is very hard for us to make them, which is why we rely on that expert advice. I would say to the hon. Gentleman that other jurisdictions are not always a good comparison.
I thank the hon. Member for North East Somerset (Mr Rees-Mogg) for securing this urgent question.
Will the Minister, while working to secure the funding of the drug Brineura to help sufferers of Batten disease such as my young constituent Kaycee Bradshaw, look at how we can help to prevent companies such as BioMarin from charging extortionate fees for life-changing drugs? Sadly, this company also charges beyond the NICE framework for Kuvan, a vital drug needed by my young constituent Liam, who suffers from PKU. BioMarin made a net-product revenue increase for 2018 of $31.3 million from Brineura and $26.1 million from Kuvan, and $1.5 billion from across its range of drugs. This, by my standards, is a clear example of playing profits with people’s lives. It hurts even more that it is children who are suffering. It is not on. It is time that Governments got together and took heed. We do not know what other countries are paying. It might be less than our £300,000 or it might not, but something must happen. Get together and put the pressure on, but please, please secure these drugs for our children.
I pay tribute to Kaycee and Liam. The hon. Lady makes a very important point. We want pharmaceutical companies to develop their medicines here, so that they are brought to the market here first and our constituents have access to them. However, we also have an obligation to spend taxpayers’ money in a very fair way, so that every penny we spend is spent correctly and appropriately. When it comes to PKU, Orkambi or Brineura, what we are all—NHS England and all of us here—saying to the drug companies is that we will pay a price, but we want it to be a fair price.
Earlier in this Parliament, I supported a young constituent of mine in securing access to Brineura. Health is a devolved matter in Wales, but the NICE recommendations are still very important. The problem I have seen over the past four years, unfortunately, is that those guidelines do not work particularly well when a disease is extremely rare. Does the Minister plan to look again and review the guidelines, so that people are not penalised simply because the condition they have is rare?
Pensions for Severely Disabled Victims (Northern Ireland)
I am delighted to have the opportunity to respond to this urgent question and to clear up some worrying misconceptions that have been circulating over the weekend. Before I do, the more observant here today will have noticed that I am not the Secretary of State. She is at Stormont, where discussions are ongoing. I am sure we all wish those discussions every success.
I am happy to confirm that it remains the Government’s position that, while it is right and proper to provide a pension for victims of troubles-related terrorist incidents, it should not become a pension for terrorists. There is no moral equivalence between a bystander badly injured in a terrorist explosion through no fault of their own, and the people who manufactured the bomb, placed the bomb and detonated the bomb. I therefore happily confirm to the House that under the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill, which we debated last week and the week before that, if the Stormont Executive is not reformed by 21 October we will bring forward regulations to ensure a victims’ payment scheme is in place in Northern Ireland by the end of May next year. The eligibility for the scheme will reflect the basic principle I have just outlined.
There will be many important and sensitive details to work out. We will do that in discussion with the Northern Ireland political parties as the regulations are written and developed, but the foundations will be as I have described. I am delighted to have the opportunity to put that on the record here today.