House of Commons
Monday 24 February 2020
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Before questions, I am sure the whole House will wish to welcome Tricia Hillas—she is in the Under-Gallery—as the new Speaker’s Chaplain. Her appointment follows Rose Hudson-Wilkin’s elevation to be the Bishop of Dover. Most recently, Tricia was Canon Pastor at St Paul’s Cathedral. All hon. Members and others in the parliamentary community look forward to welcoming Tricia, and to the pastoral care and spiritual support she will give us. Welcome, and please enjoy!
Oral Answers to Questions
Housing, Communities and Local Government
The Secretary of State was asked—
New Homes: Carbon Emissions and Energy Efficiency
Welcome back, Mr Speaker, and welcome particularly to our new Chaplain.
Homes account for about a fifth of emissions. Driving these down and improving energy efficiency are crucial to fulfilling our commitments to net zero carbon by 2050. We have committed to introducing a future homes standard by 2025, and we will respond shortly to the 3,000 or so responses to our consultation—it closed on 7 February—which proposes carbon emissions at least 75% lower from 2025.
British architects such as Bill Dunster are building competitively priced, zero energy bill homes today that not only emit no carbon emissions, but are massively helpful to poorer families, so what will the Government do to push our oligopolistic and rather luddite house builders to start building the houses of tomorrow, not of yesterday?
I am obliged to my hon. Friend for his question, and I appreciate his desire to get the affordable homes of the future built today. Our recent consultation proposes a new householder affordability rating to measure a building’s efficiency and ensure it is affordable to heat. I am conscious that Mr Dunster has an opportunity at the Victoria & Albert Museum at the moment. I am very happy to visit his ZEDfactory in Watford, because I agree with my hon. Friend that we do need new, innovative small and medium-sized enterprises in the marketplace to drive variety in our housing market to improve the absorption rate.
I welcome the Minister to his position. Of course, when it comes to decarbonisation of homes, we also need to look at pre-existing homes. In Glasgow, we have thousands of tenement properties with a prohibitive 20% VAT rate for repairs and renovations, which makes it very difficult for housing associations to carry out those repairs and help decarbonisation. In the run-up to the Budget, will the Minister join me in calling on the Treasury to make sure that it cuts the VAT and allows the opportunity not just for fiscal stimulus, but to look after the pre-existing housing stock?
I am obliged to the hon. Gentleman, and I congratulate him on his attempt to guide the Chancellor in his forthcoming Budget. We certainly need to make sure that proper remediation takes place in existing housing, and that is something I and my colleagues are looking at.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his appointment to this absolutely crucial role. Does he agree that one of the best ways to prevent carbon emissions is to make sure that the ancient woodland we have in this country is protected when new homes are allocated? Would he support the Save Tiddesley Wood campaign outside Pershore, which wants to make sure that new homes are not built too close to it?
We have a manifesto commitment to more tree-lined streets. I would point my hon. Friend to the new Environment Bill, which will be coming forward. However, she is quite right: we do need to have green spaces and to maintain our ancient woodland. We all want to live in a nice and beautiful environment, and that is certainly something a Conservative party in government will hope to achieve.
The Government’s future homes standard would prevent councils from setting higher energy efficiency standards than national building regulations demand, while also watering down the impact of building regulations by allowing homes to pass the standard if their carbon emissions are reduced by general decarbonisation of the national grid, which will mean that homes can still be poorly insulated and meet the new standard. In what way does the Secretary of State think this is remotely fit for purpose as a response to the climate emergency? Will he rethink these proposals to equip our councils to go further and faster in reducing carbon emissions and to ensure that new homes will not have to be retrofitted in the future?
I think that a target of reducing emissions by 75% from 2025 is ambitious. It is very clear that the more stringent targets we are setting mean that it may not be necessary for councils to set different local standards. We have had a consultation, which closed on 7 February. More than 3,000 submissions were made to the consultation from big builders to think-tanks to local authorities, and we shall certainly be listening to that and taking it into account.
We have delivered over 1.5 million new homes since 2010 and last year saw the highest level of delivery in over 30 years, but I am determined that we go further by reforming the planning system and investing in infrastructure and new affordable homes to deliver 1 million homes over this Parliament.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his answer. Can he reassure the House that this very welcome house building will not come at the expense of green belt, especially in Sevenoaks?
We recognise how highly many people value their local green belt, including no doubt my hon. Friend’s constituents in Sevenoaks, but meeting these legitimate aspirations must not mean that the acute housing needs of communities go unmet or the dream of the next generation to get a place of their own goes unfulfilled. Local communities wishing to preserve the green belt sustainably must therefore meet local housing needs in other ways: through gentle density, through reimagining town centres and through aggressively redeveloping brownfield land. I intend to encourage each of those.
Does my right hon. Friend share my concerns regarding Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham’s Greater Manchester spatial framework, which seems to threaten a number of green belt sites in my constituency of Leigh, while simultaneously not making these sites available for delivery since the landowners have made it clear they are not available for development?
Due to my quasi-judicial role in the planning system, I cannot comment on the merits of the plan itself. I can say, however, that a number of hon. Members, including my hon. Friend, have made me aware of their concerns; even, I think, the shadow Secretary of State is campaigning against the plan. These matters will be looked at by a planning inspector should the plan reach submission.
Flats have a crucial role to play in meeting housing demand, especially for first-time buyers. In London, the price gap between a flat and a house is more than £160,000, but the entire market for high-rise flats has ground to a halt, because the Secretary of State has repeatedly failed to publish flammable cladding tests and mortgage lenders have taken fright. Up to 600,000 people are now in unsellable properties, and The Sunday Times put the number much higher at 3 million private flats now exposed. So after promising the results repeatedly since last summer will the Secretary of State tell us when he will publish the test results and how he will fix this problem that sits squarely at his door?
Like the hon. Lady, I am committed to tackling this issue. We want to bring about the largest change in building safety standards that this country has known in a generation, and we are doing that in many different ways. We have done it through banning ACM, the most dangerous cladding on buildings. We have done it through launching a new building safety regulator; there was no building safety regulator in this country, and successive Governments had failed to do that. I will be publishing the results of the Building Research Establishment’s studies. The reason for the delay is that we want to ensure that the right studies are done and as much work is done as possible. We will be guided by the experts and by expert evidence. I will not publish results until experts tell us that they are ready to do so, and I expect that will be in a few weeks’ time.
I am sure that the Secretary of State will agree that it is not just about the number of homes, but is also about the quality of those homes. Indeed, he has established the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission, which recently produced its report, “Living with beauty.” One of its key recommendations was for substantial reforms to the permitted development right regime, so that in future all homes would have to have minimum space standards, would have to conform to the design guidelines laid down by the local authority and also pay a betterment levy, as laid down by the authority. Is the Secretary of State going to accept those recommendations?
I was absolutely delighted by the findings of the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission. It is an important piece of work and, as I said at the launch of the report, we intend to accept the majority of the findings. I will be responding to that in due course. We must put the question of permitted development rights in context; PDRs have brought forward tens of thousands of homes that would not otherwise exist in this country, and that freedom is an important one that we intend to build on in the planning system. There have been a very small number of abuses where we have seen, frankly, unacceptable standards, including homes being built without any windows. I want to take action against those, because I want everybody to live in good-quality, safe accommodation.
The Government are acting to deliver on our ambitious manifesto commitment to be the first G20 country to eliminate rough sleeping. We recently committed an extra £112 million to the rough sleeping initiative. The funding is a 30% increase on the previous year. It will provide up to 6,000 beds and 2,500 staff across the country.
I commend my right hon. Friend for the action he is taking, but clearly the best way to reduce rough sleeping is to prevent it happening in the first place. The review of my Homelessness Reduction Act 2017 is due at the end of this financial year and local authorities need to know how much funding they will have in successive years to deliver that Act. When he reviews the Act, will he ensure that local authorities, in combating homelessness, abide not only by the letter but the spirit of the law?
I would like to take this opportunity to thank and pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his invaluable work on the Homelessness Reduction Act. Since the Act was implemented, over 130,000 households have had their homelessness successfully prevented or relieved. We will be reviewing the implementation of the Act, including resourcing and how it is working in practice. Local authorities will now receive an additional £63 million in the next financial year through the homelessness reduction grant to carry out these duties. In the comprehensive spending review, which will set the multi-year spending review for local government, we will certainly take it very seriously.
In Eastbourne, we will make very good use of our share of the £1.5 million from the Government to address this issue locally. Our winter night shelter, which is orchestrated by local churches and powered by volunteers and the generous support of local businesses such as Iron Maidens, will close its doors in a matter of days. Will my right hon. Friend meet me and other partners to look at what it would mean to seek to establish a shelter all year round?
May I take this opportunity, like my hon. Friend, to pay tribute to all those involved in rough sleeping initiatives across the country? I visited many over the course of my six or seven months in this job and I have never failed to be incredibly impressed by their commitment and passion. I am sure that that is the case with the one in her constituency and I will, of course, happily meet her. The rough sleeping initiative, which the Government have pioneered, is working. Last year we saw the first fall in homelessness for many years, albeit a modest fall of 2%. I want to take that forward and I believe passionately that this is one of the great social ills that we can and will tackle as a Government.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the excellent work undertaken by organisations such as The Passage in my constituency is vital if we are to meet our manifesto commitment to end rough sleeping by the end of this Parliament?
I thank my hon. Friend who, in her former role as leader of Westminster Council, played a critical role in taking forward these issues. I join her in praising the staff of The Passage, which is a phenomenal organisation. I have seen some of its work in practice. There are many great organisations in her constituency. I visited King George’s Hostel in Victoria just two weeks ago and was incredibly impressed by its staff. The approach I will be taking as Secretary of State will be to bring together for the first time health with housing, because homelessness is not just a housing crisis but a crisis of addiction and mental health. By bringing them together in a co-ordinated fashion for the first time, I genuinely believe we will be able to tackle this issue.
Nearly three years ago, a terrible explosion in New Ferry in my constituency left many buildings derelict. Local residents tell me that we now have people sleeping rough in derelict buildings, which is why I wrote to the Secretary of State on 28 January asking if he would meet me to discuss the situation in New Ferry and the fact that the Government need to help us. Please, will he meet me?
I will be happy to meet the hon. Lady.
I would be very happy to hear more about the specific cases that the hon. Lady raises. We have a strategy; we are investing more than ever before—we spent 30% more than we did in the previous financial year—and the initiatives that we are funding are working. I am pleased to say that we are seeing the first falls in rough sleeping for many years, but we are not complacent. We believe that this is an important challenge and it is one that the Prime Minister and I are committed to. We hope that when the statistics for the November count are published on Thursday, we will see a further fall and a further move in the right direction on this issue.
In Chesterfield, we have one-bedroom flats available, yet we also have people sleeping rough on the streets. The reason is that the benefits they receive do not cover the rent that they would have to pay for a one-bedroom council flat, so they are unable to take them up. I agree entirely with what the Secretary of State says about the value of hostels, but we could do away with the need for a lot of those if we had a welfare policy that supported people to live in the houses that already exist.
The hon. Gentleman is right that this is a multifaceted issue. We have ended the freeze on the local housing allowance, so that will rise in the next financial year with the consumer prices index. That will help to make it more affordable for individuals on the lowest incomes to get into homes in the private rented sector, but we will bring together all parts of Government with renewed vigour—whether that is the Department for Work and Pensions, the Home Office or the Department of Health and Social Care—to ensure that we tackle this issue as never before.
Local Growth: Great Grimsby
Great Grimsby is the Government’s pilot town deal. We are already investing over £40 million across Government to deliver local priorities. We will provide further significant investment through the £3.6 billion towns fund and we have already delivered funding to help to develop local plans for Great Grimsby’s future prosperity and growth.
Will the Minister let me know what the Government are doing to address the number of vacant commercial properties on our high streets, including in constituencies such as mine?
We have introduced a number of measures to address the number of empty shops on high streets, including our Open Doors pilot project, which matches landlords of empty properties with community groups, and a proposed private register for empty commercial properties. We are also cutting the business rates bills of small retailers by 50% from this April for properties with a rateable value of below £51,000. That is an increase from the one third that we have delivered in the current financial year.
Today, the Manchester Evening News reports on the findings of the Marmot review, which are truly shocking. It says that life expectancy has fallen for women and stalled for men, the likes of which we have not witnessed for 120 years in England. The richest men now live nine and a half years longer than the poorest and the equivalent figure for women is 7.7 years. The north needs not just a rebalancing of capital, but an investment in human capital. How can any levelling up address the austerity-led crisis so that the poorest do not see a decade stolen from their lives?
The hon. Gentleman raises a really important point. Clearly, the process of levelling up is not restricted to that of economic infrastructure; it is also absolutely about making sure that the life chances of individuals are realised to the full. That means, for example, making sure that our skills policy works, and the Government are committed to delivering a new national skills fund—we will announce more about that as part of the Budget process. It also means that it is really important that we get the process of skills devolution right, and we are keen to make sure that we work with strong local mayoral leaders to make sure that they deliver those budgets in a way that makes a real difference. This is clearly a long-term challenge. We need to make sure that we get the right devolution models in place so that such things as the towns fund and the future high streets fund are complemented by comparable work on life chances.
Local Government Finance Settlement
This afternoon, we will debate and vote on the final local government finance settlement for 2020-21. The settlement is a huge investment in the sector, with a £1.5 billion boost for social care and the biggest year-on-year increase in spending power for a decade.
I am grateful to the Minister for detailing the amount by which he is increasing funding for local government spending, but Wyre Forest District Council has seen a 2.7% drop in funding, which is very disappointing. That is largely due to the fall-off in the new homes bonus. The council is doing its best to grant planning, but the problem is that developers are land banking. What can my hon. Friend do to help district councils that are doing their best to deliver new homes but are facing increasing land banking by developers? If his answer did not include anything to do with compulsory purchase, that would be terrific.
My hon. Friend is right that Wyre Forest’s core funding has gone up in line with inflation this year—an extra £46,000—but its funding has decreased due to the fall in new homes bonus payments, which are time limited and based on local home-building performance. It is worth noting that Worcestershire County Council will gain an extra £26.1 million this coming financial year and that across the country we see a 4.4% real-terms increase in core spending power, but we have committed to reviewing the new homes business and I look forward to working with him as we take that forward.
I welcome the Minister back to his place on the Government Front Bench. He is boasting that in the coming funding settlement he is offering a 4.4% boost for local authorities next year. Any budget growth is welcome, after a decade of decline, but he fails to tell the House that more than half of his figure is predicated entirely on every council in England increasing council tax and the social care levy by the maximum amount. Why does he feel the need to hide behind inflated council tax increases to present his good news to the House?
I am glad that the hon. Member welcomes the increase in core spending power for councils around the country. I hope he will vote for it this evening to make sure that councils have the funding they need. This is a huge investment of £1.5 billion in social care. The Government are protecting council tax payers from excessive increases, as stated in our manifesto, and we will make sure that the 4.4% real-terms spending increase—£2.9 billion—goes straight to the frontline of local authorities.
Of all my discussions in my constituency, it is the funding for the local council that is of real concern to me. There is not sufficient funding coming through to help Shropshire Council deal with the huge increases in adult social care costs. In addition, Shrewsbury is flooded today, and the council is grappling with that situation as well. We need more money for our local councils.
I was pleased to meet my hon. Friend and his local authority recently to discuss the important points he raises. He will of course know of the increased investment in his local authority to deal with social care, but he raises some serious points, and I look forward to ongoing discussions with him about how we tackle these issues in the weeks ahead.
I call Barry Sheerman.
Oh, thank you, Mr Speaker. You took me by surprise.
Can I ask the Government Front-Bench team to wake up a bit? [Laughter.] I had rehearsed that line; I had to use it. I want them to wake up. Yes, local authorities have been starved of resources, and of course we all want money for local authorities, but we also want this Front-Bench team and this Government to put in place real incentives for a sustainable housing policy and for how our towns can grow and meet all the needs of our communities. We need sustainability—get on with it!
I hope the hon. Gentleman will contribute to the consultation on the new homes bonus when it comes out. There is a real-terms increase in core spending power. If he wants more money for local authorities, it is time he put his money where his mouth is and voted for the settlement this evening.
Local Growth: Lincoln
The Government are investing £155 million through the greater Lincolnshire local enterprise partnership’s growth deals. That includes £13 million for the Lincoln transport hub and £5 million for Lincoln medical school. Businesses are also supported by a local Lincoln growth hub. Additionally, Lincoln is set to benefit from the Government’s towns fund, which will provide up to £25 million of funding to support a thriving local economy in my hon. Friend’s beautiful city.
How significant and successful does the Minister foresee towns fund project bids of a transport type being in my constituency in enhancing the attractiveness of the city and benefiting all by putting residents first as well as those who work, set up businesses, study in and visit our lovely city and its environs?
I am obliged to my hon. Friend for his question, because strengthening transport connectivity is a principal focus for the towns fund and some £173,000 of capacity funding has been made available to his town deal board in Lincoln. Throughout the development of their investment plans, town boards should consider a range of interventions and commit investment to the priorities that drive growth and prosperity for their towns, and that, of course, includes transport.
Local Growth: Clacton
The Government are committed to giving communities across the United Kingdom, including Clacton, real power and investment to drive growth and unleash their full potential. I am pleased that Clacton has progressed to the business case development stage of the £1 billion future high streets fund and will be bidding for capital funding shortly. The South East local enterprise partnership, which covers Clacton, has received £590 million through the local growth fund to drive regional development.
I thank my hon. Friend for his answer, but I recently asked Cabinet Office Ministers not to overlook coastal communities in the south as we seek to level up between the north and the south. Levelling up is a laudable aim, but we should not overlook places such as Clacton, which, as is well known, has pockets of extreme deprivation. We need real and lasting support there. Can my hon. Friend assure me that the Government’s support for local growth in my area will be the norm rather than a passing fad?
I can certainly provide that reassurance. I have vivid memories of the Clacton by-election, when I first met my hon. Friend: I get all the best days out!
The Government are committed to levelling up all regions of our country. I speak as a proud north-easterner, but I am very conscious that deprivation is not limited to the north or to the midlands. It is clearly found in pockets throughout the country. I can absolutely reassure my hon. Friend that wherever those characteristics exist, we will be there to act.
Housing Developments: Education and Health Infrastructure
I know how important it is to local communities for new development to be supported by infrastructure. In our manifesto we committed ourselves to delivering key infrastructure, including health and education, ahead of developments. The new single housing infrastructure fund will also help to provide the upfront infrastructure that is needed to support the new homes to which my hon. Friend has referred.
Aylesbury has seen considerable housing growth in recent years, but many of my constituents have been unable to get their children into the schools that are closest to them, even on new-build estates, because of a lack of places. Indeed, their children may attend different schools in places that are very far apart. What can my right hon. Friend do to ensure that infrastructure such as schools and doctors’ surgeries is in place before the new residents move into their homes?
My hon. Friend has made a good point. Of course, health and education providers should already be engaging with local planning authorities about infrastructure requirements in the areas in which they should be delivered. The implementation of our manifesto commitment—I have already mentioned the single housing infrastructure fund—will build on that approach, and will ensure that we can deliver the health and education infrastructure that is needed to support house building. I spoke to my right hon. Friend the Education Secretary just as a few days ago about the £2 billion or so that is available to the Department for Education to spend on school improvements, and I shall of course be keeping in touch with him.
Since the election in December, I have received countless emails and letters about our green belt in Coventry. In any upcoming review of the green belt, how will the Government ensure that local authorities can both deliver the homes that people need and protect our green spaces? Just this morning, Conservative West Midlands mayor Andy Street called for more funding to clean up brownfield sites so that new homes could be built. It is important for members of the next generation to have the opportunity to grow up in a healthy environment where they can play, explore, and learn about the natural areas in their communities, while also having homes that they can afford.
We are working with the mayor of the West Midlands to ensure that the right homes are built in the right places, through, for instance, a brownfield strategy. Of course the hon. Lady is right—we want green spaces that people can enjoy—but we also want homes that people can live in, and she cannot have it both ways. We want to build homes that people can afford to rent or to buy so that they have a stake in the country and a right to aspire to homes that they can enjoy and pass on to their families, and that is what this Government will deliver.
Affordable Housing: South-west
This Government are committed to increasing the supply of affordable housing with our £9 billion affordable homes programme from 2016 to 2022, and we have committed in our manifesto to bringing forward a successor, which we hope will be bigger and better. We have delivered almost 52,000 new affordable homes in the south-west since 2010.
My constituents are particularly excited about this Department’s agenda, and they are pleased about the Government’s commitment to delivering more local affordable housing. How will my right hon. Friend ensure not only that we are building homes for the future but that they are of a high quality and high standard?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. As well as enabling people to get on to the housing ladder, it is important to ensure that the new homes we build are of good quality. It is unacceptable that new houses have in many cases been built to a shoddy standard and that some house builders have displayed poor service when house buyers find that they have problems with their new home. That is why I am today announcing a statutory independent new homes ombudsman to protect homebuyers from these rogue developers. Poor-quality builders will now have to pay compensation for shoddy workmanship, and house builders must join the new ombudsman scheme, so all house buyers will see swift action to resolve the issues that they encounter and builders must put quality first if they wish to continue to be part of the Government’s Help to Buy scheme.
Local Growth: Burnley
Across the north-west we are investing £1.5 billion through the local growth fund. In Burnley, we are investing £1.7 million at Vision Park to help advanced manufacturing and engineering companies, £1.3 million for the Centenary Way bridge work and £8 million for infrastructure development delivering new houses, jobs and private sector investment.
I think the Minister for his answer. New housing developments are vital, and an important part of ensuring that we have the housing stock that we need. Will he tell me what steps he is taking to ensure that housing developments have local support and contribute to thriving communities?
My hon. Friend is clearly a doughty defender of his constituents and their right to ensure that the homes built around them are approved by them. The Government have made it absolutely clear that new developments should be well designed in a way that reflects local preferences, and supported by the right infrastructure at the right time. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has said, we welcome the report from the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission in this respect, and we will be responding to it in due course.
Local Authority Spending: Value for Money
It is up to individual local authorities to secure value for money in their spending decisions and to set a balanced budget. They have a legal duty to deliver continuous improvement and to combine that with economy, efficiency and effectiveness. Local auditors scrutinise their accounts, and my Department has ensured that all council spending over £500 is published so that local voters and anyone else can check that their council is spending its money wisely.
I welcome the Minister’s comments. With regard to value for money, will he investigate the circumstances in which Swale Borough Council’s cabinet recently gave £1 million to a company called Quinn Estates to allow the council to take back control of car parks in Sittingbourne that it already owned, and for which it was not legally obliged to pay a single penny? In addition, will he join me in condemning Swale’s cabinet for slapping a gagging order on councillors, threatening them with legal action if they dare to expose this shabby deal for council tax payers in my constituency?
I thank my hon. Friend for his question. As I have said, local authorities are independent of central Government and responsible for their own decisions. He has raised serious concerns about Swale Council and of course, if he has evidence of financial irregularities, he should report it to the external auditors in the first instance. He may also wish to consider reporting it to the National Audit Office, and I would be happy to meet him to discuss the matter further.
Time and time again, it has been proven that local government has the most efficient public services, yet the largest pressures facing local government are in adult social care and children’s services. Despite that, those services will still be cut. Blackburn has growing demand and limited resources. The Minister may announce huge amounts of money but in reality that will not even cover the unmet demand or the rise in the national living wage. Sticking plasters will not fix the problem. Will the Minister please tell us what he is going to do to end this crisis?
I will later today present our finance settlement, which the hon. Lady can vote for if she really thinks that there is not more money going to local authorities. There will be a 4.4% real-terms rise, a £1 billion social care grant, and a further £500 million that can be accessed, and the rise in council tax will be the lowest since 2016.
Does the Minister agree that, with the enhanced spending power that local authorities are about to get, they should prioritise care for disabled children? The needs of such children are becoming more complex, and we want to do more as a society to support them, so that should be reflected in the decisions of local government.
Of course, it is for local authorities to decide their individual local priorities, but my right hon. Friend is right to highlight the fact that the real-terms increase in core spending power for councils up and down the country means that money can be invested in the services that local authorities need the most.
The Minister said that councils are responsible for their own decisions. He is right on one level, but many local authorities are increasingly over-exposing themselves to certain commercial sectors—the Public Accounts Committee has examined this in depth—putting at risk council tax payers and the fabric of local government in their areas. He will know that some councils are at risk right now, so what is his Department doing to ensure that we are protecting council tax payers where local government is not doing so well?
The hon. Lady raises a serious point about the effectiveness of some types of spending. We are working with the Treasury to review the Public Works Loan Board rates and flexibilities that local authorities have, and we will ensure that we keep her updated in due course on the progress of that review.
Local Growth: North-west
We are investing £1.5 billion across the north-west through the local growth fund, including £201 million in Cheshire and Warrington. We have also invited 20 north-west towns, including Warrington, to put forward locally led proposals to draw down up to £25 million from the Government’s towns fund.
What steps is the Department taking to ensure that local councils prioritise brownfield development over green-belt development and make use of sites such as Fiddler’s Ferry, a coal-fired power station in my constituency that is about to close?
We are putting forward money through Homes England for the development of such brownfield sites. Our national planning policy framework is clear that local authorities should prioritise brownfield land but, equally, we do need to build the homes required.
Local Authorities: Levels of Recycling
Our Department has regular conversations with DEFRA about how to support councils to meet the national recycling target of 65% by 2035. The Environment Bill introduces a range of measures to boost recycling, and we will continue to work to ensure that councils are able to play their full role.
North West Leicestershire District Council is running a 2,000-home trial of food waste separation, and more than 25 tonnes of food waste has been diverted from landfill since mid-December as a result. Given that a third of black-bin waste is food or food related, will the Minister confirm that councils across the country will get financial support to enable them to roll out food waste separation to all homes?
I commend North West Leicestershire District Council on its work and note its recent “Recycle more…” plan. We recognise the importance of diverting food waste from landfill and will mandate weekly food waste collections in England through the Environment Bill, with DEFRA having committed to fully funding local authorities to do that in line with the new burdens doctrine.
Children in Temporary Accommodation
Tackling homelessness is a key priority for this Government, which is why we implemented the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017 to prevent homelessness. The number of children living in temporary accommodation is lower than the 2006 peak and has stabilised since the 2017 Act came into force. Of course, there is more that we can do, and we are providing a further £437 million in 2020-21 to tackle homelessness and rough sleeping.
There are 6,000 children living in unregulated homes, often at great risk to their own safety. Councils have had their budgets cut by this Government, and children in care simply have nowhere else to turn. Six thousand children in care living in unregulated homes is 6,000 too many. When will the Government take the action that is needed to look after this vulnerable group of our youngest people?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. He raises an extremely important matter.
The Secretary of State for Education has launched a review to see what more we can do and what further steps can be taken. Of course, it is hugely important to make sure that we are preventing people from becoming homeless in the first place, and that is why we are increasing homelessness and rough-sleeping funding by £69 million in the coming financial year.
Local authorities across the UK are placing unaccompanied vulnerable young people in private children’s homes across Blackpool without notifying either Blackpool Council or other statutory local agencies. What steps can the Minister take to ensure that any local authority placing such people in my constituency first notifies both my council and the police that those children are there?
Local authorities should make other local authorities aware of it when they are placing out of area; of course, we would always encourage local authorities to place in their area wherever possible. I am more than happy to speak to my hon. Friend about the specific example he raises.
Local Government Finance: Protection of Children
This Government have recognised and responded to the pressures that local authorities are facing in delivering their statutory duty to protect children. For 2021, we are delivering an extra £1 billion for child social care and 4.4% into core spending power.
Andy Burnham’s inquiry into the abandonment of Operation Augusta showed a shocking scenario in parts of Manchester where children were being groomed in open sight. It also showed that before Operation Augusta was abandoned, and when the children’s department was working with the police, it was beginning to be effective in stopping that grooming. I simply do not accept the Minister’s answer that there is sufficient money now or that sufficient money will be provided. Ninety per cent. of children’s departments in this country are underfunded, and all the children’s departments in Greater Manchester are underfunded.
Of course, of the additional £1 billion of social care grant, Manchester City Council will have access to an additional £30 million to use on children’s social care in the coming year. As we set out in our manifesto, we are committed to undertaking a review of the care system that will allow us to go even further and to make sure that all care placements and settings provide children and young people with the support they need.
I understand the review also made recommendations about policing, and of course we will be starting to recruit 6,000 police officers in the coming year.
We recently published a consultation on First Homes, our exciting new scheme to give a 30% discount to local first-time buyers, which will help tens of thousands of people across the country to buy their first home. This will add to the 600,000 households already supported by Government home-ownership schemes since 2010.
I thank the Secretary of State for that reply. Being able to get on the property ladder is a particularly big issue in my constituency—South Cambridgeshire—because property prices are so high, so I very much welcome the First Homes initiative. Can the Secretary of State tell me whether the First Homes initiative will boost the supply of new homes, or will it primarily change the tenure of existing affordable housing schemes?
We hope it will do both. It will increase the supply of new homes by building popular support for new developments, but I completely accept that the housing challenges we face as a country are primarily supply-side. There is only so much that can be done through new demand-side reforms such as First Homes, which is exactly why, as a new Government, we will be taking forward important supply-side reforms such as those in my forthcoming White Paper on the planning system to unlock more land for development and create a simpler, faster and cheaper planning system.
I am delighted to welcome my right hon. Friend the Member for Tamworth (Christopher Pincher) and my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Mr Clarke) to the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government team. Alongside the Under-Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Thornbury and Yate (Luke Hall), who has responsibility for local government, we will be working together to get more people on the housing ladder, end rough sleeping, build safer, greener and more beautiful homes, and level up all parts of the country. I wish to place on record my thanks to my right hon. Friends the Members for Rossendale and Darwen (Jake Berry) and for Tatton (Esther McVey) for their service to the Department and to the Government.
During the recess, many of our communities were affected by Storms Dennis and Ciara, and I pay tribute to the men and women of the emergency services, local councils and the many volunteers on the ground for their tireless work to help people affected. My Department is supporting communities to get back on their feet, activating the emergency Bellwin funding, and providing a financial package of support, including council tax and business rate relief for the worst-affected areas.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that private sector building owners need to act more quickly to remediate dangerous aluminium composite material cladding on their buildings?
I agree entirely with my hon. Friend on that. Work by building owners in the private sector to ensure the safety of residents living in tower blocks has been unacceptably slow, and I have been consistently clear with them that there is no excuse for their lack of progress. Today I am publishing a list of building owners who do not yet have a clear plan in place to remediate all their buildings. I will not hesitate in future to name others if they fail to demonstrate progress. Today I am asking the relevant local authorities to commence enforcement action against the entities I have named, and I will be supporting those local authorities to do this at pace.
It is good to see the Secretary of State still in his place after the Cabinet reshuffle. He is serious about the job, and he certainly has a serious job to do, given that hundreds of thousands of people are living with the mental and financial burden of having unsafe cladding on their home, nearly three years after the terrible Grenfell Tower fire. Never mind his exhortations, he promised that all social sector blocks with Grenfell-style cladding would have that removed and replaced by the end of last year. Why has that vital promise been broken?
We have taken decisive action to address the challenge of ACM cladding; we banned combustible cladding on buildings, and we have also brought forward the £600 million scheme, for both the social sector and the private sector. I am frustrated that some, particularly in the private sector but also in the social sector, have taken so long to do this. That is why I am taking the action I am today, as promised, to name and shame the private sector entities that have failed to take the actions that all of us in this House would expect them to take, particularly given that public money is being put at their disposal now in order to remove this dangerous cladding. I will take all the steps necessary to do this and I will do so as quickly as possible.
We have heard this before, and frustration and exhortation simply are not sufficient. Social sector blocks are just the tip of the iceberg, and the Secretary of State still has not got a grip on those. Four months ago, he promised action against private block owners who are not removing unsafe Grenfell-style ACM cladding, but his own departmental figures show that 43 block owners—one in four—do not even have a plan in place. He has to do more to act, and that is before we even get into dealing with 1,000 extra non-ACM unsafe blocks. Enough is enough: will he now accept and back the Labour plan for legislation to make those private block owners do and pay for the remedial action, and put a stop to the scandal whereby vulnerable flat owners are having to pay simply to make their homes safe?
The right hon. Gentleman is behind the curve on this one; he is behind the action we are taking as a Government. We have already said that we are going to bring forward the fire safety Bill, which was in the Queen’s Speech and which will give fire and rescue services the powers that he wishes—I hope that means he will be supporting that Bill when it comes forward in the coming months. We have said that we will follow that quickly with the building safety Bill, which will be the biggest change to fire safety and building standards in this country in my lifetime.
We will be doing that, as we have already said, before the summer recess.
In draft, because this is an important and complex piece of legislation. As regards those buildings that still have ACM cladding, all bar a very small number of owners now have a clear plan to remediate that cladding. About a third have taken it off, about a third are in the process of doing so, and the remainder have a clear plan, except for the small number of egregious building owners I have named today.
On infrastructure and community projects all across Scotland there are EU flags that proudly show where European funding has benefited those organisations. Now that Scotland has been dragged out of the EU against our will, we will no longer benefit from that funding. When will the details of the shared prosperity fund come forward? There was meant to be a consultation on it in 2018 but that did not materialise, so will the Secretary of State update the House on when the shared prosperity fund will come forward, to give clarity and certainty to communities?
We will bring forward our proposals on the UK shared prosperity fund in due course. There is a significant sum in the European territorial co-operation fund—around £600 million—which I believe is what the hon. Gentleman speaks of. It is important that we get it right, so we will fully consult partners throughout the United Kingdom to ensure that we have a UK-wide fund that is committed to levelling up all parts of the country.
We are always up for new ideas. Town deal boards should be business-led and representative of their communities. We provided guidance on their membership and made it clear that we expect to see a business chair and the local MP on the board. We will set out a clear decision-making process for boards to follow.
The Department has regular conversations with the Treasury about all sorts of matters. We are investing £1 billion in social care funding, and £500 million is available to local authorities. I am happy to meet the hon. Lady to discuss that campaign.
I have great sympathy with the issue that my hon. Friend raises, and it will be addressed in our forthcoming White Paper on the planning system.
The hon. Lady raises an extremely serious and important matter. On 17 February we announced £16.6 million for 75 local authority projects, for the delivery of support to victims of domestic abuse and their children in safe accommodation, helping up to 43,000 survivors. The fund will allow local authorities to maintain existing services until the new duty comes into force in April 2021, subject to the successful passage of the domestic abuse Bill.
I call Craig Williams. Not here.
I thank my hon. Friend for his question; it is great to have an MP for North West Durham who is committed to fighting hard for his community rather than grandstanding. Our £1 billion future high streets fund is key to levelling up the economy of all parts of the country. There will be a second phase of the fund and we will bring forward further details in due course.
Earlier in this questions session, the Secretary of State announced a new homes ombudsman, which will be welcome if it has the right powers. Will he also consider requiring an escrow account for each new build property, so that a proportion of the house price can be withheld until the snagging is completed and remedial work is carried out?
I will happily give that some careful thought.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State answered a similar question earlier. Ministers have a quasi-judicial role in the planning system, so it would not be right for me to comment on the merits of this particular plan. However, the Mayor must meaningfully consult local residents in developing his plan, to ensure that he carries their trust. I understand that Mr Burnham will be in London again tomorrow, so my hon. Friend might have an opportunity to discuss it with him personally.
Both the Secretary of State and the Housing Minister have spoken about building safety regulations, but what regulation is in place regarding the installation of lithium batteries in new homes, and will they meet me to discuss this?
I am very happy to meet the hon. Lady to discuss the matter further. It sounds like an issue that we should consider.
After our third one-in-100-years flood in seven and a half years in Calder Valley, the support package announced last week for the 1,187 properties that were flooded was a welcome relief. However, it appears that the match funding element of the package for those who fund-raise for residents badly affected by floods is not included. Can my right hon. Friend confirm whether the match funding is included, as it was last time, and whether it will be available to South Yorkshire before Christmas?
May I praise my hon. Friend for the hard work that he has done on behalf of his communities, who have faced severe flooding over the past two weeks? We have worked together and brought forward a significant financial package that is comparable to that provided in 2015. I do not believe that anyone has yet approached the Government to ask for match funding for a charity foundation, for example, as happened in 2015, but I would be happy to consider that if it was suggested.
Later this afternoon we will discuss the local government finance report, but there will be no true long-term sustainability for any local authority until adult social care has been resolved in this generation. We have heard lots about the Government’s desire to create a consensus on the issue. Where are the proposals so that we can start to discuss them?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that, on top of putting £1 billion a year into social care, we will be bringing forward that long-term plan this year. We of course look forward to those discussions in the weeks and months ahead. I very much hope that a true cross-party consensus can be reached, because we need to resolve this so that everyone has the dignity and security they deserve.
Syria: Security Situation
(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will make a statement on the security situation in Syria.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for bringing this urgent question to the House. We are deeply concerned by the crisis in north-west Syria, where the situation on the ground is deteriorating. Over 900,000 people have been displaced while fleeing the regime and Russian bombardment. They are fleeing northwards and being squeezed into increasingly dense enclaves. With camps full to capacity, many are sleeping in the open, in temperatures well below freezing.
Nearly 300 civilians have been killed in Idlib and Aleppo since 1 January this year. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has confirmed that 93% of those deaths were caused by the regime and its allies. International humanitarian law continues to be ignored, with civilian infrastructure being hit probably as a result of active targeting. As recently as yesterday, the White Helmets reported that Russian warplanes hit a children’s and women’s hospital in the village of Balioun in Idlib.
The UK has condemned, and continues to condemn, these flagrant violations of international law and basic human decency. Following UK lobbying, in August 2019 the UN Secretary-General announced a board of inquiry into attacks on civilian infrastructure supported by the UN or that were part of the UN deconfliction mechanism, which we continue to support. We look forward to the publication of the results as soon as possible.
We have repeatedly pressed—including at the UN Security Council—for an immediate, genuine and lasting ceasefire. We have called a number of emergency council sessions on Idlib in New York, most recently on 6 February alongside the P3, where the UK ambassador to the UN, Karen Pierce, reiterated our clear call for a ceasefire and our support for Turkey’s efforts in the region. There is overwhelming support for that in the Security Council, and we regret very much that the Russians continue to obstruct the possibility of agreement.
As the Foreign Secretary noted on 31 January this year, only a political settlement in line with UN Security Council resolution 2254 can deliver a lasting peace for Syria. The UK will continue to support the efforts of the UN special representative for Syria, Geir Pedersen, to that end. We regret that the Syrian regime continues to stall the process, despite the cost to the Syrian people and the loss of Syrian lives.
Despite this political obstruction, the UK remains an active leader in the humanitarian space. In the financial year 2019-20, the Department for International Development has allocated £118 million to projects implemented by organisations delivering cross-border aid, primarily into north-west Syria, including into Idlib. This has helped to provide hundreds of thousands of vulnerable people with food, clean water, shelter and healthcare, including psychosocial support.
We have provided funding to response partners, including the UN, to pre-position essential supplies to support innocent families and civilians displaced by conflict and are supporting all our partners to respond to this humanitarian crisis.
Before I begin, may I thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question? I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat), the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, and the hon. Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern), who I know also put in for this urgent question.
For almost a decade, we have seen the terrible events unfold in Syria and have occasionally offered a limited response to Assad’s barbarism, but since August 2013, the west has taken a strategic back seat.
I welcome the Minister to his place. He and I attended the Munich security conference. I hope that, next year, we will have a larger British contingent. The theme at that conference was the failure of the western project. It was an admission of the loss of common understanding of what it means to be part of the west—what we believe in, what we defend, and what we fight for. Nowhere is that more applicable than in what is happening in Syria, where Russian-backed Syrian forces, as has been outlined, continue to adopt the same brutal tactics that we saw in Homs, in Hama and in Aleppo, causing so much misery to millions. The latest escalation has seen almost a million people displaced, including women and children.
As we saw in the reports on Sky News over the weekend, Assad continues his advance, deliberately bombing hospitals and causing infants to freeze in the cold winter. Yet again, attempts by the UN Security Council to secure a ceasefire are vetoed by Russia. The prospect of a bloodbath grows higher, as does that of a direct conflict between Turkey and Syria. The words come again from the west, but we continue to watch on.
May I ask the Minister to please answer these questions? Given the UK’s P5 status, what is our role? Has Turkey, a NATO ally, requested any support? Indeed, has any been offered, such as introducing a no-fly zone to prevent helicopters from dropping barrel bombs? There is talk of a summit on 5 March. Is Britain even invited to that? What discussions has he had with our European partners, particularly on what options we can consider that bypass a stagnant United Nations? Does he now agree that the west’s inability to commit to any post-military phase after the counter-Daesh offensive has actually given Russia greater autonomy in shaping Syrian events?
On the growing influence and power of Russia, does the Minister share my concerns that the UN will go the way of the League of Nations if its ability to adjudicate internationally is not repaired? Finally, is he not concerned that the west’s growing reputation for hesitating is giving ever greater influence and confidence to non-western alliances to pursue their own agendas, as they know that the west is likely to respond only with words?
We will soon celebrate the 75th anniversary of victory in Europe, reflecting on a time when Britain did not flinch from its international duty and from stepping forward when other nations hesitated. If global Britain is to mean anything in this dangerous and complex world, now is the time to show it.
I thank my right hon. Friend for those points. I was pleased that he, too, attended the Munich security conference, where I met representatives not only from the Syrian region but from the wider international community, which, as he says, takes the situation in Syria incredibly seriously. I very much regret the targeting of civilians and civilian infrastructure by the regime and by Russian forces.
My right hon. Friend mentioned the history—the League of Nations. On Russia’s veto at the United Nations, there is of course countervailing pressure. It is better to have as wide representation at the United Nations as possible. The veto is part of the mechanisms put in place in 1945 at the creation of the UN to ensure that as many people as possible could be around the table, but I do not think that anyone at the time envisaged the veto being used to protect regimes such as Assad’s, which has been regularly targeting civilians and their infrastructure.
The United Kingdom is part of the small group on Syria, which includes Egypt, France, Germany, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the United States of America. It is particularly important that Arab nations be represented on that small group that discusses the situation in Syria. There is a challenge, of course, in balancing the UK taking what my right hon. Friend might describe as a more active role, and the need for a sustainable solution that is agreed both by the protagonists in the region and by the surrounding nations, but we are certainly making sure that the UK voice is heard on the international stage, and that our actions are felt on the ground, particularly on the humanitarian front. Since 2011, we have been one of the largest bilateral donors, and we remain at the forefront of the humanitarian response. To date, we have committed £3.1 billion in response to the Syria crisis—our largest response to any single humanitarian crisis.
The UK is, and will remain, a powerful and passionate voice calling internationally for a ceasefire and the de-escalation of conflict in the region, both at the UN and through the small group on Syria.
Thank you for granting this urgent question, Mr Speaker. I also thank the Chair of the Defence Committee, the right hon. Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), for securing it. I welcome the Minister to his position.
What is happening today in Idlib fills us all with horror and dismay, but it should also fill us with frustration, because it was clear that this stage of the conflict was coming. Seventeen months ago, in response to another urgent question, my right hon. Friend the Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry), the shadow Foreign Secretary, warned us of
“the terrible bloodshed and humanitarian crisis that is looming in Idlib,”
and spoke of
“the urgency for all sides to work to find some form of peaceful political solution to avert it”—[Official Report, 10 September 2018; Vol. 646, c. 466.]
We have not seen that urgency from the international community, and now we see all the terrible consequences of that. Hundreds of thousands are being forced to flee their home; innocent civilians are being targeted by Assad’s airstrikes; there is indiscriminate bombing of jihadist-held towns and cities; and Turkey is being drawn ever deeper into the conflict—the number of its casualties continues to rise. Those are just the immediate consequences.
What does the Minister expect to happen once the Syrian Government forces are in full control over Idlib? Does he expect, as many analysts do, that the jihadists of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham will give up on their campaign of territorial control and open battles and instead commit to a long-term campaign of terrorist insurgency and guerrilla warfare? How will he and the international allies respond to that development? What action has been taken on an international level to respond to the fresh humanitarian crisis in Syria, and to ensure that the innocent civilians fleeing for their lives and from the regime’s onslaught on Idlib at least have some safety and shelter to flee towards?
The hon. Gentleman invites me to speculate as to what might happen. I am uncomfortable doing so. This is a complicated and difficult situation, and rather than speculating, Her Majesty’s Government are trying to prevent the worst of what is already a terrible humanitarian crisis from becoming even worse. I have already mentioned the actions that we are taking at the multinational level, both in our position on the UN Security Council and within the small group on Syria, and I do not think there is much more I can add to my statement on that.
With regard to what we are doing specifically in response to the humanitarian crisis, as I said, we have already committed £3.1 billion to this. Since 2012, across Syria and the region, we have provided over 28 million food rations, over 18 million medical consultations and over 12 million vaccinations. Our aid provides life-saving support to millions of Syrians, supporting refugees to remain in the countries in the region, and enabling the host communities to accommodate them. I think there is almost certainly unanimity across the House that we need a ceasefire and de-escalation, and for the regime forces, backed by the Russians, to stop targeting civilians so that a sustainable political response can be negotiated. That remains our position, and that is what we will continue pushing for on the international stage.
I welcome my right hon. Friend to his place. From one still-Chairman to one ex-chairman, may I ask him whether, when we hear words such as, “There is no military solution to the conflict in Syria”, he recognises that what we are watching is the military solution to the conflict in Syria? The problem is that it is being written in the blood and the death of Syrian civilians, and our voice, sadly, is too quiet in that. I recognise that he has recently entered his post. I hope very much that he will inject life into Britain’s strategy in Syria, because there is an opportunity for Britain to speak out and to partner with important allies in the region and in Europe to make our voice heard, and I know that he can champion that. What is he going to do to make sure that Britain’s voice is heard even after this war is tragically won by a brutal dictatorship in Damascus?
I thank my hon. Friend for his comments about my role in this. The challenge that we have with regard to Syria is the complex relationships between the protagonists on the ground. Our priority has to be to impress on the Syrian regime in Damascus, and its Russian allies, that the first thing that has to happen is that the targeting and attacking of the civilian infrastructure has to stop. We know that this is a well-established tactic. The brutalisation of civilians on the ground really has to stop: that has to be the precursor to anything else.
We respect and support Turkey’s position. We hope that the language that we have heard recently from both Turkey and Syria about a further escalation of conflict does not come to pass, and that not only will we have our enduring commitment to humanitarian support, but we will push at UN and other levels for an international response that sees a sustainable, peaceful future for the people of Syria. But the first thing that has to happen is that the violence has to stop.
The situation in Syria is quite simply a humanitarian catastrophe, with babies and young children dying in the freezing cold, and Assad’s regime and its allied militias using rape and sexual violence against girls, women and men as a weapon of war. Western powers must not stand by and turn a blind eye to these actions. The UK ambassador to the UN said that what the Syrian Government are doing on the ground is
“protected by a Russian veto”
and called on Russia to
“end its support for this murderous campaign and the barbaric Syrian Government.”
Russia’s indifference to human life and to its obligation to protect it must be challenged directly. Will the Secretary of State respond to calls from my right hon. Friend the Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford), who called on the UK Government in his letter on 21 February and in this Chamber on 12 February to put pressure to establish a humanitarian corridor? We need deeds, not words.
The hon. Lady is right that the humanitarian situation in north-west Syria is intolerable. At the international level, we have sought to maintain routes for humanitarian aid going into Syria. That has to be done with international co-operation and without Russian vetoes. She reinforces my—and, indeed, the Government’s—concern about Russia’s actions on this, and we call on Russia to de-escalate and to allow humanitarian aid to reach the people who need it through as many routes as possible. That remains our position, and we will continue to push this at the international level.
Order. I am going to run this urgent question until about 4.15 pm, so speedy questions and short answers will be very helpful. I call Mark Pritchard.
On the issue of displaced persons, widows, orphans and refugees in camps in northern Syria, does the Minister share my concern that some of those camps—some of which are funded by British taxpayers—are becoming a refuge for former ISIS leaders’ wives, who are running a new ISIS regime in those camps, making it a one-stop shop for the radicalisation of more people, including children? What is being done to ensure that the British taxpayer is not funding ISIS mark 2?
I thank my hon. Friend for that question. The position of the UK Government and the Department for International Development is clear: we take a zero-tolerance approach to our funding being diverted and used to facilitate international terrorism or violence. We will continue to monitor the situation in these camps as best we can. We do not have a full diplomatic or embassy structure in Syria, for obvious reasons, but we will ensure that UK money is well spent.
Thank you for granting this urgent question, Mr Speaker, and I thank the right hon. Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood) for asking it in the way that he did.
When the Minister describes the United Kingdom as
“an active leader in the humanitarian space”
in relation to Syria, does he understand how that sounds to the Syrian diaspora, whose suffering we have discussed so many times in this House? As my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr Mahmood) put it, we knew that this was going to happen, and in that sense, we in this House are all complicit in what is going on in Syria. Every time a Minister comes to the Dispatch Box with nothing new to say and only regret, it is brutal for the people in Syria who right now are freezing as bombs fall on children’s heads. Has the Minister asked the United Nations Secretary-General to go to Idlib himself, to show leadership on behalf of the world? If we can do nothing else in this country, can we not take in some more Syrian refugees?
I have not had a chance to speak directly with representatives of the United Nations, but we have pushed and, as I said, our ambassador to the UN has made clear the UK position on Russian involvement and the Syrian regime’s targeting of civilians, which is unacceptable; she has made that point in no uncertain terms. The simple truth is that there are millions of displaced people both internally in Syria and in neighbouring countries. The best thing for the UK to do is to ensure that the violence stops so that, where possible, people can return to their homes. That has to be done at the international level.
While I completely understand the hon. Member’s passion for the UK to take in more refugees, the simple truth is that the numbers of displaced people in the regime would be impossible for the UK to host, and that that would not be a credible response to this situation. The UK is working and will continue to work at the international level to de-escalate the situation in Syria, and we will continue to help refugees in the region, as I say, in one of the largest humanitarian efforts this country has made.
May I congratulate my successor on his appointment? In my opinion, it is the best job in Government. Apropos his recent visit to Munich, did he discuss with our German partners their ambition to think to the future and to start to build homes to which refugees in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan can safely and with dignity return? While it is understood that we should not in any way do anything that will support the murderous Assad regime, backed by Iran and Russia, will he assure the House that we are thinking about what will happen when the war-fighting phase stops, mercifully, and we can look forward to a future in which refugees can return home voluntarily and with dignity?
I thank my right hon. Friend for his comments. I have to say that, having been called to the House to make this response, it does not necessarily quite feel like the best job in Government just yet, but this is a very important topic, and a really sensitive and important part of the world, and I thank him for the work he did when he was the Minister in the Department.
I did not get the chance to speak with German representatives specifically on the issue that my right hon. Friend has brought up, but I did speak with a number of European colleagues while at the Munich conference. We will ensure that the UK continues to play an active and engaged part within the international community both to de-escalate and, ideally, to stop the conflict in the region, and to build a sustainable, peaceful future for the Syrian people.
I welcome what the Minister said about the recent attacks on hospitals. He will be aware that there have been at least 578 such attacks on healthcare facilities, resulting in 890 deaths of medical personnel in the course of this conflict. Will the Government treat that as a war crime at the highest level, and in particular will they refute the suggestion from the Assad regime that all healthcare facilities in Idlib have been rendered inoperative and therefore are not civilian objects in terms of international humanitarian law?
The international community has a long-standing position on the targeting of both civilians and civilian facilities, and we condemn in the strongest terms—as I have said, our representative at the UN has done so—both the Assad regime and the Russians’ targeting of civilian resources and civilian establishments. We also make it clear that, while there are concerns about potential terrorists and foreign national fighters in the Idlib region, this gives no cause at all for either the Russians or the regime in Damascus to suggest that the targeting of these civilian facilities is appropriate. It is not. We condemn it and we will continue to do so.
One of the groups the murderous Assad regime now relies on is Hezbollah, supported by its Iranian paymasters. Does my right hon. Friend share the concern of a number of us who were in the region last week and heard from several sources about Hezbollah trying to replicate what they have done on the Lebanese border and stockpiling hundreds of thousands of missiles targeting Israel? Does he agree that that can only mean more bad things for the people of Syria and the people of Israel?
I understand my right hon. Friend’s concern. I saw the reports of rocket exchanges going into Israel from Syria. Obviously, the Government want to see peace in all parts of the region, including Israel, and we want to ensure that there are no pockets for terrorists, which is one of the key reasons why peace and stability in Syria is such an important issue.
Following on from what was said by the Chair of the Select Committee on Defence, the right hon. Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), what the Government are trying to do in terms of humanitarian aid is very laudable, but, as has been said, we are in danger now of the United Nations beginning to look like the League of Nations. Is a possible solution the one suggested by the right hon. Gentleman: that we look at how we can use NATO and Turkey’s involvement with NATO to provide some sort of cover for the people of Idlib, because clearly the Russians in the Security Council are not going to suddenly agree to actions that we would like to see taken? It is not just about humanitarian aid and good words in the Chamber; it is also about something happening on the ground to stop the killing of innocent people.
I understand the point the hon. Member makes. I think the international community would be concerned about committing military forces, which could have the impact of increasing, rather than decreasing, the violence in the area.
We have stalemate in the Security Council with one permanent member saying “No.” What is the feeling in the General Assembly, which is an alternative means of getting some idea of what the UN really thinks?
Unfortunately, I have not had the opportunity to test the position of the UN General Assembly on this issue, but I reinforce the point that we will continue at UN Security Council level and more widely in the UN and within the Syria small group to push for a de-escalation and peace in Syria.
In December 2015, the majority of Members in this House were persuaded to give approval to military action in Syria on the basis of two assurances: that it would effectively end the Daesh threat of terrorism in the states of the United Kingdom, which has not come to pass; and that it would probably lead to a transitional civilian Government in Syria within about six months. I understand that the Minister cannot go into details here, but can we have an assurance that a thorough and honest assessment has been done and will be reported to Members in an appropriate forum to make sure that we understand that the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defence have learned lessons from those forecasts, which turned out to be disastrously over-optimistic?
The situation that we saw in terms of Daesh’s control of the ground in Syria is now completely different: Daesh has largely been defeated on the ground. That is for the good. Obviously, the current situation in Syria is far from what any of us would want, but we are now looking to address the issues, as I have discussed—the Syria regime targeting civilians and the support from Russia. However, I do think it is to be welcomed that Daesh’s control of large parts of Syria—at one point it controlled an area the size of the UK—is no longer the case.
In 2013, we were asked to bomb one side in the Syrian civil war and, in 2015, we were asked to bomb the other. Do the Government accept that this is a war between monsters on the one hand, like Assad, and maniacs on the other, like the Islamists? Other than the Syrian Democratic Forces led by the Kurds, who are we supporting in this war? Are the Government now saying that we support Turkey’s invasion, which suppressed the Syrian Democratic Forces led by the Kurds, who were our only allies?
My right hon. Friend makes an important point about the complexity of the situation on the ground in Syria. Members of the House, or people outside, who seek simple solutions—the idea that there are obvious good guys and obvious bad guys and we just need to pick a side—will be disappointed. What we will work towards is a de-escalation of violence, support for internally and externally displaced people, and a sustainable political solution for Syria.
Amid the grim litany of war crimes in the Syrian civil war, the continued deliberate bombing of hospitals is particularly shocking. I applaud the Government’s humanitarian effort—as I am sure the whole House does—but the more we and international allies and the UN call for a ceasefire and are ignored, the more we demonstrate that we are completely unable to protect the civilians on the receiving end of those bombs. Have there been any recent discussions with allies about whether a no-fly zone could make a contribution to the protection of those civilians?
We are pressing for an end to aerial strikes against civilians in north-west Syria. On the specifics of a no-fly zone, no-fly zones have to be enforced and the risks of military escalation in the north-west are in no one’s interest. We are, therefore, sceptical that such a position would command international consensus, so we will continue to push, with our international friends and allies, to encourage the de-escalation of violence in the region.
Following on from the question by my right hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Stephen Crabb) about Hezbollah, may I ask my right hon. Friend—I congratulate him on his new role—what assessment he has made of the threat to Israel with the resurgence of Hezbollah in Syria? What help are the Government giving to the Kurdistan region in northern Iraq to deal with the influx of Syrian refugees?
Conflict and political instability provide a traditional hiding place for international terrorists. That is one of the reasons why we are looking to stabilise the situation in Syria. At the moment, the main concern seems to be in north-west Syria, rather than north-east Syria, where Kurdish forces have most recently been proactive, but we will continue to work with all our international allies to reduce safe havens for terrorism, reduce conflict and protect the people of Syria.
The Minister, a few moments ago, I think suggested that he had not spoken personally to senior UN officials. May I urge him to do so, particularly Mark Lowcock, not least given that he is a former permanent secretary of his own Department and is playing a crucial role in this crisis? Perhaps he could discuss with him the situation of refugees. Although he said that they should stay within the region, Turkey has made clear that it will not accept further refugees. Other countries already have millions and he is making clear that Britain will not take any more either, so where should they go?
The situation is that Turkey is already host to over 3 million Syrian refugees. The best thing we can do is to bring a speedy end to the violence in the region. Challenging though that is, that is the best thing for us to do to create a situation where refugees can return to their country of origin.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his position. I had the pleasure of working with him very closely over the past three years and I am delighted for him. Can I ask him to ask the officials at the Foreign Office to give him as quickly as possible a risk assessment of the possibility of article 5 having to be triggered if a pushback against Turkey, a NATO ally, happens?
I thank my right hon. Friend for that question. Our desire at the moment is to reduce the risk of further conflict, particularly any conflict that might spill over international borders into a NATO member state.
The Minister is clearly aware that there is great pressure on the countries surrounding Idlib, many of which have taken millions of refugees. He is also clearly aware that the situation on the ground in north-west Syria is dire and that it is often difficult to get humanitarian aid to those who need it most. So will he not reconsider the suggestion made by my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern) that we take more refugees on the resettlement route? That is not the whole 12 million—she did not ask for us to take them all. She just asked whether we could take some more. There is no reason for us not to do that. Will he not consider that?
The UK is, and always has been, a hospitable country and we do take international refugees. However, the idea that the UK taking some more refugees will fundamentally change the situation on the ground is unrealistic, so our focus must be to de-escalate the situation in the region, end the violence and stop the targeting of civilians. That is the only real, sustainable way to reduce the pain and suffering of the people of Syria.
This House failed to act in 2013 and that was a real turning point. Since then, Assad, Iran and Putin have cynically, shamefully and systematically worked to massacre and displace civilians in Aleppo and now in Idlib, flagrantly breaking international humanitarian law, as I saw when I attended the UN peace talks in Syria. The truth is that we are not on the ground and there is not much that we can do, but will the Minister confirm that, behind the scenes, the UK continues to make a significant contribution to track 2 and track 3 negotiations and to holding Putin, Assad and Iran to account?
The UK has been clear that the actions of the regime and its Russian backers are completely unacceptable and completely fly in the face of internationally accepted norms. We will continue to push that at the UN level and in other places to make sure that our position, and the position of our international partners, is left in no doubt in the minds of Assad and Russia.
The situation is clearly deteriorating, and the Minister just described it as intolerable. Even though it is hardly believable that things are getting worse, they plainly are and there is an imperative to act, so what more can he do—what practical steps will he commit to—to protect the innocent civilians on the ground? Why will he not commit to taking more Syrian refugees as part of an international humanitarian response?
I refer the hon. Lady to the answer I gave a few moments ago: the numbers of Syrian refugees coming to the UK will not fundamentally change the situation on the ground. The UK will continue to act with international partners at the UN level and at others to de-escalate the situation and to push to end the violence and the targeting of civilians, because that is the only real, sustainable way to address the situation in Syria.
One of the most significant abuses of the Geneva conventions and the rules of law has been the primary targeting of hospitals by Russian air power and Syrian artillery. Why are we not calling them out more by naming and shaming units and using the UN to do so?
Our representative at the United Nations has spoken in no uncertain terms about how wrong the behaviour of the regime and the Russian backers has been in targeting civilian facilities and civilians. I am very proud of the fact that the UK has supported the humanitarian efforts in the region. We will continue to do so and have committed to doing so in future, but ultimately, the only sustainable solution is a political one in which the regime in Damascus and its Russian backers understand that their actions will not be accepted at the international level.
On that note, the UK has a very proud history of standing up for international humanitarian law. What steps are we actively exploring to ensure that those responsible for this bloody war are held to account?
As I say, we continue to work with international partners. We have made it very clear that the regime has stepped well beyond any internationally recognised bounds. We welcome the EU’s adoption of new listings under the Syria sanctions regime—18 businesspeople and two entities have been listed. The UK will continue to work with the international community to ensure that those who profit from the conflict are held to account.
I welcome the news that we have made such progress in combating Daesh as a fighting force. Will the Minister update us on whether the coalition remains in place to root out Daesh in the caves between Syria and Iraq in which they are currently hiding?
The international coalition against Daesh is still in existence. Until that risk has been completely eliminated, I can foresee only that we will work internationally to achieve that.
This is one of the worst humanitarian situations since the war: 6.2 million internally displaced people, 5 million externally displaced people. Surely it is high time this country stepped up to the plate and used its considerable influence with the United Nations. Will the Minister therefore consider having discussions with the Secretary-General to build an effective, broad-based alliance, so that we can begin a peace plan that will effectively begin the end of this humanitarian crisis?
The Government will continue to work with international partners to seek a consensus, to address the actions of the Assad regime and to put in place a politically sustainable future for the people of Syria. I have no doubt that we will continue to do so at the UN level and others.
Come off it—we wield no influence that will restrain either Russia or the regime, do we?
My right hon. Friend’s question is characteristically pithy. I happen to disagree. We still have significant influence on the international stage and we will use it to ensure that this conflict is brought to an end as quickly as possible.
Points-based Immigration System
With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement about the United Kingdom’s new points-based immigration system.
Last week, I announced our plans for a radical new approach that works in the interests of the British people. It will be a fair, firm and fundamentally different system in the control of the British Government that prioritises those who come to our country based on the skills they have to offer, not on the country they come from, and it will enable the UK to become a magnet for the brightest and the best, with special immigration routes for those who will make the biggest contribution. We will create new arrangements for new migrants who will fill shortages in our NHS, build the companies and innovations of the future and benefit the UK for years to come.
As this Government restore our status as an independent sovereign nation, we will set our own immigration standards and controls as an open, democratic and free country. The Government have listened to the clear message from the British public and are delivering what the people asked for in the 2016 referendum and the December 2019 general election. That includes ending free movement through the introduction of a single global immigration system that prioritises the skills that people have to offer, not where they come from, and restoring public trust in our immigration system with a system that truly works for this country. That is what people voted for, and we are a Government who will deliver on the people’s priorities.
We are ending free movement: that automatic right for EU citizens to enter and reside in the UK, which does not apply to people from other countries. Now that we have left the EU, this ambitious Government of action are ending the discrimination between EU and non-EU citizens so that we can attract the brightest and best from around the world. Our country and our people will prosper through one system and an approach that is in the control of the British Government—one that will also deliver an overall reduction in low-skilled immigration, as the public asked for.
Many of the values that define our great country originated in the huge benefits immigration has brought to our nation throughout its history. People from every corner of the globe have made an enormous contribution to the fabric of our society, which is why at the heart of this new single global immigration system will be a focus on attracting talented people from around the world and on the contribution they and their families will make, irrespective of their country of origin.
Last Wednesday, I published a policy statement setting out the new UK points-based immigration system, which will start operating from 1 January 2021 and will work in the interests of the whole United Kingdom. This will be a single, comprehensive, UK-wide system for workers and students from around the world. Our points-based system will provide a simple, effective and flexible arrangement to give top priority to the skilled workers we need to boost our economy and support our brilliant public services. All applicants will need to demonstrate that they will have a job offer from an approved sponsor. The job must be at an appropriate skill level and the applicant must be able to speak English and meet tougher criminality standards and checks.
We have acted on the advice of the Migration Advisory Committee to make the skilled workers route more flexible, as businesses asked for, and we have reduced the required skill level to the equivalent of A-level qualifications and cut the general salary threshold to £25,600.
The threshold for many NHS workers and teachers will be set in line with published pay scales to ensure that our public services do not suffer and we attract the talent that we need. Experienced workers who earn less than the general threshold, but not less than £20,480, may still be able to apply tradable points to reward vital skills and to bring us the talent that our economy needs. For example, a PhD in a relevant subject will earn extra points, with double the number of points for specialists in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Additional points will be awarded for occupations that struggle to fill vacancies, and I am asking the Migration Advisory Committee to keep its list under regular review to ensure that it reflects the needs of the labour market.
The Government will ensure that talented employees from overseas on whom our great NHS relies can come here to work and provide high-quality, compassionate care. That means that we will prioritise qualified staff who seek to move to the UK to work in our NHS, as well as retaining our own national commitment—through the investments made by this Government—to invest in and train more brilliant nurses, doctors and public health professionals in our own country. The new NHS visa system will provide a work visa with a fast-track decision, a larger dedicated advice service for applicants, and reduced fees.
Like many other Members, I represent a partly rural constituency. Our commitment to British agriculture is clear. In addition to the reforms that I have outlined, I am quadrupling the size of the pilot scheme for seasonal workers in the horticulture sector to ensure that our farms and our horticultural sector continue to thrive. That is happening immediately.
We will continue to welcome international students who want to study in our world- class universities across the United Kingdom, and there will be no cap on their numbers. Those who apply will be accepted provided that they are sponsored by an approved educational institution, have the necessary academic qualifications and English language aptitude, and are able to support themselves financially once they are in the United Kingdom. When they have finished their studies, our new graduate route will allow them to stay in the UK and work at any skill level for up to a further two years. Let me also take this opportunity to reassure the House that the immigration arrangements for members of the armed forces, musicians and other performers are completely unchanged, and those routes will operate as they do now.
In line with the ending of free movement, there will be no immigration route for lower-skilled workers. No longer will employers be able to rely on cut-price EU workers. Instead, we are calling on them to invest in British people—as well as investing in technology and skills—to improve productivity, and to join the UK Government’s mission to level up our skills and economic growth across our country. Those changes are vital if we are to deliver a high-skill, high-wage and highly productive economy, and because we have provided certainty in respect of the new immigration system, the economy and businesses have had time to adjust.
The proposals set out in our policy statement are just the start of our phased approach to delivering a new immigration system. We will continue to refine our immigration system, and will build in flexibility where it is needed. Over time, more attributes for which points can be earned—such as previous experience and additional qualifications—may be added, which will allow us to respond effectively to the needs of the labour market and the economy. However, to be effective the system must be simple, so there will not be endless exemptions for low-paid, lower-skilled workers. We will not end free movement only to recreate it in all but name through other routes.
The world’s top talent will continue to be welcome in our country. From January we will expand our existing global talent route to EU citizens, giving all the world’s brightest and best the same streamlined access across the UK. Reforms that I introduced last week will allow us to attract even more brilliant scientists, mathematicians and researchers through that route to keep this country at the cutting edge of life-changing innovation and technology, and the points-based system will provide even more flexibility to attract the finest international minds with the most to offer. Alongside the employer-led system, we will create a points-based unsponsored route to allow a limited number of the world’s most highly skilled people to come here without a job offer as part of the phased approach, if they can secure enough points.
Our new fair and firm immigration system will send a message to the whole world that Britain is open for business as we continue to attract the brightest and best from around the world, but with a system that the British Government have control over. Our blueprint for taking back control will transform the way in which people come to our country to work, study, visit or even join their family. Our new independence will strengthen border security, allowing us to reject insecure identity documents from newly arriving migrants. We will be able to do more to keep out criminals who seek to do harm to our people, communities and country.
Finally, I am pleased to say that when it comes to EU citizens already in the UK, the EU settlement scheme—the biggest scheme of its kind ever in British history—has already received 3.2 million applications resulting in 2.8 million grants of status. Through this system, we will finally develop a true meritocracy where anyone with the skills who wants to come here will have the ability to do so. This is just the start of a phased approach to delivering a new system. I will shortly be bringing forward an immigration Bill and radically overhauling and simplifying the complex immigration rules that have really dominated the system over a number of decades. For the first time in decades, the UK will have control over who comes here and how our immigration system works. I commend this statement to the House.
I would like to thank the Home Secretary for giving me early sight of this statement. She and the Government call this a points-based immigration system, but Professor Alan Manning, the departing chair of the Migration Advisory Committee, has derided this and called it a “soundbite”—that is, meaningless phraseology. The truth is that the Government are introducing a set of restrictions on migration for work including the damaging salary threshold, but that is not the sole restriction. Workers earning below the salary threshold are not low skilled at all. There is no such thing as low-skilled work: just low-paid work. All work is skilled when it is done well. In fact, outside London and the south-east, they are the majority of workers. Again, they are underpaid, not low skilled. In trying to exclude their overseas recruitment, Ministers run the risk of doing even greater damage to our public services than they have done already.
Ministers must surely be aware that a key problem for the NHS is, as its leaders tell us, that the exit door is closed. Patients who are well enough to be discharged from hospitals are not being discharged, because they lack access to social care packages. Blocking the overseas recruitment of social care workers who are generally paid well below the threshold will cause major problems with social care. It is already in crisis and this will exacerbate the exiting problems in the NHS, yet Ministers seem unconcerned. I must mention the need for the new NHS-specific visa. Surely the obvious thing would have been to create points for NHS jobs in the new system, but then I suppose the Government would have to admit that the salary threshold was simply not feasible and that the system just would not work. This is certainly not a singular global immigration system, and it has already been proved that a number of exemptions will be needed to make it work.
Social care and the NHS are not the only areas that will be hit. The Government tell us that the unemployment rate is currently close to its lowest, but that completely contradicts Ministers’ suggestions that immigration causes unemployment or creates slack conditions in the labour market, leading to low pay. The Home Secretary seems to believe that the gaps can be filled by the economically inactive, but I strongly doubt that the Government intend to get carers, the elderly and students into work by raising their wages. It is more likely that they will cut benefits once again. Many employers report that they will struggle to fill vacancies or even to close the gap caused by the departing EU workers, who will now lose their rights under the system.
The requirement to speak English is a complete red herring. This is dog-whistle politics. Most people who come here to work—the Government’s system will demand that they have a specific job offer—come here with some English language skills and learn more as they go along. It is difficult to function in the labour market without any English at all, which is why they already speak English when they come here. Do the Government intend to split up families where the spouse or child has less-than-perfect English? This would be cruel and inhumane. Do the Government also intend to block the recruitment of scientists, mathematicians and IT specialists, for example, if they have less-than-perfect English? If so, that will completely undermine Ministers’ boasts about global Britain recruiting the brightest and best. In fact, the policy will tend towards recruiting only the most desperate if their spouse would be blocked from coming, because others may find employment in a country in which their spouse can reside.
What of the right to a family life in general? Will the new work visas allow that right? If not, which scientist or person with a PhD would not choose a country that allows the right to a family life? There is also no justification for denying access to public funds for years. If someone is working here, they are paying taxes, and they and their family should have access to the benefits paid for by those taxes, including working tax credits and access to the NHS. Have Ministers considered the public health implications of restricting access to the NHS in that way, even if they are unable to consider the human costs? What about spouses who become victims of domestic abuse being denied access to refuges? That is shameful.
Finally, I want to address a grave concern shared by many Opposition Members regarding workers and citizens’ rights. We cannot accept that work visas are tied to specific employers and want reassurances that that will not be the case. Otherwise, the Government will be creating conditions of bonded employment, where the threat of dismissal implies the threat of deportation. That would be disastrous for migrant workers and their families and detrimental to the interests of the entire workforce.
Order. I am expecting to run this statement until around five o’clock.
I welcome the hon. Lady to her new position and wish her every success in the role. However, I am a little disappointed, because it sounds like she has not actually read the policy statement, and she has used her remarks to conflate—[Interruption.] If the Leader of the Opposition will allow me to continue, instead of being rude and interrupting, I will come on to address the specific points. He should have the courtesy and the patience to listen. I appreciate that he is in a hurry—
Don’t put her down.
I was not putting her down at all. If the right hon. Gentleman will listen, the hon. Lady was obviously conflating several issues with a new immigration system that, as I have clearly outlined, is a phased approach that focuses on skills, not on aspects of family reunion, benefits, welfare, or access to public funds—
The hon. Lady may shake her head in disagreement, but the policy is fundamentally set alongside the fact that we have left the EU. This is about an immigration policy in the control of a British Government, not subject to EU laws, EU policies and EU alignment. That is a fundamental shift and a fundamental change. This system is about taking back control, as the British Government have said, of our borders and ensuring that we can get the brightest and best through a tiered, points-based approach, as outlined in the policy statement.
The system will end the reliance on low-skilled workers and, importantly, the hon. Lady should join the Government in welcoming our collective mission to ensure that people are paid higher wages. We want a high-skilled economy, not a low-pay economy. As for social care, social care is not at all about low-skilled work. People working in social care should be paid properly, and it is right that businesses and employers invest in skills to provide the necessary compassionate care.
It strikes me that the Labour party seems to have closed its ears to the remarks of the British public in the general election and the 2016 referendum and is basically still the party that is advocating open borders and for a free-for-all on immigration.
I am enormously pleased that my right hon. Friend is here in this job. She is doing brilliantly, and all of us here believe that for certain. On the migration policy that she has announced over the past week, will she confirm that the reality is that many of our constituents are concerned about the scale of migration? They are not anti-migrant. With net migration at over 1 million over three years and now responsible for about 80% of all population growth, the scale is unprecedented. Given all that and the costs and benefits, will she now confirm that the purpose of the policy is ultimately to bring the scale of that migration down to manageable levels?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. The Government have been very clear and have listened to the messages from the 2016 referendum and the general election. Of course, this is about ensuring that the brightest and the best come here.
Through a points-based system, the British Government will have control over immigration and numbers. We will reduce numbers, in due course, for the long term, but we will also bring in new checks and measures, which is what the British public have been calling for. They want to know the Government are in control of a system that brings in tighter checks and tighter regulations. Yes, the system should not be closed for business—it should be open for business—and it should bring in the brightest and the best. The system should deal with some of the issues in getting numbers down, but it should also address the other routes in terms of EU migrants and the criminality checks that desperately need to be brought in.
Despite lots of competition, this pretend points-based system surely amounts to one of the most damaging, unimaginative and unpopular policy announcements made by a Home Secretary in recent years. Do not get me wrong: it will be fine for the big multinational companies in the City with their armies of immigration lawyers, but it will be a disaster for everybody else.
Surely the Home Secretary regrets that her paper insults half the population by characterising their hard work as “cheap” unskilled labour and, indeed, by insinuating that their work could just as easily be done by the long-term sick or by robots. Why have employers been given just a few months to prepare for these massive changes when the Home Office took three and a half years just to dream them up? Will she listen to the swathes of industry leaders telling her it will be impossible to fill vacancies because of the salary thresholds? Will she listen to the employers who are worried about being mired in the red tape and expense of sponsorship and visa processes?
Why has the Home Secretary removed even the half-baked temporary worker scheme that was meant to operate as a transitional measure? Why is there no provision for self-employed workers? What has happened to the remote areas pilot scheme promised by her predecessor and to the heavily trailed extra points that were to be on offer for working outside London? And why has she said nothing about the tens of thousands of extra families that will be destroyed if she extends the UK’s barbaric family migration rules to their relationships? Is that her plan?
This will be disastrous across all manner of key sectors in Scotland, from agriculture to hospitality, from fishing to manufacturing and from construction to social care. Free movement was the one part of the migration system that actually worked for Scotland. Does the Home Secretary even understand the basic point that reducing migration is a disastrous policy goal for Scotland? Has she read the Scottish Government’s paper on a Scottish visa, and will she finally commit to engaging on those proposals in good faith?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments. First of all, it is important to recognise that the new points-based system will work in the interests of the whole United Kingdom, which does include Scotland. Independent experts, including the Migration Advisory Committee, have recommended that a single, less restrictive system is absolutely right and is essential to attract the brightest and the best. Of course, we are already working with stakeholders across the country on how the system will work and how it will support all communities. I have already touched on various sectors, including seasonal agricultural workers.
The hon. Gentleman specifically asked about businesses. We are introducing greater flexibility for businesses, and those businesses that have engaged with the Home Office —[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald) may shake his head in disagreement, but the business community specifically asked for a number of factors, including: abolishing the resident labour market test; removing the cap on the number of skilled workers; and reducing the salary threshold, as it has been.
We have reformed the exceptional talent route, and we are working on a simpler, streamlined sponsorship process, both of which businesses asked for. We also aim to reduce the time taken to process visas. Skilled workers will also be able to switch easily between employers through a sponsor licence, which is effectively what businesses have asked for. We have delivered on that through this system.
It is fair to say that businesses have not only been engaged. The chief executive of Hays, the recruitment giant, recently said:
“To build a world-class economy, our businesses need access to world-class talent and not just originating from…the EU.”
I have a final point to make to the Scottish nationalists. I appreciate that we have been engaging and we have had dialogue with them, but it is important right now that the Migration Advisory Committee—[Interruption.] If the hon. Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan) just stops chuntering and lets me make this point—[Interruption.]
Order. We do not conduct debates while sitting.
I can see the clock. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for pointing out the clock—thank you very much indeed.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. The MAC has stated that we should have a single UK immigration policy, one based on one system that will benefit every single part of the United Kingdom.
Well done to the Home Secretary on taking back control of our borders and ending low-pay migration. Will she confirm that 10 months is more than enough time for talented officials in the Home Office to implement this excellent scheme, as she, the public and the Government want?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right; the talented teams who have been working on this policy area have absolutely helped us to deliver this in our first 100 days as a new Government. We promised that we would deliver the people’s priorities, and that is exactly what we are doing.
The Home Secretary has said that she wants the new visa scheme to be in place from January 2021. The policy document also says that the deadline for the EU settlement scheme for EU citizens already living here is June 2021, and that until then employers will only be expected to and allowed to check whether someone has an EU passport. Will she therefore confirm that the Home Office does not intend to enforce the new scheme through or with employers for the first six months? If it does intend to enforce it, what is she expecting employers to check?
The right hon. Lady is right about the deadlines and the timeframe for the EU settlement scheme, and also in saying that by January 2021 we will have established the outline—the first phase—of the points-based system. We are in the process of working with employers. Going back to the comment made just now by my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (John Redwood), we are engaging with employers on the system, the sponsorship route and the way in which employers in the UK work with those who will be coming over from the EU next year so that they have that period to confirm their status and carry on working. We are engaging with employers, and that is my answer.
Our excellent Home Secretary had two fundamental questions to answer today: was she going to reflect the democratic will of 70% to 80% of the British public, not to do away with immigration, but to control and manage it properly, and was she going to do it in a way that worked in the national interest, for all of us and all the immigrants who come here to work and give our country the skills that they carry? Is she as surprised as me that the primary thrust of both Opposition spokesmen seems to be to allow British profit-making companies to maximise their access to cheap labour?
In short, I am not surprised by the position that the Opposition have taken, and it shows once again the contempt they have been showing to the British public.
The Home Secretary has said that additional points will be awarded for occupations that struggle to fill vacancies. In the tech sector, jobs are often lower paid at the start and ill-defined—they do not actually have a job title. So how will she ensure that the MAC recognises those emerging jobs and can act in real time?
The hon. Lady is right; our economy and labour market are changing, thanks to technology and emerging skills that may not even be reflected in the discussion and debate that we are having today. That is why we will be looking to bring in, from next year, a tradeable points system, which recognises not only talent and skills, but the role the MAC has to play in assessing the labour market. This is fundamentally changing the way in which we look at the labour market and emerging sectors, whether in new technology or other sectors, where we know we will need to surge people and their skills. Obviously, that work will take place with the MAC.
The hon. Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan) was right to point out that the clock is ticking. It is not going any faster than it normally does, but this statement is going rather slower, because questions have been rather long. When a question is long, the Minister has to give a long answer in order to answer the whole question. Therefore, let us all try to have shorter questions, so that the Minister can give shorter answers. In that way, everyone will get in. Otherwise, most people are not going to have a chance to say anything.
I heartily congratulate my right hon. Friend on bringing forward this policy, which she and I first discussed when I visited fruit farmers in her constituency when she was a thrusting young Back Bencher. Will she confirm that the great advantage of her scheme is that it gives flexibility and that we can now adapt our needs to supply and demand and the development of new labour-saving technologies?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. I recall our great visit to Tiptree and the fruit farms there. He is absolutely right to speak about how we can invest in not only people but technology. That is the ambition of this Government as a whole. We will take new approaches and make sure not only that we have the brightest and the best but are a place of great innovation.
I have been approached by someone who has been a carer since 1996. She has specialised in dementia and end-of-life palliative care, and she has comforted people who have lost their loved ones over the course of her 25-year career. She is on a register and can be struck off, just like a doctor, but her pay defines her, by the Home Secretary’s own criteria, as low-skilled. The carer in question is my mother and I am deeply proud of the work she has done over those 25 years. The reality is that the Home Secretary is pinning carers as low-skilled because she will not tackle the issue of low pay in the care sector. She should do the right thing and resolve the pay and conditions of those working in the care sector throughout the country.
On the contrary, I define care as a good quality and it is—
Low-skilled. You said it.
No, it is not low-skilled.
You said it.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker.
Caring is not a low-skilled occupation and it is wrong for anybody in this House to say that it is. Carers provide essential and compassionate care to people—our loved ones—across our country and society. There is an important message for employers in the care sector: they should increase their pay to reflect the quality of care that is given. That is absolutely the right thing to do.
I am really pleased that my right hon. Friend has grasped the thorny element of the agricultural sector; there are 20,000 seasonal agricultural workers in my constituency alone, so I am hoping that her pilot scheme will grow. Will she make sure that the nimbleness and speed with which the appeals are dealt with is top of her priority list, so that when big companies want highly skilled workers, they can get them, even if they appear to be doing a low-skilled job?
That is absolutely right. We have quadrupled the seasonal agricultural workers scheme, which is vital. The flexibility in the system is crucial in respect of the way we turn around the applications. That is in effect what businesses asked for and that is what we are going to deliver.
The Secretary of State said in her statement that there will be
“no immigration route for lower-skilled workers.”
Even if one puts aside the patronising aspect of that statement, who does the Secretary of State think will build our homes, serve in our hotels and restaurants and care for our elderly? Does she accept that although she might see the statement as delivering
“a high-skill, high-wage and highly productive economy”,
what the rest of us hear is low caring?
If the hon. Lady has read the policy statement, she will have seen that when it comes to needs in our labour market and our economy, the points-based system will not only involve a scoring system, but with the Migration Advisory Committee we will look at the labour market as a whole across key sectors.
I am sorry that the hon. Lady continues to shake her head, but that is absolutely the right route forward. It is vital that businesses invest in people domestically, skill them up and pay them well and create the right kind of career paths for them so that their skills can be recognised.
As a scientist, I welcome the Government’s intention to make it easier to attract leading scientists, engineers and mathematicians to come and work in the UK. Will my right hon. Friend confirm whether she has plans to cap the number of people who can qualify for tier 1 exceptional-talent visa status?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right when it comes to exceptional talent. In fact, last week I announced a new approach to the exceptional-talent route, with mathematicians and scientists. I have been clear that we intend to grow that to make sure that our country, economy and labour market benefit from that, along with some of our great institutions—our universities and academic institutions. Of course, we want to continue to make sure that they flourish and grow.
The Secretary of State is part of a Government who rightly want to expand housing supply. The construction sector is characterised by many self-employed contractors, yet the Government are not introducing a dedicated self-employment route. What reassurance can the Secretary of State give the sector that the skills shortages we already face—for joiners, electricians, bricklayers and plumbers, for example—will not fall off a cliff at the end of 2020?
The hon. Lady is right about self-employment. We are already discussing specifically with the construction sector, because of the way it contracts individuals through the self-employment route, how we will ensure that the skills that are needed in the labour market are absolutely catered for. Of course, with the points-based system we are looking at posts and positions that meet the RQF3 threshold—that is the route of qualification—and those discussions are already underway.
Order. We have to go a lot faster.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary on bringing forward this points-based immigration system—another Conservative manifesto policy being delivered. As an NHS doctor, I have worked with many talented colleagues from around the world. Can she confirm that the new NHS visa will enable doctors from around the world to come and work in the NHS quickly and easily?
I absolutely can. It is a fast-track NHS visa, so the applications will be processed within two to three weeks, provided that they are sponsored directly by parts of the NHS system. That will apply to doctors, nurses and allied healthcare professionals.
Albert Einstein famously spoke very little English. The Secretary of State speaks about attracting the brightest and the best, but how much damage is she willing to inflict on our research sector and how many Einsteins is she happy to lose in pursuit of her immigration targets?
The hon. Lady has failed to recognise that the points-based system is absolutely designed to attract the brightest and the best, and if she had heard my comments she would know that those who might not meet the threshold will be able to come because they have the skills that our academic institutions need, and that is the right way forward.
Like my hon. Friend the Member for North Herefordshire (Bill Wiggin), I represent a large rural constituency that employs many thousands of seasonal migrants. In welcoming the quadrupling of the seasonal agricultural workers scheme, may I ask my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary to keep a beady eye on the scheme, and to keep the door open to possible further increases, should that become necessary in future?
My hon. Friend is right about the SAW scheme, but he will also recognise that a dedicated occupation shortage list already exists specifically for Scotland, and of course that will continue.
Does the Home Secretary recognise that by equating skills and salary, she is saying to the lab technician driving innovation in Newcastle University and to the care worker helping my constituents in Elswick that they are unskilled and talentless? Will she not bring forward a fair system that reflects our economic and social needs, rather than scapegoating immigrants who make such a contribution to our society?
The hon. Lady will recognise from the policy statement, which I am sure she has read, that points can be applied to the skills that are required across sectors. That would apply for lab technicians—I discussed that last week at Imperial College London—and equally for the social care system. Specifically on the social care system—it is right that people raise this issue —the Department of Health and Social Care, working with the care sector, is not only looking at what the points-based system will mean, but investing in the sector to train people so that they can continue to deliver great social care.
I very much welcome the introduction of a skilled points-based immigration system, which is commonplace in many developed economies around the world. Will my right hon. Friend increase resources for tackling illegal immigration?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Illegal migration is a significant issue facing our country and many others, and this Government have a very strong and clear strategy for tackling it.
I was confused by what the Home Secretary said about musicians and performers, because it certainly did not fit with what is being reported in the music press this week—in NME, for example—about a savings requirements on performers coming in. Our music industry thrives on people being able to perform and tour, as the Musicians’ Union has argued, and to come here and collaborate. I draw attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
Let me clarify that there will be no changes to the existing routes.
I warmly welcome what my right hon. Friend is doing. Is it not the case that countries that have points-based systems have much stronger output and productivity per worker? Is it also not the case that all we are doing is saying that we should take control of our immigration policy and decide who comes here?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. The pledge that we made to the British public is that the British Government will be in control of our new immigration system. He is also absolutely right that our aspiration is for a high-wage, high-skill and highly productive economy, and that is what we are working to deliver.
The Secretary of State has made great play of quadrupling the seasonal agricultural pilot scheme from 2,500 to 10,000 people. At a push, that would just about—maybe—fill the shortfall in Scotland, but it comes nowhere close to the 100,000 seasonal workers required across the UK. Let me ask her this: how many thousands of tonnes of food and vegetables need to rot in the fields before she is dragged back here to apologise for this dog-whistle nonsense and to rip it up?
I fundamentally disagree with the hon. Gentleman’s tone and the point that he has made. We have been very clear about this: we are growing the pilots. The pilot was established 12 months ago—let us say 12 months ago—and we have now announced that we are quadrupling the seasonal agricultural workers’ pilot. [Interruption.] Yes, to 10,000. That is quadrupling the scheme. At the same time, he will have heard that we are calling on business, and on all sectors, to invest in technology to increase wages and to increase productivity. That is something that we, as a nation, need to do collectively across all sectors.
I appreciate that the Home Secretary is providing full answers to very serious questions, but the House will have to forgive her if she gives quicker answers, and not criticise her for not providing full explanations; otherwise, everyone will not get a chance to speak—they will probably not get a chance to speak anyway.
I welcome the move that is being promoted today. As an ethnic minority immigrant who came here to work in the national health service, that is to be expected. After I arrived here, the system changed. There are now opportunities for all Commonwealth English-speaking—well, sort of English-speaking—people from the top universities in the old Commonwealth. Should we not be campaigning to bring them here especially for our national health service?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. There are two points to make here. We continue to train people domestically for our NHS, but the world is changing. We have friends and partners in the Commonwealth, and it is right that we apply the system equally rather than discriminating in favour of EU nationals. We need to apply a system that is fair across all nations in the world.
Will the Secretary of State apologise for the anger and hurt that her comments have caused to care workers? Will she tell us what discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government about the huge increase in funding that would be necessary to end low pay in the sector, while also tackling the recruitment crisis that is leaving 1.5 million people without the support that they need?
Let me reassure the hon. Lady that I have been working across all Government Departments on the delivery of this policy statement on the points-based system, and that I have covered all the issues, many of which have been raised by Members this afternoon.
Is the Home Secretary as surprised as I am that those on the Opposition Benches support a scheme that discriminates against citizens outside the EU, and do not support a scheme that is fair to everyone?
My hon. Friend makes a valid point. We are ending discrimination, obviously. We are open for business and we are open to all countries and to all nationalities when it comes to immigration through the points-based system.
Will these rules undo the injustice of the tier 5 rules that are currently stopping supply priests from Africa getting short-term visas in the summer months, thereby denying Christian and other communities the opportunity for worship in the summer?
As has been outlined, it is pretty clear that the points-based system is open and firm, but fair. Importantly, it ends discrimination that has existed for too long in our immigration system.
Will my right hon. Friend confirm that we have already protected the rights of EU citizens who are in the UK, many of whom live in Kensington? Already, 3 million people have applied for settled status.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise the EU settlement scheme. She will have heard me say that so far 2.8 million people have been granted settled status, and there have been over 3 million applications.
My constituent Naseer Afridi is one of many highly skilled migrants who have been put into debt and bankrupted as a result of this Government’s attitude to migrants in paragraph 322(5) of the immigration rules. Does the Home Secretary not realise how insulting it is when she says that she will bring in highly skilled migrants, given that these highly skilled people have been treated so badly by her Government?
I would say the complete opposite. The system that we will bring in will end discrimination and show that we are being firm and fair. Everybody who has the right level of skill can come to the United Kingdom, and they will be treated equally and fairly.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on at last getting a grip on uncontrolled immigration to this country. Does she agree that flexibility is the key? I am sure that she can give the House an assurance that she will keep an eye on all sectors to make sure that flexibility is retained in the system.
It is important to restate for the benefit of the House the Government’s focus and emphasis on the labour market and its needs. The system is flexible so that assessment can be made of any strains, and so that we can surge employment in certain key sectors.
The Secretary of State said in her statement:
“We will continue to refine our immigration system, and will build in flexibility where it is needed.”
Does she recognise that denying migrant workers the right to a family life—the right to bring their family—is inflexible, and a breach of the Human Rights Act 1998?
I hope the hon. Lady will recognise that the points-based system—she will have heard me say this in my statement, too—is welcoming those with the right skills and attributes, and that applies equally to their families.
Last week my office met representatives of the Russell Group, who were very clear that they welcome the new immigration system, because it allows them to recruit from every corner of the world. I moved to America because my husband was offered a job there. I applied for a spousal visa. If I got it, we would move; if I did not, we would not. This system will allow us to recruit people and pay them a decent wage. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Opposition do not like it because the British people do like it?
My hon. Friend makes the very valid point that obviously we are on the side of the British public when it comes to delivering the people’s priorities. Last week I too met people from the Russell Group and other universities who are supportive of the routes that we are providing for the brightest and the best, and of our ensuring that we get the global talent that our academic institutions need.
When I was a care worker, some of the highest skilled people I know taught me how to work miracles in 15-minute calls. This Government view people who help others who are sick, elderly or disabled as low skilled because they are low paid, and deny them the special status being offered to billionaires and footballers. For the record, will the Secretary of State explain which aspects of care work she considers low skilled?
The hon. Lady will know—I have already said this, but I will restate it—that I am working with the Department of Health and Social Care and its Secretary of State specifically on the routes into and support needed in the care sector.
The hon. Lady shakes her head, but importantly we are also looking at investment. The Government are investing in social care in a record way. That will make a difference to wages, training and investment in social care workers across the UK.
Order. I am sorry; I know that more people wanted to speak—[Interruption.] There is no point in the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Angus Brendan MacNeil) making gestures at me. Members will be aware that we have a lot of business tonight. I promise you that if I let this statement go on, you would not thank me at half-past 11 this evening, when you would still be here to vote. Mr Speaker and I hope that people will realise that a statement should be followed by questions, not speeches. We really must make these things work much faster in future. Let us see if we can do the next statement rather faster.
With permission, I will make a statement to the House on the recent flooding caused by Storm Dennis, which followed Storm Ciara and affected many parts of the country.
I would like to begin by extending my condolences to the families and friends of the five individuals who sadly lost their lives as a result of these storms. I am sure that the thoughts of the whole House are with those grieving families today. Our thoughts are also with those who have suffered damage to their properties as a result of the storms. To have one’s home flooded is an incredibly traumatic experience, and I am conscious that some have flooded repeatedly over recent years.
Storm Dennis cleared the UK during the course of Monday 17 February. However, this remains a live incident, and I would urge people in at-risk areas to remain vigilant. We are monitoring the situation closely, and most areas are moving into recovery phase. However, rainfall over the past few days is still leading to higher water levels, so we will continue to see effects this week.
Communities have been affected across our Union. We have had an incredibly wet winter. Some areas have already received almost double their average rainfall for February, with others experiencing a month’s worth of rain in just 24 hours. Records have been broken. Eighteen river gauges across 15 rivers recorded their highest levels on record during or triggered by Storms Ciara and Dennis, including the Colne, the Ribble, the Calder, the Aire, the Trent, the Severn, the Wye, the Lugg and the Derwent. Storm Ciara flooded over 1,340 properties, and the latest number of properties affected by Storm Dennis stands at over 1,400. Wales has also seen significant impacts, and we are in close contact with the Welsh Government.
In anticipation of the storm, we stood up the national flood response centre on Friday 14 February. The scale of the response has been huge, from setting up temporary defences to knocking on doors and issuing residents with warnings. The Environment Agency issued 343 flood warnings for Storm Ciara and 514 for Storm Dennis. On 17 February, we saw a record concurrent total of 632 flood warnings and alerts issued in a single day. Two severe flood warnings, 107 flood warnings and 207 flood alerts remain in place in England. There are also an additional 13 flood warnings and 39 flood alerts that remain in place in Wales, and one flood warning in Scotland.
We have been sharing information with the public so that people can prepare for flooding wherever they live. We have deployed over 3 miles of temporary flood barriers and 90 mobile pumps, and we have been keeping structures and rivers clear of debris. Over 1,000 Environment Agency staff per day have been deployed, with the assistance of about 80 military personnel. In Yorkshire, the military helped to deploy temporary defences in Ilkley and kept the road open between Mytholmroyd and Hebden Bridge in Calderdale. I would like to record my thanks to all the response teams, including the Environment Agency, local authorities, our emergency services and the military. They are all still working hard, with over 20 Government bodies, local authorities and volunteers at work across the country.
The Government acted swiftly to activate the Bellwin scheme to help local authorities cope with the cost of response in the immediate aftermath. On Tuesday 18 February, we also triggered the flood recovery framework to help communities get back on their feet. I am working alongside the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government to help households and businesses recover. This includes making available hardship payments and council tax and business rate relief. Households and businesses will also be able to access grants of up to £5,000 to help to make them more resilient to future flooding, and a ministerial recovery group is co-ordinating efforts across Government. Storms Ciara and Dennis affected thousands of acres of farmland, so we will consider the need to extend the farming recovery fund once we have all the necessary data.
Investments made in recent years have significantly improved our resilience, but there is much more to do. We are investing £2.6 billion in flood defences, with over 1,000 flood defence schemes to better protect 300,000 homes by 2021. To put this into context, in the floods of 2007, 55,000 properties were flooded, but with similar volumes of water in place this year, thankfully far fewer properties have been flooded, and flood defence schemes have protected over 90,000 properties in England this winter. Our manifesto commits us to a further £4 billion in new funding for flood defences over the next five years.
Since the incidents of 2015, we have strengthened and improved our system of flood warnings, and in 2016 we introduced the Flood Re scheme, so that insurance cover for floods is accessible for at-risk properties. An independent review of the data on insurance cover will help us to ensure that it is working as effectively as possible.
Of course, we recognise that none of these steps will take away the anguish of those who have suffered flooding in the most recent storms. Climate change is making the UK warmer and wetter, with more frequent extreme weather events. We need to make nature’s power part of our solution, alongside traditional engineered defences. We are already investing £10 million to restore our peatland habitats, planting enough trees to cover an area the size of East Anglia, with a new £640 million nature for climate fund, and supporting farmers to be part of our plans to prevent flooding through the new environmental land management scheme, to reduce and delay peak flows in our landscapes.
Later this year, we will set out our policies to tackle flooding in the long term, and the Environment Agency will publish the updated flood and coasts strategy. This country will also lead global ambitions on climate change as the host of COP26 later this year, urging the world to achieve net zero in a way that helps nature recover, reduces global warming and addresses the causes of these extreme weather events. I commend this statement to the House.
I would like to thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement and welcome him to his role. I have a lot of time for my fellow west country MP. I regard him as decent and competent, and I look forward to working with him. To be fair, this is a much better statement than the one the Government made only a few weeks ago about Storm Ciara, but not enough is being done. Simply explaining what has happened does not stop it happening again.
On behalf of the Opposition, I want to send my condolences to the families who have seen loved ones die as a result of Storms Ciara and Dennis. I would also like to thank the emergency services, the Environment Agency, local councils, volunteers and those who have worked tirelessly to protect homes and businesses, rescue people and animals from rising waters and fallen trees and reinforce flood defences.
It is because I have so much time for the Secretary of State that I am disappointed by the slow and pedestrian approach we have seen from Ministers since the flooding hit. Where was the Prime Minister? Where was he? Why was a Cobra meeting not convened? Why was there no national leadership from this Government? Why have the Welsh Government and communities in Wales not received the same extra support as those in England?
During the general election, the Prime Minister reluctantly visited flood-hit communities to win votes—he was out with his mop, pushing water around shops. But now that he has his majority, he is nowhere to be seen; he is missing in action. He was taking a break in a mansion in Kent instead of giving our nation the leadership that those communities under water genuinely deserve.
We know that the climate crisis means that we will see more extreme weather more often, and the consequences will be felt most by the communities that are most vulnerable. Since Parliament has declared a climate emergency, it is clear that the Government need to do things differently, but they are not yet, and I say to the Environment Secretary that that needs to change. I want the Government to wake up to the reality that more extreme weather will happen more often. It is not a one-off incident—these are not freak accidents. This is the world in which we live, and we need to have a proper plan for flooding that will address the causes and help the communities that are under water.
That plan needs to match the scale of the crisis, with proper funding, reversing austerity cuts and ensuring that funding is available to those areas that suffer the most—a new plan not bound by match funding rules that discriminate against poorer areas compared with more affluent ones. It must look at catchment management; upstream solutions, to ensure that we hold more water upstream; tree planting and hitting tree planting targets; a new role for our farmers and water companies; and banning burning on peatlands. It must resource our emergency services fairly, and importantly, the councils that carry the highest flood risk should be adequately recognised in the local government spending review. In short, we need a plan that recognises the climate crisis, and we must act before it is too late.
We need to move away from building homes on floodplains. Banning building on floodplains makes sense, but it depends on our definition of a floodplain. Most of London is in a floodplain, so let us be clear about the immediate need to ban building on vulnerable floodplains, where rising waters are a genuine risk. Will the Government continue to allow house building on vulnerable floodplains, against the advice of experts? What extra steps will the Government take to listen to the communities that have been devastated by two successive storms? Will the Government allow homes built after 2009—especially those on floodplains—to be covered under the Flood Re reinsurance scheme, since they are not at the moment? We cannot build flood defences with austerity or Government press releases, so by what date will the Government have reversed the austerity cuts to flood defence schemes that Conservative Members so enthusiastically voted for in the past?
I wish the Environment Secretary a very long and prosperous stay in his new job, but I offer him this one piece of advice. Every time homes flood, every time the Prime Minister is missing in action and every time Government press releases outweigh Government action, I will ask him to act. Today, therefore, I ask the Environment Secretary for a new plan for flooding, a new approach to reverse austerity cuts to flood defence schemes, and a proper investigation into these floods, which carries the confidence of communities currently under water, so that lessons can be learned and homes protected from the inevitable flooding that will happen again.
I thank the shadow Secretary of State for his kind words and for welcoming me to the Dispatch Box. There is much he said that I can agree with, and indeed that was contained in my statement, but there are obviously some things that I cannot agree with.
The hon. Gentleman will be aware that, in a Government, we have a Cabinet with Cabinet Ministers who lead on particular issues. When the Prime Minister appointed me a week ago last Thursday, the first thing we discussed was the upcoming Storm Dennis. We discussed how we would approach it, and he made it clear then that he wanted me to lead on this. That is entirely right, and it is entirely right as well that a statement such as this one on these issues should be led by me as the Secretary of State.
The hon. Gentleman asked why we did not stand up Cobra. The reason is that we stood up the national flood response centre, which is also hosted by the Cabinet Office. It is a similar mechanism to Cobra, but dedicated to flood response, engaging all the relevant authorities necessary to address a flood incident.
The hon. Gentleman asked about the devolved Administrations, including Wales. Flood response is a devolved matter, but I can tell him that on the day the flood events took place, DEFRA and the Environment Agency were immediately offering mutual aid to the Welsh Government, should they need it. We offered what help they would need in order to respond.
I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point about the fact that extreme weather events are becoming more common. Indeed they are, and that is why we are committing an additional £4 billion over the next five years. I also agree with him that we need to be looking at nature-based solutions—natural dams and floodplains, and tree planting upland to try to hold water upland so that it does not get into our urban areas.
On the issue of building on floodplains, the Environment Agency is already a statutory consultee, and in the overwhelming majority of cases local government follows the recommendations of the Environment Agency. Sometimes that will involve not building in areas where there are floodplains, but an outright ban on building on all floodplains would prevent the expansion of the majority of our lowland towns and cities. In some cases, the advice of the Environment Agency will be that it is okay to build on them, provided it is an appropriate development and designed in a way that manages flood risk.
In Scotland, we do not build housing or allow developments on floodplains. Flooding has become an all too familiar story in this place, and listening to the stories about individuals, businesses and communities devastated by the effect of flooding is indeed heartbreaking. I have listened to everything that has gone on, and when I was chair of the all-party group on flood prevention in this place, we heard story after story about the devastation caused to local communities. I, too, praise the courage, knowledge and professionalism of the rescue services. Dealing with the impact of flooding seems to be a never-ending story for them in this country.
As the former chair of the all-party group, I heard this narrative and I visited places affected. I visited the constituency of the hon. Member for Selby and Ainsty (Nigel Adams), and saw how a local medical centre could not afford insurance. The insurance premium went up to something like £400,000, and it could not move. These things were all too common, and people were left bewildered, not knowing who to turn to. In Scotland, we know who to turn to if we have an immediate need. The problem in England is that it is still following the same path as it was before.
I resigned from the all-party group on flood prevention; my friend the hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) has now taken over that role, and I wish her all the best. But to listen to businesses and communities that have been devastated by flooding is a never-ending, heartbreaking story. That group carried out a lot of good work; we saw Flood Re introduced and new products that are supposed to prevent or control water ingress into houses, but nothing much seems to have changed since all that happened.
Where is the Prime Minister? He is reportedly avoiding the flooded areas so as not to detract from communities’ situations—or the Secretary of State’s situation, as we heard earlier—but, as has been said, that did not stop him turning up and holding emergency briefings in the run-up to the election. So where is he?
That is in contrast to our First Minister in Scotland. She has visited hard-hit communities; she is not feart to have difficult conversations with anyone. The SNP Government will continue to work with and support our local authorities. We have committed about £42 million each year through the local government capital grant, helping our communities invest in flood protection measures. This Prime Minister said recently he would rather die in a ditch. That flooded ditch is now a castle moat he is hiding behind—not so our First Minister.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for updating us on the steps that the Scottish Government have taken. Scotland has been less severely affected than other parts of the country by the recent floods, but there have been some effects—there have been some flooding incidents.
The hon. Gentleman made a point about insurance. As I said, we have introduced the Flood Re insurance scheme to ensure that people with properties who were unable to get access to insurance because of a flood risk are now able to.
Order. I remind the House that, as we said in the last statement, statements are followed by questions, not speeches. We must have short questions; it will not harm the Minister or the Chair if we have long questions and speeches, but it will harm the people who do not get a chance to be called, so I ask for some courtesy and brevity.
I welcome my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to his new post; it is well deserved.
Flooding is going on and it comes very suddenly, so we will have to manage it in the future. Some rivers need to be slowed down, and for some we need to increase the flow as they get to the sea.
With Flood Re, there is a cut-off date of 2008. Many people who bought houses after 2008 cannot necessarily get insurance. It is time that we looked at that again, because Flood Re has worked but many people cannot actually get access to it.
I am conscious of the point that my hon. Friend makes, and indeed that was made to me by residents when I visited York with the hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) at the weekend. For houses built in recent years, we have known about potential flood risk, and that should have been factored in in the planning system. So it would be rather extraordinary for there to be modern-built houses where the risk is so high that they cannot get insurance.
A quarter of all the families who were affected across the whole of the United Kingdom were in one local authority in Wales, Rhondda Cynon Taf, including my own patch. Many of those people, in very poor communities, have no insurance because they have to choose between putting food on the table and paying the insurance bill, so they have lost literally every single thing that they had. We have a massive bill for the local authority of more than £30 million just to put the culverts right, to dredge the rivers and to sort out the bridges that have fallen into the rivers. That is twice the capital funding allocation for the whole council for a year. We need money from the Government. We do not want talk of mutual aid; we need money and we need it now.
The hon. Gentleman will be aware that flooding and response to floods is a devolved matter and therefore in the first instance is a matter for the Welsh Government, but I am aware that he and others have raised some concerns about funding, and of course if the Welsh Government were to approach my colleagues in the Wales Office that is something that could be considered.
After the 2015 floods, we battled to get a wider catchment plan for the Calder Valley put in place, including grip blocking, reservoirs being reduced, leaky dams being addressed and tree planting. Some of those measures have been put in place, but that has been done by hundreds and hundreds of volunteers, and it is not enough. With climate change, we really are just toying with this. Will my right hon. Friend meet me and some volunteers to see the benefits of a more robust investment plan for the Calder Valley from Government in some of those measures?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that point, and I am of course more than willing to meet him, other residents and local authority leaders in Calder Valley. I have also undertaken to hold a summit in Yorkshire to discuss flood concerns more generally. There are a number of important projects in the Calder Valley, including at Hebden Bridge and Brighouse. Some of them have concluded, while others have not yet been completed, for reasons that I know he is aware of.
Cobra met twice on Boxing day in 2015 and again on 27 December. It was instrumental in unlocking the funding and resources we needed to recover in the Calder Valley. Whatever was stepped up this time was absolutely not comparable in providing the practical help we needed very quickly in Calderdale on this occasion. Can the Secretary of State tell me when the guidance on grants for resilience will be made available to local authorities? Will he confirm that those grants will be available for those who flooded in 2015 and claimed then, but have since flooded again?
We will, during the course of this week, be issuing local authorities with more detailed guidance on the flood resilience fund. Our view at the moment is not to give it to people who have already claimed it, since they have already invested to make their homes more resilient.
Herefordshire was very hard hit. I want my local authority to focus on making good some of the terrible damage we have suffered, rather than getting its Bellwin application in by 15 March. Will the Secretary of State do all he can to ensure that local authorities are doing what they are meant to be doing, rather than claiming the money? Will he make sure that Herefordshire does not miss out on the farming recovery fund, like it did last time?
My hon. Friend makes an important point, but a lot of local authorities will say that they need access to that money, or at least to know that they will be able to reclaim some of their new burden costs, in order to make precisely the response he talks of.