House of Commons
Tuesday 24 November 2020
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Virtual participation in proceedings commenced (Order, 4 June).
[NB: [V] denotes a Member participating virtually.]
Oral Answers to Questions
Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office
The Secretary of State was asked—
Deportation: Human Rights Compliance
Deportations, removals and returns are a Home Office lead. The Home Office is responsible for ensuring that action is in compliance with the relevant legal frameworks. The Foreign Secretary and the Home Office meet regularly to discuss international business, and Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office Ministers periodically discuss FCDO support for return flights to specific countries with Home Office colleagues, most recently the resumption of flights to Nigeria and Ghana following a pause due to the covid-19 pandemic. The UK’s international legal obligations, including those under international human rights law, underpin all those exchanges.
The Julian Assange case is just one of many recent cases that have led to greater public discussion of the issue of extradition between the US and the UK in recent years. There are concerns across the House about our country’s extradition treaty with the USA. One is that the US can request extradition in circumstances Britain cannot, something the Prime Minister labelled “unbalanced” earlier this year. Another is that provisions within the treaty are not properly upheld—for example, the treaty bans extradition for political offences. What is the Minister doing to ensure that the ban on extradition for political offences is always upheld?
As the hon. Member may already know, changes were made under the previous Government to make the system more balanced. I can tell him that the FCDO is committed to upholding the full range of rights set out in the universal declaration of human rights and in international human rights treaties to which we are a state party.
Mahboob Ahmad Khan
We strongly condemn the murder of Mr Mahboob Khan, another recent and apparently religiously motivated killing of an Ahmadi Muslim in Pakistan. On 8 November, my ministerial colleague Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, the Minister for South Asia and the Commonwealth, publicly condemned the murder of Mr Khan. On 16 November, he raised concerns about killings of Ahmadi Muslims in Pakistan, including Mr Khan’s murder, with Pakistan’s human rights Minister.
I thank the Minister for his response. Given that four Ahmadi Muslims have been murdered on the grounds of faith in the past four months, the latest being 31-year-old Dr Tahir Ahmad, murdered at home in Punjab just last Friday, what further representations can his Department make to the Government of Pakistan on ending their state-sponsored persecution of Ahmadi Muslims in Pakistan, which is rooted in federal laws that explicitly target Ahmadi Muslims?
I thank the hon. Lady for her question. She may be aware that we had a very robust Adjournment debate highlighting this issue last night. We remain deeply concerned by reports of discrimination and violence against any religious communities in Pakistan, including the Ahmadiyya Muslim community. We raise regularly at senior level with Pakistan our concerns about the mistreatment of Ahmadiyyas and other religious communities. On 3 November, FCDO officials in Islamabad met representatives of the Ahmadiyya community in Rabwah to engage with their concerns, as well as raising the matter with Pakistani authorities.
We send our warmest congratulations to President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris on winning the election. Whether it is on trade, security or defence, we do more together than any other two countries and we see huge opportunities in the months ahead.
As President-elect Biden embarks on building his internationally focused team, including, as Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who said that Joe Biden would bring aid back to the centre of foreign policy, does the Foreign Secretary regret that the UK Government’s disgraceful plans to change the law to cut aid spending below 0.7% not only sends the wrong message to the rest of the world, but gets the relationship with the new Administration they did not want to see off to a bad start?
Actually, we consistently showed that we are a leading, if not one of the leading countries, on aid. That will continue. We also—this will matter to the United States—indicated the increase in defence spending, which shows what a dependable ally we are. All the soundings that we have had—that I have had—with the incoming leadership show that there are huge opportunities on climate change and covid to strengthen the relationship even further.
I echo the Secretary of State’s congratulations to President Biden and, in particular, to the Vice President-elect on this historic election. However, the spectacle of democracy under attack in the United States has sent shock waves around the globe. Even after the transition announcement yesterday, the President has continued to say that he will
“never concede to fake ballots”.
Ron Klain says that the President has “set back” the democratic norms of the United States. Does the Foreign Secretary now regret emboldening those who attack democracy by refusing to assert that all votes should be counted and that processes need to play out, or will he stand with me and the incoming White House chief of staff in defence of free and fair elections?
First, I warmly join the hon. Lady in paying tribute to and welcoming the historic election of Vice President-elect Kamala Harris. Frankly, the stuff that the hon. Lady said about emboldening critics of the US elections could not be further from the truth. What we have said consistently—[Interruption.] She might want to listen to the answer to her question. What we have said consistently is that the US has the checks and balances in place to produce a definitive result. It has. We warmly welcome the new Administration. We look forward to working with them.
Global alliances are based on shared values: democracy, the rule of law and human rights. Human rights will be a key pillar for the Biden Administration. They rightly recognise that Yemen is the world’s worst humanitarian catastrophe, sustained by US and UK support. The war has gone on for more than five years, with a dangerous rocket attack in Jeddah just yesterday. Does the Secretary of State agree with the incoming US Secretary of State, the National Security Adviser and the ambassador to the UN that it is time to end participation in, or any form of support for, the disastrous Saudi-led campaign? Will he now commit to playing the UK’s part by ending arms sales to Saudi Arabia?
I certainly agree with the hon. Lady that we have to pursue every effort to get peace in Yemen, both on the humanitarian side and on the political track. That is why we have been fully supportive of the UN special envoy, Martin Griffiths. I have been out to Saudi to encourage, promote and cajole the Saudis into doing the right thing. Of course, the Houthis need to move. Actually, the most important thing is a concerted regional push for a political end to this wretched conflict.
Hong Kong Opposition Lawmakers
Beijing’s imposition of new rules to disqualify elected legislators constitutes a clear breach of the UK-China joint declaration. This is only the third time we have judged a breach, and the second in six months. China has once again broken its promises and undermined Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy.
As the Foreign Secretary said, the Chinese Government have breached the Sino-British joint declaration twice in the past six months, so when will he implement the Magnitsky sanctions against the Chief Executive of Hong Kong, Carrie Lam? What steps is he taking to tighten capital flows into China via Hong Kong from the City of London?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his interest. He will know that we have already made a new offer to British nationals overseas, suspended our extradition treaty with Hong Kong and extended our arms embargo on mainland China to Hong Kong. On the Magnitsky sanctions, this is not just something that we can decide at our fiat. We need the evidence to back it up. We are looking at and assessing that, working with our international partners. On 18 November, I led and issued a statement with our Five Eyes Foreign Ministers condemning the latest China move in relation to legislators. That was hot on the heels in October of 39 countries joining the UK in the UN Third Committee with a statement on Hong Kong as well as Xinjiang.
Climate Change: International Co-operation
As the UK will be the the host of COP26 and the president of the G7 next year, securing greater global ambition on climate change is a diplomatic priority for this Government. Ministerial colleagues in the FCDO and my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary regularly raise this subject, and he has raised it with countries, including Japan and South Korea, earlier this year. This strategy is working. China has pledged to become a carbon-neutral country by 2060 and Japan and South Korea have committed to become net zero by 2050. On 7 November, the Prime Minister appointed my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Anne-Marie Trevelyan) as the international champion on adaptation and resilience for COP26.
My constituents in Barrow and Furness have welcomed the Government’s focus on renewable energy, but it is clear that a global approach is required to deal with this crisis. Can my right hon. Friend reassure the House that the Department is working flat out on COP26 and the climate ambition summit to make it a success?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right that the answer to this lies in global co-operation. The United Kingdom is leading from the front, and we are pressing foreign Governments for greater action and higher commitments at the climate ambition summit on 12 December. Our posts across the globe have engaged with host Governments, businesses and civil society on climate change issues ahead of COP26, and we will continue to do so in the run-up to the climate ambition summit this December.
Climate change is going to drive the future crisis that humanity is facing. Parts of the world will get wetter and parts drier, with all the world more climatically unstable, and with population growth and resource scarcity. Climate change is going to be at the heart of every crisis that we will face.
The UK is undertaking the integrated review of foreign and defence policy right now. I will be grateful for an assurance from the Minister that climate change will be high on the agenda of that review, and that he will take good note of the Scottish National party’s suggestions, which we submitted to the review in good faith. We all need to work together on this, because climate change is a crisis facing humanity as a whole.
The hon. Member is right to highlight the fact that climate change is going to be an important factor in the foreign policy of all countries around the world. We recognise that, in terms of pressure on food production and resources, the potential implications and the conflicts that may come about as a result. That is why climate change and our response to it, development and diplomacy will all go hand in hand through the integrated review.
I am grateful to the Minister for that reassurance. I suggest that he has a read of the SNP submission to the integrated review. There are some very good ideas in there, not least to maintain development at the heart of climate mitigation and to fund it properly. If I were a Minister in a Government who stood on a manifesto in December to maintain 0.7%, I would be considering my position were that to be walked back upon. Is he considering his?
I am very proud of the fact that the United Kingdom is and will remain one of the most generous aid donors in the world. We have focused relentlessly on ensuring that the work of the United Kingdom Government across all Departments focuses on addressing the poorest in the world, as well as the implications of climate change.
ASEAN Countries: UK Relations
We are very much strengthening our relations with the 10 countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Last month, I had a meeting with the ASEAN Secretary-General. I have also met all ASEAN ambassadors to London. The Foreign Secretary visited Vietnam in September and met ASEAN Foreign Ministers. Last week, I was in the Philippines and met Secretary of Foreign Affairs Locsin, among others.
I welcome the Minister’s meeting in the Philippines. He knows that our relationship with the Philippines is not just about security and defence, but extends to the 30,000 healthcare workers in this country who came from the Philippines. May I press him on the conversations that he has had with the Government in Manila about those 30,000 workers and how we can strengthen the healthcare relationship?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise that. While I was in Manila last week, I met a range of Cabinet Secretaries, including the Health Secretary and the Foreign Minister, as I said, and the British Red Cross. As my hon. Friend knows, there is currently a ban on Filipino nurses leaving the country. They are fantastic, committed health workers and we are very grateful to the 30,000 of them in the national health service. I am pleased to report that we managed to secure important progress in that regard. Following the discussions that I had with the Health Secretary, the Philippines President has confirmed that he will lift the ban, allowing our NHS to recruit these highly skilled and excellent health service workers.
I very much welcome my hon. Friend’s efforts with ASEAN and his emphasis on the Indo-Pacific. He will no doubt have seen the fantastic Policy Exchange report by my hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey (Claire Coutinho), who has been instrumental in emphasising some of these points. Does he agree that this tilt towards the Asia-Pacific is fundamental to defending democracies in the region, to ensuring that British interests are valued and to respecting the individual rights of countries that for too long have been pressed by China to come within a different orbit?
I thank the Chairman of the Select Committee for his question. He is absolutely right, and I also applaud the work of my hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey in this regard. Our tilt towards the Indo-Pacific region as part of the integrated review is testimony to how much we value that part of the world. There are a number of issues that we will raise with China. We are concerned in particular about issues involving the South China sea, and these are conversations that we have regularly with China. I made our legal position on that very clear here at the Dispatch Box a couple of months ago. Our support in that area has been widely supported by our ASEAN friends.
Hungary: Same-sex Couple Adoption
The UK is committed to the principle of non-discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation and/or gender identity. If it is passed, the legislation will reserve adoption for married couples, which in Hungary means heterosexual couples. While there would be an avenue for exceptions, adoption would be very difficult for same-sex couples in the future, as well as for single people. Our embassy in Budapest is closely monitoring the discussions of the proposal in the Hungarian Parliament, and will be discussing it with Hungarian officials and civil society actors.
This unacceptable development in Hungary is a very worrying one, and is part of a wider movement to define families as a union between a male and female husband and wife and children. Does the Minister agree that we have to take every possible opportunity to impress upon the Hungarian Government how unacceptable this is to so many people in our communities here in the United Kingdom?
We are completely opposed to all forms of discrimination and we continue our work to uphold the rights and freedoms of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in all circumstances. We are really concerned that the amendment of Hungary’s Registry Act, which was passed by the Hungarian Parliament in May, will have an adverse impact on the rights of transgender people, and I raised our concerns about the amendment to the Act with the Hungarian Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade in April. I can assure the hon. Lady that our embassy in Budapest takes all appropriate opportunities to discuss the rights of transgender people with senior government officials and civil society.
We are very concerned about the conflict in the Tigray region of Ethiopia, in terms of both the humanitarian impact and the risk of spillover and spread through the region.
Having chaired the all-party parliamentary group for Ethiopia and Djibouti for a long while, I have seen the relative peace that Ethiopia has lived in since 1987, and the last thing it needs at the moment, following the locust problem and covid, is this situation. Does the Foreign Secretary therefore agree that the best way forward, and the only realistic way forward, is to find a peaceful solution to the problems? Will he also do everything he can to ensure that aid continues to get to the Tigray people who need it?
I thank my hon. Friend and pay tribute to the work that he has done in this regard. I share his concern. I spoke to Prime Minister Abiy on 10 November. We have made it clear that there needs to be a de-escalation of violence, humanitarian access and protection of civilians. Of course, there are also all sorts of regional implications, which is why I have also spoken to the Prime Minister of Sudan and the Foreign Ministers of Egypt and South Africa. This will require not only regional but international efforts to secure peace and protect the humanitarian plight there.
As the Foreign Secretary said, this conflict has implications for the whole region, including Somalia, with Ethiopian troops being pulled out of that country to be redeployed to Tigray. Given reports that President Trump also intends to move troops out of Somalia, and given the threatening presence there of al-Shabaab and Islamic State, what discussions has the Foreign Secretary had with international partners about ensuring that Tigray does not end up helping to destabilise Somalia, too?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. As my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson) made clear, Ethiopia has been a relative success story lately, but there is a real danger for the people of Ethiopia and he has highlighted the risks of spillover to Sudan, Somalia and Eritrea, which will be very damaging not only for people in the region, but for wider equities. As I say, I have spoken to regional leaders. I will speak to the Deputy Prime Minister of Ethiopia soon. Of course, we will be engaging with the Americans. I was in Berlin yesterday talking with the E3 and our European colleagues. We have expressed our concern, and we are doing everything we can to bring peace and a de-escalation of the conflict.
The war and famine in Ethiopia in the 1980s are seared into the memories of the British people and the world, and yet again we are on the brink of another tragedy for the people of that wonderful country: hundreds of civilians hacked to death, tens of thousands of refugees, hundreds of thousands cut off from assistance, women and children caught in the violence between rebels, and a Government now threatening to shell a city. Can the Foreign Secretary say why it has taken until today for the United Nations Security Council to meet on this? What more are we doing to secure humanitarian corridors and access for independent human rights monitors? Does he not agree that this is another reason why it would be the wrong time to cut our 0.7% commitment to humanitarian assistance?
I share the hon. Gentleman’s horror at some of the reports of the civilian casualties. We take this incredibly seriously, energetically and actively at the United Nations. Let me reassure him that UK funding is already helping those in urgent need of assistance. In Ethiopia specifically, the UK funds the World Food Programme, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, UNICEF and the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
The humanitarian situation in Yemen is dire. As my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary warned in September, Yemen has never looked more likely to slide into famine than it does now. Almost 16 million people—53% of the population—are currently unable to afford food. In response, the UK is rapidly disbursing the £200 million-worth of aid commitment this year. We fully support UN special envoy Martin Griffiths, who is seeking the parties’ agreement to proposals for a nationwide ceasefire and formal talks.
We strongly support the UN’s efforts, and we regularly engage with all parties that have an interest in Yemen. On 18 October, I spoke to the spokesman Mohammed Abdul-Salam about the peace process and the Safer oil tanker; on 6 October, I spoke to the Yemen Foreign Minister about the progress; and on 17 September the Foreign Secretary co-hosted a P5+ ministerial meeting to encourage all parties to engage fully with the proposals that the UN has put forward.
Saudi Arabia: Human Rights Defenders
Our strong relationship with Saudi Arabia allows us to raise human rights concerns through a range of ministerial and diplomatic channels. Ahead of the G20 leaders’ summit, I raised human rights concerns with the Saudi ambassador, including the continued detention of at least five women human rights defenders. The UK also signed the UN Human Rights Council joint statement in September calling for the release of all political detainees. We will continue to raise human rights concerns with the Saudi authorities.
Women in Saudi Arabia now have the right to drive, but some of those who fought for that basic equality remain behind bars. The UK is, as the Minister suggests, Saudi Arabia’s closest European ally, but does he understand why the detention of women human rights defenders by the Saudi Arabian authorities is an important test of our Government’s commitment to defending human rights? Will he call on them to release these women and all political prisoners immediately?
We welcome the improved situation for women in Saudi and encourage the Saudis to continue steps in that direction. As I have already said, we engage on this specific issue at both ministerial and official level and will continue to urge the Saudis to go further.
The Minister knows full well that the human rights situation in Saudi Arabia is terrible, and many people believe it is getting worse. Now that the G20 summit has been held, what precisely do the Government intend to do to put pressure on the Government of Saudi Arabia to release human rights activists, including women’s rights activists who are being held for fighting for freedoms that we in this country take for granted?
I spoke to the Saudi ambassador about this very issue on 16 November. As I say, it is important that we recognise when progress has been made. Saudi is embarking on a reform programme and we are seeking to ensure that that goes further and faster, but as I said in response to the previous question, we do engage at ministerial level and at official level to encourage the release of women’s human rights defenders.
The UK is committed to rapid, equitable access to safe and effective vaccines through multilateral collaboration. We strongly support the COVAX advance market commitment, which is the international initiative to support global equitable access. The UK is the largest bilateral donor to the AMC, having committed up to £548 million to help provide vaccines for up to 92 developing countries. The UK also committed £71 million in non-official development assistance to participate in the COVAX facility for self-financing countries, in order to secure options to vaccines for UK domestic use.
In a pandemic we are only as strong as our weakest link. Is the Minister convinced that, even though we are one of the largest donors, we are doing enough to ensure that developing nations have the infrastructure they need to organise a mass roll-out of the vaccine?
A pandemic response is absolutely what we need to tackle this virus, and that requires global collaboration. The UK strongly supports multilateral approaches so that we can meet both domestic and global needs, and that work goes alongside UK deals with individual vaccine developers. I am sure that, like me, the hon. Lady will welcome AstraZeneca’s commitment to non-profitable access during the pandemic and the fact that AstraZeneca estimates that up to 3 billion doses will be available globally by 2021.
I know how interested so many Members are in the access to and distribution of these incredibly important vaccines as part of our covid-19 response. Our £250 million of funding for the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations is helping to develop vaccine candidates that can be scaled up and accessible for developing countries. Our commitment of up to £548 million to the COVAX AMC will contribute to the target of supplying 1 billion doses for 92 developing countries in 2021 and vaccinations for up to 500 million people. We have also worked with the World Bank to secure up to $12 billion in financing to support developing countries’ access to covid-19 vaccines, treatments and tests.
Myanmar: ICJ Case
The UK Government have been clear about their political support for the ICJ process, and we continue to urge Myanmar to comply with the provisional measures ruling. We are aware of the intention of the Netherlands and Canada to intervene and understand that they will take a final decision once the case progresses. We are monitoring the case closely and continue to consider whether UK intervention would add value to its merits.
I am grateful to the Minister for that answer. However the failure to secure justice and hold the Burmese Government and the military in particular to account sends a dangerous message to other Governments that genocide and ethnic cleansing are acceptable policy tools. We are seeing that elsewhere in the world, too. I have asked this question of the Minister and the Foreign Secretary time and again, but, let me ask it once again: can the Minister say very clearly that the UK Government will join that case? If he cannot say so today, will he commit to saying so soon? Very eminent British lawyers, such as Philippe Sands, are involved and are asking the British Government to support it, because if they do not, people will quite rightly ask whether it is a case of the UK Government taking the stance that it is acceptable to commit acts of genocide on Muslim minorities.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on her work on this issue, alongside the former Foreign Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for South West Surrey (Jeremy Hunt). She is absolutely right to say that accountability is vital. The Myanmar military has committed atrocities against the Rohingya and other minorities, and there has been no tangible progress on accountability. We have been very clear about our support for the ICJ process. It is putting pressure on Myanmar to protect the Rohingya and to work towards genuine accountability. She mentioned genocide. We agree with the UN fact-finding mission that the events of 2017 constitute ethnic cleansing. We are clear that the question of whether genocide took place is a legal determination to be made by a competent court. The ICJ is a competent court and we welcome its consideration of the issue. I look forward to welcoming her and my right hon. Friend to discuss these issues in the FCDO shortly.
Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference
The United Kingdom’s priority is to reinforce the non-proliferation treaty as a vital part of the international security architecture and to highlight the UK’s strong track record across all three pillars of the treaty. Building on the successful 2020 UK-led P5 process, we will work to promote transparency between nuclear and non-nuclear states and submit a national report to highlight our achievement in support of the NPT. The UK will also emphasise the important role of peaceful uses of nuclear energy in achieving the sustainable development goals.
Given that the UK is a signatory to this treaty, does the Minister agree that the logical next step would be for the UK now to become a signatory to the UN treaty on the prohibition of nuclear weapons, taking the lead from the First Minister of Wales, who has welcomed this treaty? In that way, we in the UK can take a lead internationally to create a future throughout the world without nuclear weapons.
The UK has reduced by half its nuclear arsenal since the end of the cold war, but we will not sign or ratify the prohibition of nuclear weapons. We do not believe that this treaty brings us any closer to a world without nuclear weapons, and it will not improve the security environment.
I hope the Minister will agree with me that the UK must seize the opportunity of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty review conference early next year to push multilateral nuclear disarmament back up the global agenda and take the steps necessary to bring about a world free from the threat of nuclear weapons. With major non-signatories, such as India and Pakistan, still remaining, will the Minister outline how the Government plan to encourage those countries and others to commit to signing the treaty?
I think that everyone from all parts of this House will share the desire to see a world without nuclear weapons. However, we do need to ensure that at no point do we compromise the United Kingdom’s defence. We worked at the P5 conference of NPT nuclear weapon states that took place in February 2020 to demonstrate our engagement with the wider non-proliferation treaty community, and we will continue to work on our priorities: transparency, the UK national report, disarmament verification and peaceful uses of nuclear energy.
UK Preparedness: End of the Transition Period
Although it remains our intention and hope to reach agreement with the EU, as a responsible Government we continue to make extensive preparations for a wide range of scenarios. The FCDO is leading communication campaigns aimed at UK nationals living in the EU and UK travellers to the EU to help to ensure that they take the actions they need to take to be ready for the end of the transition period. We have also launched the UK nationals support fund, providing up to £3 million to support at-risk and hard-to-reach UK nationals who might need additional support to apply for residency in their host EU member states.
My hon. Friend is right to ask such questions on behalf of his constituents. Let me point him in the direction of some areas of support. First, the Welsh Government provide an online EU transition portal at www.businesswales.gov.wales, where businesses and organisations can find up-to-date advice from the Welsh Government; there is an online query service and a helpline. For the UK as a whole, the best place to start is the gov.uk website, which provides comprehensive and up-to-date advice and includes step-by-step guides in key areas. From a business perspective, it might also be of interest to my hon. Friend to know that we continue to make excellent progress in our negotiations for a comprehensive free trade agreement to come into force in 2021, and we have agreed with the European economic area and European Free Trade Association states a continuity deal to ensure that trade flows continue at the end of the year while we finalise the more ambitious FTA that we are negotiating.
Quality Education for Girls
Since 2015, the UK has supported 15.6 million children to help them to gain a decent education. Sadly, due to covid-19, 1.6 billion learners were out of education at the peak of school closures, and an estimated 8 million girls are at risk of not returning. As one of our key priorities, we are working with countries directly and supporting the efforts of the Global Partnership for Education, Education Cannot Wait, UNICEF and the UNHCR to get girls back to school.
Britain’s contribution to ensuring girls’ education is one of the most important and proudest parts of our entire work in international development. How will the Minister ensure that the Global Partnership for Education conference is a success, and that countries around the world continue to step up to the plate on this most essential agenda?
My right hon. Friend makes an important point. I know of his continued interest in education, particularly girls’ education. I assure him that we have established regular senior engagement with the Global Partnership for Education and our Kenyan co-hosts to ensure a successful replenishment that delivers major funding for girls’ education. We will secure significant pledges through bilateral engagement and in global forums from both traditional donors and new partners, and through domestic and global networks we will build attention to and expectation around this important replenishment.
The Minister is aware that girls can only benefit from education if we tackle child marriage, female genital mutilation and all gender-based violence. NGOs report that funding for GBV programmes is not keeping up with the rise in cases due to covid-19. In October, the United Nations Population Fund stated that
“funding for GBV prevention and response remains unacceptably low.”
Is the UK going to further increase UK official development assistance for GBV programmes to combat the secondary impacts of covid-19 on women and girls? Is the money ring-fenced? And will the Minister be challenging the Chancellor’s attack on foreign aid, which will undermine all this work?
The hon. Lady may attempt to draw me into the debate on aid, but she knows that I am not going to speculate on that. She emphasises the importance of girls’ education. The UK is a world leader in our education expertise and our development spend. As I said, since 2015—[Interruption.] Opposition Front Benchers may mutter, but let us be absolutely clear: the UK has supported 15.6 million children to gain a decent education, and 8 million of those are girls. Our country direct programme for research and funding to organisations such as the Global Partnership for Education and Education Cannot Wait makes the UK a global leader in promoting girls’ education.
Armenia and Azerbaijan
The Government welcomed the news of the 10 November peace deal agreed between Armenia and Azerbaijan. I spoke to Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Bayramov on 13 November welcoming the news of the deal. It is now important that the co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk group—France, the US and Russia—continue to work together to ensure a sustainable peaceful solution that is based on the Minsk basic principles. In the meantime, the UK is also playing its part in dealing with the humanitarian impact of the fighting.
I thank my hon. Friend for her response and the work that she is doing on this issue, which has been raised by a number of constituents in Warrington South who are concerned, in part, because this conflict is not covered in the UK media. Does she agree that the critical action to ensure that the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh comes to an end is continuing UK support for the OSCE Minsk group and dialogue between Azerbaijanis and Armenians?
My hon. Friend makes an important point about making sure that we seek and maintain a lasting peaceful settlement to this conflict. He is absolutely right: now that the proper fighting has ended, it is critical that the members of the Minsk group work together to deliver a lasting peaceful settlement. The UK has consistently supported the work of the co-chairs of the Minsk group to deliver that. Continued dialogue between Azerbaijan and Armenia is essential to prevent any further loss of life and to bring about a permanent negotiated end to this conflict.
Since the last oral questions, I have opened the first ministerial meeting of the global Media Freedom Coalition of 37 countries, which the UK co-chairs alongside Canada; I have spoken to Prime Minister Abiy of Ethiopia to call for an urgent ceasefire in the Tigray region; and I have worked with my Five Eyes counterparts to issue a joint statement expressing serious concern regarding China’s imposition of new rules to disqualify legislators in Hong Kong.
Will the Secretary of State identify opportunities to pressure the Chinese Government into ratifying the forced labour convention, the abolition of forced labour convention, and the 2014 protocol to the forced labour convention, allowing the UK to be sure that supply chains being used by UK businesses and government are in no way supporting the Chinese Government’s persecution of the Uyghurs? Does he agree that if UK business cannot get a full assurance, they should preferably onshore their supply chains back to UK plc?
I warmly welcome the spirit of my hon. Friend’s question, although I think we need to be realistic about what China is going to be willing to sign up to. Therefore, for our part, we work very closely with UK businesses. It is very important—a hallmark of global Britain—that our businesses conduct themselves with integrity. We were the first country to produce a national action plan on the UN guiding principles on business and human rights, and the first country, with the Modern Slavery Act 2015, to ask businesses to report on their supply chains and how they could be affected. We are very proud of our international leadership in this area.
Our existing 0.7% aid commitment sends
“a strong signal that the UK is a reliable partner for long-term economic, social, environmental and educational advancement across the globe”,
and this is “cheaper than fighting wars”—not my words, but those of the CBI and the former Chief of the Defence Staff, General Lord David Richards. Does the Secretary of State agree that rowing back on our promise to the world’s poorest people would jeopardise our soft power status ahead of the year when the UK will host the G7 and COP26, and will he recommit to his manifesto pledge, made exactly a year ago today, to spend 0.7% of GNI on aid?
I totally share my hon. Friend’s objective. With the Magnitsky sanctions, the key thing is to target those directly responsible. That requires evidence, and we work very closely with all our international partners to share our experience and compare notes in relation to that. The recent comments follow on from the solidarity that we as Five Eyes, alongside the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, have shown in relation to human rights, in particular in Hong Kong. It also follows on from the wider caucus of 39 countries that backed the UK in the UN Third Committee on not only Hong Kong, but the issue of Xinjiang.
My hon. Friend is right to raise that. Protecting and promoting the freedom of religion or belief is an important part of our bilateral and multilateral relationships, and we do not shy away from acting on our concerns. We continue to deliver the recommendations of the report by the Bishop of Truro. Of the 22 recommendations, we have fully delivered 10 and made good progress on another seven, and we are on track to deliver all 22 by the time of the three-year review in mid-2022.
The hon. Gentleman is right to point to the important work that we do through ODA and on development. The Prime Minister hosted the Gavi summit, working with countries around the world to ensure that there is equitable access to a new vaccine. In relation to the 0.7% commitment and our future ODA spending, I am afraid he will have to wait for the spending review tomorrow.
The full extent of the impact of covid-19 on the illegal wildlife trade is not known, but my right hon. Friend is right to raise this issue. We know that it is a serious crime undertaken by organised criminal networks. We have contributed £250 million to the Global Environment Facility, which runs the world’s biggest programme to tackle the illegal wildlife trade. He will understand that I am not able to give full details of future ODA spending commitments at this point.
The FCDO takes all reports of sexual assaults abroad extremely seriously. Miss McNamara had a deeply distressing experience in the UAE earlier this year. Consular officials from the embassy supported her when she reported the incident to them, and the FCDO consular staff are standing by to do everything they can to support Miss McNamara and her legal team.
I thank my hon. Friend for raising this case. He is right to say that the High Court has found that the Foreign Office behaved lawfully, properly and in good faith throughout. However, I appreciate that, as he will know, that will be no solace to the family, who are still very much grieving for the loss of their precious son. We have made it very clear that we are on the side of the Dunn family. We have consistently called for Anne Sacoolas to return. We will continue to do so, including, as my hon. Friend asked, in relation to the new Administration. I also negotiated the change of the arrangements as they affect the Croughton base so that a case like this—an injustice like this—cannot happen in the future. In relation to the claim that the family are bringing in the US, I have made it clear that we are willing to support it in various ways.
I thank my hon. Friend, and he is absolutely right. The UK is a founding member of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. Malaria deaths have halved since 2002. That is an incredible achievement, and vital to bringing stability and hope to those countries affected.
I thank the hon. Lady for her question, and for her continued emphasis in this regard. These matters about the region of Kashmir have to be settled bilaterally between Pakistan and India. What I can say is that we do raise this issue at every opportunity with both authorities. I am more than happy to ask the Minister for South Asia to meet the hon. Lady, so that she can gain a deeper insight into the actions that the Government are taking.
An important part of the work we do involves promoting all four corners of the United Kingdom. We do that in our post through a celebration of St David’s day, as well as other national festivals, and we do it all around the world. Through the GREAT UK Challenge Fund, the FCDO promotes Welsh businesses and Welsh culture. My hon. Friend might be interested to know that in the last financial year we supported 40 projects promoting the devolved nations, including 14 in Wales, and with the Department for International Trade we helped to attract 62 foreign direct investment projects, creating 2,736 new jobs. That demonstrates the value to the people of Wales of the United Kingdom Government, including their foreign policy.
I was in Berlin yesterday for an E3 meeting with my French and German counterparts on exactly that issue, and on how we are taking forward accountability within the scope of the joint comprehensive plan of action. More than 200 EU sanctions are listed in place against Iran, and with our E3 partners we are continuing the JCPOA to maintain and constrain Iran’s nuclear programme as best we can. We are looking to re-engage with the new US Administration, to see how we can strengthen that even further.
The Minister for Europe is aware that my 18-year-old constituent, Tom Channon, tragically died at the Eden Roc complex in Mallorca in July 2018. That followed a similar death, that of Tomas Hughes, just weeks earlier. I believe there is a strong criminal case to be pursued for prosecution for negligence, and on 10 July this year I wrote to the president of the provincial court. I have pursued the matter persistently, but I still have not received a reply. Covid will have played a part, but does the Minister agree that waiting five months after the deaths of two 18-year-olds, two years earlier, is wholly unacceptable?
My right hon. Friend is right to raise that case. Deaths abroad of our constituents are always tragic, and our consular staff at post have spoken with the president of the provisional court in Palma. We have asked him for a response to my right hon. Friend’s letter. He is right to point out that there are some enormous workloads as a result of the covid pandemic, but the president has assured us that he will respond to the letter in due course. We will continue to push on behalf of my right hon. Friend and his constituents.
Given that the Rajapaksa Government in Sri Lanka have effectively withdrawn from the commitments that the country made at the UN Human Rights Council, can we count on the Foreign Secretary to show the leadership we need to secure a new UN resolution, and ensure the prosecution of historical war crimes and accountability for previous human rights abuses, as well as an effective challenge to the present Government for ongoing human rights abuses?
The hon. Gentleman is right to raise that issue, and I applaud his work with the all-party parliamentary group for Tamils, alongside that of other colleagues. We will work closely with our international partners and the Human Rights Council on how best to take forward this important issue. The Minister responsible for Sri Lanka, Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, raised a number of those concerns, including the harassment of civil society and the militarisation of civilian functions, when he spoke with the Sri Lankan Foreign Minister on 5 November. We have been clear in our support for the UNHRC framework, in our discussions both with the Government of Sri Lanka and with the UNHRC in February, June and September.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has witnessed the most appalling attacks and bullying by the dictatorial Chinese Government against Australia, including sanctions just because it asked for an independent inquiry into the covid issue. We stand together with our oldest friend and ally, so will the Secretary of State please now publicly condemn the actions of China, and support Australia at this very difficult time?
We stand absolutely shoulder to shoulder with Australia. I had exchanges with Marise Payne, the Australian Foreign Minister, at the weekend, and as we have shown, not just on the issue that my right hon. Friend has mentioned, but on Hong Kong, with the Five Eyes alliance, we will always stand shoulder to shoulder to make sure that we protect our key interests, protect our values, and show the solidarity that he expects and requires.
Leaseholders and Cladding
I congratulate the hon. Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts), the Chair of the Select Committee on Housing, Communities and Local Government, on securing the urgent question, which is of huge interest and concern to many of our constituents up and down the country.
The question of who pays for remediation works is key for the Government and many of our constituents. We have been clear that leaseholders should not have to worry about the cost of fixing historical safety defects in their buildings that they did not cause. Tests have shown clearly that aluminium composite material—the kind of cladding found on Grenfell Tower—is the most dangerous form of cladding material. We continue to engage with building owners, regulators and the wider industry to ensure that it is removed from high-rise residential buildings as quickly as possible.
ACM remediation costs are being funded through several sources, including warranties, building owners and developers. We have provided £600 million to fund the removal of ACM where funding has been a key barrier to remediation and the Chancellor of the Exchequer has allocated a further £1 billion to be spent on removing other types of unsafe cladding over the current financial year.
It is important to remember that this is a multi-year problem. Remediation work cannot be done overnight and it must be done properly so that it makes buildings and residents safe. That forms part of the ongoing discussion that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has with other Departments.
However, I am clear, and I hope that the House is clear, that public funding does not absolve the industry from taking responsibility. We expect developers, investors and building owners who have the means to pay to cover remediation costs themselves without passing on costs to leaseholders, but we recognise that there are cases where that might not be possible, and cases where there may be wider costs relating to historical defects. The Government are determined to identify suitable financial solutions and remove barriers to remediation.
The Government have asked Michael Wade to accelerate his work with leaseholders and the financial sector to develop proposals to protect leaseholders from the costs of remediating historical defects wherever possible. However, we must also ensure that the bill does not fall wholly on taxpayers. We will update leaseholders on that work before the Building Safety Bill, which has just completed its prelegislative scrutiny, is introduced in Parliament.
Thank you, Mr Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to ask my urgent question. The Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee has just carried out prelegislative scrutiny of the draft Building Safety Bill. In general, the Bill is very welcome. It implements the recommendations of the Hackitt report, post Grenfell. However, clause 89 contains provisions for leaseholders to be charged a building safety charge. That could cover future costs, but it could also be used to recover the cost of dealing with historical defects, such as the removal of dangerous cladding. That is the concern.
I have a number of questions for the Minister. First, will he confirm very clearly and straightforwardly that leaseholders should not have to pay any of the costs of removing dangerous cladding from their homes, as has been the Government’s policy for some time? Those leaseholders bought their properties in good faith. They have not done anything wrong and they should not be financially distressed as a result.
If the Minister thinks that leaseholders should have to pay something—the Building Safety Minister said to the Select Committee that he thought an affordable amount was reasonable—how would he define an affordable amount? The Building Safety Minister said it was something that did not bankrupt an individual. However, if leaseholders are not going to pay—I hope the Minister will confirm that point—I accept that he should pursue developers, freeholders and others. In the meantime, if developers have gone out of business or are refusing to pay, does the Minister accept that, at least in the interim, the Government are going to have to step in and fund all the costs?
If the Minister accepts that point, does he also accept that the £1.6 billion so far made available to remove dangerous cladding will be totally inadequate? The Select Committee heard that to make all high-rise buildings totally safe and remove all defects, the total bill could be as high as £15 billion. Leaseholders should not have to pay that.
Finally, does the Minister accept that, without assurances on these points, many people are going to have a very miserable Christmas? They are trapped in properties that they cannot sell, that they often cannot insure and where they are having to pay for waking watches, and wondering how on earth they are going to pay the bills that could arrive on their doormats at any time.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his urgent question and for welcoming the proposals that we have tabled in the draft Building Safety Bill. He asks a number of important questions.
First, the hon. Gentleman asks whether the building safety charge will be retrospective. We envisage that the building safety charge will cover ongoing costs that leaseholders may have to pay for legal costs, building safety inspections and the like. In our proposals, we have said that the Secretary of State will be able to prescribe costs to ensure that unfair building safety charge costs do not fall unreasonably on the leaseholder.
We will of course look very carefully at the 80-page report from the Select Committee. I think there are somewhere north of 40 recommendations in the report. We want to look at it carefully and considerately, because we recognise it forms an important part of our answer to the challenge of building safety. I hope that we can develop a cross-party approach to our further scrutiny of the Bill when it comes before Parliament.
The hon. Gentleman asked me whether leaseholders will pay any costs at all. The point of introducing £1.6 billion of public money is to make sure that in the buildings that are most at risk and where there is no means to pay, the state steps in and supports those leaseholders, but, fundamentally, we expect developers and owners to step up and execute their responsibility to pay where buildings have been defective.
I cannot say that there will not be some costs at some point related to some defect in historical building safety that will not fall upon the leaseholder, but we want to make sure, through the public money that we are spending and through the work of Michael Wade, that we find innovative solutions to make sure that such costs are as minimal as possible. We cannot write an open cheque on behalf of the taxpayer. That would send the wrong signal to developers and those who are responsible for these buildings that they do not have to pay because the taxpayer will.
The hon. Gentleman asks about my noble Friend the Building Safety Minister in the other place. I can tell him that Lord Greenhalgh is working round the clock to find solutions to the challenges that face leaseholders up and down the country. He is determined, with the work that he is doing with insurers, developers and the financial services sector, to ensure that we come up with those solutions, and I look forward to working with him closely as the Bill, which he will introduce to Parliament, works its way through both Houses.
It is on record that I am a leaseholder, but I am not affected by these proposals or problems.
The hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) and I chair the all-party parliamentary group on leasehold and commonhold reform. We give our support to the work of the Select Committee, which, in this report, as in its previous one on lease renters, has laid out starkly one of the problems of some particular tenants. Social tenants do not have to pay, ordinary tenants do not have to pay; it is leaseholder tenants who have been lumbered with unimaginable anxiety and with costs beyond possible chance of payment. Until we get a full grip not just on the very high buildings and the aluminium cladding but on all the problems, including the developers who used wood for balconies in ways that were against the house building regulations, we are going to be left with a frozen part of the housing market in every single one of our constituencies.
We are grateful for the work that my right hon. Friend and his colleagues have done, but he should go on paying attention, as I think Lord Greenhalgh has, to the work of the Leasehold Knowledge Partnership, which was the first campaigning charity to get a grip of the scale of the problem. Also, will he say a word about waking watches, which are going on too long and at too high a cost?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his contribution and for his ongoing interest in and commitment to this very important area of work. As I said earlier, we do not want leaseholders to carry the burden of these costs. That is why we are working with Michael Wade, who has a 40-odd-year history in the insurance market, to find innovative solutions to what is a very complicated problem. It is why we have also put aside a significant amount of public money in this financial year to remediate the buildings that are most at risk where the owners have no other means of paying.
My hon. Friend also asks about waking watch. We have published data on the costs of waking watch so that leaseholders are able to see the relative differences in charges by waking watch providers. It is entirely wrong that some providers charge so much, and I would point leaseholders to that data so that they can better understand where they may get better service. They may also know that alarm systems can pay for themselves within seven weeks and obviate the need for waking watch.
The Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee’s scrutiny report on the draft Building Safety Bill, published today, makes powerful yet sobering reading, not just for Members across the Chamber but, importantly, for the hundreds of thousands of leaseholders who are trapped in this living nightmare, left to foot the cost of a broken building safety system that they did not create. Before this, we had another powerful HCLG Committee report, a Public Accounts Committee report and a National Audit Office report, which repeatedly made it clear that, well over three years on from Grenfell, where 72 people lost their lives, the Government need to step up and step in to make buildings safe with a greater sense of urgency.
There are too many aspects of the building safety crisis to mention: the cost of remediation being passed to leaseholders and, yes, the interim costs such as waking watch; the snail’s pace of the work; other safety issues, such as firebreaks and wooden balconies not covered by the funding; the lack of prioritisation according to risk other than simply the height of buildings; and the ongoing saga of the external wall survey forms, despite this weekend’s botched announcement by the Secretary of State. How many reports are we going to need?
By my count, the Government have promised 11 times in this Chamber and beyond that leaseholders should be protected from the cost of remediation. Now we witness Minister after Minister shifting sand, referring to “affordable” costs put on the shoulders of leaseholders and enshrining in the draft Building Safety Bill the building safety charge—clause 89, there in black and white for people to see. Will the Minister tell me and the House what additional invoice paid in 28 days he defines as “affordable” or, as referred to at the Dispatch Box today, “reasonable”? Will he please answer that question?
Finally, will the Minister explain why those companies and developers that knowingly engineered false test results for insulation and cladding products, then riddled thousands of homes with flammable materials, are getting away scot-free?
I am obliged to the hon. Gentleman for his questions. It is not true to say that leaseholders are being left to foot the bill. He and the House know full well that the taxpayer is spending £1.6 billion in this financial year to help remediate those buildings most at risk where the owners are unable to pay. Of course, those discussions across Government are ongoing. We keep the situation under review. However, I remind the House that it is not fair simply to place such a burden on the taxpayer. Developers and owners must step up and play their part.
The hon. Gentleman raised the question of the external wall system 1 form, which he knows is a form produced by the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors; it is not a Government form. I am pleased that, as a result of the negotiations undertaken by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and Lord Greenhalgh, the EWS1 form will no longer be necessary for those buildings that are not clad. The industry has made that clear. That will be to the benefit of about 450,000 leaseholders. But there is more to do, and we will continue to do it.
The hon. Gentleman asked me what affordability is. It is a very subjective matter, because what is affordable to one person is not to another. We want to ensure that, as a result of the work that my noble Friend is doing with the financial services sector and the insurance sector, we come up with appropriate and innovative solutions to ensure that unfair costs do not fall on leaseholders for defects that may be identified down the line.
The hon. Gentleman also referred to commentary on lies told about fire safety tests. I entirely agree that that was wrong. It was outrageous. When firms have been proven to lie, they must of course receive the full force of the law.
While I welcome the fact that a number of responsible property owners have taken the necessary steps, supported by Government funding, to remove dangerous cladding from their buildings, the leaseholders and residents of Paddington Walk in my constituency are still under pressure from their buildings’ owner, European Land, to pay for the works required to remove ACM cladding. As those residents said to me in an email sent this morning: “Manufacturers are responsible for defective kettles or cars. Why is it different for the most expensive purchase anyone will ever make in their life?” Does my right hon. Friend agree that, given the billions of pounds being made available by the Government, it is now inexcusable that many building owners have still failed to remove dangerous cladding and are still trying to pass the cost and, indeed, the buck to leaseholders, who have suffered enough in this living nightmare?
I quite agree with my hon. Friend. The buck ought to lie with the owners, their developers or the warrantee holder. She will know that we have spent a great deal of public money to remediate those buildings that are most in need of it, as I have described, but the responsibility of the developers—there are some very good developers out there—must be fully understood by us in this House and by them as an industry to remediate buildings that need it and to restore the reputation of their sector.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts), the Chairman of the Select Committee, on securing the urgent question.
Despite the building safety programme applying only in England and Wales, its advice is still being used by insurance companies and mortgage providers in Scotland to guide decisions. This is leading to many people north of the border ending up in the same position as those south of the border: essentially mortgage prisoners and having their properties valued as worthless. The Minister knows that this is not just an issue of commonality for buildings over 18 metres; it includes those under 18 metres, too. So what measures will the Government be bringing forward, particularly with an eye to tomorrow’s spending review? What discussions has he had with lenders and insurance companies to make it clear that applying this process to Scotland is unfair? Will he agree to meet a delegation of Scottish MPs to look more closely at the issue impacting our constituents in this regard?
The problems for leaseholders arising from the 18-metre rule raise the question: why is the archaic and often unjust institution of leaseholding continuing in England at all? Might this, therefore, be an opportunity to follow Scotland’s example and abolish this outdated practice and the negative consequences that are so common with it?
I am obliged to the hon. Gentleman for his questions. I will touch on two points that he raised. He is right: the financial services sector has commonalities throughout the United Kingdom, not simply in England but in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. That is why the Secretary of State and Lord Greenhalgh have held a series of meetings with UK Finance and other components of the financial services sector. It is why an agreement has been reached that the EWS1 form should not apply to buildings without cladding, which, as I say, will help 450,000 or so leaseholders around the country. There is more work to do. I trust that the Scottish financial sector will take note of the advances we have made very recently in England and which we will continue to make. The hon. Gentleman raises the question of 18 metres. That is the guidance provided to us by Judith Hackitt and her committee and we are following that guidance. He also refers to leasehold reform. A leasehold reform White Paper will be forthcoming. Perhaps we may, at that time, be able to debate the advantages and disadvantages of the Scottish system and see where we are able to learn from them and possibly they are able to learn from us.[Official Report, 26 November 2020, Vol. 684, c. 9MC.]
A number of constituents in a low-rise block of flats in Southend West have been unable to get their properties insured because of cladding issues. It will cost £400,000 to remove the cladding and their service charges will escalate. Will my right hon. Friend please reiterate the principle that those costs should not be passed on to tenants or leaseholders?
I am happy to reiterate that point to my hon. Friend. Lord Greenhalgh has had a series of meetings with the insurance industry to make sure it fully understands and takes on board that point. He will continue to do so, as my hon. Friend will continue to campaign doughtily on behalf of his constituents.
I have to say to the Minister that I never dreamed that, three and a half years after my friend Khadija Saye died with her mother in Grenfell Tower, I would be here begging him to sort this problem out. I have over 1,000 residents in the Tottenham Hale Village in my constituency, a development built by Bellway Homes, which made £500 million in profits in 2018 and another £500 million in 2019, and has shown complete disregard for my constituents living in these buildings with combustible cladding. What is the Minister going to do about leaseholders in that situation when it is clear that his building safety fund is inadequate to meet the task? Will he meet me and my constituents, so we can sort this three and a half years after the Government promised it would be fixed?
I am obliged to the right hon. Gentleman for his question. I sympathise with him for his personal loss and the loss of many of his friends and associates at Grenfell Tower. He asks what is being done to accelerate the pace of remediation in London, where there have been challenges that are unique to our capital. Lord Greenhalgh convened a summit of the London Mayor and the London Fire Brigade back in September to address an action plan to accelerate the work of London remediation. There was a further progress tracking meeting last month, and there are case conference meetings to address specific buildings in the capital and beyond. I remind the right hon. Gentleman that there were some 2,700 applications for the £1 billion that we put aside for non-ACM cladding. We will work through those. We have now agreed that a significant number of them meet the criteria, and the first funding of those applications is about to begin. I am confident that the funding will be fully allocated by the end of the financial year in 2021, for which the money was made available.
This is an issue of huge concern to many of my constituents in Portishead. It must be an absolute principle that leaseholders must be protected from the cost of remediation for safety issues that were not their fault. I welcome the Government’s support and approach. A £1.6 billion taxpayers’ commitment is huge, but the taxes of working families up and down the country should not be used to absolve developers, insurers and owners from their proper responsibilities. When will my hon. Friend come forward and set out how these responsibilities will be enforced?
I am obliged to my right hon. Friend for his question. He is absolutely right. As I said in my earlier remarks, first and foremost the responsibility must fall squarely on the developers of these properties, their owners and warranty holders. There are some good developers that have worked hard to remediate ACM cladding; about 50% of the buildings that have had ACM cladding remediated have been done, and are being done, by the private sector. Pemberstone, Mace, Peabody, Barratt Developments and others are all working to remediate their buildings. We have been clear that those that do not, such as those referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Nickie Aiken), must recognise that they will receive the full force of the law. I can tell the House that, from December, those responsible for buildings where remediation is not forecast to start by the end of 2020 will be publicly named, as a further incentive for them to get going.
It would be an inexcusable outrage if the costs of making buildings safe in the light of the Grenfell tragedy fell in practice not on the developers or the Governments whose disregard of safety led to that tragedy, but instead fell on the innocent leaseholders; yet, in effect, that is the Government’s default position, as people are left with homes they cannot afford to make safe and homes that they cannot sell. Will the Government accept Lords amendment 13 to the Fire Safety Bill in the name of my noble friends Baroness Pinnock and Lord Shipley in order to stop this injustice?
The hon. Gentleman asks about an amendment that is being sent down to us from the other place. We will, of course, examine very closely the wording of that amendment, but my understanding is that it is a defective one, notwithstanding the issues that he raises and the concerns that he properly posits about leaseholders footing the bill. I hope I have been clear to the House about my view on that. My understanding of the particular amendment is that it would be retrospective, which raises all sorts of legal challenges. It would also mean that building owners would be responsible for the normal wear and tear of buildings, which I am sure the whole House will accept would not be appropriate. We will look closely at the amendment, but I do not think that I can say at this stage that we can support it.
I spoke about this issue soon after being elected. It affected one tower in my constituency. Since then, the problem has ballooned, and every week more of my constituents seem to be dragged into this. I agree that responsibility should ultimately lie with the freeholder, but the reality is that while the Government have that dispute with freeholders, it is the leaseholders in the middle who have this uncertainty hanging over them. Just last week, residents at Cardinal Lofts on Ipswich waterfront were all notified by quite a distant building manager that they had to pay £300 a month for a waking watch, at a time of uncertainty about employment for many of them because of the pandemic. That is completely wrong. I am glad that some support has been provided by the Government, but we need far more certainty far sooner. Will the Minister meet me and colleagues to talk in detail about the timeline for providing that certainty?
My hon. Friend has raised this particular issue with me before, and I know that he has campaigned hard and long on it since his election just 11 months ago. I am happy to meet him to discuss that. The issue of waking watch has been raised by other Members. As I said, we want to ensure that leaseholders are aware of waking watch costs and the opportunities to mitigate them. It is the reason why we want developers to get on and remediate, and it is also why we have put £1.6 billion of taxpayers’ money aside to ensure that we can remediate those buildings where owners cannot, so that the waking watch issue becomes moot.
It is a disgrace that three and a half years on, people still do not know whether the properties they live in are safe, and others cannot sell because they cannot get external wall system certificates. I am told by surveyors who would willingly carry out this work that they cannot do so because they cannot afford the huge premiums that are being charged by insurance companies. That is leading to a huge backlog in this area of work. It is essential to get that moving. What is the Minister going to do about that, and would he consider paying those premiums, so that we can remove the backlog and start to get some idea of the problem we are facing?
The hon. Gentleman asks what we are doing to speed up the surveying process. We are making more professionals available to undertake EWS assessments. We are spending some £700,000 to fund the training of those assessors, and we will produce about 2,000 of them over the next six months, which should help to speed up the process.
In my constituency, the biggest concern for residents has been the inappropriate application of these rules and the EWS form to much lower-rise buildings than were ever envisaged and the resulting problems created for them in selling flats, moving flats and so forth. I welcome the announcements made by my right hon. Friend last weekend; I am grateful to him for that. Can I ask him to keep up the pressure on the different professionals and organisations involved, to ensure that this problem really does disappear? These homeowners should not be subject to pressures because of something that is not designed for their kind of property.
I often wonder how Ministers would react if they received a letter, often out of the blue, saying that the cost to make their home safe far exceeded their annual salary, sometimes by multiple amounts. We know that there have been more than 2,800 applications for the building safety fund. Can the Minister inform the House how many have been allowed to proceed to a formal application so far and how much has actually been paid out of the fund to date?
I can tell the hon. Gentleman that 2,704 applications were received. A significant number of them, I regret to tell the House, were not sufficient to allow an immediate assessment, but more than 100 have been assessed successfully to move on to the next stage. The first tender for payment has been agreed, and I am confident that by the end of the financial year for which this money was set aside, it will have been fully allocated, and remediation work will have begun.
In his opening remarks, my right hon. Friend said that people should not be required to pay for faults that they did not cause, and he is absolutely right. Further to the point raised by the Father of the House my hon. Friend the Member for West Worthing (Sir Peter Bottomley), I have in my constituency one block that has social housing, private rented accommodation and full and shared leaseholders; will my right hon. Friend assure the House that the leaseholder element will not ever be faced with a disproportionate bill that would in effect pay for those who do not pay at all?
I am obliged to my right hon. Friend for his question. As I said earlier, I cannot say that there will not be some cost that may occur at some point to leaseholders for historical defects work that may be undertaken, but we do want to make sure that, as a result of the work that Michael Wade is doing with the financial services and others, any such costs are fair and reasonable and can be carried. That is why we have put aside that £1.6 billion to make sure that the cost of remediation for cladding such as ACM and high-pressure laminate can be funded by the taxpayer when the developers are not able to fund it, so that the cost does not fall on the leaseholder.
We have already heard about the difficulties that leaseholders have had with the EWS1 form backlog when they are seeking to sell. At the weekend, the Secretary of State claimed that his proposal to remove the requirement for this certification from properties without cladding had been cleared by and had the backing of mortgage lenders; in fact, UK Finance and the Building Societies Association both said that they did not back the scheme and had not been consulted, and that it did not solve anything and left 1.9 million homeowners in the lurch. Will the Minister tell us whether or not leaseholders who do not have cladding will be required to have the certification, and whether his proposal now has the backing of finance lenders?
It is my understanding that buildings that do not have cladding will not need an EWS1 form. We clearly need to do more work with the financial services sector to advance the issues that have arisen with the EWS1 form but, as a result of the negotiations and the agreements made over the weekend, we anticipate that something like 450,000 holders will no longer need to use an EWS1 form.
I wish to press the Minister on that specific point. Will he confirm that UK Finance has officially acknowledged that leaseholders of residential properties without external cladding do not need to provide an EWS1 form to finance, remortgage or sell their properties? Where can my constituents view that confirmation?
As I said to the hon. Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck), my understanding is that the industry has confirmed that the EWS1 form will not be necessary for buildings that do not have cladding. As I am saying it from the Dispatch Box, I would imagine that is the view of the Government.
I welcome the EWS1 form measures because they will have a real impact and provide certainty for many in my constituency. However, a number of Watford residents, especially in places such as Outlook Place, are still finding it difficult to sell or remortgage their homes, so what reassurances can my right hon. Friend offer to those living in buildings with cladding that are under 18 metres?
I am obliged to my hon. Friend, who I know has been campaigning long and hard on this issue in Watford. As I have said, as a result of some considerable and lengthy negotiations with the financial services sector, we have agreed that EWS1 forms will not be necessary for buildings for sale that are not clad in the same way as some buildings that are in grave difficulty. That will help 450,000 people around the country, a number of whom I suspect will be my hon. Friend’s constituents. There is more work to do on this matter and we will continue to undertake it.
I need to declare my interest in that I am a leaseholder in an affected block, but in my case, my developer is paying for the full remediation works. The Minister must acknowledge that this is one of the biggest consumer and safety failures in a generation. For all that I chair the Public Accounts Committee—we have published a report on this issue—and I watch taxpayers’ money very closely, surely the Government need to step up, just as they did when the former Secretary of State signed a ministerial direction sanctioning the expenditure of millions of pounds because he knew that it would take too long to go through the legal process of tracking down the actual owners of buildings for the most dangerous cladding. The Government need to step up. We need 10 times the amount that has been pledged. Surely the Minister must recognise this. Too many leaseholders are trapped and will never be able to move.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady, and I know that she is a very considerate and assiduous Chair of the Public Accounts Committee. The Government, though, have stepped up. We put £600 million on the table to remediate ACM-clad buildings, and about 79% of those have now either completed or begun their remediation. Ninety-seven per cent. of social housing buildings have had that remediation completed. We stepped up again with £1 billion through the building safety fund to remediate buildings that have other non-ACM-style dangerous cladding, but we must not absolve the developers and the owners of their responsibility to make sure that remediation takes place in the buildings for which they are responsible. We work with them to make sure that happens while we keep the general situation under review.
I welcome the additional money for training for assessors, because I understand from the industry that this is a very important issue, in terms of several of the delays. I am frustrated, however, that three and a half years on from the appalling Grenfell tragedy that happened in my constituency, we still have many outstanding issues. What assurance can my right hon. Friend give me that we will not be having the same conversation in six or 12 months’ time? Are there any interim measures that we can put in place to support leaseholders?
I am obliged to my hon. Friend. I appreciate the unique challenge that she has as the Member of Parliament for Kensington. As I said earlier, the £700,000 of public money that we are putting aside to support the training of assessors will deliver about 2,000 assessors—clearly qualified assessors—who will be able to undertake the assessment work over the next 12 months, so I trust that that will also be a means by which we will not be having this conversation again any time in the future. The public money that we have set aside beyond that—the £1.6 billion—is also designed to ensure that the worst, most dangerous buildings are dealt with quickly and effectively. I hope and trust that the conversations we have ongoing with developers and owners to make sure that they step up to the plate will mean that very soon, we will remediate all the buildings that are affected, and that we will be able to see value and trust restored to those buildings and the development sector.
My constituent is a leaseholder in one of the 2,700 blocks —I think that is what the Minister said—that have applied to the building safety fund, which has approximately enough money to remedy about 600 blocks. She does not know whether her flat is safe. She cannot sell it and she does not know how much her liabilities may be. The Minister can talk about finding innovative solutions, but it is three and a half years since Grenfell and we still do not see builders, owners or developers paying for remediation. Will he guarantee to my constituent that she will not have to be liable—that she will not have to pay for these costs—and does he agree that this is just one more example that shows that the leasehold system is broken and needs to be reformed?
The leasehold system and its reform will form part of a Government White Paper and separate debates in this Chamber, and I am sure that the hon. Lady will play her part in those.[Official Report, 26 November 2020, Vol. 684, c. 10MC.] It is not true to say that developers and others are not funding remediation. As I have said, firms such as Pemberstone, Mace, Peabody, Barratt and, I think, Legal and General are all stepping forward with funds to remediate buildings for which they are responsible, resulting in some 50% of ACM-clad buildings being remediated by the private sector. I do not know the specific issues of the buildings in her constituency to which she refers, but I am happy to talk to her separately about them. I am confident that the £1 billion of public money that we will set aside through the Building Safety Bill will be allocated by the end of this financial year, as we said it would be, and that remediation of those non-ACM buildings will begin.
I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. In many cases there are insurmountable legal problems involved in trying to charge building owners and freeholders for these sums, and developers will often point the finger elsewhere. We know that responsibility lies with the developers and installers, with the manufacturers of insulation and cladding in many cases, and, let us be honest, with successive Governments for their approach to building regulations, which must be described as ambiguous. This cannot be left at the door of the leaseholders. Is it not right that the Government should now step in, increase the building safety fund, get the work done and claim back the moneys wherever possible and from whoever possible, and where they cannot, do so by means of a cross-sector levy?
My hon. Friend is an expert in this field and I pay tribute to him for the work that he has undertaken. Mr Wade, our adviser, is working hard with us and with the sector to develop solutions that will help and support leaseholders. In the meantime, as I say, the Government have stepped up and provided a significant amount of public money to remediate the buildings that are most in need of it where there is no other means of paying, but it must be right that we ask developers and those responsible for these buildings to pay. To signal that the state will simply step in and sub them will not encourage them to do the right thing, and it is for developers, owners and warranty suppliers in the first instance to ensure that the buildings for which they are responsible are remediated.
Leaseholders in St Albans are already facing estimated bills of between £50,000 and £120,000 each for fixing safety defects in their buildings that they did not cause. These are not bills that are in the far-off distant future; these are costs that are being passed on to leaseholders right now, including through increased service charges. In the last three years, leaseholders in St Albans have seen their service charges rise from under £1,000 a year to £6,000 a year. Some of my residents cannot afford to pay these bills any more, and that will affect their ability to continue working in some professions, so will the Government get a grip and take urgent action to ensure that leaseholders no longer have to pay, as they are already doing, and that they do not have to foot the bill for these costs?
I am obliged to the hon. Lady. She is right. We recognise, as she will, that there are many cases in which leasehold agreements allow the building owners—the freeholders or their managing agents—to pass on remediation costs to the leaseholders of individual flats. That is why we have instituted the work of Michael Wade to ensure that leaseholders are protected from any charges for historical remediation that are unfair. The fundamental responsibility—the first responsibility—for the remediation of those buildings must lie with the developers, the building owners and the warranty holders, and not with the leaseholders.
I thank the Government for the substantial investment in tackling this problem, including for the social sector. Will the Minister encourage housing associations that have been funded to do this work to get it done as quickly as possible? That is the best thing to do to keep people safe, but also it is really tough on tenants to be effectively living in a building site for months on end, as has been the case in Desmond House in East Barnet in my constituency.
Hundreds of families in Walthamstow have finally managed to get their foot on the property ladder through shared ownership and now, as a result of this crisis, find themselves in properties that are almost worthless and facing huge bills. Will the Minister reconsider the decision to exclude bills that were incurred before 11 March, because many of those people have already tried to do the right thing and have incurred huge cost to themselves through the remediation works? Surely we should not penalise those people who have tried to act promptly on this matter.
I am obliged to the hon. Lady. The decision of the Government was to make sure that those buildings that were most in need of remediation and whose owners could not pay should be, as it were, first in the queue for Government help. We want to work with the sector, with the leaseholder community and with the adviser Michael Wade to find solutions that will ensure that unfair bills do not fall upon leaseholders who are not responsible for the troubles that they face.
I should draw your attention, Madam Deputy Speaker, to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. As a landlord myself, I make it my utmost priority to ensure that my tenants are safe in their homes. What steps is my right hon. Friend taking to ensure that all landlords are taking their duties seriously and acting on their tenants’ concerns?
I can tell my hon. Friend that we have written to all those responsible for buildings, including their owners, where remediation has not started to remind them of their responsibilities and our expectation that remediation will begin by the end of the year. My Friend the noble Lord Greenhalgh has convened roundtable meetings with owners and with local authority leaders to address the challenges that they face locally. We have made it clear that, from December, those responsible for buildings where remediation has not started and is not forecast to start by the end of this year will be publicly named. Those are active steps that we are undertaking to remind landlords and owners of their responsibilities.
In October, more than 1,000 of my constituents—leaseholders, shared owners, tenants and students—were asked to leave the Paragon Estate in Brentford within seven days because the current owners, Notting Hill Genesis, had found significant fire safety and structural issues. They were unrelated to flammable cladding, because that had been removed two years ago. In September 2019, Richmond House in Worcester Park, a four-storey block of only 23 leasehold flats, was destroyed by fire in 11 minutes. Both estates were developed by the Barclay Group, and both had the same significant fire safety defects. The week before last, the Sunday Times said that
“the scandal over building safety spreads far beyond dangerously clad tower blocks”
and could affect 4 million people. What are the Government doing right now to protect all those at risk of dying at home because of failures in the building safety regime?
The building safety fund was designed specifically to deal with the removal of unsafe non-ACM cladding where the buildings are over 18 metres and where materials, even before the combustible cladding ban was put in place in 2018 under statutory guidance, should not have been used on high-rise buildings. That fund is available, and, as I have said, it is already being disbursed round the country and will be completed by the end of this financial year. We will continue to work with the financial sector, as I have described, using Michael Wade. We will continue to work with developers to make sure that their responsibility is executed and support for leaseholders is provided. As for the specifics of the case that the hon. Lady raised, I am not aware of it, but I am happy to discuss it with her outwith the Chamber.
As a member of the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee, I have had the opportunity to scrutinise the draft safety Bill. The report that we published today has unanimous cross-party support, and I urge my right hon. Friend and his colleagues to look at it in very great detail indeed. I do not expect—it would be unreasonable to do so—an immediate reaction today following publication. However, during the inquiry, a concern arose from Lord Greenhalgh’s evidence about costs being passed on to leaseholders. My right hon. Friend has said that proposed amendments to the Fire Safety Bill are defective in some way, but would he commit, on behalf of the Government, to make it clear that the Government will ensure that it will be illegal for the cost of remediating unsafe cladding on buildings to be passed on to leaseholders in any shape or form?
I am obliged to my hon. Friend. I can guarantee that we will look very closely at the report. As I have said, there are some 80 pages and 40-odd recommendations. I shall look very closely at pages 22 to 39, which may include reference to proposals from another place.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow East (David Linden) said, this is not a problem that stops at the border. I have constituents in the Partick area and elsewhere who are trapped in houses that they cannot sell and cannot get fixed as a result of advice assigned for an English model of ownership and management that does not apply in Scotland. When did the Minister last engage with his Scottish Government counterparts on this, and when will he next engage with them? Will he respond to the request from my hon. Friend, and meet a delegation of MPs from Scotland to discuss how this particularly affects our constituencies?
We discuss a range of issues with our colleagues in the Scottish Government—and officials discuss with officials—in the usual way, all the time. I am very happy to discuss with the hon. Gentleman any particular arrangements that he may wish to raise, and I will make sure that any such issues are raised with my noble Friend Lord Greenhalgh.
While discussions take place with property developers and freeholders about who will fund the cost of this, we should never forget that there are leaseholders and tenants living in these buildings, so will the Minister set out what steps have been taken to keep those people safe, as they are living in fear?
We have put a great deal of public money aside to make sure that buildings that need remediation—and where there is no other means of making them safe quickly—are made safe through the ACM fund and the building safety fund. We will continue to work closely with the industry to make sure that other buildings are remediated and made safe. I look forward to further contributions from my hon. Friend in that regard.
The Minister answered a series of questions on this subject yesterday, and all his answers contained the same formulation of words: “to protect leaseholders from unaffordable costs”. Does he realise that that leaves leaseholders in limbo? What he needs to do now is either define what “unaffordable” means-better than “just below the bankruptcy threshold”, as in a previous attempt by one of his colleagues—or recommit to exempting leaseholders from those costs, as well as social landlords, as there are costs not only for leaseholders but for tenants?
As I said earlier, I cannot give a commitment that there will be no costs that a leaseholder will ever have to pay with respect to some historical defect. We want to make sure, through the building safety fund and the ACM fund, and through our work with developers and owners, that the costs of cladding issues that confront many people and are the subject of great debate in the House are protected for leaseholders.
The hon. Gentleman asks me about affordability, which is a very subjective matter. I want to make sure, through the funds we have made available and the work Michael Wade is doing with the sector, that people are able to get on with their lives, restore value to their properties, and live as normally as possible without the spectre of costs hanging over them.
The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government blames the building control inspectors. The building control inspectors blame the construction company. The construction company blames the developer. The developer blames the lack of proper regulation. What is clear is that no one blames the thousands of leaseholders in my constituency who are now trapped in their homes, paying for everyone else’s mistakes. So will the Minister accept that the buck stops with him to get those who are responsible to pay up, if necessary through a windfall tax on the industry, to sort out the regulation and to keep my constituents safe and solvent?
I have been contacted by a number of constituents who are leaseholders in buildings under 18 metres in height that have cladding on them. They are unable to remortgage or to move home because mortgage providers are refusing to lend without the EWS1 form and the freeholder has not provided it. Will my right hon. Friend confirm whether or not an EWS1 form is required for buildings with cladding that are under 18 metres in height? If it is not, will the Government commit to reinforcing that message to mortgage providers, so that my constituents can move on with their lives?
I can certainly confirm that buildings that are without cladding should not have an EWS1 form apply to them. EWS1 forms can be applied in other egregious circumstances, and we are working with the sector to make sure that we obviate, as far as is possible, the responsibility of leaseholders to provide those forms. There is more work to be done to ensure that buildings can have their value restored to them and that people can move effectively without recourse to an EWS1 form.
In my local authority of Richmond upon Thames, remediation work has been either started or completed on fewer than 50% of buildings with dangerous cladding. Leaseholders living in these buildings, such as the residents of the Sandy Lane estate in my constituency, are living at constant personal and financial risk. So may I press the Minister again: will he, in the first instance, commit to covering the costs of both the assessment and the remedial work, to keep not just my constituents safe, but leaseholders across the capital and the country, and claim the money back from freeholders and developers later?
As I said a moment ago, some 79% of all identified high-rise ACM buildings have either completed or started their remediation, and some 97% of social sector buildings have either completed or started their remediation. I know that there are specific challenges in London, which is why the Secretary of State and Lord Greenhalgh have undertaken roundtables with the Mayor, the fire brigade and the sector to ensure that the pace of acceleration is speeded up. We want to make sure that this work is done. We will continue to work with the developer community and with leaseholders to make sure that it is. Where necessary, as we have already demonstrated, public money will be spent, but in the first instance the responsibility should fall on those who built these buildings or who own them.
The Minister is quite right that the buck should stop with those who are responsible, but in the case of the 66 leaseholders in the Landmark in Bexhill, their builder and developer have both gone out of business, and indeed the insurer is not in business either. Ultimately, while the freeholder should of course be responsible, legally they may not be. What can be done to ensure that leaseholders are not responsible and do not face years of court action or bankruptcy? Surely we need to look at an industry levy to make sure that the industry that is ultimately responsible carries the can.
The work of Michael Wade is designed to address some of the challenges that my hon. Friend raises. In the interim—I am sorry to labour this point—that is why we put aside a very significant amount of public money to alleviate the risk to the buildings that are most at risk of fire and that are most dangerous, and where there is no other means of the owner paying, so that, fundamentally, leaseholders in those circumstances are made safe. The work of Mr Wade will focus particularly on the matters that my hon. Friend raises.
The bottom line is that this is a national scandal. It is a UK-wide problem that is going to require UK-wide solutions, such as the Minister has described, regarding the EWS1 forms that have affected my constituents. I have been absolutely appalled by the utterly amoral behaviour of many of the developers and construction companies, raking in billions while trying to dump the costs on to leaseholders in my constituency and so many others around this country. Has the Minister actually hauled in the likes of Redrow, Laing O’Rourke and Taylor Wimpey? If he is saying that they are ultimately responsible, what is he actually going to do to make them pay? Will it be a levy or some other measure? When will we see these innovative insurance products, because the reality is that my constituents are paying thousands in increased premiums right now?
I understand the concerns of the hon. Gentleman and the passion with which he expresses the concerns of his constituents. We have named and shamed the owners and developers who did not step up to the plate and properly and quickly remediate ACM-clad buildings. We made it clear that where we anticipate that the remediation of other buildings will not have begun by the end of this year, we will name and shame those owners and developers too. That is the work that Mr Wade is undertaking to develop the solutions that will mitigate the effect of any costs on leaseholders and make sure that we draw this terrible situation to a reasonably quick and satisfactory conclusion. I think that will answer some of the concerns that the hon. Gentleman has raised. We want to get on with this, and get on with it quickly, and that is the work that Mr Wade is undertaking.
Although I welcome the funding that the Government have made available to remove unsafe cladding, and praise the owners who have stepped up to get the process under way, there are, sadly, many owners who have not done that, leaving residents in Basildon trapped in homes they cannot sell. Further to the point made previously, what more can the Government do, other than naming and shaming, to force building owners to start the process of cladding removal and to fund it where they can?
Local authorities have a suite of measures with respect to enforcement—fines and the like that can be brought to bear to address the concerns, or some of the concerns, that my hon. Friend raises. As I have said previously and shall say again, the work of Michael Wade, a very experienced player in the insurance sector with 40 years’ experience behind him, is to bring the sector together to find sensible and innovative solutions that will result in the costs that may fall to leaseholders being mitigated. That is the solution to this problem, not simply writing a blank cheque on behalf of taxpayers, which would send entirely the wrong message to the developers and the owners of these buildings, who are, in the first place, responsible for remediating the issues that they have caused.
I should make the declaration of interest that I am a leaseholder, although I am personally unaffected by the matter we are considering. However, I have heard from a number of constituents who are—or whose children are—affected. Does the Minister agree that the principle is simple? They have purchased flats in good faith that have subsequently been shown to have been built potentially dangerously. As my hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Ruth Cadbury) said, that extends far beyond combustible cladding. If they had bought some other item with inherent faults, they would not be expected to pay for repairs, so those leaseholders should not be liable for remedial works to make their homes safe, should they?
Our actions are designed to ensure that the hon. Lady’s constituents and others around the country are not liable for the costs of cladding. I cannot say to her that there will not be some costs that fall on leaseholders that have some connection with defects in their properties, but we are working hard with Mr Wade and others to ensure that we have solutions to mitigate that, and we must make sure that developers and owners step up to the plate and remedy the situations that they have created. Where they cannot, thus far the Government have demonstrated that we will step in and support remediation of buildings, but we cannot and should not offer a blank cheque on behalf of taxpayers. The primary responsibility must reside with the developers who built those buildings.
I welcome what my hon. Friend is doing, particularly on fairness for leaseholders, but what measures can he take to support Harlow locally to improve the quality of social housing, given the urgent need to ensure that our social housing stock is fit for purpose and we can build an even better Harlow for residents, for the 21st century and beyond?
My right hon. Friend campaigns for Harlow as possibly no other colleague campaigns for any constituency in the country. He was integral to our work on space standards for upbuilding and ensuring that buildings have light in all habitable rooms. In answer to his question, I point him to our affordable homes programme, under which £12.2 billion will deliver 180,000 affordable new homes in the next five years, and to our reforms to the housing revenue account, which will allow local councils more easily to build social homes if they wish. Harlow may wish to pursue those two endeavours.
I have been contacted by numerous leaseholders in my constituency who, through no fault of their own, are worried sick because they are being told that they need to pay thousands of pounds for essential fire safety works, including the removal of unsafe cladding. Some are vulnerable or on low incomes, and all fear losing their home or being trapped in a financial nightmare. I think that the Minister agrees with the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee that leaseholders should not be required to pay for the remediation of historical building safety defects, but what is his advice to my constituents, who are receiving enormous service charge bills that they cannot afford and should not be asked to pay?
I entirely sympathise with the situation that the hon. Lady’s constituents and those of other right hon. and hon. colleagues face. We are entirely cognisant of the fact that individual legal contracts between owners and leaseholders allow owners to pass on costs to their leaseholders. That is one of the reasons we invited Michael Wade to do the work that he is doing. We will work as fast as we can to ensure that the solutions that we are working through are available to mitigate any costs that leaseholders may fear they have to pay. That is also why we will continue to make public funds available, as we have through the ACM fund and the building safety fund, to remediate buildings that are most in need and for which there is no other means of quick and easy remediation.
Leaseholders are not just living in limbo. As we have heard this afternoon, they are living in fear. They are paying over the odds in insurance to live in fear, and in some cases they are paying well over £1,000 a year in waking watch charges. I recognise that my hon. Friend has done an enormous amount of work on that, but may I please impress upon him the urgency? At this economic time, people simply cannot afford those charges on an ongoing basis.
I entirely accept the points made by my right hon. Friend. We will continue to work with the insurance sector on the insurance challenges that leaseholders face, with the financial services sector on the challenges with mortgage costs that leaseholders face, and with developers to make sure that remediation takes place swiftly and effectively, so that this problem is resolved.
Will the Minister set out much more clearly the criteria for the much-needed grant funding? Residents at Waterside Park in my constituency are worried that their management company wants to apply to the building safety fund, even though the development recently received a B1 rating so remediation is not required. Would such an application be appropriate?