Wednesday 5 January 2022
[Mr Clive Betts in the Chair]
New Homes: Developers, Housebuilders and Management Companies
Let us begin the first parliamentary sitting of the new year by wishing everyone a happy new year. As is now tradition before all our sittings, I remind all hon. Members that they are expected to wear face coverings when they are not speaking in the debate. I am also asked to remind everyone to get a lateral flow test—provided, of course, that you can get one—at least twice a week, before coming on to the parliamentary estate. These can be done at the testing centre here as well. Welcome, everyone.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the role of developers, housebuilders and management companies in new homes.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. Happy new year to you and to everybody else who is here this morning. This is a 90-minute debate, and I have said to quite a number of people that I could easily speak for at least 90 minutes on this topic—it will be a relief to everyone that I am not going to do that. The reason is that it is a source of huge frustration in my constituency. Owning a new home and the development of new homes should be a source of great joy, but too often it is a source of great distress. There are a few reasons for that that I want to talk about, but before I go into those, I want to say at the outset that, contrary to some of the media stereotypes about areas such as mine, most people in my constituency are not opposed to new homes. If they are homeowners themselves, they entirely understand why other people want to own a home. They often have children and grandchildren whom they are trying to help get on the housing ladder. They know that we need housing for key workers. They know that sometimes people just want to move into one of these new homes from where they already live in the constituency. But people have real frustration with the way in which these things are developing and the problems they are causing in the local area.
The first issue is simply the quality of a lot of the homes that go up, because it is often poor. Sometimes it is very good, but too often it is poor, and constituents’ homes have major defects that take years to try to deal with. I have constituents who have spent two, three or four years—sometimes more—trying to get these defects repaired. This is not like buying a cheap version of something on eBay, half-expecting that there might be something wrong with it. This is the biggest purchase that any of us will make, and we do not expect to then have years of trying to sort out the problems with it. Unfortunately, when constituents try to do that, they feel completely outmatched by the builder that built their home. Sometimes the builder will blame the contractor; sometimes they will say that there is nothing wrong: “We signed it off according to building regulations.” But I have been in some of these places and we can see these huge issues. It is completely unacceptable that people are experiencing them.
The second issue is about the impact of these homes on the environment. That has two major aspects to it. One is what it does to the local environment around the area. Naturally, people can see greenfield sites disappearing. One constituent wrote to me and said that the biodiversity commitments that a particular house builder had made had not been kept whatsoever. There is an impact on air quality and water quality, but the other aspect is how the homes themselves are built. I am continually asked by constituents, “Why are we building so many homes that we know we will have to retrofit in a few years’ time?”, and there is no easy answer to that. I am continually asked, “Why can’t every new home have solar panels? Why can’t every new home have a heat pump?” I understand why: there are various reasons why we might not put the same thing in every kind of house.
I completely welcome the Government’s commitment to having electric charging points in every new home. I really welcome the future homes standard, which will make new homes from 2025 net zero ready, with a 75% reduction in their emissions. But the point still stands that thousands of homes are going up right now and we know that because of our ambitious net zero goals, we will have to retrofit a lot of them. The reason is that it is cheaper for the house builders to build them that way today.
The third issue is affordability. I have said a few times in this place that no one who rents has ever said to me, “There are too many new homes going up.” They say only that those homes are not affordable. They say that they have saved for years and years, and it does not matter how much they save; they do not get close to being able to afford one. The average house price in my constituency is £335,000. The average house price in my constituency is £335,000. To London ears that might sound fine, but it is 9.2 times median income, and that is out of reach for most people. An affordability threshold of 80% of that is still not affordable. Again, we run into bad practices. We all know that developers commit to a certain number of affordable homes, but time after time that number is driven down on the grounds that the development would not be viable if that commitment were maintained, so broken promises are a constant theme.
The hon. Gentleman makes a particularly important point about affordable housing. I am often told that developers who make such arguments about viability are working on a 20% profit margin per property. Does he agree that that is completely unsustainable?
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. I was just about to say that when the taxpayer is subsidising the development of affordable homes and when the profits of house builders are so large—often bordering on 30%, come rain or shine; they are making these profits in all weathers—it is completely unacceptable for them to play this game so that people are unable to get on the housing ladder.
The fourth aspect that I want to talk about is the role of management companies. After someone has purchased one of these new homes, the costs do not always stop. People are often signed up to quite expensive contracts with management companies who purport to provide services to maintain communal areas, and it is often very difficult for residents to find out what is being done for that money. The charge goes up year after year, but their communal area is not maintained. They are told that staff are employed to do things, but they never see the staff. They work hard to try to get transparency about what is being provided for the money, but they cannot get it. They get a basic summary, and that is about it. The people who try to get the information are often well qualified, but they cannot get it.
I know of a management company—the residents do not want me to name them, so I will not—where many of the residents are elderly, sick or vulnerable, and they feel completely bullied and exploited by their management company. Right now they are being pressured into taking a new lease, which they do not want to take because they know it will be bad for them, but they fear the repercussions if they do not or if they go to someone to talk about it. They have talked to me, but, as I have said, they do not want to me to talk about who they are. That is an appalling situation for people to be in. Far too often there is a real problem with the way in which management companies fleece people in new homes when those people have already spent so much money.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for securing the debate. In preparing for it, I looked into leasehold in the United Kingdom. In England, Wales and Scotland, people are unable to buy their leasehold, but Northern Ireland is one part of the United Kingdom where they can. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that when it comes to purchasing the freehold, people certainly get a “fleecehold” in England, Wales and Scotland? In Northern Ireland they have a chance to buy it out. Does he feel that that should happen here on the mainland?
I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman, and I expect the Minister will address that point when he speaks later. Most people think that they own their home, but they can often end up feeling like tenants. I experienced that myself until recently. I used to get a bill for £300 on Christmas day every year. The bill, dated 25 December, was £300 for absolutely nothing, but constituents of mine are in a much worse situation.
The fifth aspect I want to talk about is the overall broken system in which the process operates. I do not blame the Government entirely. Councils have some responsibilities: One is if they do not enforce the planning conditions when developers go above the assessed numbers that they are supposed to build. Another is if they allow the same application to be made over and over again, when they could refuse it after two tries. They do not take a bigger-picture view. There are villages in my constituency, such as Sutton Courtenay, that feel hugely overdeveloped because individual applications are all being approved and nobody is looking at what is happening to the whole area and why it might not be a good idea to keep approving those applications.
Ultimately, these companies have to be held accountable for their behaviour. They apply for sites that they know the local plan does not allow them to apply for, as is happening in Grove, in my constituency. They continually try to build on flood plains. They continually fail to adhere to their section 106 agreements and community infrastructure levy agreements—sometimes not building infrastructure at all, and sometimes building pointless things, such as a pathway that goes only halfway across an estate or a bike path that leads to nowhere, just so they can say that they have done it. All those things are going on with new developments in my constituency. I do not blame Government for it all, but it is the Government’s job to ensure that the system does not operate in that way.
If I had to sum up the problems in my constituency, it would be, “Too many homes, too little infrastructure.” The two district councils that my constituency covers are, relative to their size, in the top 10 areas for house building in the country, yet they are in the bottom third for infrastructure spending. That is a huge bugbear. To put that in numerical context, an estimate of the population change between 2017 and 2027 found that the largest town and surrounding area in my constituency, Didcot, will increase from 36,000 to 51,000. The second largest area, Wantage and Grove, will increase from 17,000 to 27,000—that is in a 10-year period. Faringdon is getting thousands more people, and Wallingford is getting thousands more.
The infrastructure is not following that. It is harder to get a GP appointment, the roads in the constituency get more and more congested and it is harder to get a school place. One village has a 220-child school, and 300 houses have been built right next to it; just last year, the catchment area became less than 470 metres. People who have lived there for a long time and who expected their children to go to that school now cannot get in. When my constituents hear that planning reform may mean new houses and that they will not be able to oppose them, or that the Oxford-Cambridge arc may mean more houses, or that the council leaders’ Oxfordshire 2050 plan may lead to more houses, they are not concerned out of nimbyism; they are concerned because of their experience, over many years, of so many houses being built and so many promises being broken.
To conclude, I will talk about a few things that I think should happen. There are lots of things, and there are plenty of experts in this room who I know will talk about other aspects. First, we need a much tougher regime for the quality of new buildings. I know that the new homes ombudsman will deal with some of these issues, but it is completely unacceptable to pay that much money and have that many problems. We need very tight quality conditions, and the threshold needs to be raised. If it is not met within a certain timeframe, there should be penalties; issues must not go on for years.
Secondly, we need “use it or lose it” planning permissions. I know that there are debates about how best to do this, and I am frequently written to about the 1 million permissions that have not been built on. I know that there is a debate about land banking and whether it happens; hon. Members would be hard pressed to persuade me that it does not, at least from the developers’ point of view. We in this place are familiar with the phrase “dig a trench.” The emphasis has been on starting the building: companies dig a trench to suggest that they have started building, and the houses then take years to appear. We need these homes to be completed within a certain period. If they are not, taxes might be levied or fines paid, but I think that the permission should be lost entirely.
Thirdly, I want to talk about environmental standards. If it takes several years for these houses to be built, they should be built to the latest environmental standards, not to those that existed when the developers got permission. That is what is happening at the moment: companies are building houses to an environmental standard of several years ago, when they should be building to a standard of the future. That needs to change.
We have got to make developers and house builders commit to their affordability criteria. Our big house builders are doing completely fine for profits for their own viability, so they cannot keep saying that developments would not be viable if they committed to what they originally promised.
When it comes to management companies, we need a much stricter regime, because the current one is very murky. Companies are getting away with appalling practices, bullying residents into things and fleecing them, year after year, for things that are not being provided. We need a tougher regime under which companies cannot keep hiking charges without an extraordinary set of circumstances. The charges often go up because of things the company itself has done and got wrong, and it passes the cost on to residents who had no say in the first place. Much more transparency is needed, and penalties for such bad behaviour.
I understand that house builders want a level playing field, because an individual company does not want to commit to expensive things if its rivals are not doing so. That is where there is a role for Government in raising standards, so that all house builders have to do the same. I want more of a level playing field for smaller companies, such as Greencore Construction in my constituency. Many such companies are more environmentally friendly and more efficient, and produce higher-quality homes, but they are often outbid by the financial muscle of the big boys. Perhaps we need to reserve a greater proportion of development sites for such companies or give them greater access to capital. I am all in favour of smaller organisations rather than larger ones—I ran small charities, not larger ones. I think we can get a better product from smaller house builders, and we need to help more such companies into the market.
My final point is that infrastructure needs to go in first. It is not right to pile more and more houses and people into an area, but to do nothing to support local services and infrastructure. I have been campaigning for Grove station to be reopened, for improvements on our roads and for better medical facilities. GP surgeries are bursting at the seams because thousands more people have been added to the area—Members have heard the numbers. GP surgeries and school places have not been added along with the people. Infrastructure must go in first. Unfortunately, over decades my constituents have been told too many times that the infrastructure will come with the houses, but it never has, and now they do not believe it. That has to come first. As part of that, we might better capture the land value increase that comes with planning permission. At the moment, the increase all goes to the owner. Some of it ought to go to the local community who will live with the new houses, not to the landowner who has sold the land.
The balance of power is wrong. Management companies, house builders and developers have too much power, and local residents have too little. The Government cannot be blamed for every single thing that a private company does, but they can help to restore the balance, so that local communities do not see new houses as a curse on the area they used to love.
There are eight colleagues wishing to speak in the debate, and I want to start the winding-up speeches just before 10.40 am. That gives us just under an hour, which is six or seven minutes per person. I will not put a formal guideline on speeches, but I ask that people comply with that time limit.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Betts. Happy new year to everyone who is here today. I congratulate the hon. Member for Wantage (David Johnston) on securing the debate, on his useful introduction and on the interesting points he made. This may be the first debate of 2022 and it may be a new year, but, as we have heard, many of the issues we are debating are not new and, aside from the leasehold scandal, have had insufficient attention from this place.
We absolutely need more places for people to live; I doubt there is a Member in this place who disagrees with that. While the Government set some general targets about how many homes should be built, the detail is rightly left, in the main, to local councils. In reality, they and the communities they represent have limited say over what sort of homes are built, where they are built and, as the hon. Member for Wantage mentioned, how the infrastructure that goes with them is delivered. That is the nub of the problem, because we are often told that the wrong type of home is being built in the wrong type of place. That can be argued ad infinitum, and it often is. The bottom line is that we are continually falling short in achieving enough decent affordable housing.
Decent housing is critical to the national infrastructure. It is the bedrock of people’s lives, yet it is too often left to the market to resolve, and the market is clearly failing. In my experience, developers all too often show contempt for local communities by riding roughshod over the development conditions imposed on them: working longer hours, making more noise, and building higher and closer than they should to existing properties. That creates more work for the beleaguered planning department and puts more demands on councils that, after a decade of austerity, simply do not have the powers and resources to keep up.
By the time the council manages to catch up with a complaint, quite often the house is already built and the drains put in. It is a massive financial, logistical and legal battle to get developers to stick to plans when they have got that far down the road. Many councils simply do not have the capacity to get into such fights, especially when the case is about a couple of metres. It might not look much on a plan, but for someone living next door, a couple of metres makes a huge difference.
What about roads being brought up to an acceptable standard, so that they can be adopted by the local authority? People are waiting years for roads to be adopted. I do not blame the local authority, which sets out what needs to be done but does not have the resources or time to continually chase developers who have sold the homes and moved on. Where is the incentive for developers to come back and finish the job they started?
I want to say a few words about the massive expansion of estate management companies. It seems that the idea of the developer paying the local authority a commuted sum to cut the grass and maintain common parts has had its day. This reduces developers’ costs, although it does not seem to lead to cheaper house prices. It costs the homeowner far more in the long run because they are, in effect, paying twice for the maintenance of open spaces: once through a management fee and once through their council tax. Once again, though, it is the council that gets lumbered with all the grief and blame.
With developers looking to replace their lost funding streams, with what I hope will be the end of leasehold, I am concerned that estate management companies will become the new payment protection insurance of the house building industry. There is little regulation or transparency and, if we are honest, little need for estate management companies in most settings, so why do we have them? House builders build houses—that is their core business; they are not interested in managing estates. Indeed, they cannot wait to get rid of them to a company that specialises in such things.
Developers creating an estate management company is nothing more than a calculation on the balance sheet. They have zero interest in keeping the verges neat and tidy after they have gone. If they can make the bottom line look more attractive by getting in a management company, they will. They keep getting away with it because we let them. Why can we not start from the basic principle that the local council should be doing those jobs and that estate management companies are an unnecessary tax on homeowners? How many people are told of the implications of an estate management company or how much it costs?
What developers say to new buyers in the showroom and what is in the final contract are often very different. By the time the paperwork arrives, it is too late. People may have spent thousands on the move, never mind the psychological commitment they have made. What is said in the showroom often does not appear in any documentation. There is a classic example in my constituency where residents now look out on a 30-feet-high warehouse, which the developers conveniently forgot to mention already had planning permission when they sold buyers their homes. They are still waiting for the KFC that they were told was going to be there. Because that is just sales patter, there is no legal accountability for the lies that are told.
This is the biggest single purchase people will ever make. There needs to be far greater accountability for what developers say and what they build. At the moment, they seem to have a free pass. Developers with household names work across the country, moving from one project to the next, sometimes leaving behind problems that take years to resolve. Another development in my constituency has ended up in court, with one group of residents pitted against another and maintenance bills racking up in their thousands, because the developers did not do the paperwork or the job properly in the first place. I know that they are causing havoc elsewhere, because other hon. Members have told me. What can councils do? They have no grounds to refuse planning permission on the basis that the developer has been a poor performer elsewhere. How about a fit and proper person test for the directors of those companies?
In conclusion, I would like much greater political direction and oversight of the house building industry. After all, it will build the homes that we need, but at the moment it quite understandably organises affairs to maximise profits. Housing is a critical part of our infrastructure—having a roof over one’s head is fundamental—but it has been shown time and again that we cannot rely on the market alone to deliver that. Four and a half years on from Grenfell, we still have not really had a decision on who is liable for the defects that were created there, and there is clearly a reluctance in Government to grasp the nettle and take some ownership of the industry.
I start by declaring my interest as the owner of an investment property held on a long leasehold basis. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (David Johnston) on securing this important debate.
I have concerns about the plight of owners of freehold homes, who often face unreasonable charges and sharp practices at the hands of developers. So-called “estate charges” for the maintenance of roads and common areas are often levied by the developer who built the estate in the first place. It is unfair that that type of homeowner cannot challenge the reasonableness of those charges, and that they have no access to dispute resolution or tribunals, meaning that they do not enjoy rights equivalent to those granted to long leaseholders under the current rules. I fear that that is allowing inappropriate practices to occur. One of my constituents has told me of his anger and unhappiness at the high level of charges to which he is subjected, with no effective means to dispute or resist them. The Government have indicated a willingness to legislate to give freehold owners some rights similar to those enjoyed by leaseholders, and I think it is time that they got on with it. I urge them to include some additional protections for freehold homeowners in the Leasehold Reform (Ground Rent) Bill.
As others have done, I strongly condemn abusive practices in relation to leaseholders. I very much support the work of the Competition and Markets Authority in investigating rip-off practices such as the doubling of ground rents every few years. As I said on Second Reading of the Leasehold Reform (Ground Rent) Bill, there is a case for allowing the continued use of ground rents in large apartment blocks. The complete exit of professional freeholders from the market, which is the expected consequence of the abolition of ground rents, would leave leaseholders moving into such buildings with extensive financial and legal responsibilities, so as the Bill goes through, it is worth considering whether some leaseholders in some new blocks might want the option of leaving the stewardship of their block to a professional freeholder.
I will turn to the planning system, which others have addressed with great insight. I have put on the record many times my concerns about the proposed reforms in the “Planning for the future” White Paper. I very much welcome the Secretary of State’s indication that he is willing to think again about those plans, and I look forward to a clear public statement about his views on the White Paper. I do not believe that the way to deliver the homes we need in this country is to strip people of their right to have a say in what is built in their neighbourhood.
There is a range of factors that slow down house building in this country but that have nothing to do with the planning system, and I will set out a few ideas on how we can ensure that the right homes are built in the right quantities in the right places. As a principle, any changes we make to the planning system should increase, not undermine, local democracy. They should strengthen and simplify the local planning processes to ensure that development is led by communities, not forced on them against their will. National housing targets should be advisory, not mandatory, and developers should not be able to use them to try to force local councils to agree to inappropriate development. Housing should sit within an integrated long-term development plan for urban regeneration to prioritise the Government’s levelling-up commitments.
The right hon. Lady is speaking many words of wisdom. In my constituency of Strangford and across Northern Ireland, the council rules are a wee bit more stringent and strict. For instance, if a developer wants to develop a number of houses, they must make a financial commitment to infrastructure, including roads, and set land aside for leisure, shopping and education. That is all part of the integral planning regulations, and the requirements change as they go through each phase of the planning process. Does the right hon. Lady, whom I know has much knowledge of Northern Ireland, agree that when considering changes and how things can be done better, the Minister should look to Northern Ireland?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. There are certainly aspects of the Northern Ireland planning system that we could usefully learn from, but it has its drawbacks as well. However, I feel strongly that developer contributions should be ring-fenced for the local communities that are directly affected by the new homes. Too often—certainly in England—such contributions end up being distributed to a broader area and those who bear the burden of the new development do not necessarily get the benefit of the developer contributions.
We should use home building as a core part of efforts to regenerate cities and communities in the north and midlands. Many of those areas have seen population declines over the past 50 years, but new housing and infrastructure could help to reverse that trend.
We also need to address land banking. As my hon. Friend the Member for Wantage proposed, we could introduce a “use it or lose it” rule for land-banked permissions. An agreed start-by date could be imposed and permission could be withdrawn if that deadline was not met, and “start-by” should mean significant initial works and not digging a few holes or a trench. We could also impose end-by dates, after which council tax is payable on every home that is planned, regardless of whether it has been built or not. There is also a case for introducing a rule to limit the number of applications that can be made in relation to the same site, which would bring to an end the exasperating practice of developers coming back again and again, with multiple applications being turned down, which effectively turns the planning process into a war of attrition with planners and local residents.
There is a strong case for a character test in planning, so that if people have a poor track record in development or there are other reasons to doubt their ability to deliver, they can be blocked at the planning stage. I believe that sites that have been illegally prepared for building—for example, where tree felling has taken place illegally—should be made ineligible for future planning applications, and I would certainly like to see the penalties increase for illegal tree felling by developers.
Lastly, we could provide tax incentives for elderly homeowners to downsize, for example by reducing stamp duty.
As the Secretary of State contemplates which reforms to take forward and which to reject, I hope that he will listen carefully to the concerns that have been expressed in this debate. We must not let our rush for new homes compromise our environmental commitments or destroy our green and pleasant land, and we must not repeat the mistakes of the 1960s and 1970s, when poor quality high-rise housing blighted the lives of millions of people.
A happy new year to you, Mr Betts, and to all colleagues.
I start by thanking the hon. Member for Wantage (David Johnston) for securing this debate. In my constituency, we desperately need new homes for young families to buy or rent, but I absolutely echo the comments made by colleagues this morning about the way in which the dice are stacked against homebuyers and, indeed, local authorities.
I recognise the progress over the past two or three years, with measures such as the introduction of the new homes ombudsman and the Building Safety Bill, which is going through Parliament. However, the Bill will be of limited use in my constituency, where few buildings are over 18 metres high, and where we are still waiting for cladding to be removed and replaced on some that are, as it should be. I will just take this opportunity to ask the Minister whether he can update us on assistance with the cost of replacing defective cladding on buildings that are less than 18 metres high. That is an issue in my constituency and, along with all the other problems that we have heard leaseholders are experiencing, it is a very live one.
Today I will talk about some of the issues that homebuyers in my constituency have experienced in relation to defects in their new homes, which is a problem that has been alluded to by other hon. Members. I have spoken before in the House about Aura Court in Old Trafford and the risks faced by residents from unsafe cladding, staircases and walkways, which led to the Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Service placing a prohibition notice on the block. Two years on, many of the issues that I raised are unresolved. Meanwhile, a few yards away at another development in East Union Street, residents await the completion of a sprinkler system and remediation of several other defects. Both those developments were undertaken by the same developer, Mr Jason Alexander, through his network of companies. I have spoken about him before in the House, too. He is notorious in the north-west for substandard developments and a failure to rectify defects once residents have moved in. Similar issues have been experienced in Renton Road in my constituency, where the developer is Mr Selcuk Pinarbasi, whom I have also spoken about before.
Those homes have now been sold on to private buyers and, as was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders), the council has therefore been advised that it needs to take enforcement action not against the developer but against those homeowners—the very parties aggrieved by failures in the system. It seems that developers can repeatedly take advantage of a planning and building control regime that creates conflicts of interest; that gives precedence to the interests of builders and warranty companies over building quality and safety; and that leaves leaseholders and often, as my hon. Friend pointed out, the local authority powerless to act.
That will continue even after the changes made by the Building Safety Bill, which does not mandate people undertaking building work to do so in accordance with plans that have been either submitted to and approved by a local authority or issued with a plans certificate by an approved inspector. The Bill provides a power to make future regulations in that regard, but we have not yet had a commitment from Ministers to bringing those forward. I urge the Minister to do so, given the widespread support for such a measure in response to the Government’s consultation. Meanwhile, if a registered building control approver appointed by the developer wrongly approves, gives a plans certificate or issues an initial notice or a final certificate, the local authority is effectively locked out of enforcement action. I recognise that the Bill creates new compliance and stop notice powers for local authorities in some circumstances, but they are hedged about with limitations.
Company law could be a useful tool in acting against unscrupulous developers and repeat offenders, but it repeatedly falls short. For example, Mr Alexander again and again sets up a new company for each development, which he then either liquidates, strips of its assets or allows to be struck off for non-compliance with registration and other requirements, leaving buyers with no body against which to pursue further action. It is pleasing to note the Bill’s inclusion of tougher provisions so that when an offence is committed by a corporate body with the connivance of a director, that director will commit the offence. However, we also need a more energetic approach to company law.
I would be grateful if the Minister supported me by using his good offices to press Ministers in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, as I have been doing, for a less dilatory response from the companies registrar to enforcement action, and indeed for a toughening up of company law, which I am aware Ministers in BEIS are considering to ensure that those who breach the obligations that we rightly expect of directors cannot continue to behave in this way.
I very much echo the comments on managing agents. Residents of Eden Square in Urmston have been battling their management company, Residential Management Group, for years for essential work to be undertaken, and have faced what look like excessive costs when anything is actually done. They are not alone. The Minister may have seen the report in The Sunday Times on 5 December relating to the mismanagement and greed of that organisation. Meanwhile, Mr Jason Alexander retains control of the management company for East Union Street and is trying to regain control of the management company for Aura Court, despite his long track record of failing to act.
I support the concerns raised about the weakness of the regulatory regime in relation to developers and management agents. I very much hope that the Minister will work with colleagues in the House and in this debate on how we can continue to enhance and improve protections for homeowners.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts, and to speak on this important topic, which is very close to my heart. I draw attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. In Dover and Deal, as in so many other constituencies, there have been good developments and downright awful developments. That needs to change. There needs to be an end to shoddy homes and poor customer service when buying a new home.
Before I became an MP, I was asked, as an independent expert in this area, to lead the practical work of designing, developing and then implementing major new reforms to provide those better standards and improved consumer redress for new homes. Those reforms consist of a new quasi-regulator, the New Homes Quality Board, which I chair, as set out in my entry in the register. It is a wholly independent, not-for-profit body. Under its constitution, builders and warrantee providers taken together can never form a majority on it. Consumer representation on the board is provided by Citizens Advice, and by an active consumer engagement panel, which is structured into its core design.
The New Homes Quality Board holds a register of developers. There is a new homes ombudsman to provide consumer redress, free to consumers, and a new code to set out much-needed standards and principles for developers, as we have heard today. Indeed, the new code, which it took nearly five years to develop, is so extensive and far-reaching that one major developer has said that its change management programme involves in excess of 40,000 changes to its business.
A full public consultation was carried out on the code, which I hope will go some way to meeting the concerns expressed by right hon. and hon. Members, but there are appalling situations. It may not surprise my hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (David Johnston), given his experience, to hear that in the consultation, only 4% of new home buyers said that they thought that developers met all the fundamental principles set out in the new code, so 96% of industry clearly has more to do.
This is such important work that I am determined to see it through to its final operational launch in the coming weeks before I step back and hand over to my successor. It is, and has always been, cross-party work—indeed, cross-governmental work by the Administrations in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. It started with the vital leadership of the all-party parliamentary group for excellence in the built environment. I am delighted that the Minister is present, and is shepherding in these far-reaching reforms through the Building Safety Bill and other measures, as he was the chair of the APPG, which set out the problems and solutions for new homes, including the need for a new homes ombudsman. That was in addition to your vital work, Mr Betts, in leading the Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee for many years.
On ensuring that a house is right the first time, the code specifies that a home must be complete. It prevents customers from being paid to move into an incomplete and shoddy home. It may sound absurd, but that was what was happening. People were paid to move into a house of two bathrooms and four bedrooms, say, where only one bathroom was working. Perhaps even the plumbing was not finished. The homeowner would have the job of their life trying to get things fixed after they had moved in and the builder had moved out.
It is also a requirement of the new code that the home meets all building safety, environmental and similar regulations. My hon. Friend the Member for Wantage and my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers) are quite right that building green homes and warm homes is central to building good homes. I am sure that the Minister has heard about environmental standards in the context of the upcoming planning reform. I hope that he will also consider the importance of water sustainability to the wider community architecture of cities, towns and villages in reducing and preventing flooding, and promoting better, sustainable water usage.
The establishment of the new building safety regulator is essential, because some of the safety situations for new homes have been shocking—none more so than that faced by my constituents in Sholden, where fire breaks were supposed to be in place but were not. Some of my constituents are still waiting to receive safety certificates, which they need in order to sell their homes, as well as for peace of mind in their home every day.
Finally, the new code requires builders to have an effective and standardised aftercare service. There will be fixed timeframes, as my hon. Friend the Member for Wantage recommended. The backstop to all of that is an independent new homes ombudsman service. Following a competitive, open procurement process over many months, the Dispute Service was chosen as a preferred new homes ombudsman partner. It has an impressive record across the four nations of the UK. All the arrangements will be paid for by the house building industry and access to the new homes ombudsman will be free to consumers. I hope that will begin to make a significant difference as we move forward.
I hope that, in the time available, I have given a flavour of the significant and necessary changes under way. If those changes do not go far enough, the Minister will find himself on a continuing journey with me to press for further change. Change is urgently needed, for home is where the heart is, and a person’s home is their castle.
It is a real pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I wish a happy new year to you and to all present. I congratulate the hon. Member for Wantage (David Johnston) on securing the debate.
The lack of reference to local authorities and councils in the debate and its title is very telling. Although I understand that the focus is very much on developers and house builders, looking at the changes to the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities—the former Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government, which no longer includes local government in its name—I am concerned about the future of the provision of housing.
As many have said, we need to look at the sector in the round. It is clear that, for many years, there has been too cosy a relationship between developers and certain preferred management companies and builders. The role of locally elected representatives and the voice of communities really matter in delivering housing, as does knowing what is required in the area. Good local authorities can absolutely help with that. Throughout the pandemic, it was local authorities that delivered and helped us through the challenges.
We have good planners in our local authorities and, with proper consultation, they can build the right mix of housing to meet the needs of local people, not the needs of developers. We need truly affordable housing—social housing—for young people who are so often priced out of their communities, whether they be in villages, towns or neighbourhoods. We also need provision for seniors, who may no longer need several bedrooms and may want or need to downsize. Retaining independence is critical to their mental health and wellbeing, and access to town centres and communal spaces is vital for them, but they are often left remote from the communities they have lived in their entire life; they are denied access to transport networks and it is not a short walk into the centre of their community.
Too much has been left to the enterprise of the market, which has been shown not to work in the interests of people. The Government have, perhaps, been too giddy on the donations of developer donors to act and do what is right. The Government were predated by a coalition Government who so diluted building regulations and planning legislation that they delivered a developers’ charter, resulting in low-density housing developments, unsustainable housing with poor energy performance, and greater car dependency. In my constituency, there are estates with no community centres or shopping areas, although they have been promised.
Councils need greater power. As many have said across this Chamber, rather than emasculating councils, the Government need to empower them by giving them the tools and the authority to deliver what is needed in their localities. The number of applications approved by councils that remain unbuilt is striking. According to the Local Government Association, 1.1 million homes are yet to be built out, and there are a further 1 million for which developers are yet to seek planning permission. That is 2 million homes that could be built.
We have heard about the role of developers who are land banking and not building out—look at the Letwin review of some years ago and where that led. Although the review contained some decent findings, it was inconclusive and could have been much harder hitting, as I discussed with Sir Oliver Letwin when he was still in this place. The issue of the national planning policy framework and the Localism Act 2011 led to the question of viability, which is premised on the cost of land. Giving greater authority and power to local government would address that and change the dynamic between developers, builders and authorities.
Builders are sometimes linked or tied to developers. There are good ones and bad ones, and there are also subcontractors in the mix. When we talk about the quality of house building, it is often not the builders but the subbies who come in and do the work. There are then issues of legality and contractual responsibility in any subsequent claim.
On management companies, as we have heard, residents are locked into high annual fees. People are being bullied and exploited, and as we have heard—it is certainly true of my Warwick and Leamington constituency—many residents do not want to be named. They do not want to have information in the public arena about the estate they live on for fear of the impact on property values, and of course the developers and builders know that.
These estate management companies are exploiting residents; we have heard so much about that already. Developers are claiming that residents will get a discount on their council tax because of the management fees they pay for green spaces. It is complete nonsense that they are being promised. There are streets that refuse lorries cannot even go down.
We need to see what the actual housing need is. We have seen the output from the Government’s questionable algorithms over recent months. We need to deliver power to local authorities, and we need localised and regionalised planning to help deliver that. The infrastructure that comes with housing, such as transport, schools, GP provision and even shops, needs to be put in. On environmental standards, thousands of homes have been built in Warwick and Leamington, including some with solar panels on north-facing roofs, believe it or not. We have the future home standard, but it lacks ambition. In 2016, we were meant to have zero-carbon homes. We would have built 1 million homes to that standard by now if that had been allowed. We need greater consumer protections.
Finally, housing is too expensive in this country. So much of that is down to the cost of land. It is a huge economic cost, which is having huge impacts on our wider economy. We need to bring down the cost of housing.
A very happy new year to you, Mr Betts. As we have limited time, I will make three points. First, I have served as an MP for over 20 years, and the whole issue of housing development and the associated infrastructure remains the most controversial issue in my constituency. One of the things I have learned from that is that in order to be accepted by local people, development must be done with people, rather than to people, but the major house builders rarely seem to understand that.
The legislative framework within which the house building industry has to operate is obviously fundamental, but we are still awaiting the publication of the Government’s much-delayed planning Bill. That has led to the iniquitous situation whereby the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities continues to harry local authorities to finalise their local plans, despite holding back legislation that, once enacted, might mean that local councils have to revise or even substantially rewrite the plans that many of them have just spent literally years working on. It is becoming a bit like “Waiting for Godot”. To put it another way, the Department should remove the plank from its own eye. I humbly ask the Minister: when can we expect the publication of the planning Bill, and when is Second Reading likely to be?
Secondly, the UK housing market is now effectively an example of near market failure. It is completely dominated by half a dozen or so major house builders, some of whom have grown over the years by absorbing competitors. That restricts choice, and, even more importantly, artificially restricts housing supply. That is done deliberately to keep prices up. Liam Halligan, economics editor of the Sunday Telegraph and now a popular TV presenter, explored the problem in great detail in his very good 2019 book, “Home Truths: The UK's chronic housing shortage”, in which he exposes the adverse effects of the dominance of the volume house builders on the housing market.
For instance, as Liam Halligan points out, since the Office of Fair Trading’s investigation into the housing sector in 2008, the market share of the volume house builders has more than doubled, from 31% to 59%—not far off two thirds of the entire market. Covid is likely to have made that serious market anomaly worse by increasing the pressure on smaller builders, many of whom have limited financial reserves.
As Liam Halligan argues,
“An oligopolistic house building sector, deliberately restricting the supply of new homes to keep profits high, is anathema to free markets.”
But it is even worse than that. The paradigm that the Government appear to be working in is one where house building is held back by nimby local authorities, despite the best efforts of house builders to build new homes. In fact, the reverse is true. As the Local Government Association pointed out in February 2020, there are over 1 million extant planning permissions for new properties, but these have not been built out. In October 2020, the Campaign to Protect Rural England produced a report highlighting that over half a million of these plots alone are on brownfield sites. A former chief executive of Persimmon Homes stood down after getting his £75 million bonus—a bonus so profane that it embarrassed not just his company but the rest of the industry. Perhaps he was untroubled by these facts. Nevertheless, some of the practices we have heard about from colleagues this morning still go on. Where, one has to ask, are Ministers—and, indeed, the Competition and Markets Authority—in all of this?
I come to my third point. Let me give a practical example of how truly arrogant some of these companies have become. Bloor Homes, one of the largest privately owned developers in Britain, was so desperate to secure planning permission for a highly controversial site off Ashingdon Road in my constituency that it resorted to trying to interfere with the composition of the development control committee of Rochford District Council, which was due to consider the application last June. Bloor having lost—the committee turned it down—Bloor’s political consultant sent a series of highly intemperate, even offensive, texts late at night to the leader of the council. It is the sheer arrogance of these tactics, which I have not previously encountered in over 30 years of public life as a councillor and then as an MP, that I find deeply shocking. This is the sad reality of house building in Britain today. We have limited time, Mr Betts, so I will not read all the communications into the record. Perhaps I will have the opportunity to do on Second Reading of the planning Bill, so that Ministers, parliamentary colleagues, the media and others in the house building industry can learn how Bloor Homes really behaves.
In summary, the UK house building sector is deeply troubled, bordering on dysfunctional. Many ordinary families are struggling to buy a home, while some of the major house builders ruthlessly exploit their agony to maintain their already generous profit margins. They blame everyone but themselves: Government, MPs, local authorities or concerned local residents—anyone but the greedy companies that are at the heart of the problem. If Ministers really want to boost housing supply, let us have a full inquiry by the Competition and Markets Authority on over-concentration in the UK house building industry, and let us have it now.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Betts. I thank the hon. Member for Wantage (David Johnston) for securing this debate and for his powerful opening contribution.
Any plan for future house building must come with an assessment of where the system is currently failing. As has been demonstrated by all the contributions so far, issues with new and more recently built homes are becoming increasingly significant in MPs’ case loads. Issues with properties not completed to the promised standard and poor maintenance are a real source of cost and frustration for so many people, with poor communication and barriers to these issues being fixed further exacerbating the problem.
One such example is Greenside Gardens in Sowerby Bridge in my constituency. The original developer of the site went bankrupt before the properties were finished, and the site was subsequently bought by another developer. The second developer was able to complete the vast majority of the development, but the access road to the site was still left in an appalling state. Materials had simply been abandoned and residents had to take it upon themselves to clear the site. They had to hire skips to clear much of the rubbish, which took several weeks to complete. Having spoken to the council on residents’ behalf, I was informed that it could take no action against the developer in relation to the road, as it had been advised that it could not compel the developer to complete the road to the required standard for adoption, and nor did it have the appropriate funds available to carry out the works as the highways authority.
It is clear from this instance that there is a serious lack of accountability and transparency in the process. The way our system is currently designed does not effectively allow residents to raise concerns and seek appropriate redress, if required. The new homes ombudsman is certainly a welcome step, but we are still awaiting the details of when it will come into force, so I would appreciate it if the Minister could confirm that the ombudsman will allow for historical complaints to be determined so that my constituents are able to receive any compensation or redress to which they should be entitled.
Another example from my constituency that I wish to highlight relates to Harron Homes and the Moorside Lea development in Northowram. The properties built were not cheap—they are usually four or five-bedroom homes. I have been contacted by seven residents, who have all mentioned homes being finished to a poor standard and countless snagging issues, many of which are still not resolved or fixed, years after completion. It is completely unacceptable, not least because the houses were advertised and sold as luxury homes. One of my constituents who has been deeply affected is Dr Rani Khatib, who has worked as an NHS doctor on the frontline throughout the pandemic. Given the issues with his property, he has been forced to take multiple days off for contractors to attend his home, only for them not to show up. In one of his emails, he said:
“When the world is uniting to help front line NHS workers to deal with COVID-19, on my shift I am having to worry about constantly chasing Harron Homes about the safety of my children due to the rubbish they left in my garage, the outstanding work they never completed and the many issues they have still not addressed.”
We have managed to have two meetings with Harron Homes, so progress has been made, but there seems to be what can only be described as churn in staff. When someone moves on, letters, calls and emails from me and constituents have gone unanswered for months at a time, and I have had to resort to asking to meet the managing director to attempt to resolve the multiple cases that my office is trying to manage. Although there has been some progress more recently with Harron Homes, it has been a fraught journey, and one that I am afraid to say is far from over.
In conclusion, we know that good-quality, affordable housing has to be a focus if we are to meet this country’s needs, but unless we introduce true accountability into house building expectations, with consequences for not meeting those expectations, we stand only to compound the problems. As demonstrated by the local examples at Moorside Lea and Greenside Gardens, it should be the role of the developer and house builder to fix what needs to be repaired and ensure that properties are habitable and safe as an absolute minimum. As things stand, the system is unfair, unjust and deeply biased towards those who can afford advice and representation. A new homes ombudsman should be introduced as an independent empowered body, to hold developers and house builders accountable. Enough of the delays. It is time for the Government to deliver on what they have promised, because for far too many the dream of owning a new home has far too quickly become a nightmare.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. May I wish all Members a happy new year and thank my hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (David Johnston) for securing this important debate? The debate is important because it allows us to discuss the role that house builders play not just before houses are built, but when ensuring that homes are fit for purpose once they are finished.
Buying a home is probably the most important and expensive purchase that any of us will make. With that in mind, I wish to raise the case of a specific development within my constituency, the High Banks development in Silsden, which sadly has witnessed mismanagement by its construction company, Harron Homes. It is perfect timing that I am following the hon. Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch), who spent most of her speech talking about Harron Homes, as I intend to do the same. The High Banks development was constructed and finished back in 2020, and it consists of about 50 properties. I have been contacted by the residents about this. Indeed, the local councillor, Rebecca Whittaker, who represents the Craven ward, has been contacted by about 30 of the 50 residents.
The manner in which the High Banks development has been finished and the snagging issues are, quite frankly, shocking. I have visited the site many times. As soon as I arrived, it became quite clear why residents have contacted me and Councillor Whitaker. The road is in a shocking state. The sewerage system is still not connected to the mains, and a tanker comes in on a weekly basis to empty the development’s tanks. Many house owners have contacted me about cracks in their walls appearing, plumbing systems in their houses not being connected or finished, floorboards creaking, gardens not being properly landscaped or finished, and boundary fences not being finished. This situation is not satisfactory at all. One constituent told me that they had waited so long for many of these issues to be sorted that they carried out the work themselves, only for the developer to say, “You finished it; we’re not coming in to sort it out.” That is not good enough.
I know that High Banks is not the only Harron Homes development to face these issues. The hon. Member for Halifax already raised her case, and I know that there are similar cases in Dewsbury and Colne Valley. Communication is a big concern with this particular developer. On the back of constituents raising these concerns with me, I tried to have a meeting with the managing director. I requested the meeting in the summer of last year, and we were able to secure a meeting with him on site only in October.
Harron Homes promised to keep up communications with many of its residents. Indeed, on the back of a meeting with Tony Lee, the managing director, and Andy Hall, the construction director, I was promised six-weekly updates. I have not received any update since the meeting with them in October, and the residents have received only one communication. Again, that is not good enough. As a result, I continue to receive correspondence from constituents in High Banks saying that Harron Homes has done absolutely nothing—since I met them or, indeed, since 2020, when it finished the development—to improve the site.
The company has not kept its promises to those who bought their homes. Where do we go from here? I call on Harron Homes again to respect its contractual relationship with its purchasers and not to blame issues on its subcontractors. The responsibility lies solely with the developer, Harron Homes. The snagging issues have to be resolved within a respectful timeframe, without the pandemic being used as an excuse, as I have heard from Harron Homes before.
There also has to be an auditing process in place. When a developer hands over a completed house to a purchaser, it surely has a responsibility to go back to the purchaser and say, “Has the home been completed to the standard that you expected?” That surely has to happen after six months and then potentially after a year. Harron Homes has done none of that.
Like my hon. Friend the Member for Wantage, I would like to see a much tougher regime for the quality of house building, with a fixed-term timeframe for completion and with possible penalties if homes are not completed.
It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Mr Betts. I wish all hon. Members and staff present a happy new year, and add my congratulations to the hon. Member for Wantage (David Johnston) on securing this important debate, and on his comprehensive and extremely well-judged introductory remarks.
As expected, given the subject, this has been a wide-ranging debate, with a series of thoughtful contributions informed by the experiences of hon. Members on both sides with new build developments in their respective constituencies. I highlight, in particular, the contributions made by my hon. Friends the Members for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) and for Warwick and Leamington (Matt Western), who spoke of the importance of local authorities in housing and planning and the imbalance of power between councils and developers, and the constraints that the former therefore face when it comes to meeting the needs of their populations.
My hon. Friends the Members for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) and for Halifax (Holly Lynch) spoke powerfully about cases of unscrupulous developers in their own constituencies, as did the hon. Member for Keighley (Robbie Moore) in relation to Harron Homes, and the lack of accountability, at least in the current system, for redress for the serious defects that people face.
In the time available, I would like to expand on three issues that have featured in the debate this morning and that the hon. Member for Wantage touched on in his introductory remarks. First, what is the quality of new homes being built? Secondly, as well as building new homes, do we have a system that supports the creation of sustainable communities where individuals and families can not just live but thrive? Thirdly, are buyers of new build homes getting a fair deal?
I turn first to quality. It manifestly remains the case, despite the problem being both of long standing and widely understood, that a significant proportion of those buying recent new builds in England find, having moved into their new home, that their property has serious defects. As has been made clear today by cases from across the country, to which I could add a great many from my own constituency, we are talking here not about minor snagging issues but about major defects, whether that be in relation to the fabric of the building, unfinished fittings, or faults with utilities.
The fundamental reason why standards remain too low is simple: the housing market is broken and the planning system is in crisis. As the right hon. Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois) argued, the housing market does not have sufficient diversity of supply, and it is not one in which—aside from a minority of homes at the very top end of the market—quality of product is rewarded by price. A decade of planning deregulation has exacerbated that situation, and the relaxation of permitted development is the most egregious example of decisions taken by this Conservative Government that will increase the amount of substandard housing being delivered across the country, with all the negative impacts on health and life chances that flow from that. For all the rhetoric about beauty and the various initiatives announced in the wake of the Building Better, Building Beautiful commission, the present system still overwhelmingly produces, as extensive analysis by the Place Alliance has shown, “mediocre” or “poor” outcomes when it comes to build quality and design.
We of course must robustly challenge developers and house builders to improve their performance, and call out those choosing not to build better-quality housing or using the planning appeals process to force through schemes with the lowest design quality, but there is much more that the Government could do to drive up standards. The establishment of the new homes ombudsman is of course welcome, although the Minister will know the concerns that Opposition Members have about the scheme’s membership. Likewise, we welcome the publication of the new homes quality code. However, given its nature and the fact that it relies on compliance with national standards that currently, I argue, fall far short, we have little confidence that it will lead to the needed step change in developer behaviour. The fact is that until the Government act to ensure that we have a planning system fit for purpose and make greater progress on diversifying the housing industry and delivering a marked increase in output, including in terms of genuinely affordable homes, the numbers seeking redress for serious defects are unlikely to fall significantly.
I turn next to the question of how we ensure that the construction of new homes creates sustainable and thriving communities. As things stand, far too many new build developments are not being delivered with the necessary key amenities and social and physical infrastructure to provide for such communities, and we have heard a great many examples this morning. That is because the present housing and planning framework is simply not conducive to effective place making. Of course, that is not a new phenomenon—indeed, it was remarked upon as far back as the 2007 Callcutt review. But the problem has become more acute in recent years, as a direct result of this Government’s commitment to deregulating the planning system, with the relaxation of permitted development rights in particular preventing councils—the skills, morale and capacity of whose planning departments are at an all-time low after a decade of budget cuts—from co-ordinating development or planning vital infrastructure and services.
The situation is having a direct impact on the provision of environmentally sustainable development—for example, in terms of the relationship between relatively inaccessible development sites and rates of sustainable transport use, or buildings that are constructed on sites without due regard to climate resilience. Again, the fundamental problem is a development model that is geared primarily towards the wants of developers, as opposed to one whose primary purpose is securing what is in the public interest.
When it comes to enabling effective place making, the Government must, as a minimum, rescind the damaging relaxation of permitted development rights and return those powers to local government. Ministers should then turn their attention to what more the Government must do to encourage the creation of thriving communities that support the health and wellbeing of their residents, not least by implementing comprehensive national housing standards so that developers—particularly the volume housebuilders—have no choice but to deliver in core place making.
Lastly, turning to whether those people buying new homes are getting a fair deal, the answer in far too many cases is clearly no, particularly for leaseholders. That is most obvious in the topical issue of ground rents for new leasehold homes. The House will know that the Opposition welcome the Leasehold Reform (Ground Rent) Bill but remain of the view that onerous ground rents must be tackled for existing long residential leases, not just new homes, and we urge the Government once again to reconsider their position on the matter.
With regard to existing long residential leases, we welcome the commitment given by Taylor Wimpey to the Competition and Markets Authority to remove onerous ground rent terms from its existing contracts. The imposition of those terms was wholly unjustified, and it is obviously right that the relevant clauses will be removed. Other developers and freehold investors must also do the right thing and abandon escalation clauses in their leasehold contracts. When he responds, I would welcome the Minister making it clear, for the record, that that is what the Government now expect them to do.
However, the issue of ground rents is not the only way in which those buying new leasehold homes are getting a bad deal. There are a range of issues, from soaring service charges to the unregulated nature of managing agents, that all point to the need not only for measures to address specific problems, but for wider leasehold reform and reform of the current framework for resident control of estate management—issues that I have no doubt Ministers and I will return to on many future occasions.
On protecting the owners of new homes from abuse and poor service at the hands of disreputable management companies, I ask the Minister to tell the House whether the Government intend to implement the recommendations of the regulation of property agents working group, chaired by the noble Lord Best. What progress has been made on that, given that the final report was published back in July 2019?
To conclude, this has been a valuable debate and a welcome opportunity to hear the concerns of hon. Members from across the House regarding new homes. However, it is taking place after almost 12 years of Conservative-led Government, with numerous changes to housing and planning legislation in that time. Yet when it comes to new homes, the outcomes for people and communities, on the whole, have not only not improved but noticeably deteriorated in a number of key areas.
It is self-evident that more must be done to drive up quality and design standards across the industry, to enable and support more effective place making, and to ensure that those buying new homes get a fair deal. I look forward to hearing from the Minister, not least in relation to the planning legislation that we are told the Government remain committed to introducing and on what the Government will do differently to ensure that real progress is made on these objectives.
Thank you, Mr Betts. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (David Johnston) on securing the debate. From the contributions that have been made, we can see that this is a topic that promotes passion on the part of not just those right hon. and hon. Members who have contributed, but their constituents.
I welcome the hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Matthew Pennycook) to his place. I wish him a happy—but obviously not too successful—new year. Regarding future legislation, particularly on leasehold reform, I look forward to discussing that with him, and with other Members, to ensure that we get the legislation in a good place before it is brought forward.
I understand how important it is that infrastructure comes with new housing. Indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for Wantage is a one-man campaign machine in working to secure infrastructure for his constituents along with housing. As he says, they are not NIMBYs; they just understand that houses must come with the infrastructure they require. Section 106 agreements of around £1 billion towards infrastructure were agreed in 2018-19. That includes contributions to transport, open spaces, the environment, education and medical facilities.
The community infrastructure levy also allows local authorities to obtain the funds needed to deliver infrastructure such as roads, schools, health facilities and flood defences. Currently, around 50% of local authorities charge CIL. It is estimated that the liability for new planning permissions amounts to roughly £1 billion since 2018-19. The housing infrastructure fund provides £4.3 billion so that improved transport connectivity, healthcare services and other infrastructure can be put in place before housing is built.
We have already made changes to reduce the renegotiation of affordable housing in infrastructure commitments made through section 106 agreements. To reduce renegotiation, the Government require local authorities to have clear policy requirements in their local plans so that landowners and site purchasers are aware of likely costs up front and can take them into consideration when agreeing land transactions. The Government have also set out clear guidance on how viability assessments should be undertaken and made public to ensure consistency and transparency.
The Government recognise, however, that the existing system of developer contributions can sometimes be costly and complex, and can delay developments and reduce certainty for communities, which is why we are exploring the introduction of a new infrastructure levy to replace the current system of developer contributions. That levy will seek to deliver at least as much value and on-site affordable housing as at present. To reduce the renegotiation issues to which section 106 agreements are prone, we propose making the levy a non-negotiable charge on a fixed proportion of the development value. Our intention is that the proceeds from the levy will be collected and spent locally, and that councils will have flexibility in that spending.
Unfortunately, I do not have much to add on planning reforms. The Secretary of State took control of the newly empowered Department in September, and he has an awful lot in his in-tray to work through, but he is committed to looking at planning reform and fulfilling the Government’s levelling-up ambitions by carefully considering what reforms to the system are needed and how they are best taken forward. An announcement will be made in due course.
It is disappointing that the Minister cannot give any timings on when the planning Bill is coming, because some of us would like to know before we retire. He has heard 10 very good Back-Bench contributions in this debate, all of which have been, in one way or another, highly critical of the housebuilding industry in this country. When will the Government support a Competition and Markets Authority inquiry into the UK housebuilding industry?
As I have set out, the Government are already working closely with the CMA to push forward their ambitions. There are some ongoing court cases, so it would be inappropriate to comment except to say that we are enthusiastic in our support. I put on the record that the Secretary of State read my right hon. Friend’s book over Christmas, and I think he has been in touch with him to say how good a read it was.
Briefly, as I am running out of time, a number of Members have highlighted that for net zero, we need to build homes that are as environmentally sound and low carbon in their production as possible. People are concerned about the transition to the new legislation. Just before Christmas, we introduced part L of the building regulations to improve the energy efficiency of homes. For a developer to make use of the transitional arrangements, they must have submitted an initial notice, a building notice or a full planning application to the local authority prior to the new regulations coming into effect in June 2022. They must then have commenced work on an individual building to which they want to apply the previous standards before June 2023.
Members referred to the idea of simply digging a trench in order to have started work on a site, but we are going to be more stringent with the application of the arrangements. For the previous regulations to apply, developers must have started the foundations of a building, for example. Those transitional arrangements mean that developers can no longer build to out-of-date energy standards over several years as sites are developed. Unless construction has actually commenced, they will need to build to current regulations. A full technical consultation with regard to the future homes standard is planned for spring 2023. As part of that, we will consider what transitional arrangements are appropriate for that legislation.
Several Members mentioned management companies and, in many cases, their bad practice. Put simply, the current situation is unfair to freeholders, and we are committed to introducing legislation to right that wrong. We intend to create a new statutory regime for freeholders based on the rights enjoyed by leaseholders. This would ensure that maintenance charges must be reasonably incurred, and that the services provided are of an acceptable standard, and would include a right to challenge the reasonableness of the charges at a property tribunal. Freeholders would have a right to change the provider of maintenance services by applying to the tribunal to appoint a new manager. That may be especially helpful for freeholders dissatisfied with the services they currently receive. The Government intend to introduce legislation to implement those changes as soon as parliamentary time allows.
The build-out rate was also raised. The Government are clear that new homes should be built out as soon as possible once planning permission is granted. Sir Oliver Letwin’s independent review of build-out rates found no evidence that speculative land banking is part of the business model of major house builders, nor that it is a driver of slow build-out rates. None the less, we note that build-out is important to communities and are exploring further options. In our “Planning for the future” White Paper, which was referenced earlier, we have been clear that we will explore those further options to support faster build-out rates as part of our proposed planning reform.
My hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Robbie Moore) and the hon. Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch) raised concerns about Harron Homes. I would be happy to meet them to discuss their concerns to see if there is anything that we can advise. Obviously, we cannot intervene in particular cases, but there might be some advice that we can give. With regard to the Building Safety Bill, the Secretary of State is working closely with Lord Greenhalgh to see what else can be done. I hope that an announcement will be made in the not-too-distant future.
We have had an excellent debate. I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to and respond to it. I look forward to bumping into Members in the corridor to discuss the issues that they have raised today.
I thank the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Matthew Pennycook), and the Minister for their comments. There is a lot of agreement beyond the party political arguments.
A constituent said to me that buying a new home had been a terrible experience that they would not repeat, which is an indictment of how the current system operates. The hon. Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch) and my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Robbie Moore) gave powerful examples of the impact on constituents, including on their mental health, because it is in their minds at all times. The hon. Members for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) and for Warwick and Leamington (Matt Western) were right about the system working in the interest of developers, not local people. As the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston said, “What is the incentive to come back and fix a problem?”. At the moment, there is none.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers) and the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) had interesting ideas about how we might use company law and character tests. We all know who the bad companies and individuals are. We should not keep letting them build more and more homes. My right hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois) was bang on about the near market failure. I have read some of Liam Halligan’s work. He found that just three companies owned 90% of the million-plus permissions that are not built on. If that is not an example of near market failure, I am not sure what is.
My hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Mrs Elphicke) was very encouraging about the forthcoming new code. The scale of the problem is pretty clear if only 4% of homeowners think that their developers are meeting the code or one business is changing 40,000 aspects of its practices in order to meet it.
As the chief executive of one of my local housing associations said to me, “They are building something to walk away from, and we are buying something we need to maintain for people to live in for 50 to 100 years.” That is at the core of the problem. I know that the Minister worked on this area before he became a Minister and is very committed to it. I hope that we will see the full weight of government behind this, because a home should be a sanctuary, not a place of great stress. I will continue to keep campaigning on the issue, and I know that other Members will, too. I thank you, Mr Betts, for chairing the debate.
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).
Historical Allegations of Sexual Abuse
I beg to move,
That this House has considered historical allegations of sexual abuse and the justice system.
I am glad to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts, and I am grateful to Mr Speaker for selecting this debate.
I want to raise issues highlighted by one of my constituents, who I will call Sharifa. In 2003, when Sharifa was 15, her father sent her to the UK to escape political violence in Africa; he was later killed because of his political activities. Newham Council placed Sharifa in foster care. Eventually, she was able to rent a flat on her own. She went to school in Edgware and did BTECs at Barnet College. Aged 17, she attended the Royal Free Hospital for minor cosmetic surgery on an ear because of a burn she had suffered in childhood. A surgeon in the ear department, who was a man in his 50s, committed a serious sexual assault on her, in the course of which another doctor came into the room; otherwise, Sharifa is convinced that she would have been raped.
The assault was devastating for Sharifa’s mental and physical health. She says:
“I came out of that hospital room angry, scared, confused, naive, but I could not tell anybody because I did not have any close friend or anyone to tell, nor did I know of the Police. All I knew was that if I told the hospital doctors, they would not listen to me but put me on the next flight back to Africa. Therefore I had to keep quiet and suffer in silence.”
She went home and set about cleaning herself with soap. She developed obsessive compulsive disorder, and has had years of nightmares and sleep deprivation; treatments have been ineffective and excessive use of soap led to gynaecological problems.
In 2011, Sharifa went back to the Royal Free Hospital for treatment for those problems. What happened then is unclear, but her health problems became worse. Today, she cannot sit comfortably at all and says:
“My reasoning ability has decreased over the years due to the struggles I’m going through, loss of enjoyment to life, excessive depression, panic, severe anxiety, chronic pain…I’m tired writing about this trauma thinking about what I have gone through.”
In late 2011, Sharifa obtained a UK passport and started to feel more secure. In 2012, she completed a university degree, but her mental health worsened. Lawyers would not help, because over three years had passed since the assault. She attended the Royal Free Hospital for injections, hoping every time that she would be able to confront her assailant, but she never did; she never saw him.
The right hon. Gentleman is discussing an important issue and I entirely support what he has just said. However, does he agree that although large-scale investigations draw media attention, equal attention must be paid to individuals who have come forward, and that funding must be available for numerically small but personally massive cases just like the one that he is referring to?
I very much agree with the hon. Gentleman; it is important that, whatever the circumstances, victims should feel confident that they can obtain justice.
In Sharifa’s case, eventually a doctor at the Royal Free advised her that the hospital would not help and that she should go to the police, so that is what she did in 2019. She was interviewed by two sympathetic and helpful police officers. However, at a photograph identity parade in Tottenham Hale that year, she was unable to identify her assailant, but she is convinced that her assailant was among three pictures she saw then of people who looked similar to her assailant. They were recent pictures; she did not see a photo of her assailant from 14 years earlier, although the police said that they have one. It would also have helped if she had actually seen the people in those photos, because her assailant’s physique and gait have stuck in her mind.
The police officer at the parade, unlike the earlier officers, seemed unsympathetic and impatient. Sharifa’s memory and mental health problems made her feel uncomfortable and under pressure. The police concluded that there was no basis for a prosecution, so in late 2019 she came to see me. I asked the police to reopen the investigation. Sharifa did not know the name of the doctor who committed the assault, but she did know the name of the doctor who interrupted the assault. The police had interviewed him, but he could not remember the event.
The police reply to me is as follows:
“Detectives were…able to make enquiries with a doctor who was named on one of the referral letters. Further enquiries with Maxilofacial Prosthetics confirmed that this doctor, whose name I will not disclose, had registered on 1 May 1983 and retired his membership on 30th April 2015. During this period of registration, this doctor had an unblemished record and furthermore he was never in receipt of any complaints or allegations. The doctor provided an evidential account completely denying the offence. He stated that he could not recall ever meeting Sharifa. There is no evidence that he ever met Sharifa as no medical records were recovered.”
The reply from the police concluded:
“I have carefully reviewed all the evidence in this case and find that the decision not to refer the case to The Crown Prosecution Service to be correct.”
I went back to the police and made the point that Sharifa had given me a clear and persuasive account of what had happened, but the officer firmly declined to pursue the matter any further. Women Against Rape then corresponded with the police and raised a number of questions, including this point about the identification parade:
“The photographs shown to Sharifa were recent and were not from the time of the offence, 14 years earlier. Due to the passage of time the man in question will undoubtedly have changed somewhat, therefore the photographs should have been from the time of the incident. Can you now show her these?”
The police continued to decline to pursue the matter. At the suggestion of Women Against Rape, Sharifa requested a full copy of her medical records. There she found the name of the doctor. That was a major breakthrough. The police confirmed that that was the person they had identified, but were not willing to discuss the matter further. Women Against Rape suggested lawyers, who might take up the case. None was willing to do so.
A year ago, Sharifa came to see me again. She is not able to work, has no substantial funds and cannot afford a solicitor. One lawyer I contacted took a thorough look but concluded that the case did not meet their risk assessment and was not willing to take the case.
“I have spoken to many solicitors. None of them is helping. I am left on my own, as I was in the past.”
I wrote to the Health Secretary and received a sympathetic reply from the current Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, the right hon. Member for Mid Bedfordshire (Ms Dorries), who was then a Health Minister. She made several helpful suggestions. Sharifa has tried all of them. Citizens Advice sent a letter in relation to the subsequent hospital treatment, but that came to nothing. The local Healthwatch secured a meeting with the Royal Free but Sharifa felt that its concern was just covering up what had gone wrong. The local sexual assault referral centre said it could not help, as the assault was so long ago. Another sexual assault referral centre said the same. A local legal advice service said that it could not help.
Sharifa is stuck. How can she obtain justice over what happened to her? She says—I think with good reason—that her life has been ruined because of what happened to her at the hospital in 2005. She has severe and continuous pain and serious mental health problems, but she is a determined woman. She is finding her voice. She benefits from supportive friendship. Her account is compelling, and I am convinced that it is truthful. She writes clearly and powerfully. There must surely be some avenue available for her to obtain the justice to which she should be entitled.
These are my questions to the Minister. What are the opportunities in the system for someone in Sharifa’s position to obtain justice? Can she do so even though, for completely understandable reasons, it was a long time after the assault that she reported it? What provision can support her, given her lack of funds? One consequence of what happened is that she has been unable to work and has always had to depend on social security. Is it really the case that someone young and innocent, newly arrived in the country, cannot effectively be protected by the criminal justice system and that someone choosing to abuse such a person will have a very good chance of getting away with it?
Sharifa’s case raises a number of wider issues, three of which I will highlight. First, there is the time limitation period. Rules on limitation periods in civil proceedings are pretty complicated. Sexual abuse inflicts both physical and psychological harm. The law typically treats such cases as personal injury claims. The time limit for bringing a civil claim in a personal injury case is three years from the date on which either the cause of action accrues or, if later, three years from the date of knowledge of the person injured. If the injury was suffered by a child, the three-year period is not initiated until they reach the age of 18. That brought Sharifa one additional year, but not enough, as 10 years later she is only just learning about the potential route to justice that she could have taken.
The court has discretion to allow a personal injury claim to be brought if the limitation period has expired, but that happens in only a small number of cases. The court would need to consider a long list of factors set out in the Limitation Act 1980. For victims eventually able to summon the courage, support and funds to pursue their case, their chances rest on the decision of a judge. The discretionary process involves both parties setting out legal and factual arguments. With a lot of uncertainty around the likely outcome, a claimant, especially one already suffering the effects of trauma, may well be dissuaded from pursuing a claim.
Survivors of sexual abuse, and childhood abuse in particular, are often unable to talk about the trauma they suffered for years. That should surely not disadvantage a claim brought later in life. The Limitation (Childhood Abuse) (Scotland) Act 2017 removed the three-year time limit for childhood abuse victims in Scotland. Do the Government plan to follow suit and abolish it for survivors in England and Wales as well? I hope they will.
Secondly, Sharifa’s case highlights the difficulty of lay people knowing how to seek justice. On 21 July last year, the Government published their violence against women and girls strategy, which recognises that sexual harassment and assault, both in public and private, is much too common. It found that women often do not report sexual harassment because they do not think it is a crime or that it will be taken seriously by the police. For Sharifa, there was the added uncertainty of a young, vulnerable person, new to the UK, with no friends or family here to support her, and no way to know what she should do.
Analysis published by the Office for National Statistics in November concluded that:
“Violence against women and girls can lead to significant and long-lasting impacts such as mental health issues, suicide attempts and homelessness”.
It reported that in the year ending March 2020, around 1.6 million women aged 16 to 74 experienced domestic abuse in England and Wales, which is 7% of the female population, and 3% experienced sexual assault. Women’s Aid has reported that nearly half of women in refuges are depressed or feel suicidal as a direct result of the assault they suffered. It says that the real figure is probably higher, as stigma and fear around disclosing mental health problems, the main injury that Sharifa suffered following her initial assault, discourage women from speaking up.
Pathways to seeking justice need to be clearer and more accessible to victims. The violence against women and girls strategy commits to a national communications campaign to raise awareness of gender-based violence. Consultation on that strategy has not started yet, despite calls for it to do so from the Victims’ Commissioner. Can the Minister tell us what the timeframe for that will be?
Thirdly, we need to note that reports of sexual assaults in hospital are rising. An article published in September reports, on the basis of freedom of information requests, a nearly fivefold increase in reports of rapes in hospital between 2011 and 2020.
I am grateful for the opportunity to raise this issue with the Minister, and I am grateful to her for being in her place. The experience of my constituent Sharifa is unique, but it raises concerns affecting a much larger number of women. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response.
May I take this opportunity to wish a happy new year to you and all the team, Mr Betts, and to the right hon. Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) and the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon)? It is a huge pleasure to serve under your chairmanship.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for sharing the vital, harrowing and heartfelt account of his constituent, which we cannot listen to without feeling extremely distressed. It is clear from that account, which he set out incredibly powerfully, as he always does, that Sharifa has seen the worst of a system that is supposed to deliver justice and support. I pay tribute to her tremendous resilience and courage. It cannot be easy for her to speak about these issues, especially given the trauma she has suffered. I hope to address the points that the right hon. Gentleman has raised. We will be happy to meet him at the end of the debate to go through the specific details of the case, because there are some facts that we do not have yet. Other ministerial colleagues may be interested in this, and I am happy to act as a point of contact and to do whatever I can to help him.
The right hon. Gentleman raises a key point about the contact that Sharifa had with the sexual assault referral centre. These centres are commissioned by the Department of Health and Social Care through NHS England and NHS Improvement and are designed, as he said, to provide an integrated response to sexual violence and rape, and are available to all victims and survivors of violence and abuse, irrespective of age, gender or when the assault and abuse occurred. There is a lot of positive work to talk about, including the increase in investment into these centres every year since 2015, but it is clear that the services could have worked much better in this instance. There is always more for us to do to improve on that.
The right hon. Gentleman asks about practical and financial support for victims, which is of course at the heart of the Government’s violence against women and girls strategy. In February last year, we launched the #ItStillMatters campaign to help victims and survivors of sexual violence understand their rights and to raise awareness of the support services available to them. Support is available from ISVAs, or independent sexual violence advocates—specially trained advisers to help people who have experienced sexual violence. We are further bolstering support, including by developing a new 24/7 support service for victims of sexual violence, regardless of when and where the abuse took place.
The right hon. Gentleman mentions the Victims’ Commissioner. We introduced a revised victims code that came into effect in April 2021 and sets out the way that victims should be treated and supported by criminal justice agencies. I recognise that he talks about an historical case, but he raises wider issues, so the code is relevant here. Where the police decide not to prosecute a suspect, victims have a right under the code to ask for a review under the National Police Chiefs Council’s “Victims’ right to review” scheme, subject to certain conditions being met. The scheme allows a period of three months for a victim to request a review of a police decision not to prosecute a suspect. Requests made after this period should be dealt with at the force’s discretion. The police may also consider requests made on the victim’s behalf from, for example, a solicitor or MP.
As we all know, the police are operationally independent of Ministers, and the Government are not able to instruct the police to take a specific course of action, but I am clear that I expect them to investigate where there is a case to do so. Moreover, I would expect any complaints made in relation to the handling of a case to be investigated fairly and diligently by the force. As I understand it, the right hon. Gentleman has already been in contact with the police in connection with this case, so the next step is definitely for me or a ministerial colleague to meet him to see what further steps remain.
We are looking to improve the justice system as a whole. Through the Government’s upcoming victims Bill, we will ensure that victims are at the heart of the criminal justice system. The recently published consultation is the first step towards a victims law to deliver the vital improvements needed. We have taken a number of other really important actions in this space. I highlight the Government’s work on the end-to-end rape review, during which we took a hard and honest look at how the entire criminal justice system deals with rape. In too many instances, it simply has not been good enough. We will not rest until we have delivered real improvements.
The right hon. Gentleman asked about the timing for the VAWG national communications campaign, which is a central part of our tackling violence against women and girls strategy. It was a key commitment that we would launch a comms campaign this financial year that targets and challenges the perpetrators of these awful crimes, and ensures that victims can recognise abuse and receive support. It is vital that the public do not think that there is any way that they can get away with these unacceptable behaviours and crimes. I reassure him that a considerable amount of work is going on with stakeholders. I am leading on that work and have had numerous meetings with the women’s sector, academics and victims’ services.
We want to ensure that we get the campaign right. Clearly, designing any Government-led campaign is complex. We need to ensure that the messages, when we promote them, are received and are likely to lead to the kind of behaviour change that we want, because we are spending public money on it and we want to ensure that we get it right. We have a collaborative process under way, which we are very confident will help to deliver an effective campaign that provides value for money and delivers lasting change. I am confident that the right hon. Gentleman will see some tangible results very soon. Please be reassured that I am pushing the team in the Home Office to crack on with that work because, as he says, it is vital.
The right hon. Gentleman also asked about time limits for bringing claims. In England and Wales there is a statutory time limit of three years for bringing a personal injury claim, although section 33 of the Limitation Act 1980 makes express provision for the court to exercise discretion in granting extensions to that. Such discretion is regularly applied in historical sexual abuse claims, and judges have guidance on what should be taken into consideration, including guidance specific to child sexual abuse cases. The right hon. Gentleman will no doubt be aware of the independent inquiry into child sexual abuse that is under way. In our strategy, we have said that we will consider further reform in the light of the inquiry’s recommendations, which we have not yet received.
The right hon. Gentleman highlights the Scottish legislation, which offers one possible model that we will consider as part of the process. He may wish to know that there have been some claims. In 2020, three claims over 20 years beyond the three-year statutory time limit were allowed by the judge to proceed to trial following a section 33 exemption application, although I appreciate that his constituent has not had that experience. Undoubtedly, there is a frustration in her case.
I put on the record again my sincere thanks to the right hon. Gentleman for advocating on behalf of his constituent. I wish her all the best. He said that she is a determined woman, so I pay tribute to her ongoing fight to receive justice; it is vital that she does so. She has shown such bravery in telling her story and sharing her terrible experience. Although I obviously cannot provide him with an immediate resolution, I hope that I can reassure him that we are taking the issue seriously. We are taking all the steps that we can to ensure that victims receive access to justice. I ask him to write to me with full details of the case, and I or a ministerial colleague will meet with him. Some of the issues are led by different Departments—some sit with the Ministry of Justice; some even sit with Health—but we will assess that, and we will definitely meet her and him, to ensure that we have explored all possible avenues.
Question put and agreed to.
Deforestation in the Amazon
[Mr Philip Hollobone in the Chair]
Before we begin, I have some notices that Mr Speaker requires me to read out. I remind Members that they are expected to wear face coverings when they are not speaking in the debate, in line with current Government guidance and that of the House of Commons Commission. I also remind Members that they are asked by the House to have a covid lateral flow test twice a week if coming on to the parliamentary estate. This can be done either at the testing centre in the House or at home. Please also give each other and members of staff space when seated, and when entering and leaving the room.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered deforestation in the Amazon.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. One or two Members present will know that this is not the first debate that we have had on this subject in recent months, and I am grateful to have the opportunity to bring the issue back to the House. It was six months ago that we last debated the future of the Amazon here in Westminster Hall, so why bring the same issue back so quickly? The simple answer is that nothing shows any signs of changing. If anything, the situation is showing signs of worsening, despite the warm words at COP26.
We all know that the Amazon is one of the world’s most important ecosystems, if not the most important. It has been a vital carbon sink and is home to large numbers of indigenous people. Step by step, however, it is being destroyed. It is not the only place in the world where there is a major issue around deforestation, and Brazil is not the only country that faces similar challenges, that is taking controversial decisions or that faces illegal activity, but the reality is that the Amazon is the flagship of forests around the world, and it must be protected for the future.
For many years, it looked as though progress was being made. When I went to Brazil as a Minister and met Ministers there seven years ago, the level of deforestation was at its lowest for decades. It really did seem as though things were moving in the right direction, but I am afraid all that has now changed. Last year, deforestation was at its highest level for 20 years. Despite the Brazilian Government’s commitments at COP26 and the warm words, there is no sign of that ending. Land is being cleared every day for beef production, illegal logging, mining and urban development. Large areas continue to be burned each year to make way for land speculation, and vast numbers of the rarest species on Earth are being endangered as a result.
Why is it time for this House to debate this issue again, and for legislators here to send the strongest possible message to the Brazilians that deforestation must stop? The answer lies in two separate measures that are before the Brazilian Senate and due to be debated there again either later next month or in March. Both would have a further disastrous effect on the Amazon, and it is crucial that the Brazilian Senate steps in to take action to avoid the worst impacts of the legislation. The first measure would further legalise what have been illegal land grabs in the publicly owned part of the Amazon rainforest. The Brazilian Government control an area of the rainforest that is more than twice the size of France. Under Brazilian law, where logging is permitted on this land, it has to be carried out in a sustainable way. However, the reality is that over the years, there have been numerous illegal seizures and invasions of parts of that land, with huge areas being cleared for agriculture.
Brazilian law previously permitted the regularisation of such invasions that took place before 2011. Any subsequent invasion has been a criminal act, and the obligation is to restore the land to forest management, but the measures before the Brazilian Parliament are close to moving that deadline forward, from 2011 to 2017—six years later. That will effectively except a huge number of further illegal activities, and it will expose forest areas that are illegally occupied to further clearance. This will have the real-world effect of exposing of millions of hectares of forest to further clearance. The measure being considered also reduces the checks and balances on such occupation. In reality, this means that someone can claim responsibility for and ownership of an area without even being in that area. Environmental groups and researchers are warning that, in total, the measure could lead to the deforestation of up to 16,000 sq km of the Amazon over the next five years.
The second measure before the Brazilian Senate changes the country’s laws on environmental impact assessments, so that it will no longer be a requirement to analyse and mitigate indirect environmental impacts of a new project—the result being to make it much easier to build new roads through some of the most important areas of the Amazon. That leads to further deforestation, as it opens up previously inaccessible areas to illegal logging, mining and other activity that creates forest clearance. The evidence to support this looks incontrovertible to me; the research has demonstrated a clear link between road building and deforestation, with almost all previous deforestation taking place within 5.5 km of an official or unofficial road.
More worrying still, the measure creates an automatic self-licensing system, which allows applicants to self-declare that they will follow environmental standards, without any checks and balances to make sure that they do. There is a lot of support for small projects—that is probably reasonable—but not for big projects. They are the ones that lead to big impacts on the Amazon. For those major projects, it matters enormously. Taken together, these measures represent a clear and present danger to the future of the Amazon rainforest and its biodiversity.
COP26 may not have delivered all of the Government’s ambitions for tackling climate change, but it was notable for the general agreement to protect biodiversity and ecosystems. Some 141 countries, including Brazil, signed a declaration to work collectively to halt and reverse forest loss and land degradation by 2030, and over £20 billion of public and private funding was pledged to achieve that. The real question is whether those 141 countries, which control almost all of the world’s forests, will deliver on that commitment. The biggest question of all is whether the Brazilians, who control most of the world’s most important forest—the Amazon—will change course and act to prevent it from disappearing.
It is all very well countries having a commitment to end illegal deforestation by 2028 if they get there, but it is pretty pointless if it is preceded by five years of slash and burn—a wave of further deforestation that destroys tens of thousands more square miles of what is the world’s most important ecosystem. The evidence shows that clearing land for agriculture often only brings temporary benefits to agriculture anyway. Land in the Atlantic forest, which was Brazil’s other major forest, is now often degraded and of poor agricultural quality, so cutting down trees does not always create fertile land for the future.
I thank my right hon. Friend for giving way and for securing this debate. My argument with the Brazilians is twofold: not only is there deforestation, but, as my right hon. Friend was just saying, they are not actually making good use of the land when they farm it. Basically, they farm all of the fertility out of the land, then leave it and move on to other land. It is bad in all respects, not only for the environment, but for agriculture.
My hon. Friend makes a very important point, and he knows very well the world of agriculture. Smart land management could give Brazil a higher quality agricultural resource without chopping down the Amazon. That is what it needs to achieve.
This is an important moment for Parliament to send a message to our counterparts in the Brazilian Senate and the Chamber of Deputies on this issue. I hope the Chamber of Deputies will adopt any amendments that the Senate pushes through next month, and I hope the Senate, when looking at these issues in the next couple of months, will put in place safeguards to stop deforestation. Parliament can send a message to the Brazilian Government, who I know will be following this debate and will get a report back on it. We are a friendly nation and a friend that is not afraid to criticise when it is appropriate to do so, but there is a very strong view in this Parliament that this has to stop. The Brazilians need to be good citizens of the world. They have an asset they need to protect, and they need to do the right thing.
It is in the Brazilian Government’s interests to do so, because more and more countries and people around the world now see environmental protection as crucial for the future of the planet. What that means is that more and more decisions will be taken by consumers, investors and Governments that underline that necessity. A country that chooses not to follow the same path will, step by step, acquire pariah status. The UK has already legislated to ban forest risk products from illegal sources. Other countries are strengthening their legislation, too, and I think there will be more change on that front.
Major buyers of agricultural products are also having to review their supply chains to ensure that the purchases they make come from sustainable sources. Major retailers use earth observation data from satellites to track the origins of their purchases. Sustainable food labelling—something that I have championed in this House—will inevitably come, either through regulation or simply by the choice of the retailers themselves. Customers will choose not to buy products that come from unsustainable sources.
Then there is the investment issue. International investment institutions are under increased pressure from their investors to provide green investment routes and to walk away from those that are not sustainable. A number of pressure groups have highlighted major financial institutions that continue to fund projects in places such as the Amazon that damage the environment, and their investors are not going to put up with this for much longer. They are already under intense pressure to stop doing that. That pressure will grow and grow, and they will have to walk away from those projects. The reality is that countries that simply ignore international pressure to protect their own ecosystems will lose investment in the future.
Then there are trade agreements, which will increasingly require commitments on environmental improvements. I expect, and strongly support and urge the Government to consider, the introduction of punitive tariffs on forest risk products from countries that ignore international pressures and continue to destroy vital ecosystems. I say to Ministers: there can be no question of this Parliament backing a trade agreement with Brazil while extensive forest clearances in the Amazon continue. I urge them and the international community to set out detailed plans for how they will impose punitive tariffs on those forest risk products if countries where the risk of forest clearance is great do not take action to stop it happening. The commitments made in Glasgow must be met.
There will of course be those who argue that taking this kind of action in the western world will be pointless if the huge and growing Chinese market for agricultural produce remains in place and if the Chinese do not participate with similar measures. However, that is not a reason for us to stand aside, or not to send those messages and take the action we need to protect the world’s vital ecosystems. We all know, understand and deal with the economic issues and challenges that our nations face, but all countries, in all parts of the world, have to face up to the reality that over the next years we all have a duty to protect our ecosystems and our natural world.
My message to our Brazilians counterparts, in the Senate, the Chamber of Deputies and the Brazilian Government, is this. We know it is tough. We know there are economic challenges. We know that the easiest option is often the most straightforward one to take politically. But in the end, if we destroy ecosystems around the planet, humanity will all pay a terrible price, whether we are Brazilian, British, American, Chinese or whatever. The Amazon is probably the jewel in the crown among all our most important ecosystems. Our friends in Brazil have a historic duty to protect it. Too much of it has already been lost, but in the end Brazil will suffer if it is not protected, because there is a tide of opinion around the world that will punish any country that no longer protects its natural resources.
Brazil is a great country. It is a long-standing friend of the United Kingdom, and good friends are not afraid to tell the truth. I urge the Minister, her colleagues and the Foreign Secretary to do just that in their interactions. The deforestation of the Amazon is wrong and it must stop. There will be a dreadful price to pay, for Brazilians and all of us, if it does not stop.
The debate will last until 1 pm. I am obliged to call the Front Benchers no later than 12.27 pm, and the guideline limits are 10 minutes for the Scottish National party, 10 minutes for Her Majesty’s Opposition and 10 minutes for the Minister. Then Chris Grayling will have three minutes at the end of the debate to sum it up. Until 12.27 pm, it is time for Back-Bench contributions, and there are four very distinguished Back Benchers seeking to contribute, starting with Kerry McCarthy.
Thank you, Mr Hollobone, for calling me to speak, and happy new year to you; it is a pleasure to see you in the Chair.
I congratulate the right hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) on his persistence on this issue and on securing this debate. As he said, deforestation in the Amazon is a devastating emergency, not just in its impact on the climate but in terms of biodiversity. The Amazon is known as the lungs of the Earth because of its immense capacity for carbon storage, but it is now being reported that the Amazon may be a net emitter of carbon because of relentless deforestation. It is absolutely tragic that we have reached that stage. That deforestation is not just tacitly supported by the Bolsonaro regime, but driven by it.
With the conference of the parties to the convention on biological diversity set to meet this year in China, it is important to flag up the biodiversity issue. The Amazon is said to be home to 10% of the known species on Earth. The rainforest may also be home to tiny little frogs or other creatures that have not been discovered yet, but none the less add to the richness of life on Earth.
As has been said, the situation is getting worse. In 2021, deforestation in the Amazon rose by 22% to the highest level since 2006. The World Wide Fund for Nature estimates that if current deforestation and degradation rates continue, about 40% of the Amazon rainforest will be lost by 2050. That process is primarily being driven by the clearing of land to grow commodities such as beef, soya for cattle food and palm oil, as well as by illegal logging.
It is a difficult call for developing countries when they have natural resources that could be exploited. I am very much in the “preserve our natural resources” camp rather than the “plunder them” camp. However, as we have seen in the past, for example with Ecuador and its Yasuní national park—it rivals the Galápagos for biodiversity, but there are mineral reserves in the park that could be exploited—if an impoverished country has the key to riches in its own backyard, it is difficult for a Government who seek to relieve poverty in that country.
We see the same thing with small island developing states or poorer coastal states. Do they exploit their marine environment, and allow overfishing and the plundering of what resources they have, or do they seek to protect it for future generations? I think that Mozambique is the best example of this situation at the moment. The country’s people could be totally lifted out of poverty because of the country’s fossil fuel reserves, but at the same time that would be a massive risk to biodiversity and in terms of the climate impact.
The UK Government could do more. The UK is the centre of green finance, but I think we could also do more to promote some of the mechanisms that are in place, for example with blue bonds, which carbon emitters can use for biodiversity offsetting to pay such countries, so that they do not have to exploit their natural reserves. I do not think that Brazil is quite in that camp, in that it is a wealthier country than some of those. Also, what is being done in Brazil is not being driven by commercial common sense. It is a rush for riches in the short term and, as the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) said, it is entirely counterproductive, because in the end they will just raze it to the ground and destroy any richness in the soil, and they will be in a position where they have destroyed all their natural assets.
We need to act. As the right hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell has said, because of public pressure and the growing horror at what Bolsonaro is doing, we are starting to see supermarkets, for example, saying that they will not sell meat that is linked to deforestation in the Amazon. I read an article recently about cheese that is indirectly linked to deforestation; it can be traced back through the supply chain to deforestation. It is good that supermarkets and consumers are acting.
As we are in Veganuary, people would expect me to talk about the way that consumers are choosing to reduce their meat consumption. Not everybody has to go vegan, obviously, but it would support sustainable farming in this country if people who were seeking to reduce their meat consumption sought to buy locally produced meat from sustainably reared animals, such as grass-fed animals—if they cannot go the whole hog by going vegan. It is not just about whether the beef comes from countries that are complicit in deforestation; it is about where the cattle feed and feed for other animals comes from.
I have mentioned what supermarkets, other corporates and consumers are doing. The Government also need to act, and the Environment Act 2021 was a wasted opportunity to act on deforestation. Its provisions cover only illegal deforestation, which ignores the fact that much overseas deforestation is in line with local laws. I know that the Act was not the property of the Minister’s Department, but I plead with her for the Government to think about strengthening those provisions on deforestation when the secondary legislation comes forward. The evidence is there that that must be done if the measures are to be at all effective.
It is not clear when the Government’s proposals will come into force. The consultation that was recently launched suggests that it could take up to four or five years to implement them if all key commodities are covered at once. That is hardly an urgent legislative solution. At COP26, Brazil itself set a slightly baffling target to end illegal deforestation by 2028—I say “slightly baffling” because we do not really know what that means. There is every chance that Brazil could just move the goalposts and make legal what is now illegal—what does it mean by legal deforestation? If the UK’s own provisions do not come into effect until 2026-27, that will not really help the situation in the Amazon in the meantime.
As we have heard, this year the Brazilian Senate will vote on legislation that would make it far easier to legally seize and deforest land in the Amazon, which is something that WWF has been warning about for months. The due diligence provisions in the Environment Act are an improvement, but they fall far short of what is needed. It is also worth noting that they are considerably less ambitious than what the European Union is doing. The EU’s proposals will cover supply chains linked to illegal and legal deforestation, so I do not see any reason why the UK cannot do the same.
The UK provisions fall far short of addressing links between UK financial institutions and deforestation. The Government refused, on Report, to support amendments to the Environment Bill that would have prevented UK financial institutions from funding firms linked to deforestation. I moved one of those amendments in the Environment Bill Committee. I simply do not see the justification for the Government’s refusal. Global Witness has estimated that HSBC made $5.1 million from supporting beef trading and producing activities at just three Brazilian agribusinesses in the last five years.
Although Government Members have expressed concern about Amazon deforestation, they have been silent about the recent Australian trade deal, despite Australia’s abysmal record on deforestation. It is actually the only developed nation on WWF’s list of global deforestation hotspots. We know that Australian beef farming has been directly linked to 13,500 hectares of deforestation since 2018, yet the UK has now signed a trade agreement to promote imports of Australian beef. Again, this is at the expense of UK farmers. I can see the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton nodding at that. This is something that we continually press. The whole point of Brexit and negotiating our own trade deals was meant to be to protect our own. Obviously, I was on the remain side; I did not really subscribe to that viewpoint. However, now that Brexit is a given, surely we should be protecting British farmers and not importing products when, in the process, we are complicit in supporting deforestation in other countries. We need consistency in our international approach to deforestation. We cannot sell out our principles in our desperation to sign trade deals.
It is not just the rainforest that is under threat in the Amazon; other natural ecosystems are rapidly being lost. Mangrove forests are being destroyed at a rate of 1.2% a year to make way for shrimp farms and tourist hotspots. Mangrove forests can store up to four times more carbon than rainforests and play an important part in climate adaptation, protecting coastlines and so on. They must be part of any effective conservation strategy. I suspect the Minister has not considered this, but will she speak to her colleagues about whether we can expand the list of forest risk commodities to cover shrimp, to avoid further mangrove destruction?
Finally, we have been here before. The New York declaration on forests—a similar agreement—was signed in 2014, but has done little to halt global deforestation. Given that we have the presidency of COP for the next year, now is the time to ensure that we bring in an agreement that achieves something.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) for securing the debate.
I will concentrate on Brazil and the deforestation that has been going on there. I agree with my right hon. Friend that we are a critical friend of Brazil, but we need to be critical when an area twice the size of Devon was deforested last year alone. While the Brazilians are making good noises about COP26 and the environment, in practice that is not reflected on the ground.
Between 1990 and 2016, the world lost some 502,000 square miles of rainforest—an area larger than South Africa. In 2020 alone, over 11,000 sq km of the Amazon was lost to deforestation, which is the largest area in 12 years. As I said, that is twice the size of Devon. Between 2001 and 2018, Brazil lost almost 55 million hectares of tree cover, at a rate of 5.7 football pitches per minute. Deforestation rates in the Brazilian Amazon are at their highest in 15 years, and over the past 50 years forest coverage across the Amazon biome has declined by some 20%. There may be warm words, but the actions in Brazil do not show them.
In July 2021, scientists confirmed that the Amazon is a net producer of CO2, emitting more carbon dioxide than it absorbs, as the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) said. We can all work on a cross-party basis to bring about pressure to correct the situation in Brazil.
The importance of the Amazon has been stated before. The Amazon alone contains some 90 billion to 140 billion metric tonnes of carbon. It is significantly more effective to maintain the current tree cover than to replant forests retrospectively. A tree in the Amazon rainforest probably holds as much carbon as two or three trees in this country just because of the rate of growth.
Forests hold 80% of the world’s terrestrial biodiversity. They support complex ecosystems such as plant life, animals, soils, bacteria and fungi. They also support our food supply system by ensuring that we have enough pollinators as well as providing pest control. The Amazon holds at least 10% of the world’s biodiversity and accounts for 15% of total river discharge into the oceans. Forest degradation can lead to catastrophic impacts, including increased soil erosion, disruption of water cycles, loss of habitat for endangered animals and increased greenhouse gases. Because the Amazon carries around 15% of the world’s freshwater into the sea, it probably has an impact on the salt in the sea overall.
Forests are home to communities and indigenous people. The Amazon is home to some 34 million people, including almost 3 million indigenous people. Half the Amazon basin is covered by protected areas and indigenous territories. Over 100 communities live in voluntary isolation. Illegal deforestation destroys communities, homes, livelihoods, culture and a way of life. Land that is the ancestral and sovereign right of indigenous communities is being taken by violent force, driven by consumer demand for widely used commodities. A Global Witness report entitled “Last Line of Defence” stated that 227 lethal attacks were carried out on land defenders in 2020—an average of more than four people a week—making this
“the most dangerous year on record for people defending their homes, land and livelihoods, and the ecosystems vital for biodiversity and the climate.”
I welcome the action taken by the UK Government in the Environment Act 2021. The Government have introduced a law that prohibits the use of certain commodities associated with illegal deforestation, and they have placed a requirement on large companies to undertake due diligence and reporting on their supply chains. That will prohibit the use of forest risk commodities within the UK market and encourage other nations to carry out proper due diligence when sourcing materials. We need only look at major importers of cereal into this country, such as Cargill, to know that much of the soya comes from Brazil. We need to question exactly where it has come from. Has it come from land that has been illegally deforested? The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is carrying out a consultation on secondary provisions that will run until March this year, which is an opportunity to strengthen the Environment Act to ensure that institutions cannot profit from illegal deforestation.
Agrifood expansion continues to drive deforestation in the Amazon. It is the main driver of deforestation, forest degradation and the associated loss of biodiversity. Large-scale commercial agriculture, primarily cattle ranching and the cultivation of soya bean and palm oil, accounted for 40% of tropical deforestation between 2000 and 2010, and local subsistence accounted for another 33%. A Global Witness report from October 2020, entitled “Beef, Banks and the Brazilian Amazon”, found that Brazil’s three largest beef companies were linked to tens of thousands of hectares of illegal deforestation, despite auditors saying otherwise. Over three years,
“beef giants JBS, Marfrig and Minerva bought cattle from a combined 379 ranches containing 20,000 football fields worth of illegal deforestation”.
A study in the Science journal states that
“roughly 20% of soya exports and at least 17% of beef exports”
“may be contaminated with illegal deforestation.”
The Bolsonaro Administration are in the process of implementing legislation that will legalise deforestation on public land for agricultural practices that has taken place since 2017. If granted a land title, businesses that have invaded land will be allowed to deforest public land and sell it for high profits. I say to the Brazilian Government that if they are really mindful that they will stop deforestation, such laws go completely in the opposite direction.
Financial institutions continue to hold the purse strings for illegal deforesting activity. The 2019 Global Witness report entitled “Money to Burn” found that more than 300 banks and investors had provided some $44 billion of finance to six of the world’s worst deforesters over the previous six years. It found that major financial institutions, such as HSBC, Santander and Barclays, have investments in agribusinesses that continue to carry out large-scale illegal deforestation. The investments and pensions of UK consumers may well be being used to fund deforestation.
A further 2021 Global Witness report, “Deforestation Dividends”, has found that financial institutions are bankrolling and profiting from agribusinesses that are destroying rainforest and forest habitats across the globe. Banks and asset management companies based in the EU, UK, US and China have invested $157 billion into firms accused of destroying rainforests in Brazil, south-east Asia and Africa since the Paris climate agreement. Global financial institutions including Deutsche Bank, J.P. Morgan, BNP Paribas, Rabobank and Bank of China have profited by some $1.74 billion in interest, dividends and fees from financing agribusinesses that carry out the most deforestation.
At a recent sitting of the Liaison Committee, the Prime Minister stated that more than 40 banks have signed up to the voluntary Glasgow declaration on forests and land use at COP26, which he said included Barclays and Aviva. However, no high street bank has, as yet, signed up to the agreement. I urge the Minister and the Government to put pressure on our banks to stop funding illegal deforestation. There is much we can do. If we can starve these major companies of credit, we can stop much of the deforestation.
Finally, I repeat that as we talk and trade with Brazil in the future, we must be absolutely certain that it has put its house in order. There must be no illegal deforestation, and the indigenous populations must not face having their land destroyed or taken from them, or, even worse, being killed. This debate is timely. I have used some strong language today, but I think it is important to highlight the current situation. I hope that it will improve in future, not only for the environment and agriculture, but for those indigenous people who are suffering.
Thank you for permitting me to speak, Mr Hollobone. I also thank the right hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) for leading today’s debate—one of the first in Westminster Hall since the Christmas and new year break. I am very pleased to be back to some sort of normality in Westminster.
I spoke in the debate on deforestation in the Amazon last June, to which the right hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell referred, in the hope that the situation would be more positive in the months to come. However, he is correct: we have not seen much of that positivity seven months later, which is disappointing.
The stories in the press showing the removal and cutting of trees are real. We see them on TV nearly every week. The hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) referred to the size of the trees. I have large trees on my land—the hon. Gentleman probably has gigantic trees on his land, too—but the ones in the Amazon rainforest are three times the height of the biggest ones on my land. Those trees have a circumference way beyond our imagination, which tells us how long they have been there and the importance that they have. The deforestation is shocking and worrying.
When we discuss deforestation, we must remember the importance that trees have for our world. We all understand that. I am not a tree-hugger, but I love trees. I have planted some 3,500 on my land. That is nothing to the extent of the trees in the Amazon, but I do it because I understand the importance of having trees where the opportunity arises. They are often overlooked, and we forget that trees are needed for everyone’s most basic function: to breathe. Trees remove excess carbon dioxide from our atmosphere through photosynthesis. Trees are also essential in combatting climate change and providing sustainable habitats for the 3 million species that live in the Amazon rainforest.
I was introduced to Brazil and the Amazon rainforest some 40 years ago by the missionaries of my Baptist church in Newtownards. They had worked in the rainforest and they used to tell us stories from there; Sadie Grant is still a missionary out there. At that time, the rainforest was in abundance. It was buzzing with life; the trees were still there. Look at the map today.
As has been mentioned—I am pretty sure those who speak after me will refer to this, too—the map illustrates that wide swathes of rainforest have been removed. That has been described as catastrophic, and it is. We can see the destruction just from looking at the map. This is not just about the destruction of the trees, but about the impact on the animals there, which is certainly something that I have noticed in the TV programmes that I have watched and in media stories. Those animals have lost their habitats, and the impact on threatened species cannot be ignored.
Although the debate is about the deforestation in the Amazon, I will take a minute to highlight some figures closer to home. Forest conservation is crucial not only in the Amazon but globally. It saddens me to say that Northern Ireland is the second most deforested part of Europe. The Woodland Trust has stated that UK forests currently cover 12% of the land area, which is very low compared with some of our European neighbours. France and Germany, to name but two, have forest cover of 29% and 32% respectively, and forest cover makes up 47% of Europe’s total land area. We have a lot to do here in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland to address that issue. The UK is seriously lagging behind and must improve.
Recent data from Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research shows that deforestation in Brazil’s Amazon rainforest has hit a 15-year high. That is backed up by the media and pictorial coverage, and by the evidence base that we have all mentioned. The institute found that some 13,235 sq km—or 8,224 square miles—of forest was lost in the short period between August 2020 and July 2021. Wow! Those astonishing figures give an idea of the magnitude of what is happening, and really emphasise the damage that the Amazon faces, as well as the lack of action.
I have every respect for the Minister, but I look to her to step up the pressure. We must use all tools at our disposal to bring a stop to continuous deforestation throughout the world. I very much look forward to hearing the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Leeds North East (Fabian Hamilton), whose comments are always constructive and helpful. He will capture in his own way what we are all saying.
The knock-on impact that deforestation is having on our planet is serious. Whether we are pro-environmentalism or sceptical of it, the proof is there in those devastating figures on the level of destruction. Deforestation in the Amazon has damaged habitats, diminished our levels of biodiversity and food sources, degraded soil, polluted rivers and lands, and affected overall productivity for the people and animals who live there.
I echo the comments made by the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton: the indigenous tribes in the Amazon need protection, whether through an alternative in employment or through help for them to survive. They do not see deforestation as a means of income, and that must take priority, because people have to eat and survive. That consideration has to be part of the future.
I receive many emails from my constituents, who are all too often concerned about the impacts of deforestation on our planet. I urge the Minister and the Department not to let the problem get out of control. In the heart of Brazil, what was once a wonder of the world that we all appreciated and loved is being destroyed further every hour. Others have referred to areas the size of football pitches being removed in a minute. The Amazon is invaluable to our ecosystem—not just for Brazil, but for the whole world—and deforestation threatens the 30 million people who reside there.
I welcome the Government’s commitments and the achievements reached at COP26, but we need more than words. I would like to see a wee bit more action, because we perhaps do not see action in the way that we should. COP26 gave us a lot of encouragement and a united spurt the world over in how we deal with these issues, but we have to move beyond words and into action. Again, I wish—as we all do—to see that action and how it can be delivered.
The UK has previously set out plans to introduce a new law clamping down on illegal deforestation and protecting rainforests by cleaning up the UK’s supply chain. Again, I urge the Government, the Minister and relevant Departments to stick to those plans. Perhaps, in response to this debate, the Minister will be able to give us some indication of where they are on that.
I will conclude with this. As I stated in the previous debate and I reiterate once again, we can only do so much ourselves; we must and, I believe, do encourage Brazil to stop the deforestation through gentle persuasion. We are a critical friend. We need Brazil, on behalf of us all—on behalf of itself and of the world—to realise the benefits of protecting our world’s most beautiful forest, and the Amazon rainforest is the most beautiful.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) on his persistence in bringing this issue before the House again. He is absolutely right to do so, because it really matters. But there should be a small note of humility from us, in this country, when raising this issue, as far as Brazil and other South American countries are concerned: we should remember that only about 13% of the UK is covered in woods and forests. It is not as if we are in a neighbourhood where we cannot grow trees happily, because the figure is 44% in Europe as a whole. Obviously, it is true that we cut down many of our trees many years ago when we did not know the science and were not as well educated as we are today, but I think it is worth just putting it on the record that we have a lot to do here in our own country. I know that many of us are absolutely passionate about that and are pressing the Government to keep going with what they are doing in that area.
We are right to be here today to press the Brazilian Government and others to do more, because the fate of the Amazon quite literally guides the fate of our planet. The Amazon is a global resource, which is why, as Members of Parliament here in the United Kingdom, we are having this debate today. It has global impact, and we know that globally the situation is pretty catastrophic.
In the last 60 years, more than half of the tropical forests worldwide have been destroyed. That is an appalling record. Given what we know today, to hear from the Chairman of the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish), that 5.7 football pitches’ worth of trees are being cut down in the Amazon every minute means that the alarm bells should be ringing here and all over the world.
Let us look at what the Government have done so far. They have not been idle on this issue. They recognise it. It was, after all, the Prime Minister who, in the run-up to COP, spoke memorably about
“coal, cars, cash and trees”.
Those broad headings are a very easy way to remember what we need to be doing at the moment, and trees are vital. That is why the Government’s leadership on the Global Resource Initiative taskforce was welcome and absolutely right. It was why what we did in the Environment Act with the due diligence law on illegal deforestation—I will say a bit more on the other part of that shortly—was also right. That, I think, is world leading and a major advance. We can push to go further, but we should welcome it. Lastly, the Glasgow leaders’ declaration on forests and land use was also very welcome. That was signed up to by 141 countries, which cover 90% of the world’s forests.
All that is good, but we need to do more, and I want to mention four areas where I think we can make progress. They have been mentioned before, but it is necessary to stress how important they are. The first is the financial backing for illegal deforestation. The bank that I bank with was mentioned by the Chairman of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee; I will be writing a letter to the managing director of that particular bank today on the basis of what my hon. Friend has told me. I do not want to leave that bank; it is a great bank—a great British bank. I am not going to name it here, but it was one of the three household—high street—banks that my hon. Friend named and I expect it to do better.
I want my bank to know that, as one of its customers, I am not happy with what it is doing here. There is a particular issue around audit and the audit trail globally; I think it was the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) who said that some of the auditors were saying this was fine. There are problems: whether it is polysilicon in Xinjiang and solar panels or exactly what has happened to part of the Amazon rainforest, it is difficult for us to be absolutely sure. We need to think more about how we can ensure proper compliance with standards that we are all happy with. However, first of all, banks and financial institutions absolutely must do better.
Secondly, on legal and illegal deforestation, all deforestation should concern us greatly. One brief I read said that around 50% of deforestation is apparently legal. That is not good enough. We need to go further down that route. I respect the difficulties of drafting legislation to do something about that, and I know the Government have wrestled with the issue. It is an issue that we need to keep reminding the Government about. A great first step has been taken on illegal deforestation, but there is more to be done.
Thirdly, we must make sure that the very good commitments at COP26 from those 141 countries are actually enforced; unfortunately there is precedent of previous declarations—the New York declaration on forests, for example—having great-sounding words that are not followed through into action. Specifically, we must clarify what to “halt” and “reverse” forest loss actually means. If it is possible under that definition to destroy pristine rainforest and replace it with a commercial timber or palm oil plantation and claim there has been no net loss of forest cover, the agreement is simply not worth the paper it is written on. We know from other parts of the world where that has happened that there is a massive difference in the amount of carbon sequestered and biodiversity loss from palm oil plantations, for example, compared with pristine rainforest. There is more to do to drill down into the detail. It would be helpful if the Minister could explain how enforcement of the COP declaration will work.
My main point is about what every one of us can do as consumers. I have no problem in holding my Government, of whom I am very proud, to account on areas where I want them to go further and faster and where they need a little encouragement. However, we all have power as consumers. When we do our weekly shop, we can make choices about what goes into our shopping trolley. I think very few of our constituents do not care deeply about this issue. When my constituents in Leighton Buzzard, Linslade, Dunstable and Houghton Regis go to the supermarket, I want them to be absolutely certain that what they put in their shopping trollies week by week is not contributing to this problem.
The parallel I draw is with what the Fairtrade Foundation did many years ago. I am extremely proud that Leighton Buzzard was the first town in Bedfordshire to get Fairtrade status. People got it, because they wanted the people producing their food to be properly looked after and fairly paid. The Fairtrade Foundation is a respected global institution; when we see its logo on something, we buy with confidence because we know that people are being respected.
I have a little challenge to the likes of the World Wildlife Foundation, which sent an excellent brief for today’s debate—I have not raised this with it, so it may be a bit surprised that I am teeing it up to take on this work. Where is the global equivalent of the Fairtrade Foundation logo, so that when we go to a supermarket we absolutely know that what we buy is not contributing to deforestation? We have talked about the problems of auditing and making absolutely sure, but we could put it the other way and say that, unless someone can categorically prove to us that a product has not contributed to deforestation, they do not get the logo. It is very simple. Make the onus the other way around—“You come to us and prove it, and if you do that to our satisfaction, we will then give you the logo”, and people will buy. I do not know whether I am missing something here, but I do not know why that idea has not got legs and had more mileage. I would love to discuss it with colleagues to see whether we could take that forward.
Consumer power is significant. Governments can do a great deal—I would not be a Member of this House if I did not believe in the power of what Government can do—but they are not the only means of taking action. We can write to our banks and we can choose what we put in our shopping trolleys if we know what is good and what is not. I challenge the World Wildlife Fund and others to think of replicating the excellent work done by the Fairtrade Foundation.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I thank the previous speakers, who have all brought insightful points to this debate, and I thank the right hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) for securing it.
When we last debated this subject in June, I noted that it had been two years since we had previously discussed deforestation in the Amazon. I concluded by saying that I did not want to be speaking about
“further reports of increasing rates of deforestation, logging, resource mining, tree burning for farming and cattle-raising, or…land seizures from indigenous people.”—[Official Report, 23 June 2021; Vol. 697, c. 384WH.]
Yet here we are, rather depressingly, less than seven months on from the last debate: tragically, it appears that global efforts to combat deforestation in the Amazon have not been strong enough and that the Bolsonaro regime in Brazil has continued to act with impunity.
Last month the Brazilian Government said that they wanted to end illegal deforestation by 2028. In September, President Bolsonaro told the United Nations—I quote without irony:
“No country in the world has a more complete environmental legislation than ours.”
Despite such bold statements, deforestation of the Brazilian Amazon has jumped by 22% in the last 12 months alone, reaching its highest level since 2006. The Brazilian research institute, Imazon, found that between August 2020 and July last year the Brazilian Amazon rainforest lost nearly 10,500 sq km—roughly the same area as the island of Jamaica. The simple fact is that deforestation has accelerated since President Bolsonaro took office in January 2019. Marcio Astrini from the Climate Observatory was damning in his remarks:
“We are seeing the Amazon rainforest being destroyed by a government which made environmental destruction its public policy.”
Exact figures are not available, but recent studies suggest that as much as 94% of deforestation and habitat destruction in Brazil could be illegal—that is more than nine tenths. Despite that, Bolsonaro has cut funding for the agencies responsible for prosecuting the farmers and loggers who break environmental law. Fines for illegal logging fell by more than a fifth in 2020 alone. There is potential for worse yet to come, as has previously been mentioned.
This year the Brazilian Senate will vote on two Bills, which could contribute enormously to increased deforestation and violence against indigenous peoples, particularly in the Amazon. If approved, the Bills will legalise land grabbing in public forests, inducing further deforestation; will weaken the existing verification of land titling mechanisms, which exist to prevent fraud; and will legalise a land-grabbing economy. The Bills will weaken the control over deforestation through the construction or improvement of roads that cross well-preserved forest regions. High-impact projects will be installed without environmental assessment, and they will allow automatic licensing of most projects, including mining and road improvement.
Problematically for the UK and the wider international community, the legalisation of deforestation has the potential to hinder their actions to prevent deforestation. For example, as has been mentioned, the UK Government’s commendable Environment Act 2021, passed in November, includes an obligation for firms to conduct due diligence to determine whether they can use commodities from areas that have been illegally deforested. It does not, however, take account of countries such as Brazil legalising illegal deforestation and therefore does not do enough to remove deforestation from supply chains. It is therefore vital that the UK Government make their opposition to the actions of the Brazilian Government clear and strengthen their own legislation if the proposals come to pass. The actions of the Bolsonaro regime must be met with international condemnation, and he must be held to account for his country’s international commitments. Nothing more, nothing less.
The Brazilian Government have been widely criticised for sending a delegation to COP26—I had the privilege to spend two weeks there in Glasgow—fully aware of their recent deforestation data, despite attempting to hide it. President Bolsonaro did not attend the summit; Brazil’s top climate diplomat, Paulino de Carvalho Neto, told Sky News—wait for it—that the President
“had other things to do.”
Furthermore, the land grabbing and environmental licensing Bills will lead Brazil in the opposite direction of pledges made at COP26, and will make it harder—if not impossible—to battle deforestation in the coming years. There are therefore deep and widespread concerns that the Brazilian Government cannot be regarded as an actor in good faith by the international community when it comes to deforestation. The consequences of the continued abuse of the Amazon will have a direct impact on the ability of all countries to tackle climate change. As a result, this is a matter of species survival and potential mass extinction over our entire planet. That is not something that we say easily in any debate, but it is now a matter of fact, not conjecture. Shockingly, the Amazon rainforest now emits more carbon than it absorbs. Scientists recently warned that it will reach an irreversible tipping point—some estimate within five years—beyond which it will not generate enough rain to support itself. This would be an unprecedented climate catastrophe that affected all living beings on Earth.
To briefly recap on previous debates, the Amazon rainforest is invaluable to the environment, producing as much as 20% of the world’s oxygen and acting as natural carbon capture for vast amounts of greenhouse gas emissions. Deforestation threatens the 30 million people who live there, including up to 400 indigenous groups, and many thousands of plant and animal species. It also threatens to fundamentally hinder attempts to tackle climate change, reversing any progress made so far and contributing to rising global temperatures, with all the devastation that this will bring.
If we are really serious about the climate emergency, we must use every tool available to us to ensure that we lead the international effort to end destructive deforestation in the Amazon and put pressure on Bolsonaro’s Government in Brazil. COP26 and the Osaka summit clarified Brazil’s obligations, and there should be diplomatic and economic consequences if Brazil chooses not to meet them. Exports of illegally cut logs must be cracked down on multilaterally. Rules of origin regulations must be looked at for any resources generated by habitat destruction. Furthermore, trade agreements should not be concluded outside a legal framework that enforces the agreements made at COP26 and elsewhere. Many EU states have threatened to dissolve the EU-Mercosur trade agreement if Brazil fails to live up to its commitments to tackle emissions and ensure protection for the Amazon rainforest, which is the key natural asset in tackling climate change.
Of course, deforestation is a global problem. The UN says that 1 billion acres of forest have been lost worldwide since 1990. At COP26, more than 100 world leaders promised to end and reverse deforestation by 2030. Brazil’s Government is not the only organisation responsible for deforestation; others must do more. Agriculture is the main cause of deforestation, but other sectors, such as the fashion industry, must look at becoming more sustainable. It is not just the banks, which have been mentioned; a recent report called out popular fashion brands, such as Prada, H&M, Zara, Adidas, Nike and Fendi, for having multiple connections to an industry that props up deforestation. I hope that their chief executive officers and customers are listening to today’s debate.
Others countries also have deforestation problems. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, which contains the Congo forest basin—the second-largest rainforest in the world—nearly half a million hectares of primary forest have been lost annually in the past five years, and the Government have announced a plan to lift the ban on new logging operations, which dates back to 2002. In Indonesia, however, there is a positive story. President Joko Widodo pledged in 2014 to crack down on deforestation by tackling the main contributor: land for palm oil plantations. In 2016, a record 929,000 hectares of forest disappeared, but there has been a steady decrease in the rate of deforestation since then, and by 2020, the loss was down to 270,000 hectares. Just a year before, in 2019, President Widodo issued a three-year moratorium on forest clearance covering about 66 million hectares of primary forest and peatland; that was extended indefinitely. It makes it all the more galling and infuriating that just weeks after the UK’s COP26 president visited Indonesia and called on it to move forward with plans to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050, the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office cancelled the green growth programme, which was designed to prevent deforestation in the Indonesian Papuan provinces, three years into its five-year programme. It was described as the most successful programme that had ever been seen in Indonesia.
The UK Government need to get serious and take action. Will the Minister ensure that resources are in place to combat deforestation across the world, or will his contribution be more words with little or no financial backing, just as the Government provided at recent education and nutrition replenishment summits? We need to hear that the UK Government plan to tackle deforestation in the Amazon and are co-operating with other Governments around the world, and with the EU, to do so. What recent discussions have the UK Government had with their counterparts in Brazil? How will they prevent goods from illegal or newly legalised deforestation making their way to the UK? Will protection of the Amazon be put front and centre in any trade talks and agreements with Brazil, to ensure that the UK does not share in the profits of the rainforest’s deliberate destruction?
The UK Government must send the strongest message possible, as we have done in the debate today, and take all appropriate actions to ensure that the catastrophic destruction of the Amazon is stopped. Failure to protect that vital, fragile ecosystem is a failure to support all those who live there and all of us who rely on it across our planet.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I add my thanks to the right hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) for once again securing this debate, which could not have come at a more important time for the future of the Amazon and the world. I also pay tribute to my predecessor on the Opposition Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office team, my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West), for her excellent work on this issue.
Today we have once again had a very good debate, reflecting few party political differences but determination among all those present to ensure that further destruction of the Amazon rainforest is ceased immediately. We heard from the proposer of the debate, the right hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell, that the situation in the Amazon has got worse in the past six months—nearly seven months—since our previous debate in the House. The Amazon is a flagship of forests around the world. The progress of the past has been reversed and land is being cleared at an alarming rate every single day.
The right hon. Gentleman said the Brazilian Senate must now step in to stop legislation that would add to that deforestation. That is a very important point and the reason we are here today. He explained why this House has an important role in helping to stop further deforestation, so that pressure from us is entirely relevant to what is happening in Brazil. Nothing could be clearer. I was grateful that he also made the link between road building and further deforestation. He said there is a clear and present danger to the future of the Amazon rainforest and biodiversity worldwide. Those points are vital. He also said that there should be no trade agreement between the United Kingdom and Brazil unless the destruction is stopped. We certainly endorse that.
We then heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy), in a powerful contribution, about the Amazon being the lungs of the Earth. We all know that, but it might now be emitting more carbon than it can possibly absorb. She pointed out that the Amazon is home to 10% of the world’s species. It is a challenge for nations that have rich natural resources but terrible poverty not to exploit those resources, but we must ensure and encourage those countries to do so. Brazil, of course, is not one of the poorest nations on earth. The UK Government really do need to act.
We then heard from the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish), who has great expertise, experience and knowledge of these issues, that Brazil is saying the right things but not acting in the right way. He gave us the statistics that support his assertion—staggering numbers. He mentioned the banks that should stop funding illegal deforestation.
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), in his typically excellent way, told us about the importance of trees—emphasising something we already know—in combating climate change and oxygenating the air that we breathe every day. The UK itself is seriously lagging behind in reforestation and we must seek protection for indigenous tribes in the Amazon. The hon. Gentleman’s constituents, like all of ours, are extremely concerned at the hourly destruction of the forests.
The hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) made the point that only 13% of the UK is covered in forest, so a little humility on our part is important, too. I hope when we talk to the Brazilians that we express that humility. We say this on behalf of all the inhabitants of planet Earth, whether human or not. He said it is right to press Brazil to do more, given the importance of Brazilian rainforests to the entire planet. Alarm bells should be ringing here and across the world.
We then heard an excellent summary from the SNP spokesperson the hon. Member for Dundee West (Chris Law). The destruction of trees and other plants in the Amazon is horrifying, and we must not allow it to continue if the world is to successfully tackle climate change. Just two months after President Bolsonaro signed an agreement at COP26 to end deforestation by 2030, deforestation has hit its highest level in 15 years and continues to go largely unabated. It is clear to me and to all of us that the Brazilian Government’s position is inherently contradictory, with President Bolsonaro continuously encouraging mining and agriculture in the Amazon and trying to pass legislation that allows commercial developments on protected land. Alongside that, his attempts to offer financial incentives to the ancient indigenous tribes to develop their land in the rainforest into soy plantations is completely unacceptable.
The result of these reckless actions is that the Amazon has begun, as we have heard this morning, to emit more carbon than it can possibly absorb. It surely has to be a priority of the international community to exhaust all diplomatic avenues to ensure that the Brazilian Government take urgent action to reverse this—and fast. Opening up Brazil’s economy to the world cannot come at the cost of the Amazon rainforest’s destruction. Other countries continue to import wood and beef from Brazil, and the Brazilian Government should not be made to bear sole responsibility for the destruction we are seeing.
Does the Minister believe that the UK Government’s plan to tackle overseas deforestation is fit for purpose, now that it has been watered down and that deforestation continues to go unchallenged? Given that this Government’s Ministers boasted of their world-leading approach to protecting vital rainforest habitats as part of the Environment Bill in November last year, launching a consultation in December pledging to
“clean up the UK’s supply chains”,
is the Minister concerned that the scheme applies only to deforestation that is legal under local laws, giving leaders such as President Bolsonaro, who is stripping away legal protections, a loophole to bypass the so-called clampdown?
Britain’s place in the world depends on its ability to meet the new challenges the Earth faces. It cannot afford to drag its feet on climate change and the deforestation of the Amazon. When will the Government match the pledges of our allies in Europe, who have acted both on illegal and legal deforestation, not only in the interests of bringing down carbon emissions, but also in protecting species under increasing threat of extinction?
We are facing a climate emergency. It is time that the Government properly used the UK’s formidable diplomatic influence to challenge President Bolsonaro on the deforestation of the Amazon. The Government’s current proposals are far too weak. It is clear to the Opposition that the Government do not view tackling climate change as the foremost priority of its international and foreign policy after they agreed a trade deal with Australia that had absolutely no environmental or climate safeguards. The UK has a huge part to play in the fight against climate change, and the deforestation of the Amazon is a clear example of where we in this country should be at the forefront of this fight.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I add my words of thanks and gratefulness to my right hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) for securing a second debate on this important topic. I thank my predecessor as Minister responsible for Latin America, my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Wendy Morton), for all her work on protecting the Amazon. I particularly thank her for the important work in the run-up to and during the COP26 meetings.
The importance of protecting the Amazon cannot be overstated, and we must tackle both climate change and biodiversity loss. Tackling deforestation is critical to both those issues, which is why it was at the heart of the UK’s COP26 presidency. In doing so, we must protect the natural environment and respect the rights of indigenous people. The Amazon, as the world’s largest rainforest, has to be at the centre of that effort. The Amazon is not only home to more than 10% of the world’s known plant and animal species but stores up to 200 billion tonnes of carbon—roughly a decade’s worth of global carbon dioxide emissions.
Around 17% of the Amazon has already been lost. If deforestation continues, it will reach a tipping point, potentially in the next decade. Unchecked deforestation will turn the Amazon from a carbon sink to a source of emissions, and the hope of keeping the 1.5° C target alive would slip from our grasp. Most of the emissions are caused by fires, many started deliberately to clear land for agriculture, particularly beef, as has been mentioned, and soy production. Even without fires, hotter temperatures and droughts mean that the south-eastern Amazon has already become a source of CO2 rather than a sink.
In this critical decade, protecting the Amazon while supporting a sustainable economic transition in the region is one of the most urgent challenges that we face. My right hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell discussed Brazil, whose Government control two thirds of the Amazon as public lands. We must also remember the countries that are home to the other third of the Amazon. At COP26, much progress was made. As has been mentioned, more than 140 leaders from countries that together host over 90% of the world’s forests pledged to halt and reverse forest loss by 2030. That pledge included Amazon countries, such as Brazil, Colombia and Peru.
We know that to turn that promise into a reality will require funding. That is why at COP26 the UK mobilised 12 donor countries to pledge $12 billion of public climate finance through to 2025 in a new global forest finance pledge. The UK is contributing £1.5 billion—approximately $2 billion—to that pledge. We also committed to invest up to £300 million of climate finance towards tackling deforestation and delivering green growth in the Amazon by 2025.
The hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) and my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) mentioned the importance of working with the financial sector. At COP26, 30 financial institutions, with more than $8.7 trillion of global assets, committed to eliminate investment in activities linked to deforestation. I know that that did not include all the banks that have been mentioned in the debate, and I call on other financial institutions to raise their ambitions. Nevertheless, the contribution from the private sector is deeply impressive. Although COP26 mobilised billions to support public sector investment in climate finance, it will be our efforts to mobilise trillions through deforestation-free supply chains that will deliver the substantive impact that we seek to achieve.
I welcome the fact that financial institutions have made that commitment to stop funding deforestation, but many of our own, homegrown banks are still funding it. Please may I ask the Government to put real pressure on those banks? We all deal with them, and they have many good parts to them, but they must not put money into companies that are deforesting. If we take away the financial blood, they will not be able to carry on doing such damage.
The importance of private sector investment and the transparency of the supply chains, which I will come to, are key to unlocking those trillions in investment that will come through the supply chain and investment. That $8.7 trillion announced at COP was deeply impressive, but others should step up to the mark, because their own customers will expect them to do so.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell also mentioned the importance of trade. I reassure him that any future bilateral trade agreements with Mercosur member countries, including Brazil, will be in line with international obligations, including our commitment to a high level of protection for the environment.
At COP26, 12 of the world’s largest companies, which manage half of all global trade in commodities linked to deforestation, announced that they would lay out a road map for action by COP27, which is due to take place in Egypt. Eight financial institutions and agribusiness companies also announced commitments worth $3 billion to support soy and cattle production in the Amazon without the need for deforestation or land conversion.
The UK is also working on other projects with global partners to help protect the Amazon. Last February, for example, together with Indonesia, we established the forest, agriculture and commodity trade dialogue, known as FACT, which brings together countries that are major producers and consumers of agricultural commodities, including in the Amazon region, to protect forests while promoting sustainable development and trade. At COP26, 28 participants, including us, Brazil, Peru and Colombia, launched the FACT road map.
My hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton and the hon. Member for Bristol East also mentioned the importance of sustainable agriculture. Since 2012, the UK has invested more than £60 million to promote sustainable agriculture in Brazil through the low-carbon agriculture programme known as Rural Sustentável, which promotes agricultural technologies such as integrated crop-livestock-forestry systems. Phase 1, which ended in 2019, reached more than 18,500 beneficiaries in the Amazon and Atlantic forest biomes, and delivered a sevenfold increase in livestock productivity, bringing more than 46,000 hectares of land under sustainable management and reducing carbon emissions by 52% compared with the baseline scenario. By the end of phase 2 in 2024, we expect to have prevented another 132,000 hectares of deforestation across the Cerrado, Caatinga and Amazon biomes.
Will the Minister explain the logic of putting British money into such projects but allowing Bolsonaro other things? That is a pittance compared to what is happening on the negative side. Is it not just throwing away our money, when we could achieve far more if we were able to stop the deforestation that is happening elsewhere in the country?
I will come on to comments about Brazil, but let me say that, absolutely, from the perspective of the Brazilian people and the future of Brazil, being able to tap into those trillions in private sector investment and global supply chains that want to follow sustainable investment is key to their prosperity. If Brazil does not deliver on the promises that it made at COP, it will miss out on the ability to tap into that consumer demand and private sector investment that want to help tackle deforestation and protect the environment. It is therefore in the economic interests of the people of Brazil and of their Government that they deliver on those promises made at COP.
In the run-up to COP26, however, the Amazon countries demonstrated vital leadership in the key commitments that they made. Colombia, for example, enshrined in its climate action law a commitment to net zero deforestation and to protecting 30% of its land and ocean resources by 2030. Peru raised its emissions reduction target from 30% to 40% by 2030, with particular commitments to halting and reversing deforestation, as well as protecting oceans. Brazil increased its national emissions reduction target from 43% to 50% by 2030. That includes specific targets to stop all illegal deforestation in the Amazon by 2028, and to reforest 18 million hectares by 2030.
We know that it will be hard work for President Bolsonaro to turn those commitments into reality. I understand from press announcements that he has recently been taken into hospital, and I am sure that everybody in this place wishes him a speedy recovery. As I have just said, it is absolutely vital, both for the prosperity of the Brazilian people and for the protection of the environment, that those promises are turned into reality. If any future Brazilian Government were to choose to disregard the contribution of the private sector, that would weaken confidence and hit the pockets of the people of Brazil.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell also noted that the recent deforestation numbers are deeply concerning. Deforestation in the Amazon basin has increased by 20% in the last year. We will continue to work with and support the Brazilian Government, businesses and civil society organisations.
My hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton, the hon. Member for Dundee West (Chris Law) and others mentioned indigenous people. Without the active participation of those who call the Amazon home, we will not be able to tackle deforestation. Around 6,000 indigenous territories and protected areas cover around half of the Amazon basin. That is why the UK brought together Government and philanthropic donors at COP26 to pledge at least £1.7 billion over the next four years.
The UK is also taking robust action as a consumer country. Through the Environment Act 2021, our world-leading due diligence legislation will tackle illegal deforestation in UK supply chains, looking in particular at commodities that we think play the largest roles in deforestation, including cattle, cocoa, coffee, maize, rubber, palm oil and soy. The hon. Member for Bristol East mentioned shrimp farming, and I thank her for doing so. I encourage those with evidence to submit it through DEFRA’s consultation, which is open until 11 March.
My hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) mentioned the need for clearer labelling. What lies behind any deforestation-free labelling is the credibility of supply chains, so we are already working with Brazilian businesses and the Brazilian Government to firm up traceability and transparency of deforestation to help support that work on deforestation-free supply chains.
To conclude, there was genuine progress at COP, but never before have nature and forests been so central to the climate agenda, and never before have so many countries come together to help protect the Amazon. Countries in the region are showing real leadership. The task ahead remains difficult, but we are committed to working with Governments and other key players in the region to help them turn commitments into action.
First, I am grateful to all colleagues who turned up for the debate. As the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Leeds North East (Fabian Hamilton), said, this is not a party political issue; it is something about which we, as a nation, are of one mind, and we need to speak with one voice. We need to ramp up the pressure now.
The Minister is right that pain needs to be felt if those in Brazil do not stop the deforestation. It has to be in their interests to do so. It is also the job of the Government to keep explaining that to them in words of one syllable and to put whatever pressure we can on them to do that.
My hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) is also right that this is a matter for consumers and for investors—I absolutely agree. I introduced a 10-minute rule Bill last year on sustainable food labelling to feed through to the Minister and her colleagues that this country must grab the initiative. We must deliver sustainable food labelling in the United Kingdom if we are to put pressure on countries such as Brazil to clean up their act. I shall put pressure on those at DEFRA in the coming weeks to ensure that they do take forward the commitments that they have already made.
My hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire also made the good point that every one of us can have an influence. Every one of us, as Members of Parliament, can write to the chief executive of their bank, if it is one of those banks that is behaving poorly. A chief executive who gets 600 letters from MPs on their desk might well get a bit of an interesting wake-up call. That is a very good point, and we should encourage colleagues to do the same.
This is such an important issue. We have only a certain amount of ability to change it, but as parliamentarians in a country that is a friend of the Brazilians, we do have some ability. We have to be critical friends. We have to tell them, “This has really got to change.”
Housing in Sittingbourne and Sheppey
I beg to move,
That this House has considered housing in Sittingbourne and Sheppey.
In a Westminster Hall debate, back in November 2016—I cannot remember who was in the Chair—I pointed out that Kent was being asked to take more than its fair share of the country’s new house building, and that unprecedented housing growth had put great pressure on our local infrastructure and services, particularly in my constituency of Sittingbourne and Sheppey.
Since that debate, I have raised the problem of unsustainable housing development in my constituency six times, but the only thing that has changed is that the pressure on Kent has got worse, with Sittingbourne and Sheppey being particularly hit hard. My constituency now has one of the highest patient to GP ratios in England, increasing health deprivation generally, a lack of school places and congested roads, particularly on Sheppey, where a problem affecting any of the main roads on the island leads to gridlock.
In the last 30 years, almost 17,000 new homes have been built in Swale, the majority in my constituency, which comprises two thirds of the borough, and there is more to come. As it stands, using the standard method of calculating housing need, from this year my local authority, Swale Borough Council, is being forced to provide housing land for an annual build number of 1,048, which is a huge increase on the target of 776 per year included in the council’s current adopted local plan.
Sadly, those figures demonstrate the irony of the Government insisting on ever increasing housing numbers, because despite the huge increase in housing development that we have already witnessed in Swale, developers have not once hit the 776 per year local plan housing target in the last 10 years. That begs the question: why are the Government expecting Swale to increase its housing land allocation still further, when developers have not yet used the land already allocated for housing?
One problem with housing targets is that historical housing numbers are a key part of the data used by the Government to determine future need. The assumption that past housing growth will automatically generate the need for more housing growth in the future creates an unsustainable cycle. Understandably, Swale Borough Council is very concerned that it will be unable to deliver the number of homes required by the Government’s standard method for housing need without considerable detriment to our area, either through damage to our local environment and other assets, or significant impact on our local infrastructure. I very much share those concerns.
Swale Borough Council is also of the view that if the planning system is to be genuinely “plan-led”, then the application of paragraph 11(d) of the national planning policy framework should be scrapped, because it does not take into consideration factors that hinder housing delivery that are beyond the control of local planning authorities and undermine the plan-led system.
Another irony is that despite all the developments that Swale has witnessed over the years, we are still desperately short of decent affordable and social housing in the borough. There are a number of reasons for that. The first is because developers are expected to fund any necessary infrastructure improvements, rather than the Government. That requirement has a negative impact on the local communities in which the developments take place. For a start, it pushes up the cost of development, which means that the number of homes set aside for social or affordable housing are often kept to the very bare minimum, if they are built at all.
If at planning stage the local authority insists on a higher percentage of affordable or social housing, it can make the development unviable, so councils tend to accept lower figures. A stark illustration is that just 12% of the homes built in Swale between 2019 and 2020 were classified as affordable. Where affordable houses are built, too often they are snapped up by local authorities outside the area, mainly London boroughs, because it is cheaper for them to buy a property in Kent than to build or buy homes in their own locality. Kent’s local authorities are priced out of the social housing market because they do not have the same financial resources as London boroughs. All the housing developments that we have witnessed over the past few years have done little to alleviate Sittingbourne and Sheppey’s own housing problem, because they simply draw in more people from outside the area.
Another problem with expecting developers to fund the necessary infrastructure is that the section 106 funding raised is never enough to meet the actual needs of the local community. An example of that is local road building. A development that comes with a section 106 road improvement to serve, say, an extra 500 cars will too often over time generate many more cars than originally envisaged. The local road network is then unable to cope with those additional vehicle movements. The only way to secure further improvement is by accepting even more development that will provide the necessary additional section 106 funding. That is another unsustainable cycle.
As I pointed out earlier, it is not just the roads infrastructure that has been impacted by all the new housing developments. In my constituency, schools have also been affected. We were promised a secondary school to accommodate the growth in population generated by the housing developments in north-west Sittingbourne. Sadly, there is still no sign of the school. We are now in the absurd position where every day, entirely due to a lack of school places, many children from Sittingbourne are bussed to the Isle of Sheppey, where there are spare places, for historical reasons I will not go into today. It means that almost 1,000 children from Sheppey travel in the opposite direction every day. That two-way flow of children increases pressure on our local transport network and is costly for parents and the local authority.
The new housing developments have also had a negative effect on our health system. As I mentioned, my constituency has one of the highest patient to GP ratios in England. That has led to many practices being oversubscribed, with patients finding it increasingly difficult to book an appointment to see a doctor, which is a problem I recently raised in the House. Although housing developers will often be asked to provide health facilities via a section 106 agreement, a medical centre is just a building and is of no use to anybody without the trained medical staff to run the practice, including GPs.
The problem in Kent is that we have an insufficient number of GPs to provide the primary care service that people expect and to which they are entitled. There are a number of reasons for that shortage, which I have highlighted in previous Westminster Hall debates, so I will not rehearse them again today. It is a serious problem that the Government must resolve before imposing any more housing targets on Kent’s local authorities, and on Swale Borough Council in particular.
The Government should also take into account the impact on our local environment when they decide how much land local authorities have to allocate for new housing developments. The reality in my area is that any new developments will increasingly have to be built on green fields, because most brownfield sites have already been used for new homes. Of course, developers prefer to use green spaces and farmland, and I understand the reasons why. It is mainly because it is cheaper than developing brownfield sites. However, using those green spaces destroys natural habitats, and creates light and noise pollution.
In addition, putting down more concrete and tarmac can exacerbate issues with water absorption and cause flooding, so even if housing is not built on a floodplain, it can destroy natural barriers that are necessary to soak up the vast quantities of water when there is heavy rain. It also puts pressure on existing sewers and storm drains, raising the risk of flooding and environmental issues with sewage. This is another element of local infrastructure that is too often given only second thought when the population is expanded by hundreds or thousands of people.
Frankly, many people believe that the current planning system favours large housing developers and ignores the needs of the ordinary folk who must live with the consequences of those developments. They believe that planning policy is driven by the Government’s desire to build hundreds of thousands more homes. It is difficult to argue against that belief. As an example, when Swale Borough Council submitted its last local plan, which set out what land was required to meet future housing needs, its calculation was based on local knowledge and had the support of local residents. As I said earlier, the council estimated that the housing need would be 776 homes a year. However, the Government rejected that local plan and insisted that the figure should be increased to 1,048 a year—a 35% uplift.
I believe that the same thing has happened to other councils in our beautiful county of Kent. I have a message for the Minister, for whom I have a great deal of respect, from my fellow residents—my fellow men of Kent and Kentish men: if he wants us to remain the garden of England, please stop the rooting up of our ancient woodlands, the cementing over of our fields and orchards, the polluting of our rivers and sea with sewage, and the contamination of our air with toxic fumes from ever-increasing traffic congestion. Large-scale development must not continue without the requisite investment in infrastructure—not just from developers but from the Government.
Building must not be allowed to disproportionately affect Kent and the south-east. The Government must accept that suitable land for development is finite, and that the concerns of local communities must be taken into consideration when imposing housing targets. The Government must not ignore the elected representatives of those areas, or treat them like nuisances when they point out that Government planning policies are wrong. Finally, the Government must, please, give us a planning system that works for and with communities, is fair and acknowledges the pressure that increasing Government housing targets place on areas such as Sittingbourne and Sheppey.
It is, as ever, a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone, and certainly a great pleasure to respond to the debate brought to us by my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Gordon Henderson), who is an industrious and doughty campaigner on behalf of his constituents in Sittingbourne and Sheppey, and across all of Swale borough. I think that he was being rather modest in his claims; I would say that he has raised this issue more than six times in the interests of his constituents.
I agree with my hon. Friend that we need a planning system that is speedier, more transparent and more fair, and that delivers the right homes, in the right places, with the right infrastructure that people want and can support. I think he would agree with me that the present planning system does not achieve those objectives. It certainly is not particularly engaging, as I think we all know. About 1% of local populations get involved in local plan making. That is almost literally only planning officers and their blood relations in a particular local authority. That percentage rises to a massive 2% or 3% when it comes to the engagement of local communities in individual planning applications—again, far too few.
On that point, I accept that only a very small percentage of people get involved in planning decisions at the planning stage, but the Minister will find, if he looks through the results of the last local elections in Kent, that they came out in their thousands to vote for the Green party against the Conservatives because of planning issues.
My hon. Friend makes a good point. We want to make the planning system much more engaging so that more people get involved at an early stage and play a part in local plan making, so that they can say that the choices they have made are contributing to their community while ensuring that the infrastructure that they require locally is properly planned for. I will come to that in a moment.
My hon. Friend made some important points, which I will address. First, he mentioned the local housing need numbers for Swale. He will appreciate that, because I have a quasi-judicial role, I must not go into too great detail about Swale’s local plan. I am pleased that I may say that its latest iteration is progressing—I think it is about to go to section 19 and is well on course for update before the end of 2023. However, there are some misconceptions about how local housing need should be used. It is a starting point, not an end point. It is based on the 2014 Office for National Statistics household population projections. We took a view a couple of years ago that, particularly given the pandemic, local authorities needed consistency and certainty, so we chose not to change the local housing need calculations for all but the 20 largest cities in our country.
As I say, the housing need numbers, as calculated, are a starting point, not an end point. It is for local authorities to determine their building target for each year over the lifecycle of their plan, to be agreed with the planning inspectorate. Local authorities are able to identify constraints—such as green belts or areas of outstanding natural beauty—that allow them to land at a different number from that expressed in the local housing need calculations. It is very much for local authorities to determine the right number of homes that should be built in their community. As I say, we want more people to become involved in the formulation of those local plans.
My hon. Friend mentioned developers not developing on land for which planning permission has already been granted. There are different views about those numbers. Sir Oliver Letwin found a couple of years ago that land banking, as it is popularly described, is not a particularly prevalent issue. However, I recognise the concern of local communities and our colleagues about this particular challenge. That is why we have committed, as part of our future planning reforms, to look carefully at how we can, shall we say, incentivise developers to build out on the applications that already exist, rather than looking for more and more applications to be given on other sites.
My hon. Friend also mentioned the important issue of the small number of developers who have those permissions and who build the homes in our country that we need. We want more developers, and more SME developers, developing different types of homes in different places for different tenures. We know that in the last 10 years or so, partly as a result of the 2008 financial crisis, the number of SMEs developing homes has fallen by something like 40%. We need to encourage more small and medium-sized developers to develop, and not leave development in the hands of the so-called big six. Having a planning system that is speedier, more predictable and more transparent is a way of ensuring that those SMEs come back into the marketplace and develop the sorts of homes that we want to see.
My hon. Friend and I certainly want to ensure that the right homes are being built in the right places for people to live in. We believe in a property-owning democracy; we want people to have the opportunity to get on to the property ladder. I am pleased to say, as a result of work done by the Yorkshire Building Society—I think the announcement was made only today—that some 408,379 first-time buyers got on to the property ladder last year. That is a 20-year high in first-time buyers getting on to the ladder and a 35% uplift in the figures from the year before. As we emerge from the pandemic, which has affected all our lives, we want to ensure that we are building better, building brighter, and building more homes for people to buy to live in, to get a stake in the country and in their community.
We also have to ensure, as my hon. Friend rightly says, that we have the right number of affordable homes built. We have an affordable homes programme. It is the largest cash injection in the development of affordable homes in 15 or 16 years—some £12.3 billion, £11.5 billion of which is new money. We anticipate that, economic conditions allowing, over the next five years it will build 180,000 new homes, 32,000 of which will be for social rent. We have also allowed local authorities the opportunity—through removal of the housing revenue account cap on borrowing—to spend more money on social homes if they so wish. The Public Works Loan Board offers them loans at very attractive rates. We have also allowed them much more flexibility through the use of their right-to-buy receipts—partly as a result of the pandemic—to ensure that local authorities have the wherewithal to build the sorts of homes that they want to build.
However, I am very conscious of what my hon. Friend says about the section 106 system. It has some supporters, of course. A lot of big developers like section 106 because it tends to load the weaponry—to give the ammunition to the bigger developers, with the bigger bank balances and the bigger batteries of lawyers, at the expense of smaller local authorities. We want to rectify that imbalance in the system by introducing an infrastructure levy, which will be set by the local authority, so that it is very clear what the cost of development is going to be. It will enable greater land capture value to be obtained by local authorities, so that local authorities and local communities get the infrastructure that they want, up front in the development process and not way down the line, if it is built at all. The levy means that the playgrounds, health clinics or schools that local authorities and local communities need to support the homes that are proposed for development are built where, when and how they want them, rather than what happens under the present system, which is rather more uncertain.
My hon. Friend also mentioned the predilection, shall we say, of some local authorities nearer to where we are now than to his constituency to buy up properties in his constituency. I am very conscious of that issue. I say to him that we have provided very clear—indeed, unambiguous—guidance to local authorities that they should, wherever possible, place families and individuals within their own area. The guidance also that they should only be looking to secure housing outside their local authority as a very last resort.
I am grateful because this is a very important point that I hope the Minister will take on. I accept what he says, and he recognises the problem of London boroughs buying properties in areas such as mine. The boroughs pay for those properties and they pay the rent of the people they place there, but what they do not have to do, which they should, is fund the social services and education needed to look after those people and educate their children. Kent County Council taxpayers have to pay for that. That must be looked at.
I am conscious of the issue raised by my hon. Friend. I will make a couple of points in response. First, he is absolutely right that we want a system that provides the school places and GP clinic places. That is why we want to change from the section 106 system to the infrastructure levy, which we believe will provide those sorts of bricks-and-mortar services more rapidly. He also knows that we are investing more in the NHS. I will not go into great detail on that; it is a matter for my colleagues in the Department of Health and Social Care. However, he knows that we are training up more doctors and nurses. That will take some time, but we want to invest more in the NHS.
My hon. Friend should also be aware that, as a result of the affordable homes programme, over £4 billion have been provided to the Greater London Authority and the Mayor of London to build properties in London for Londoners. I call on the Mayor to get on and build those properties, for which he has the funds, to take the pressure off places such as Kent. My hon. Friend also mentioned brownfield sites over greenfield. We are clear through the national planning policy framework that brownfield should be used first wherever possible. We have provided funds to that effect, which he will know about, either for big or small investments, which allow local authorities to focus on the redevelopment of brownfield sites.
I also tell my hon. Friend that as a result of the Environment Act 2021, which is now on the statute book, there is a requirement on developers to ensure a biodiversity net gain of at least 10% where developments take place. Again, that will ensure that where development happens, not only is bricks-and-mortar infrastructure provided, but environmental infrastructure is supported and enhanced. I am conscious, Mr Hollobone, that my hon. Friend will probably want to say a few remarks, so I will give him the opportunity.
Mr Hollobone, you honour me in allowing me further time to expostulate on the Government’s policies. We are conscious of the challenges that my hon. Friend raises. I am keen to ensure that the reform to the planning system that we have in mind will result in greater community engagement, the provision of infrastructure to give local communities the schools, school places and GP surgeries they need, an environmental support mechanism to enhance developments as they are brought forward, and more SMEs in the system to ensure new homes of different tenures, styles and types built in the places we need, so that we have a planning system which, while it will never be uncontroversial—there will always been controversies when it comes to individual developments—everybody understands, can buy into and can accept is fair, just and predictable. I look forward to further debates with my hon. Friend over the next several weeks and months, as we bring our proposals forward. I am grateful to you, Mr Hollobone, for your advice and guidance in the debate.
Question put and agreed to.
Non-UK Armed Forces Personnel: Immigration Requirements
I remind hon. Members that they are expected to wear face coverings when they are not speaking in the debate, in line with current Government guidance and that of the House of Commons Commission. Members are asked by the House to have a covid lateral flow test twice a week if coming on to the parliamentary estate. This can be done either at the testing centre in the House or at home. Please give each other and members of staff space when seated and when entering and leaving the Chamber.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered immigration requirements for non-UK armed forces personnel.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I know there is a lot going on today, so I am grateful to see Members here and the shadow Minister and Minister in their places. I also thank the Petitions Committee for its help and the many thousands of people who have added their name to petitions in support of this campaign.
Pay up or pack up. That is the message given by the Government to those who make the journey—often from halfway around the world—to protect our national security. The aim of this long-running and, I am pleased to say, hugely popular campaign is simple: to relieve foreign and Commonwealth-born service personnel and their families of the exorbitant costs they face to make a home in the country for which they risked their lives.
This injustice has gained significant attention in recent times, following the unsuccessful efforts of eight Fijian British Army veterans to bring legal action against the Government. All of them were left fearing destitution and deportation despite the huge sacrifices they made on our behalf. One of the claimants, Taitusi Ratucaucau, a veteran of the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, was handed a £30,000 bill following emergency brain surgery after he was deemed ineligible for free NHS care—a story I did not believe the first time I read it. The veterans lost the legal argument, but make no mistake: it is the Government who lost the moral one.
This issue is by no means a new phenomenon. In 2013, Filimone Lacanivalu, a veteran of the campaigns in Northern Ireland, Bosnia and Afghanistan was given an 11th hour reprieve after spending weeks in a detention centre awaiting removal. That amnesty was only granted following a personal appeal to the Prime Minister and subsequent media pressure. It should not need to be said that landing veterans with massive debts and threatening them with deportation is not the appropriate way to recognise their service.
I am aware that these are exceptional episodes. The Minister will no doubt say, as is rightly the case, that the vast majority of service personnel comply with Home Office requirements. That is not enough.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way. I have one of the most mixed constituencies in the country, with a lot of Commonwealth- born constituents, many of whom have served. I have had cases of constituents who have been unable to access benefits because their immigration status is not sorted out, and that is after serving for years in the armed forces. At the very least, it seems deeply ungrateful to people who have travelled halfway across the world, as my hon. Friend says, to serve in the armed forces that they then face destitution because their immigration status is not resolved.
My hon. Friend is exactly right. These people have come here in good faith. They have risked all in the service of our country. They have exposed themselves to extraordinary risks. This is not the way to repay the extraordinary service they have offered our country. I hope that the Government in the near future will take the opportunity to close what is essentially a loophole. It would be relatively inexpensive to do so. Morally, it is the right thing to do.
I think it is only fair to say that I am aware of some of the efforts that are being made to update guidance and to increase the length of time that an application can be made in advance of discharge, as well as the ongoing work with the Joining Forces credit union, but we must ensure that the experiences of Taitusi, Filimone and countless others are not repeated.
It is also simply wrong for the Government to profit off the backs of the service of those men and women. Indefinite leave to remain costs each person who applies £2,389. However, the latest available Government data shows that the estimated cost of each application is only £243. That means that a soldier with a partner and two children will be asked to cough up nearly £10,000, £8,500 of which goes straight into the Treasury coffers.
In Afghanistan, foreign and Commonwealth-born soldiers, just like their UK-born comrades, spent months in check points in the blistering heat, surviving on minimal sleep. They were responsible for clearing safe routes with metal detectors. They were shot at while patrolling with back-breaking loads. All the while, families at home were hoping never to receive a knock at the door, though tragically some of them did. They have paid their dues 100 times over. Aged just 19, Pa Njie, a Gambian-born member of the Cheshires, was struck by an improvised explosive device and suffered terrible, life-changing injuries. Pa lost two limbs in the service of our country. Seemingly, that is not enough for the Home Office, which still wants its two grand.
It is worth remembering that this bill lands on the doorstep right at the moment that the person is transitioning to civilian life. It is much needed cash at a crucial time that could have gone on a deposit for a home or an education course.
Whenever this campaign is raised of late, Ministers are quick to highlight the consultation that was launched back in May, which is worth examining further. The response to it, I might add, is already more than three months overdue.
I congratulate the hon Member on securing the debate, in which I hope to be called to speak. The consultation has been leaned on very heavily by the Government. Unfortunately for them, I was in the Department when the consultation started, so I know how it came about and what it is about, which is essentially people serving around 12 years before they get a right to remain. Does he agree that that is extraordinarily stingy to our foreign and Commonwealth personnel and totally out of sync with requirements around indefinite leave to remain, and that a serious, hard look needs to be taken at it if we are to tackle this problem?
I am grateful to the hon. and gallant Member for that intervention. He is exactly right: it is, at best, very stingy. I recall that in the debate before Christmas he said that the 12-year threshold
“was plucked out of the air.”—[Official Report, 7 December 2021; Vol. 705, c. 300.]
Whether it was, or whether it was designed to affect the minimum number of people possible, it cannot be the right way forward. We should also reflect on the fact that in addition to the 12-year proposal there was nothing for families or for the unknown number of veterans currently living in limbo, who have effectively been thrown under a bus. This was the Government’s chance to right a historical wrong; instead they chose to introduce something that is, as he just outlined, virtually pointless. Only meaningful reform will deliver the justice that our veterans and their families deserve.
Whatever metric is used, I think—at least, I hope—that the Minister is fully aware that the bar has been set so high that practically no one will benefit as a consequence. Surely a fairer option would be to look at the benchmarks at which service personnel qualify for settlement and citizenship: four and five years respectively. When Government Whips were convincing their MPs to vote down new clause 52, which the hon. Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Johnny Mercer) and I tabled to the Nationality and Borders Bill last month, one of the arguments provided was around a lack of fairness.
That brings me neatly to the serious matter of consideration of families, because if we want to debate a lack of fairness, we should look no further than the minimum income requirement that our service personnel must meet before they can bring their loved ones to the UK. That is a cruel policy that has resulted in members of the armed forces either leaving their families thousands of miles away or taking second jobs to reach the affordability criteria. In return for their protecting our national security, the Government rip their families apart. That practice is immoral, indefensible and inexcusable.
The Government have committed to making the UK the best country in the world to be a veteran; that is a noble ambition, on which we can all unite. However, there is no better place to begin than with the treatment of our service people who are foreign or Commonwealth-born. Our campaign has huge support right across the board from the Royal British Legion, Help for Heroes, all Opposition MPs, many Conservative MPs, England rugby stars, and many more people and organisations besides. We do not need primary legislation; Ministers can fix this problem with the stroke of a pen by updating regulations. They just have to show some of their stated ambition.
We are not asking for the world; all we are asking for is a fair deal for service personnel, for families to be treated with dignity, and justice for those veterans who are living in limbo. That is because no matter where someone comes from or whatever their background is, once they choose to put on a uniform and protect our country, they have made a life-changing commitment. It should shame all of us that our people are being treated with such little respect.
The debate lasts until 2.30 pm. I am obliged to call the Front Benchers no later than 2.07 pm and the guideline limits will be five minutes for the Scottish National party, five minutes for Her Majesty’s Opposition and 10 minutes for the Minister. Then Dan Jarvis will have three minutes at the end to wind up the debate.
Until 2.07 pm, there are three very distinguished Back Benchers seeking to contribute to the debate. If they could limit their remarks to no more than eight minutes each, all three of them will get in. We start off with Johnny Mercer.
It is a delight, Mr Hollobone, to serve under your chairmanship today.
I will certainly not take up eight minutes; I look forward to hearing what the Minister will say on this issue and I think that almost everything that can be said on this subject has been said. Nevertheless, I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) for his work on this issue over many years. It is one of the intricacies of this place that if one is not in government, such work can be pretty hard going at times, but he has striven over many years and through many debates on this issue, and I pay tribute to his relentless focus on it, not for himself but for the foreign and Commonwealth service personnel he served with, whom he has identified as suffering a serious injustice.
I will address just a couple of points before giving the floor to other people. The first is about the Government’s current position on this matter. For the life of me, I cannot understand why the Government do not do what we are asking them to do. It would not cost a lot of money, as the hon. Gentleman has identified. In the Committee considering the Armed Forces Act 2021, we worked with the Home Office to establish what the cost would be—the cost, not the profit—of taking this action for everyone who left the military in 2020. The cost was £30,000. When we consider what the Government and individual Ministers will spend on their own policies or whatever it may be, I cannot for the life of me understand why they do not do this.
Some of the reasons that Conservative colleagues gave in writing after that campaign to justify their vote against it—because this action was supported by everybody in this country, less the Conservative party, which breaks my heart a bit, considering how the Conservative party dresses itself up as the party of the armed forces—were just insane. They treated the hon. Gentleman and I as if we had just sailed up the Thames in a mess tin and had no idea what we were talking about. Clearly, if this action was in train and was about to happen, we would not waste our time conducting a campaign on it, including in Parliament, or finding out what can and cannot be done. But clearly it is not happening.
There was a consultation. Everybody in government knows that people have 12 weeks to respond to a consultation, but that has been missed as the consultation period finished 24 weeks ago and nothing has come out. So please do not tell me that there is a consultation and this will all be all right. The consultation itself was an absolute dog’s dinner.
I know how the figure of 12 years before people can settle came about; it was because one of the Secretaries of State went on a visit and met a Fijian chef, who said, “Yes, 12 years. Don’t let them come in under 12 years.” No work went into it at all. The figure should be around the same as the indefinite leave to remain requirements of four or five years, depending on status, which is in keeping with our peer nations.
The idea of splitting up families is atrocious. The idea is that at the end of a person’s service, they send their family back, like a sailor from Trinidad I met last year who was sending his wife and two kids back, so that he could work here and earn the money. We do not do that; we do not split families up. That is not the way we treat people in this country.
I urge Ministers and colleagues to get over the personalities involved here. I know that when some of us get campaigning on an issue it can be quite brutal and people do not want to be seen to go with it. I totally get that, but I urge hon. Members to be as professional as they can be, to park all that stuff and to think about individuals such as Pa, who was mentioned by the hon. Member for Barnsley Central, who lost two legs in Afghanistan. He is still in court fighting visa fees to stay in this country. That is appalling and shames each and every one of us in this place, not just those of us with military connections.
I cannot understand how veterans in this House, who broke bread with foreign and Commonwealth service personnel on operations, can come here and vote for the Government making an 80% profit out of service personnel who want a visa to stay in the UK. I cannot reconcile how they could possibly do that. There will be another chance to get this right, because the hon. Member for Barnsley Central and I will work with all the groups again to introduce a similar amendment. We have to right this wrong.
There is no point waiting further for consultations or excuses. The time is now, it does not cost a lot of money and it is a moral purpose that is not about politics. It is about the morality of how we treat people who serve in this nation’s military. We say that we want this to be the best country in the world to be a veteran, which is a noble ambition that I admire and that nobody would want more than me—I would love it because I could stop banging on about this stuff—but we are a million miles away from that.
If we were to ask individuals who have these problems, such as Pa, “Does this feel like the best country in the world in which to be a veteran?”, what would they say? That is how we will judge this, not by what we do here—announcing wonderful policies, having a consultation and saying further action is unnecessary because we have it all in hand. Go and ask Pa, or the foreign and Commonwealth soldier mentioned earlier who was given a £30,000 bill after using the NHS, “Does this feel like the best country in the world to be a veteran?”, and hon. Members might wake up and realise how much we have to do.
I look forward to the response from my hon. Friend the Minister, and he is a friend. I will not be indiscrete, but I know people’s views on this matter. Others have come up to me after debates—not this Minister—and said, “Johnny, I’m with you. This is the right thing do, but I want something for my town or city.” What does that do for the individual service personnel we have mentioned? Nothing. It is a coward’s way to do politics. We know the right thing to do. We need to get on and do it, and move on to other issues.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Hollobone. I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) on securing this important debate. I know he cares deeply about this issue and has a long-standing and distinguished track record of serving in the armed forces, alongside people from all walks of life and backgrounds, including non-UK personnel. He is therefore better placed than most to recognise the enormous contribution that they make while serving their country. The hon. Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Johnny Mercer) has done a lot of good work on this issue, for which I thank him.
I pay tribute to all serving armed forces personnel and veterans, many of whom are based in my Stockport constituency and elsewhere across Greater Manchester. We all owe them a debt of gratitude. As well as keeping our citizens safe, the armed forces help bring our communities together. For example, I have seen at first hand the inspiring work that volunteers do to support our veterans at the veterans’ breakfast club in my constituency.
While there are many positives, I am fully aware of the shameful treatment of serving and former military personnel by successive Governments, and I raised this in debates about the Armed Forces Act 2021. One such group is the Gurkhas, who comprise a sizeable number of the 9,000 foreign nationals who served in our armed forces, alongside citizens from Nepal and the wider Commonwealth. Before I continue, I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma) for his tireless work on this issue in his capacity as the chair of the Nepal all-party parliamentary group.
The Gurkhas’ contribution to defending our nation is exemplary, with more than 200,000 Gurkhas having fought in the two world wars. In the past 50 years alone, they have served in Hong Kong, Malaysia, Borneo, Cyprus, the Falklands, Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan. Despite this, it was only recently that the Government consulted on waiving immigration fees for those who wish to come to the UK following discharge from service after they have served 12 years, and the proposal has yet to be implemented by the Home Office. I am staggered to learn that the 12-year figure was picked randomly by the Government.
The situation is further compounded by the prolonged racism and discrimination that Gurkhas have been subjected to over many decades. Colleagues may recall that in 2002, a High Court judge branded the Ministry of Defence racist and irrational for excluding from compensation payments Gurkhas who were subjected to brutal treatment in Japanese prisoner of war camps. Perhaps the most high-profile example is the pensions discrimination; Gurkhas who retired before 1997 were awarded only a fraction of the amount that the rest of the British Army receive, as the Gurkha pension scheme was based on the Indian army rates for those with at least 15 years’ service. This is nothing short of shameful, and it casts a long shadow over the reputation of our armed forces.
In response, three members of Gurkha Satyagraha, a group representing Gurkha veterans, went on hunger strike outside Downing Street last August to highlight pensions injustice. I visited the strikers, who were just yards from where we are today, and I pay tribute to the three Gurkhas who led the fight for justice that day: Dhan Gurung, Gyanraj Rai and the widow Pushpa Rana Ghale, who had travelled all the way from Nepal. All three made it clear that they were prepared to die because they felt so strongly about the injustice to which Gurkhas have been subjected for so long. Indeed, during the strike, 60-year-old Mr Gurung was committed to hospital after refusing food for 12 days. He then returned to Downing Street to continue his role in the struggle for equality. Those who retired before 1997, such as Mr Gurung, receive a fraction of the pension given to the rest of the British Army, and that wrong must now be righted. I was proud to support them in their fight for pension equality, and I will continue to do so until they receive what is owed to them for the sacrifice they have made, and until the racism and discrimination to which they are all too often subjected is ended.
We have seen throughout this pandemic that the Government can find the money when they want to, but they choose not to do so in this case, in which veterans have been denied the vital funds to which they are entitled and that they so richly deserve. If the Government got their house in order, perhaps they could use some of the billions of pounds wasted on their watch. A Labour party report published today reveals that a staggering £13 billion of taxpayers’ money has been thrown away in officially confirmed cases of Ministry of Defence waste since 2010. That is utterly indefensible, and it is a further kick in the teeth to those Gurkha veterans who are still waiting for justice.
As well as heeding Gurkhas’ calls, the Government must recognise the strong public support for the Gurkhas’ campaign, with more than 100,000 people having signed a petition last year that called for pensions equality. Although the Government responded to the petition, many people are understandably concerned by the apparent unwillingness of the MOD to resolve the demands. Its notably inflexible position is in stark contrast to the Minister’s words in the immediate aftermath of the hunger strike. I urge the Minister to hear the honourable pleas for justice, and to abolish the costs and other bureaucratic and often prohibitive hurdles for non-UK armed forces personnel, including the Gurkhas. Although I am grateful to the Government for finally recognising the need to engage with the Gurkhas on this issue, and for agreeing to further talks and the establishment of a bilateral committee, they must move more quickly after decades of injustice and discrimination.
I congratulate the hon. and gallant Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) on setting the scene. He often does so on these issues, and few in the House could disagree with his point of view. I also commend the hon. and gallant Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Johnny Mercer), who clearly has a heart and a passion for this matter, for his contribution. It is hard to ignore the contributions of both Members, given their service, and their knowledge of the subject matter and how it can be taken forward. I also thank the hon. Member for Stockport (Navendu Mishra) for his contribution—he mirrors the opinion of us all.
I have always been an avid supporter of the Gurkhas and the need for fair and right treatment. However, it is worth pointing out that this issue is not simply about the Gurkhas. It is about every man and woman who puts on a uniform in any branch of the armed services. It is also about the families who they leave behind while on service—families who undergo years of sleepless nights, missed birthdays and missed events, all because their loved one stands for democracy and freedom under the Union flag, and is in the service of Her Majesty the Queen. We see that as a key issue.
I am a simple man and like the simple things in life. Perhaps I view this matter too simplistically. If someone serves this nation, the nation owes them a debt that we can and must repay. That debt is equally owed to the families. That seems simple to me and every one of us here.
The Government seem to understand the principle, but scale is a problem. There is a proposition that these provisions be waived for the individual after 12 years’ service, but that is only for indefinite leave to remain, and only for service personnel. I have the utmost respect for the Minister and regard him as a friend, as he knows. We converse on many matters all the time. I look to him for a response that encapsulates what we are saying. I am pleased to see the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Barnsley East (Stephanie Peacock), in her place, and look forward to her contribution, which I know will sum up all the things that we are saying.
My view is straightforward: our position on the repayment of the debt owed is skewed. While the Government have tinkered around the edges of immigration, there is an acknowledgment that we have not got it right; the provision quite clearly does not go far enough. For example, the exemption from UK immigration control ceases when the person is discharged from the armed forces. They have 28 days following their discharge to apply to remain in the UK, if they have not already done so. The Government confirmed in March 2021 that “Her Majesty’s forces” means a serving member of the regular forces of the Royal Navy, British Army—including the Brigade of Gurkhas—or the Royal Air Force, and the length of time for an application to be made would be increased to 18 weeks in advance of discharge, rather than the 10 weeks previously allowed.
I welcome that, but I feel it is not enough. The holder of a family visa will need to accrue five years’ residence in the UK to be eligible for indefinite leave to remain. Time spent overseas on an accompanied posting is counted as time spent in the United Kingdom. Under the armed forces rules, it may be possible for a family visa holder to be eligible for indefinite leave to remain after four years. That is because a service leaver is eligible after four years’ service, and the family members can apply concurrently. I am really concerned to ensure that we do not forget that this is not just about those who served in unform, but about their families as well. I know others here share that opinion.
How can we make the need to meet the standard requirements for indefinite leave to remain under the family visa route easier? How can we make that a responsibility for us in the House and Government? I believe there is consensus of opinion in Westminster Hall today, including on the need to continue to meet the minimum income requirement, which is very difficult for someone who has just left the service. That issue has to be addressed. The hon. Member for Barnsley Central referred to that at the beginning of his contribution. We need clarification and help on that matter, because we must get that right. To be fair to the Minister, without putting words in his mouth, he has acknowledged the issue, and I hope we can get some response on it. Those who have served Queen and country need these matters reviewed urgently.
The work carried out by the Royal British Legion in response to the Government consultation makes it clear that Government proposals do not go far enough to make the difference needed to make things right. The Royal British Legion is highly respected and renowned, and has a lot of knowledge of these matters, because it has dealings every day with soldiers and their families. As one in 10 members of the Army are non-UK, this is an issue that we must get right. We must also consider that not all of those people wish to move here permanently—that is a fact—and not all of them have family to bring over. When looking at the 10% affected, we have to address that issue.
With respect, we are not attempting to circumnavigate immigration procedures, which are necessary. I understand that we must have rules in place, but we are talking about allowing a small number of people, who have given so much, the opportunity to rebuild their civilian life in this country. My plea on their behalf—I honestly do not believe that this is too much to ask, which is why I add my voice to the voice of colleagues who have spoken and who will speak—is that the Government take on board the views of the Royal British Legion and other charities, and the personal stories to which hon. Members have referred, and implement meaningful changes to our immigration policy for those who dedicated their lives to secure ours. They did their best for freedom and democracy, and we support them. Let us support them now, because it is now that they need our help.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I thank the hon. and gallant Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) for securing this important debate—would that we did not have to debate the issue, however.
Commonwealth personnel have for decades fulfilled a vital role in the UK armed forces and have ensured that skills are maintained across the board. It is therefore disappointing to be once again debating immigration issues relating to these personnel that should have been dealt with years ago, and most certainly could have been dealt with during the passage of the Armed Forces Act 2021 or the Nationality and Borders Bill. Hon. Members from across the House repeatedly raise this issue, on account of its status as a national disgrace, and this Government repeatedly fail to act. On the one hand, Ministers talk up the importance of our personnel, but on the other, they create a hierarchy within our veteran community.
It is, frankly, scandalous to ask people to put their life on the line to serve the United Kingdom, and then to charge them thousands of pounds for the right to live in the state that they defended. Their families pay a high price, too, as the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) pointed out, and many find themselves living apart from their loved ones and partners. We should do everything that we can to ensure that families are held together and supported; instead, we find the Government separating members of the armed forces from their families and then hitting them with exorbitant visa fees.
Commonwealth personnel are vital in all three services, and are increasingly important because of the serious issues with recruitment in the United Kingdom. The Defence Committee noted that the Government’s 10-year partnership with Capita has been “abysmal since it started”, and that Capita has
“failed to meet the Army’s recruitment targets every single year of the contract”.
The Army has embarked on further recruitment campaigns across the Commonwealth to ensure we have the minimum troop numbers required to properly defend the state. Commonwealth citizens who have stepped forward to fill the gaps deserve to be rewarded, not penalised, but it seems as though the UK Government would prefer to do the latter.
The Government must seriously reconsider the income requirements for Commonwealth serving personnel who wish to have their family join them in the United Kingdom. The minimum income requirement is currently £18,600 for a spouse, and an additional £3,800 for a first child and £2,400 for children thereafter. That is not reasonable or realistic today, and the role of the Gurkhas and other Commonwealth serving personnel over the decades, and during the first and second world wars, shows that this is a historical scandal as well.
If families meet the minimum income requirement, they are then hit with visa application fees, which have more than doubled in the last five years to £2,389 per person. We are talking about nearly £10,000 for a family of four. As the hon. Member for Leyton and Wanstead (John Cryer) said, this is a curious type of gratitude for the UK to dish out. The UK Government are also on the wrong side of the Royal British Legion and Poppyscotland on this matter, which is really not a good look.
In addition, the families left behind by Commonwealth personnel serving in the UK can be severely affected. My hon. Friend the Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Drew Hendry) recently mounted a campaign for his constituent Denis Omondi, a British citizen serving in the Army. His daughter, living in Kenya, was denied a visa, despite him having uncontested custody, to come and live with him in the United Kingdom. Thankfully, because of my hon. Friend’s campaign, the Home Office made a U-turn on that decision, but these cases are not unique.
Exemption from UK immigration control ends when the person is discharged from the armed forces. They have only 28 days from then to apply to remain in the UK, if they have not already done so. That relies on the person overseeing the discharge process having knowledge of the immigration rules and communicating it clearly and effectively. Unfortunately, as we know, that does not always happen.
The woeful example of the Fijian military, which other Members have mentioned, highlights that very clearly.
After independence, Scotland will, like many countries, engage in attracting talent from abroad to help populate our armed forces and other key public services. However, unlike the UK, Scotland’s esteem for service personnel from abroad will not end with their signing, only to be replaced with a hostile environment and a £10,000 bill to continue living in Scotland at the end of their service.
The SNP has been clear that after three years of full-time service, non-UK citizens who have served in the armed forces should be recognised with an automatic right to citizenship. As set out in our 2019 manifesto, the UK Government must remove the visa fees for Commonwealth armed forces personnel and their immediate families when applying for indefinite leave to remain.
In closing, will the Minister afford the Ministry of Defence sufficient latitude to fix these problems, right these wrongs and restore some justice to this process, or will we be back here, debating this again, in 12 months’ time?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) on securing this important debate and on his ongoing commitment and campaigning around this issue.
Every individual from the Commonwealth who serves in the UK armed forces contributes an enormous amount to our national defence. They are owed a debt of gratitude but instead, on discharge, they are met with a debt to pay themselves. Thousands of pounds and a complex administrative system sit between our Commonwealth veterans and the life that they deserve in the UK. We must put an end to that insulting state of affairs and allow every UK armed forces veteran who has served for five years, and their families, to remain in the country, and we should remove the extortionate visa fees.
As has been outlined in this debate, foreign-born members of our armed forces are exempt from immigration controls during their service. However, as soon as they are discharged, those exemptions end, and veterans have just 28 days to apply for a visa to remain in the UK. Each application costs an eye-watering £2,389, and every family member adds a further charge, meaning that applications for a family of four could cost nearly £10,000, as the hon. Member for Angus (Dave Doogan) highlighted.
For those who do not regularise their immigration status in time, all legal rights are suddenly lost. Almost overnight, those veterans are unable to take on work, access pensions, receive medical help, or make any sort of transition into civilian life. The threat of deportation also looms, causing many vulnerable veterans to live in a state of all-consuming fear. According to the veterans’ organisation Citizenship4Soldiers, one of our Commonwealth personnel from Fiji, who had served for eight years, was detained by UK immigration officials after being found homeless. That is not an exception.
My hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley Central shared a number of terrible examples, from the story of Taitusi Ratucaucau, the veteran who was faced with a £30,000 bill following an emergency operation to remove a brain tumour, to the story of Filimone, who served in the UK armed forces for nine years, including in Afghanistan, Bosnia, and Northern Ireland, and was nearly deported. No one had explained to him that he would need to apply for leave to remain when he was discharged. Before he knew it, he had spent five weeks in a detention centre. After a personal appeal to the Prime Minister, he was granted settlement. That should have been a wake-up call for the Government.
There is also the group of veterans who took legal action against the Home Office and the MOD. Faced with a complex immigration system and unaffordable visa fees, they were left classified as illegal immigrants. After serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, these former British soldiers were suddenly faced with deportation and no access to social security. One veteran said,
“This has been an undignified existence that is so contrary to the immense pride with which I once served Queen and country.”
Still, the Government did not address this. Those veterans, who served our country with distinction, should not have had to rely on legal battles, direct appeals to the Government, or sums of money to stay in the UK, as my hon. Friend the Member for Leyton and Wanstead (John Cryer) highlighted.
The Government have had chance after chance to put this right, but have consistently chosen not to do so, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Navendu Mishra) said. Shortly before Christmas, a Labour-backed amendment to the Nationality and Borders Bill proposed that visa fees be waived for all service personnel completing five years in the UK armed forces, and their dependents. The Government voted against it, again failing to right this wrong. Their only defence was a public consultation, which is yet to receive a Government response, on proposals that do not go nearly far enough, as was illustrated by the hon. and gallant Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Johnny Mercer)—I will take this opportunity to acknowledge his hard work on this issue.
The consultation suggests that personnel should serve 12 years before becoming eligible for waived visa fees. That threshold is unnecessarily high. Not only is it out of sync with civilian immigration standards, under which someone is able to apply for citizenship after five years’ residency with one year of indefinite leave to remain, but it is way beyond the average length of service, especially for those who serve on the frontline with such bravery. Based on recent figures, just one in 10 of our Commonwealth personnel would be covered by the proposal. It is for all of us who care about those who serve our country to make sure that such a disingenuous threshold is lowered.
The consultation also offers nothing for the dependants of our veterans. Waiving the £2,389 fee for the service person themselves is a start, but it will mean little practically if there remains a hefty £7,000 bill for their family members, as the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) mentioned. If we can benefit from the defence that our service personnel have provided, their children deserve to as well. Overall, the Government’s watered-down proposals will still see them in the business of trying to turn a profit on our Commonwealth veterans. In the Government’s own covenant annual report, every single external stakeholder, including the Confederation of Service Charities, the Royal British Legion and the independent veterans adviser, comments on how the proposals in the consultation fall short.
Transitioning from military to civilian life can be challenging enough for people without their being forced to find thousands of pounds to stay in the country they have fought for. This issue has huge support across the country and across this House. It is our moral duty as a country to provide a home in the UK for anyone who has spent their life defending it. The Government should stop delaying and do the right thing.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I note your instruction to make sure there is at least three minutes left at the end for the hon. Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis). I thank him for securing the debate, and I thank all Members for their contributions. Although there may not have been a large quantity of contributions, there was certainly quality in the speeches that were made. It is good for us again to have an opportunity to discuss this issue.
The Government strongly value every member of our outstanding armed forces, and we are grateful and humbled when non-UK nationals choose to serve our country. It is right that they are rewarded for their bravery and commitment, which is why there are already several measures in place to support them both during and after their service, which I will outline in a few moments. I will briefly touch on some of the cases that have been mentioned. I hope Members will appreciate why I will not go into individual immigration records in a public forum, but in relation to the eight Fijian veterans, I can confirm that we have engaged directly with their legal representatives and they have all now regularised their immigration status here in the United Kingdom.
I will also say—this is a message that I give out regularly in relation to the settlement scheme for European economic area nationals who may have missed the deadline of 30 June last year—that if an armed forces veteran who is currently in the UK does not have regular immigration status, we genuinely encourage them to get in touch with the Home Office today. If they do not want to get in touch with us directly—if they have concerns about doing that—then I am sure that I speak for everyone present when I say that they can get in touch with their local Member of Parliament and ask them to get in touch with us.
Unless someone has committed serious or persistent criminal offences, our focus will be on supporting them to acquire status; we will not default to enforcement action. I hope people will have seen that in the way we dealt with vulnerable EEA nationals who missed the deadline last year. That is the approach that we will look to adopt with an armed forces veteran, unless, as I say, serious or persistent criminal offences have been committed. I am sure colleagues will appreciate why I add that caveat.
It should be noted that special immigration rules already apply to non-UK armed forces personnel, under which, as Members have referenced, they are granted full exemption from immigration control status for the duration of their service to allow them to come and go without restriction. They are free from any requirements to make visa applications or pay any fees while they serve, unlike almost every other category of person coming to work in the UK. On discharge, those who have completed at least four years’ service or have been medically discharged as a result of their service can choose to apply immediately for indefinite leave to remain in the UK. Non-UK armed forces personnel applying for themselves do not have to meet an income requirement, be sponsored by an employer, or meet any of the other requirements regarding skills, knowledge of the English language or knowledge of life in the UK that others applying for certain statuses may be familiar with.
It is worth highlighting not just the issue around immigration status, but the provisions that apply with respect to British citizenship. On completion of five years’ service, Commonwealth citizens can choose to naturalise as British citizens while they are still serving. For clarity, as touched on by the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), they can use their time both in the UK and on overseas assignments towards the five-year UK residency criterion—a concession that is not offered to any other employment group. For reasons that will hopefully be obvious to Members present, applying to become a British citizen while serving removes any need to make an application for settlement.
Those provisions sit alongside the specific citizenship provisions for children born to serving armed forces personnel. Again, for clarity, there is a specific carve-out in relation to the rules. Members will be familiar with the concept that if a child is born in the UK and one of their parents is a British citizen or is permanently settled in the UK, they will become a British citizen automatically at birth. That goes further for members of the armed forces: a child born in the UK or qualifying territories acquires British citizenship automatically if, at the time of their birth, their mother or father is a member of the armed forces. It does not need to be both parents; it can be either.
Additionally, any individual born in the UK or qualifying territories on or after 13 January 2010 whose mother or father becomes a member of the armed forces while they are a minor is entitled to register as a British citizen. Finally, a person born outside the UK whose mother or father is a member of the armed forces at the time of their birth can also register as a British citizen. I hope that brings some clarity about the position of children born while someone is serving in the forces.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend, because I know he cares deeply about this issue. I have listened carefully to all the things he has said, but would he not agree that they are extraordinarily small beer for foreign and Commonwealth service personnel? One of the points that was raised was that if they come and serve in the military and they go on deployment to Afghanistan, we will not stop the clock. That is extraordinary. Of course we would never stop the clock—they are serving in the British Army. Would the Minister accept that, while there are small carve-outs for individuals, if we look at the greater picture, they are incredibly small beer? That is why we need to deal with the visa fees issue.
I would not class the automatic granting of UK nationality as small beer. The provisions I have just read out apply regardless of the nationality of the parent. Both parents can be non-UK nationals, and only one needs to be a serving member of the armed forces for their child born in the UK to automatically become a British citizen. I am struggling to think of any other such provision. The child becomes a citizen at birth, so all they need to do is apply for a passport. They are a British citizen. There is no settlement fee and, obviously, there is no visa fee for someone who is a UK national at birth. That is a large, real impact for children born to members of the armed forces, and it is unlike virtually any other walk of life, where, unless a parent already has indefinite leave to remain or one of the parents is a UK national, their children do not automatically become British. Of course, they may be naturalised later, when the parents naturalise themselves. I would not describe that provision as particularly small beer. It is quite long standing, and it is deliberately generous to children born to service personnel.
Family members of armed forces personnel enter the UK on a five-year limited leave to enter visa, whereas their civilian counterparts, such as those coming in under the family routes, are usually granted a 30-month visa, which they must then renew to complete the qualifying period. The family members of armed forces personnel can apply for settlement straightaway at the end of the five years, saving them the cost of making multiple applications. Again, unlike their civilian counterparts, they can count time overseas on accompanied assignments towards the five-year UK residency criterion.
We have several measures in place to support non-UK armed forces personnel, such as the particularly unique provision regarding their children and British citizenship that I have already touched on. We recognise their contribution and sacrifice and are determined to do more, hence the Home Office and Ministry of Defence ran a joint public consultation last year regarding a policy proposal to waive settlement fees for certain non-UK service personnel in Her Majesty’s armed forces. I was pleased to work on that with my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Johnny Mercer). The results of the consultation have now been analysed. The Government will publish our response shortly and make any associated fee changes through fees regulations at the earliest opportunity afterwards. While I am not in a position to confirm the final policy offer, I hope that provides some reassurance that the Government recognise the issue, have sought views from those affected on how best to address it, and will shortly announce our plans to do so.
There has been some focus in the debate on the proposal in the consultation to offer fee waivers to those who have served for a minimum of 12 years. That is in line with a service person’s initial engagement period and takes account of the investment in their skills and training.
In a moment. I acknowledge the strong representations made in the debate—I suspect I am about to get some more—as well as during the passage of the Nationality and Borders Bill and in response to the consultation, recommending that that threshold should be reduced. As I say, we will publish our response to the consultation shortly, and that will set out the final policy.
I have to correct one of those pieces of information on the 12-year engagement point. I know it is not the Minister’s fault, as it comes from the MOD. This is a very recent policy and does not actually apply to anyone who has served for a long time. The idea that someone serves for 12 years is rubbish; they can leave after four or five years. I am afraid that the 12-year engagement point is a huge red herring. We have to be honest in this debate. I know it is definitely not the Home Office’s fault, but the idea that our foreign comrades sign up for 12 years and do not leave is garbage. I repeat that this is not the Minister’s fault at all.
My hon. Friend makes his point strongly on the record. I will move on to the treatment of family members of non-UK service personnel and particularly whether any fee waivers should apply to them as well as to the principal applicant. As I said, I am not in a position to announce the revised policy, but the consultation did not include proposals to waive fees for family members. Offering fee waivers to family members of non-UK service personnel would put them in a more favourable position than UK nationals serving in the armed forces. While we could debate what the provisions for family members should be, we do not believe it is sensible to have a difference in this area, or for it to be an advantage to serve in the armed forces as a non-UK national rather than as a UK national.
Colleagues will be aware that the minimum income requirement is standard across immigration routes for settled persons wishing to sponsor family members and is mostly set at levels at which people would not generally be eligible for income-related benefits. Most armed forces personnel, regardless of their nationality, are single when they enlist. The salary in all three services once basic training is completed would enable them to sponsor a partner to come to, or remain in, the UK. Where personnel have children who are subject to immigration control, noting the provisions I outlined earlier, we recognise that it may take longer for junior-ranked personnel to meet the higher thresholds that apply. That is why the Home Secretary agrees with the recommendations of the review by my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous), “Living in our shoes”, published in June 2020, and has committed to a medium-term review of the impact of the minimum income requirement on armed forces personnel and their families.
In previous debates, the issue of Hong Kong Military Service Corps veterans has been raised. It is probably worth putting on the record again what I confirmed during the passage of the Nationality and Borders Bill. We have identified a potential solution to this issue and are currently investigating proposals that could see that cohort treated similarly to other non-UK service personnel with potential links to the former colony. That would be in addition to other pathways that they may already be eligible for, such as the British national overseas visa, which provides a path to settlement. There is considerable work to be done to fully scope the ramifications and impacts of this policy. However, I aim to provide further details to the House later this year.
Let me again offer my thanks to the hon. Member for Barnsley Central for securing this debate. As we have seen today and in the debate last month on the proposed amendment to the Nationality and Borders Bill, this issue rightly arouses strong feelings among individual Members and across the House—understandably so, given that it covers those who have served our nation. The hon. Members present are committed and passionate advocates for this topic, and I commend them and others for raising this hugely important issue. The discussion that we have had today has exposed the significant and understandable strength of feeling that there is about it.
I am sorry; I am only making up for the fact that there are not many people here. If we applied the consultation proposal retrospectively to 2020, how many foreign and Commonwealth service personnel would benefit from it, as a percentage? Does my hon. Friend know? I am trying desperately not to catch him out, because I think that we did this work together.
They certainly would not be worthless if they benefited someone. However, in terms of our final response, we hear the strength of opinions on the length of service proposed and the comments that have been made today. I suspect that I will hear even more on this issue in the not-too-distant future, given that later today I am due to meet the hon. Member for Barnsley Central, my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Moor View and representatives of the Royal British Legion, of which I am a member myself, to discuss their concerns further. I look forward to hearing their views, not just on the issue of visa fees but more widely, including on the points that I have just made about any veteran who is here in the UK without regular status. We would urge such veterans to get in touch with the Home Office or, if they do not feel confident about getting in touch with us directly, with their local Member of Parliament.
I am mindful of the time, so I again pay tribute to our armed forces personnel for their tireless work and sacrifice. We know that there is more to be done to support them in this area and I look forward to being able to confirm shortly our next steps to recognise their service. As I say, we know that there is more to be done to support them in this area, and I look forward to being able to give the House more details about how we will do that.
This has been a very useful debate and I am grateful for all the contributions from Members and for the Minister’s response.
What this issue comes down to, when we strip everything back, is whether it is right to charge someone who has come here and served our country £2,389—£10,000 for their family—to stay in the country that they have risked their life to protect. I do not think that we can square the commitment that we as a country make to those who serve and to our veterans with the way that we treat our foreign and Commonwealth-born service personnel. Morally, I just cannot fathom how we can justify using people who have risked their lives for our country as cash cows to generate revenue for the Treasury coffers. It is just wrong, and for me it undermines the very fabric of our military covenant.
However, this issue can be fixed very easily; there is an open goal here for the Government. I very much hope that they will take the opportunity in the near future to kick the ball into the net, and I very much hope to see a response to the consultation in the near future. The Minister has said on a number of occasions that the Government will publish their response “shortly”. I hope that when they do so, it will show that they have listened to the representations that have been made by hon. Members in this place and to the voices of the service charities.
The Minister has been good enough to agree to meet me, the hon. Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Johnny Mercer), and the director general of the Royal British Legion later today for a further conversation about this matter. However, when the Government publish their response to the consultation, I hope that they will reflect on the limitations of the initial proposals and consider lowering the threshold and including veterans and their families.
I hope that the Minister and the Government will act to right this wrong. If they do so, that will be warmly welcomed, but if they do not, they should know that the hon. Gentleman and I, and many others besides, will keep going until we get this matter sorted.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered immigration requirements for non-UK armed forces personnel.