Thursday 6 January 2022
[Mr Virendra Sharma in the Chair]
Second Homes and Holiday Lets: Rural Communities
Happy new year to all. Before we begin, 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 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 the matter of second homes and holiday lets in rural communities.
It is a huge pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma. Happy new year to you, too, and to colleagues.
It is a huge privilege to serve our communities in Cumbria—our towns, villages lakes and dales, among the rugged beauty of England’s finest landscapes—yet the people who live in our communities are even more precious than the places themselves. We welcome those who see Cumbria as a holiday destination: a place for leisure and relaxation, and a place of peaceful serenity and exhilarating extremes. It is our collective privilege to be the stewards of such a spectacular environment for the country, yet our full-time local communities face an existential threat unlike any other in the UK. I am immensely grateful to have secured this debate, because the housing crisis that has faced our communities in Cumbria and elsewhere in rural Britain for decades has rapidly become a catastrophe during the two years of the pandemic.
For the last few decades, we have seen an erosion in the number of properties in Cumbria that are available and affordable for local people to buy or rent. What little I know of geology tells me that although erosion usually takes place over huge passages of time, sometimes a whole rockface may collapse or a whole piece of a cliff might drop into the sea in a single instant. That is what has happened to our housing stock during the pandemic. In the space of less than two years, a bad situation has become utterly disastrous.
I have been calling for the Government to take action from the very beginning, so I confess to being frustrated and angry that Ministers have yet to do anything meaningful to tackle the problem. As a result, many of us living in rural communities feel ignored, abandoned and taken for granted by the Government, and we stand together today as rural communities to declare that we will not be taken for granted one moment longer.
In South Lakeland, the average house price is 11 times greater than the average household income. Families on low or middle incomes, and even those on reasonably good incomes, are completely excluded from the possibility of buying a home. Although the local council in South Lakeland has enabled the building of more than 1,000 new social rented properties, there are still more than 3,000 families languishing on the housing waiting list. Even before the pandemic, at least one in seven houses in my constituency was a second home—a bolthole or an investment for people whose main home is somewhere else.
In many towns and villages, such as Coniston, Hawkshead, Dent, Chapel Stile and Grasmere, the majority of properties are now empty for most of the year. Across the Yorkshire Dales, much of which is in Cumbria and in my constituency, more than a quarter of the housing stock in the national park is not lived in. In Elterwater in Langdale, 85% of the properties are second homes. Without a large enough permanent population, villages just die. The school loses numbers and then closes. The bus service loses passengers, so it gets cut. The pub loses its trade, the post office loses customers and the church loses its congregation, so they close too. Those who are left behind are isolated and often impoverished in communities whose life has effectively come to an end.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on having secured this important debate. He has mentioned that his local authority has brought forward some affordable housing—I cannot remember the number he said—but that it was all rented. The Government have created a new scheme, the first homes scheme, to allow discounted properties to be purchased as affordable homes. Is the hon. Gentleman pursuing that with his local authority, to try to make more of those properties available to his local first-time buyers?
I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s intervention. The short answer is yes. The slightly longer answer is that the first homes scheme cannot be instead of other schemes but has to be in addition to them. By the way, in a community like ours where the average household price is 11 times greater than the average income, the first homes scheme will not help people; it will not even nearly help them. Maybe if their income was seven times less than the average house price, it might just help them, so it is a good scheme, but it is barely even the tip of the iceberg. Yes, I have spoken to the previous Secretary of State to ask him to make our area a pilot, but that does not touch the sides, if I am honest. Nevertheless, the hon. Gentleman has raised a really important point.
During the pandemic, I have spoken to many local estate agents across our county. Around 80% of all house sales during the past two years have been in the second home market. Those who have the money to do so are rethinking their priorities, investing in the rising value of property and seeking a piece of the countryside to call their own, and we can kind of understand that. I do not wish to demonise anybody with a second home, or to say that there are no circumstances in which it is okay to have one, but let me be blunt: surely, someone’s right to have a second home must not trump a struggling family’s right to have any home, yet in reality, apparently it does. Every day that the Government fail to act is another day that they are backing those who are lucky enough to have multiple homes against those who cannot find any home in the lakes, the dales or any other rural community in our country.
My own constituency, Aberconwy in north Wales, has this problem—not to the extent that the hon. Member describes, but certainly smaller villages are particularly vulnerable to high levels of second home ownership. However, I wonder what he has to say about the example given to me of a farmer whose family had lived in one valley, Penmachno, for many years. He himself had to move away to find other work, so he now has a second home—his family home—in Penmachno, but he must live in England. In that circumstance, there is a second home in the village that is not occupied, but there is a tradition and a family heritage in that village. Should that person then have to give up that home, or does the hon. Member have a way of recognising that kind of arrangement?
I thank the hon. Gentleman very much for his intervention, which is really helpful and worthwhile. I would say two things. First, we have a desperate lack of affordable private rented accommodation, so we want both social rented houses and houses in the private rented stock. It seems to me that that is clearly the route for the hon. Gentleman’s constituent to go down.
Secondly, possibly the only thing in the coalition agreement that had anything to do with me whatsoever was a commitment to what we called “home on the farm”: the ability, which is still the Government’s stated policy, for farmers to convert underused or semi-used farm buildings into affordable homes for families, but also as part of the wider housing network. These are all small ounces that will help us to shift the problem, and I wish that the hon. Gentleman’s Government in Wales and his Government here would take up these suggestions.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on having secured this important debate. It is clear from some of the questions that have been asked, and from what the hon. Gentleman is saying, that this is a complex issue. I will give an example: on the Isle of Wight, the village of Seaview has 82% second home ownership, so it has been effectively stripped out of permanent life, and Bembridge and Yarmouth have similar problems. Is the hon. Gentleman aware that a group of us have written to the Secretary of State with over two dozen ideas for how to make the upcoming housing and planning Bill—if it does come—much better and stronger, and give it a much wider base of support? We have put forward recommendations, and some options on second home ownership.
I thank the hon. Gentleman very much for his helpful contribution, and for his ongoing concern and interest in this issue, which is very laudable indeed. In one sense, this issue is not complex at all. If a person is forced out of their community, it is not slightly complex; it is just bloomin’ tragic. Yes, there is a planning Bill, and I look forward to that. I might feel all sorts of dread about that Bill, but it is an opportunity to do something. However, every single day is an opportunity to do something. The opportunity was two years ago, a year ago, last week and the week before, and the Government do nothing.
The simple reality is that it is not that complex to do things that will shift the dial and save the dales and other rural communities that are being undermined in the way they are. That is what so frustrating to us: there are people from all parties in this Chamber today, and there are other people who would be here on a normal Thursday if it were not this time of year and if there were any votes today. The reality is that we know there is a problem, and we see no action from the Government. Every day that goes by is another day wasted. It is not complex—it is just tragic.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for calling the debate and I congratulate him on his speech. Urban areas that are holiday destinations—such as York, which has more than 8 million visitors a year—are also plagued by the issue, which is about not only Airbnbs and holiday lets but second homes, not least because people have now discovered new ways of working. Is that not another factor to add to the equation when we look at not only who has the ownership, but what is being developed?
The hon. Lady makes a great point and I am grateful for her intervention. It is not just a rural issue, although it may predominantly be rural. York is clearly a good example of somewhere that suffers in a different way. I will come to the issue of holiday lets and some of the answers in a moment. It will rob communities of their very life if we do not intervene. I am not someone who is anti-market—I am anti-broken market, and this is a broken market. This is our opportunity to do something about it.
Excessive second home ownership is a colossal problem in our communities. The purpose of this debate is to shake the Government out of their demonstrable and inexcusable inaction and to take the action required to save our communities.
The crisis has become a catastrophe, and it is not just about second homes. Holiday lets are an important part of our tourism economy. In the Lake district, we argue and believe that we are the most visited part of Britain outside London. Our tourism economy is worth more than £3 billion a year and employs 60,000 people—comfortably Cumbria’s biggest employer. It is a vibrant industry and, by its very nature, a joyful one; I am proud to be a voice for Cumbria tourism in this place. Those 60,000 people working in hospitality and tourism need to live somewhere. Some 80% of the entire working-age population of the Lake district already works in hospitality and tourism. We need to increase the number of working-age people who can afford to live and raise a family in our communities, yet the absolute opposite is happening at a rate of knots.
During the pandemic, in South Lakeland alone—just one district that makes up part of the Lake district—there was a 32% rise in one year in the number of holiday lets. I assure the Minister that those were not new builds; they were not magicked out of thin air. Those new holiday lets emerged in 2021 following the lifting of the covid eviction ban. That is not to blame the ban; it was a good idea, and it had to come to an end at some point. My point is that that rise was over a tiny period of time: less than 12 months, in reality. The fact is that this time last year those new holiday lets were someone’s home.
In Sedbergh, Kirkby Lonsdale, Kendal, Windermere, Staveley, Ambleside, Coniston, Grasmere, Grange and throughout Cumbria, I have met people who have been evicted from their homes under a section 21 eviction order—which, incidentally, this Government promised to ban in their last manifesto.
Among the hundreds evicted, I think of the couple with two small children in Ambleside, who struggled to pay £800 a month for their flat above a shop in town; they were evicted last spring only to find the home they had lived in for years on Airbnb for £1,200 a week. I think of the mum near Grange, whose teenage son had lived in their rented home his whole life; they were evicted only to see their property on Airbnb a few days later for over £1,000 a week. I think of the tradesman from Sedbergh, who had served the community for 15 years; a few days after he was evicted, his former home was also on Airbnb for £1,000 a week. There are hundreds more individuals and families in the same situation right across rural Cumbria.
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. Back in 2018, I did some work with Gordon Marsden, the then MP for Blackpool South, looking at Airbnb and the issues of the sharing economy for the all-party parliamentary group for hospitality and tourism. We came up with a recommendation for a statutory registrations scheme for all accommodation providers. Is that something the hon. Gentleman has considered?
I have, and I will come to some suggestions in a moment, including on how we might tackle the issue—to put it neutrally—of Airbnb. The hon. Gentleman raises an important point, and the need for such a scheme is huge. Undoubtedly, the ease with which people can turn a home into a holiday let is part of the problem. The consequences are phenomenal. The people I am speaking about are real human beings; I could pick dozens and dozens more to talk about. What it means for them is that they have to leave the area. This is no less than a Lakeland clearance: whole communities ejected from the places where they were raised, where they had chosen to raise their families, or where they had set down roots to live, work and contribute to our economy.
Will the Minister accept that this is both morally abhorrent and economically stupid? We have businesses in Cumbria that, having survived covid so far, are now reducing their opening hours or closing all together because they cannot find staff anymore. We have people isolated and vulnerable because they cannot find care staff. There are friends of mine in that situation, in part because the local workforce has been effectively cleared out and expelled. In each case I mentioned earlier—in Sedbergh, Ambleside and Grange—the people could not find anywhere else to live in those communities or in the wider community. They have had to uproot and move away all together. How is the economy of Britain’s second biggest tourism destination expected to deliver for Britain’s wider economy without anybody to staff it?
What about the children who have to move away, and are forced to move school, and leave behind friends and support networks? What about those left behind in our dwindling communities, whose schools are now threatened with closure? I have spoken to MPs, not just those who are here and for whose presence I am massively grateful, but from rural communities right across this House. Most of those, particularly in England and Wales, are from the Conservative party. There is a kind of private agreement that this is a catastrophe. They see it in their own constituencies: the collapse of affordable, available housing for local communities is killing towns and villages in Cornwall, Northumberland, Shropshire, Devon, Somerset, North Yorkshire, the highlands of Scotland and rural Wales, as well as in my home of Cumbria.
Our rural communities want two things from the Minister today: first, a sign that he understands that this catastrophe is happening; and secondly, a commitment not to wait for the planning Bill, but to act radically and to act right now.
Forgive me for not thanking the hon. Member earlier for securing this debate; this is a crucial debate and very important to residents in Aberconwy. I want to ask him about the point he made about the distribution of this problem in Wales, Scotland and England. Is he suggesting that this is a problem that can be solved by the UK Government, or is it one that he feels must be dealt with by the devolved Administrations?
I will be guided by you, Mr Sharma. Unless people are desperate, I will not take any more interventions. Members have the opportunity to speak after I finish.
The point that the hon. Member for Aberconwy (Robin Millar) makes is important; the UK Government have powers and I will come on to talk about the things that they could do. There are things that the Welsh Government could do, and there are some things that they are already doing that the UK Government are not doing—we could learn some lessons from them. There are also some powers that local authorities and national parks have, but those are very limited. It is essentially about taxation and planning law, in particular; those things come from both the devolved and central Administrations. However, it is a perfectly sensible and intelligent point that the hon. Member makes.
Now might be the moment, having asked the Minister to acknowledge that the catastrophe is real and to act, for me to give him some ideas about how he might act. What could and should the Government do? I propose seven steps to save rural communities. First, they could make second homes and holiday lets new and separate categories of planning use. This would mean that councils and national parks would have the power to put a limit on the number of such properties in each town and village, protecting the majority of houses for permanent occupation. Secondly, they could provide targeted, ringfenced finance so that planning departments have the resources to police this new rule effectively.
Thirdly, the Government could follow the lead of the Welsh Government and give councils the power to increase council tax by up to 100% on second homes in the worst-affected communities. That would serve to protect those communities and generate significant revenue that could then be ploughed back into their threatened schools and into new affordable housing for local families. A quick assessment shows that, in Coniston alone, that would raise £750,000 a year, which would make a colossal difference to that community.
Fourthly, the Government could force all holiday let owners to pay council tax, as they can avoid paying anything at all if they are deemed a small business.
Fifthly, the Government could give councils and national parks the power to ensure that, at least in some cases, 100% of new builds are genuinely affordable, and provide funding to pump prime those developments, possibly in part via the proceeds of a second homes council tax supplement. We have a deeply broken housing market. Of course, developers can sell any property that they build in our rural communities for a handsome price, but that is surely not the most important thing. Is it not time to stop building simply to meet demand, and instead build to meet need?
Sixthly, the Government could simply keep their manifesto promise and ban section 21 evictions.
Seventhly, the Government can ensure that platforms such as Airbnb are not allowed to cut corners and undermine the traditional holiday let industry. Their properties should have to meet the same standards as any other rental. Failure to do that is unsafe, unfair and creates a fast track for the Lakeland clearances to continue and escalate.
I want to be constructive, and I hope that I have been. I called for this debate not to throw bricks at the Government, but because I love my communities and I am despairing at what is happening to them. I am determined that Ministers should understand the depth and scale of this catastrophe, and that they should take radical action right now. I support free markets, but unregulated markets that are obviously broken are not free at all. That is when they need the visible hand of Government to referee and intervene.
The Government will have noticed that, in recent months, rural Britain has demonstrated at the ballot box that it will not tolerate being taken for granted. This debate gives Ministers an early opportunity to demonstrate, in return, that they will stop taking us for granted, standing idly by while rural communities are rapidly destroyed.
To those of us who live in Cumbria and other beautiful parts of our country, it is obvious what is happening, and it is heartbreaking. Likewise, it is obvious to us what needs to be done, and it frustrates us, to the point of fury, that the Government have so far failed to even acknowledge the problem, much less to do anything about it. Today is their chance to put that right. Rural Britain is watching.
I thank the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) for opening the debate so well, as we see a surge of second homes and holiday lets. We all know that our constituents need local homes for local people. They are being priced out of their communities and the wrong houses are being built, all at a cost to the local economy. This is about cost, tenure, and impact.
York is no different from rural areas; it is not about location but housing tenure and use, not least for a holiday destination. York has residential streets full of holiday lets, fragmenting communities in areas where second homes have a prevalence. We have new developments that are increasingly attractive to investors but unaffordable for local people. That includes the 2,500-unit York Central development, which even Homes England recognises could be dominated by second homes and holiday lets—it is now being dubbed “Airbnb central”. The wrong kind of housing is being developed; the site should be about public land being used for public good.
I do not chastise the Government for their focus on housing numbers, but in York, we need growth for our local people, and that focus is propping up second homes and the lettings market, and causing the housing market to overheat at the expense of local families being pushed further away from our city. The solution is local homes for local people, whether they already live in York or are moving to serve our local economy and public services.
Let me address costs. York receives more than 8 million visitors a year. The holiday let business is booming, not least as covid-safe staycations have been such a feature of the pandemic. York’s pressure-cooker housing market saw an increase of 14%—£36,000—in the average property price in the year up to August. First-time buyers spend 23% more on housing than they did five years ago. York’s affordability ratio is 8.3 and rising sharply. Family homes are being snapped up as holiday lets or second homes, and it is more lucrative to convert student lets to holiday lets, so we now have a problem with student accommodation. York’s superb connectivity and new ways of working mean that the opportunity to own a second home in York has become even more attractive to weekly commuters.
On tenure, developers are building units for investors, not to meet local need. They are perfect for short-term breaks but hopeless for local families, even though family homes constitute 80% of those needed. That is why the numbers game just does not work and the planning system does not deliver. It is a false economy: housing units are getting ticked off but housing need is not being addressed. It is a developer’s dream, as they can name their price, but a local person’s nightmare, as they are pushed away from our city.
On the impact, we cannot recruit those with the vital skills to staff our NHS or social care. We cannot staff our local economy, particularly in retail and hospitality, as people can no longer afford to live in York, and that problem has reached crisis point in some professions. The gentrification of our post-industrial city is coming at a heavy cost, not least as local families are now being driven away by the net loss of council housing and a housing waiting list that has tripled in my short time in Parliament. The unaffordable rents and market housing costs are forcing people to live and work elsewhere. Too many people are now at the mercy of unscrupulous private landlords or in overcrowded social housing. It is breaking our city. Local homes for local people is imperative.
I will make five suggestions. First, we need proper local data, including a register of housing lets and a register of second homes.
Secondly, we need to fix local taxation. Business rates do not work here, as we all know, so on top of council tax, a council tax levy should be paid by people who have the privilege of owning a second property for holiday lets. After all, people renting still use local services and need their bins collecting.
Thirdly, on planning, we need to build local homes for local people. The planning system does not currently accommodate that, and the obligations and incentives have a perverse impact. A residence test is required, and although I would welcome such a measure, it is about more than that. We need to address the problem not just at the point of sale, but when the land is being developed, and consider the obligations placed on developers. We need to review the local planning process—I appreciate that we have not had a local plan since 1954, which is escalating the problem—and I trust that the Minister will deliver that for us this year. He needs to bang heads together at our local authority to deliver that, because we absolutely need to look at the planning system in today’s context.
Fourthly, on financial incentives, scrapping the mortgage tax relief on holiday lets is absolutely essential, as is looking at how stamp duty can be even better used as a disincentive for second home ownership. When disposing of public land, instead of chasing one-off land receipts, investment in the long-term interests of the community and the socioeconomic outcomes should be the prime focus.
Fifthly, we should also limit the time for which holiday homes can be let, as has been done in London and Europe. That will curb the behaviour of some of second home owners and ensure that those homes can go to local communities.
We need the principle of local homes for local people to govern every housing decision so that we can once again have a vibrant community.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma. I thank the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) for securing this important debate.
I feel like a stuck record for raising the issue of second homes in North Devon again. My constituency is not just rural but coastal, and many of the issues described by hon. Members are exacerbated many times over on the coast, where we have only the sea to draw on for extra residents or houses. Therefore, down the south-west peninsula, in both Devon and Cornwall, MPs have been highlighting this issue ever since I was elected. Although the pandemic has seen a perfect storm, resulting in a rush to purchase second homes in beautiful locations or to convert properties to short-term holiday lets, it is not a new problem. I was contacted during the 2019 general election campaign by the Croyde Area Residents Association, which was concerned even then that second homes accounted for 64% of properties in the stunning surf village of Croyde.
The issues around second homes are well documented with regards to a shortage of affordable properties for local residents. In the past year of the pandemic, we have also seen many evictions of local residents who have rented their homes for many years, so that owners can convert their properties to short-term holiday lets. North Devon has always welcomed second-homers and those visiting our beautiful coast in short-term holiday lets, but what we are now seeing is unsustainable, and we need action to address the problem before we become a complete ghost coast.
Like me, North Devon Council has written numerous times to the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government, and now to the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, on this matter. In its most recent letter, North Devon Council detailed the following concerns about the critical situation facing our housing market. Average house prices in North Devon have increased by 22.5% in the past 12 months—the second-highest rise in England. There has been a 67% reduction in listings for permanent rental properties in 12 months—the highest reduction in the south-west, and the fourth highest nationally. There has been a 33% increase in the number of people on the housing register in 12 months, a 21% increase in the number of dwellings registered for business rates for holiday lets over 24 months, and a 7.5% increase in the number of second homes in just 12 months.
The number of properties advertised for permanent rental via Rightmove, compared with those available for Airbnb, really highlights the issue. Many of us had hoped the problem would have passed by the end of the summer, but at the start of November in Barnstaple, the main town in my constituency, there were 126 Airbnbs and two private rentals. In Ilfracombe, there were over 300 Airbnbs and three private rentals. In Lynton, there were 104 Airbnbs. In Woolacombe, there were 196 Airbnbs but not a single private rental on Rightmove.
The council’s housing staff are now dealing with a huge increase in the number of people presenting as homeless, and they have also seen a major shift in the type of people asking for assistance. These people are homeless simply because they are forced to present as such, as they have been evicted by landlords who wish to convert their properties from private residential use to short-term holiday use. Given the numbers I have mentioned, it is impossible for them to find alternative accommodation on the open market. I want to take this opportunity to thank the housing team at North Devon Council for their tireless work in trying to help families who find themselves in an incredibly difficult and stressful situation through no fault of their own.
Although tourism is a major part of the North Devon economy, the lack of housing available for permanent residential use is starting to have a major impact on the lives of far too many residents, as well as on local businesses and public services such as health and education, which are struggling to recruit because of the lack of housing and which are also suffering from existing staff leaving the area because of eviction and the lack of affordable housing. Major employers in North Devon have indicated that the lack of available housing is now being considered when deciding whether to invest in the area. Local schools and colleges, and the health service, cannot recruit quality staff because of the lack of housing. Even our much-loved North Devon District Hospital is struggling to find accommodation for just the handful of new students that started there this year.
The recent shift from permanent residential to holiday use, and the substantial increase in house prices, means not only that a permanent home is out of reach for many people living and working in the area. Public attitudes to new house building have also changed. Virtually every housing scheme in North Devon, particularly the larger ones, is meeting substantial opposition from the community, with many objectors citing fears that the properties will become second homes or holiday lets, and that they will invariably be unaffordable for local residents. The situation is exacerbated by the fact that viability challenges raised by developers mean that on average only around 20% of new homes built in North Devon are affordable, by any definition.
A proliferation of short-term holiday lets in an area not only changes the character of a neighbourhood but can also increase antisocial behaviour and noise nuisance, primarily because there is so little regulation of short-term holiday lets. We are already starting to see that, with an increase in the number of complaints received by the council relating to noise, antisocial behaviour, parties, hot tubs and so on.
I recognise that any intervention in the housing market has a huge risk of unintended consequences and potential increases in prices in some sectors, but I very much hope that some steps can be taken to level the playing field between the short-term and the long-term rental markets through the various current tax inequalities, to ensure that the short-term holiday let market is better regulated and that a change of use is required to convert properties from primary residence to holiday lets. It seems bizarre that some of the holiday lets in my constituency have to have a change of use to become a long-term rental, but the situation is not the same the other way round. Restrictions of just 10 months’ occupancy are imposed by local councils for good reasons at the time they were imposed, but those restrictions are now not being reversed. Support is needed for small district councils to enable them to confidently take those steps, if they are able.
We also need to take steps to bring back into occupation derelict properties that have been left empty for months or years. Councils have powers, but the processes are slow and expensive, and the proximity of my own home to derelict houses suggests such powers are not being readily acted upon.
Most people dream of owning their own home, and I fully support the Government’s ambition to help people to achieve that dream. To do that in places such as North Devon, we need to find a solution for increasing the supply of affordable housing and we need to review the guidance and tests in place to assess the viability of developments, to ensure that the level of affordable housing provided is not affected by issues such as an unreasonably high valuation placed on the land.
Our councils need more control and flexibility in access to funding to build affordable homes and to protect them for occupancy by local residents, so that they are available to future generations. New homes need to be available to those who want to live in these rural and coastal constituencies. There are innovative schemes such as rent to buy from companies such as Rentplus, community land trusts for small rural communities need to be more accessible to small planning authorities, and more needs to be done so that our local plans really do reflect the needs of our local communities.
Like many of my constituents, I would like the lights over Christmas to be on in my neighbours’ houses, but far too many closes like mine are deserted through the winter. I very much hope that the new Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities has some plans, blue sky or otherwise. During the pandemic, this Government showed that we can act quickly when we need to. The time is now to address the imbalances in the housing market, before the lights go out for good and the whole of the North Devon coast becomes a winter ghost town.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron).
Like other Members here today, I represent a rural and coastal constituency. North East Fife is very popular with tourists—and why would it not be? The East Neuk is known as a hidden gem, a string of pearls, with its beautiful fishing villages of Crail and Elie, St Monans, Anstruther and Cellardyke; beaches and cliffs and nature to walk on—I tackled the Elie chain walk scramble with my son last year—and the sea for swimming and sailing; it has local food producers and a burgeoning craft alcohol industry; and all that is before moving on to St Andrews with its history and golf.
Tourism is clearly a vital part of North East Fife’s local economy, but I echo the comments made by my hon. Friend on the need for a balance. Tourism is only sustainable when it works with and enhances local communities. In many respects, the communities in North East Fife continue to thrive even outside of tourist season. Over Small Business Saturday before Christmas, I had the opportunity to visit the inaugural Largo arts winter weekend, where 30 artists opened their homes and studios to showcase and sell their works. Between covid and the weather, there were arguably not many tourists, but it was a fantastic and vibrant day showing the strengths of those living in our communities.
A persistent issue for those living in North East Fife, as for other constituencies mentioned here today, is the unsustainable proliferation of second homes and holiday lets. Details from Fife Council housing services for March 2021 show that, at a minimum, almost a 10th of all the properties in the East Neuk were second homes. I say “at a minimum” because the data does not include 14 smaller villages where there are fewer than 30 second homes, it does not identify where long-term empty properties are second homes and, crucially, it does not record holiday lets at all. So the real figures are likely to be significantly higher, with some anecdotal estimates placing the number closer to half of all properties.
No community can thrive when half of all private properties are holiday accommodation. A constituent wrote to me recently, noting that during the last 25 years numbers at the local primary school had fallen from just over 100 pupils to 30. That is not good enough for the families in North East Fife or elsewhere. It is not the sign of a thriving community where children will be given opportunities to flourish as they grow up. Others have mentioned the ongoing impact that that has on other services. We all run campaigns as MPs to keep our bus services and to keep our schools and other public places open, but we find ourselves in a vicious cycle because of this problem.
As others have mentioned, these properties drive away families and drive up house prices. Last August it was reported that property prices along the East Neuk rose by more than 26%, which is fantastic if you are on the property ladder, but less so for young people and growing families, who find themselves priced out. As the hon. Member for North Devon (Selaine Saxby) referenced, there is an impact on councils and housing. There has always been a shortage of council housing in North East Fife, with people forced to become homeless.
I have mentioned the success of many local businesses, but no one’s income grew by more than a quarter last year, and no local business can work without employees. Like other areas, North East Fife has really struggled with employment in hospitality. There are vacancies in establishments such as the Michelin-starred Peat Inn, which has been forced to cancel lunch services owing to a lack of staff.
I welcome the actions of the Liberal Democrats on Fife Council, who brought a motion to consider the use of control orders. Those are not a silver bullet, but they do attempt to strike the right balance in our communities and, importantly, give local people a say.
I am conscious that many of the proposals mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale fall into policy areas that have been devolved to the Scottish Government. The option taken by the Scottish National party in Holyrood was to propose the licensing of properties to regulate proper usage. The Scottish Government withdrew those proposals prior to the Holyrood elections in May, having committed to respond to stakeholder concerns about the licensing scheme through a working group. However, I am sorry to say that that working group has not gone well. In August, tourism bodies, having highlighted the lack of significant change to the legislation, particularly where it impacted on traditional self-catering and bed and breakfasts, resigned from the group en masse. Since then, the group has given evidence to Holyrood’s Local Government and Communities Committee, outlining its view that the current plans would be hugely damaging to the Scottish tourism economy, particularly as we recover from covid.
I understand the frustration of those living in city areas, where noise from partygoers in rentals can be a real issue, but the solution of the legislation being outlined in Scotland will not resolve the issues experienced in rural and coastal communities such as North East Fife. My MSP colleague, Willie Rennie, continues to raise those issues in the Scottish Parliament.
So what can be done for North East Fife in Westminster? Fiscal policy could be used to encourage the sale of properties as primary residences. The Liberal Democrats have previously called for the holiday let tax loophole to be closed and for mortgage tax relief to be removed from holiday lets. Just as important as tangible policy change is the need for a consistent approach between the devolved Administrations and Westminster, as the hon. Member for Aberconwy (Robin Millar), who is no longer in his place, alluded to.
Hospitality and tourism are vital for communities across the four nations of the UK. As we have seen with differing covid regulations, sometimes people do not think twice about travelling across borders to where the rules are different. I want hospitality, tourism and the communities in North East Fife to thrive, and I want them to thrive in North Devon and in Westmorland and Lonsdale, so I ask the Minister to commit to conversations with his counterparts in the Scottish Government and the other devolved Administrations to ensure that no community ends up losing out in a race to the bottom on these measures.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate. I thank the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) for setting the scene so well. I have absolutely no doubt that his constituency is full of pleasant scenery, being in the very heart of the Lake district. However, I do not believe that anywhere compares with some of the visuals back home in my own constituency—although I might just be a wee tad biased. Nevertheless, if all the Members here in Westminster Hall came to Strangford, they would say, “You’re definitely right. It is the best place to be. The visuals are there.” Whether it be the beaches, the golf courses, the antique shops, the coffee shops, the historical destinations, Mount Stewart or Strangford Lough with all its sea sports, Strangford has it. If anyone comes for a holiday, they will come back.
In my constituency, the core economic strategy of the local council, Ards and North Down Borough Council, is tourism, to create the jobs and the wages. There is a need to ensure that tourism can progress, while also ensuring that locals can still live where they were brought up, and I understand the hon. Gentleman’s frustrations about the rural parts of his constituency being predominantly used for holiday lets and second homes. Although our rural areas are beautiful, often with unique scenery, it is crucial that people have somewhere to live and are not evicted to make room for another holiday let. As the hon. Gentleman referred to, recent statistics have shown that there has been a 32% increase in holiday lets in the last year in his constituency.
Bringing it back home for a moment, I have the pleasure of representing a constituency that has a number of towns—Newtownards, Comber and Ballynahinch—but also many lovely seaside villages, such as Killyleagh, Ballywalter and Portavogie. One thing that I take pride in are the little B&Bs, the glamping pods and the mini-getaways—the staycations that Strangford provides. For example, there is Pebble Pods, for glamping, or luxury camping, in Killinchy, and there are also seaside cottages to rent in Ballyhalbert, all a mere bus ride from the town of Newtownards and a day’s shopping or a night at the cinema. I am just watching everybody’s mouths water in relation to what Strangford has to offer, and I am sure they will all be queuing up to book the first plane, the first car or whatever it may be to get over to Northern Ireland.
From 2019 to 2020, between 520 and 611 residential planning decisions were approved for my constituency. Compared with other constituencies in Northern Ireland, those figures are not that high—across the Province, the figure is about 950. That shows that there are controls in place in my constituency, and we are pleased to see them.
In addition, 35% of people in Northern Ireland live in rural areas. I am blessed to have always lived in the countryside, starting in the village of Ballywalter, and then in the Ards peninsula for the rest of my life—that is for many reasons, such as health, geography and desire.
A constituent of mine suffers with severe asthma. He found that living in a town with a higher level of industrial fumes was affecting his breathing. Therefore, he moved to Ballywalter, the village I was brought up in, where there is fresh sea air. I understand why there is a desire to go to the countryside—to Westmorland and Lonsdale, to south Devon or wherever it might be. However, it is crucial that there is sustainable housing, both private and social housing, that people can avail themselves of.
Although it is important that there is sufficient housing in rural communities, it is fair to say that, in terms of tourism, they are often overlooked. Tourism in rural areas can be seen as fairly architectural and does not represent luxury for all age types; we have to understand that as well.
I agree with the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale about many of his points, but I must acknowledge and praise those who have gone above and beyond to improve amenities in their areas for the purpose of development and to make those areas more popular places to go to. There is a purpose in that if people want to go to those places, but there is also a need to do the very core thing that the hon. Gentleman referred to, which is to ensure that local people can stay and live where they are. It is also about getting people out of congested cities and into the countryside.
Back home in my constituency and across Northern Ireland, we have some rules—the planning rules are clear. In every housing development some of the land must be set aside for social housing and rental opportunities—I do not know whether that is one of the seven options the hon. Gentleman referred to. Barn conversions should be the only thing when it comes to tourism—re-lets for the future. The seven points the hon. Gentleman referred to are key, and he put them forward in the way he always does—in a constructive fashion. I am not deriding the Minister or his Department; this is about how we can do better and make things better.
Better scrutiny must take place with regard to planning, and local residents should be given a platform to air their concerns. I want to make it clear that everyone should have a home. I remember the Conservative party and Margaret Thatcher many years ago, and her theme was that every person should have access to housing. I understand from a paper that I read that in the last few months 400,000 people were first-time buyers of their houses. So it is clear that there are other things we need to look towards.
When planners discuss new plans for holiday lets or second homes, they should take into consideration who they are putting at risk of homelessness. I urge the Minister and the Government to take new steps and to engage with local councils to protect residents in rural areas who are at risk of losing their homes to holiday lets, as the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale referred to. We must ensure that councils have the power to say when enough is enough, and to differentiate between residential and leisure planning, which is one of the seven points that the hon. Gentleman made.
I will conclude with this comment: a person who has lived all their life in the country needs to know that affordable housing is available for them to raise their families in. Currently, that is not the case and, as everybody has referred to, we must find a balance between protecting the countryside, encouraging tourism and ensuring that there is an environment of affordable housing. That is a difficult balance, to be sure, but it is not an impossible one, and I remain hopeful that this House, in tandem with planning and tourism, can do differently and do better.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma, and I thank the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) for having secured this important debate. It was good to hear him speak in favour of free markets: that is not something we always hear from his party, so it was very welcome. However, I agree with him that we are in a broken market. I must draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests: I have been involved in the housing market for many years.
There is a scarcity of land across the country, and in the rural areas we are talking about today—many of which are covered by national parks, including much of my area—those scarcities are even more profound. The reality is that we are already intervening in the market by creating that scarcity through the planning process, so I do not think it is wrong for us to talk about interventions, because free markets cannot be the only solution to the problems we have in the housing market.
Certainly, second homes are having a very big effect, creating even greater pressures and affordability constraints in some of these rural areas, and not just rural areas—as the hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) said, many urban areas face the same kinds of issues. Ryedale council covers much of my patch, where the average house price is around £300,000, with an average earnings to house price ratio of about 8.7. In Hambleton, the ratio is 7.2, and in other places, such as Filey—attractive coastal resorts—prices are going up, and the increasing number of holiday lets is putting further pressure on local people’s ability to find properties to rent and purchase. We cannot just rely on a supply and demand equation to solve all those problems: we must look at different interventions.
What the Government have done through the first homes scheme is part of the solution to this problem. It is an excellent policy, and I do not quite agree with the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale that it is not a solution for his constituency. He mentioned that average house prices in his patch were 11 times greater than average incomes—well, first homes could be up to half-price. Transfer values in my area from developers to housing associations are below half-price, and there is no reason why some of those houses cannot be made available to purchase in perpetuity through discounts of half-price or even below half-price.
I urge the Government to rename the whole first homes policy “half-price homes”, because we could deliver many properties around the country to local first-time buyers at half-price. That would make a significant difference to the hon. Gentleman’s constituency and to mine. It would mean that young first-time buyers could buy properties in my constituency that would cost four or five times their average earnings, which would bring those homes in scope for lots of those people. I fully concede that this is not all about affordable homes for purchase—we also need affordable homes to rent, shared ownership and lots of other things—but first homes is a very important policy that we should be driving further forward.
Taxation is bound to come into this conversation. Clearly, the Government believe that already: there is already a 3% stamp duty surcharge for second homes, so the Government believe we need to do something about second homes to try to level the playing field between investors, second home owners, first-time buyers and other buyers in our constituencies. This is not uncharted territory for this Government, so we should have a conversation about whether we should have a council tax surcharge as well. There is a perfectly sensible conversation to be had here, while recognising that the Conservative party believes in freedom of choice, so if somebody wants to use their money to buy a second home in a different part of the country as an investment or a place to live, we should not be totally against that. It is about trying to strike a balance between those two things to make it a fair and level playing field.
Another area that could make a big difference and that could fund lots of different activities would be the way we tax non-resident overseas owners. This could be in rural areas or urban areas. I do not think there is any argument for not taxing those people pretty heavily if they own property in the UK and are non-resident. We already have a 2% surcharge, on top of the 3% surcharge, for overseas owners. These people are having a profound effect on some house prices in urban areas as well as rural areas. I think 28% of properties sold above £2 million are bought by overseas owners. Around 20% of all properties in London—and probably a decent quantity in York and other cities—are owned by overseas residents. I do not see a reason why we would not seek to tax those people even more heavily than with a 100% increase in council tax.
Roughly, if we applied a 1% wealth tax on UK properties —this is only for overseas owners, not UK residents—it would raise £4 billion to £5 billion a year. There would still be an incentive for those people to invest their money in the UK, which I am not against, but the reality is that this would make it a fair and level playing field. They would still benefit from the very high house price growth. As we have heard today, house prices have been rising by around 10%, so it still makes sense for people to invest, but such a tax would mean that we could take a little bit out of the money they are making every year from house price inflation and put it elsewhere.
I would recommend that we put that £4 billion or £5 billion a year into the first homes programme, increasing the number of properties available to local, first-time buyers who are keen to get into the housing market. That would ensure that those local people have a stake in our communities and are available for employers to do the very important work of making our communities sustainable.
I am delighted to participate in the debate, and I extend my thanks to the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) for bringing it forward.
An over-supply of second homes and holiday lets has a detrimental effect on our rural and island economies and ultimately leads to depopulation, as we have heard. Too many of those living in rural and island communities find that their working-age sons and daughters simply cannot afford to stay in the communities in which they grew up and raise children, because house prices have been driven up by second home owners and holiday let operators, pricing them out of their own communities.
The reality is that too many properties in our rural and island communities lie empty for considerable periods throughout the year. That is why the SNP Scottish Government are devolving powers to local councils to allow them to regulate second homes and holiday lets where people buy second homes in popular rural or island communities where housing availability is necessarily low. Different local authorities will tailor this regulation to suit their particular circumstances, and that is how it should be.
In 2016 the people of Cornwall had a referendum supporting a ban on second homes being purchased, because it priced people out of the market. In St Ives, the local council can take action if owners of new homes do not live in them as their principal residence. I understand that the previous Communities Secretary in the UK was looking at giving councils in England the power to ban the purchase of second homes if they are deemed to be damaging to the local community. Perhaps the Minister will update us on those plans.
In Scotland we are taking action. It is expected that new housing projects in parts of Scotland will receive planning permission only if they are reserved for full-time residents. We have an estimated 25,000 second homes, which leaves many local people struggling to get a foot on the housing ladder in areas where there is particular pressure—in popular locations such as the isle of Skye, the Western Isles, the isle of Bute and, of course, in my own constituency, on the isle of Arran. Twenty-five of Scotland’s 32 local authorities have already removed the 10% council tax discount on second homes. In addition, second home buyers have to pay a dwelling supplement of 4% on top of the land and buildings transaction tax on the purchase price of the property.
More power is also being delivered to local councils to manage the number of second homes in their area, and the Scottish Government will work with Community Land Scotland to ensure the right land is available to deliver more housing in our rural areas. We understand the need for more island and rural housing to ensure the long-term sustainability of those communities. Some 110,000 affordable homes will be delivered in Scotland by 2032, of which at least 70% will be available for social rent, and 10% will be in our remote, rural and island communities.
A remote, rural and islands housing action plan will be developed to meet the housing needs of those areas and to help retain and attract people to those communities, backed by a remote and rural island housing fund of at least £45 million, as part of the Scottish Government’s overall housing supply programme funding in the current parliamentary session. The goal is to try to ease some of the housing pressure that has built up over time and which needs to be addressed.
The challenge of depopulation is serious and that is why the Scottish Government will establish an islands bond. We will offer 100 bonds of up to £50,000 to young people and families to stay in or move to islands currently threatened by depopulation, supporting people to buy houses, start businesses and make their lives in these communities. We can celebrate the fact that on the isle of Arran in my constituency, for example, 34 new houses are being built on Brathwic Terrace in Brodick, with Scottish Government funding of £70,000 per house—a total investment of £2.38 million. Almost all those homes will be allocated to Arran residents, and a number of other developments are in the pipeline.
Of some concern is the fact that of the current 3,099 homes on Arran, 726 are second and empty homes, which constitute 23.7% of the island’s entire housing stock. The impact is that although the average house price in North Ayrshire is £136,000, the average house price on Arran is more than double the average of the rest of the local authority area, at £272,000.
As we have heard, that matters because we need a workforce on our islands and in our rural areas. We need teachers and cleaners for our schools; we need people to work in the hospitality sector; we need people to work in the shops, and to deliver care to our older people. Those workers need to be able to access affordable housing. That is so important for the sustainability of our communities, but at the moment, it is challenging.
As well as second homes, we have seen an explosion of the Airbnb market. In some parts of the UK, those properties have become so prevalent that there is now one listed for every four properties. The impact on the supply of much-needed homes in some of our rural and island communities is significant, but the challenges posed by Airbnb properties are not restricted to those communities. In fact, The Guardian identified Airbnb hotspots where the ratio of active listings to homes was more than 20 times higher than the average across England, Scotland and Wales. Indeed, the highest incidence of Airbnbs was found in Edinburgh Old Town, where there were 29 active listings for every 100 properties, followed closely by the north-west of Skye, which had the second highest concentration of 25 active listings per 100 properties. The impact of that type of let is that they drive up rental costs for everyone, making housing less affordable and having a serious impact on available housing stock.
The Liberal Democrat and Labour council in the Highlands has concluded that changing a dwelling to a short-term let should require planning permission, so that locals have a right to comment. That would help to weed out poor operators to the benefit of everyone. Constructive changes that we all want to see are going through the Scottish Parliament, including tackling overprovision, simplifying publicity notifications, stronger guidance on fees, and a focused use of inspections. The licensing orders going through the Scottish Parliament will help improve those matters.
No one is saying that there is no place for short-term holiday lets in our communities, whether rural, island or urban. They absolutely have a place in our island communities and in other urban and rural areas where people want to spend their holidays. When people do so, they are made most welcome. However, there has to be a balance in the market; as we can see, that balance is currently not there in some cases. That is why devolving powers to local councils to allow them to regulate local provision is an important and proportionate step.
I am very pleased that we have had this debate on this important matter today. Given that some of the challenges are replicated across the UK, I hope we can all share good practice to tackle the issue. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response on what has already been done in Scotland and Wales and on whether he has any further ideas on what can be done. I hope he can also update us on the previous Secretary of State’s comments about tackling the issue.
As always, it is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Mr Sharma. I congratulate the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) on securing this debate. He has a huge amount of knowledge about the subject. As he has done on numerous occasions in the past, he spoke with authority about the negative impact of second homes and holiday lets on his constituents, as well as outlining a number of suggestions that certainly warrant further consideration.
All speakers in today’s debate have acknowledged that, in order to thrive, rural communities need investment, employment opportunities and, in many cases, thriving tourism industries, but they also need affordable homes for local people. While second homes and short-term lets can undoubtedly bring benefits to local economies, those benefits must be continually weighed against their impact on local people.
It is clear from the strength of feeling expressed in this debate, and from other recent debates that have touched on these issues for coastal, urban and rural constituencies, that there is a clear view among a sizeable number of hon. Members on both sides of the House that, as things stand, the Government have not got the balance right. It is that balance, as so many have mentioned, that is important.
Informed by their respective constituency experiences, the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale and other hon. Members who have contributed this afternoon have detailed the negative impact that excessive numbers of second homes and holiday lets are having on the communities they represent. As we have heard, excessive rates of second home ownership in rural areas have a direct impact on the affordability and therefore the availability of local homes, particularly for local first-time buyers. As the hon. Gentleman mentioned, high rates of second home ownership entail the loss of a significant proportion of the permanent population, and have a detrimental impact on local services and amenities, whether that be local schools, transport links or local small businesses, and therefore the sustainability and cohesion of those communities.
The staggering growth in short-term and holiday lets in many rural constituencies—as well as, as hon. Members have said, in urban areas, including in my own city—is having a direct impact on the affordability and availability of homes for local people to buy. In many parts of the country the growth in this market is also having an impact on those who cannot buy or to secure social housing, in terms of access to private rentals. That point was highlighted powerfully by the hon. Member for North Devon (Selaine Saxby). That growth is also having an impact in terms of security for those renters, including key workers, who find that their landlord wishes to begin using their property exclusively as a short-term or holiday let, a situation unlikely to be ameliorated any time soon, given the fact we are still waiting for the Government’s promised renters’ reform Bill.
The emerging evidence suggests that the pandemic and the resulting attraction of staycations for domestic holidaymakers has accelerated markedly the growth in both second home ownership and holiday lets. Fuelled in part by the stamp duty holiday, the number of transactions liable for the second home stamp duty surcharge stood at just under 85,000 in the second quarter of this year—the single largest quarterly figure since the higher rate for the additional dwellings surcharge was introduced back in 2016.
As the Financial Times reported back in July, figures produced by estate agent Hamptons International using Companies House data show that the rate at which holiday let companies are being set up has more than doubled over the coronavirus crisis, with the vast majority of those incorporating being individuals owning only one mortgaged property, rather than large corporations holding multiple holiday homes.
It is worth reflecting briefly at this point on the issue of data—the point was well made by the hon. Member for North East Fife (Wendy Chamberlain) in her contribution—because the fact is that we do not know the numbers of second homes and holiday lets in any detail, other than that they continue to rise. We do not have an accurate grasp of the figures across the country. Council tax records are likely to significantly undercount second homes, both because there is no financial incentive to register a property in areas where a council tax discount is no longer offered and because second home owners can still avoid council tax altogether by claiming that their properties have moved from domestic to non-domestic use. When it comes to second home ownership, the estimates produced by the English housing survey are more reliable, but even they are based on a relatively small survey sample and rely on respondents understanding what is meant by a “second home” and accurately reporting their situation. Similar limitations apply to short-term lettings. There is no single definite source of data on rates for what is after all an incredibly diverse sector, with providers offering accommodation across multiple platforms.
It therefore seems logical that as well as considering what more might be done to mitigate the negative impact of excessive rates of second home ownership and short-term and holiday lets, the Government should give some thought to how we might obtain better data on overall rates, not least to provide a more accurate baseline as we emerge from the pandemic and also a better sense of precisely which parts of the country face the most acute challenges. I would be interested to hear from the Minister whether the Department has given data collection in this regard any thought and, if not, whether he will commit to taking the point away for further consideration.
In relation to how we might meet the housing needs of local people in rural areas and other parts of the country where there is high demand, the wider context is obviously crucial. The point was touched on in the debate, but if we had had more time, we could have had a much wider debate about affordability criteria and what needs to be done, not least in the light of the evident failings—here I have to disagree with the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake)—of the First Homes scheme, to give local first-time buyers better access to new homes.
On the specific issue of what more might be done to mitigate the negative impact of excessive numbers of second homes and holiday lets, it is useful to break things down, as the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale did, into potential planning and non-planning—primarily taxation—measures. On the non-planning side, the Government have taken action over recent years by reforming stamp duty, allowing local authorities to increase council tax to 100% for second homes and proposing that properties be required to have been let for 70 days in a given financial year in order to be liable for business rates rather than council tax, although I believe that we are still waiting for a formal decision to confirm that change in policy.
However, there is a strong case for exploring whether the Government should provide local authorities with powers to, for example, introduce licensing regimes for second homes and short-term lets, and for considering giving them even greater discretion over their council tax regimes—perhaps allowing local authorities, as Labour has done in Wales, to levy a premium or surcharge on second homes and long-term empty properties if they believe that that is required in their locality. There is also a strong case—this point was well made by my hon. Friend the Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell)—for reviewing whether the current 3% rate of stamp duty surcharge on second homes as well as the 5% rate levied on non-UK buyers remain at the appropriate level in the light of the boom that we have witnessed over the course of the pandemic. Is the Department even exploring those or any similar options?
When it comes to planning, the system now enables local residents to put in place neighbourhood plans that can go some way to managing second home ownership rates, but it is clear that further measures are required. May I therefore press the Minister to clarify whether the Government accept in principle that in order to bear down on excessive numbers of second homes and holiday lets in particular parts of the country, there may be a need for further changes in relation specifically to planning restrictions and enforcement—designed, obviously, so as not to exacerbate the problems of affordability and availability that have been touched on in the debate today?
This has undoubtedly been a worthwhile debate on an issue that is only going to grow in significance. I look forward to hearing from the Minister about what further steps the Government propose in order to ensure that when it comes to the benefits and liabilities of second home ownership and short-term and holiday lets, we begin to redress the current imbalance affecting rural and other communities across the country.
It is a great pleasure, as always, to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma. I wish you and all Members here in the Chamber a happy new year, particularly the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron), who secured this important debate. I congratulate him on doing so and I congratulate all hon. Members on their intelligent, thoughtful and detailed contributions.
In the time available to me, I shall certainly do my utmost to address the points that have been raised by Members and on occasion I will also refer to the very excellent speech that my officials have provided for me. However, I will begin by making a general point, and if I misquote Jane Austen, forgive me, because it is a “truth universally acknowledged” that if we are to have the affordable homes that people want and need in the places that they are needed, we must build more homes in those places. It is not just me saying that; organisations and groups as different as KPMG and Shelter also say that in order to meet the housing needs of our country, we need to build north of 250,000 new homes each year.
I am pleased to say that in the year before covid struck, we were well on our way to achieving that objective: 244,000 homes were built in that year. Indeed, even in the year of covid, 216,000 new homes were built. I am also pleased to say that in that time 408,379 first-time buyers achieved their dream of home ownership, which was a 20-year high and a 35% uplift on the previous year.
It is because we need to build more homes that we have introduced and built upon our affordable homes programme, which injects a further £11.3 billion of public money into building more affordable homes. We reckon that 180,000 affordable homes will be built in the next five years, 32,000 of which will be for social rent. That is why we have abolished the cap on the housing revenue account and provided very attractive Public Works Loan Board interest rates for local authorities to build their own homes, if they wish to do so. It is also why we have the Help to Buy scheme, which has now helped 339,000 people on to the housing ladder, why we have introduced a fixed mortgage guarantee scheme of 95% of loan-to-value, to help people to get those mortgages and get on to the housing ladder, and why we have introduced the First Homes scheme, which my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) quite properly recommended. The First Homes scheme will ensure that local people can benefit from discounts to local homes of up to 50% and in some specific cases from discounts greater than 50%.
I am very pleased that the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale is keen on the First Homes scheme. I am bound to tell him that we are yet to hear from Lakeland about an opportunity to pilot the scheme there. [Interruption.] I am very pleased that he has made the offer again and I will certainly ensure that my officials are aware of it and make contact with Lakeland, because we believe that First Homes is a way of ensuring that local people, or people with particular skills that are necessary in a local area, are able to get on to the property ladder and stay there.
However, we recognise that rural communities face some very specific challenges. That is why my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton and others pointed out that we have changed the tax system. Since 2013, local authorities have been able to levy 100% of council tax on second homes, where the people who own them do not necessarily use the local services that they might, but through the council tax have to contribute to them; 96% of local authorities make use of that opportunity. Where homes are empty for a period of time, they can levy even more significant council tax surcharges.
That is also why we have committed to close the loophole in the business rate system that the hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Matthew Pennycook), the Opposition spokesman, referred to, in order to ensure that letters have to reach a letting threshold before they can benefit from business rate relief, and we will introduce our proposals to close that loophole as soon as we can. Colleagues across the Chamber have mentioned the changes we have made to stamp duty to help first-time buyers, charging second home purchasers more to alleviate some of the advantages that they have over first-time buyers. That is why we have also introduced a further surcharge for foreign purchasers of property.
I hear what my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton says about taxation policy. Taxation policy is, of course, a matter for the Treasury. As I have said before, although not all good ideas start in the Treasury, they can all end there if the Treasury does not like them—although I am bound to say that the Treasury usually likes ideas that raise its income. We will, with the Treasury, keep these issues under close review.
This issue is also why we have reformed the planning system, which, at 74 years old, is even older than the plan for the City of York. It is opaque, slow, and is not predictable. That does not help small and medium-sized enterprises—often the builders who build different types of homes for different tenures in the places that the big builders do not want. We need a system that will help those SMEs and is far more engaging. Presently, 1% of local people get involved in the development of their local authority’s local plan—that is far too few—and 2% to 3% of local communities get involved in individual planning applications; again, that is far too few. If we can build a system that is digitised and far more straightforward, it will engage more people in plan making, and that will buy in communities to the plans for those communities and their needs.
We also want, as a reform to be introduced soon, a new infrastructure levy to replace section 106, which tends to favour the bigger developers that can afford the bigger batteries of lawyers. We want a system that, again, is speedier and more transparent, that front-loads the funding for local authorities to use earlier in the development process, and that captures greater land value. Our infrastructure levy proposal, which colleagues will hear more about in the near future, will, we believe, achieve that.
I recognise that more must be done, but we must ensure that we get the right balance on the economic benefits of second homes, the social challenges that they can sometimes provide, the rights of homeowners to use their properties as they choose, and the needs of homeseekers wishing to live in or near the area where their friends, families or workplaces are located.
The hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale offered seven solutions. We recognise that a large number of second homes and holiday lets can have adverse effects in some areas, so I will look closely at his proposals and at the points raised by other colleagues. However, I am bound to say to him that while changing planning law so as to make second homes and holiday lets a separate category in planning use has some attractions, it also has some significant drawbacks. Use classes apply nationally in all cases, irrespective of whether one lives in a high tourism area. Therefore, a new use class would affect second homes and therefore potentially restrict the freedoms of homeowners, wherever they live, regardless of whether it is a high-use tourist area.
We also do not have the information needed to understand how, and for how long, a property is being used. The hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale, the shadow spokesman—the hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich—and others, made the point that we need data. It was also made by my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon (Selaine Saxby), and by my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double)—as a Whip, he is silent in public, but I can assure the House that he is very vocal in private with me about these matters.
I can confirm that we propose to consult on the introduction of a tourist accommodation registration scheme in England so that we can build an understanding of the evidence and the issues that second homes present, particularly when driven by the rise of online platforms such as Airbnb. We will launch that consultation later this year and will begin the process of a call for evidence in the coming weeks. We want to look at not just the issue of short-term holiday letting, but the effect that it has on supply. We will also look at compliance, health and safety regulations and the effect of antisocial behaviour and so on. My hon. Friend the Member for Mid Worcestershire (Nigel Huddleston), the Minister with responsibility for sport, tourism and heritage, has already been in touch with the local council of the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale, and I dare say that he will be in touch with other councils in due course.
We are acutely aware of the challenges that second homes present, as well as the opportunities that they provide. I can assure the Chamber that as we develop proposals on planning reform, we will keep those considerations and concerns in mind. I will also keep in mind the proposal of my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton to rebadge or rebrand houses under the first homes scheme as half-price homes—at least that has the benefit of alliteration, if nothing else. We certainly want to make sure that the value and importance of the first homes strategy is fully understood and appreciated by local authorities up and down the country.
I am conscious that the sponsor of the debate, the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale, should have an opportunity to be heard. Let me conclude, therefore, by saying that as we emerge from the pandemic we want to build new and better homes and communities while recognising that building in and of itself does not solve some of the challenges that communities face. That will be at the forefront of our minds as we bring forward our White Paper on levelling up as well as our planning proposals, which I hope I will be able to present to the House in the not too distant future.
Mr Sharma, I am very grateful to you for giving me a moment or two at the end. Thank you for giving us all the opportunity to make our points today. I pay tribute to the following for their contributions: the hon. Members for York Central (Rachael Maskell) and for North Devon (Selaine Saxby), my hon. Friend the Member for North East Fife (Wendy Chamberlain), the hon. Members for Strangford (Jim Shannon), for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake), for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) and for Greenwich and Woolwich (Matthew Pennycook), and the Minister himself. I hope I have not missed anybody out. There were also some useful interventions, mostly from Members who are no longer in their place, although the hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner) is still present.
Lots of things were said. We were reminded that this issue affects not just rural areas, but coastal areas and cities. It has an impact on the hospitality and tourism economy and the workforce. I speak to lots of people in hospitality and tourism, and they are very keen that action is taken. This is not about tourism versus action; this is about the determination of the tourism industry that action should be taken. Of course, other industries and forms of employment—for example, in health and education—are also hugely affected by the lack of a local permanent population.
I welcome the review that the Minister talked about. That is all good—but it is all we got. I was not overwhelmed by a tidal wave of urgency—in fact, quite the opposite. In the seconds that I have left, I want to say to the Minister that inaction is action. It is action on behalf of those who own multiple homes against our communities. I want to see an awful lot more than we have seen today. By the time a part of what we proposed is looked at in a review, which will take years because they always do, there will be another 32% and then another 32%, and the communities at risk of dying that I talked about earlier will be actually dead. We need urgency right now, so I ask for further meetings immediately. The Minister talks about the planning rules, but how about letting national parks pilot the differential in planning use categories? That, at least, would be a start, to demonstrate that it could be possible. I am disappointed by the lack of urgency, but I am grateful for the opportunity.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the matter of second homes and holiday lets in rural communities.
Afghan Citizens Resettlement Scheme
[Rushanara Ali in the Chair]
Before we begin, I remind hon. Members that they are expected to wear masks when they are not speaking in the debate, in line with Government guidance. I also remind Members to take daily tests when coming on to the estate, which can be done either on the estate or at home. Please give each other enough space—I can see you are already doing that. Hansard colleagues would be very grateful if you could pass on your speaking notes afterwards.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the Afghan Citizens Resettlement Scheme.
My thanks to you, Ms Ali, and to the Backbench Business Committee for the opportunity to raise this essential issue. I know that it has been addressed today in a statement in the Chamber, but unfortunately I could not be there because I was in another debate. I apologised in advance to the Minister’s Parliamentary Private Secretary. I have also provided my notes so the Minister probably knows where I am coming from.
It is only right that I start by putting on the record my thanks to my Minister and my Government for what they have done on the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme, and for how our Government have conveyed the compassion that is needed for the Afghan refugees we watched on TV, even though we might not have met them personally. I certainly hope I will meet some of them in my constituency of Strangford. I want to express my thanks for the generosity of this great nation of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
I am keen to express some concerns. I know that other Members, such as the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), will also want to make a plea on behalf of those I refer to as a persecuted people—the religious and ethnic minorities; those living in Afghanistan even now—as to how our Minister and Government can respond. I also wish to say that while I welcome the four-year plan, I am concerned that four years might mean that some will, I fear to say, not be here, and that they will not get their opportunity to come to this country. Therefore we need urgency.
The Taliban’s swift takeover of Afghanistan in August 2021, in the wake of UK, US and NATO forces withdrawing from the country, has left many Afghans concerned and terrified for their future. Initial statements from the Taliban claiming that they had reformed certain elements of their ideology, positioning themselves as a less nefarious force, were, unsurprisingly, blatant lies—we cannot believe a word that comes out of their mouths. Sadly, we know all too well that Afghans who do not adhere to the Taliban’s harsh and strict interpretation of Sunni Islam, especially those who adhere to other faiths or beliefs, face a grave threat. Since the Taliban took control of Afghanistan, members of ethnic and religious minority communities, supporters of the former Government, and other minorities have lived in fear of violence, torture, and even execution.
None of us in this Chamber could fail to be moved by the scenes of chaos that we saw at Kabul airport, of people fleeing for their lives. I hope—indeed, I believe—we can all agree that there is a pressing need to protect these vulnerable groups, and a moral obligation to defend their most fundamental human rights. I very much welcomed the announcement on 18 August that Her Majesty’s Government would launch the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme, a bespoke initiative to enable vulnerable Afghan citizens to be settled in the UK. That scheme is designed to provide protection for Afghans identified as most at risk: their gender, sexuality and religion could all be indicators of vulnerability, as well as having advocated for democracy and human rights. I am very grateful to the Government for working to support those groups, but much more must be done, which is why we are having this debate today.
We need to be more anxious, more keen and more determined to deliver what we intended to deliver through the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme in August last year. Given the subsequent months of fear that vulnerable Afghans have faced, it is necessary to obtain clarity on how that scheme will work. Again, I apologise that although I was present in the main Chamber for part of the Minister’s statement, I was not there for all of the answers that she gave. After four long months of silence and seeming shrinking of responsibility, I welcomed the Minister’s announcement on 23 December that the scheme would open this month. I stress the urgency of that scheme for vulnerable persons in Afghanistan, and the need for the swift opening of applications. I believe with all my heart that there is an urgency to this matter and a need to expedite the process as soon as possible. I look forward to more details being made available to Parliament at the Minister’s earliest convenience, as we all eagerly await details of how the UK will mobilise to assist these vulnerable people.
As chair of the all-party parliamentary group for international freedom of religion or belief, I have spoken to many colleagues who are deeply concerned about the current situation in Afghanistan. When it comes to freedom of religion or belief, conditions in the country have deteriorated drastically since the Taliban seized control last year. Religious or belief minorities are facing a particular threat, and it is heartbreaking to hear some of their stories. I will focus on religious and ethnic groups, not on individuals, because if we focus on individuals, it is very hard to move away from that. I would have very much liked to have seen earlier prioritisation and understanding of this issue. Greater clarity as to the eligibility criteria would have conveyed the Government’s dedication to the issue.
One such group in Afghanistan that I would like to draw attention to today is the Hazara community, labelled as heretical by the Taliban, along with other non-Sunni Muslims. The Hazara community has long faced discrimination and violence, and has suffered social and economic marginalisation and waves of physical attacks. When the Taliban were last in power, the Hazaras faced targeted violence, and many fled as refugees to neighbouring Iran and Pakistan in search of safety, such was their fear of what might happen if they and their families remained in Afghanistan. Since its emergence, ISIS in the Khorasan province—ISIS-K, as it is referred to—has also attacked this community, and has stated its goal to exterminate the Shi’a Muslims, including the Hazara Muslims.
There has been a resurgence of attacks on the Hazara community since the Taliban took control of Afghanistan. Hazara schools and religious sites have been bombed, medical clinics have been targeted, and Hazara civilians have been murdered by the Taliban and ISIS-K. A recent report by Amnesty International in December 2021, “Afghanistan: No escape: War crimes and civilian harm during the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban”, emphasised that the Hazara Muslims are at considerable risk of targeting by Taliban forces. That report highlights the targeted killings of Hazara Muslims in Daykundi and Mundarakht provinces in July 2021. After taking control of Afghanistan’s Ghazni province, Taliban fighters massacred nine Hazara men in the village of Mundarakht. Eyewitnesses have since given harrowing accounts of those killings. Six of the nine men were shot. Three were tortured. Similarly devastating, on 30 August, Taliban forces killed 13 Hazaras, including a 17-year-old girl, in Kahor village in Afghanistan’s Daykundi province, after members of the security forces of the former Government surrendered. Those are the very people they were surely trying to save.
Depressingly, such brutal killings likely represent a tiny fraction of the total death toll inflicted by the Taliban to date. The group have cut mobile phone services in many of the areas they have recently captured, controlling which media from those regions are shared. Such attacks must not go unnoticed, which is why we are holding this debate and are looking for action right now.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for securing this debate at this important time, and for highlighting the plight of the Hazara community. Relatives among my constituents have been in touch with me. Does he share my concern that there is no way to apply for the scheme? Relatives in the Hazara community have no way of knowing whether their family members are in the system and should be contacted within the next six months or a year. It is very unclear whether those people are going to be safe, despite the fact that they are in hiding and in fear of their lives.
I thank the hon. Lady very much for all the work she did in her previous job—I have said it before, but I say it in Westminster Hall for the first time. I am aware that she has a heart for this subject matter. I agree with her point exactly. That is one of the things we are looking for—how do these people get into the system to ensure that they get the opportunity of the Afghan resettlement scheme and we get the opportunity to have them in this country?
Hazaras are not the only community at risk. Far too many other minority communities also face a bleak and precarious future. Amnesty International’s report lists a litany of attacks against many religious minorities. Owing to the Taliban’s interpretation of sharia law, they consider conversion from Islam to another religion apostasy, and do not hesitate to punish such a decision by death. Afghan Christians, Ahmadi Muslims, Baha’is and those of no religious belief are all unable to express their faiths or beliefs openly due to fear of the dire consequences from the Taliban.
Ahmadi Muslims, for instance, are not recognised by either the Sunni or Shi’a Muslim faiths and have suffered a long history of persecution in Afghanistan, including public stoning in the early 19th and 20th centuries. Heaven forbid such hostility should prevail once again. Today, Afghan Ahmadis practise their faith in secret due to continued societal persecution and discrimination.
Christians, of which I am one, are another group at grave risk. We know people who are still in Afghanistan. As the hon. Member for Putney (Fleur Anderson) said in her intervention, the issue is how we get those people on the list. We need to know. I look to the Minister to give some response, focus, direction and pointers on how we do that, for all the people that we are going to speak about.
Many Afghan Christians are converts from Islam and are therefore considered apostates according to Afghan law. They have already faced ostracisation and the threat of honour killings by family members, but such retaliatory measures are now at heightened risk with the Taliban in power. Those people are in fear of their lives.
According to reports from the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, Christian converts receive threats in a variety of forms. A Dari-speaking network in the United States of America that supports Afghan house churches has reported that a leader of a house church network with more than 500 members received a letter signed by the Taliban, threatening him and his family. It read, “We know where you are and what you are doing.” That brings back to me chilling memories from Northern Ireland and what the IRA used to do—“We know who you are and where you live.” We can all guess the implications and imagine the fear incited. On 15 August, Taliban members visited the leader’s home, but he and his family had already gone into hiding—a point that the hon. Member for Putney referred to.
In essence, the Taliban has successfully stifled freedom of religion or belief. These people need help. How do we get help to them? How do we let them know that they have a route to the end of it?
Some Christians have had to abandon the use of their phones and have moved to undisclosed locations for unknown lengths of time just in hopes of being left alone. Other church members have received threats and visits from the Taliban. During one visit, Taliban members took a 14-year-old daughter from one of the families. Months later, that family still have no idea what has happened to their daughter. We can imagine the heartache and pain in their hearts.
Humanist and atheist beliefs are also considered apostasy and punishable by death. Arash Kargar, a humanist in Afghanistan, describes his life as,
“facing constant problems with family, friends, and even in dealing with people at the university campus and the community at large. Having any beliefs outside of Islam or that…are not compatible with Islam and its teachings is considered an unforgivable crime. Such a view is prevalent throughout society, family, friends and even at the university...There are two ways available to me and others like me: Either stay quiet for your entire life which in turn is an imposed punishment for a social being like humans, or voice your concern for equality, freedom of thought and expression publicly. But to what cost?”
The ultimatum that Arash faces is faced by thousands of others in Afghanistan, even more so since the Taliban took over.
I hope that my summary of the different groups in Afghanistan that we know of—and others here know of directly through their constituents—shows the enormity of what we are trying to achieve, and what Government need to grasp through the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme. It also demonstrates the extent to which freedom of religion or belief is violated in Afghanistan, and how vital it is that these groups are offered safe resettlement. Whether they are Hazaras, Christians, Humanists, Uyghur Muslims, Baha’is or other minority groups, extreme levels of persecution haunt their waking moments. The Afghan citizens resettlement scheme seeks to provide for 5,000 spaces a year over four years for vulnerable Afghan citizens to be resettled in the UK. By the end of this scheme the UK will have aided in resettling 20,000 Afghan citizens. I said it at the beginning of the debate and I will say it again: I understand and welcome what the Government are doing, but we want to feed into the process in a way that can help those people that we know of. Some of those people we may never meet in this world, but we know them through our constituents and through others.
While the creation of this pathway fills me with much hope, it is vital that this scheme is treated with the urgency that is needed. Four years is too long to wait for vulnerable communities who are facing arrests, torture, extrajudicial killings, war crimes or even genocide. I ask that this Government—my Government; my Minister—reconsider the staggered approach to the resettlement scheme and clarify how a four-year-long wait is justifiable when it is a matter of life or death. That is the issue and the core of where I am coming from.
I thank the Government for their commitment to starting the Afghan citizen resettlement scheme. I have set myself a time limit of 20 minutes, which will give plenty of time for everybody else to participate—I will not go beyond that. I thank the Minister and the Department for the commitment, and the letter that I got last week. Willowbrook Foods and Mash Direct, two companies in my constituency, in September 2021 offered jobs to any Afghan people who wanted to resettle in this country. Not only did they offer them jobs, but they offered them accommodation as well. I have sent the details of the Minister’s letter on to those two companies; those two companies will respond very quickly about what they are able to offer. I hope that my constituents in Strangford will offer what the hon. Member for Putney and everyone else here wants—the opportunity to reach out and help, and to give people hope for the future. These people did not want to leave Afghanistan; they did so because they had no other option. We in this country, with the compassion that we have and the ability that we have to help, need to do so.
As I draw to the end of my remarks, I would like to end on a note of hope. Much work has been done in the past few months by individuals and organisations to assist those on the ground in Afghanistan. They have not squandered time in the face of this very real human rights crisis, and I believe that Government could learn from their example. I want to praise the work of people like Baroness Kennedy, who has seen more than 100 female Afghan judges and their families rescued from Afghanistan. I think the Minister mentioned that in her statement on the Floor of the House of Commons today.
I also offer my thanks to the many colleagues who have repeatedly asked for answers and assurances on the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme. We want to see all of those people who have come here for a new life, new opportunities and a new beginning have that opportunity across the whole of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The Afghan citizens resettlement scheme is such a scheme. However, I want to stress again that urgent action is needed to prevent the tragedy that will happen in Afghanistan if we do not get those people over here and into this system.
When it comes to leadership and the resettlement scheme, I thank the Minister on behalf of my constituents in Strangford, who want to help. The two companies that I have mentioned also want to help. With that in mind, I look forward to the Minister’s response and thank hon. Members for coming to make a contribution to the debate.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship for the first time, Ms Ali. I congratulate the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) on securing this important debate, which seems to have prompted the Government to make today’s announcement about the opening of the Afghan citizen resettlement scheme. I welcome that, but I believe it should have happened months ago. The announcement of the opening of the scheme still leaves many questions unanswered, and I hope that the Minister can answer some of them when she responds.
There are three Chevening alumni scholars who have a connection to my constituency and who were eligible for the emergency evacuation by the Foreign Office back in August, but given the chaos that ensured at Kabul airport and the lack of response from the Foreign Office, they were unable to board the flights to the UK. The three Chevening alumni scholars remain in Afghanistan and have been lying low to avoid the Taliban, and I am pleased that the Minister has stated that there will be a third route to the scheme that will prioritise Chevening alumni and others, but I would welcome the Minister’s explaining to me how the scheme will work in practice to locate the alumni, and whether it will also allow those who are eligible to bring their families with them. During the statement, my right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) stressed the need for family reunion to be part and parcel of the resettlement scheme, because the one thing that we do not want to happen is to see family members embarking on dangerous crossings to the UK in order to be with their families who have secured places on the resettlement scheme.
In August and September, some people felt that their lives were threatened by the Taliban due to their roles as activists for women’s rights or in law enforcement, or because they were from religious minorities or were part of the LGBTQ community. They managed to escape to third countries. They, too, will need to access the ACRS, but from a third country. Could the Minister let me know whether they will be able to access the scheme from third countries? I note that in her statement earlier today, she spoke about the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees playing a role in referring refugees in need of resettlement who fled Afghanistan, but I am interested to know how that would work, because some of them may have fled to places such as Tajikistan, Iran and other countries, where it may be a bit more difficult for UNHCR to assist them.
If the scheme is to be a success, the Government also need to consider what they need to do to ensure that there is integration when people have been settled in the UK. I note that Barnardo’s has advised that there is a need to help children to be resettled in the UK. It has advised that children should be given a particular focus when considering integration, because the needs of refugee children, and the impact that they have on the entire family, must be considered in order to ensure that integration is successful. Families need to be supported in the environment in which they are most comfortable—for instance, key workers can best build relationships with refugee families in informal settings, such as their home environment. Things like that also need to be considered.
Barnardo’s also argues that integration is a two-way process, so local communities must be encouraged and supported to better understand the nature and trauma of those seeking asylum and resettlement in another country. I ask the Minister to take into account the expertise of organisations such as Barnardo’s in dealing with resettlement, particularly of children. I note the references that the Minister made in her statement earlier today about integration, but I would welcome her thoughts on the issue of integrating children into the system.
Local councils will also be at the centre of supporting communities and people who have been resettled under the scheme. They cannot be left alone to deal with the challenges of the scheme without proper support—both financial and strategic—from central Government. I would very much welcome information from the Minister about how local government will be supported in hosting communities and vulnerable individuals through the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme.
In August and September, many of us received emails, telephone calls or visits from constituents in relation to their concerns about family members in Afghanistan. Although we were able to give responses with the information we had had from the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defence, those updates stopped in September. I have already had a couple of inquiries from constituents who are concerned about their family members. I invite the Minister to advise us on what support will be received from the Home Office, the Foreign Office and the MOD, so that we can respond to those inquiries from constituents whose family members may be eligible for the scheme. That needs to be addressed.
I have made only a short speech because I thought the debate would be oversubscribed, but clearly the earlier statement has dealt with a number of concerns that people have about the resettlement scheme. I will end by saying that the chaotic scenes during the UK’s withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021 must be one of the lowest points of the Government’s foreign policy. We now have a moral duty to support those who have helped the UK and who have a strong connection with our nation. Although I welcome the opening of the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme, it has to be implemented properly so that it does what it was intended to do. I am very keen for the scheme to be a success because we must not let the Afghan people down again.
I am absolutely delighted to speak in this debate with you in the Chair, Ms Ali—it is the first time, I think, so congratulations to you. I thank my hon. Friend the Minister for the absolutely exemplary work that she is doing in this area—we are very grateful that she is in her position. I want to make two points. The first is on the position in Wycombe, and the second is to ask a few questions about what we should do, but what I will say will not surprise my hon. Friend because it was the essence of my question to her following her statement on the Floor of the House earlier.
According to the 2010 census, about one in six of my Wycombe constituents are British Asians. As I know my constituents, I know that those people will overwhelmingly be Kashmiri. That means, of course, that they are very much embedded in the wider region, so it is no surprise to me that a significant number of my constituents—a larger number than I might have expected, in fact—have family and friends in Afghanistan, or cousins who are married to people in Afghanistan. This issue is very present in Wycombe, as things often are in the region.
Having grown up as a white British person in a homogeneous community in Cornwall, I confess that for many people across our country, these are distant events with which they will not feel closely associated. Indeed, I do not doubt that I will see that on my social media after this speech. I have to say to people, however, that we must remember that the UK is now a diverse country and I am very proud of that—I am proud to represent Wycombe—and people in the UK with friends and family who are connected to Afghanistan deserve our diligent representation and support.
My hon. Friend is nodding, and I know that she knows this, but I will put it on the record for others: we have to look after everyone who is British, and I am glad that we are doing so.
The particular issue that comes up in Wycombe is that constituents very often believe that family—and possibly friends—in Afghanistan had visa entitlements to come and join them in the UK prior to our departure from that country. Of course, they are most concerned that those people should—on top of any other scheme—continue to have those entitlements to visas and to come and be here, notwithstanding the change of circumstances. Although there are other questions about why people who worked for the Government have not already been extracted, I am putting that particular question to the Minister because it is such a present issue in my constituency. I am sure our goal is the humane treatment of everybody, but I sympathise with Ministers as we go through this. We are not taking a very large number of people. Carrying through people’s prior entitlement to visas would be a good way to show good faith with the British people who have friends and family—a good way to go beyond the 5,000 would be to bring those people over as well, as they were expecting to be able to do.
I come on to some specific asks. What should people do? In the Chamber earlier, the Minister talked about safe and legal routes in answer to the SNP spokesperson, the hon. Member for Glasgow North East (Anne McLaughlin). Pakistan has some very legitimate interests of its own. We would not thank a country that created a crisis on our own borders—indeed, that perhaps comes up with France at the moment—so it is perfectly reasonable that Pakistan should ask us not to act in such a way as to drive illegal immigration into their own country. This is a very important and sensitive humanitarian situation across multiple dimensions.
We should of course respect Pakistan’s legitimate requirement for legal migration in its own country. I am being asked by people whether friends and family should go to Pakistan and whether they will be processed there. It is a legitimate question, and I need to ask my hon. Friend the Minister for an answer to it, even though I recognise that she may well have to discourage people from doing so in order to respect the interests of Pakistan. I am sorry to give her that difficult problem to answer, but we need to say something to our constituents.
That is the final point I need to raise. My constituency caseworkers are now very highly connected to the surprising number of people with direct contacts and connections in Afghanistan. We all know the sensitivity and the danger of the situation. People are in hiding in Afghanistan, fearful for their lives, fearful of being physically tortured and dismembered for what they have done, obviously quite wrongly. Tensions and emotions are running extremely high and people are desperate for information. There is a great need to give all our constituency caseworkers what information we can, respecting that none of us can second-guess the security situation of particular individuals in the country. We need to give guidance and support to caseworkers. They are under immense stress themselves. We can help alleviate that stress by giving them good information to pass on, in so far as we can.
I finish where I began, in thanking my hon. Friend the Minister. I absolutely sincerely welcome the job she is doing, which I know is very difficult. She is doing it with great skill and diplomacy. I absolutely wish her well in carrying forward her task and I can certainly promise to give her any support she might like.
It is a particular pleasure to serve under your chairwomanship, Ms Ali. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for securing this debate and for all his diligent work in this area, particularly on religious freedom and on freedom of speech: a subject very dear to my own heart. I echo what the hon. Gentleman said—more needs to be done and more needs to be done more urgently. I am looking forward to hearing the Minister’s responses to his questions.
Many of us were glad to hear of some progress in today’s statement in the Chamber—I thank the Minister for that. I want to make one point to her quite gently. When the shadow Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper), pointed out that there are some criticisms to be made of the way the Government have handled the matter, the Minister seemed to suggest that, in doing so, the shadow Home Secretary was criticising our forces, which she absolutely was not doing. We would all praise the efforts of British forces on the ground, and the civil servants and non-governmental organisations, who worked so hard back in August to get as many people out as possible. What I gently say to the Minister is that their efforts should not be a shield for our political masters to hide behind.
Many MPs continue to receive desperate pleas on behalf of those left behind in Afghanistan. The United Kingdom Government machine needs to up its game, for this reason: the UK Government pursued a foreign and defence policy that encouraged people in Afghanistan to participate in creating a democratic state, where human rights were protected. Due to the failure of that policy, many of those people are now at risk, so we in the United Kingdom—having been at the heart of pursuing that policy, albeit with some allies—have a particular moral responsibility to take proper steps to help those at risk in Afghanistan.
Like many other Members of Parliament, I have been trying to help constituents with inquiries about friends and family, as well as people who have contacted me as a British MP seeking my help. However, I have been particularly engaged with the plight of female judges and female prosecutors in Afghanistan. We all know that women face particular oppression under the Taliban; when I spoke in a debate about LGBT rights in Afghanistan, I made the point that lesbians and bisexual women experience discrimination twice over in Afghanistan, both for their sex and for their same-sex attraction. This is most definitely an area in which sex matters, and women are particularly at risk.
The brave women who became judges, prosecutors, policewomen, human rights defenders and women’s rights activists under western rule now find that their lives are in mortal danger. That is also true for many of the men they worked alongside, but those women’s lack of freedom to move and to access the means to leave the country themselves, because of their oppression as women and the severe discrimination against them, makes the position of women all the worse. These women who worked as judges, prosecutors and so on are at risk twice over, both because of their civic contribution and because of their sex.
As the Minister knows, I have been working with a former Afghan judge and feminist activist to try to highlight the plight of lower-level female judges and prosecutors in provincial villages, whose lives are particularly at risk because they live in small communities and are therefore more readily identifiable. Marzia Babakarkhail came to the UK in 2008 after two attempts on her life by the Taliban, having served as a judge in Afghanistan. She is now a British citizen who lives in Oldham, and her story is featured in the People’s History Museum in Manchester, which is very worth a visit for anyone who has not been there. It houses the black Samsonite bag that Marzia was given by her mother as a gift to congratulate her on her success as a lawyer, which is one of the few possessions she was able to bring with her to her new life in the United Kingdom. Marzia is anxious that the UK Government should provide a new life in the United Kingdom for other female judges and prosecutors, and she is in touch with many of those who are trapped and left behind. They are in imminent danger of persecution from the Taliban, and from other dangerous criminals and members of terrorist groups who the Taliban have released from prison.
The Taliban’s opposition to the formal justice system of Afghanistan is well known. They are strongly against state-building and against the justice reconstruction efforts by what they call westernising forces, and favour sharia law as the source of justice, underpinned by a strict interpretation of Islam. In the past, they have targeted and brutally killed many judges, and since last August, there have been other, similar targetings. Many of the men who the Taliban have released from prison are heavily armed and are now free to trace and target their enemies without fear, and many of those female judges and prosecutors were involved in the indictment and punishment of those criminals and terrorists, so they are prime targets for revenge attacks.
As we speak and over the past few months, the Taliban have been conducting house-to-house searches, and many of these women are now in hiding, where they receive threatening phone calls asking them about their whereabouts. These women are contacting Marzia in fear and desperation, and she in turn is contacting me and other Members of Parliament.
As the Minister knows, in 2003 the convention on the elimination of violence against women was ratified by Afghanistan under western influence; based on that law, specialist courts were established in 34 provinces under the control of female judges. The Taliban and other conservative groups in Afghanistan considered that law to be un-Islamic, and the judges who enforced it to be infidels and foreign collaborators, so any of the female judges who sat on those courts, trying to protect women, are now at risk. As the hon. Member for Strangford said earlier, Baroness Helena Kennedy, who is—among her many good works—the head of the International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute, has worked with a large team of pro bono lawyers in the UK and across the world to try to save some of those women. She has succeeded in doing so, and I commend her and her colleagues on their efforts.
However, Marzia is worried that junior female judges and prosecutors in the provinces will be overlooked, so I am working to raise their profile with the UK Government. At the end of last year, I brought Marzia into Parliament to meet Baroness Kennedy, the Justice Committee and the then Justice Secretary, the right hon. and learned Member for South Swindon (Sir Robert Buckland), who has recently been knighted. The then Justice Secretary was very keen to assist, but unfortunately he lost his position in the Cabinet reshuffle and with all due respect to his replacement—the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice, the right hon. Member for Esher and Walton (Dominic Raab)—I have to say that he has not so far covered himself in glory over the issue of Afghanistan. However, doing something to help these female judges and prosecutors would be a way for him to make amends.
Regarding the Minister who is here today, she agreed this morning in the Chamber to meet Marzia and I; I look forward to doing so very soon. All I really want to ask her now is that, in addition to answering the questions of the hon. Member for Strangford and other hon. Members, she answers this question: can she reassure me that the meeting she will have with Marzia and I will recognise the United Kingdom’s particular responsibility towards these women? Will it bring tangible results for women who have been left behind in Afghanistan and are now desperate?
It is a pleasure, Ms Ali, to serve under your chairship for the first time. I congratulate the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) on securing this important debate, and I wish all Members a happy new year.
We are now five months on from the fall of Kabul to the Taliban, which came at the end of 20 years of British involvement in Afghanistan. The chaotic and painful events of last summer brought home just how many links have been forged between our two countries over that time. That was also evident in the huge numbers of Afghans living in the UK who desperately sought to help their loved ones to leave the country as the Taliban took power; I was contacted by 65 constituents, who passed on the details of 400 people in total. Of those 400 people, as far as my office have established, seven have fled Afghanistan and reached a third country, but the rest remain in Afghanistan. Shockingly, in only 20 cases have I received an individual response from the relevant Department, rather than the stock numbered response from the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office. I mention these statistics to highlight just how many people remain in desperate need in Afghanistan and wish to join their relatives in this country.
I will make a few specific points about the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme and related issues, as they relate to cases I am dealing with, and I hope that the Minister can respond to them. First, there are Afghan citizens in the UK who had already submitted an asylum claim before the Taliban takeover but have not had a decision from the Home Office. The Home Office confirmed in an email to me that it is not making decisions on Afghan asylum claims until updated safety guidance on Afghanistan is published. Surely, however, the need to claim asylum from Afghanistan should be accepted if the Government accept the need for an Afghan citizens resettlement scheme.
It is also unclear how the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme will apply to families where some members are UK nationals and some are not. Do the non-UK national family members have to apply for the ACRS, or is there another pathway for the families to travel to the UK together?
Finally, after the statement earlier today about the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme in the main Chamber, I said that I have constituents with leave to remain in the UK who are trapped in Afghanistan as they are not UK nationals and so have not been able to access consular support. In her response to me earlier this afternoon, the Minister said that the Government are working with countries in the region to find safe routes for eligible Afghans to be evacuated from Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. I appreciate that these efforts are ongoing, but I would be grateful to the Minister if she could provide a bit more information as to when we are likely to receive an update and a bit more information about which countries in the region she has had conversations with. That would enable me to update my constituents, who are asking me for guidance about their cases. I hope that the Minister can respond to those important points. I take the opportunity to thank her for her response this afternoon regarding my follow-up-meeting request.
I thank my hon. Friend the Minister for her statement today and also for her dedicated hard work on this really challenging but very important issue. I also commend the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for securing this debate. I very much support what he said, particularly regarding targeted religious minorities, which I want to focus on in my speech, particularly because I am concerned about those in my role as the Prime Minister’s envoy for freedom of religion or belief.
In the penultimate Prime Minister’s questions before Christmas, I asked my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister whether the promised gift of resettlement for Afghans who are members of religious minorities would be available by the end of Christmas. If I am right, last night was Twelfth Night, so, being generous, may I give the Minister the benefit of the extra day and say thank you for getting the ACRS up and running now? I note, however, that it is only from the spring that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees will refer refugees to the scheme, based on assessments of protection need. That sounds more like a Coptic Christmas timeline to me, but, more seriously, the delay in providing refuge and support for vulnerable religious minorities concerns me, and I know that it concerns many of my colleagues in the organisation of which I, as the Prime Minister’s envoy, am a member. That is the 33-country alliance of envoys, which is called the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance.
The alliance issued a statement in support of vulnerable individuals being targeted in Afghanistan because of their faith or belief. I commend that statement to the Minister, not least because it demonstrates that there are international partners who most seriously do share our concerns about the vulnerable situation of those being targeted for their beliefs in Afghanistan. I will just read out a little from it:
“We hold grave concerns for…members of religious minority groups who are at risk, including Shi’a and Ismaili Muslims, Hazaras, Hindus, Sikhs, Christians, non-believers, and others. We call upon all parties and international agencies to recognize the vulnerabilities of these individuals being targeted because of their faith or belief.”
The statement goes on to call for, among other things,
“a renewed humanitarian effort by the international community.”
I was interested to note today in the Minister’s statement her reference to the scale of the challenge and the need to co-ordinate closely with international partners, as indeed the alliance has done. It was very encouraging that, during the preparation of its statement, two alliance countries, the US and Brazil, got together; one supplied a plane and the other supplied the visas, and they were able to fly out 193 members of religious minorities from Afghanistan. It is that kind of international co-operation that I am sure the Minister is speaking of, but could I ask her, please, for more information as to how the UK is doing this and how we can fulfil the IRFBA statement’s intent?
I have of course spoken directly to members of several religious communities, as I know many colleagues have, so I will not go into detail as to the concerns that I share about the risks to these communities, but I am pleased that the Government have, rightly, included religious minorities in the criteria for eligibility for the ACRS, and I was pleased today in the House to hear the Minister’s assurance that the scheme is open now to vulnerable religious minorities and that that could be combined with community sponsorship. I will say a little more about that shortly.
First, with regard to the UNHCR refugee referral scheme starting in the spring, could the Minister clarify that it is based on the Government’s announced eligibility criteria, which specifically include minority groups, and that it is not wholly delegated to the UNHCR’s assessments of protection need? In terms of protection services, the principle of non-discrimination prevents the UNHCR from specifically targeting minority groups, so it means that arguably members of the LGBT community, who were rightly evacuated under the ARAP—Afghan relocations and assistance policy—scheme, might well not have been eligible under the UNHCR scheme. A further concern about the scheme is that religious belief is not a specific UNHCR eligibility criterion or an automatic indicator of need in its own right. In the past, that led to criticism of the operation of the Syrian resettlement scheme when it came to resettling religious minorities—specifically Christians—in the UK.
I hope that Members will bear with me as I cite some figures that bear that out. In 2017, the Barnabas Fund obtained data that revealed that in 2015, of the 2,637 individuals recommended to the UK by the UNHCR for resettlement, only 43 were Christians, even though Christians are widely accepted as constituting 10% of Syria’s pre-war population; only one was Shi’a, who were estimated to be 1.5% of the population; and only 13 were Yazidis. The following year, 2016, of the 7,499 individuals recommended to the UK by the UNHCR for resettlement, only 27 were Christians, 13 were Shi’a and five were Yazidis. Interestingly, it is estimated that Syria’s pre-war population was 74% Sunni Muslim, 13% Shi’a and Alawite, 10% Christian and 3% Druze, and that there were 70,000 Yazidis.
In the ACRS, the Government have made membership of a minority group a specific eligibility criterion, consistent with the new plan for immigration. Let me quote the wording of that plan for the record, because it is good and clear. It states:
“We will also ensure our resettlement offer encompasses persecuted refugees from a broader range of minority groups (including, for example, Christians in some parts of the world). We know that across the globe there are minority groups that are systematically persecuted for their gender, religion or belief and we want to ensure our resettlement offer properly reflects these groups. We will strengthen our engagement with global charities and international partners to ensure that minority groups facing persecution are able to be referred so their case can be considered for resettlement in the UK more easily.”
Although the Minister’s response to my question earlier today gave me hope, I would like more information about how the new plan is to be implemented, particularly because, to date, I am not aware of the evacuation to the UK of any individuals who have been targeted specifically because of their religion.
Despite good intentions, there is real concern that religious minorities will still not be included in the ACRS in the spring, or indeed in the first year of the scheme’s operation, if it is based solely on the UNHCR protection criteria. The Home Office does not have to rely solely on the UNHCR for resettlement assessment; it could conduct such assessments itself. It is clear that, in the case of Afghans in Afghanistan, the UNHCR does not have a mandate to deal with their situation; it can do so only if they arrive in Pakistan, for example, which is risky and causes many other challenges. The assessment could be done by the Home Office in house, as it is currently for some asylum applications, and it could be assisted by trusted partner organisations.
As I said I would, I come to the community sponsorship scheme. I suggest that one way to harness the Government’s commitment to the scheme, which is welcomed by the UNHCR and would provide a bespoke legal route of resettlement for religious communities, is to look at the Canadian scheme of community sponsorship for resettlement. Very substantial numbers of refugees have been resettled as a result of that scheme, which involved close to 2 million adult Canadians supporting local community sponsorship of Syrian refugees, many of whom were survivors of violence or torture whose life, liberty, safety or other fundamental rights were at risk. Many were vulnerable women or girls. Two thirds of the resettled refugees coming to Canada were privately sponsored by Canadian citizens under that scheme. Recent research suggests that comparative data emanating from that programme over the past 40 years demonstrates that sponsored refugees have better and quicker integration outcomes than refugees settled through more traditional Government schemes.
I will do so, Ms Ali.
I suggest to the Minister that we consider the main elements of the Canadian community sponsorship model and see how we could adopt them in the UK. May we meet to discuss this issue? Finally, I place on the record my commendation of the volunteers in my constituency, the Welcome Churches in Sandbach and the LOL Foundation in Congleton, which have done so much to support the Afghan refugees in Sandbach.
It is good to see you in the Chair, Ms Ali. I am glad to be able to participate in the debate, and I thank the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for securing it. I will start by reflecting on his comments about the urgency of the situation.
The Minister said in her statement earlier that people on the ground have the best understanding of the security situation in Afghanistan, and that is certainly true according to my constituents’ accounts of their families who are stuck there. There has been a lot of reference to safe and legal routes, but the reality is that the Government cannot expect people to sit tight and wait for the Taliban to chap their door. People on the ground know the Taliban and have experienced living under them, so it is no surprise to any of us that those who can run do so and keep running until they get somewhere where they feel safe. For many of those people, that is the UK, because they have family here. We have an Afghan diaspora in Glasgow—people who fled before and have come to make their home in Glasgow.
The Government should not be going about their business, as they are with the Nationality and Borders Bill, by penalising those who got out, who sought safety and who managed to leave Afghanistan. They would not have wanted to leave the country and they had seen change in recent years, but with the Taliban coming in as swiftly as they did, people had no alternative, and many of them ran. Many constituents who have been in contact with me had family there—perhaps the husband was living in my constituency and the wife and children were living in Afghanistan. This is also a symptom of the hostile environment, because those families could not afford to bring their wives and children over, as they did not meet the minimum income threshold. Those families could have been safe, had it not been for the policies that the UK has been pursuing.
One of my constituents, who was visiting his wife and five children, is very worried about getting back. He feels defeated. He emailed me just as the debate was starting, saying:
“We are still waiting and still here. Everyone knows that the British government forgot their nationals in Afghanistan. I have sent too many emails but now I stopped sending them emails, because no response and no benefits and not worth sending emails to them, nearly five months now. There’s no way going out and we are waiting for them. Me and my family are fed up staying here. Everyone is in tension, depression and bad economic and hard situations… I just answer your email because you sent me, otherwise I stopped sending emails to anyone. The big issue is my wife’s biometric card is expiring soon on this 22 February. If that expired then all of my family will be troubled going back to Glasgow because I can’t leave her alone here as well. She has been in Glasgow for almost 10 years”.
He did not want to give me any more information than that. There is a lot more that he would say if he could, but that is the kind of situation that I have been hearing about. Like many of us, I have had scores of constituents get in touch and I know of only a handful who actually made it out. Those constituents have been on the phone to me and others, crying and desperate for their families. It has been incredibly hard to listen to, and I can only imagine the pain they feel as they wait without information. I will be glad if the Minister makes some progress towards that today, but there are still a lot of unanswered questions.
As my former friend on the Treasury Committee, the hon. Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker), asked very reasonably, what happens to the people who had applications in process? That includes many of my constituents who have applications in process and now do not know what is happening. I have a constituent who is in Afghanistan with his wife. They keep getting given appointments by the UK Government for the visa centre in Islamabad, but Pakistan will not issue them an entry visa for them to attend those appointments. What conversations has the Minister had with other consulates and embassies around the world? Those people could get out if Pakistan granted them the visa that would allow them to go and collect what they are entitled to.
There has been a lot of talk about vulnerable women and girls, but boys and men are vulnerable too, which is why they are also running. They are at risk of being recruited to the Taliban; they are at risk of losing their lives due to their service. We should not forget that many people are made vulnerable by this situation, and we must recognise that vulnerability. Many people worked as suppliers to the British Army. They were not recruited or directly involved, and they were not fighting on the frontline, but in the eyes of the Taliban they are part of the problem.
Finally, I will briefly mention those who have made it here and the support being offered. I thank the Afghan diaspora in Glasgow and the Refugee Council in Scotland for their work, but those who come here need financial, legal, medical and educational support, and there is a cost involved in that. The Government must recognise that and provide local authorities with funds to ensure that people get the support they need to help them settle. It is all fine and well for the Minister to say that we want people to integrate and work and not to be dependent on the state, but they need support in the early days to get that right.
Refuweegee, a Glasgow-based organisation, has already had requests from people who have been dispersed around Scotland but not had the support that they require to settle, and it has been falling on charities to pick that up. Charities do not have the spare capacity to do that and should not really be asked to; the Government should be providing that support. I ask the Minister to answer my questions and for support for my constituents and their families who are so desperately in need.
It is an absolute pleasure to serve under your chairwomanship, Ms Ali. I will speak quickly. I congratulate the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) on securing this and, from a quick look at the Order Paper, many other debates in front of us—I cannot keep up with him.
On 18 August last year, just three days after the Taliban took control, the Conservative right hon. Member for South West Surrey (Jeremy Hunt), a former Foreign Secretary, said this:
“There is something we can do right now: cut through bureaucracy and ensure that we look after every single Afghani who took risks for themselves and their families because they believed in a better future and trusted us to deliver it.”—[Official Report, 18 August 2021; Vol. 699, c. 1307.]
That was the rhetoric, the show of empathy, and the promises made by those on the Government Benches to help desperate Afghans in fear of their lives in the early days of Operation Warm Welcome. The right hon. Gentleman was not alone. Other Members proclaimed that
“Britain must fulfil its moral duty”—[Official Report, 18 August 2021; Vol. 699, c. 1335.]—
and that the
“Government are continuing the big-hearted tradition of the British people in offering safe haven to those fleeing persecution.”—[Official Report, 18 August 2021; Vol. 699, c. 1370.]
We have heard much of that again today.
In those early days of the withdrawal from Kabul, my office, like everybody else’s, received hundreds of emails and calls either from people who were in Afghanistan fearing for their lives, or from friends and relatives of people stuck in the most fearful of circumstances. With little to go on, the one lifeline and glimmer of hope that we could pass on to people was that, alongside the ARAP scheme, the Government would implement a resettlement scheme, with early figures suggesting that 20,000 refugees would be brought to safety. That figure, although arguably too low, at least gave some comfort that a plan was in place. Of course, we now know from whistleblowers within the Foreign Office that widespread failures within their Department meant that many cases were not even looked at, let alone dealt with.
It is now nearly five months since that pledge to resettle Afghan refugees was made, and only today have we had any clarity. Five months is a long time for people trapped in a country with a rising humanitarian crisis. Five months is harrowing for our caseworkers, who have been left to answer constituents’ pleas for help at home and abroad. Five months is insufferable for desperate relatives left with no other choice than to refresh a Government webpage that promises an announcement “soon”.
I will give an example of just how excruciating the situation can be for relatives. My office was contacted by an Afghan constituent who is currently undergoing treatment for cancer. She has seven siblings with nieces and nephew all currently stuck in Afghanistan, and she believes they are in danger because of who she is. Such is the stress and worry that her health has been impacted, and she believes that her recovery has been put in jeopardy by the torturous wait for a resettlement scheme to open. The scheme has now opened, but because my constituent’s family are in Afghanistan it is not likely to help them in the near future. What do I tell her?
The Minister told us today that the Government would be working closely with countries in the region to find safe routes for eligible Afghans to be evacuated, and that they were exploring a range of options, but she could not go into any detail. The situation is not new. They have had months to make these arrangements. It is far too late to start exploring options. As for the secrecy, I do not need to know and was not asking for the exact routes, but I need to know what progress has been made and what that is likely to mean for evacuating those in danger. I need something tangible to give people hope. The hon. Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker) made the good point that those who were previously entitled to visas are now unable to access them. How frustrating is that?
For the people we did manage to bring here, it is great that they have been invited here—great, but not charitable; it is just responsible. What about those still trapped in hotel accommodation in the UK? Last week, Prince William told Afghan refugees in hotels that he wished we could have brought more people here and asked, “Why is it taking so long to get people into permanent homes?” It is a good question. I understand that there are logistical challenges, but according to Home Office sources interviewed by The Times last week, it is more to do with the Chancellor forcing the Government to scale down their commitments in order to save money.
The Home Secretary and her team should be standing up to the Treasury, not simply moving people who are already in the UK into the ACRS, so that before we know it, bingo! We have managed to make up our numbers! As I said earlier, up to 20,000 could mean anything less than 20,000. It could mean 6,000 people, or 25. A limit of “up to” anything is utterly meaningless. The Government must understand that the failure to implement a resettlement scheme in time, and the fudging of figures has only and will only serve to drive those people into the hands of smuggling gangs or will force them to find alternative dangerous and illegal methods of entry.
Having sat on the Nationality and Borders Bill Committee with the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Bambos Charalambous), I assure the House that despite the Government’s calls for anyone looking to find sanctuary in the UK to only use safe and legal routes, they are failing to provide them. The Minister on the Committee repeatedly said, “That is what the legislation is all about,” but guess how many mentions said routes got in that very weighty Bill? None at all. The scheme, in response to an emergency five months ago, is supposed to be a great example of a safe and legal route. Family reunion is another safe and legal route, but we have some of the most restrictive family reunion rights in Europe, which have only become more restrictive post Brexit. The ARAP scheme—the only active scheme to resettle Afghan refugees so far—has recently narrowed its criteria to make it even harder for applicants to qualify. I want to double check something that the Minister said in the Chamber earlier. She said nobody would be moved from the ARAP scheme to the ACRS scheme. I would be grateful for confirmation of that.
I also want to raise the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities issue again. As I said, all 32 Scottish local authorities are ready to support the Afghan resettlement scheme. The Minister said earlier that people on both schemes would get indefinite leave to remain, but that is not the same as refugee status. Refugee status confirms rights and entitlements to things like family reunion and education. That is of great interest to our local authorities, and they are keen to know the answer. Will these people have fewer rights than refugees? If so, why? After all, they are refugees, are they not? One thing the Minister failed to tell us today was how the already under-resourced Departments involved would deal with the resettlement effectively and transparently.
The UK Afghanistan Diplomatic and Development Alliance is a network of former civils servants, diplomats and development officials who served the UK Government in Afghanistan. It says that many more staff are needed here and in third countries to speed up the processing of refugees and the enormous backlog of applications. It is also calling for an effective appeals process. As the Minister said earlier, we cannot help everyone but we must ensure that those who fall through the net are given the right to appeal their case.
I will end by speaking about another Afghan man who I have been trying to help. He fits the description the Conservatives are so fond of: he is a youngish man fleeing alone. He must be an economic migrant and go straight to jail—except he is not. He has been waiting five months for the help he was promised and on Christmas Eve—
I have two sentences left, Ms Ali. He decided to make a dangerous, illegal and treacherous journey to Iran. He fell and broke his leg. He did it because his wife was getting so desperate. She is now in hiding alone in Afghanistan, and he is now lying with a broken leg on a mountainside in Iran and he cannot afford hospital treatment. That is how desperate we make people when we do not speed up. I really do wish this well. I want it to work. I hope the Minister listens to us and makes some of the changes that we have asked for, but that is what we do to people when we promise them help and we do not give them it.
I congratulate you, Ms Ali, on your chairmanship and I look forward to serving under you. I thank the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for securing this crucial debate. I would like to echo the shadow Home Secretary’s thanks to our UK service personnel and all those who served in Afghanistan and assisted with the evacuation efforts from Kabul and Operation Pitting. No one can doubt their bravery and courage in the most challenging of circumstances. Their actions saved thousands of desperate people from untold suffering and, for many, death. It is nearly five months since the fall of Kabul and the harrowing scenes at Kabul airport as thousands of Afghans attempted to flee the Taliban. Those tragic scenes marked a failure of Government foreign policy in Afghanistan, and that is why the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme and today’s debate is so important.
It is about standing by those who desperately need our support at a time when, dare I say, our failure has helped to put them in an intolerable position. It is also about basic decency to those who believe in our most fundamental values of a free and democratic Afghanistan, no longer a base for terrorism. We simply cannot let down those who trusted in our country and who now deserve nothing less than our full support in their time of dire need.
I welcome some of the steps that have been announced today, including in respect of the resettlement scheme. Having said that, it is shameful that it has taken five months from the fall of Kabul—144 days and thousands of hours—for our constituents with loved ones stuck in Afghanistan to finally be given details of the resettlement scheme, how it will operate and who exactly will be eligible. How can it have taken so long?
Instead, what we saw as Members of Parliament was constituents with loved ones in Afghanistan who were desperate to talk to them, get them out and support them. A constituent of mine, Abdul Latifi, went through purgatory before eventually he was able to get out of Kabul with his six children, one of whom is disabled. While these constituents would hang on every word from the Home Office, because they wanted to bring their loved ones to safety, Departments seem to be engaged in briefing wars against one another. It is alleged that the promised 20,000 target for the scheme will be bodged, and there needs to be clarity on this going forward.
The Government promised that under the resettlement scheme they would bring to safety 20,000 of those who could not make it out of Afghanistan in time and who now fear for their lives under the Taliban. Allegedly, the Government want to now roll back on their pledge so that those already evacuated to safety under the ARAP scheme or by other methods will be transferred into the resettlement scheme to meet the 20,000 target.
The Minister said earlier in the House that British nationals evacuated from Afghanistan should and would receive a level of support for the trauma they experienced during the evacuation. I agree, but that support should be given outside of the resettlement scheme. The Minister went on to say that the Government have
“now granted the first people indefinite leave to remain under the ACRS”
and that that included British nationals evacuated from Afghanistan. Is the Minister really saying that British nationals, who have a special status, are being included in the resettlement scheme to the detriment of Afghans who are not British citizens? What is the point of the resettlement scheme if it is not wholeheartedly meant for them? This would be a serious breach of trust, and we will not support any watering down and bodged counting that undermines our moral commitment to the Afghan people.
When the Minister responds, I hope she can clear up the confusion emanating from the Home Office. I hope she can give a clear commitment that the resettlement scheme will be meant for those in the here and now still suffering under the Taliban. Can she please confirm that the Treasury will fully fund the resettlement scheme to ensure that those 20,000 places are filled with Afghans who are not already protected by ARAP or other schemes? Can she also confirm that there will be family reunion provisions that work for those families separated from each other during the chaotic scenes at Kabul airport, so that they do not ultimately have to end up in dangerous dinghies crossing the freezing English channel to be reunited with their families? This matters not just to those desperately seeking safety, but also to our country’s international reputation.
Our country has a proud history of providing a safe haven to those fleeing persecution. Any watering down of the resettlement scheme would be contrary to our most fundamental values of decency, honesty and fairness. That is why the Labour party believes that we should and can do better. The resettlement scheme, which is right in principle, must not be watered down or delayed any further.
It is also critical that the Government listen to the concerns that colleagues have raised here in the House about the operation of the scheme. Concerns were raised by the hon. Members for Strangford, for Wycombe (Mr Baker), for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) and by other SNP colleagues. Concerns were also raised by my hon. Friends the Members for Enfield, Southgate (Bambos Charalambous) and for Erith and Thamesmead (Abena Oppong-Asare). Members have real concerns and have been desperately trying to support those in dire circumstances in Afghanistan who are separated from their families and friends here in this country.
In conclusion, the bravery of our service personnel and Government officials who stayed on the ground in Kabul, at great personal risk during Operation Pitting, represented the very best of Britain. The Government must match their clear moral sense of purpose, do the right thing by the Afghan people, and without delay ensure a resettlement scheme of integrity—not watered down, not further delayed—that will genuinely help those left behind. If today has seen some welcome steps in the right direction, there are still some fundamental questions that the Minister needs to answer.
May I say what a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship on your first outing, Ms Ali? Well chaired, if I may make that observation. I congratulate the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) on securing this important debate. I am terribly sorry that Government timing gave us a first outing this morning, but I hope he will forgive me. We very much wanted to make the announcement about the launch of this important scheme as quickly as possible so that the House was aware of it. He set out with great lucidity and understated emotion the awful experiences that many people continue to suffer in Afghanistan. “Worry” does not do justice to the terror that their family members and others feel about the experiences of people who are in the country. We understand the concerns, and the Government are trying everything we can to work with countries outside of Afghanistan to try to find safe routes. I will come on to that in a moment.
In today’s statement I referred to the three pathways that would operate under the ACRS. The first includes those who are already evacuated and in the UK, including women’s rights activists, journalists and prosecutors, as well as the Afghan families of British nationals. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey), whom I also welcome to his place, asked me to clarify that. In fairness, we have said this throughout. Paragraph 25 of the statement of 13 September stated that
“some of those who arrived in the UK under the evacuation programme, which included individuals who were considered to be at particular risk…will be resettled under the ACRS.”
I know how it was presented in the press over Christmas, but we have always wanted to support those who have already been evacuated here. They faced risks and were therefore evacuated over.
The hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington also asked about the funding of British nationals and British national families. British nationals sit outside ARAP and the ACRS. We are none the less supporting them, given the circumstances of their eligibility. However, we are not permitted under an Act from 2002—I think it is an Act from 2002—to include them in the ACRS, and we would not attempt to do so. Their families, however, who are not British, who are Afghan or other nationalities, we will support under the ACRS. We recognise that if they were evacuated in Kabul in those very difficult circumstances, as I said in the statement, we want to support them and recognise the needs that they have.
There is detail on the definition of British nationals. I do not have time to go into that now, but documents will be produced in due course so that colleagues understand the definition of a British national under the support. It is such a huge scheme that we will, I am afraid at some point, have to draw a line in the sand as to the treatment and support. I flag that because I know colleagues are concerned about it.
We also announced the two other referral pathways, including the UNHCR route. I listened carefully to the points of my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) about historical concerns over certain elements of UNHCR programmes. I will task officials to look specifically at that. She will of course know that, through our third pathway—civil society—we hope to include people who have perhaps not been caught under previous schemes. I am happy to meet her to discuss that. The third pathway covers those who are at risk and who supported the UK and international community efforts in Afghanistan, including those who are particularly vulnerable.
Colleagues from across the House have asked many questions over preceding months about British Council contractors, Chevening alumni and so on. We have outlined our plans to honour those commitments to those who are at risk in those three groups, including staff from GardaWorld. Because this is an unprecedented scheme, we want to continue working over the next year with international organisations and NGOs in order to develop it in year two, drawing learning not only from our own experiences but from other countries that are attempting to look after Afghans as well.
My hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker) was absolutely right, and I applaud him for his comments on the wonderful diversity of our great nation in the 21st century. He also made the point about relationships with other countries in the region. He is absolutely right that we have to manage our relationships and treat those countries in the region, which face their own pressures, with enormous respect, and that we should work together to ensure that we are able, as an international community, to look after the most vulnerable. As I said in my statement to the House, we are working closely with countries in the region to find safe routes. I also said that the Minister for the Armed Forces, my hon. Friend the Member for Wells (James Heappey), recently visited the region to see what more can be done. The hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) asked for more details. As I said in the main Chamber, I am afraid I cannot share those details with the House—I am told that they are classified—but we are working with a wide range of allies and partners and genuinely exploring every avenue. I hope that gives a little more context to the hon. Member for Erith and Thamesmead (Abena Oppong-Asare), as I appreciate her point about wanting to help constituents with their queries.
I am so grateful to the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry), who set out some really important details about not only some of the most senior judges, as she correctly identified in both her contributions today, but those on a more regional basis. I regret having to acknowledge that we do not have an unlimited ability to settle people, but I very much welcome her indication of looking for ways to encourage other countries to help us all in this cause of looking after such judges. I very much look forward to meeting her, as I promised earlier, to discuss that.
The hon. Member for Erith and Thamesmead asked specifically about British nationals. Again, it is very detailed, but eligible British nationals are those in need of housing and integration support who were evacuated from Afghanistan by the UK military, other NATO countries or a regional state during Operation Pitting, or who were assisted by Her Majesty’s Government to leave Afghanistan after Pitting, with that assistance commencing before today and their having entered bridging accommodation or presented as homeless to a council. I hope I have dealt with the point in relation to their families. We very much want to continue caring for them and working with them.
My hon. Friend the Member for Congleton raised the community sponsorship scheme. The example of Canada is really encouraging. I love the idea of local communities working together to welcome families into their midst. We have looked very carefully at the Canadian scheme as we have been looking to review and expand our own version of the scheme. I hope there will be announcements in due course on how we plan to expand the scheme, not just in the context of Afghan evacuees, but also the wider resettlement programme as set out under the new plan for immigration. I hope those will meet with her approval.
I have been asked questions about stories in the press. We all value an independent and robust press—of course we do—but I have been struck by how united the Government are in working together to look after people under Operation Warm Welcome, and also to try to assist those who are still left in country and in region. As I said at the start of my statement today, this work is genuinely across 10 Departments, and anyone who has ever served in Government knows that getting even a couple of Departments together to work can sometimes cause logistical issues, to put it politely.
I have a brilliant team of Ministers who are leading in their own Departments on all the different avenues of work. For example, the Minister for Employment is developing the jobs employment programme for our new Afghan citizens. My counterpart in the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities responsible for homelessness is working with local councils to ensure that we are keeping up to date with them and working with them.
The Minister mentioned local authorities. One of the councils in my constituency, Greenwich, is still waiting for the promised £100,000 from the Government. It still has not received that money for the work it did to support Afghans who have come into the country—
I am rising quickly because I have a minute. I appreciate that concern and the hon. Lady is right to raise it. The funding instructions are in place. If there are particular issues, I will ask my officials to pursue matters with the chief executive to ensure that the relevant forms have been filled in and so on.
It is absolutely right that the House scrutinises our efforts, but this genuinely is a scheme that I think we will look back on with great pride in years to come. We will want to welcome every single person who has come to our country, not just since Pitting, but in the future, and really include them all in our constituencies and in being great members of our country.
First, I thank each and every one of the hon. Members for their poignant and helpful contributions. The hon. Member for Putney (Fleur Anderson) put her case forward on behalf of her constituents. The hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Bambos Charalambous) said that children need to be comfortable in the system—I think we are all trying to ensure that. The hon. Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker) spoke of the need for visa help. He is absolutely right. The hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) also talked about the visa system—if someone is in Pakistan, how do they get into the system? There are clearly things that need to be done.
The hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry) put forward some very good ideas. I look forward to whenever she meets with the Minister and we get the feedback. The hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) referred to the UNHCR criteria, which the Minister gave an undertaking to look at. The hon. Member for Glasgow North East (Anne McLaughlin) referred to the need for a tangible scheme for going forward. That is what we are all after—a system where we can see that.
The shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey), referred to the strategy for the Afghans. We cannot let them down. For 20 years, we have given them the flavour of democracy. With that in mind, when we left, we left them without any of that. That is where I feel our obligation is.
I thank the Minister. I know the Minister is committed—I have never doubted it for a second. There have been some teething issues to draw out. The hon. Member for Erith and Thamesmead (Abena Oppong-Asare) made comments on behalf of 65 constituents, who have 400 friends and relatives. She is right: we need to be able to tell people what to do, and we welcome whatever the Minister can do to help us as we move forward.
We look forward to welcoming Afghan citizens to our constituencies, to jobs and housing and participation in our communities. We have done it before with Syrian refugees. We will do the same again with the Afghans when they come through.
I thank each and every Member for their contribution. It is at times like this that it feels good to be here working on behalf of people to make a change. That is what I believe we have done today.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the Afghan Citizens Resettlement Scheme.