House of Commons
Monday 7 March 2022
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
The following Member took and subscribed the Oath required by law:
Paulette Adassa Hamilton, for Birmingham, Erdington.
Oral Answers to Questions
Levelling Up, Housing and Communities
The Secretary of State was asked—
Support for First-time Buyers
Since 2010, more than 758,000 households have been helped to purchase a home through Government-backed schemes, including Help to Buy and Right to Buy. In the levelling-up White Paper, we included this mission:
“By 2030, renters will have a secure path to ownership with the number of first-time buyers increasing in all areas”.
Conservative choices have created a housing crisis by allowing developers to maximise profit, building housing for investment rather than good-quality, safe, secure, affordable homes. However, building more homes will not in itself solve the housing crisis if those homes are bought off plan by foreign investors before local people such as my constituents can even get a look in. In order to ensure that first-time buyers are not squeezed out by foreign investors and second home owners, will the Government support Labour’s proposal to allow them first dibs on new homes?
Let me first make it clear that it is my keen ambition in this role to do everything I can to help more people on to the housing ladder. We have produced a great many schemes that help to achieve that purpose. We already have the First Homes scheme, which provides a 30% discount for local people, for whom those homes remain in perpetuity.
Will my right hon. Friend join me in welcoming the fact that last year saw the highest number of first-time buyers in two decades, under this Government, and will he pledge to do everything he can to increase that number in future years?
The Opposition have repeatedly criticised the Government’s First Homes scheme on the grounds that, by top-slicing section 106 funding, it drastically reduces the number of social and affordable rented homes that are being built, but we also have concerns that the scheme is failing in practice to help large numbers of first-time buyers across the country. Given that the new build premium is continuing to rise, and given that UK house price index data suggest that average house prices in England have increased by 18% since the scheme was first consulted on, can the Minister tell us in how many local authority areas the discount on those homes has not already been entirely eroded?
I accept that there are a number of things that we need to do in relation to the First Homes scheme. Homes England’s early delivery programme will provide a further 1,500 homes, but of course we will monitor these developments and do everything we can to help people get on to the property ladder. After all, achieving that has always been a huge principle of the Conservative party.
Despite the covid pandemic, more than 800 new homes were built in my constituency last year, many of them affordable for first-time buyers. More than 800 houses were built during the previous year, and more than 800 will be built this year. Does the Minister agree that the best thing we can do for first-time buyers is ensure that all constituencies build an ample number of high-quality, affordable homes?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Having local authorities with well-developed local plans to ensure that they are ready and prepared to build the houses that their local area needs is incredibly important. The affordable homes programme that the Government have announced, with £11.5 billion-worth of investment, will help to secure that, so that we can try to deliver the 180,000 homes that that is expected to deliver.
Levelling-up Agenda: Opportunities for Northern Ireland
The Secretary of State met the then First Minister of Northern Ireland when the levelling-up White Paper was published to discuss the many opportunities for Northern Ireland as part of that agenda, and I met Conor Murphy, the Minister of Finance, last Thursday to discuss the delivery of the UK shared prosperity fund in Northern Ireland. I look forward to working closely with the Northern Ireland Executive on this in the coming months.
I thank the Minister for meeting me last week to discuss these important opportunities for regions such as Northern Ireland. The levelling-up White Paper identified hydrogen bus development as a key economic boost. So far, five strategic schemes have been put in place for zero-emission buses across the UK, and all five are very welcome but they are battery electric. Will the next five schemes be driven by hydrogen? Can the Minister ensure that there is joined-up thinking on this across the Departments?
The hon. Gentleman is right to identify an important opportunity for Northern Ireland through the hydrogen agenda. As part of all the things we are doing on levelling up, including the third increase in research and development spending outside the greater south-east, the strengthening places agenda, or the many things we are doing with higher and further education in Northern Ireland, there are many opportunities to advance the important agenda that he has prioritised.
Until recently, European aid was the main means of regenerating communities in some of the devolved nations, but that European aid was restricted to certain parts of the nations. Now, the levelling-up fund and the shared prosperity fund will give us the opportunity to regenerate other parts of the UK, particularly those areas that did not qualify for European aid. When the next window opens for the levelling-up fund, will the Minister pay particular attention to communities such as Barry, which now qualify for the levelling-up fund but did not previously qualify for European aid?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right; the next round of levelling-up funding will be opening shortly. He is also right to draw attention to the fact that outside the European Union we have a lot more flexibility about how we spend, and we can use that to pick up some of those exciting opportunities in other places.
Local Authority Budgets
Next year’s local government finance settlement makes available an additional £3.7 billion to councils, including funding for adult social care reform. This is an increase in funding of more than 4.5% in real terms and it will ensure that councils across the country have the resources they need to deliver key services.
Salford City Council has had its core funding from central Government cut by 53% since 2010-11. The local government finance settlement that the Minister has just mentioned does not reverse that decade of cuts, and nor does it help enough to provide the £7.6 million needed to pay for increases in costs from national insurance, the national minimum wage, employer pensions and inflation. However, the most critical pressure is on adult social care, where the city council faces increased demand and increased costs. How on earth can councils be expected to deliver vital social care services adequately when this Government’s solution is to make councils fund them from regressive taxes such as council tax and a social care levy of up to 14%?
We recognise that councils have financial pressures and we are doing everything we can to support them. Salford receives up to an additional £19.2 million in core spending power, which is a cash-terms increase of 7.8%. That excludes other funding that we have given to the hon. Lady’s council to assist with the pressures she has raised.
The levelling-up White Paper made no mention of funding for local councils, despite the fact that it is local authorities that deliver the kind of change to local communities that the White Paper claims to be aiming for. Does the Minister think that after 12 years of extraordinary cuts to local authority funding, councils across the country are in a good position to deliver levelling up without any new funding?
I disagree with the hon. Lady. The levelling-up White Paper did make reference to council funding, and the financial settlement that I referred to earlier mentioned the cash increase. She will know that Gateshead receives 8.1% and that the Northumberland part of her constituency receives 8%. The fact is that we have given additional funding for levelling up. This includes £2.1 million from the community renewal fund and a £358,000 allocation from the welcome back fund. There is money going into her constituency and we are here to support as much as we can.
Local government finance has been ravaged over the last decade under the mantra of austerity. Councils in the north have lost up to 50% of their core funding, and some have lost even more. The Secretary of State has said, “If you leave the free-play market forces entirely to themselves, then what you see is inequality growing, in particular geographical inequality”. Those were fine words, spoken at the convention of the north in my home city. When will the Department drop the spin on local government finance and genuinely improve councils’ core spending powers by factoring in inflation and national insurance increases, for which our cash-strapped local authorities are picking up the tab?
Labour Members continue to talk about losses in funding, but they forget to remind everyone of how we arrived in this position. It is because of their disgraceful management of the public finances. We have spent the last 10 years repairing the public finances, which is why we have been able to give the real-terms increase that will support all Labour councils.
Stroud District Council is on the record as saying how generous and supportive the Government were during the pandemic. We established holiday camps and a range of activities that were not there before, we are bidding for £20 million from the levelling-up fund and we are working closely with our GFirst local enterprise partnership, which is keen to know the timeline for the shared prosperity fund. Is the Minister able to give us any more information? This is another round of funding that is available to our local authorities.
I thank the Secretary of State and all the Ministers and officials in the Department for moving at pace to tackle the growing humanitarian crisis in Ukraine. We have heard from the Government that those with family links and those with sponsorship will get support. Many local authorities are under huge financial pressure, so will the Minister say what further help could be given to local authorities that want to house refugees not only from Ukraine but from Afghanistan? Finally, can she give more detail on the announcement, or non-announcement, of a third track for refugees?
Members on both sides of the Chamber have said that any levelling up will ultimately be delivered by local authorities improving lives in their communities, but councils have faced and continue to face, despite the spin, serious shortfalls thanks to draconian Government cuts, including a 2% real-terms cut this year. Can the Minister explain how taking away £88 million from Burnley Borough Council in Lancashire over the last 10 years, even after taking into account the levelling-up funding, is fair? How is that levelling up? How will a £102 million shortfall over the next three years for Essex County Council—the Minister’s own county council—level up adult social care? Is it not time for Ministers to cut the spin, cut the claptrap and provide some substance and genuine levelling up for our hard-pressed councils?
I completely reject the hon. Gentleman’s numbers. As I said, we have given a 4.5% increase in the local government finance settlement. We are here to provide support to all local authorities. We are not going to engage in agreeing with the false numbers provided by the Opposition.
Help for Rough Sleepers
We have committed more than £800 million to tackle homelessness and rough sleeping in this year alone. That includes the investment of £202 million through the rough sleeping initiative fund, which provides 14,500 bed spaces and approximately 2,700 staff throughout the country. We are also helping people to find longer-term accommodation, including through the £433 million rough sleeping accommodation programme, which we expect to provide 6,000 new homes before the end of this Parliament. So far, we seem to be having some success, because the rough sleeping snapshot taken in November and announced a couple of weeks ago shows that numbers have fallen for eight years in a row.[Official Report, 14 March 2022, Vol. 710, c. 8MC.]
Trinity Winchester is not just a homeless shelter or day centre for rough sleepers but provides practical and emotional support to people experiencing the effects of homelessness and vulnerability. Its new Bradbury View accommodation provides homes for people who are rough sleeping repeatedly. The model is unique and I am glad that the Secretary of State has agreed to visit Winchester as soon as we can fix that up—
He is giving me a thumbs up—excellent.
Does the Minister agree that we have to borrow what works—Winchester is happy to show what works in this regard—and then scale it up throughout the country? At the end of the day, it is wraparound care that is going to break the cycle.
I guess that is the point: we need to legislate nationally and provide funding but trust local authorities, local areas and the excellent services of Trinity Winchester and others of that ilk to provide a bespoke service based on local demands. I am delighted that the Secretary of State is going to visit that scheme.
The Government’s rough sleeping snapshot recorded 2,440 people sleeping rough throughout the whole UK in the autumn. The Minister will know that the flawed method of data collection captures just a fraction of those without a home to sleep in. Those who are not represented in the figures include people who slept on public transport, who found a bed in a night shelter, who walked around at night and slept rough during the day, or who went under the local authority’s radar completely for any number of reasons. The reality of rough sleeping is far worse than the figures imply, so will the Minister tell me whether his Department is on track to deliver on its promise to truly end rough sleeping by 2024? If it is not, will it consider seizing the mansions of Russian oligarchs and putting those empty bedrooms to good use, once and for all?
To a degree, I understand part of the hon. Lady’s point. It is clearly difficult to capture that information, which is why we trust local councils and charities to do it. We have the figures validated by Homeless Link. The hon. Lady may have missed the fact that we are publishing more data so that it will be available monthly and working with local councils to make sure that that data is used appropriately to reduce the number of rough sleepers. I look forward to working with her to that end.
Levelling-up White Paper: Impact on Regional Inequality
The proposals in the levelling-up White Paper are already reducing regional inequality. Whether it is through urban regeneration in Wolverhampton and Sheffield, new education investment areas across the country, or a commitment to addressing the health inequality that holds so many people back, this Government are making progress to make opportunity more equal for all.
I have been supporting the levelling-up fund bid by my hon. Friends the Members for Dewsbury (Mark Eastwood) and for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Miriam Cates) to upgrade the Huddersfield-Penistone-Sheffield railway line. I have also been working on my own bid to regenerate disused mills in my Colne Valley constituency. Will the Secretary of State please tell me when we will get more details on the next round of levelling-up fund bids, which are transforming our constituencies?
Colne Valley, and indeed Kirklees more broadly, has no more effective advocate than my hon. Friend, and the bid he has put forward has much to commend it. I will discuss with the Secretary of State for Transport and the Chancellor of the Exchequer what we can do, but more detail will be shared when the Chancellor makes his spring statement.
Dudley Metropolitan Borough Council and I are currently working on a masterplan for an area called Lye, an historic market town in my constituency that is in much need of regeneration. The intention is to put in a bid for the levelling-up fund. Will my right hon. Friend support me in encouraging my constituents to put themselves forward and have their say in the consultation? There is of course an open door and my right hon. Friend is welcome to come to my constituency to see exactly what regeneration is needed.
There are few more attractive parts of the Black Country and the west midlands than my hon. Friend’s constituency. I have not yet visited the community of Lye—I am sure that all sorts of puns could follow—but the proposition that she puts forwards, which is increased community involvement in town masterplanning, is at the heart of our approach towards redevelopment.
I am delighted that the UK Government have recently signed a memorandum of understanding with Wrexham and Denbighshire councils in order to allow the first phase of the £13.3 million levelling-up projects in Clwyd South to progress. Will my right hon. Friend provide further detail on how he sees these levelling-up fund projects addressing regional inequality in my part of north Wales?
My hon. Friend makes a very important point. North Wales has been neglected under previous Labour Governments. It is only this Conservative Administration who are making sure that communities such as Wrexham and Llangollen get the investment they deserve. He and my hon. Friend the estimable Member for Wrexham (Sarah Atherton) have put forward exciting propositions and we want to make sure that the whole north Wales corridor, from Ynys Môn, over the border into Liverpool and Chester, becomes a supercharged corridor for growth, and that will only happen under this Government.
The Government’s White Paper is rightly ambitious. I think there will be general support for that ambition across the House, and rightly so, because we have some of the most unequal economies and societies among any developed countries. Is the Secretary of State not slightly concerned, however, that the tools he has at his disposal to address this are actually a small number of separate spending pots, completely disjointed and unconnected, and distributed according to a completely inappropriate bidding process? Does the Secretary of State not really want to see a review of total Government spending, of where it is spent in the country, and then the allocation and more control over that to local councils and local mayors so that it can be spent in the interests of local communities?
My constituents in Fleetwood hear about levelling up an awful lot, but they are not really seeing the benefits of it. Applications by Wyre Borough Council for the future high streets fund and the levelling-up fund have been knocked back, so can the Minister tell my Fleetwood constituents when they can expect to get this levelling up?
There was much to welcome in the White Paper, but, as we have just heard, we now need to see the investment to match that ambition. I understand that the Secretary of State might be in my neck of the woods in the very near future. He will be warmly welcome, particularly if he brings the Treasury cheque book with him. May I ask him specifically for an update on the £900 million that I have requested for South Yorkshire to match the shared prosperity fund commitments that the Government have rightly made to Cornwall?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the points that he makes. He is absolutely right: we need to make sure that the replacements for EU funding are distributed equitably and efficiently across the country. I completely understand the desire that he and others in South Yorkshire have to see that money out of the door as quickly as possible and in communities making a difference. We will be updating the House on our progress towards ensuring that that money is available along the timeline of the spring statement.
The reality is that the rhetoric is just not matching up to what the Government say they want it to deliver, but those analysts at Oxford Economics are not fooled. They say the levelling-up White Paper contains
little that is new or significant.
They say that there is nothing to cause them to revise their national and regional growth forecast, and they call its targets and missions either “pre-existing or “vague”. That is a damning indictment. What we needed was a plan to bring good jobs back to all communities to breathe life into our high streets and to transfer power from Whitehall to local communities. This White Paper is not going to address regional inequalities, is it?
The hon. Gentleman said that the rhetoric is not matching up to the delivery, which suggests, actually, that we are underselling what we are doing. I think what he meant to say, if he had written out his question more clearly, is that the delivery is not matching up to the rhetoric. I have to disagree with him on that, because a plethora of organisations from Onward to the Institute for Public Policy Research have pointed out that everything in the levelling-up White Paper is what Labour should have been doing when it was in power.
Scotland was promised £1.5 billion a year when the UK left the European Union, as part of a so-called Brexit bonanza. In reality, only £172 million has been announced so far. That means that, for every pound promised to Scotland, only 11p has been committed. Can the Secretary of State explain why Scotland is being short-changed by 89%, and will he tell us when that shortfall will be addressed?
It is the case that we want to welcome more bids to the levelling up fund from Scotland; indeed, we are in discussion with Scottish local authorities and others about the distribution of the UK shared prosperity fund. However, I hope I can avoid provoking a blush on the hon. Lady’s cheek if I say that her local authority of North Ayrshire, North Ayrshire’s Member of the Scottish Parliament and the hon. Lady herself have been uniquely successful in securing funding from the levelling-up fund. I encourage other Members of the Scottish National party to be as energetic, co-ordinated and effective as she, the MSP for North Ayrshire and North Ayrshire Council have been.
Planning: Flood Risk
Ministers from our Department engage regularly with those from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on flood risk. That includes the publication of our joint “Review of policy for development in areas at flood risk”, which looked at that very issue, and the updating of the flood risk policies in the national planning policy framework in 2021.
Much of the flooding in villages across Rushcliffe has been linked to new developments built without increasing local sewerage and drainage capacity. How does my right hon. Friend think we can best address that problem through the planning system, to ensure not only that water companies are forced to take new development into account when assessing their infrastructure, but that developers are forced to pay their fair share? If we do not get this right, it will be all our constituents who continue to suffer.
My hon. Friend is right, and she is a superb advocate for her constituents, having already raised a number of issues with me since I have been in this post. The national planning policy framework is clear that local plans and planning decisions should consider flood risk from all sources, including overwhelmed sewers and drainage systems. Water and sewage companies are statutory consultees for local plans that set out an area’s development requirements, and can comment on planning applications. However, she is right that the right infrastructure must be put in place for the developments we see in our country.
Flooding is undoubtedly an important issue to be taken into account in the planning process, but there are other issues, one of which is the gender bias that exists in planning. I will be presenting a Bill tomorrow to attack that very thing. Are the Government considering as part of the planning in the levelling-up process how to ensure that gender neutrality is at the heart of major development designing?
There will be a lot of announcements to come in the near future about our plans for planning, but the hon. Lady is right to talk about that whole aspect of it. My hon. Friend the Minister for Levelling Up Communities, the hon. Member for Saffron Walden (Kemi Badenoch) has just assured me that all equality issues are looked at in this area.
We have the same problems in North East Hertfordshire, with towns such as Watton-at-Stone having flooding problems because of many new houses, inadequate storm drains and not enough balancing ponds. Will my right hon. Friend redouble his efforts in talking to DEFRA to ensure that we get better storm drainage for the future?
My right hon. and learned Friend is right to raise that important issue. As we prepare all developments to ensure that they are tackling climate change, we should also look at the points he raises. I commit to him that I will speak on a regular basis with my colleagues in DEFRA.
The Government are ensuring that industry and those responsible pay to fix the current crisis. I refer the hon. Lady and the House to the letter I sent to the Home Builders Federation, published earlier today, which followed proposals sent to me by developers. While I welcome progress, developers have not yet gone far enough. I expect them to agree a fully funded plan to fix unsafe buildings by the end of this month or, reluctantly, we will have to impose a solution in law.
I have met dozens of freeholders and leaseholders in my constituency who are worried about the escalating costs of fire safety remediation. The Hyde Group recently billed tenants £9,000 a year for waking watch, although, thankfully, it rescinded it. Leaseholders from the Renaissance buildings may be liable for £500,000 of costs relating to external wall investigations and the building safety fund application. What reassurances can the Secretary of State give my constituents while they wait anxiously for the Government to decide who is liable for those huge bills?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for articulating so clearly the concerns that so many of her constituents have. I am glad that the request for funding for waking watch has been removed. That follows on from the announcement that we made on building safety a little earlier this year. As she rightly points out, with regard to the allocation of costs and responsibilities, more needs to be done. I hope that by the end of this month the clarity that she seeks and the safe passage of the Building Safety Bill will provide the constituents for whom she speaks with the reassurance they deserve.
This Government are committed to driving improvements in both social and private rented homes. This spring we will publish our White Paper setting out our ambitious proposals to reform the private rented sector, including exploring a legally binding decent homes standard as well as a landlord register. We are driving forward reform of social housing quality through our social housing White Paper commitments, including a review of the decent homes standard.
One in four properties in the private rented sector are classed as non-decent. Every day that the Government delay their White Paper is a day that millions spend in cold, insecure, unsafe and unaffordable homes. The words “levelling up” will ring hollow in the minds of millions of tenants living in these awful, awful conditions. Will the Minister commit that the White Paper will actually have teeth to resolve the crisis that we are seeing in our communities and hold rogue landlords to account, which is not happening now?
I have tremendous respect for the hon. Gentleman and his work, and the work of the Select Committee in total. I will be working very closely with them to ensure that the White Paper does indeed have teeth and that our collective efforts drive down the number of non-decent homes. The target set in the levelling-up White Paper was to reduce the number by 50% by 2030.
The anti-Muslim hatred working group has played a valuable role as the Government’s forum for discussing and advising on anti-Muslim hatred and the challenges faced by Britain’s Muslim communities. While the group was paused during the pandemic they continued their important work through a series of webinars, including an event addressing the fears and myths about the covid-19 vaccination programme. The Secretary of State and I will be meeting the leadership of the group in the next few weeks to discuss the current issues facing Muslim communities and the best way for us to support the group’s work.
Islamophobia remains in all elements of our society, and that includes our major political parties. The difference is that while the Labour party has taken decisive and swift action, the Government have not delivered on any of their promises. The anti-Muslim hatred working group’s own Qari Asim has been critical of the Government’s failure to take tangible action. Will the Minister now follow in the footsteps of the Labour party and take steps to tackle Islamophobia in the UK, starting with a truly independent investigation into the Conservative party? Will she outline when the UK last submitted a report to the UN’s International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, as required of all signatories to the convention?
The Government do remain committed to stamping out anti-Muslim hatred and all forms of religious prejudice. I have had conversations with the hon. Gentleman and I am due to meet the all-party parliamentary group on British Muslims very shortly. We will outline our next steps in due course but we are actively working on this.
I have listened to the Minister, but the tragic reality is that Islamophobia is on the rise and is rife in our society today. If anyone is in any doubt, they should speak to the Muslim communities up and down this country who have to face this evil on a daily basis. How can my constituents have any confidence in a Government who cannot even tackle Islamophobia in their own ranks?
I completely reject the accusation made by the hon. Gentleman—it is completely untrue. We are doing everything we can to tackle not just anti-Muslim hatred but all forms of prejudice in our society. On this issue, we have supported Tell MAMA with just over £4 million between 2016 and 2022 to monitor and combat anti-Muslim hatred. Over the past five years of the places of worship grant scheme we have awarded 241 grants worth approximately £5 million to places of worship. In November 2020 we awarded £1.8 million through the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government’s faith, race and hate crime grant scheme.
Levelling Up: Rail Investment in Wales
Investment in rail is a very important part of the levelling-up agenda. As well as the £2 billion for Network Rail in Wales over this control period, more than £340 million has been provided for enhancements in Welsh rail from 2019 to 2024. What is more, the UK Government are investing £30 million in the Global Centre of Rail Excellence, supporting about 120 jobs in Wales.
It takes three hours to get from London to Swansea; it takes three hours to get from London to Edinburgh. The reason is that only 1.5% of UK rail enhancement funding goes to Wales, even though it has 5% of the population and 11% of the railway lines. Will the Minister—with the support of the Secretary of State—urge the Treasury to provide funding as a share of HS2 to Wales on the same basis as it provides it to Scotland, given that HS2 is north-south, which would give us an extra £4.6 billion to level up and connect the Union?
The 1% figure that the hon. Gentleman quotes is from a Welsh Government report, which looks only at a very small part of rail investment and does not give a correct picture of the wider investment in Wales that I described. HS2 will of course provide huge benefits to the people of north Wales, who will be connected much more rapidly to the rest of the country.
Second Homes: Devon and Cornwall
Data on second homes in Devon and Cornwall can be found on the Government’s council taxbase website. The number of second homes for council tax purposes was 28,126 in 2010, and is at 26,853 this year. The Government recognise the adverse effects that large numbers of second homes can have on some areas, and we have introduced a number of measures to mitigate those effects, including high rates of stamp duty tax for those purchasing additional properties.
More west country families are being turfed out of their homes through no-fault evictions, only to find those homes appearing on Airbnb a few days later. Every west country family should have a first home, but we are becoming known as a region of second homes and holiday lets. Will the Minister meet a delegation from the First Homes not Second Homes campaign so that we can look at how the Government can adopt Welsh Labour’s proposal to charge 300% council tax on empty properties and second homes that are empty for much of the year, and ensure that every family can have a first home?
The hon. Gentleman is right to raise this issue, which was one of the main topics that came up when I met several of my colleagues just last week. I am more than happy to meet the delegation, as the hon. Gentleman suggests, and will try to arrange that as quickly as possible.
Accountability of Locally Elected Representatives
The Localism Act 2011 sets out a robust framework for local authority standards and accountability. All local authorities must adopt a code of conduct, with sanctions when members do not adhere. I recently met the chair of the Committee on Standards in Public Life to reaffirm that the Government will respond shortly to his committee’s report on this issue, when we will set out further steps to improve the system.
Does my hon. Friend agree that as the Government strengthen locally elected institutions, bodies and individuals as part of the levelling-up agenda, it becomes all the more important that they are properly held to account by local media—newspapers, radio and television? Will she look at what more can be done to sustain local media, which is under terrific pressure?
My right hon. Friend is right. Local news providers remain uniquely placed to undertake the investigative journalism and scrutiny of public institutions that is vital to ensuring a healthy democracy at local level. This is primarily a matter for the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, but I am happy to meet my right hon. Friend to find out more about it.
Am I living in a parallel universe? [Hon. Members: “Yes!”] Listening to some Government Members talk about their experience of their local authorities and their local situation, I feel I must be in a different world. The fact of the matter is that the morale of local authorities and local councillors is at rock bottom, because during these years and years of Conservative Government there have been so few resources for local authorities to actually do their job. They want to do their job—they would love to level up—but just like the northern powerhouse, this all looks like pie in the sky to my constituents.
Accountability in local government includes participation from the widest corners of our society. As the Disability Policy Centre highlighted in its recent report, “Breaking Down Barriers”, accessibility of local authority buildings is still a major issue for disabled people. Only two in five of local authority homepages on the web are accessible. What work will the Government do to ensure we can open up local democracy to more people with disabilities?
My right hon. and learned Friend raises a very important issue. Officials are consistently looking at ways to ensure we comply with the Equality Act 2010. If there is a specific example he would like to give me, I would appreciate it if he wrote to me, and then I can provide him with a more comprehensive response.
Levelling-up Funding Allocation
Levelling-up funding is distributed using both competitive and formula-based models as appropriate across the United Kingdom. The methodology, assessment and decision-making processes involved are published on gov.uk.
I have no objection to the Secretary of State redistributing wealth by giving my constituents and other Scottish taxpayers their hard-earned cash back, but the Scotland Act 1998 should be respected. In January, the House of Lords Constitution Committee said that the Government’s approach was “unhelpful” and has undermined the trust of the devolved Governments in this Government. Can he tell us when the Government will start to properly respect the devolved settlements?
I respectfully disagree with the hon. and learned Lady. Not only are we respecting the devolution settlement; we are enhancing it. Only the other week, I had the chance to speak to the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, which, as she will know, is the successor body to the oldest local government organisation in the world. There was a huge welcome from the Scottish National party, Conservative, independent, Liberal Democrat and Labour councillors in Scotland for the approach that we were taking in the UK Government. [Interruption.] There is a straightforward division between us. I prefer to trust locally elected councillors in Scotland, whereas she prefers the view of the House of Lords. You know:
“Ye see yon birkie, ca’d a lord…A Man’s a Man for a’ That”.
The situation in Ukraine is at the forefront of the minds of us all in this House, and I am grateful for the immensely hard work of civil servants across Government, and of those in local government, as well as those involved in diplomatic and humanitarian efforts at this time.
My Department has two specific roles in supporting cross-Government work. The first is exploring how we can support the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office and other Departments with a sanctions regime that meets the needs of the hour, and in particular how we can target the property and assets of those in this country who have been supporting the Putin regime. We are also responsible for ensuring that we can provide appropriate support for refugees arriving in this country. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has already expanded the family sponsorship system, and we have an existing humanitarian sponsorship scheme, which is being expanded now to ensure that local authorities and others can play their part in ensuring a warm and safe welcome for those fleeing persecution.
More than 2,100 residents have signed my petition to see the former Teddington police station site repurposed for community use and affordable housing. The Under-Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, the hon. Member for Harborough (Neil O’Brien), confirmed last week that there is nothing in law or guidance that says the Mayor of London has to sell the site to the highest bidder, as he claims, and he has reportedly rejected a bid for a new home for Park Road GP surgery and affordable homes because he is insisting on getting the highest price—probably from luxury developers. Will the Minister join me in calling on the Mayor to reconsider this decision, as Teddington residents are demanding?
I know how determined the hon. Lady has been to represent the residents of Teddington in this matter, and I know she has raised it in a Westminster Hall debate with my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary. I will seek to ensure that my ministerial team are closely engaged with the hon. Lady to ensure that we can come to a fair and equitable solution for her residents.
It is three months since Russian troops massed at the Ukraine border and not a single detail has been published about the community sponsorship scheme that the Secretary of State is supposedly leading. We stand alone among European countries in insisting on a visa that takes months while desperate people are being turned back at Calais. Nearly 2 million people have fled Ukraine and only 50 visas have been granted. Will he really ask desperate people to wait months for his Department to get its act together or will he pick up the phone to the Home Secretary, cut out the bureaucracy and help people now?
I agree with the hon. Lady that it is vital to provide the fastest and safest route for those fleeing persecution and we are working with our partners on the ground in Poland and elsewhere to do just that. We are processing more than 14,000 applications under the family scheme at the moment. Of course, as my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary outlined last week, that scheme has been significantly expanded. There is an existing community sponsorship scheme and the details are available on gov.uk for those who wish to help through it, but we are expanding it and more details will be announced later today and later this week.
I point the Secretary of State to last year’s inspectorate report that highlighted that his existing scheme is an absolute shambles. People are being asked to wait months on end to access it and still not a single detail has been published. I cannot bear to listen to that with the scenes that we are seeing unfolding in front of our eyes—it is too slow. While he quarrels with the Home Office, we are turning away refugees and, worse, letting oligarchs off the hook.
Seriously, how can the Housing Secretary sit there without any sense of shame while, just down the road, Russian oligarchs linked to the Kremlin are offloading millions of pounds from the UK property market in a fire sale? That is the dark money that sustains the Putin regime. He could set that right this afternoon through amendments tabled by his Back Benchers and by Labour that would start to put an end to the shameful situation that his party has presided over for too long. Will he back those amendments?
Again, I am grateful to the hon. Lady for raising two important questions. On the need to ensure that we have a rapid expansion of the scheme, we need to use the existing community sponsorship scheme, which has been successful, to—[Interruption.] She has already asked her question, and I can answer. If she wants to try to rewrite her original question, she is welcome to do so. [Interruption.]
Thank you very much for ensuring order, Mr Speaker. The scheme that we are expanding will ensure that we meet the needs of the hour and that all those who need humanitarian resettlement find it. As to the hon. Lady’s point about the steps required to ensure that the assets of oligarchs and others are addressed, the legislation that we are bringing forward will mean that we have the strongest sanctions regime in the world.
I will make two points in response to my hon. Friend. First, I thank his constituents for their amazing work, which reflects the commitment and compassion of many people across the country. The single most important thing that any individual can do at the moment is donate to the Disasters Emergency Committee. It is understandable that people want to see goods of a humanitarian nature flow to the Polish border, but the nature of the support that we need to give means that it is actually more effective to raise money to give to the DEC and others. With respect to the expansion of the humanitarian sponsorship scheme, there are more details to come.
Transparency International recently estimated that more than £1.5 billion-worth of UK property was bought by Russian oligarchs accused of corruption or links to the Kremlin between 2016 and 2021, of which £1 billion is in London. Can the Secretary of State assure that House that the UK will bring forward emergency legislation to repossess Kremlin-linked properties in London, which he reportedly favours, and does he agree that using the proceeds from those properties to offer further support to humanitarian efforts in Ukraine would be entirely appropriate and desirable?
Some £20 million is potentially available to Keighley and Ilkley through the levelling-up fund. Bradford is in a top priority category, and I really hope that it will bid so that we can build on the tens of millions of investment already being put into Keighley through the towns fund.
I think the hon. Lady said the shambolic response from the European Government and that she probably meant the United Kingdom Government, but not to worry. I respectfully disagree. More details on how we will help not just the devolved Administrations but local government to accept a higher proportion of humanitarian refugees will follow shortly.
My hon. Friend is completely correct. Some £19.4 million was allocated to projects in Bognor Regis and Littlehampton through round 1 of the levelling-up fund, in addition to the £21.1 million allocated to Crawley. I look forward to working with people in West Sussex to do more through round 2 of the levelling-up fund as well as the UK shared prosperity fund.
We need to introduce the White Paper, which will be published in the spring, first. I look forward to discussing its terms with the hon. Lady so we can ensure that the legislation subsequently introduced is fit for purpose.
Due to my role in planning, I cannot comment on specific plans, but national park policy empowers local communities by making it clear that they can designate areas of importance as local green space through their local plans. Such designations ensure that these important assets are provided with protection, reflecting their importance.
I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that, and I will look closely, with my colleague the Home Secretary, at that proposition. It is important that we have appropriate biometric checks, for reasons that are well understood, but I appreciate the generosity of the offer, and indeed we have been talking to the Welsh Government about how we can co-ordinate our efforts.
Many people are still planning to staycation this year. Would the Secretary of State extend the scheme that worked so well during the pandemic, and allow permitted development rights to be relaxed so that pop-up campsites can allow people to have holidays in places such as North Yorkshire?
I now know what my Easter plans will be. My right hon. Friend is absolutely right that making sure, through the exercise of permitted development rights, that we can provide people with the opportunity to holiday in places as beautiful as North Yorkshire is an entirely welcome development.
Reported cases of antisemitism continue to rise, with the Community Security Trust recording a record 2,255 cases in 2021. The Government have funded the security at Jewish locations, including synagogues and schools, and this, unfortunately, is vital to ensuring the safety of the Jewish community. Will the Secretary of State commit to the continuation of this funding next year, as well as ensuring that it is adjusted for the increased cost associated with inflation?
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. As the Minister who, as Secretary of State for Education, initiated that scheme, I will do everything I can to ensure it continues. But I would make one additional point: one of the things we can all do across this House in order to tackle the evil of antisemitism is stand against the boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign, and that is why when we bring forward legislation to outlaw BDS at local government level I hope we can count on the hon. Gentleman’s formidable voice pressing on those on his Front Bench the importance of supporting that legislation and not, as they did in the past, abstaining.
Levelling up is crucial to rejuvenating our high streets and making sure we do not have buildings collecting dust and not in use, which has often been the case in Ipswich. In Carr Street, however, that is not the case: we have micro-shops there now: fantastic businesses such as Trini Flava, Central Vintage, and the Juice Mix bar. Does my right hon. Friend agree that to do this we need not only funding but a local council with a bit of a proactive, can-do attitude to bring such premises back into use?
Yes, we need a council that is composed of simulacra or clones of my hon. Friend. If every Ipswich councillor was as ambitious for Ipswich as he is, Ipswich would not only be in the premier league for football—which it is not at the moment of course—but in the premier league of places to visit in the United Kingdom.
Seven out of 10 of the most deprived areas in Wales, six out of 10 in Scotland and three out of 10 in England have not received any levelling-up funding. When will the right hon. Gentleman give them that opportunity—when will he publish the timetable and the criteria for the second tranche of money?
It is coming in the spring statement, but I should say to the hon. Gentleman, whom I count as a friend and much admire, that he should have a word with the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry), who seems not to want this money to go to Scotland because she believes it works against devolution. The hon. Gentleman wants that money to come to Scotland; can the Scottish National party please make up its mind?
In the past week I have worked with Anna Buckley from Wrexham’s Polish integration support centre to logistically manage the unprecedented UK response to her call for donations. Businesses and people across Wrexham have answered that call, with hundreds of volunteers sorting through five warehouses full of donations going to Poland. Will the Secretary of State congratulate Anna and the community spirit of Wrexham?
Will the Secretary of State speak to his colleague the Home Secretary and make her aware that only issuing up until now 50 visas for Ukrainian refugees is quite wrong and brings shame upon this country?
I talk to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary every day. The Home Secretary was in Poland at the border talking to those who were working with refugees: she was delivering while others, I am afraid, seek to make political points. We have a Home Secretary who is energetic, determined, on the job, talking to those on the frontline, making a difference, and I am afraid that when people want unity, purpose and delivery they will say to the right hon. Lady—
Will the Secretary of State confirm that when it comes to local plans the idea that we need exactly the same proportion of extra housing in every part of every council area is wrong, and instead the different needs of different communities, as in my constituency in Haverhill, Brandon and Newmarket, can be treated differently, not with a one-size-fits-all approach?
Excellent. If every question and answer were like that, it would be wonderful.
Economic Crime (Transparency and Enforcement) Bill: Allocation of time
That the following provisions shall apply to the proceedings on the Economic Crime (Transparency and Enforcement) Bill—
(1)(a) Proceedings on Second Reading and in Committee of the whole House, any proceedings on Consideration and proceedings on Third Reading shall be taken at today’s sitting in accordance with this Order.
(b) Proceedings on Second Reading shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion four hours after the commencement of proceedings on the Motion for this Order.
(c) Proceedings in Committee of the whole House, any proceedings on Consideration and proceedings on Third Reading shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion six hours after the commencement of proceedings on the Motion for this Order.
Timing of proceedings and Questions to be put
(2) When the Bill has been read a second time:
(a) it shall, despite Standing Order No. 63 (Committal of bills not subject to a programme order), stand committed to a Committee of the whole House without any Question being put;
(b) proceedings on the Bill shall stand postponed while the Question is put, in accordance with Standing Order No. 52(1) (Money resolutions and ways and means resolutions in connection with bills), on any financial resolution relating to the Bill;
(c) on the conclusion of proceedings on any financial resolution relating to the Bill, proceedings on the Bill shall be resumed and the Speaker shall leave the chair whether or not notice of an Instruction has been given.
(3)(a) On the conclusion of proceedings in Committee of the whole House, the Chair shall report the Bill to the House without putting any Question.
(b) If the Bill is reported with amendments, the House shall proceed to consider the Bill as amended without any Question being put.
(4) For the purpose of bringing any proceedings to a conclusion in accordance with paragraph (1), the Chair or Speaker shall forthwith put the following Questions in the same order as they would fall to be put if this Order did not apply:
(a) any Question already proposed from the chair;
(b) any Question necessary to bring to a decision a Question so proposed;
(c) the Question on any amendment, new Clause or new Schedule selected by the Chair or Speaker for separate decision;
(d) the Question on any amendment moved or Motion made by a Minister of the Crown;
(e) any other Question necessary for the disposal of the business to be concluded;
and shall not put any other questions, other than the question on any motion described in paragraph (15)(a) of this Order.
(5) On a Motion so made for a new Clause or a new Schedule, the Chair or Speaker shall put only the Question that the Clause or Schedule be added to the Bill.
(6) If two or more Questions would fall to be put under paragraph (4)(d) on successive amendments moved or Motions made by a Minister of the Crown, the Chair or Speaker shall instead put a single Question in relation to those amendments or Motions.
(7) If two or more Questions would fall to be put under paragraph (4)(e) in relation to successive provisions of the Bill, the Chair shall instead put a single Question in relation to those provisions, except that the Question shall be put separately on any Clause of or Schedule to the Bill which a Minister of the Crown has signified an intention to leave out.
Consideration of Lords Amendments
(8)(a) Any Lords Amendments to the Bill may be considered forthwith without any Question being put; and any proceedings interrupted for that purpose shall be suspended accordingly.
(b) Proceedings on consideration of Lords Amendments shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion one hour after their commencement; and any proceedings suspended under sub-paragraph (a) shall thereupon be resumed.
(9) Paragraphs (2) to (7) of Standing Order No. 83F (Programme orders: conclusion of proceedings on consideration of Lords amendments) apply for the purposes of bringing any proceedings to a conclusion in accordance with paragraph (8) of this Order.
(10)(a) Any further Message from the Lords on the Bill may be considered forthwith without any Question being put; and any proceedings interrupted for that purpose shall be suspended accordingly.
(b) Proceedings on any further Message from the Lords shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion one hour after their commencement; and any proceedings suspended under sub-paragraph (a) shall thereupon be resumed.
(11) Paragraphs (2) to (5) of Standing Order No. 83G (Programme orders: conclusion of proceedings on further messages from the Lords) apply for the purposes of bringing any proceedings to a conclusion in accordance with paragraph (10) of this Order.
(12) Paragraphs (2) to (6) of Standing Order No. 83H (Programme orders: reasons committee) apply in relation to any committee to be appointed to draw up reasons after proceedings have been brought to a conclusion in accordance with this Order.
(13) Standing Order No. 15(1) (Exempted business) shall apply to proceedings on the Bill.
(14) Standing Order No. 82 (Business Committee) shall not apply in relation to any proceedings to which this Order applies.
(15)(a) No Motion shall be made, except by a Minister of the Crown, to alter the order in which any proceedings on the Bill are taken, to recommit the Bill or to vary or supplement the provisions of this Order.
(b) No notice shall be required of such a Motion.
(c) Such a Motion may be considered forthwith without any Question being put; and any proceedings interrupted for that purpose shall be suspended accordingly.
(d) The Question on such a Motion shall be put forthwith; and any proceedings suspended under sub-paragraph (c) shall thereupon be resumed.
(e) Standing Order No. 15(1) (Exempted business) shall apply to proceedings on such a Motion.
(16)(a) No dilatory Motion shall be made in relation to proceedings to which this Order applies except by a Minister of the Crown.
(b) The Question on any such Motion shall be put forthwith.
(17)(a) The start of any debate under Standing Order No. 24 (Emergency debates) to be held on a day on which the Bill has been set down to be taken as an Order of the Day shall be postponed until the conclusion of any proceedings on that day to which this Order applies.
(b) Standing Order No. 15(1) (Exempted business) shall apply in respect of any such debate.
(18) Proceedings to which this Order applies shall not be interrupted under any Standing Order relating to the sittings of the House.
(19)(a) Any private business which has been set down for consideration at a time falling after the commencement of proceedings on this Order or on the Bill on a day on which the Bill has been set down to be taken as an Order of the Day shall, instead of being considered as provided by Standing Orders or by any Order of the House, be considered at the conclusion of the proceedings on the Bill on that day.
(b) Standing Order No. 15(1) (Exempted business) shall apply to the private business so far as necessary for the purpose of securing that the business may be considered for a period of three hours.—(Priti Patel.)
Economic Crime (Transparency and Enforcement) Bill
[Relevant documents: Report of the Joint Committee on the draft Registration of Overseas Entities Bill, Session 2017-19, HC 2009, the Government Response, Session 2017-19, CP135, and letter to Kelly Tolhurst MP relating to the Government Response, dated 3 September 2019; Eighth Report of the Foreign Affairs Committee, Moscow’s Gold: Russian Corruption in the UK, Session 2017-19, HC 932, and the Government Response, HC 1488; Eleventh Report of the Treasury Committee, Economic Crime, HC 145.]
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
The United Kingdom is united in opposition to Putin’s horrific, unjust war on Ukraine. The depth of that feeling was seen in how the entire House rose to applaud the Ukrainian ambassador at Prime Minister’s questions last Wednesday. Mr Speaker, that you allowed that rare intervention in our parliamentary proceedings speaks for the unity of the House. Putin must fail, and the Government are taking a wide range of actions to that end along with an extensive package of support for the heroic Ukrainian people. Putin is a gangster.
As the Home Secretary is straying to points outwith the Bill, I want to address how the airwaves at the weekend were full of criticism—both internal and external to the United Kingdom—of her scheme to help Ukrainian refugees. When will she announce something to speed up the scheme and give it the degree of urgency that their dreadful plight necessitates?
I am grateful to the hon. and learned Lady for her question, because it gives me the chance to clarify what is happening in a fast-moving picture. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities said, I was in Poland on Friday. This is a rapidly moving picture, and it is important for all colleagues in the House to know that the first quality-assured figures on the Ukraine family scheme will be published this evening. I want to make it abundantly clear that the figures that are now public are absolutely inaccurate and have not been assured by the Home Office.
The hon. and learned Lady also asked about our scheme. Before I return to my remarks, it is absolutely right to say that our scheme is the first of its kind in the world, and we cannot measure it against that of any other country. We have already had 14,000 people apply, and we also have a sponsorship scheme that will be announced later on. Of course, the extended family route was announced on Friday.
Will the Home Secretary clarify whether the Home Office has set up a visa application centre in Calais, or are people still being sent on journeys of hundreds of miles back to Paris or Brussels for the checks that they need to get safely into this country?
Again, for clarification, as I set out in the House last week, we are surging capacity across our VACs to ensure that as many people as possible are getting access. Let me—[Interruption.] If the right hon. Member would like to listen to my response rather than shout from her seat, it is absolutely right that we have already had people in Calais. Let me therefore again clarify—I said this over the weekend—that we have staff in Calais and support on the ground. It is wrong to say that we are just turning people back; we are absolutely not. We are supporting those who have been coming to Calais. It is also important that we do not create choke points in Calais but encourage a smooth flow of people. In particular, I confirm that we have set up a bespoke VAC en route to Calais but away from the port because we have to prevent that surge from taking place.
Mr Speaker, this does not relate to the Bill, but there is another issue about our checks that the House should know about. Not only are people-smuggling gangs roaming around Calais but, over the weekend and today before coming to the House, I have been on calls about the human trafficking cases that are manifesting at the border. It is therefore right that we have the right process in place to check people and to safeguard them.
I thank the Secretary of State for what she is doing and the staff put in place to try to help move things on. However, only 50 people have been processed so far, and my constituent, whom I spoke about in the Chamber last week, is in Ukraine today to collect her son and daughter but uncertain about how to bring them home. I seek the Secretary of State’s clarification on how we can make the process better for people with families here who are going through Poland or Romania to come here.
The hon. Member makes an important point. Having been to Poland myself and seen the processes—I am also due to speak to my Romanian counterpart later today—I know that they have issues about capacity. We have had requests for technical capacity and support not just through our VACs but to help the host countries to do a lot more work at the borders. We are doing everything that we can.
The hon. Member also mentioned his constituent. If they are in Poland, we have got a huge amount of capacity and plenty of spaces for people to be processed, but they do need to come to our centres. If he would give me their details, I will ensure that we are joining that up in country.
The Home Secretary has a lot of support on the Government Benches for the compassionate and sensible way in which she is going about this. Will she confirm that she is listening both to what the refugees want, which is often not a long-term settlement a long way from Ukraine, and with regard to the security issues that this all poses?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. I must emphasise that every single crisis requires a bespoke and unique response. There are two very big calls coming from the region and from our counterparts. First and foremost, they are asking for help on security measures right now; that consistent theme is coming over. That comes down to checks—they are undertaking checks—but they are also very concerned about wider security issues, some of which I simply cannot discuss in this House, for clear reasons. The second point—even the Ukrainian ambassador made this point to me yesterday and I hear it every single day from my counterparts—is that there is a call to keep people in region. There is a big demand for that, and that is where the wider aid effort has to focus, in addition to the work that we are doing on humanitarianism.
I do not wish to disturb the flow of the Secretary of State’s speech for very long, but I want to make one point. We all know that some of the brightest minds in the City of London are, at this moment, burning the midnight oil and finding ways to dodge anything that this Government, with the support of the Opposition, are bringing in. Is it not a fact that we need rapid action—as rapid as any of the other countries that are taking out sanctions—and will she promise me that it will be fast, furious and efficient?
I was contacted on Saturday by a former constituent who had escaped from Ukraine with his Ukrainian wife. He contacted me again last night to say that I did not need to help him—he had been to our embassy in Berlin and expected that everything would be sorted out today, and that he would come to the UK this week—so I reassure her that, actually, the system is working and people are getting the help they need.
I thank my right hon. Friend for the example that he shared with the House. That is really important, because we have surge staff across every EU visa application centre. I came to the House last week and said that we absolutely would do that and we are indeed doing it.
I have been told that people arriving at Calais are being told that they have to go to Paris or Brussels to get visas. Is that correct or not? If it is not, will my right hon. Friend please tell me why it is being said? In 1972, we took into Kent thousands of Ugandan Asians. We did it almost overnight and without any difficulty at all. Last Monday, my right hon. Friend told me that she would cut away the red tape. Why are we not doing that?
I have already made it clear, in terms of the visa application centre that has now been set up en route to Calais, that we have staff in Calais, and, importantly, people have been coming to the UK from Calais. I am afraid that there has been a lot of misinformation about all this, and I have clarified our position today.
I will not; I need to make progress and I have been generous with interventions. In addition, on the point that my right hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale) made, I did say that we would cut away process, but he has already heard me say that there are security concerns and considerations—[Interruption.]
Thank you very much, Mr Speaker.
Putin is a gangster and his regime is underpinned by a mob of oligarchs and kleptocrats who have abused the financial system and the rule of law for too long. Putin’s cronies have hidden dirty money in the UK and across the west, and we do not want it here. Expediting this legislation, which I know the whole House supports, will mean that we can crack down on the people who abuse the UK’s open society.
I am delighted that my right hon. Friend is bringing up not only the oligarchs, but the enablers and facilitators. What do the Government think about various potential bad actors in the House of Lords and what should we be doing about them?
My hon. Friend and I spent some time on the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs, which looked at that very issue. He is right to highlight enablers and, with them, many other associates. It is right that through the Bill and the changes we are bringing in, we find a way to capture as many of them as possible. That is what the Bill seeks to do.
Further to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Bob Seely), would the Government be willing to adapt the language of the Titles Deprivation Act 1917, which was used to withdraw peerages from peers who gave succour to Germany in the first world war, after proper investigation by the Privy Council?
Across the House, we all want to see these bandits nailed. Is the Home Secretary content that the Bill will actually stop the disposal of properties? In my view, the register may not succeed in inhibiting that. We want to stop people getting away with it and disposing of assets. Will the Bill do that?
A lot of houses are owned by criminal gangs for money laundering purposes, often in rural areas, and left empty. If people do not register, will the Bill allow us not only to impose a fine on them, but sell those properties so that they can go back to the community rather than be left there to rot?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I said that unexplained wealth orders were one of several tools, but we have other tools that have to be deployed. Registration, beneficial ownership—all those aspects are covered in the legislation, and rightly so. By accelerating the legislation, we are concentrating on the sharpest tools we can use and the powers we can bring into force in the most focused time. Expediting this legislation will send a very strong signal that the UK will not be a home for corruption.
I will give way shortly, but first I will make some progress, if I may.
This will be about hurting Putin and his vicious regime, which has robbed the Russian people of their chance for democracy, peace and prosperity—not only that, but even their own wealth has been used and abused by these kleptocrats and oligarchs. The reforms in the Bill will give us greater power and more information to identify and investigate the illicit wealth of Russian criminals, their allies and their proxies. The new property register will have an immediate effect, dissuading those intending to buy UK property with illicit funds. Oligarchs could be slapped with an unexplained wealth order—one of the tools that we will have at our disposal—and the Treasury will be better able to act when financial sanctions are breached. We are implementing the most severe package of sanctions ever imposed on Russia or on any major economy.
The right hon. Gentleman makes a very important point; I am pretty certain that he has raised several times in this House the need for legal protections, finance and an approach that gives law enforcement the tools it needs. The Bill is doing that, and we are acting not only through legislation, but through the wider way we help agencies and law enforcement to function, operate and go after those who have been undermining our system.
Following on from that point, the Bill is very welcome, but many of us believe it could go further, which is why we have supported and tabled various amendments. Legislation and regulations are worth their salt only if they are properly enforced. The National Crime Agency, for example, has had cuts to its funding in recent years. Will the Bill put that right not just for the NCA, but for all enforcement agencies?
That is a really important point. This is about how we operationalise the Bill—how we use the tools that we are giving our agencies. Yes, resourcing is required. We have already stepped up with a new kleptocracy unit in the NCA and have put more resources into it. We are absolutely not going to stop—we cannot stop. We are catching up in many quarters, we really are, and we want to use the full force of legislation and the full force of the law to go after many of these individuals.
I thank my right hon. Friend for and congratulate her on driving this Bill forward so quickly, co-operating with all sides to get it on to the statute book. I wish to raise one point. I noticed that in the original draft, although there has been a slew of amendments since, there were all sorts of little caveats. For example, it let people off the hook if they did not “knowingly or recklessly” give the wrong information. I hope she will agree with an amendment I have put my name to and we will strike that out. There is no excuse on “knowingly or recklessly”; someone either did or did not co-operate, and if they did not, they should get the full force of the law.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right, and he has also pointed out the vast drafting that has taken place over the weekend, with various amendments. I am grateful to all colleagues, on both sides of the House, for their co-operation on many of those amendments. He is absolutely right to say that people have an intent, which is what we are going after.
The Russia sanctions regime is across eight different sets of regulations, and even the Commons Library could not disentangle them for me. In some cases, simply stopping people using their assets does not go far enough. For those found to be working on behalf of Putin and his elite, we should be expropriating their assets. Does this Bill simply allow freezing or does it actually allow us to confiscate assets?
My right hon. Friend has hit the nail on the head, and I am going to come to some of that in my remarks shortly. If he will just bear with me, I would like to make some progress. I am conscious of the protected time we have today, so I ask all colleagues to bear with me.
This legislation is concise and tight for very good reasons, hence the number of amendments that have been made; we want to move at pace. But we cannot stop there, and for the benefit of this House—I know colleagues are aware of this—let me say that there will be a second economic crime Bill, a follow-on Bill in the next parliamentary Session, with further measures. We simply cannot get all the measures in right now. We have focused on the ones that will have the greatest impact and enablement.
In respect of the Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Act 2018, many of the problems that we face today are due to amendments made in the other place, and it has subsequently come to light that many of those amendments came from those who are acting for oligarchs and then legislating for loopholes. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the other place should listen very carefully to the elected House on this matter and make sure that this Bill, with these amendments, gets sent back here forthwith, without more loopholes being put in place by the other place, as they were years ago?
I wholeheartedly agree with my right hon. Friend on that. We could do a rerun of exactly what happened back in 2018, but, in the interests of time, we want to crack on with where we are going with this Bill. It will enable the greatest changes to the companies register since it was established nearly 200 years ago. Companies House will be reformed and we will verify the identity of every company director and beneficial owner. I know that Members of this House have been calling for that for a considerable time. No criminal or kleptocrat will be able to hide behind a UK shell company ever again—those infamous brass plates will go. This will be a boost to all legitimate businesses in the UK and, importantly, it will make it easier for them to get the information they need.
The next Bill will bring forward reforms to prevent the abuse of limited partnerships; new powers to seize crypto-assets from criminals—that is a new and emerging area where we have so much more to do; and measures to give businesses more confidence to share information on suspected money laundering. It will be a very substantial piece of legislation. I assure the House that we are already drafting that legislation and it will be brought forward as soon as we are able to do so and we can get the time in the House. Today’s Bill and our commitment to a second Bill will show that in this Government, we are all acting collectively and unitedly to root out the dirty money in our economy and, importantly, to hobble Putin and his cronies.
I welcome the indications that the Home Secretary has given of what will be in the Bill that will arrive, I hope, early in the next Session, but will she also consider the role of the enablers—lawyers, accountants, banks and others—who either condone or themselves facilitate much of the money laundering and financial crime?
I agree with the right hon. Lady, and I am also grateful to other Members who have not just highlighted this issue but given specific examples. A great deal of work is being done. It is important that we take a collective approach institutionally, and that our legal basis is sound and solid.
The Home Secretary is very generous in allowing so many interventions.
During the 2017 Parliament, the then Prime Minister appointed a tsar—for want of a better word—to fight corruption within the House, but over the years that role has become less effective. Does the Home Secretary think it should be re-established and refreshed, so that someone could really call out many of the issues that we know to be a problem in both the House of Commons and the House of Lords?
I thank the hon. Lady for highlighting the role of our anti-corruption tsar, my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose), who has been supporting the Government at every level. He has also supported me by helping with much of our work on illicit finance and economic crime. He comes to our roundtables, and spends a great deal of time dealing with matters concerning the City and transparency. I can therefore assure the House that we have that function up and running. We have a superb colleague supporting the Government on all those measures, and I am very grateful to him for his work.
Let me now explain the measures in the Bill in more detail. It sets a new global standard for transparency, which is thanks to the work of my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare, but it also takes the whole-of-Government approach that many Select Committee reports have called for—I think it fair to say that I have read a few of those reports produced by colleagues and friends—in that it contains several measures from several Departments. It creates a register of overseas entities to crack down on foreign criminals who use the UK property market to launder money. A foreign company that wishes to own land in the UK will be required to identify its beneficial owners and to register them with Companies House. Once a company is registered, an overseas entity identity number will be provided, and that entity will be required to update its information annually.
I welcome the measures that my right hon. Friend is introducing, but many Members fear that people who have already bought their properties through a discreet structure will sell them before the measures take effect. Will she look carefully at amendment 64, which Mr Speaker has graciously accepted—a manuscript amendment—and which would effectively prevent people from doing that by means of a prohibition through the Land Registry?
As the right hon. Lady knows, the Bill provides exemptions that Secretaries of State would be able to use in order not to require an entity to be on the register. One of them relates to
“the economic wellbeing of the United Kingdom”.
Many of us, across parties—and I thank Ministers for being so constructive in this regard—fear that that could drive a coach and horses through the entire legislation. Is this another amendment that the right hon. Lady is looking at, or would she care to simply accept it?
At this stage, I am outlining the measures in the Bill. We have a Committee stage coming up, and we are considering all the details, because we absolutely must get this right and ensure that all the measures will be effective.
Overseas entities will be required to verify information regarding beneficial owners and managing officers before making an application for registering, or updating or amending information held on the register. That is very important, because the current system is out of date. We need to be able to keep the information fresh and agile, and ensure that the right checks and balances are constantly applied. They will have to provide evidence to underpin that verification, and Companies House will be able to query all information under the broader powers we will create in the second Bill. If a foreign company does not comply with the new obligations, or if it submits false filings, its managing officers can face criminal sanctions or civil sanctions. Criminal penalties in England and Wales could, depending on the offence committed, be a prison sentence of up to five years, or a fine. We are also introducing a mechanism by which financial penalties can be enforced without the need for criminal prosecution. More importantly, overseas companies will be restricted in their ability to sell or lease their land if they do not comply with the requirements.
I am grateful to the Home Secretary for giving way. This is naughty of me, as I have been in the Foreign Affairs Committee and I have not heard all that she has said. Would she acknowledge that clause 31 seems to set a very high bar by saying that it is an offence to give false information only if someone does so “knowingly or recklessly”? I apologise again for arriving late.
I have been in the Chamber since my right hon. Friend started speaking. She might be aware that over many years one of the problems with Companies House has been the capability of a small business to register a name, take our money by selling us something, not deliver the goods, then go into liquidation and set up again the next day with almost the same name, perhaps with “and sons” at the end of it. Can she reassure me that this Bill will deal with that issue, in the changes to Companies House?
My right hon. Friend has made an incredibly important point and used a good example to show how the system is being used and abused. I want to reiterate to the House that this is a two-stage Bill. The first stage will deal with many aspects of this, but the full Companies House reform will come in the second economic crime Bill, where that detail will all be worked through. It is important to say this is the first step to making a clean sweep in terms of how we update, in terms of accountability, and in terms of holding individuals and their enablers—their managers and all the others responsible—to account. The House has just heard me speak about the penalties.
There seems to be bit of a gap between the Home Secretary’s rhetoric and the reality. Last week, the Government were briefing the press that they were drawing up plans to seize British property and use it to house Ukrainians fleeing their homeland. Well, if there are only 50 Ukrainians, that is probably only one property. However, where is the freezing and seizing of assets here? All that this Bill is proposing is a relatively generous time limit on the publication of information. When are we going to get the steps that actually bite?
I have been speaking for a while and I would have hoped that the hon. Gentleman was listening to my remarks about the many tools that this Bill will bring in to enable asset confiscation, freezing and so on.
That brings me neatly on to unexplained wealth orders. The Bill removes key barriers to the use of unexplained wealth orders. Let me make it clear to people who think they can obstruct law enforcement investigations that that will end now through this Bill. I have already touched on the work of the National Crime Agency. Yes, we will be resourcing it and yes, there is more to do; we are very open and honest about that, and we have to be. We will reform the costs rule so that agencies acting to protect the public will be protected from substantial legal costs when they have acted reasonably in their investigation. The maximum period that a property can be frozen while unexplained wealth orders are in place will be extended, allowing the full force of the law and proper investigation.
Unexplained wealth orders will also be more effective against those who hold property in the UK through trusts. That is another complex entity that tends to lead to complex ownership schemes. Individuals will no longer be able to hide behind opaque shell companies, trusts and foundations. We will do everything in our power to counter the unwillingness of kleptocrats to provide reliable information. These reforms will have an immediate dissuasive effect.
I support the measures in this Bill, but it all hinges on enforcement. Can my right hon. Friend explain why unexplained wealth orders have been used so little? What research has she done with other countries? The Criminal Assets Bureau in Ireland, in particular, has a much higher success rate in pursuing unexplained wealth orders, tracking down these people and prosecuting them.
We cannot compare London with certain other countries and economies, and there are well-known barriers to the application and utilisation of unexplained wealth orders. Much of the wealth is legal, and individuals tie our law enforcement system in knots, exposing it to huge costs, including legal costs. The purpose of this reform is to change the entire way in which UWOs are operationalised, and to give law enforcement agencies the legal basis, legal powers and protections they need to go after many of these individuals, as the current system has stopped them doing so.
I understand that the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy has put forward the idea of having an enforcement unit at Companies House. Will that be available for individuals who want to make allegations of false information on the register, or is there some other mechanism by which we will be able to investigate and press the case?
With this Bill, we are speaking very clearly about known individuals, known oligarchs. This legislation enables the Government, the NCA and other agencies and aspects of Government to focus on those individuals, which is our priority. The second economic crime Bill is currently being drafted. It links to Companies House reform, which will take slightly longer, and will cover many of those wider issues about reporting and how to join up Companies House and law enforcement.