Tuesday 15 March 2022
[Geraint Davies in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered Commonwealth Day.
I am delighted to work under your chairmanship again, Mr Davies. We have, for many years, worked together on various things, both here and in Europe. I am delighted also to see so many colleagues joining us to celebrate the Commonwealth.
If I may, Mr Davies, I will start on a sad note. Emilia Monjowa Lifaka, chair of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, unfortunately passed away, as you know, in sad circumstances. She was from Cameroon—a remarkable lady who was one of those people who go through life setting the room alight. She was absolutely sweet. Her death caused a vacuum, which has now been filled temporarily by me.
I am delighted to introduce the debate for a load of reasons. First, the Commonwealth, as my colleagues know, is 111 years old. It is one of the oldest—dare I say it?—non-governmental bodies in the world, and it has enormous respect. For the record, 17,000 parliamentarians, 180 Parliaments, 54 countries and 2.4 billion people are part of the family that we call the Commonwealth.
This week is very pertinent because yesterday we had the Commonwealth service in Westminster Abbey, which is always interesting. I am sitting next to a couple of my friends—my right hon. Friends the Members for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) and for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale (David Mundell)—and we are delighted that this week we have the Westminster Seminar, which is ongoing, as we speak, in the Attlee suite. That seminar is 70 years old this year. The Commonwealth, as a family, has shown time and again that it breaks every record.
As chairman of the UK branch of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association and international vice-chairman, I am always grateful for the support that the House and the other place give. Every party in the House, and every Member, is an enormous supporter of the Commonwealth, and I am grateful for all the work that colleagues do—not just here in the United Kingdom, but overseas—in welcoming delegates, wherever they come from across the Commonwealth, and going on trips, sometimes at short notice, which can be fairly onerous as we know. You, Mr Davies, have been involved, and I am grateful for the time and effort you have put in over the years.
Was yesterday’s Commonwealth Day just a symbol or an annual occasion? Some people may think it was a bit of both, but let us put the matter in perspective. The world is watching in horror and disgust as the tragic death and destruction in Ukraine unfold. That is why the peaceful symbolism of the Commonwealth has become more important than ever. For anyone who saw the moving service in Westminster Abbey yesterday, or was lucky enough to be present, as I and colleagues here were, the true meaning and the lasting value of the Commonwealth shone through.
It was terribly sad for us all that Her Majesty the Queen, in her 70th year on the throne—she has provided enormous support, stability and guidance over all those years—was not able to attend the service. We were obviously delighted to see His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales and Her Royal Highness the Duchess of Cornwall, and Their Royal Highnesses the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. That was very special indeed, but I know that we all send Her Majesty our heartfelt wishes to get better soon.
In normal circumstances, the Queen is an absolute stickler for duty. I suspect her doctors probably said, “Look, stay at home,” but I know one thing: she does not give in easily. However, the decades of loyal service are catching up with her, and because she has only recently recovered from covid, I think she has, more than any other person, an excuse for saying, “I can’t attend.” I am convinced, however, that she can play, and will continue to play, a highly influential role in the development and success of the family that we call the Commonwealth. I hope colleagues will join me in that, for that is what the Commonwealth really is—a family. It is no cosy club, let alone, God forbid, a political movement.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. My hon. and gallant Friend has alluded to the fact that the Commonwealth can be regarded as a family—I have two brothers, so I know that, occasionally, there can be tension in a family—and I applaud him for his excellent work with the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, of which I have some direct experience. I know that people get more out of the Commonwealth than they put in.
Does my hon. and gallant Friend agree that the jurisdictions that we are able to help from this place find it immeasurably helpful to share not only democracy, but also the same values, legal system and language, to the benefit of what was once the British empire?
I would like thank my hon. Friend on three counts: first, for his courtesy in intervening, as he raises a very important question; secondly, for all the work he has done on behalf of the Commonwealth; and thirdly for the overseas trips he has undertaken very nobly.
The point my hon. Friend makes is absolutely right. There are hiccups; in any family, there will be hiccups. Hopefully this year we will welcome back the Maldives and Zimbabwe. We resolved an issue with Fiji, and they came back into the Commonwealth. We do not like to exclude anybody, as my hon. Friend alludes to. We try to work with any country that has an issue to make sure that they understand what we can do to help them, and maybe how they can help us. It has been a very successful formula; we have never completely excluded anybody. Even in the worst days, with some of the things we have seen over the years—I am a little older than my hon. Friend—we have never done that. We have kept things going. Therefore, my hon. Friend is absolutely right that this is an amazing organisation, based on mutual trust as much as anything.
The Commonwealth is a genuine association of nations with worthy aims and the mission to improve the lives of all its members and their citizens. We are talking about very big numbers across the world. Commonwealth Day was observed and celebrated by people in Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, the Americas, the Pacific and, of course, here in Europe.
The Commonwealth of Nations, which is its proper title, has 54 nations. It is impossible to open an atlas without finding somewhere the footprint of that extraordinary organisation. On the continent of Africa are Botswana, Cameroon, The Gambia, Ghana, Kenya, the Kingdom of Eswatini, Lesotho, Malawi, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia, Nigeria, Rwanda, Seychelles, Sierra Leone, South Africa, Uganda, the United Republic of Tanzania, and Zambia. To the east, we have Bangladesh, Brunei, Malaysia, Maldives, Pakistan, Singapore and Sri Lanka. In the opposite direction, over the Atlantic, there are Antigua, Barbuda, the Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, Canada, the Dominican Republic, Grenada, Guyana, Jamaica, St. Lucia, Saint Kitts and Nevis, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, not to mention, of course, Trinidad and Tobago. Across the other way, towards the Pacific, we have Australia, Fiji, Kiribati, Nauru, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu and Vanuatu. It is a really incredible worldwide membership.
Some of us may be very lucky and hopefully get away to the beaches of Cyprus and Malta this year, provided there are no further problems. Both of them, which comes a surprise to some people, are members of the Commonwealth. The Commonwealth occupies one quarter of the world’s landmass, and is home to 2.6 billion people. To put that vast figure into perspective, here are some timely comparisons. Russia has a population of 146 million. Even the former Soviet Union, which Vladimir Putin wants to put back together, apparently, would only account for 300 million people. The Commonwealth is enormous: big not only in size but, I am glad to say, big in ideas.
We are committed to the institution of world peace and the promotion of representative democracy. We stand for individual liberty, the pursuit of equality and the opposition of racism. We only fight discrimination, poverty, ignorance and disease—I want to get that message across. We want a safer planet. A democratic planet. A free world with free trade and the freedom to express ideas and the pursuit of common goals.
At this stage I would like to mention my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke and her phenomenal work with the Women and Equalities Committee across the world. I am so grateful for all the work she has done. I have a feeling, if I dare say this, that the Kremlin would not understand a word of this, and I also have the feeling that they should learn.
The Commonwealth is far more than a throwback to the days of the British empire—that is a silly myth. Although it is perfectly true that many of the great Commonwealth countries were once British colonies, look at them now: independently governed, democratically elected, not owing their lifeblood or their existence to a long-gone empire. Thirty-four of its countries are republics; 15 others are Commonwealth realms where our Queen, the Head of the Commonwealth, is also the Head of State; and five countries—Brunei, Eswatini, Lesotho, Malaysia and Tonga—are monarchies, with kings and queens in their own right.
My hon. and gallant Friend is making an excellent speech; those who have heard him speak before will not be surprised by that. Does he agree that there is quite a young population within the Commonwealth? From my understanding, about 60% of people in the Commonwealth are below the age of 29, and therefore the next generation has seen the benefits of being a partner within the Commonwealth family.
I thank my hon. Friend again, because that is a very good intervention. He is absolutely right: this is a very young organisation. If we take India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and a lot of Africa, these are very young people. As you well know, Mr Davies, the younger you get people, the more you can influence them, and democracy is something we fight for and live for. We want to foster that, and it is taught in schools. I have just come back from Pakistan, where I was with Stephen Twigg, the secretary-general of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association. We went to see schools where they teach children of six and seven about what it means to be part of Pakistan, and about democracy and the way it works. We were surrounded by MPs from Pakistan who came out to talk to the kids as well. It was a great thing.
Saying that we are a family takes in every age group, ethnicity, colour, creed and religion, and that is the beauty of the Commonwealth: it is all-encompassing, and age is just one facet that we love to deal with. I am very grateful to colleagues that the Westminster Seminar series is looking at this part of it. We sit there in the Attlee suite, and one of the things we embrace is the ability for young people to aspire. Nothing gives me more pleasure than to find somebody from Tonga who has gone to Canada, somebody from Canada who has gone to India, somebody from India who has gone to New Zealand, or somebody from New Zealand who has gone to South Africa to work within our family. Our scholarship and fellowship schemes are quite remarkable.
As I say, these countries all do their own thing, but they prefer to stay signed up to the ideals of the Commonwealth. Any Commonwealth country can leave. We started with eight countries when Her Majesty came to the throne; we are 54 now. Nobody leaves—they join. Why? Because they know what they are getting. What is on the tin is in the tin, and they understand that. It is funny how many countries want to join us. Sometimes, like with Mozambique or Namibia, people might say, “Well, it is a bit tenuous.” Rubbish! We are delighted for countries to join whose creation Britain has had a part in—probably not quite the part they wanted, but we had a part in their creation, and they want to join us. That is important. There are only two Commonwealth countries that did not have any connection with the empire. Namibia is one; the other, of course, is Rwanda, which has gone through a frightening history and is now an enormously valued part of the family.
Slowly, patiently and effectively, the family of the Commonwealth is spreading the doctrine of parliamentary democracy across the world. It works at different speeds in different places, understandably, but there is no doubt in my mind—or, I hope, in the mind of any Member of either House—that it does a good job. We reject dictatorships. We seek agreement through debate, with the active participation of the people via the ballot box. That is what we do as an international parliamentary association and as its individual nation branches, including the one right here in Westminster, which is phenomenal: I thank my colleagues and Members of the other place so much for the work they do. The network is registered throughout the world, and recognised throughout the world as an invaluable source. It brings people together and nurtures co-operation. If it did not exist now, we would certainly never invent it.
But there is a problem—one that, sad to say, the Government at the moment have not been able to address or recognise. For reasons that make little sense to me, the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association is a registered charity. That goes back into the mists of time; I do not know why it was set up that way in the first place. That would be fine if the CPA were purely in the business of raising funds for worthy causes, but we do not need the sorts of tax breaks that go with charitable status—it is not what we do. We are serious players in a serious process of effective diplomacy across the world. We have something to offer that is proven, practical and effective. We help all parliamentarians in the Commonwealth. We aim for best practice; we teach best practice; we want good governance and know how to get it. That is our strength. It is surely high time that the CPA is given the status it richly deserves.
All we are asking for is legal status in the UK similar to that enjoyed by comparable organisations. We do not want to be any different from them. We just want it changed so that we are comparable, for example, with the Parliamentary Assembly of the Francophonie, a group of parliamentary nations that share the French language—Belgium, Canada, Belize, Cambodia—in a mini Gallic commonwealth. Such legal recognition would enable the CPA to have more positive influence.
I do not think that is much to ask and the time has come. The former Lord Speaker, Baroness D’Souza, introduced a Bill in the other place, the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association (Status) Bill, which is working its way here. A few weeks back, I launched a ten-minute rule Bill, the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association (Status) (No. 2) Bill, with exactly the same wording, to get the legal status recognised. The enthusiasm for change unites all parties throughout both Houses of this Parliament. Mr Speaker is an enormous advocate of the Commonwealth, as is the Lord Speaker, who spoke at the Westminster Seminar yesterday. I am very grateful to Mr Speaker, who has been incredible in the past 24 hours, appearing at almost every event. It would be fitting to pay tribute to the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association in Her Majesty the Queen’s jubilee year. She has presided over the incredible growth of the organisation.
I know that Ministers have so far reacted to the idea without enthusiasm, even though it will not cost a penny. It will make no fundamental change to this place and no difference to the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office. It will make no difference to the way we operate. We will operate in exactly the same way, but it will make a massive difference to the way that we are seen in the world, and the organisations we can become part of. I say gently to the Minister that I sincerely hope we can help change the Government’s views on a fairly small but fundamental change. These are very dangerous days for world peace. We should show leadership as a nation and support all efforts to promote democracy, not just in the Commonwealth but obviously elsewhere. The alternative is as brutal and deadly as Russia proves hour by hour. That is what we do not want to see.
The Speaker, for the first time, is leading his own delegation to India in a couple of weeks, about which we are absolutely delighted. It is right that the Speaker of the House of Commons should be able to lead delegations, and I hope colleagues agree that is a welcome change. I know colleagues will join me in thanking the CPA team in the House, led by chief executive Jon Davies and Helen Haywood, which looks after CPA interests in this country and across the world.
I would also like to thank Stephen Twigg, who is the secretary-general of CPA international, based across the road from here, for the work that he and his team have done. It has not been easy for either team over the past two years. We have had to keep everything going and keep in touch with everybody round the world, when we could not go anywhere. The frustration for me and Stephen was that we could not send colleagues or get into delegations, with everything done by Zoom. Last week in Pakistan we met a female MP who said to Stephen:
“Gosh! You are a lot taller than you look on Zoom.”
That probably summed up the past two years. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke knows, that was Shandana, who is chair of the women’s caucus and forum, the Commonwealth Women Parliamentarians.
Lastly, it has been a great privilege to be part of the CPA for a decade. I follow on from a line of very noble people who have led the CPA UK branch, and it has been a remarkable experience for us all. One thing I will never cease to be amazed by is that, everywhere I go in the Commonwealth, I realise that people are truly grateful for the work we do on benchmarking, for the way that we do our academies, and for the way we work with other Parliaments through Clerks, through Hansard and through all the other things that we take for granted but which so many other places do not. It is what gives us our strength. It means never resting, never stopping, growing the Commonwealth, and making sure we do it in the name of democracy and in the name of the people whom we represent: the people of the world.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset (Mr Liddell-Grainger) on setting the scene so well. His deep interest in this subject is apparent from his comments, and I thank him for all the hard work he does.
The hon. Member referred to the work of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association. I endorse his comments about what the CPA does and the importance of having it in place. He also referred twice to parliamentary democracy and how important it is to set an example, which the Commonwealth clearly does. As we are all reminded every morning and night on our TV screens, some parts of the world are fighting for their democracy; we think of Ukraine, as the hon. Member rightly said at the beginning. We concur with his comments about Russia, but we are greatly encouraged by the Ukraine military’s spirit and the courage that people are showing against Russian aggression. We are proud of that.
We are also very proud to be part of the Commonwealth of 54 nations. The Commonwealth spans 54 independent countries, and about 2.6 billion people—out of some 7.9 billion globally—live in the Commonwealth. That tells us about the size and importance of the Commonwealth, and about what it does. I share people’s adoration of the Queen, who by her very Christian faith and life sets an example for us all in this House and across the world. She is also the Queen of 15 Commonwealth nations, whereas five other countries have their own monarch and 34 are republics. The Commonwealth makes up a quarter of the world’s landmass. Such stats illustrate the importance of the Commonwealth, its size and the role that it plays across the world.
Along with India and Australia, the giant of the Commonwealth group is Canada. I well recall emigrating to Canada as an 18-year-old—it was not yesterday. Canada was the country where I was a landed immigrant for a year. I was a bricklayer there; it was good to experience, as a young person, what the Commonwealth has in Canada and what it can offer. One of the great things about the Commonwealth is being able to enjoy that. Canada is the world’s second largest country by area, but the beauty of the Commonwealth is that we also embrace the smaller states to which the hon. Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset referred— states such as the Pacific islands of Nauru, Samoa, Tuvalu, Vanuatu, as well as Dominica, Antigua and Barbados in the Caribbean. This great Commonwealth represents a cosmopolitan world through countries large and small.
As a Commonwealth of nations, we believe in democracy, freedom and a common purpose to extend the arm of friendship to many countries across the world. It is mutually beneficial to be a member, and the combined GDP of the 54 countries is some £7.5 trillion—twice the size of Japan’s, but some way behind that of the US. Trade with the Commonwealth accounted for some 9.1% of the UK’s total trade in 2019, and UK exports to the Commonwealth were worth around £65 billion. That tells us that the importance of the Commonwealth lies in our trade and in nations coming together. Imports from the Commonwealth were worth around £64 billion, so the value of what we sell them is comparable to the value of what they sell us.
It is clear that it is a good thing to do business with friendly neighbours. Although this is not a Brexit debate, it has always been my hope that we can be separate yet distinct in Europe with our friendship. The despicable treatment of my country, Northern Ireland, as a political football has disabused me of that notion. Were we to treat one of the Commonwealth countries with such malice and contempt, the world would rightly call us out. Unfortunately, Northern Ireland’s treatment by Europe has been widely accepted and continues—but that is a discussion for another day as it is not the subject of this debate, although it is important to put it on the record.
Now, more than ever, the arm of friendship should be extended within our Commonwealth family to ensure that we are getting and giving the best of those with whom we share the commonality of the Commonwealth. We share many cultures, much history and even, in many cases, the same language. We must also use our position to encourage members that do not allow religious freedom to do so. The Minister knows that I often speak about that and although I suspect that she has already prepared the answer to the question that I will ask, it is important to put it on the record.
According to the Pew Research Centre, 70% of people who live in Commonwealth countries face high or extremely high Government restrictions on their right to freedom of religion or belief. Worse still, some 88% of those people face high or very high social hostility simply for holding minority beliefs. I declare an interest: I am chair of the all-party parliamentary group on international freedom of religion or belief. As we celebrate the Commonwealth, will the Minister tell me, the House and those watching the debate what has been done to address the persecution of those in this great Commonwealth who have Christian beliefs, other beliefs and, indeed, no beliefs? I would like there to be freedom of religion for all—and I know, without even asking, that the Minister does as well. It is important that one of our pleas should be for that to be improved, and I hope that it will be.
I will also make another honest plea. As we approach St Patrick’s day on Thursday, I am ever mindful that the Republic of Ireland is not part of the Commonwealth. Would it not be great if they were? It is not too late to ask them—we ask them regularly. We want them to consider that gently but honestly, as friends. I see membership as something that could be advantageous to them and to us. Their inclusion would make the Commonwealth bigger, greater and better. I ask the Minister this: has there been any opportunity to see whether the Republic of Ireland would join the nations brought together by this great multicultural Commonwealth and by a common desire?
This great challenge must be met head on. I urge the Minister to take the baton of that challenge and work sensitively and effectively with all our Commonwealth brethren to bring about religious freedom for all. Trade is a wonderful positive point, but we must all ensure that we exert any positive influence that we can, at any opportunity, to bring about change.
I am eternally grateful for the leadership of Her Majesty the Queen in matters of faith—I know that those are a priority for her. We can and should follow the example of that wonderful lady by pressing for religious freedom for all. We can do more with the body and the mechanism of the Commonwealth to improve lives, but we must also take the opportunity, in this dark world, to shine a light at any and every opportunity. The goodness of the Commonwealth, in what it does and what it can do, can help this country to be a brighter shining light for all.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I am delighted to have co-sponsored the debate with my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset (Mr Liddell-Grainger), and I congratulate him on securing it on Commonwealth Day.
As a member of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, I appreciate the importance of the interconnected nature of the Commonwealth and the need to keep and strengthen the strong cultural, trade and diplomatic relationships between the countries of the Commonwealth. I am looking forward to strengthening our sporting ties this summer, when we will welcome people from across the Commonwealth to Staffordshire, particularly the west midlands, for the Commonwealth games. I welcome the Minister to her place. I know that she shares my enthusiasm for the games, as the mountain-biking event will take place in Cannock Chase forest, which borders our two Staffordshire constituencies.
I am honoured to have been appointed as the Prime Minister’s trade envoy to Kenya, one of the leading Commonwealth nations in east Africa. The close Commonwealth connections between the UK and Kenya mean that it is one of the first countries that the UK has done a trade deal with in this area following our exit from the European Union. I was pleased to be at the signing of the UK-Kenya economic partnership agreement, which I believe will provide continuity for UK businesses and help to create more jobs, both at home and abroad. From my recent visits to Kenya to meet British businesses working in east Africa and Kenyan Government Ministers, the importance of this trade agreement for our mutual prosperity is very clear. Such trade deals are being replicated across the Commonwealth, increasing economic prosperity for all Commonwealth citizens.
Like my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset, I attended the Commonwealth service at Westminster Abbey yesterday with the Prime Minister and the royal family. I sat alongside a number of African MPs who were here this week in London to attend the Westminster Seminar. I was struck by how united the Commonwealth is in its aims for the future and how immense the potential is to tackle the great global challenges we all face, including one of the biggest threats to our current way of life: climate change.
I attended the COP26 summit last year in Glasgow to meet with parliamentarians from around the world who are all so dedicated to delivering sustainable development goals and looking at ways to promote international conservation. It was clear from talking to those MPs that there is international will to tackle climate change. In particular, there were strong commitments from Commonwealth nations. I welcomed the Glasgow Climate Pact, which includes a plan to phase down the use of unabated coal power, as well as the Global Methane Pledge, which was signed by over 100 countries, committing at the summit to cutting their methane emissions by 30%. These steps will lower greenhouse gas emissions and help to reduce the use of fossil fuels, which ultimately will help us tackle climate change.
As ever, it is vital that these agreements are what make a real difference on the ground. I note that the COP26 President, my right hon. Friend the Member for Reading West (Alok Sharma), recently said at COP26,
“This is our last hope…Our best chance of building a brighter future.”
I welcome the fact that he retains the COP presidency until November this year, so that we can continue to make progress on tackling climate change. I believe this is a real opportunity to build on the plans to reach net zero by 2050; as a global Britain, we should continue to use the COP presidency as a platform to protect our planet further.
Climate change and damage to the environment are occurring now as I speak here in Parliament. In the last minute alone, we have lost 30 football pitches of forest and at present, over 1 million species are facing extinction. Those are staggering figures. The reality is that climate change is not just about statistics or abstract concepts of temperature modelling: it impacts the lives of people every day living in the Commonwealth. Sadly, it is only set to get worse in the future if we do not work together to tackle it.
I am sure that, like me, many Members saw Tuvalu’s Foreign Minister Simon Kofe’s very emotive speech at COP26. He said, “We are sinking.” The camera then panned behind him to show that the island where he was standing was actually under water. As they say, a picture really does speak a thousand words. Climate change and rising sea levels are a problem not just for Tuvalu but for British overseas territories and other countries throughout the Commonwealth.
Also at COP26, the UK launched the Clean Green initiative to help developing countries take advantage of green technology and grow their economies sustainably. That included a doubling of UK-aid-funded green investments to more than £3 billion over five years. It provides new guarantees to support clean infrastructure projects in the Commonwealth and throughout the developing world.
One of the obvious opportunities for renewable energy is in east Africa with solar. Let us face it: Africa has a lot more sun than we do in London. On my first visit to Kenya as trade envoy last year, I saw first hand the transformative impact that renewables can have in Africa. I toured east Africa’s largest solar plant—Malindi—which was built by the British firm Globeleq using $32 million of financing from CDC Group, now British International Investment. The plant’s 157 solar panels began powering a clean energy transition earlier this year. That is a great example of where the UK-Kenya economic partnership is already delivering clean, green infrastructure on the ground in Kenya today and is the type of collaboration I would like to see replicated across the Commonwealth.
We have also seen deforestation throughout the Commonwealth; sadly, it is exacerbating climate change. As the chair of the sub-committee on the work of the Independent Commission for Aid Impact, I have recently held an inquiry on international climate finance and how UK aid is used for halting deforestation and preventing irreversible biodiversity loss. We had a recent oral evidence session with Lord Goldsmith as the Minister for the environment at the FCDO. I asked the Minister how the Government see the role of tackling deforestation and protecting biodiversity, specifically in relation to reducing poverty. I was pleased to hear the Minister say that the Government are now actively looking for nature-based solutions when planning Official Development Assistance-funded projects.
Tackling deforestation and planting trees is one of the areas where the Commonwealth is leading the world. The Queen’s Commonwealth Canopy, launched at the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in 2015, is an excellent example of how all Commonwealth countries are collaborating to make a difference to our planet. This is a flagship international conservation project and comprises millions of trees, from the Maldives to Malawi, from St Lucia to Singapore. It will eventually link Commonwealth nations across the globe, which demonstrates the power of the Commonwealth working together for the common good.
The project is also being replicated here in Great Britain. Earlier this month, I was delighted to plant my first tree for the platinum jubilee at Flash Ley Community Primary School in my Stafford constituency. Not only will that fruit tree teach local children about caring for the environment, but it also forms part of the Queen’s Green Canopy, which aims to encourage every community throughout the United Kingdom to plant trees to mark Her Majesty’s 70th year on the throne and expand the tree canopy in the Commonwealth. I encourage all my colleagues to do the same and especially the Minister, as my next-door neighbour in Staffordshire.
In conclusion, I applaud the efforts of all countries in the Commonwealth that are aiming to create a sustainable future that is more green. The Queen, as the Head of the Commonwealth, said it best in her recent Commonwealth statement. She said we must:
“endeavour to ensure the Commonwealth remains an influential force for good in our world for many generations to come.”
I absolutely agree.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies, and to take part in this debate. I congratulate my hon. Friends the Members for Stafford (Theo Clarke) and for Bridgwater and West Somerset (Mr Liddell-Grainger) on sponsoring the debate. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset in particular for the work that he does as chair of the UK branch of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, and for the work that he is doing on the international front, stepping in, as is his wont, to challenging situations and carrying that work forward with his usual good humour and disposition.
Last week, I had the pleasure of taking part in a Commonwealth day celebration in another Parliament. I was on the steps of the Lesotho Parliament in Maseru with the Speaker of that Parliament and the President of the Senate, along with our excellent and newly established British high commissioner in Lesotho. It was heartening to see the value placed on the Commonwealth by the Members of that Parliament and the tributes made, as they have been this morning, to Her Majesty the Queen and her commitment to the Commonwealth.
As other Members have referenced, the Commonwealth ranges in scale from countries the size of India and the geographic size of Canada to the very small, landlocked Lesotho. People in Lesotho are clear that their country is as much in the heart of Her Majesty the Queen as any of the other members of the Commonwealth, and her 70 years of service were celebrated as much in Maseru as they are being celebrated here in London and in the rest of the UK.
That visit—I know you are familiar with Commonwealth Parliamentary Association work, Mr Davies—was part of a series of contacts that have taken place between the CPA UK and the Lesotho Parliament to enable parliamentarians here and the CPA UK to support the Lesotho Parliament to develop and improve processes, and to learn from each other. The Lesotho Parliament is facing a situation that will be new to certainly all Conservative Members: there is a conflict within the ruling party and apparently a challenge to the Prime Minister, and there will potentially be a vote of confidence in Parliament. We were able to have a full discussion about how such matters are handled in our own parliamentary system.
I am being slightly flippant, but a serious discussion took place on how processes in that Parliament can evolve. The CPA UK has done a great deal of work that has fed into the National Reforms Authority, which has been established in Lesotho to try to take forward the omnibus Bill, which will reform that Parliament. That highlights the very important work that the CPA UK is doing not just in terms of what my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset does in this Parliament, but in working with other Parliaments—peer-to-peer working between Members of this Parliament and other Parliaments, and learning from each other. There are certainly things that we can learn from what is done in Lesotho and all the other members of the Commonwealth.
This is an appropriate time to pay tribute, as others have, to Jon Davies, the chief executive of the CPA UK, and his great team. We were accompanied on our visit to Lesotho and South Africa by Felicity Herrmann—she is responsible for many of the partnerships between this Parliament and other Parliaments—and others, such as Victoria Bower. They do an excellent job supporting members in their activities.
I led the delegation, and while we were there we met the Deputy Speaker of the South African Parliament. He made exactly the same points that my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset made about the status of the CPA. I want to reinforce to the Minister that that is a really important issue, particularly for African members of the Commonwealth, which feel that the CPA’s charitable status demeans it in terms of the status that it should be afforded.
It was clear to me—I am sure the Minister and her colleagues are aware of this—that the position in South Africa vis-à-vis the UK is not exactly as we would want it to be. For example, the South African view of the Russian war with Ukraine is not the same as ours. It is very important that we have good working relations with South African politicians. South Africa is a hugely influential country, both in that part of the world and globally, and therefore we have to take it seriously when its Parliament says, “We don’t like the way in which the CPA is constituted.” I would be grateful if the Minister would take on board not only the point I am making, but the point made by my hon. Friend.
In his intervention, our hon. Friend the Member for South West Hertfordshire (Mr Mohindra) referred to the Commonwealth as a family, while the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) used this debate to raise his concern about faith issues. In my capacity as co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on HIV and AIDS, I say to the Minister that we need to use the fact that we are in the Commonwealth family to put pressure on other members of the Commonwealth and raise the issue of HIV/AIDS and their response to it. Some 60% of people living with HIV live in Commonwealth countries, while one in four men in Caribbean countries where homosexuality is criminalised has HIV. There is a great deal to be done.
Thanks to the advances in medicine over the past 40 years, today there is no reason why anyone with HIV should live a shorter life than someone without it. Crucially, we have the tools to radically slow new infections through education and prevention measures. However, the ability to prevent the spread of HIV is seriously compromised by punitive laws, discriminatory and brutal policing, and denial of access to justice for people with and at risk of acquiring HIV, which is fuelling the epidemic.
The issue at the centre of international efforts to deal with this pandemic is a crisis of human rights law in many Commonwealth countries, not the lack of medicines. There is now overwhelming evidence of the link between the criminalisation of homosexuality and the rate of HIV infection. To end new diagnoses of HIV by 2030, which this Government are committed to doing, the punitive laws against LGBT+ communities in the Commonwealth must be reformed. We must not be afraid to raise this issue with Commonwealth family members—being a family is about being able to raise difficult and challenging issues.
As we have heard this morning, the Commonwealth is a really positive institution. Countries such as Rwanda and Mozambique have joined it. However, we must be clear with our friends and family members that we want to see them reform their own procedures and customs. On that basis, we can look forward to a very positive future for the Commonwealth. I certainly want to do my bit as part of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association in the UK. I encourage all my colleagues in this Parliament and the devolved Parliaments to take part—it is a really worthwhile opportunity.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship in this important debate, Mr Davies. It is absolutely right that we should hold this debate, secured by my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset (Mr Liddell-Grainger), to mark Commonwealth day. Yesterday, in Westminster Abbey, we celebrated the rich diversity of the Commonwealth; today, we are hearing from right hon. and hon. Members from across the House about the important practical role that the Commonwealth plays. I declare a slight interest: I am a member of the CPA along with my hon. Friend, and a trustee of the Westminster Foundation for Democracy.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale (David Mundell) set out very clearly that one of the many values of the Commonwealth, and in particular the CPA, is in enabling Parliaments to talk to each other and work together to improve. I say “together” quite pointedly, because we have as much to learn as we have knowledge to impart, which is very important.
We live in an increasingly interconnected world. The situation in Ukraine shows that, as do the pandemic and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Theo Clarke) said, climate change. Whether it is equality, opportunity or religious freedom, which the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) mentioned, so many issues are interconnected, and organisations such as the Commonwealth, but particularly the Commonwealth, can play such a powerful role.
The Commonwealth continues to resonate because it reflects that interconnectivity between 54 equal sovereign nations around the world—54 nations that share values that are fundamental to our way of life. We are free, democratic societies that want to live in peace and to prosper, and we take action to support each other in achieving those aims. My hon. Friend the Member for Stafford mentioned the Commonwealth games. Nothing embodies the Commonwealth more than athletes from across the Commonwealth coming together, as they will in Birmingham in July this year, to demonstrate the purposefulness behind the Commonwealth organisation.
Too often, when we speak about the Commonwealth, we talk about economic ties. They are important—the Commonwealth provides significant opportunities for global Britain to trade more freely, and the Government have been very successful in putting their words into action with the free trade agreements with Australia, New Zealand and Singapore and the ongoing negotiations with India, and by looking to boost ties with countries such as Canada. That is very real and important. However, for me, it is the democratic ties that are so important, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale said.
We have opportunities to work together to improve our democracies. It has never been more important in this world for us to strengthen democracies, and for this Parliament, as well as Parliaments throughout the United Kingdom and the world, to understand their role and their obligation to strengthen democratic ties and, fundamentally, to strengthen our democracies.
Within the Commonwealth, it is astonishing to see the very practical ways that countries can work together at parliamentary and, indeed, Government level. We have 11 member states that are committed—as, I am proud to say, our own Government are—to 12 years of education for women. We have an alliance of 34 Commonwealth nations that have joined together to look at ways to reduce plastics in our oceans. Those are practical ways in which Commonwealth countries can come together on policy issues that really matter to the future of our world.
Like other Members who have spoken, I want to pay particular tribute to the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association. When I joined Parliament, albeit it a number of years ago, I had not heard of the CPA, but over the ensuing decade and a half I have got to know it very well. I am deeply impressed by the way in which the CPA, not just here in Westminster but across the Commonwealth, is so dedicated to improving our democracy and the way democracies work, and to enabling us to learn from each other, as we are in this week’s Westminster Seminar. I am privileged to be leading a session on Thursday on how we can be better scrutineers of Governments. Having been a Government Minister and the Chair of a Select Committee, I am looking forward not only to talking about my experiences, but to hearing from other Members about how they effect good scrutiny in their jurisdictions.
As well as the CPA, Commonwealth Women Parliamentarians has a crucial role in a world where still only one in every four parliamentarians elected is a woman. We have a long way to go. In our own Parliament, there are twice as many men elected to the House of Commons as women, so anybody who thinks we have got this right needs to read some of the evidence; we still have a long way to go ourselves. By working together, Commonwealth women parliamentarians can share experiences, perhaps hold each other to account, and scrutinise each other on how we are trying to increase women’s parliamentary representation.
Across the Commonwealth, we are seeing significant action being taken. In the CWP Pacific region, women parliamentarians are using New Zealand as a crucial regional hub to increase women’s representation, and are highlighting notable role models. The Canadian region is working with civil society on non-political training for potential women candidates at provincial and municipal levels to encourage more women to stand for Parliament. That is something that our Parliament should be seriously considering, as we still have a real shortfall in the number of women who want to stand for election.
Curiously, our own region is called the British Islands and Mediterranean region. Basically, that is the United Kingdom plus a number of other quite scattered jurisdictions, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset set out. We are very focused on how we can use an important tool—gender-sensitive Parliament audits—to look at how good we are as a region at female representation. The research is clear that strong Parliaments are representative of their country’s people and, of course, more than 50% of people in our country are female. We can use gender-sensitive Parliament audits to identify how we can improve the way we encourage women to stand for election and retain them as elected representatives.
The States Assembly of Jersey implemented such an audit in 2018, and the Scottish Parliament has announced its plan to carry one out this year. I am hoping that we can do likewise here in the UK. I pay tribute to the work of the Women and Equalities Committee, which has looked at these issues in some detail. Indeed, four out of 13 Parliaments in our region have completed gender-sensitive Parliament audits.
I reiterate the comments made by my right hon. and hon. Friends about the status of the CPA. Its charitable status is becoming a real problem, and the Minister needs to take that on board. It is seen by many of our members as absolutely inappropriate. It does not sit well alongside the purpose of the organisation. The CPA needs to be recognised in the same way that so many other international organisations are recognised, and charitable status is not right. It would be such a shame, given the immense support that Ministers give to the CPA, if we could not resolve this rather administrative problem. I pay particular tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset, who is the chair of the CPA in the UK and, indeed, on a Commonwealth basis at the moment, for all the work he has done on that. A number of hon. and right hon. Members have paid tribute to the staff of the CPA, and I echo that.
In closing, I will make reference to a remark that Her Majesty made in her message on Commonwealth day. She said that Commonwealth countries should continue
“to be a point of connection, cooperation and friendship.”
Those words are absolutely right. For me, the Commonwealth is literally part of my family. Half of my family is Canadian. I am a proud mother of three Canadian children—joint citizens. It is those family ties, that connectivity, that binds us together—most importantly of all, under the leadership of Her Majesty.
It is good to see you in the Chair, Mr Davies. I too am grateful to the hon. Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset (Mr Liddell-Grainger) not only for bringing forward the debate, but also for speaking with such great authority and knowledge on the Commonwealth.
As we have heard, the Commonwealth brings together 54 countries and 2.4 billion people around the world. It is a network connecting many of the fastest-growing nations on Earth, with strong ties in language, culture, values and mutual appreciation. Of course there are also the famous Commonwealth games, which is one of the few opportunities for athletes in Scotland to represent Scotland under the Saltire; I am sure that the right hon. Member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale (David Mundell) enjoys that just as much as I do.
The Commonwealth also has profound origins in colonialism and can be seen as a direct descendant of the British empire. Many critics of the Commonwealth have described it as an institute for Britain to forget about the British empire’s genocides, exploitation, dominance and oppression of post-colonial countries.
Today, Commonwealth countries are still waiting for an official apology for atrocities committed by Britain during its colonial rule of those countries. For example, there was the massacre at Amritsar in northern India in 1919, when British troops fired on thousands of innocent and unarmed men, women and children during a peaceful protest. Over 100 years later, Britain has still refused to offer an official apology, having only acknowledged that the massacre took place. This Government should offer India and the people of Amritsar the closure they deserve by issuing a formal apology—something they have requested for years.
Numerous aspects of the Commonwealth demonstrate it is not the welcoming body that we all hoped and imagined it to be. For example, take the Windrush controversy of recent years. Hundreds of Commonwealth citizens, many of whom were part of the Windrush generation, were wrongly detained, deported and denied their legal rights. For years, Caribbean Heads of Government tried to discuss this issue with this Government, only to be rejected. It was only when coverage of these individuals’ stories began to break in mainstream media that the same UK Government decided on a U-turn and abandoned their “hostile” immigration environment for the Windrush generation.
The UK has held the position of Commonwealth chair-in-office since 2018 and will continue to do so until June this year. To be honest, the UK Government have so far missed an opportunity to implement fundamental cultural change. In March 2020, my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North East (Anne McLaughlin) addressed this issue and stated that the UK Government must do more, considering the two years we have lost due to the pandemic, and that time was of the essence to make a positive impact. Such an impact has not been made. The Government need to do more to fully understand the Commonwealth and to ensure that its member states abide by the shared values of democracy, human rights and the rule of law that are enshrined in the Commonwealth’s charter.
The Commonwealth has an unimpressive record of not being sufficiently vocal in enforcing these core values, a situation which has become more challenging as the organisation has grown in size. Some members ignore international pressure to promote democracy and human rights. Also, the Commonwealth family took no action in January 2021 when Uganda’s President, Yoweri Museveni, clung to power after a deeply flawed election. Also, in 2013 President Mahinda Rajapaksa of Sri Lanka hosted a Commonwealth summit at a time when his Government stood accused of presiding over war crimes. In Nigeria, another Commonwealth member, there is a 10-year prison sentence for same-sex couples showing affection in public and a 14-year prison sentence for anybody having a gay marriage.
Also, the UK is withholding considerable aid funding from critical Commonwealth states, demonstrating that it is unconcerned about the Commonwealth. The UK Government have cut £4 billion from its foreign development budget for 2021-22 and according to Commonwealth Innovation Fund research the number of people living in extreme poverty in the Commonwealth will increase from 209 million in 2019 to 237 million by 2025.
The hon. Gentleman is making some important points about the Commonwealth, but will he not join me in paying tribute to the UK Government during their time as chair-in-office for supporting six Commonwealth countries to repeal and reform outdated legislation that discriminates against women, girls or LGBT communities? Is that not an opportunity that would not exist if the Commonwealth did not exist?
I thank the right hon. Member for that intervention. She is absolutely right, and wherever we can pursue openness, democracy, fairness and equality throughout the world, we should take the opportunity to do so. I just feel that we have missed an opportunity to do that while we have been chair-in-office. Nevertheless, I thank her for her intervention.
In 2019, the UK provided approximately £1.8 billion in bilateral aid to Commonwealth countries, accounting for over 18% of total bilateral ODA. In 2021, the then Secretary of State for International Trade, the right hon. Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss)—who now serves as Foreign Secretary and Minister for Women and Equalities—signed off £183 million of cuts to education, gender and equality spending in the UK aid budget.
I gently say to the hon. Gentleman that I think there is a slight misunderstanding here. The Commonwealth does not deal with aid budgets; it does not deal with anything to do with Government, but Governments are part of what we do.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned certain countries that we work with. He is quite right that there are issues in those countries, but I was in Abuja in Nigeria recently, and we talked about that as a family. They understood that there is a great deal of concern around the world, as does the President of Uganda, whom I met. He realises that there is an issue. His deputy now is Rebecca Kadaga, who was formerly Speaker of the House out there, and she is pretty formidable. I say to the hon. Gentleman that he should please try not to confuse the two things. We do an enormous amount of work, but the air of publicity in certain countries goes against what we are trying to achieve.
I take on board what the hon. Member is saying. I will take the opportunity to raise the injustices that we see across the world whenever I can, and if that includes Nigeria or any other Commonwealth country, I will continue to do so, but I thank him for his intervention.
The UK cannot claim to have a compassionate, co-operative and international outlook while simultaneously decreasing its contributions to lower-income countries, including those within the Commonwealth. We in the Scottish National party acknowledge that work needs to be done, and that only by understanding these little-said truths about the Commonwealth can we understand it in the present.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Davies. I thank the hon. Members for Bridgwater and West Somerset (Mr Liddell-Grainger) and for Stafford (Theo Clarke) for co-sponsoring this debate and bringing it before this House. Many right hon. and hon. Members from across the Chamber have made significant contributions on topics including promoting democracy across our Commonwealth nations, promoting religious freedoms, economic prosperity, preventing the spread of HIV, and connectivity between Commonwealth countries.
Commonwealth Day is an opportunity for us to reflect on the enduring bonds we have with our Commonwealth siblings. Nothing more effectively reminds us that we are part of a global Commonwealth family than contact with our constituents. Our diversity is our strength, and I think we in Lewisham appreciate that more than most. I have Guyanese Indian and Jamaican descent, and I am British born and bred, so I am a child of the Commonwealth through and through. On my trips to both those countries, I have gained such an appreciation of the culture and traditions that have developed over centuries from people mixing together. In Guyana, I love the pepperpot and cook-up rice, just as in Jamaica I love the saltfish and ackee with green bananas. I have been to many Commonwealth countries so far in my life—The Gambia, Barbados, Trinidad and Tobago, Mauritius and Malta—and hope to visit many more.
We cannot take our Commonwealth family ties for granted: the strong relationship we have with each other must be constantly nurtured. The institutions of the Commonwealth help us to do just that, and find new ways to partner and co-operate to solve our common challenges. Today, we look forward to the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Rwanda this June. As we know, the timetable was delayed by the pandemic; the UK has now held the chair for four years, and I am sure the Minister will set out what the Government see as the achievements of our time as chair.
I also want to hear about the engagement that has been happening in preparation for June. One of the ways in which the Commonwealth brings people together is through sport, and we look forward to the 22nd Commonwealth games in Birmingham later this year, which will provide another welcome opportunity to renew and deepen our connections. I would like to take this opportunity to celebrate the achievements of Birmingham as it prepares to host the games.
The challenges we face are daunting, but we are stronger together than apart. Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine has far-reaching impacts. We must be clear that the Russian invasion is a violation of the Commonwealth values and principles set out repeatedly in declarations from Singapore, Goa, Harare and Coolum. Does the Government intend to facilitate any discussion among Commonwealth partners?
As Commonwealth members, we believe in the notions of peace and security, and the international rule of law. Both of those principles have been shattered by the Russian invasion. The Kenyan ambassador to the United Nations, Martin Kimani, said it best:
“We must complete our recovery from the embers of dead empires in a way that does not plunge us back into new forms of domination and oppression.”
I could not agree more. Those words are another example of how we have so much to learn from the experiences and histories shared across our Commonwealth partners. I would like to again put on the record Labour’s support for improvements to the curriculum so that a broader range of perspectives can be fully understood.
The Russian invasion will also have economic implications across the world, including for many Commonwealth countries. Labour urges the Government to publish assessments of the impact of the food and energy price rises on developing countries, particularly the least developed states. I urge the Government to restore funding to 0.7%, otherwise the humanitarian money that is rightly being devoted to Ukraine will come at the expense of others. That will often mean Commonwealth countries whose needs are also great.
Much of the UK’s time as chair-in-office of the Commonwealth has been dominated by the covid-19 pandemic. I ask the Minister to give an update on the number of vaccinations delivered into arms as a result of UK donations. I also ask the Minister to say something about any progress that has been made on delivering those doses earlier and more predictably, because a dose that arrives just weeks before it goes out of date is not really a donation at all—it is closer to the dumping of medical waste. Quite frankly, that is an insult.
To recover from the pandemic, we need education systems to bounce back quickly and effectively. In many Commonwealth countries, as in the UK, schools were shut, in some cases for almost two years. That can have a massively greater impact on girls, particularly in parts of the Commonwealth affected by poverty. Children who are not in school are vulnerable to child labour and child marriage.
Analysis of the 2020 and 2021 aid budget cuts suggests that together they would result in 700,000 girls losing support from education programmes. The leaked equalities impact assessment last week showed a reduction of 75% for programmes to tackle violence against women and girls, and up to 80% for some sexual and reproductive health programmes. The focus of this year’s Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Rwanda will be empowering young people through technology. There are many strong UK companies and NGOs which could contribute expertise, so I hope that the Minister will say more about what the Government will be doing.
The benefits of an inclusive recovery from covid are huge. Girls and boys who can achieve their potential will build more secure societies and expand opportunities for trade and investment. Labour is watching closely to see how the Government live up to their promise to fully restore funding for women and girls, and I hope that the Minister will say more about that today.
Democracy and inclusive governance are core Commonwealth values. This year will see elections in many Commonwealth countries, including Malta, The Gambia, Papua New Guinea, Australia, Kenya, Lesotho, and Fiji. We look forward to being able to celebrate the outcomes of free, fair, and peaceful elections with all of those Commonwealth siblings in the months to come.
We must do everything we can to support those values through the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association and Commonwealth Foundation, and through direct diplomacy by the Government. However, the funding for the Westminster Foundation for Democracy remains in doubt. The Government must continue to support its work.
The protection of human rights is another Commonwealth principle, and we must continue to raise issues affecting marginalised people across our sibling countries. As we know, the colonial legacy includes laws targeting LGBT+ people, and all those standing up against that legacy today must have our full support. Likewise, we must work together to end violence against religious and ethnic minorities, and ensure that journalists and political activists can operate freely in every Commonwealth country, including that of the incoming chair-in-office. I hope that the Government will set out their intentions to do that in their response.
Having saved the best until last, the Commonwealth must come together to tackle the climate emergency. There is surely an opportunity in Kigali to set the stage for COP27 in Egypt and to announce continued deepening of shared Commonwealth programming. What are the Government doing to engage with Commonwealth states in June on the acute needs that many have on climate financing and on adaptation, mitigation, and loss and damage funds?
The members of our Commonwealth family are bound together by so much: our histories, our common values, our endeavours and our shared challenges. The Commonwealth can be a deepening partnership of equals that helps our world to flourish all the more. Labour joins in the celebration of Commonwealth Day, and I with it, as the Commonwealth is special to me. We encourage the Government to set out the steps they will take to make the promise of the Commonwealth a reality.
Thank you, Mr Davies. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, although I think I might struggle to answer every single point that has been raised in the debate. I have been furiously writing notes, and I will do what I can.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset (Mr Liddell-Grainger) for securing the debate, which is timely and which gives us an opportunity to mark and to celebrate Commonwealth Day, and I commend him on his tireless work and support for the Commonwealth as chair of the CPA. We deeply appreciate the important work done by the CPA and its UK branch.
I welcome the commitment to the Commonwealth shown by Members across the Chamber, and I will do my best to deal with the points they have made, but I want to begin by mentioning one colleague who has been sorely missed during today’s debate: our dear friend, Sir David Amess. Sir David was a passionate advocate for the Commonwealth, and he took part in last year’s debate with his customary good humour, insight and conviction.
As Minister for Asia, I had the privilege of working with Sir David, and have travelled to a number of Commonwealth countries. Most recently, I visited Singapore, where I advanced our partnership to create a safer, more prosperous region. Each year, Commonwealth Day is an occasion on which to celebrate our connections and the diversity of our 54 nations. The Commonwealth makes up a third of the world’s population, spanning every continent and ocean, and every stage of development. It is right that we use Commonwealth week to reflect on our shared values of freedom, peace and democracy as enshrined in the Commonwealth charter. That is a key theme that has come through all the contributions this morning, and the charter sets out the commitments of each member state to develop as a free and democratic society, and to promote peace and prosperity.
The value of those principles has been highlighted over the past few weeks, and they are completely at odds with Putin’s unprovoked and illegal invasion of Ukraine. We will continue to work with our Commonwealth and international partners to ensure that there is strong political, humanitarian, defence and economic support for Ukraine.
This year, we celebrate the platinum jubilee of Her Majesty the Queen to mark her 70 years as monarch and 70 years as Head of the Commonwealth. Yesterday, the Prime Minister, Lord Ahmad, who is Minister for the Commonwealth, and members of the royal family were joined by Commonwealth representatives at Westminster Abbey for a service that paid tribute to Her Majesty for her tireless dedication to the Commonwealth. This summer, at the Commonwealth games in Birmingham, all 72 nations and territories of the Commonwealth will come together in the spirit of friendly competition. I am delighted that my constituency neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Theo Clarke), is in the Chamber today. The mountain biking event will be held in my constituency —I think the site is on the border of our constituencies, to be fair—and I am thrilled that we are hosting that event. I hope that Members will come to visit Cannock Chase, which is a beautiful part of the world.
In June, Commonwealth leaders will meet in Kigali for the first full in-person gathering of Heads of Government since the 2018 London meeting, but let us look at the past four years that we have been chair-in-office. We have worked hard to deliver the commitments made in London to build a fairer, more sustainable, more secure and more prosperous future for the 2.5 billion people of the Commonwealth. With our Commonwealth partners, we have built a fairer future. We have honoured our pledge to support women’s empowerment through trade. A number of Members raised the topic of women and girls. The SheTrades Commonwealth programme, which supports female entrepreneurs, has already helped generate sales of more than £32 million for women-owned businesses in Nigeria, Kenya, Ghana and Bangladesh. We work with national human rights institutions across the Commonwealth to strengthen human rights, and we have ensured that more girls across the Commonwealth have access to education.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale (David Mundell) mentioned LGBT rights. We have delivered programmes worth more than £11 million to support the promotion and protection of LGBT rights across the Commonwealth. We look forward to welcoming Commonwealth partners to the “Safe To Be Me” conference that we will host later this year.
With our Commonwealth partners, we have built a more sustainable future. The Government are committed to double our international climate finance to £11.6 billion by March 2026. Since 2018, we have co-founded the Commonwealth Climate Finance Access Hub, which has mobilised more than $45 million to support climate-vulnerable Commonwealth countries. Colleagues raised the issue of climate. Through the Commonwealth marine economies programme, we have helped 17 small island developing states to build sustainable marine economies that are more resilient to climate change.
With our Commonwealth partners, we have built a more secure future. We work with all Commonwealth countries to strengthen their cyber-security. We continue to support the excellent work that the UK Commonwealth Parliamentary Association is doing in strengthening governance, parliamentary oversight and accountability across the Commonwealth. We welcome the work it is doing this year on climate change, women, online harms and modern slavery.
Finally, with our Commonwealth partners, we have been working for a more prosperous future. We have a network of Commonwealth trade envoys—it is good to see some here today—in countries such as South Africa, Nigeria, Kenya, Ghana, Uganda and Rwanda. We have funded programmes to liberalise global trade. We have made rapid progress to secure trade agreements with 33 Commonwealth countries. We recently signed two historic trade deals, with Australia in December and New Zealand last month. This year we will launch a new developing countries trading scheme, which will help countries reduce poverty through trade.
Hon. Friends mentioned the legal status of the CPA. I know that Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, the Minister for the Commonwealth, wrote to my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset earlier this month, and I believe further conversations are ongoing with officials. We hope to find a legal route that will give the CPA the recognition it seeks. We have been proud to work with the CPA UK across a number of projects during our chair-in-office, which have sought to strengthen democracy, oversight and accountability throughout the Commonwealth, and we value that partnership. The CPA UK has put forward project proposals for the next financial year, and we are considering those as part of our business planning process.
I might have a couple of minutes to pick up on another couple of points.
I was just coming to countries re-joining the Commonwealth. The UK is open to considering new applications for membership on their merits. The interest of potential new members is a sign of the Commonwealth’s vitality. Decisions on membership are made by consensus of all member states. I believe that some of the countries mentioned earlier were members in the past. Whether they want to re-join is up to them, but as I say it is by consensus of member states.
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) is a passionate champion of freedom of religion or belief, which is established in the Commonwealth charter. We would like Commonwealth leaders to recommit to promoting and protecting those freedoms at CHOGM. He will be aware that the Prime Minister appointed my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) as his special envoy, and will host an international summit in July. We continue to raise human rights with countries wherever concerns exist. My hon. Friend the Member for Stafford, my next-door neighbour, mentioned the Queen’s Commonwealth Canopy. We hope that all 54 member states will have committed to participate by the time of CHOGM in June.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale mentioned HIV and AIDS. I know that he is a passionate champion of this issue. The UK’s Global Fund and the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation are a really important way of supporting international progress on HIV and AIDS. There is strong engagement across Africa, including in many Commonwealth nations, as this issue is exceptionally important. We have a global AIDS strategy, which focuses on addressing those inequalities.
I think I have about one more minute before I must let my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset wind up. I am sorry that I have not been able to cover all the points made, but we have been able to get a snapshot of our co-operation with the Commonwealth and Commonwealth countries. Those partnerships and today’s debate demonstrate how the Commonwealth brings great benefits to diverse communities across the globe. As we hand over the baton of chair- in-office to Rwanda in June, our commitment to the Commonwealth and the shared values of the Commonwealth charter will not dim. The pandemic, the growing impacts of climate change and the rise in global prices make these testing times for all members of the Commonwealth, but as Her Majesty said in her Commonwealth Day message yesterday, we can
“draw strength and inspiration from what we share, as we work together towards a healthy, sustainable and prosperous future for all.”
I thank the Minister and all Members who have taken part in the debate. I am grateful for everybody’s insight and to the Minister for being able to take on the points that have been raised. I know that the point about the CPA’s status will be taken on board. The Commonwealth has achieved so many of the aims that it set out to. I did not mention this, but I am grateful for the funding that we get from the FCDO. I was not going to bring up our next funding bid, but I thank the Minister for doing so. I think she knows—certainly colleagues do—that every penny that we get from the FCDO is spent on programmes, and we do it well. The staff of the CPA UK is only 30. The staff of the CPA internationally is only 20. That a whole organisation can be run on such small numbers is phenomenal; they are a tremendous team.
We have praised Her Majesty for her incredible leadership over the last 70 years. That shows that one person can make a massive difference, and does so all the time. I say gently to the Scottish National party spokesman, the hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Steven Bonnar), that any country can leave the Commonwealth. It is a club. People want to be part of the Commonwealth because it gives us a shared history, good or bad. It shows that by working together we can change things. It is not always easy; it can be difficult, and I take that on the chin, but our history is one of the things that binds us. Common adversity can bring commonality. That is what has bound us together. Dealing with colleagues from around the world—it is lovely to hear about people’s heritages—shows that that is what makes this incredible organisation work so well. One can go anywhere in the world and meet people who say, “I’ve got a cousin”—or an aunt or whatever—“in the United Kingdom,” and that is just wonderful.
We do this every year. We do it because it matters to an enormous organisation that has an enormous heart. We are a democratically led organisation, and we fight for people and democracy.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered Commonwealth Day.
Blackpool Airport and Levelling Up
I beg to move,
That this House has considered Blackpool airport and the role of commercial passenger flights in levelling up.
It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. The recent levelling-up White Paper rightly identified the areas that need to be addressed if we are to transform the UK and bring prosperity to left-behind regions. The UK Government have set themselves 12 national missions that they must achieve if this country is to level up. There are two areas, in particular, that I believe are pertinent to regional airports, including Blackpool, and I will demonstrate how they can play an important role in supporting the Government’s broader aims.
The Government’s first emphasis is on the restoration of pride of place. Regional airports are often important symbols of pride for local residents, offering a unique link to a town’s history and representing modernity and wealth. For example, on the grounds that are now Blackpool airport, Squires Gate hosted the UK’s first official aviation meeting in 1909, when 200,000 people gathered to watch Henri Farman set the first official British flight record of 47 miles. That would be the start of Blackpool’s long and proud aviation history, with a fully fledged aerodrome opened in 1931, offering passenger flights to the Isle of Man.
During the second world war, RAF Squires Gate was established as a training wing for the No. 3 School of General Reconnaissance, and over 3,000 Wellington bombers were constructed next to the airport, with the factory buildings still in existence. This history is celebrated in Blackpool and continues today, with a Spitfire visitor centre, our brilliant annual air show, and the development of military aircraft at nearby BAE Systems in Walton. I know how important the airport is to my constituents and those of my constituency neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard). In 2019, I started a petition urging the local council to restore commercial passenger flights, and I was delighted by the brilliant response it received, with over 8,000 local people signing it.
The second area I want to highlight in the case for levelling up is improving connectivity and infrastructure. The levelling-up White Paper makes clear the importance of connectivity and better transport links across the regions of the UK. Regional airports offer quick and easy connections, often at a fraction of the time and cost of rail travel.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on raising the important issue of Blackpool airport—a real jewel in the Fylde crown. Does he agree that one challenge the airport faces is very high fixed costs for air traffic control, fire brigades and security, which larger airports do not face? Does he also agree that the Government need to look again at repeating the airfield fund that a certain previous aviation Minister launched on his last day in the job? That would match funding for investment in meeting these fixed costs.
I thank my hon. Friend and neighbour for his intervention. He has been a brilliant friend and advocate of Blackpool airport over many years, and during his work as aviation Minister. From speaking to him in the past, I know that a number of the things he was looking at while in post could support regional airports and help Blackpool to grow, benefiting the local economies of both our constituencies. I know he will be a brilliant advocate and supporter of this campaign going forward.
Regional airports offer quick and easy connections, often at a fraction of the time and cost of rail travel. They are also able to connect us to the furthest corners of our United Kingdom.
The hon. Gentleman is making an excellent speech, and it is music to my ears. As the Minister is aware, we have had a campaign in the far north of Scotland to do similar work for Wick airport. We have a destination—Aberdeen—which is great, and is a step in the right direction, but does the hon. Member agree that having a choice of destinations helps? In the case of Wick, we are seeking to get Edinburgh or Glasgow included as destinations.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. He makes a good point. He will know about the importance of public service obligations, especially in the regional context of Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales and the work we do in England to match the PSO offers in the devolved Administrations. He will no doubt be championing that for his own constituency.
The Union connectivity review emphasised the need for Government to support journeys too long to be reasonably taken by road or rail. That is especially significant in the case of the devolved Administrations and other parts of our United Kingdom, all of which would benefit hugely from greater links between them. More practically, regional airports offer economic opportunities, increased tourism, better business connections and more investment opportunities, and they provide the chance for unique service delivery, as my neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys, alluded to with Blackpool airport.
Where does Blackpool airport fit in the levelling-up agenda, and what can the Government do to support it? As I mentioned, Blackpool airport has been in operation since the 1930s and operated commercial flights through the 20th century. However, the airport really took off—pardon the pun—in the early 2000s, with low-cost airlines such as Jet2 providing routes to international destinations, including Spain and Portugal, and smaller carriers, for example Citywing and Flybe, providing a strong regional network to destinations such as Belfast, Aberdeen and Southampton.
Unfortunately, following the financial crisis of 2007, passenger numbers began to fall and the operator of the airport, Balfour Beatty, ran into financial difficulty. Despite a number of routes still being well attended and the airport being used by over 200,000 passengers per year, in 2014 Balfour Beatty decided to put the airport up for sale. Sadly, a buyer could not be found and a subsidiary of Balfour Beatty purchased the airport and reduced operations, ultimately leading to the end of commercial passenger flights.
During this time, a decision was taken to demolish the former passenger terminal, despite protests from local residents. In 2017, Blackpool Council had to purchase the airport to save it from being permanently closed and demolished and to secure its long-term future as part of Blackpool Airport enterprise zone. That allowed for essential infrastructure to be maintained and investment plans to be explored.
Sadly, following my petition to ensure that commercial passenger flights were restored, the Labour council voted against the idea, citing the costs of bringing the airport up to scratch. While I appreciate the large capital cost of modernising the airport infrastructure, there have already been positive movements by the Government to support regional aviation, making investment more appealing. The cut to air passenger duty in last year’s Budget has provided a brilliant opportunity for domestic flights from small airports such as Blackpool. The Government have effectively halved the amount of tax paid on domestic return journeys, allowing people to travel for less. That is much fairer than the previous system, which would charge those travelling domestically more than those flying internationally, despite travelling a much shorter distance and contributing less carbon to the environment. The cut could prove especially beneficial as more people choose staycations rather than holidays abroad following the pandemic.
In the case of Blackpool, our resort is already a great destination for tourists, and exciting future developments assisted by Government regeneration funding will mean that there will soon be even more attractions to offer to visitors. That point has been echoed by many of the tourism and leisure businesses in my constituency. For example, Amanda Thompson OBE, managing director of Blackpool Leisure Beach, has stated:
“Blackpool Airport was a wonderful asset for the town and direct flights to and from London and various European destinations show how important it is to have connectivity to the city and Europe. The resort needs to establish inbound tourism from Europe...as well as from…London—this is needed to encourage investment within the resort and the Airport can help to deliver this.”
The Union connectivity review has provided great insight into how to use regional airports to achieve the Government’s aim to improve transport connectivity and enhance quality of life and economic opportunity across the UK. The report made a number of suggestions that would greatly boost the case for restoring passenger flights to Blackpool airport and increasing the role of regional airports more broadly. Alongside the cut in APD for domestic flights, the report also recommended re-examining the role of public service obligation routes and the way in which they operate.
Currently, PSO routes are eligible for support only if they run to and from London and are exclusively operated by one airline. That has limited their use and has meant that such routes mostly exist outside of England, where devolved Administrations have stepped in. The report recommended liberalising the process to allow PSOs to operate between regions. It also recommended selecting a number of routes that would not have been previously operated and removing APD on those altogether. That would not result in a loss of revenue for the Government as, without the reforms, those journeys would not previously have been made at all. If the reforms were to be adopted, they would offer a great opportunity for Blackpool to offer flights to the Isle of Man, Belfast and possibly even London or Glasgow. Blackpool’s location makes it ideal to serve those routes. I hope the Government will seriously consider that recommendation and explore the policy further in the coming months.
These are positive steps and if properly pursued would allow Blackpool and other regional airports to play a vital part in UK connectivity and levelling up. However, the barrier to Blackpool and many other regional airports in taking advantage of such developments is the need for capital investment. Although the Treasury provides many funding pots, particularly for infrastructure projects, one area not currently covered by any schemes is regional airports. That makes it very difficult for airports such as Blackpool to get off the ground, with local government administrations often unable, or in Blackpool’s case unwilling, to invest sufficient time and money in large projects.
A bespoke scheme to provide capital investment would be very welcome and would allow regional airports to modernise, invest in green technologies and take the pressure away from key hub airports. As there are only 26 regional airports, the fund could be relatively small and could deliver significant improvements quickly, certainly in the case of Blackpool.
I want to address the concerns regarding the environmental impact of flying, especially in the context of the Government’s commitments at COP26. First, it is worth noting that domestic air travel makes up only 1.2% of total domestic transport emissions—a tiny fraction compared with cars, HGVs or trains. I am concerned that in reading reports like the Union connectivity review we are not looking to the future and considering upcoming technology. I was also concerned to see the media backlash following the cut to APD and the calls from newspapers such as The Guardian to ban domestic air travel altogether. Many environmental activists seem content to return to the stone age rather than innovating to maintain our wonderful way of life. For example, the Danish and Swedish Governments are both working with their aviation sectors to make domestic air travel fossil fuel-free by 2030. That is an ambitious target, but we must surely try to improve aviation rather than abandon it altogether.
I welcome the Department for Transport’s jet zero strategy consultation and hope it will lead to constructive discussions with the aviation industry. We are now seeing the development of electric and hydrogen-powered aircraft both in the UK and around the world, and we have already seen low-carbon aircraft becoming more popular. For the technology to continue to develop and become widespread, it will have to be economically viable, and that will mean starting small. Domestic flights with their short airtime and lighter-weight aircraft would provide companies investing in low-carbon solutions with a perfect market for the technology to grow and mature.
I hope that the Government will look carefully at the role of regional airports—Blackpool in particular—in meeting their aims of levelling up, improving connectivity and moving towards net zero. It would be disappointing if, when so many opportunities are being created for regional airports and domestic flying, Blackpool with its long history of aviation and its great location were unable to benefit, particularly from the cut to APD, which could be tremendous for Blackpool’s tourism industry.
I also hope that the Government will look carefully at the reforms suggested in the Union connectivity report, especially the case for the expansion of PSO routes. Blackpool would be ideally suited for connecting to the Isle of Man and Belfast in particular.
Lastly, I hope that the Government will consider the creation of a bespoke funding pot or other targeted support to ensure that regional airports get the support they need to modernise, invest in those green technologies and take the pressure off our busy hub airports.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this morning, Mr Davies. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool South (Scott Benton) for securing this critically important debate, touching as it does not just on Blackpool, which is of such huge significance to his constituents and to my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard), but to wider regional aviation. Many of the issues on which we have touched today apply to many Members throughout the United Kingdom. I know that the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Jamie Stone), with his advocacy for Wick airport, will share in many of those points.
My hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool South is a hugely powerful advocate for this sector and for his area and I commend him for his energy, enthusiasm and vision for Blackpool airport and for the wider regional airport ecosystem. He has made a number of points to me throughout his time here, many of which the Government are considering. I hope to address some of those points during this debate.
I was particularly struck during my hon. Friend’s speech by the history of Blackpool airport—everything from Henri Farman in 1909, with his record, through to Vickers Wellingtons during the war, and today’s modern aircraft and aerospace technology at Warton nearby. I look forward to hearing more about that. We touched on it when we met recently and I look forward to seeing more when I visit this Friday. The importance of Blackpool airport to his area has been made vividly clear during this debate. The 8,000 signatures to his petition also show how important it is to his constituents.
I will touch on as many points as I can in the time that I have, particularly those relating to Blackpool and wider regional aviation. If we look at the issue as a whole, the UK is lucky to have one of the best-connected, best-value, safest, most innovative aircraft industries in the world—aircraft and aviation. It creates jobs, encourages the economy to grow, connects the United Kingdom and all of us with the wider world. It consolidates and grows our position as a dynamic trading nation.
Regional airports link us and serve our local communities, as we have heard vividly today. They support thousands of jobs in the regions and act as a gateway to international opportunities and economic growth. They foster, never let us forget, social and family ties and strengthen the bonds between us.
The figure that is perhaps most vivid is that before the pandemic, the aviation sector directly contributed at least £22 billion to the UK’s GDP, supporting approximately half a million jobs. It is vital that, as we build out from the pandemic, the aviation sector is a key part of that. As far as this Government are concerned, it will be.
My hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool South rightly mentioned air passenger duty. That is part of our plans to boost regional connectivity and why, as he mentioned, the Treasury announced in the recent Budget a package of APD reforms to bolster air connectivity within the Union. That is a new reduced domestic band to support precisely the regional connectivity that he rightly pays tribute to, aligned with an ultra-long-haul additional band to ensure that our overall policy aligns with our environmental objectives. The reforms will take effect from 1 April 2023. That will be part of a package that aims to assist our domestic and international connectivity in the aviation world as we build out of the pandemic.
It is no exaggeration to say that levelling up is a key part of the Government’s agenda and a key part of what aviation can enable. We must have our local communities and businesses connected not just with London but, as the hon. Gentleman quite rightly points out, with other parts of the UK, and level up the regions and build a truly global Britain. Our objective is to ensure that all nations and regions of the UK have the domestic and international air transport connections that they rely on, while ensuring that we meet our net-zero commitments. Maintaining the national network of aerodromes and airports is the foundation of the success of the wider UK aviation sector, be that general, business or commercial aviation.
We have touched upon Union connectivity. In November 2021, Sir Peter Hendy published his independent Union connectivity review. As the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross has pointed out, I know the importance of Wick to him and to the wider UK; that has been emphasised during this debate. For Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and all parts of England, we will be looking to improve access to opportunities and everyday connections across the United Kingdom.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. He draws attention to some of the future opportunities that regional aviation can sponsor. We have the space launch in his part of Scotland, with Wick enabling that, and a similar story in Newquay, at the other end of the United Kingdom. We see there vividly what regional aviation can bring to communities, wherever they happen to be. That is why the Government place so much importance on regional aviation. I thank the hon. Gentleman for making that point so clear.
The review shows the importance of airports and air connectivity, for all the reasons that we have touched upon. It also mentions the benefits of jobs, trade, investments and the strengthening of social ties. My hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool South rightly draws attention to PSOs. We currently jointly fund those from Londonderry, Newquay and Dundee into London and that protects air connectivity from some of the more peripheral areas of our UK. As we consider our response to the Union connectivity review, we will explore what further opportunities there are to use PSO policy to support regional connectivity and the levelling- up agenda. We will continue to consider Sir Peter’s recommendations and we look to respond later this year.
As part of the rebuilding out of covid, we are looking to produce a strategy on the future of aviation in the UK. That will explore the sector’s return to growth. It will explore many of the issues that we have touched on in this debate and some that we have not had a chance to mention—not only the return to growth, but workforce and skills, aviation noise, innovation, regulation, consumer issues and, critically, regional connectivity, alongside climate change and decarbonisation and the critical role that aviation plays in retaining that global reach.
The hon. Member for Blackpool South is quite right. When we talk about decarbonisation, regional aviation will be a key testbed and he is right to draw attention to that. Indeed, on that, the consultation on jet zero—as we call it—was published in July 2021. While press headlines often tend to focus on transatlantic aviation, regional aviation is key to that as well. The consultation outlines our vision for the aviation sector and its decarbonisation. We are looking to publish that final strategy later this year.
One of our key proposals included a sustainable aviation fuels mandate consultation, which sets out our level of ambition for future uptake. We have published a summary of the responses that have come in already and we aim to confirm a mandate, targets, timescales and the design following a second consultation later this year.
The Government continue to support progress towards low and zero-emission aircraft technology, which includes some of the technology that my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool South has been referring to, through the Aerospace Technology Institute programme, providing £1.95 billion of funding towards aerospace research.
I will quote something that my hon. Friend said, because I wholeheartedly agree with it. He said that we should innovate to maintain our wonderful way of life. He is absolutely right and I am keen to emphasise that flying is not the problem; aviation emissions are the problem and it is those emissions that we have to tackle. We are tackling them, and by doing so we will create guilt-free flying.
On Blackpool airport and some of the work that has been going on with it, we published a general aviation road map in April 2021, which set out the Government’s vision, strategic priorities and forward programme of work to support the general aviation sector. As part of that, the Government delivered the Airfield Development Advisory Fund to support local airfields and associated GA businesses to grow, thrive and upskill. I am delighted that Blackpool airport has made use of that consultancy service. The ADAF provided technical support on the potential relocation of the air traffic control C tower to a new location, as well as advising on the adoption of new air traffic control technology named virtual remote towers.
In addition, in October 2020 the Department provided funding to establish the Civil Aviation Authority’s Airfield Advisory Team, to provide complementary support and technical aviation advice to GA aerodromes on a range of matters. The AAT is an independent non-regulatory advisory team within the CAA, which also liaises with organisations to ensure that the economic, educational and community benefits of GA are understood, so that local planning authorities can make informed decisions. I encourage Blackpool airport to draw on that valuable service and support to help it advance its operations.
As I touched on at the start of my remarks, the UK has a world-leading, competitive commercial aviation sector, with airports and airlines operating and investing to attract passengers and respond to demand. Airports have a key role to play as part of that commercial sector; as I have said, they boost global connectivity and levelling up in the UK. Where opportunities for growth exist, it is key that local partners can come together with industry to develop the business case for new commercial flights.
I wholeheartedly commend and pay tribute to the energy and expertise of my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool South on this issue. I can see how passionately he cares. He has a key role, which I can see he is doing already, in convening some of those local partners. He has mentioned his local authority and I encourage it to engage energetically with him to explore the options that may exist. He will also be able to bring together local enterprise partnerships, local businesses and other stakeholders to work together as a holistic whole, to establish the case for commercial flights and then to work with airline partners to create new connections for the communities. He mentioned the connections that existed in the past; hopefully, by bringing all those local partners together, he can build the case for those connections to exist again in the future.
We know that this process can work and I have given the example of Teesside International airport. This work happened there, with local authorities, the Mayor and local businesses coming together with airline partners to identify the need for new connections and then to develop the business case for them. Thanks to that effort, for the first time in over a decade Teesside International airport has direct flights to Heathrow. Also, just last month the combined authority and the local Mayor announced the creation of a new business park at the airport, which is expected to create up to 4,400 jobs when fully operational. That is an example of what can be done with leadership like that provided by my hon. Friend; we can look for such progress at Blackpool airport as well.
In the minute or so that I have left, I will say a little about diversification. I am conscious that Blackpool is already a highly diversified airport, which means that we have the option for highly skilled, dynamic and innovative businesses to grow and flourish—for manufacturing and the maintenance of aircraft; aviation services; and for research and innovation. That means that the wider economic benefits of airports and aerodromes can be fed through to the entire wider community, which of course increases the financial viability of those airports and aerodromes, and helps them thrive. Additional functions include pilot training. Also, as my hon. Friend said, there is the example of Newquay airport, which will also host a spaceport. That is a particular example of innovation, but there are other examples of such innovation.
Regional airports and regional connectivity are utterly critical to the UK’s aviation sector because they unlock investment, jobs and trade across the country. I am in no doubt of the critical importance of airports such as Blackpool airport, which is why I look forward to visiting it on Friday and to hearing more from my hon. Friend and his campaign.
Question put and agreed to.
Private Rented Sector Housing
[Sir Gary Streeter in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered private rented sector housing.
It is an honour to serve under your chairship, Sir Gary. I thank Members for attending this debate today and for what I know will be powerful contributions. I start by paying tribute to my constituents in Liverpool, West Derby, who are the innocent victims of this country’s current housing system. I also want to thank ACORN, the Vauxhall law centre, Generation Rent, Shelter, the Daily Mirror and the many other organisations for their campaigns to get the changes we need.
For millions, the current system in the private rented sector is failing to provide homes that are safe, secure and affordable for everyone. Mindful of this House’s sub judice rules, I am unable to go into the details of some of the appalling cases that my constituents have written to me about. However, issues raised with me by private renters include: constituents with health conditions such as asthma whose landlords have left them in damp properties with no gas supply in the middle of winter; constituents, including children, who have been hospitalised and suffered serious health impacts as the result of disrepair in their homes; and families living in fear of bailiffs, who were served a section 21 eviction notice by the landlord after complaining about terrible disrepair and conditions. My constituent told me:
“Section 21 takes the humanity out of the situation and that’s precisely the problem. We are human and lives are being carelessly destroyed!”
Other constituents who have contacted me wanted the Government to take urgent action so that nobody in future has to go through the same horrific experiences. Nationally, the private rented sector includes some of the oldest stock in England; it remains the tenure with the lowest standards, based on the Government’s decent homes standard. The latest English housing survey found that one in five homes in the private rented sector is classed as non-decent, and 12% have a category 1 hazard for which the most serious harm outcome is identified, for example, as death, permanent paralysis, permanent loss of consciousness, loss of a limb or serious fractures.
Does the Minister know how many serious injuries and deaths have resulted from making people live in such appalling accommodation? Shamefully, we have a system that means a private renter has more than a one in 10 chance of living in a home that could kill or seriously harm them or their children. Let that fact sink in—how can this be allowed to continue?
Private rented sector homes also have the worst energy standards on average. That means private renters will have to pay significantly more in heating bills because of poor insulation, inefficient heating systems or lack of double glazing. With the cost of living crisis starting to bite and energy prices set to soar, private renters really are in a precarious situation. Added to that, it seems that complaining puts them on a fast track to eviction. Research from Citizens Advice shows that those complaining to their local authority about disrepair were 46% more likely to get a section 21 from the landlord. Section 21—the fast track to eviction—must be scrapped.
I recently spoke to Professor Ian Sinha, a consultant respiratory paediatrician at the fantastic Alder Hey Children’s Hospital in my constituency, about the health impacts of poor housing conditions. Ian told me:
“The consequences of poor quality housing can be fatal for children: the National Child Mortality Database identified poor housing as one of the top risk factors associated with the inequalities that result in children's deaths....If babies and children breathe air rife with fungus, toxins, and dust, in overcrowded and cold homes, their lungs develop abnormally. Even though we focus on the shortterm effects, the problems they face in adulthood are even more stark—the poorest children are 5 times more likely to develop adult diseases like COPD, and chronic illnesses such as this lead to the poorest adults dying two decades earlier than the richest ones in Liverpool and many other cities...Poor housing can result in 20 years being taken away from your life...There is a window of opportunity for children to develop and grow—and the state of housing in which millions of children are forced to live is holding them back...That’s why good housing for all should be the very essence of any levelling up agenda otherwise it’s a vacuous nonsense.”
Professor Sinha continued:
“Parents are gaslighted at every opportunity—landlords deny pest problems—but mothers of premature babies tell us they know there are rats in the house because they see bite marks in their baby’s oxygen tubing; mothers tell us that when they reach for the cereal there are rodent faeces in them; mothers tell us that their toddlers are afraid to go in rooms because they see mice looking at them through the gaps in the floorboards that still haven’t been fixed. While parents are told that damp isn’t an issue, they tell us their children are waking up coughing thick mucus every night in rooms riddled with mould, and they are bullied because their clothes smell of damp”.
After listening to that, we must remind ourselves that it is 2022, not 1822.
It is clear that the current legislation is failing, which is compounded by a decade of Government cuts to local authority budget cuts and the cutting of access to free legal support. Between 2009 and 2019, local authority budgets to ensure that private rental standards were kept up were slashed by 44%. Local authorities have lost almost half their capacity to enforce standards.
Selective licensing is a tool that local authorities can use to tackle poor property conditions and poor practice in the private rented sector. The landlord licensing scheme in Liverpool, which ran from 2015 to 2020, found that 65% of properties were not fully compliant on the first visit. Some 37,000 compliance actions were taken to improve conditions and 250 rogue landlords were prosecuted. I saw this first hand when I worked with my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Dan Carden), as his office manager, when we utilised the scheme to tackle rogue landlords. I hope the Minister can enlighten us further as to why landlord licensing is not operational across the whole country.
The regulatory framework for the private rented sector is fragmented, underfunded and, quite frankly, broken, and the White Paper and renters reform Bill must address these systemic issues. A renters reform Bill was promised by the Government in 2019. Where is it? Every single day that the Bill is delayed is a day millions spend in cold, insecure, unsafe and unaffordable homes.
During the height of the pandemic, renters were trapped in unsafe housing while the Prime Minister was apparently picking out new wallpaper. Now, many renters are fearful of section 21 evictions if they raise complaints, because they cannot afford to move house in the middle of this appalling cost of living crisis. The power imbalance means that the mental pressures facing renters are built into this broken system.
I wholeheartedly agree with the points my hon. Friend is raising and I thank him for leading this debate. I am regularly contacted by constituents whose private landlords are refusing to fix issues. Like the examples raised by my hon. Friend, they are not small problems; ranging from black mould to rat infestations, these failings have a disastrous impact on my constituents’ health and wellbeing.
As it stands, tenants who decide to withhold rent from landlords who fail to maintain their properties to standard will be in breach of contract and have next to no protections. Does my hon. Friend agree that increasing protections for tenants should form a fundamental part of our strategy to make the PRS safer and improve conditions overall?
My hon. Friend makes some fantastic points, and I fully agree. I thank her for all the work she does on this issue in her constituency.
The Government must present the White Paper as a matter of urgency, and new legislation must have real teeth and be enforceable. A renters reform Bill must abolish section 21 and end no-fault evictions, drive up standards through an updated and improved decent homes standard and create a national landlord register and licensing scheme to improve accountability and ensure that legal standards are met. It works—Liverpool has shown that. This is not more red tape, but an investment in the health and wellbeing of present and future generations. To reinforce this, have the Government undertaken a cost-benefit analysis of what it means for a child to grow up in a home that is a threat to their health and safety?
Let us put ourselves in the shoes of the people whose cases I have outlined. If an MP or a Minister were asked to live in a flat riddled with mould, in such a state of disrepair that it endangered the life of their family members and might lead to reduced life expectancies, we would rightly hear howls of rage reverberating from both sides of the Chamber. Let us take that fury and that righteous anger and, as legislators, represent with the same force the millions who are suffering that fate daily, forced into silence because of our unjust system. That would really be levelling up, and the Minister knows it—taking on the vested interests and doing something transformational, changing the life chances of millions for the better. Surely that is why we are all in this game.
This Bill must not tinker around the edges of a broken system, and it should not just move the goalposts. It must empower tenants and hardwire social justice into the system. From working with the Minister on numerous Bill Committees and Select Committees, I know he understands the need for change; but deeds will be the measure, not words.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Ian Byrne) on securing this debate and on a very powerful speech, setting out the conditions as he sees them in his own constituency.
I have the largest private rented sector in Britain in my borough, including some of the most high-end private accommodation it is possible to find—the luxury penthouses, the oligarch properties—but also some of the worst conditions. I am going to make three points of slightly different lengths, but my first is to beware the tyranny of the average. I urge the Minister to reflect on that point, because we know that over the decades there has been a steady overall improvement in the condition of property, including in the private rented sector. However, beneath that, we have a huge and arguably growing problem that is concentrated in particular sectors.
That problem was very well set out in Julie Rugg’s report three years or so ago, in which she looked at the sub-markets in the private rented sector. She rightly reflected on the fact that there are particular groups of people without power, including purchasing power—those who are dependent on housing benefit to rent their property—but also other kinds of power: those who do not have settled immigration status; those who have been homeless; the very young; the students; the old; and, in particular, those with disabilities. When the Minister responds and whenever we talk about this issue, it needs to be properly reflected that there is not a single sector, even allowing for geographical variations.
Secondly, I will touch briefly on the issue of enforcement. Although we will rightly hear from a number of colleagues, including the Front Benchers, about the need to move ahead with the overdue legislation to strengthen renters’ rights, those rights will mean very little unless we are sure that we have enforcement capacity—two kinds of enforcement capacity, in particular.
The first is the enforcement carried out by local authorities, particularly through their environmental health departments. Although I do not have time to reflect on this at length, we know from the work of the National Residential Landlords Association, and my own series of freedom of information inquiries to local authorities over the course of the past 10 years, that most local authorities do not enforce, or do so informally. Some of that informal enforcement will be fine, but it is untrackable—it is not monitored.
Does my hon. Friend agree that what is needed is a centralised national landlord register that ensures accountability, so that tenants know before moving in whether their landlords have been compliant, especially in relation to health and safety?
I am grateful for that, Sir Gary; I am always anxious not to take too much time.
I certainly agree that one of the issues in the private rented sector is that we do not actually know where it is, other than when it comes to those claiming housing allowance in the private rented sector. There are landlords who are renting and we do not know who they are, so it is quite hard to enforce against them.
We have a patchwork of enforcement services. That requires resources from local authorities, which have been hammered over the past 10 years of funding cuts, and also political will. The situation needs a clear steer from the centre, together with good local knowledge—local authorities are in the best position to understand something about their own local markets. It also needs individual capacity for enforcement. We have just come from a statement on legal aid; one of the issues we should be very concerned about is the significant shrinking of the housing legal section’s capacity in recent years, with fewer providers and less capacity for access to services that put individual tenants in a position to enforce their own rights.
My hon. Friend makes an important point about people in the private rental sector not being able to enforce their rights, because of lack of legal aid. Does she agree with restoring legal advice in this area? That would help prevent problems from escalating in the first place.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right: the earlier one intervenes, the better, in all respects.
My third substantive point is the issue of temporary accommodation. This is property rented almost invariably from the private sector, often—although not always—managed by intermediary organisations such as housing associations and procured on behalf of local authorities. I raised a debate about this issue a little over a year ago, particularly looking at my own local circumstance, but the issue is wider than that. Human Rights Watch published a report a few weeks ago on the issue of temporary accommodation: a major human rights organisation felt it necessary to carry out an inquiry and report into the scandal of families and households in temporary accommodation and the conditions in which they are living. That report is utterly devastating. In the London Borough of Westminster, we have people living like this—I will quote from a couple of recent case studies:
“I’ve lived in this temporary accommodation Since June 2020 and have been under a lot of stress and strain due to my situation…I am infested with cockroaches and mice. As my son is a toddler, I always find him with the traps for…pests and putting them in his mouth. I fear for both his and my health. I have contacted my landlord, who are A2 Dominion”—
it should ashamed of itself—and
“Westminster Housing, and they keep sending pest control…They have sprayed the house but it only made matters worse. Cockroaches are everywhere! They’re in my fridge, my bed, my sons cot, within the sofas, just EVERYWHERE! I also have damp in my kitchen wall where there is water between the walls where I have an electrical socket.”
Another constituent wrote:
“I am currently in temporary accommodation and the council and housing providers which are A2 dominion”—
a bit of a theme will emerge with A2Dominion—
“are not listening to my concerns…The flat is infested with pharoah ants. They are all over the place. These ants carry bacteria which could harm my baby if they got to her. The ants have crawled on me. Today is the last straw when I saw them on my babies bottles. Pest control came out but never returned and there’s more than before… the bedroom is…freezing.... I have to put the heating on all night and that still doesn’t help so I’ve bought an electric heater that I have to put on through the whole night because of how cold the room is, and the electric heater takes so much electric that I can’t be affording.”
“This house is riddled with black mould because of the continuous flooding. This has been going on since 2017. Each and every time I have made Westminster aware of the issues, I have been told that it is my fault because I don’t keep the property ventilated…It’s because I’ve been continuously flooded. I am forever cleaning black mould off the walls. My health has got worse. So much so, my current midwife is concerned for…my unborn child…I am continuously wheezing and have a dry cough…My eldest son has asthma and always complaining that his chest is hurting him.”
“I actually haven’t had any hot water for at least 18 months and have to boil the kettle to have a bath. Why am I living like this in 2022???? Myself and my 18 month old sleep in the front room as the bedroom is too mouldy to sleep in. We have a hole in the ceiling and every time it rains, the water comes through.”
The last one wrote:
“I live in a temporary accommodation provided by Westminster council. I reported a leakage and mould problem in February 2021 to the council. The timing…was…terrible because I was undergoing breast cancer treatment so it was necessary for me to be at peace in my home free from…dampness…The reply letter acknowledges that the TA suffers from…damage, mould and disrepairs and even apologises to me yet says I will only be updated once they have more information? I think this matter is…a severe health risk yet the council believes it is…fine to continue sleeping in a mould infested home and have water dripping from the ceiling while you sleep.”
I could read 50 cases like that. The chief executive of A2Dominion earned a salary package of £276,000 in 2020, despite being in charge of a stream of those cases. But A2Dominion is not the only one.
It is my strong belief that, in addition to tackling the issues of enforcement and renters’ rights, the Government need to take action on the issue of temporary accommodation. The people accommodated there are in accommodation procured by the state. The state should set a higher bar for services than for the remainder of the private rented sector; in fact, it sets a lower bar. I would very much like the Minister, a year since I last raised this, to tell me what the Government are going to do about it.
It is a pleasure to see you in the chair, Sir Gary. I start by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Ian Byrne) on securing the debate and on his excellent introduction.
As I have said before, if the issues that we debate in this place were guided by the issues that constituents come to see us about, housing would be very near the top of the list and debated far more often than it is. Whether it is tenants facing eviction, or tenants coming back to see me in my constituency surgery for a fourth or fifth time because the damp still has not been fixed, it is clear that we do not have enough housing in the right place, of the right quality or of the right tenure. That is in part because the private rented sector has changed beyond all recognition in recent years and legislation has not kept pace with those changes. The last piece of comprehensive legislation to affect the private rented sector was over 30 years ago, with the Housing Act 1988. Since then the sector has doubled in size, and that exceptional market growth, made possible by financial incentives for landlords, together with the lack of regulation, has been characterised by insecurity, poor conditions and sky-high prices.
The biggest irony, certainly in my constituency, is that many of these private sector properties were once in public ownership, before they were sold off at a discount rate, allowing many people to own their home for the first time, which is a good thing; but that generation has moved on. Those council houses were not replaced and the first proud home owners have often been usurped by private sector landlords. So we now have the ludicrous situation where in two properties, standing side by side, one tenant will have a much lower rent, much greater security and can usually be confident that any issues they have with the property will be dealt with by the regulated, accountable social landlord, but the other has none of those things. If anything demonstrates the short-term thinking that has guided housing policy for decades, that is it.
In a debate only last week, I described how reliance on the private sector had increased in my constituency due to the chronic lack of affordable and council housing, and how it was now rare to see properties offered at a rental value equivalent to the local housing allowance. A recent search of locally available properties revealed only two within the rental liability that would be covered by the LHA, with others ranging from £30 to over £200 above the required rate.
That is not a sustainable situation. People simply cannot afford to put a roof over their head in that situation, let alone pay for the increasing bills, energy, food and council tax that we hear so much about. But today’s debate, as we know, focuses specifically on poor conditions in the private rented sector and rightly so, because private renters live in the poorest-quality homes in this country, with more than one in five properties in the private sector classed as non-decent. That may well be because, in part at least, it accounts for some of the oldest housing stock, with a third of all private rented sector properties built before 1919, so it is not a surprise, perhaps, that on average private rented sector properties have worse energy standards, meaning that the tenants have to pay significantly higher heating bills due to poor insulation, inefficient heating systems or a lack of double glazing. This is important because, as the cost of living crisis starts to bite and energy prices continue to go up, it is private renters, who are already paying higher housing costs, who will be worst affected. Of course, many private rents are higher than mortgage payments and certainly higher than social housing costs. How can we justify that situation?
As we have heard, many constituents have come to their Members of Parliament with issues with their properties. I will give one example: a property that was not watertight, so that the back door leaked every time it rained; pest control issues; electrical issues, with some of the plug sockets not fitted to the wall correctly; and issues with windows sealed shut and others that could not be closed or locked. I am sure we can all agree that that is just a snapshot of the conditions that people have to live with.
Too often, people are scared of raising concerns because of the risk of retaliation by the landlord. As we have heard, tenants who received a section 21 eviction notice were twice as likely to have complained directly to their landlord, five times more likely to have gone to their local authority and eight times more likely to have complained to a redress scheme, prior to receiving their eviction notice, resulting in a staggering 46% chance of their being served with a section 21 notice within six months of the complaint.
I met a couple this weekend who were in that position. They told me that they had been raising disrepair issues with their landlord for five years. When he finally acted, what did he do? He began work on repairs but decided to evict them at the same time. They are now living in temporary accommodation. No wonder people are reluctant to challenge landlords.
For too long, private rental properties have not had the priority they deserve from Government. A need for improvement of renters’ position was acknowledged in 2019, and again in the Queen’s Speech of 2021. Both committed to bringing forward reforms to drive improvements and standards in the private rented sector but, as we have heard, we are still waiting for those improvements. We were expecting a White Paper last autumn. In reply to my written question on the matter last month, the Minister said that would now be spring. We are now in spring, and I am hoping to hear from the Minister when we might see that White Paper and the Government finally taking the action that many Members want to see.
Housing is a basic human right. Decent and affordable housing has the power to improve people’s lives fundamentally and the life chances of children in my constituency and throughout the country. Every day that the Government delay reform is another day that people are living in cold, unsafe, insecure and unaffordable homes. For millions of people, that is an unacceptable situation that has to change, because they deserve better.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Ian Byrne) for calling this important debate. The Minister may be aware that yesterday, at the Select Committee on Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, we heard powerful testimonies from two social housing tenants about similar issues in the private rented sector.
My constituency of Vauxhall, like that of my hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck), has one of the highest levels of private renters in the country. The average house price in Vauxhall is around £600,000, as of June 2021. Private renters also pay more than their fair share, often spending more than a quarter—in some cases, a third—of their income on rent.
For that cost, the very least my constituents deserve is to live in housing in good condition. That means that the properties they are renting should meet modern standards of insulation and energy efficiency. It means that structural defects should be fixed and not left to cause serious problems. It means that urgent repairs should be carried out rapidly, to a high standard. It means expecting the same standards and efficiency from a landlord that homeowners deserve and have in their own properties.
Too often we see private rented properties not living up to those standards. Instead, we see tenants living with health-damaging features, such as mould, for months if not years. We see requests to fix faults met with sticking-plaster solutions. Although many of us may associate disrepair and poor energy efficiency with our elderly housing stock, those renting new homes and flats are not immune to finding some of the issues that I have talked about. That was the case for my constituent, Louise. She moved into new student accommodation in Vauxhall, as her family home was overcrowded and she wanted space during her time at university. The student accommodation was in a new tower block and Louise moved in soon after it opened in September last year.
Unfortunately, where Louise should have expected a new quality build, she instead found something only half done, according to her description. She says her experience has included being stuck in lifts that did not work, with firefighters coming out to help her; hot water issues; dirty water coming from taps; and tailgaters coming into the building. She said that amenities such as the laundry room were not opened until October, despite her moving in in early September. In addition, the kitchen doors and curtains were all missing.
Louise is far from alone in that experience. It is worth remembering that this is student accommodation, where many are accessing the private rented sector for the first time, and so many are scared to speak up, but continue to live in those substandard conditions. We need to understand that lack of agency when we talk about standards enforcement and ensure that conditions across the board meet the standards that we all expect. First, where standards are in place, as hon. Members have said, local councils’ ability to regulate them is drastically undermined by the cuts imposed by central Government. That makes proactive action hard and it means that tenants with so little experience of the private rental sector are unfortunately exploited by unscrupulous landlords. Providing fair funding to local authorities would allow the enforcement bodies to clean up the sector and ensure that those without a voice were not left at the mercy of disrepair.
Secondly, the insecurity at the heart of current private tenancy law goes hand-in-hand with the fears of raising issues with properties and demanding rights as a tenant. Next month, as the Minister knows, will be three years since the Government promised to end section 21 evictions, yet we are still to see that in the renters reform Bill. I hope the Minister will listen to our contributions this afternoon. I know he cares passionately about this area. I hope he will commit to bringing that vital piece of legislation forward as soon as possible to provide that reassurance and, most importantly, the protection that my constituents in Vauxhall deserve and renters up and down the country need.
I thank the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Liam Byrne) for setting the scene so very well. He does so with a knowledge and a determination for the change that each and every one of us wishes to see. I will give a Northern Ireland perspective, which the Minister is not responsible for, but will do so in order to back up the hon. Gentleman and the other speakers. It is always a pleasure to speak after the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Florence Eshalomi). She and I usually spar in this Chamber. Either she is first and I am second, or vice versa. Today the hon. Lady takes prominence, as she always does.
These are incredibly poignant issues. There are just not enough houses to meet the need in Northern Ireland, and that has meant that people pay high rents for properties that are not fit for purpose, let alone worth the money. In my office there are three massive and critical issues—benefits, housing and planning matters. Every day in my office features housing issues.
Two years ago, the rent for a standard three-bed house in Newtownards, the major town in my constituency, would cost approximately £450—for a nice house in a nice area. Two years on, that same house will now cost at least £750. I was in shock just the other week when a lady came into the office. She is divorced from her husband—separation happens—has three children and was paying £850 for a house. The gas boiler was broken and she could not set the timer. She is in private accommodation because that is all that was available. She had to press the boost button each hour to make it work, in a house in wintertime with three children. The difficulty for her was that she could never get a house with the Housing Executive, which is the equivalent to council housing over here on the mainland, because she and her partner work and they have an income and good health, so there is no way in the world that they will ever qualify for the points to get them a Housing Executive house. It would be the same here.
That is a real problem. They are stuck in a rental house, they cannot get out of that rental house and there is no other accommodation, rental or private rental where they can go, so they find themselves in a very difficult position. My constituent had divorced her husband. Separation happens; not every marriage succeeds and hers unfortunately did not. They did not have enough credit to buy a house, for which a mortgage would have cost her less. The hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) mentioned mortgages and if someone were able to get a mortgage for a house, they might be able to pay less and have something to look towards. Unlike in the constituency of the hon. Member for Vauxhall, the average price of a house in my constituency is £250,000.
My constituent asked if we would contact her landlord to get the heating on in the morning so that her children were not shivering while getting dressed. That is the reality of housing in this United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland today; every Member has said it, and every other Member who will speak will confirm it. The simple solution on paper for her was to move, and yet she could not find anything large enough or in her price range. She therefore had no option other than to pay the top price for that low-quality housing—I know that this is replicated in too many other constituencies.
The Northern Ireland Assembly report for the Private Tenancies Bill states that
“the private rented sector continues to play a critical role in meeting housing need in NI”.
The latest available data, which is from 2016—hardly up to date—indicates that the private rental sector has taken over from the social housing sector as the second-largest housing tenure. Approximately 17.4% of occupied dwellings are in the private rental sector, in comparison to the Executive—known as council housing here—which makes up 15.6% of occupied dwellings.
According to the Department for Communities, nearly half of those in the private rental sector are in receipt of some element of housing support. We say this every day in debates, but it does not lessen the issue: the price of energy is going through the roof. Renting is one cost, but then there is gas, electric or oil—whatever it may be. Housing benefit becomes a critical factor for many tenants in my constituency who are in the low-wage bracket and find those costs difficult to deal with. It is either through universal credit or housing benefit that they get help. In 2019-20, some £270 million was paid into the private rental sector, either in housing benefit or through the housing-costs element of universal credit. That tells us a wee bit about the magnitude of the issue we have before us.
The current fitness standard for all housing tenures in Northern Ireland, including private rental sector properties, has been in place since 1992. It is not the Minister’s fault, but it is totally unsatisfactory to have a standard set some 30 years ago. The housing fitness standard has been described as a physical standard, but it is arguably very outdated and does not sufficiently address issues such as thermal comfort, energy efficiency or home safety—three critical factors. As people have referred to, there are houses overrun with ants, spiders and insects, so we do need to raise the bar, and raise it soon.
Too many families are living in substandard housing. There is too little legislative weight on landlords to do what they should morally be doing. As we have families faced with high fuel prices, they can little afford to carry out the work that landlords should be carrying out for them. It has occurred to me that we must make it a priority in this House to work on this issue, which is tantamount to the abuse of the vulnerable—those who feel trapped by poverty and circumstance, and by a lack of legal support and redress. I hope that the legal statement that was made today can help; I think the hon. Member for Lewisham West and Penge (Ellie Reeves) referred to that. We hope that the legal changes that have been talked about today may help get legal redress.
I know that the Northern Ireland Assembly are seeking to address this issue back home; we in this House must also ensure that obligations on landlords are a UK-wide standard. The Minister works hard at his job and I respect him, but I will ask him to take the UK-wide approach on board when considering the matter further. People in every corner of this great United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland deserve that protection, regardless of their postcode. The hon. Member for Vauxhall said it was about helping people; I totally agree with that. Our job is to make sure that people’s lives can get better. We need to do that.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Ian Byrne) for securing this incredibly important debate. Decent housing should be a basic right for all. The private rental sector has grown significantly over the last decade, but the Government have been incredibly slow in protecting the rights of renters.
The English Housing Survey estimated that 21% of private rental sector homes did not meet the decent homes standard, and 13% of privately rented homes have a serious health hazard. The impact of that on my constituents is huge. Last year I was contacted by a constituent who raised concerns about her privately rented property. Cigarette smoke from other tenants in the block would fill her entire flat, and her five-month-old baby developed a cough that doctors said was directly due to the smoke. Despite raising that with her landlords, and giving them the opportunity to fix the situation, it was not resolved and she was instead asked to tell her neighbours to stop smoking. Eventually she was placed on the housing register, but her private landlord wanted to charge her huge fees just to move out. Minimum standards were clearly not kept up, but with no clear regulation of the private rented sector, the landlords have the power to dictate these fees to the tenant, even when the property is unsuitable for habitation. My constituent also tells me that she was left without hot water for her and her baby for 11 days, without getting any response from her landlords. She has decided to move out of London, her home city, in the hope of finding better, more affordable accommodation.
The Government’s inaction on section 21 no-fault evictions is also having a profound effect on my constituents. Despite the Government announcing in 2019 that they would abolish the measure, they are yet to do so. One of my constituents, who is unable to work due to a number of complex health issues, was served with a section 21 notice completely out of the blue, giving her one month to find a property for her and her children. She was told that she would struggle to get social housing and would have to move far away from her local support structures. She wrote to me stating that the whole experience had pushed her to the verge of suicide. I know it is difficult to hear, but policy decisions have a very real effect on the hardest hit. The Government should immediately abolish section 21 and give people security of tenure.
Another constituent who escaped domestic abuse was also served a section 21 notice from her private rented accommodation. She then found herself in appalling conditions. The temporary housing was covered in mould and damp, and there was an infestation of slugs. Instead of having this addressed, she was advised just to find another property. She and her children are now trapped in squalor, and have few or no options. This is a vulnerable family who, if not supported into decent housing, could find themselves back in the path of their abuser. Sadly, her case is not unique.
While the private rented sector is an important part of the housing mix, there has been a lack of urgency from the Government to take action on keeping the sector up to standard, and on giving renters rights. In the absence of such action, I want to mention some of the work that has been done in my constituency. While almost every council has a landlord forum, very few have formalised ways of communicating with private renters. Lewisham Council and others are trying to change this at local level. Lewisham is working with Generation Rent to research how private renters want to be engaged with, and as part of that, Generation Rent has launched a survey and planned focus groups with private renters in the borough. The aim is to provide a link between renters and councils; help the local authority become better informed about the issues that private renters face and what it can do to support them; and help renters to become more knowledgeable about the council services available to them.
Local authorities cannot fix the system alone. We need a commitment and the energy to drive this forward at national level, yet to date the Government have failed to give councils the powers to deliver landlord licensing, to deliver their planned White Paper on rental reform, and to update the decent homes standard. Sadly, this just reflects the Government’s record of kicking renters’ rights into the long grass. Every day that the Government delay reform is a day many people spend in cold, dilapidated, hazardous and unaffordable homes. My constituents and many others across the country cannot wait any longer. Rental reform has to be done now, and done right.
I hope that today the Government are listening to all these stories from up and down the country of what people are facing in the private rented sector, and that they will outline when the millions of renters living in terrible conditions will finally be treated fairly.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. I congratulate my good and hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Ian Byrne) on securing this important debate. It speaks volumes that, apart from the Minister—to whom I mean no disrespect—and his Parliamentary Private Secretary, no Government Members are present for this debate. They really should be. I do not know if it is an indication that there are no problems in the private rented sector in the constituencies of Government MPs, but this is a really important issue for me and for many Opposition Members.
I know from personal experience that my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby, is a long-term advocate of improving housing quality and conditions. Even before he was elected to this House, he very kindly hosted members of my team from Easington, who visited Liverpool in 2018 to discuss and see for themselves how that city’s very successful selective private sector rented scheme was improving the community’s quality of life. I am grateful for that, because we learned from that scheme.
I will use the little time I have to highlight the issues that affect my constituency in east Durham. I am pleased to note that after many delays and much procrastination by the Government, permission was finally given to Durham County Council to implement a scheme based on the very successful Liverpool model. That scheme will come into effect on 1 April this year. That selective licensing scheme is not a solution, but it is an important tool in the toolbox. I thank Councillor Kevin Shaw, who my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby met during that visit. He is the erstwhile holder of the housing portfolio at Durham County Council, and has always been a champion of driving up standards, tackling homelessness, and the effective regulation of absentee landlords.
This is not an abstract argument. I hope the Minister will take up some of the invitations that have been extended to him, in order to see the impact that absentee landlords have on former mining communities such as Easington Colliery, Horden and Blackhall. That impact is really quite sinful, and clearly exposes the Government’s myth of levelling up. People living in those private rented properties, which in many cases are former colliery houses, think that term is some kind of joke. Far from levelling up, many people are struggling just to keep up.
When preparing for this debate, I was reflecting on the fact that I served for a number of years on Easington District Council, a local authority that had housing responsibilities. The vision of my predecessors was “farewell to squalor”—an end to squalid housing conditions—and that gave birth to the new town of Peterlee. The idea was that we would never again suffer the appalling conditions that so many families in my constituency were subjected to before the development of that new town.
From the Government’s statements and Ministers’ responses to debates, it seems as though they measure success on housing policy by new building starts. However, there are multiple facets to, and crises in, the UK housing sector, from a lack of affordable housing stock in overheated economies, such as in parts of London and the south-east, to problems associated with derelict and void properties in the northern regions, in areas such as mine, which are falling into decline and damaging local communities. A number of Members have made positive suggestions; I do not want to elaborate on those, but I hope the Minister will respond to the suggestion about section 21 no-fault evictions, the suggestion from my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) about addressing the issue of poor energy efficiency, and all the other suggestions made. When he responds to my remarks, I would like him to concentrate on the availability of a selective licensing scheme for the private sector.
When these problems were arising, I pointed them out to the Housing Minister. I was just checking how many Housing Ministers there have been since I was first elected in 2010; I think the current Secretary of State for Transport was the Housing Minister then, and there have been 11 or 12 since. Perhaps part of the problem is getting a grip on the portfolio and understanding the depth of the problem. As soon as we feel that we are making some progress with a Minister, they are shuffled, and we have to start all over again. I am not making excuses for the Minister, and I am sure he will respond in his own way.
Seven years ago, I warned the then Housing Minister, the right hon. Member for Great Yarmouth (Brandon Lewis), that the bedroom tax was undermining the viability of social housing in many of my communities, and I pointed out the problems arising in the former mining community of Horden, where Accent Housing, a housing association, withdrew an investment plan after local housing market failure and a collapse in demand, partially because of the bedroom tax undermined demand for certain types of properties in the area. I said that I understood that Accent Housing
“is currently seeking permission from the Homes and Communities Agency to dispose of its properties on the private market, which means that it will put…up…for auction”—[Official Report, 11 February 2015; Vol. 592, c. 266WH.]
the whole of its housing stock, amounting to several hundred houses. That meant ownership was fragmented among many private landlords, who bought small parcels of stock. Instead of dealing with a stock of 500, 600 or 700 houses, we had dozens and dozens of private owners buying three or four properties. I warned then that the consequence would be an influx of absentee private landlords. They are not bad people; I am not suggesting that they are evil. Some have good intentions. They buy these properties, often at auction without even seeing them, to put that investment in their pension portfolio, but the effect has been bad for residents, tenants and the wider community.
I want action from the Government. I fear that their policies have laid the foundations for many of the problems with poor condition of housing stock. There has been decline of local housing demand, increases in the number of derelict and void properties, and a decline in the local quality of life. I have no doubt that the rise in crime and antisocial behaviour has been exacerbated by Government policies, and by the reduction we had in the number of police. I know we are all desperately trying to reverse that, but much of the damage has been done, and it will take a huge commitment and a great deal of time and effort to recover from this position.
Horden is not alone. Many areas, particularly former industrial areas—perhaps including the Minister’s constituency—have been blighted by problems and the short-sighted nature of managed decline. My constituency needs significant funding for housing redevelopment and regeneration, so will the Minister stop holding competitions to identify the areas of greatest need? He should take responsibility for the devastation that has been inflicted on communities such as mine, where people have served the nation, including by mining the coal that powered the engines of industry that made Britain great, and they deserve recognition.
In conclusion, I ask the Minister not to join his long list of predecessors in batting aside the criticism. I want him to work with the Labour party Front Benchers, and to visit my community. I want us to work together to create a funding and investment package that will improve my area and others. I want an investment package that will really deliver on the levelling-up promise. We want an end to meaningless rhetoric.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Ian Byrne), who campaigns tirelessly to try to find ways in which we can lift people out of poverty. They suffer, through no fault of their own, because the system is rigged against them. I especially pay tribute to his work fighting for a legal right to food, so that no families or children go hungry in the fifth richest economy on the planet.
We had a fantastic debate on supported housing recently in the Chamber. A number of my colleagues spoke and exposed the racket in the housing sector. I hope in my brief comments to suggest a few ways in which the Government could begin to put things into reverse.
The private rented sector is booming in this country—and in Liverpool; it accounts for 32% of all housing stock across the city, and in at least one third of council wards, the proportion is approaching 50%. Liverpool, Walton, which I represent, is ranked as the most deprived constituency in the whole of England. My office is overwhelmed by constituents coming to me and my staff for help because the places where they live are blighted by damp, mould, cold, or vermin.
I apologise for not being here at the start of the debate due to other commitments. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is not just those in private rented accommodation who find themselves trapped in totally unacceptable conditions—many of which we have heard about today? People such as Janice Dawson and her husband, in my constituency, can be forced to live in damp and unhealthy leasehold properties because management companies fail for years to carry out essential repairs, despite repeated promises to do so.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. She is absolutely right, and that problem is found not just in leaseholds, but in supported housing and housing association homes. In every sector that we look at, there is too little regulation and funding to put those issues right.
When my constituents come to me with those issues of damp, mould, cold and vermin, they are ignored by their unscrupulous landlords. The overstretched local authority, which is supposed to attempt to enforce the few housing standards that we have, is doing so with ever-dwindling resources because of more than a decade of austerity cuts. We should not underestimate the constant, crushing, dehumanising misery that squalid housing conditions cause people and families. The local authority has made tackling those problems a priority in recent years, especially in the private rented sector, but needs urgent support, which the Government have failed to deliver.
In 2015, Liverpool City Council introduced the UK’s first city-wide landlord licensing scheme, which my hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Grahame Morris) saw in operation. Since its introduction, 70% of inspected properties have been found to be in breach of their licence conditions. Some 37,000 compliance actions were carried out, 2,500 legal and fixed penalty notices were issued, and almost 250 landlords were prosecuted. In practical terms, that meant improving the lives of tenants, making electrics safe, installing fire doors, eradicating damp and preventing illegal evictions. In other words, the scheme worked.
What did the Government do when Liverpool City Council applied for a new licensing scheme in 2019? It rejected the application—a huge blow for residents. Only after numerous resubmissions have we found out that the scheme can be reintroduced in April. However, this time, it will apply to only 80% of the city’s wards, because of a diktat from Whitehall. That will undermine the city council’s ability to enforce standards across the region, and tenants will suffer as a result.
In the light of a near 65% cut in Government funding to Liverpool’s core budget since 2010, Ministers must look at how they can do more to support local authorities that want to ensure that residents have security, dignity and comfort in their home. The Government must rescind the damaging relaxation of permitted development rights and return those powers to local government, too. Ministers should turn their attention to what could be done to support the creation of flourishing communities that support the health and wellbeing of their residents, not least by implementing comprehensive national housing standards.
In recent months and years, I have been working with the Town and Country Planning Association to seek to introduce a healthy homes Act, which would effectively outlaw the slums of the future. We need robust new measures to hold landlords and developers to account. A significant barrier to effective action is the radical imbalance in access to Government among interest groups. We cannot tackle the housing crisis without tackling the undue influence that property developers have over Government policy. A recent report by Transparency International UK found that although property tycoons have an open door into Whitehall, tenants are shut out. Given that private renters make up one in five of all households across Britain, their absence from policy making is conspicuous. It warps the process in favour of vested interests.
At a recent Public Accounts Committee hearing on the regulation of private renting, I made sure that ACORN, the community and tenants’ union, was invited to give evidence. I wonder if the Minister has ever met with that union. The testimony provided to the Committee by ACORN’S representative was powerful and is too rarely heard. I urge the Minister to tell us what he plans to do to address that imbalance and ensure that tenants are given a seat at the table.
As always, it is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Sir Gary. This has been, I think, an incredibly important debate about an issue that really does not get enough attention in this place but which is of huge and growing importance to many of our constituents, not least given the size of the private rented sector and its ongoing—and, indeed, accelerating—expansion.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Ian Byrne) on securing the debate and on the way he opened it. As always, he spoke with great force and sincerity on behalf of his constituents, and brought alive the reality of the appalling conditions faced by far too many of those renting privately.
Following his impassioned remarks, we heard a series of incredibly powerful contributions from my hon. Friends the Members for Westminster North (Ms Buck), for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders), for Vauxhall (Florence Eshalomi), for Lewisham West and Penge (Ellie Reeves), for Easington (Grahame Morris) and for Liverpool, Walton (Dan Carden), as well as the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). Their contributions were all directly informed by their respective constituency experiences and the obviously huge housing caseloads each of them deals with on a weekly basis.
It is not in dispute that some of the worst standards in housing are in the private rented sector. It goes without saying that that statement should not be taken to imply that every privately rented property is in bad condition, or that all private landlords fail their tenants. I also fully accept—no doubt it will be referenced in the remarks the Minister’s officials have prepared for him—that, measured by either the decent homes standard or the housing health and safety rating system category 1 hazards, the absolute number and proportion of poor quality private rented homes continues to fall, albeit steadily rather than drastically, as part of a half century if not longer of improvement in housing standards.
There is still clearly an acute problem for those private sector tenants who are the most vulnerable, have little or no purchasing power, are increasingly concentrated at the lower end of the private rental market and—as anecdotal evidence would suggest—are also increasingly concentrated geographically. However, we still need the Department to provide accurate data on precisely how private rented homes are distributed across the country.
As we have heard from all speakers today, for tenants forced to live in homes that do not meet the decent homes standard and that often have a category 1 hazard what should be a place of refuge and comfort is instead a source of daily anxiety and, in many cases, torment and misery. Whether they wake up every day to mould, vermin or dangerous hazards, today’s debate has provided yet more evidence that substandard private rented housing takes a huge toll on the physical and mental health of those in it and prevents families and children—it is this I find the most saddening—from flourishing as they should be able to.
I know the Under-Secretary cares deeply about improving housing standards and life chances, but it should be a real source of shame to him and his colleagues that after 12 years of Conservative-led Government, one in five homes in the private rented sector still does not meet the decent homes standard and one in 10 has a category 1 hazard posing a risk of serious harm. The Minister and his colleagues should be agitating week in, week out for the changes necessary to bear down decisively on this problem, and for those changes to be enacted as a matter of urgency. What makes the situation all the more frustrating is that it is patently obvious what the required changes are and, indeed, there is broad consensus across the House on most of them.
I leave aside the more fundamental issue of a striking lack of decent, secure and genuinely affordable social homes to rent, which is in many ways at the heart of the problem, and will instead use the time left to explore in a little more detail the three most important areas where change in the private rented sector is required: standards, enforcement and rights. Each has already featured in the debate.
First, on standards, a technical but crucial issue is that the Government need to review and strengthen national standards for rented homes, and to do so at pace. The decent homes standard, which provides for general benchmarking, has not been updated since 2006. It is welcome that it is being reviewed, but the process needs to be expedited. Will the Minister tell us when the Government expect the decent homes standard review to complete? The HHSRS is also under review and we need the conclusions of that exercise to be published as soon as possible. Will the Minister give us an update on when he expects that review to complete?
My final point on standards is that, in the levelling-up White Paper, the Government committed to exploring
“proposals for new minimum standards for rented homes”.
Obviously, we have no issue with that in principle, but will the Minister give us some sense of how such minimum standards would interact with the updated decent homes standard and the HHSRS? The last thing we need is to make the current regime even more complex and challenging to administer.
Secondly, the Government must start taking enforcement more seriously. A number of contributors have talked about the importance of enforcement. The Minister could emerge from Marsham Street in a month’s time with proposals for the most robust set of national standards possible, but it would count for little if those standards could not then be enforced in practice. As my hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North mentioned, two changes need to be made if the Government are to facilitate the proper enforcement of standards across the country.
The first is to give local authorities the means to enforce standards properly themselves. At present, enforcement of standards across the country is incredibly patchy and tenants face a postcode lottery as a result. Those councils that could do more with the resources they have but are not need to be encouraged to do so, but the problem in large part is the product of central Government funding cuts over many years. Does the Minister accept as much? If so, what plans do the Government have to provide local authorities with the funding and support they need to enforce regulations, as well as enabling, rather than frustrating, those authorities that wish to adopt landlord licensing schemes?
The second change is to enable tenants themselves to enforce standards. I appreciate that the issue lies outside of the Minister’s departmental responsibilities, but does he accept that unless legal aid is reintroduced for disrepair claims so that lower income tenants can seek to enforce existing standards—let alone future standards—progress on his objectives is likely to be held back?
Thirdly, the Government must act now to give renters more rights and better protection, so that they can seek redress for poor quality conditions and disrepair without fear of retribution. There is clear consensus across the House that we need to overhaul the outdated legislation that applies to the private rented sector. However, it is now three years since the Conservative Administration of the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May) promised to abolish section 21 no-fault evictions. There has been a lot of talk about the White Paper today but, perhaps most disappointingly, we were promised a renter’s reform Bill in the Queen’s Speech last year yet as we approach the end of the Session, not only is there no sign of that Bill but we are now told to expect a White Paper in its place in the spring.
Of course, we need to ensure that any proposals for reform are considered and properly scrutinised, but tenants need protection now. They cannot afford to wait 12, 16, 18, 24 months or longer for the White Paper to be published and consulted on and for legislation to be brought forward. Given the implications for tenants suffering now, I would like to hear from the Minister why, having committed to a Bill in this Session, the Government have now determined that a White Paper will do instead.
To conclude, the House must act to improve conditions for the millions of private renters trapped in substandard housing, and must act quickly. Tenants living in squalid conditions cannot wait years while the Government slowly analyse yet more reviews and engage in more consultations and delay. We know what needs to happen; it is now a question of delivering it. I look forward to hearing from the Minister that the Government are not only seized by the urgency of the problem but, as a result, will look again at how the changes that need to be made can be enacted quickly.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary. Given that I have a bit of a cold, it might be easier for me to conclude two or three minutes early, to give my voice a rest. I thank the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Ian Byrne) for securing this debate on the quality of housing, which is an issue that affects us all. Although I appreciate that there has been no representation from the Government side, I like to reflect that that might be because my colleagues have faith in the Minister responsible and the forthcoming promise of legislation, but that will be for others to judge.
We have discussed standards in the private rented sector. I am delighted that the opportunity has arisen, because we have ambitious plans to create a vibrant private rented sector that is safe, healthy and fit for purpose. During the debate, we have heard a wealth of expertise and experience from across the House. Although I appreciate that we are on different sides of the House, I like to think we are on the same side of the argument. I share others’ determination to address these problems.
I start by reiterating our commitment to drive up standards in the private rented sector. Good quality housing can help to improve a wide range of outcomes, including health, quality of life and educational attainment. Since 2004, landlords have had to ensure that their properties are free from the most serious category 1 hazards, those that that pose an imminent risk to tenants’ health. In 2016, we strengthened local authorities’ enforcement powers to deal with hazardous properties by introducing financial penalties of up to £30,000, extending rent payment orders and introducing banning orders for the most serious and prolific offenders. Councils have been using those powers.
I fully appreciate that the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Matthew Pennycook), says that the Government are not spending enough, but I think the examples I give show that some councils are doing that. He described the provision as patchy, which is unfortunate and certainly something the Government would like to address, but there are definitely examples of good practice.
Enforcement action by Burnley Borough Council over the past two years, for example, has netted fines and costs of more than £85,000. This year, Bristol City Council banned a landlord for letting or managing properties for five years after it found he was running a seriously unsafe house, with 18 tenants, including six children. At the height of the pandemic in 2020, when people were spending so much more time in their homes, we increased safety further by requiring landlords to ensure that electrics in properties were safe. Local councils have also been using powers we gave them to do that. Fenland District Council has fined four landlords £25,000 for dangerous electrics. We are amending regulations to make it mandatory for both social and private landlords to instal a carbon monoxide alarm in any room used as living accommodation where a fixed combustion appliance of any fuel type is used.
There has been a marked improvement in standards in the private rented sector. The proportion of homes in the sector with category 1 hazards has halved since 2010. However, as the shadow Minister pointed out, 12% of homes in the sector still contain serious hazards. It is not good enough, so I need to talk about what we will do.
The levelling-up White Paper outlined a set of ambitious missions to level up the country and support our communities. On housing quality, the Government set our ambition to half the number of non-decent rented homes by 2030, with the biggest improvements in the lowest-performing areas. We have committed to consult on introducing a legally binding decent home standards in the private rented sector. We are working with a range of experts to review the housing, health and safety rating system risk assessment tool, which forms part of the decent home standards. That will make it more efficient and effective for local authorities to use and more accessible for tenants and landlords.
We are exploring a register of private rented properties so that local councils can identify where to target their enforcement and leave the good landlords alone. We are also committed to requiring all private landlords to belong to a redress scheme to drive up standards further and ensure all tenants have a right to redress. As have been said, we will abolish no-fault evictions, which will mean tenants who complain about poor standards are protected from revenge evictions. We will publish our landmark White Paper later this spring, which I understand technically starts on 20 March, so I hope very soon.
Let me turn to the issues that Members have raised. I appreciate it is slightly outside the course of the debate, but the social rented sector was mentioned by a few Members. We had the social housing White Paper, the charter for social housing residents. The regulator for social housing and the housing ombudsman have not needed to wait for us to introduce legislation to become more muscular in their interactions with the problems they face. The housing ombudsman has seriously increased its number of staff, as has the housing regulator. As we prepare for legislation, I am in constant contact with them both to ensure that they will have the powers that they need, but they already have the staff they need to carry out that level of enforcement.
A number of people mentioned the problems with mould in the socially rented sector, which was deplorable. Following the report published by the housing ombudsman, we do not have the presumption that it is the tenant’s fault—a lifestyle choice on their part—that causes damp, so we are already seeing steps in the right direction in advance of any legislation.
On the items listed by the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby, I share the frustration with section 21. Clearly, that will be fundamental in the White Paper. It seems deplorable that people could be concerned about reporting dangerous items in their property to their landlord with that fear hanging over them. We have consulted widely. I share the concerns of others and that will be fundamental to our reforms.
The shadow Minister clearly said that there are landlords who are doing the job right, but there are those who do not. Is it the Minister’s intention to bring those people up to the standard of those who do it right? Owning rented accommodation is not a cash cow; it is more than that. There is an obligation to look after their tenant. Will the standard be those good owners of rental accommodation?
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. It was raised by another Member with regard to the balance of power between tenants and landlords. For too long, the power has rested more fundamentally with landlords and we need to redress that balance to bring the standards of the worst up to the standards of the good, and we need to accept that that might mean that some landlords will exit the sector. If they have been providing a particularly poor service and poor quality accommodation, the sector will be better for their absence from it. That is why we are consulting on a decent homes standard for the PRS. Unfortunately, I am not able to say when that work will be concluded, other than in due course, but we are working closely with stakeholders to make sure that the review gives us an appropriate basis for legislation in the future.
I completely accept that there have been problems previously with the selective licensing across Liverpool. My understanding of the situation is that there were some statutory problems with the application. I appreciate that it might have been an administrative-type problem, but at least we are there now. I am an enthusiastic consultee with regard to the idea of a landlords’ register, because it would be incredibly helpful for all councils to know where their private rented landlords are, and it would help them focus whatever resources they have more specifically.
This is not a one-way Streeter—sorry, street even for the tenants. There are certain advantages for landlords of such a scheme being adopted, which I understand will happen in County Durham in two weeks’ time, based on the excellent scheme that my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Ian Byrne) was promoting.
It is great to hear about good work that is going on across the country, and I fully accept that we can learn from the work that other areas are doing.
I quickly want to cover a few more points. The hon. Member for Vauxhall (Florence Eshalomi) mentioned Louise’s case. I would be grateful if she would write to me, so I can pick up that case, because we need to be concerned about standards in all forms of accommodation, and student accommodation is one of them. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) raised working with devolved assemblies. One of the things I have been working on is the new homes ombudsman, who will ensure the new properties we build are of an appropriate quality. We have been working very closely with the devolved Assemblies on that issue, and we will continue to do so in other areas.
I am grateful for the invitation from the hon. Member for Easington (Grahame Morris) to visit. I hope there is no reshuffle before I get the opportunity to get out and about more, to say the least. With regard to the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders), when we are talking about insecurity and poor quality housing, I hope that work to abolish section 21 will address both those points because tenants will have more security and more leverage to complain about the standards of accommodation they are being provided with.
The one question I would like the Minister to answer before he wraps up is why the Government have decided to replace a commitment to a renters reform Bill in this Session with a White Paper. Can he guarantee that we will get that comprehensive renters reform Bill in this Parliament?
It would be fair to say that I will do everything I can. I feel personally invested in ensuring that happens. On the delay, I am not sure this is the legitimate answer the Government expect me to give, but we have been through two years of covid, and I have seen—we are seeing it now with the situation in Ukraine—that a number of staff have to pivot to the most pressing item that the Government are dealing with. We have a finite number of staff, and clearly covid has caused incredible challenges for the Government. I personally feel that they have responded well, but I understand the frustration. I conclude by saying that the debate has been incredibly useful for me—
It is clear from the contributions to the debate that the message is loud and clear: for so many, the system is unfair and unjust, and it leaves so many tenants living in fear, squalor and genuine worry about what the future holds for them and their families. We should think of this statistic when we leave this place today and we should think of it every day: poor housing can knock 20 years off somebody’s life. That is something that we should never forget. It is what should drive all of us in this Parliament.
I welcome the passionate contributions today from my fellow Members—the debate has been excellent—and from the shadow Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Matthew Pennycook). I also welcome the Minister’s commitment. I know that he genuinely wants to drive social justice through the Bill that we are talking about. I welcome his commitment on abolishing section 21 and his acknowledgement that current landlord licensing is patchy. We will see what is in the White Paper when it eventually comes. I look forward to working with the Minister in driving that. I hope that he redresses the situation and that we get a landlord licence scheme rolled out nationally, because licensing works and would make such a difference.
I thank everybody very much for taking the time to participate today. I really hope that the Minister does remember the 20-year fact, because deeds are far more important than words.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered poor quality conditions and disrepair in private rented sector housing.
BBC Accountability and Transparency
Gregory Campbell will move the motion and then the Minister will respond. There will not be an opportunity for the Member in charge to wind up the debate, as is the convention for 30-minute debates, so the Minister will have the final word.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered BBC accountability and transparency to Government and licence fee payers.
The BBC traditionally was a world-leading news and current affairs broadcaster—paid for, of course, by the licence fee. When I have raised issues such as the one that I will raise today, the Government have said that it is for the BBC to deal with how it allocates and spends our licence fee moneys. I understand and accept that. The problem is that when I and others raise very important issues such as the lack of transparency and the lack of accountability and I and others go to places such as our regional BBC, we do not get answers. Then we come to BBC London and we do not get answers. Then we go to the National Audit Office and we do not get answers. Then we go to Ofcom and we do not get answers. The buck has to stop somewhere, and eventually the buck stops with the Government, Parliament and all of us who, on the public’s behalf, have to try to hold the BBC to account.
A few years ago, as the Minister and others will remember, we had the term “on-screen talent”, which sometimes is a misnomer. There was an issue about the on-screen talent having huge salaries about which no one knew anything. I and others campaigned long and hard to get those salaries brought into the public domain. We all remember programmes in which publicly paid broadcasters were asking us as MPs how we allocated our overheads and how we spent our salaries, how we divvied up our salaries. On rare occasions, Ministers would say, “Just hang on a minute, Mr Dimbleby. How do you spend your money, given that you get it from the licence fee?” Unfortunately, very few people did that, although some of us did. The BBC is very good at asking questions, but it is not very good at answering them. That eventually worked its way through and the BBC now has a banding process whereby it announces the salaries of on-screen talent in certain bands, which is some progress but not sufficient.
Then, on the topic of accountability, we moved on to the issue of outside interests. That resulted in the BBC putting an external events register on their website 18 months ago. I quote:
“As announced in October 2020, the BBC will publish a quarterly summary of the paid-for external events undertaken by on-air staff in journalism and senior leaders, in order to promote the highest standards of impartiality.”
That sounds very good.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on having secured this debate. He has mentioned two issues in relation to wages and others, but he also referred to impartiality. Does my hon. Friend agree that people are now aware that the political agenda of the BBC is premium, and while we have heard about the revamp of attitude, we have seen little fruit? The BBC’s coverage of the Democratic Unionist party—my party and that of my hon. Friend—before the election has been pointed and, indeed, pointedly detrimental. Does he agree that this is an indication that the culture in the BBC remains the same—biased, bitter carping by too many producers?
Indeed. On many occasions, a stark contrast can be seen between the interruptions, constant bickering and trying to misinterpret what is being said by certain of us, and the kid gloves used with others.
For that external events register, the BBC initially put out two columns: if a presenter was undertaking external tasks, they were either paid under £5,000 or over £5,000. That is not really much of a guide, because we do not know whether that person got £25 for speaking at an event or £4,995. The BBC then relented under some pressure, and there are now four categories: under £1,000, between £1,000 and £5,000, between £5,000 and £10,000, and over £10,000. That is an improvement, but unfortunately the BBC has to be dragged into making these simple changes, almost like bringing it from the latter part of the previous century into the 21st century. A simpler approach would be for the BBC to say at the end of the year how much every presenter who undertakes external appointments earned in total—did they earn £565, £10,400, or much more? That would be a much simpler approach, because there are hundreds of these references in the BBC’s register.
I will now move to an issue that is even more significant than external events: the commissioning of programmes for the BBC. In Northern Ireland and across the UK, we have a flourishing independent media sector. It is right and proper that we help to promote the people—young people in particular, but others as well—who establish small independent companies and want to get products from those companies on to either commercial radio and television, or BBC radio and television, because that is where the next generation of media producers, backroom people and camera people will all eventually come from. However, that small independent sector comes up against a huge brick wall, because in some regions of the BBC, there are BBC personnel who have “independent” companies of their own. They apply for commissioning contracts and, remarkably, are very successful in getting them.
That is very good if there is a level playing field—if independents can apply for those contracts, and people who work for the BBC can also apply for them. The problem is that the level playing field does not remain level. There are a small number of BBC personnel who have their own companies and, when they get contracts and a programme emerges on the BBC, can then use their own programme to advertise their privately commissioned programme that is on that evening. We have all repeatedly heard things like, “You may want to tune in at 10.35 tonight, when there is a programme on”, and then the next day when the BBC presenter is on, someone gets in touch and says, “I really enjoyed your television programme last night.” Yes, a programme paid for by us, the licence fee payers, and advertised freely on the BBC to the disadvantage of independent media companies that merely want to operate on a level playing field.
The issue has not been resolved. After holding numerous meetings with the BBC, the NAO and Ofcom, I was told that an additional safeguard would be brought in to protect and safeguard against any abuse of the system. That happened three years ago, in 2019. If there was a commissioning process that was open to all and sundry to apply for, and an internal BBC person with their own company applied for it and was successful in getting through the various stages, there would be a further stage of approval before the awarding of the contract and that person received the commission.
That further stage is an internal stage. The regional head of the BBC looks at the application—from a person that he or she knows, because that person is in his or her employ, and has received numerous commissions in the past. They have to rubber-stamp the application.
We are led to believe that that is a further safeguard. I do not think so. It is not independent; it is not transparent; and it certainly does not stand up to scrutiny. It has been in place for three years. Obviously, we have had the pandemic for two of those years, so we are unaware of the success or otherwise of that safeguard. I have watched closely and have seen the same small number of internal BBC employees receive a similar number of successful contracts since the safeguard was in place, so the BBC needs to answer the questions.
I hope the Minister can raise these important matters with the BBC. As we all know, there is an ongoing issue. The Secretary of State has made it clear that the BBC will have questions to answer and that, as we go into the future, there is a severe question mark over the licence fee—we understand that—but people are angry and annoyed that they pay for a service that they either do not receive, do not want or cannot opt out of. If they watch or listen to any live BBC broadcast, they are automatically liable to pay the BBC licence fee.
The hon. Gentleman is giving a brilliant speech. I agree wholeheartedly with his points on accountability and transparency. He is alluding to the issue of value for money from the BBC. Many of my constituents have long felt that the BBC does not offer value for money. In a deprived constituency such as mine, they question the licence fee and whether they should pay what is essentially a regressive tax. Does the hon. Gentleman agree?
I do indeed. There is a rising tide of resentment, particularly when the public see matters on the BBC that seem to be quite partisan, whether locally, nationally or internationally. We can look back through the pandemic; we can look at the middle east; we can look at a whole series of incidents.
I remember the infamous time with the BBC’s North American correspondent when President Trump was first elected. At the very first press conference in the White House, the incoming President, for all his faults, said to the North American correspondent, “Who are you with?” He said, “The BBC,” and the President said, “Another winner.” That North American correspondent never forgot that put-down. Every time I saw him on at the White House, there would be a disparaging reference to the Trump Administration. Unsurprisingly, I have seen very little by way of disparaging references to the current incumbent of the White House—comparatively few, if any. I agree with the comments of the hon. Member for Blackpool South (Scott Benton). The tension and annoyance of the general public rises when they see events and incidents like that on the BBC.
I ask the Minister to raise these matters with the BBC, because we are talking about public money. There is a system in place that some of us have tried to work within. We know that the BBC is accountable for that money. We have tried regionally; we have tried nationally; we have gone to Ofcom; we have gone to the NAO—but the rationale is slow and intractable, and the BBC is slow to get to the point it should have come to automatically. It should not have had to be dragged to this point—it should have embraced it—but there is a reluctance at the heart of those in the BBC to adopt these structures.
I ask the Minister to enter into his response to the debate with an open mind and an open heart and to endeavour to take these matters up when there are discussions with the BBC, in order that the public, and all of us who occasionally or frequently watch the BBC, can rest more assured that the BBC is accountable to us who pay their very wages.
It is an honour, again, to serve under your chairmanship today, Sir Gary. I thank the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell) for securing the debate and for the many important points he, the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool South (Scott Benton) have raised. I know all three are frequent commentators on BBC performance, and I know that the hon. Member for East Londonderry has had conversations with my colleagues at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. I will make sure they are aware of the issues he has raised today. My colleagues and I regularly meet the BBC and will be happy to raise the hon. Gentleman’s points.
He is absolutely right; this debate, and the success he has had on the points he has raised, show that the BBC is accountable, as he said so clearly and eloquently, to Parliament, and to the public and the licence fee payers. That is really important and the hon. Gentleman made the point clearly.
Will the Minister continue to raise the issue of the complaints mechanism process with the BBC? In the last year for which figures are available, 2020-21, there were almost half a million audience complaints to the BBC about content. Eighteen resulted in a partially upheld or an upheld complaint. That is a woefully inadequate complaints process, when it results in such a low number of upheld complaints.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments. I know that he raised that issue with my colleagues at DCMS, including the Secretary of State. He raises important points. Addressing complaints is an important part of the responsiveness that the BBC can show, and the respect it can show to the public, as well as to Parliament. I will make sure that his point is reiterated—I know he has raised it before.
As the Secretary of State has said, the BBC is a global British brand. The Government want the BBC to continue to thrive in the decades to come, and to be a beacon for news and the arts around the world.
There are many things the Government support about the BBC. At this time, I want to draw particular attention to the work the BBC has been doing in relation to the conflict in Ukraine. The value of the BBC to people across the globe can be seen in the brave and admirable work of many BBC journalists who are risking their lives to bring us unbiased and accurate news from a live war zone in Ukraine.
However, the Government have also been clear that there are areas where we want to see the BBC do better. That includes the BBC’s approach to openness and transparency, which is the matter for discussion today. The BBC’s royal charter, underpinned by a more detailed framework agreement, guarantees the BBC’s current model, as an independent, publicly owned, public service broadcaster.
My hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool South raised the issue of value for money. On 17 January, the Secretary of State announced in Parliament that the licence fee would be frozen for the next two years and would rise in line with inflation for the following four years. This settlement aims to support households at a time when they need that support the most and sends an important message about keeping costs down and giving the BBC what it needs to deliver to fulfill its remit. The BBC will continue to receive around £3.7 billion in annual public funding, allowing it to deliver its mission and public purposes and to continue doing what it does best. We recognise the important point about money that the hon. Gentleman raised.
The charter also requires the BBC to act in the public interest; to observe high standards of openness; and to seek to maximise transparency and accountability. The public has a right to expect the BBC, as a public service broadcaster, to be open and transparent. The Government believe that this focus on transparency and accountability is a key obligation for the BBC and essential to maintaining public trust. That is why, for example, the Government now require the BBC to publish salary details of all BBC staff paid over £150,000, which was done for the first time in the BBC’s annual report back in 2016-17. The public deserve to know how their licence fee is being spent.
The hon. Member for East Londonderry mentioned the issue of the external events register. In 2020, the BBC announced it would publish a quarterly summary of the paid-for external events undertaken by on-air staff in journalism and by senior leaders in order to promote the high standards of impartiality. The first quarter to be published covered January to March 2020-21. The Government welcome the publication of this information and it is an important example of how the BBC can increase its openness and transparency.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned that perhaps he can chalk this up as a success. It looks as if the BBC has already moved to be even more open in the characterisation. I hope that is a step in the right direction and shows that the BBC is listening and has heard the points raised by him and others and will take action. I understand his frustration at having to labour those points, but I think this shows that movement in the right direction can be made.
As we know, unfortunately, the BBC has fallen short in the past in a number of ways. Lord Dyson’s report last year into the “Panorama” interview with Princess Diana shed light on the serious consequences incurred when the BBC does not meet the high standards of integrity and transparency which we expect from a public service broadcaster. Lord Dyson found that the BBC’s broadcast coverage was not open in regard to what the BBC knew about its own activities or transparent enough in response to questions from the press.
The BBC has clearly made progress since the 1990s, when the interview took place. The subsequent review by Sir Nicholas Serota into the BBC’s editorial process, governance and culture found that the BBC was much more open and accountable than it was 25 years ago, but that more could still be done. The Serota review also uncovered a persisting culture of defensiveness at the BBC, especially around admitting mistakes. The review also noted that, as a publicly-funded organisation in a society that is increasingly open, the BBC must further identify opportunities to enhance transparency.
This view is also held by Ofcom, the independent regulator of the BBC. Ofcom has consistently called for the BBC to be more transparent in how it explains its decisions to the public, engages with industry on proposed changes to its services, and in its reporting. Ofcom’s most recent annual report on the BBC’s performance noted that it has seen some improvements in recent years, but more needs to be done. We support Ofcom’s view that it is critical that the BBC holds itself accountable by clearly setting out how it will implement its strategies, measure their success and report on their effectiveness.
The Government have therefore welcomed the BBC’s acceptance of the Serota review’s findings and recommendations in full and the BBC’s publication of its 10-point impartiality and editorial standards action plan. We see this as an essential step in driving culture change at the BBC.
We also welcome recent announcements that the BBC will be carrying out the first of its thematic editorial reviews under the plan of its coverage of taxation and UK public spending. This will be chaired by Sir Andrew Dilnot and Michael Blastland, and the Government look forward to publication of the review this summer.
I thank the Minister for the comprehensive nature of his response. In the concluding part of his response, will he detail the issue that I raised towards the end of my speech in relation to the commissioning of programmes, which is an important part of the debate?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for reiterating that point. I will come to it in a moment.
Looking further ahead, the Government will shortly begin the mid-term review of the BBC charter, which will consider the overall governance and regulation of the BBC. A key part of that review will be whether the BBC plans for reform have materially contributed to improving the organisation’s internal governance.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned the point about commissioning, and in that context he highlighted the incredibly successful Northern Ireland independent production sector, and the overall film and TV production sector in Northern Ireland, which I know; I have managed to visit it a couple of times. It is absolutely incredible—world class—both in front of and behind the camera, which is why so many productions are based there. It is a really important sector, and commissioning and the commissioning process is vital.
According to Ofcom’s annual report on the BBC for 2020-21, published in November last year, the BBC has confirmed it is on track to meet the charter requirements on commissioning—64% of television, 53% of radio and 59% of online opportunities were open to competition. Ofcom notes that progress towards the targets this year has not been as significant as in other years, and in the case of online the percentage of content that is contested decreased. For TV and radio programming, Ofcom understands that the smaller increase is due to the BBC putting some of its plans for competitive tendering on hold due to the impact of covid-19. I will ensure that my colleagues in the BBC hear the other comments that the hon. Gentleman raised earlier. I am sure that they will keep a close eye on the record in Hansard.
Richard Sharp, the chairman of the BBC, has said:
“Trust is the foundation of the BBC’s relationship with audiences and it is more important now than ever.”
I agree. It is for this reason that it is more necessary than ever to rebuild and maintain trust in the BBC among those who have lost it. The BBC has made promising steps towards greater transparency and accountability, but there is more to be done. The Government will continue to work closely with the BBC to ensure that it remains trusted and valued by audiences in the UK and across the world for many years to come.
Question put and agreed to.
Welsh Local Authorities
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the role of Welsh local authorities in delivering public services and economic development.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairpersonship, Sir Gary, and to be able to speak about the record of Welsh local government in delivering public services and economic development. It is a particular honour to do so after two hard years of the covid-19 pandemic, in which local government teams across Wales, not least in my own two local authorities of Cardiff and Vale of Glamorgan, have played a critical role in supporting their local communities and in adapting on the hoof to maintain services during some of the most testing times that we have seen for decades.
We have also seen the very best of partnership and co-operative working—I am proud to say that as a Labour and Co-operative MP, and I spoke about the issue in this place not so long ago—with central Government and a range of other bodies, from our local health boards to our schools, care services, police and other rescue services. I can say, hand on heart, that I was deeply moved at a number of points during the pandemic to see councillors, officers and staff at every level working 24/7 to ensure that no one, from our children to the most vulnerable, was left behind. When we look back on this period, I have no doubt that many will conclude that it was their finest hour.
Let me point above all to one key principle: that of co-constructing services in partnership with the Welsh Government and other key stakeholders. That was best exemplified by the success of the test, trace, protect system in Wales. Compared with the complex, expensive and, I am sorry to say, failing system that we saw at times on the England-Wales border, the TTP system was more efficient and effective and, crucially, substantially cheaper. Independent analysis carried out last year by Cardiff University’s Wales Governance Centre showed that the cost of personal protective equipment and test and trace in England was almost twice as expensive as that of their equivalents in Wales. The report estimated that the cost of PPE and the devolved elements of the test and trace system in Wales was £533 million. The Wales Governance Centre’s analysis showed how that was approximately half the amount of consequentials stemming from English spending on test and trace and PPE, which stood at over £1 billion. Those costs were £158 lower per person in Wales than they were in England.
We all know that buried on page 199 of the recent annual report of the UK Government’s Department of Health and Social Care was the disclosure that it had incurred £8.7 billion of losses on the £12.1 billion spent on PPE in 2021. That is a truly shocking waste of taxpayers’ money. I urge the Government genuinely to reflect on how that money could have been used more productively and effectively had the collaborative approach taken in Wales been used across England. When we look at the financial headlines, we also see success when it comes to local government in Wales. Instead of hollowing out and decimating local government, we have seen a revaluing of the crucial services, expertise and local knowledge that local government delivers.
The Welsh Government have provided a 9.4% uplift in funding overall, which in difficult fiscal times is a testament to the value placed on local government in Wales and, crucially, its hard-working staff. Next year, local authorities in Wales will receive £5.1 billion from the Welsh Government in core revenue funding and non-domestic rates to spend on delivering key services. That means supporting our councils with an additional £750 million to provide the critical services that Wales relies on, such as schools, social care, recycling and so on. That equates to an increase of 9.4% across Wales, or £437 million on a like-for-like basis compared with the current year, and no local authority in Wales will receive less than an 8.4% increase, which I am sure Members will agree is substantial given the overall fiscal constraints. That shows what I believe are Welsh Labour values in action, providing support to critical public services and workers who have helped us every day throughout the pandemic.
Among other things, local government will be able to maintain the Welsh Government’s council tax reduction scheme, with the Welsh Government providing £244 million in support to the most vulnerable people in Wales. It will support the major programme for government commitments, including the pledge to introduce free school meals for all primary school pupils in Wales. Social care staff will receive the real living wage in Wales—currently £9.90 an hour—from April 2022. That will apply to registered workers in care homes and domiciliary care, in both adult and children’s services. It will also apply to personal assistants who provide care and support that is funded through a direct payment—a real testament, I am sure, to the work of those staff through the pandemic period.
The Welsh Government are keen that we nurture that collaboration, drawing on that relationship to look to the future. I am thinking about the different models proposed for housing, and the need to think creatively about the future of social care, to be bold in the exploration of new, innovative models of transport and to think innovatively about the urgent need to decarbonise our economy and our communities. I declare an interest as someone who started his career as a play worker and a council official in the Vale of Glamorgan Council, at one point dressing up as Gully in Gully’s Gang, trying to support young children in our communities. I am sure that there are pictures somewhere. I have had direct experience of working in local government in a number of roles in south Wales.
I pay tribute again to every local government staff member across Cardiff, the Vale and the whole of Wales, from teachers to refuse collectors, care workers and highway staff, who all went beyond the call of duty, often taking on new roles and complex, challenging tasks. Particularly in the early stage of the pandemic, before we had access to the life-changing vaccines, they did so knowing the risks that they could be exposed to, even when the best precautions were in place, in order to ensure that a vulnerable elderly person did not go without support, that a child did not go without a meal or learning, and that no crucial piece of local infrastructure fell into disrepair.
I will come on to some of the successes in local government across Wales. I will focus on my own two local authorities and then take a quick canter through the others, but I could not do justice to all the authorities in Wales in this speech. I hope that other Members will intervene and make their own speeches, in which they can go into more detail. I am hugely proud of the work of Cardiff Council, under our leader Councillor Huw Thomas and his team. It has been a record of innovation, commitment and ambition over recent years. The list of successes is huge, but in addition to their remarkable work supporting people throughout the pandemic and their day-to-day delivery of services, I will highlight some other key successes.
A remarkable scheme of council house building and bearing down on homelessness under the leadership of Councillor Lynda Thorne has been truly transformative, with much more to come. I can see those new council properties being built in my own community and in deprived communities that need them. On campaigning and delivering on the real living wage, 40% of real living wage accredited employers in Wales are now located in Cardiff. That means that 8,000 people have had a pay rise thanks to pressure and campaigning from our council. There have been huge and continued redevelopments, from the city centre to the bay in my constituency, including the Central Square area, now home to the new BBC headquarters. UK Government buildings have chosen to locate there, as well as the Cardiff School of Journalism and our new, and promised, bus station and transport hub.
I have seen new leisure facilities in my constituency, including the new Star Centre and pool in Splott, and remarkable new education facilities, including Eastern High in my constituency turning around educational performance and aspirations. There are new green transport links, plans for the metro, and, hopefully, a new Cardiff Parkway station, a public-private partnership in the east of the city. We are attracting and developing new high-value sectors, including film and TV production and high-tech and other future-proof industries, in our cities, and building the skills chain to support them.
I am of course proud to have a constituency that includes not just one but two local authorities, one of which is the Labour-led Vale of Glamorgan. I pay tribute to the leadership of Councillor Neil Moore and the deputy leader, Councillor Lis Burnett, who is one of Penarth’s councillors, for their work throughout the pandemic, and that of their whole cabinet and team. Again, I could praise much of their day-to-day work, but recent highlights include saving the Penarth pier pavilion after a difficult period and bringing it back into vibrant and sustainable public use, and pioneering the Big Fresh Catering Company, a local authority trading company based on co-operative principles in our schools, which has turned a £350,000 deficit into a £500,000 surplus in one year, with that money being reinvested in schools.
We see huge investment at the Penarth Learning Community that turns around prospects for learners on a combined school site. St Cyres School is a part of that and recently celebrated being one of the first schools to be designated a school of sanctuary for its work in supporting those fleeing conflict and persecution abroad. The new food pod scheme, designed to support local communities that faced major challenges during the pandemic and to tackle food waste, is part of the council’s clean slate neighbourhood programme, a two-year scheme to make a key area of Penarth cleaner, greener, healthier and better connected. We are investing in our green and seaside spaces, from Cosmeston to the famous Barry Island, making the Vale a destination for all to visit and enjoy and generate local employment.
My hon. Friend the Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden) could not be here this afternoon—my neighbour and hon. Friend the Member for Newport West (Ruth Jones) is here—but she wanted me to highlight the work of the Labour-led Newport Council, led by Councillor Jane Mudd. Newport distributed 9,000 laptops and devices to learners during the pandemic, administering £55 million of Welsh Government funding to support businesses. Newport has world-beating recycling rates and exciting plans for economic development and regeneration in Newport city centre. Newport and my own city of Cardiff are leading the way with support for unaccompanied, sanctuary seeking children.
Neath Port Talbot dealt with a series of emergency and crisis situations, including severe flooding in Skewen, a gas explosion in Seven Sisters, and landslips. It is also investing in significant regeneration projects in Neath town centre, Harbourside in Port Talbot, and the Plaza cinema in Swansea, which I am sure we will hear about given the colleagues I can see here. New technology is being pioneered through the Homes as Power Stations approach and through Passivhaus, which creates buildings that use less energy. There is work to tackle homelessness, as we have seen in Cardiff, by developing the former Bryn House community education centre in Uplands.
Bridgend has made a record investment in 21st-century schools, renewed sea defences, and cultural regeneration, including at the Maesteg town hall. In Rhondda Cynon Taf, which I am sure we will hear about, there is free wi-fi in all town centres and investment in town centre regeneration, and a huge amount of work is being done, including by my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd (Alex Davies-Jones), to tackle flood risk and the impact of the terrible floods of a few years ago. Like Cardiff, RCT is delivering a real living wage to council contractors, as well as directly employed staff.
Torfaen is pioneering new and exciting support programmes for dads and is piloting new forms of democracy with advance voting in elections. In Flintshire in north Wales, a £15 million redevelopment of a new care home is being undertaken, with state-of-the-art accommodation to support people. Caerphilly has received awards for its free school meal delivery for families. The approach to free school meals and feeding our children was in stark contrast to the regrettable situation in England, which had to be put under pressure by Marcus Rashford and others. Also, it set up Caerphilly Cares, a signposting and support service for local people.
I could not possibly mention every local authority and location, because I would be here for hours. However, I have given Members some highlights of the really exciting, positive and impactful changes that local government has made both in providing services and in driving economic development in Wales. It is a record of success, impact and ambition under a Welsh Labour Government who value our local services, and Welsh Labour-led councils that deliver every day.
Although I have highlighted the substantial political differences that Labour authorities make, I must thank again all council staff and workers across Wales, no matter the political make-up of their authority, for the services they provide day in, day out, particularly during the pandemic. I should also highlight the role that all councils have played in offering help to the people of Ukraine and in offering to rehouse people fleeing Afghanistan and elsewhere, and also their response to cleaning up after the huge local storms and the damage caused in recent weeks.
I want to end by paying tribute to Councillor Andrew Morgan, leader of the Welsh Local Government Association, and his deputy, Councillor Rob Stewart, for the work, leadership and constructive partnership that they and all of their council leader colleagues provided throughout the pandemic and which continues today. In concluding, I hope that the Minister will recognise and welcome the leadership shown in Wales, and pledge to learn from and partner with, and not circumvent, our local authorities in Wales, which are doing so much good.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary. It is also delightful to be in this debate with my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty). I congratulate him on securing it.
Across Wales, our local authorities are showing ambition in their commitments to economic development and the provision of public services. My own local council in Swansea is no exception. One of the biggest projects planned in the city is the Swansea bay tidal lagoon, which has been talked about since well before I took my place in this place. After the original proposal was rejected in 2018, the new Blue Eden project was announced last year.
The new project will not only make Wales a world leader in renewable energy innovation, but bring hundreds of jobs to part of a city that has suffered for far too long as the industries for which it was once the heartland have been relocated. Although the Blue Eden project does not rely on any public funding, local government will have a key role to play in helping to develop and deliver the project. It will also be looking to the Welsh and UK Governments for support in doing that.
That project is about global innovation and will put our little corner of south Wales on the map, but today I want to share information on some of the economic investments that my local authority has committed to public services. They are progressive and ambitious commitments, showing the council’s determination to improve the lives of people in communities across Swansea.
My local authority has invested a record £179 million in our schools and education services; committed £5 million to upgrade all children’s play areas across the city, and scrapped fees for local sports clubs to use public parks and pitches; invested £144 million to deliver better care services for vulnerable adults and children; committed £50,000 to provide new life-saving equipment in every community in the city; expanded apprenticeship opportunities and is providing grants of up to £10,000 to support local businesses; invested £4 million to support homeless people, including through the “always a bed” pledge, meaning that nobody needs to be homeless in Swansea; and is providing free bus travel for everyone across the city on selected dates throughout the year.
Those are bold decisions, made in difficult times, but they are the right decisions, putting the interests of people from across the city front and centre and supporting communities by continuing to build a better Swansea. With the bold and innovative leadership of Swansea City Council’s leader, Rob Stewart, it will hopefully have an opportunity to continue to lead on those bold and ambitious plans.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) on securing this excellent debate. I had the privilege of being a council leader in the past; I know what a difference it can make. In fact, I was responsible for a 26 km electronic tram system in south London.
The council leader in Swansea, Rob Stewart, has great ambitions for a Swansea metro. However, we need the money to do that. I should again make the case to the Minister that Wales deserves its fair share of HS2 money, in accordance with that received by Scotland. That would give us an extra £4.6 billion to invest in our electrified systems. There are only 22 miles of electric rail across all of Wales, despite thousands of miles of it in England.
We have great ambitions there, but we also have great ambitions elsewhere. We have already heard that Swansea does a great job in its core service provision—in education, social services, housing and local transport—but also in terms of culture. The Minister joined me in Swansea West at the brand new arena that seats 3,500 people; Mark Drakeford, our First Minister, was there as well. That will be a great magnet for new investment and a great boost to people who live in Swansea. We have heard about the Blue Eden version of the Swansea lagoon. I knew about the lagoon prior to my election in 2010 when I was working at the Environment Agency Wales; at last, despite the blockages from the UK Government in providing the money, Blue Eden, its new rendition, is moving forward without Government support.
At a time when energy prices are rising, climate change is accelerating and we can see what is happening in Ukraine in terms of the need for energy security, it is imperative that we redouble our efforts to invest in clean, green alternatives, as opposed to fracking. In Swansea 62% of people are recycling, compared with 30% in north London, which is also building a new incinerator. I am very proud that my colleague the Minister for Climate Change in the Senedd, Julie James, has announced a moratorium on new incineration in Wales. That is something that England should take forward.
We saw the great work that local authorities did during the pandemic—in Swansea, Cardiff and throughout Wales—by looking after people in great need and providing food for people who were isolated, as well as by providing business support. My hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth mentioned the waste of money in England; strangely, we got the Barnett consequential of that, so we had more money to give to our local businesses. Local businesses therefore got much more support in Wales than they did in England, because we used local authorities and health authorities rather than mates in the private sector. For Ukraine, Swansea is a city of sanctuary. We are a nation of sanctuary in Wales, and we look forward to having the resources and the opportunity to open our hearts and homes to the people of Ukraine.
We need our fair share of money. I have mentioned the transport money, but in addition to that we have had a freeze over the last 10 years of austerity. Had the income of the Welsh Government grown in accordance with the economy, we would have had £2 billion to £3 billion more. We are set to lose something like £1 billion in EU funding. The Minister may talk about a mix of cash flow and the amount allocated per year, but the reality is that we are not seeing the money that we saw before. We look forward to getting the shared prosperity fund at the level that was promised. We welcomed levelling up, but it is small beer compared with the huge numbers that we are talking about. We want a fairer future. I am pleased that the £10 minimum living wage, which has been enabled in Swansea, will help a fair deal at a time when benefits are going up by only 3.2% when inflation is set to be 8% by next April.
In Swansea and across Wales, Welsh Labour is striving to achieve and deliver a stronger, fairer and greener future. I welcome what it is doing, and I am privileged to congratulate the local governments across Wales and in particular in Swansea.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary. I thank my neighbour and hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) for securing this important debate.
It is important that we shout loudly and proudly about the work that our local councils do across Wales. I am obviously going to speak about Newport City Council. My hon. Friend the Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden) is unable to be here, as my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth has alluded to. However, she is very keen that we put Newport City Council, its leader Jane Mudd and all her cabinet colleagues on the map. I was not going to speak today—I was just going to intervene—but when I was reminded that Newport became a city 20 years ago this month, I thought it was important that I speak about that.
Throughout the pandemic, our local government have stepped up to the plate and shown how important their work is—certainly in Newport. They kept the children of key workers in school to enable them to go out to do vital work in retail, in track and trace, and in hospital settings. The local council, by providing those key services, put in place infrastructure to enable other people to get on with vital work.
Further services included homing the homeless during the pandemic. Newport City Council has a designated caseworker who works with those who are more difficult to reach and maybe not so willing to engage with local services. That person is doing a brilliant job of bringing people in and getting appropriate services to vulnerable people who might need additional care. That is a really good service provided in Newport.
Recycling has already been mentioned. In Wales, we are proud to be the second best recyclers in the world—we are happy to give England some lessons on how that should be done. We have integrated recycling that goes across local authorities, allowing each local citizen to play their part by putting out the right recycling.
In Newport we are also very conscious of air pollution. Our local council leader, Jane Mudd, has been very bold and we now have a fleet of electric buses, which are all part of our integrated public transport. As my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) said, we have free travel for all in March. That is brilliant —people can get the bus for free.
Newport City Council undertook a “Stand with Ukraine” rally on Sunday, where I was privileged to stand with Jane Mudd, our leader, to say that Newport is a city of sanctuary, alongside the whole of Wales. We are looking forward to working with the local council, the Welsh Government and non-governmental organisations, including St Woolos cathedral and the Very Reverend Ian Black, who will be opening their doors to refugees when they arrive.
I nearly forgot to mention that Jane Mudd has been instrumental, alongside my hon. Friend the Member for Newport East, in work on the western gateway, developing links across Wales and further afield—as far as Swindon and Reading—to make sure that we have the business infrastructure in place. That will be really important.
Newport City Council does a brilliant job. It works with local people, local organisations, other councils and, of course, the Welsh Government. After all, great partnerships produce great results.
As ever, it is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Sir Gary. Like my colleagues, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) on securing this important and timely debate.
Local authorities play an incredibly important role in delivering public services, and this afternoon we have heard about the incredible work of local authorities across Wales. The debate has been quite Swansea-heavy, but let me say that I am proud that my local authority of Rhondda Cynon Taf County Borough Council has been leading the way on the long-term recovery from the devastating impact of coronavirus and the unprecedented flooding that devastated my community back in 2020.
However, even with the support of local authorities, we cannot and should not pretend that the last few years have been anything other than challenging for communities across Wales and the UK more widely. As the cost of living continues to rise sharply, it is clear that we cannot rely on the UK Government’s half-baked levelling-up agenda to address the ever-widening funding gaps. That is why I feel incredibly fortunate that the Labour-led RCT Council, led by Councillor Andrew Morgan and the deputy leader, Councillor Maureen Webber, has been bold and ambitious in supporting my local community as we transition towards a recovery period.
I feel a particular closeness to my local authority because, like many of my colleagues, it is where my political career began. I first stood to represent my local community of Tonyrefail West in 2012, and I have remained a very proud local councillor ever since. Before anyone seeks to point the finger, I would like to place on record that that position has been unremunerated since my election in 2019.
Despite that, my eyes have always been open to the real impact that effective local authority councils and town and community councils can have on their area. In recent years I have had the real privilege of playing my part in a number of local projects, including seeing a new play area built in Edmondstown, a new school development in Tonyrefail and an all-important speed reduction scheme on Barn Hill. The importance of our local authorities in delivering those everyday services, which residents across Wales truly rely on, is clear for all to see.
In my area, RCT Council has been central to an ambitious regeneration project that will be transformational for our local high streets, which, as I am sure we can all agree, have been particularly hard hit over the past few years. Even with the best efforts of our Welsh Labour Government, it has been an especially difficult time as independent shops that may previously have been completely reliant on footfall and in-person transactions have been forced to modernise rapidly and move their operations online. That is why I am particularly grateful that RCT Council has consistently prioritised supporting businesses big and small through its business advice and guidance hub.
Let me reassure colleagues that the support for local economic development in our area does not stop there, thanks to our council. I am delighted to report that RCT is currently backing a number of ongoing important regeneration projects within Ponty town centre, which will bring jobs to the area as well as strengthen the local economy. The regeneration framework, aptly named Pivotal Pontypridd, began in 2017 when the council first identified Pontypridd as one of its five strategic opportunity areas. While it will come as no surprise that I, as the Member for Pontypridd, welcome this news with open arms, I will do my best, out of respect for other Members, not to gloat too much, though it is very tempting.
This fantastic regeneration project aims to build on the investment that RCT Council has secured and made available for a number of crucial projects in recent years, including the £12 million Pontypridd town centre regeneration programme, and the £14 million project that saw Pontypridd railway station get a much-needed upgrade. Over the past four years, RCT Council has committed to many more projects, which amount to an incredible £115 million investment for our town centre. Those include funding the brilliant Llys Cadwyn, which was completed in 2020 and sits proudly in the centre of our town. That mixed-use development is now home to important businesses, such as Transport for Wales HQ, Bradleys Coffee, the excellent Gatto Lounge, which I recommend for a cocktail or two, and a new library, fitness centre and customer contact point for council services.
In a world where we are used to seeing decision makers at the top of Government change with little warning—perhaps the less said about reshuffles the better—it is clear that our local authorities are playing an increasingly important role in ensuring that local projects such as these receive the consistency and dedication that they truly deserve.
To conclude, that is why it is so important that we shout proudly about the work going on in Wales, thanks to our fantastic local authorities. They play a crucial role and must not be impacted by funding cuts from central Government, not now or in future. After all, it is our councillors across the nation who are often at the heart of fixing everyday issues, which may never reach the inboxes of a Member of Parliament. They deserve our unwavering support at every level.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) for securing this timely and important debate. I am proud to work, alongside my Welsh Labour colleagues, my hon. Friends the Members for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) and for Swansea West (Geraint Davies), with the local Labour council in Swansea. As has been mentioned in today’s Swansea-heavy debate, it was the first Welsh council to adopt a minimum staff wage of £10 an hour. By doing that, Swansea Council shows how much it values its staff, who are the ones who have kept our vital services running, especially throughout the pandemic.
I pay tribute to the hard work and dedication of the Swansea Council leader, Rob Stewart, and his cabinet members. It is amazing to see many projects come to fruition, such as the new Swansea arena, which I know the Minister visited. I am looking forward to going there in May to see “The Good, The Bad and The Rugby—Live”. Although the Minister knows the frustration of the people of Swansea over the Swansea bay tidal lagoon, he will agree with me that the new Blue Eden project is the innovative and economy-boosting project that Swansea, and indeed Wales, needs.
Last month, Swansea Council announced a record-breaking budget for services that affect my constituents every day. An extra £35 million of funding will go towards record levels of spending in schools and social care, with support concentrated on community-based services, such as litter picking, street cleaning and road improvements. Those are all issues that I am sure many of us hear about from our constituents every day. It is great news that the Labour Government have protected the budget of Swansea Council, allowing it to invest more in the priorities of the people of Swansea and Gower.
The pandemic showed us the huge benefits of spending time outdoors. I am pleased that Swansea Council has introduced schemes to reflect that, with free bus travel over the school holidays, allowing families to make the most of the fantastic outdoor spaces available, whether that is our world-famous beaches on the Gower peninsula or our green spaces, such as Penllergare valley woods. I am pleased about the investment that is going into playground spaces, which my colleagues spoke about. A lot of that is seen in my constituency, such as Gowerton park, Parc Melin Mynach, Bracelet Bay, Pennard park and Coed Bach park, to name a few that are currently undergoing transformation.
One thing that has not been spoken about today is that in 2015 Swansea became the first council in Wales to introduce the local area co-ordination network. Our local area co-ordinators—or LACs as we call them—were invaluable during the pandemic. In the first five months, they responded to over 20,000 inquiries, from picking up food and medication to dropping pets at vets, and anything in between. These local authority co-ordinators who work in my constituency and across Swansea are dedicated to their communities. My thanks go out to them on behalf of all my constituents who they have worked so hard to support. One of the good things about the scheme is that we are showing the rest of Wales and beyond what good practice this is. To see that good practice roll out in other authorities is what it is all about, because it benefits everybody.
I would like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to those cabinet members from Gower who will not be standing again in the local elections, who have been very patient, collaborative and kind to me since I was elected in 2017: Councillor Mark Thomas from Penclawdd, who has been environment enhancement and infrastructure manager—highways, to a lot of us—and Councillor Mark Child from West Cross. We will also be saying a sad goodbye to Christine Richards, our councillor for Loughor and the former deputy leader of Swansea Council.
We know how important our local councils are to us all. Our working relationship with them and with the Welsh Government is key. I am proud to work alongside Swansea Council and look forward to continuing this work post-election with new faces and old friends.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary, and to respond to the debate on behalf of the Opposition. I start by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) on securing the debate and setting out so passionately the excellent examples of local authorities delivering for local residents.
My hon. Friend rightly talked about the level of support and commitment from officers and members right across local government in Wales during the pandemic. He also spoke about the support from the Welsh Labour Government through the plans for free school meals, social care, workers receiving a real living wage, and the significant investment in local government services. He highlighted the good work in Cardiff Council and the Vale of Glamorgan Council with a stellar list of achievements across the two authorities in regeneration, transport, dealing with food poverty and many other issues.
Local government has always played a huge role in delivering frontline services. I know that only too well from my 20 years as a county councillor before being elected to Parliament. However, it is fair to say that the role of councillors and councils, as we have heard a number of times today, has never been under as much pressure as the last two years. By and large, all 22 local authorities across Wales, for members, officers and frontline staff, have really stepped up to the plate and continued to deliver excellent public services for their communities.
Many of today’s speeches have highlighted the flavour of the work done by our local authorities. My hon. friends the Members for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris), for Swansea West (Geraint Davies) and for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi) talked about the good work of Swansea Council, with the new Blue Eden project, which sounds very exciting and will create hundreds of jobs. They also talked about the significant investment in education and schools, the 62% recycling rate and transport improvements. Swansea was the first council to offer the minimum staff wage of £10 an hour.
I was particularly interested to hear about the work on green spaces and sports pitches with the abolition of pitch fees, which is something that the opposition group on Merthyr Tydfil Council, led by Councillor Darren Roberts, have pledged to do if they win the election on 5 May.
We heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Newport West (Ruth Jones) about the achievements in Newport City Council: the multi-agency social work hub; the safeguarding; the western gateway, looking out across the region; and the significant work on tackling recycling.
My hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd (Alex Davies-Jones) talked about the work of Rhondda Cynon Taf County Borough Council, leading the way after covid, storms and flooding affected many communities across her constituency and the surrounding area. That comes from being bold and ambitious. She also mentioned looking at significant improvements in play areas and schools—services that we all know people rely on every day and appreciate very much, as they do town centre regeneration as well.
I know from part of my constituency in the Caerphilly County Borough that the council there has been at the forefront of supporting families during the pandemic, recently delivering its one millionth free school meal, supported by Welsh Labour Government funding and delivered with a real sense of commitment—not, as my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer) told the Welsh Labour conference on Saturday, after
“a last-minute U-turn after a really good kicking from a Premier League striker”,
which was the case in England.
In Torfaen, Welsh Labour councillors are among the local residents who make up the volunteers who ensure that households across Torfaen have access to regular food. Seven days a week, amazing volunteers sort, pack and distribute food and essential items to those in need, as well as offering financial, mental health and physical support across Torfaen. There are now hundreds of high-quality new homes in Flint, together with newly built care facilities and a superb town centre regeneration that has created more jobs and apprenticeships locally, all delivered by the Welsh Labour-led council in Flintshire. My hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) and I had the pleasure of visiting Flintshire last week.
In Bridgend, the Welsh Labour council has helped more than 4,600 people into work through its dedicated employability scheme, involving free training, supported job searches and CV development advice to upskill and support those seeking work. In Neath Port Talbot, the council has given advice, information and financial support to more than 2,000 businesses, along with administering £47 million in covid payments to businesses.
I think it is fair to say that local authorities are often the strategic partners in projects to support economic development. They are the catalyst and brokers that often bring together a range of partners and stakeholders that deliver holistic projects for our communities. Since devolution, our local authorities have been at the forefront of delivering regeneration projects across Wales—we have heard about many of them today—all done in partnership with the Welsh Government and other strategic partners. That strategic partnership must be safeguarded as the Government here in Westminster move forward with their levelling-up agenda. Wales cannot afford to lose the high level of partnership working and trust that has been built up over 20 years. That is why it is important that the Welsh Government are at the table for discussions and decisions around levelling-up projects going forward.
The excellent record of partnership working in Wales can be further illustrated by the fact that, throughout the pandemic, the leader of the Welsh Local Government Association sat around the table with the Welsh Government to ensure that the response to the pandemic was co-ordinated between the Welsh Government and Welsh local authorities. I pay particular tribute to Councillor Andrew Morgan, who facilitated that role. In addition, the Welsh Government Minister Julie James MS met council leaders on a weekly basis, co-ordinating the response to an ever-changing and fast-moving pandemic. That example of partnership working extended, as we have heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth, through the Test, Trace, Protect scheme that rolled out across Wales as a partnership between Welsh health boards and Welsh local authorities, which know their communities best and delivered a scheme at a fraction of the cost in England—and more efficiently, if I may say so.
In conclusion, we know that the Welsh Government have protected the budgets of Welsh local government in recognition of the frontline services they have provided. Today we have heard just some examples of Welsh Labour councils delivering for their communities in the most difficult of times. I and all others offer our best wishes to them on 5 May and hope that we see the return of many more Labour councillors and councils to work with our Welsh Labour Government to continue to deliver public services for the people of Wales.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Sir Gary. I congratulate the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) and all other hon. Members in this debate because I find myself in the strange position of actually agreeing with much of what I have heard today, including much of what the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Gerald Jones) just said—until the slightly political points at the end.
Let me begin by making a serious point. The hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth paid tribute to those council workers across Wales who worked 24 hours a day during the covid pandemic and, of course, during the floods that immediately preceded the first lockdown. I am sure all of us went out and saw what these amazing people were doing. I visited people who, as the hon. Member said, had worked literally 24-hour days filling sandbags for people during the floods and had come off other jobs to do that. We know about the unsung heroes, such as the road gritters and many others, who are out there and who will work for 24 hours when the chips are down and when we need it. I absolutely want to associate myself with all his comments about the wonderful people who work for our local authorities across Wales. We are indeed lucky to have people of that calibre working for us, and we should never take their services for granted. We thank them all.
Hon. Members may be surprised by this as well, but I pay tribute to all local councillors in Wales—not just the Labour ones, of course, but including them—who it has been my pleasure to work with in this role. One or two things that I wanted to say have been mentioned; as the hon. Members for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) and for Swansea West (Geraint Davies) said, what a fantastic arena Swansea Arena is—something that Swansea Council brought forward.
When I met Rob Stewart last week, he made it clear that the project was not just about him; there was a whole team behind him. But what a fantastic team it was. As I am sure hon. Members will agree, the moment someone walks in there, they see what an absolutely amazing building it is—it bowls them over. It will be a huge asset for Swansea and the whole of Wales, and I am pleased to have worked with those who played a part in bringing it about, and I congratulate Swansea Council.
I had better not say too much about the tidal lagoon project. We know that there were issues with the previous one. I believe that Rob Stewart is a very capable person. I do not want to say too much in the run-up to an election or my words will probably appear on his leaflets, but he is somebody to be taken seriously. These matters are not for me, but I am sure that anything he puts forward will be taken in that light.
Given that all of us agree that by and large we have very hardworking councillors, there has to be a question as to whether the Welsh Government might want to devolve further powers to local authorities over the coming years, particularly as the Corporate Joint Committees become legal entities and as the growth deal regions take on all sorts of extra responsibilities. All of us realise that centralising control is not a good thing, whether it is in Cardiff or Westminster, and feel that some of the services offered by local authorities might improve even further if local authorities were given even more responsibilities.
It is correct that local government in Wales and across the UK has been at the forefront of responding to the pandemic, leading from the front and co-ordinating the fight against the virus. We want to harness that leadership in our drive for economic recovery, improving local services and focusing economic growth on the industries of tomorrow. That is why it has been a privilege for me to be part of the growth deal projects, and see how local authorities of all sorts of different political dimensions and viewpoints are coming together to bring forward programmes and projects that can benefit the whole of Wales.
One hon. Member mentioned the extra money going into local authorities—I think it was the hon. Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi). I obviously welcome that, but, dare I say it, that was made possible only because of funding to Wales through the Welsh block grant of £18.4 billion a year on average over the next three years. It is one of the best ever funding settlements for the Welsh Government—in fact, the best ever. For our part, the UK Government recognise the value of local authorities in leading communities. We know and trust them to make the decisions that are best for their local areas, and we look forward to seeing local authorities put back in the driving seat over programmes, such as the levelling-up fund and the shared prosperity fund, about which details will be coming out shortly.
As I mentioned, we are working with local authorities and other partners in the four Welsh regions to deliver long-term investment through the city and growth deals. We are working with local areas on bespoke investments, and I remain hopeful of a positive announcement on freeports very soon. As hon. Members will know, £790 million is going into the four Welsh city and growth deals; of course, a lot of money is coming from the Welsh Government as well. We have enjoyed working with the Welsh Government and local authorities to kick-start economic growth.
We are seeing the deals produce results. As I think the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth mentioned, just two weeks ago, Cardiff Capital Region announced the purchase of Aberthaw Power Station, with a hugely exciting plan to turn the site into a centre for green energy. I had a very good discussion with Kellie Beirne about that just before the announcement was made. I look forward to seeing hundreds—perhaps thousands—of jobs being created in the industries of tomorrow as a result.
I have mentioned the fantastic Swansea Arena already. In north Wales, I look forward to visiting Bangor University later in the spring to look at the digital signalling processing centre, into which we have invested £3 million in groundbreaking technology to help secure and develop further investment in the regional digital economy. We are seeing the fruits of the growth deals coming to light, from improving tourism facilities at the world heritage site in the Dee Valley to building a new transport interchange at Porth in the Rhondda.
I believe the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Alex Davies-Jones) mentioned levelling-up deals. I think I am right in saying that there were three successful bids to the fund in the area, and I signed them off myself. I was surprised at criticism from elsewhere that there had been pork-barrel politics, because one of the only local authorities that did not get any of the levelling-up fund was my own in Monmouthshire—if there had been any pork-barrel politics going on, I had not been very clever at getting anything out of the barrel myself. Of course, in reality, local authorities put forward the projects, which were assessed by independent officials. I was pleased to sign them off and I hope I might get an invitation to come and see them when they are developed.
This is real devolution: empowering local places and making sure that devolution goes beyond Cardiff Bay. As a Government, we look forward to working closely with local authorities across Wales. I have mentioned some. We have not mentioned some of the Plaid Cymru local authorities. I would be pleased to meet many of those leaders to discuss growth deals with them, as well as the independents in mid Wales.
In Monmouthshire, I must mention my excellent council leader, Councillor Richard John, who has done such a superb job of leading Monmouthshire over the last two years. I could cite many achievements—I am sure that Labour councils could learn many things from how things are done in Monmouthshire, such as the superfast infrastructure. Monmouthshire is the only local authority in Wales to run a post office. Despite the fact that the funding formula seems to disbenefit rural areas, Monmouthshire has managed to keep its council tax rises down to manageable levels. That is not to underestimate the achievements of other local authorities across Wales.
On the point of levelling up and pork-barrel politics, will the Minister try to clarify the criteria for levelling-up grants? In the past, obviously, the EU funding was needs-based and focused on lifting productivity in areas of deprivation. We would all welcome more clarity so that there cannot be any accusations that money is just being given out for political reasons.
I thank the Minister for the tone in which he is responding to the debate. I wonder whether he could go back to his colleagues at the Treasury and the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities on an issue I have raised a number of times in the past: funding for dealing with fire and building safety issues in Wales.
When it comes to the funding given through big announcements at Westminster, it has been really difficult to get clarity about what is passed on to Wales. Councillor Lynda Thorne from Cardiff Council spoke with me the other day. We are trying to support residents, but without clarity on the money coming through from the UK Government, it is difficult to respond systematically. Can the Minister raise that with his colleagues again?
I think that is a perfectly reasonable request. It is very obvious that some things are devolved and some things are not. When they are devolved, when the UK Government make an announcement it is only going to apply to England, and roughly 5% will come to Wales. But there are some quite unusual, niche issues on which even Ministers and MPs might not be absolutely certain. If that is one of them, I will be happy to come back to the hon. Gentleman and give a full response.
Before drawing this debate to a close, I want to mention Newport City Council. Newport is my home town, and I congratulate all the councillors there—particularly those who were involved 20 years ago when Newport became a city. At that time, it was a Labour council, but my late father was one of the councillors then, and it was something he felt very passionately about. I am sure all of us who have a connection to Newport are pleased that it got exactly what it deserved.
I thank hon. Members for this afternoon’s debate. I have sought to answer as many points as possible in the time given, and I am sure answers to the ones I was not able to address will be forthcoming shortly. I will say three things in conclusion: first, the UK Government see Welsh local authorities as the leaders of their areas, best placed to take decisions on public services and investment to drive growth and jobs. I have had the pleasure of meeting, eating with and working with leaders from all the major political parties except the Liberal Democrats—that is because there are no Liberal Democrat leaders in Wales. It has been a pleasure and a joy to do so, and I have found that they all want to put their constituents first, rather than party politics.
Secondly, the UK Government believe in devolution, but that devolution reaches beyond Cardiff Bay. Apparently the Welsh Government think the same way, so we are looking forward to more powers being devolved to local authorities over the coming years. Thirdly and finally, these are clearly very turbulent times, and it is more important than ever that we remain focused on the long game, with Welsh local authorities working with Welsh businesses and civic society to deliver a prosperous, levelled-up Wales. Wales needs its two Governments working hand in glove, and it is time for the Welsh Government to work with us, not oppose for the sake of it. The Secretary of State for Wales and I would really like a warm, constructive relationship with the Welsh Government, co-operating and collaborating in order to secure the future prosperity of Wales. Thank you very much; diolch yn fawr.
It has been a fantastic debate, with some great contributions from colleagues. It is a shame that we did not have some colleagues from other parts of Wales present, but we did try to get in points relating to a number of the other local authorities, including in north Wales and elsewhere. It is important to recognise their contribution, and that of their staff and councillors.
Suffice it to say that during the pandemic we have seen the best of our local authorities in Wales, but not only that: going forward, our local authorities are setting out a hugely ambitious and optimistic agenda. They are innovating, particularly in relation to the greening of our towns and cities and our economy going forward, and the new industries and technologies that will be the bedrock of the future Welsh economy and the future of jobs and opportunities for our young people. Thank you again for chairing the debate, Sir Gary, and thank you to all colleagues and the Minister for participating today.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the role of Welsh local authorities in delivering public services and economic development.