House of Commons
Monday 16 May 2022
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
Levelling Up, Housing and Communities
The Secretary of State was asked—
Town Centre Regeneration
Regenerating our high streets and town centres is essential to the Government’s commitment to levelling up the country. The Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill includes measures to tackle vacant properties, improve compulsory purchase powers and make temporary pavement licensing permanent. It builds on the comprehensive funding package already announced, including the £3.6 billion towns and future high streets funds, the £4.8 billion levelling-up fund and the recently launched £2.6 billion shared prosperity fund.
I thank the Minister and the whole Cabinet for visiting Stoke-on-Trent last week. In towns across Stoke-on-Trent, encouraging new uses of property on our high streets has often been held back by complex ownership and the council not having the resources to tackle the issues. What more are the Government doing both to incentivise property owners to bring derelict spaces back into use and to make it easier to use enforcement powers where owners prove unwilling to do so?
My hon. Friend is completely correct. It was a pleasure to join the Cabinet meeting in Stoke last week and talk about how we drive forward regeneration there. Stoke is really powering ahead, and the measures in the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill—particularly those to reform compulsory purchase orders and crack down on empty shops—will help things go even faster. That is in addition to the specialised support that Stoke-on-Trent is receiving through the high streets task force. I have also set up a meeting next month with all the infrastructure and regeneration bodies across Government to plan how we can build on Stoke’s three levelling-up fund successes.
Burton town deal board has worked hard over the past two years in putting together a town deal we can be proud of. It is clear that constituents are passionate about our town, and they have worked with the board to ensure that the final plan will offer a great future for Burton. The plan has now been submitted. Can my hon. Friend offer any thoughts on Burton’s plans, and can he give an indication of when approval might be granted so that we can crack on with levelling up in our area?
I praise the proactive approach that East Staffordshire Borough Council has taken, which includes working cross-party to build consensus. Its plans for the riverside regeneration in particular will be absolutely transformative. The business case documents are currently being reviewed by officials, and I hope to be able to sign those off shortly so that the projects can get under way.
The Rhondda is absolutely beautiful, but some of our town centres are let down by hideous old buildings which, frankly, do not need any levelling up; they need some levelling down. So will the Minister please put in place a levelling-down fund that will allow us to destroy some buildings, such as the bingo hall in Hannah Street in Porth?
At the same time as making an amusing point, the hon. Gentleman makes a very important point. The powers for compulsory purchase will help to unlock sites, including sites that the hon. Gentleman mentions which need fundamental change. The funding schemes we have put in place—the shared prosperity fund and so on—will help put financial firepower behind those regeneration schemes, too.
One way to regenerate high streets is to repurpose old retail units as co-working spaces, and increasing the number of remote jobs available means people do not have to leave the place they love for the job they want. Would the Minister, and indeed any Member across the House, like to come to my Work Hull: Work Happy event on 23 June at 11 am to find out more about the benefits of remote working for productivity and opportunity?
It sounds extremely interesting, and I would be very interested in coming along. The hon. Lady is completely correct that remote working is potentially a really powerful driver for levelling up, and some of the measures in the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill, such as repurposing shops through the high street rental auction scheme, can potentially be really transformative for our high streets.
Building Remediation Costs
The Building Safety Act 2022 protects leaseholders from costs associated with historical building safety defects. Qualifying leaseholders and buildings of above 11 metres in height are fully protected from unsafe cladding remediation costs. There are also robust and far-reaching protections from non-cladding costs, with leaseholder contributions being a last resort and firmly capped. Where a freeholder is linked to the original developer, leaseholders will now pay nothing.
Leaseholders in my constituency have been pleased with the progress that has been made through the Building Safety Act. However, it is disappointing that some developers are yet to sign up to the building safety pledge. Could my right hon. Friend outline what support is in place for leaseholders in buildings of over 11 metres who find themselves in that situation?
I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that particular question. Some 45 of the biggest 53 developers have so far signed the pledge to remediate buildings for which they are responsible. However, I know there are developments in my hon. Friend’s constituency where the developers are not among those who have signed up yet. We will be moving developer by developer and owner by owner to ensure that those responsible relieve leaseholders of their obligations, and I will stay closely in touch with my hon. Friend as we make progress.
We have all had cases where a developer who is at fault closes down on a Friday evening and then reopens on the Monday morning under a different name, as that avoids any kind of sanction or prosecution. Will the Secretary of State look at allowing the prosecution of individual directors only in those extreme cases of deeply questionable developers?
My right hon. Friend has done excellent work on protecting leaseholders over the cladding scandal as a result of revisiting Government policy. Will he revisit another Government policy that affects leaseholders badly: the encouragement of building new floors on top of existing apartment blocks? Having experienced this disaster myself, I know only too well how shoddy workmanship then leaves leaseholders picking up the bills for a development that they did not want and they had to endure for months on end.
My right hon. Friend has, with his characteristic assiduity, already raised this question with me both formally and informally, and I appreciate the unfortunate consequences that some have to face, but we obviously need to balance protecting the rights of leaseholders with ensuring that, through the proper application of permitted development rights we can in a sensitive way increase accommodation and make sure that we have a process, particularly in urban areas, that allows us to provide more homes without encroaching on valuable green land. As ever, however, we need to keep under appropriate supervision the use of permitted development rights, and the case my right hon. Friend raises will be one that weighs on my thinking.
My noble Friend Lord Greenhalgh, Minister for building safety and for fire safety, has been in conversation with the Association of British Insurers, and Baroness Morgan of Cotes has been discussing with him exactly how we might move to a happier situation. I hope to be talking to both insurers and mortgage lenders in the next few weeks in order to move the landscape forward.
I greatly welcome the legislation that will protect leaseholders when developers are at fault, but what happens if a developer undertakes work, such as cladding, which at the time met building regulations but subsequently has been shown to be unsafe? Who gets protection then?
My hon. Friend raises an important question, and here I have an opportunity to thank those developers, as well as the House Builders Federation, who have acknowledged that they were part of a regulatory system and that even those who sought to do the right thing were on occasions required to accept an ethic of shared responsibility; they have accepted it and for that reason leaseholders, who have no responsibility and no blame to shoulder, are protected.
Shared Prosperity Fund
The United Kingdom Government have engaged with each of the devolved Administrations on the design of the UK shared prosperity fund both at official and ministerial levels, and our engagement with Ministers from the devolved Administrations in the weeks leading up to the publication of the UKSPF allocation helped to inform the most appropriate mix of interventions and specifically the allocations for each nation.
No doubt one thing that will have been raised in those discussions is the fact that this year Scotland’s share will be £151 million less than we would have got in EU structural funds had we not been dragged out of the EU against our will, despite the fact that both the Tory party manifesto in 2019 and a personal pledge from the Secretary of State at the Holyrood Finance and Public Administration Committee earlier this year assured us we would get at least as much as would have come from the European Union. Why have those two promises been broken, and, most importantly, what has happened to Scotland’s missing £151 million?
The normally pertinacious Member is misinformed: it is the case that Scotland receives just as much. I fear he is probably missing out the money Scotland receives from the European Union as a result of money we gave to the EU, and as funding slowly moves down, the great thing about leaving the EU is that we have control of how these funds are spent; we can decide how they are spent. If the hon. Member wants to take us back into the European Union perhaps he will explain to voters in Scotland why he wants to take us back into the common fisheries policy, why he wants to abandon the trade deals we have secured that benefit Scotland’s distillers and farmers, and why he wants power to be exercised by unaccountable bureaucrats in Brussels rather than elected representatives here.
Planning Policy Reform
The Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill will improve our planning system and give residents more involvement in local development. The Bill will strengthen and scale up neighbourhood planning and enable the piloting of street votes supported by new digital tools to give communities more say in the developments that affect them.
The 2020 White Paper promised us a once-in-a-generation reform to planning policy. The present proposals appear somewhat unambitious and modest in contrast. Can I meet the Minister so he can explain to me how we can deal with the following situation in my constituency? Wealden and Rother District Councils have issued 10,000 planning permissions that have not been built out, and yet they still have to deliver 2,000 new homes between them each year. The developers responsible for building the homes deliver only 1,000 new homes. Surely, at the very least, we can have annual housing targets that take into account houses that are not yet built out, so that developers build rather than land bank.
I am more than happy to meet my hon. Friend. There are measures in the Bill to try to address build-out rates, which are an important element that we have to tackle. Under the Bill, it will be necessary to supply the local authority with a commencement notice, an agreement on the number of houses that will be built each year and a completion notice. We are absolutely on this, and I assure my hon. Friend that we will do everything we can to ensure that the houses that have got permission are built.
I welcome the Government’s reform of the planning system, but Homes England proposes the development of up to 10,000 houses on flood-prone green fields to the west of Ifield, just outside my constituency. That will put unacceptable pressure on local infrastructure, and although local people in my constituency will be most affected, they have no say over it. How will these planning proposals allow the people of Crawley to say no to the West of Ifield development?
I am absolutely clear that communities must have a say on developments that affect them, and that is why we are making it easier and simpler to engage with the planning system. At the moment, it simply is not good enough. I recognise the specific concerns that my hon. Friend and the leader of Crawley Borough Council have raised about this development. The site itself is included in the Horsham draft plan that has been produced with Crawley council. Residents of Crawley are able to comment on that, as well as on any subsequent planning applications.
Constituents object not simply to the sheer number of developments in my constituency and the pressure that they place on local infrastructure, but to the environmental impact of the way the homes are constructed. My hon. Friend knows that I would like to see a requirement for homes to be built to the latest environmental standard, rather than the one that was in place when permission was granted. Can he tell the House whether local communities will be able to have a say on how the homes are constructed, rather than just what they look like from the outside?
My hon. Friend is right to raise that. It is a crucial area for me in this role, and I hope that he will be reassured that improving environmental standards and community engagement are key elements of our reforms. Clear local plans, tested against environmental outcomes and with strong community input, are central to that, alongside the steps we are taking through the future homes standard and the Environment Act 2021.
We look forward to seeing the Minister and the Secretary of State at the Select Committee to discuss these matters early after the recess. It seems there are some genuine improvements in the proposals, particularly, as described in paragraphs 50 and 60 of the explanatory notes, the clauses that give greater strength to local plans in looking at individual planning applications.
There are two areas where the Bill might be strengthened. The first refers back to what the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman) said. Yes, developers will have to set out what they intend to build, but what sanctions will the local authority have if developers do not follow those promises? The second is about what happens if a developer does not observe conditions attached to a planning permission. That has happened with Avant Homes at Owlthorpe in my constituency—I have talked to the Minister about this—where the developer is refusing to comply with a whole range of conditions, including on wheel washers, compounds for workers and engaging with the local tenants’ association. I notice that the other day, the Daily Mail drew attention to the fact that the same developer has not met conditions in Nottinghamshire. What sanctions will the local authority have to deal with a developer in such a situation and to take into account those failures when a future planning permission is put in for?
I am grateful to the Chair of the Select Committee and for the reports that fed into many of the changes we have made. He is right to raise those issues. One issue communities see far too often, and the reason why they are sometimes opposed to development, is that they do not actually get what was promised at the beginning. I am really keen that, through the Bill, we give that power back to local communities and ensure neighbourhood plans are strengthened.
York is being overrun by investors hoovering up our new build by either leaving those properties empty or using them for Airbnb. That is causing the market to heat up, which is having a really disruptive impact and choking off opportunity for future buyers in my constituency. How will the Minister use his planning reforms to ensure we are not just building to numbers, but to local need?
The hon. Lady is right. The reforms are about empowering local communities to develop local plans and engage with the development of those local plans to identify the housing needs of each area. She is right to raise the issue on second homes and Airbnb. As I said to her the other day in the meeting we had, I look forward to potentially hosting a roundtable with her and colleagues around North Yorkshire to address those very issues.
On the point the Minister was making about developers or planners going back on previous agreements or advice, I have a case in South Leamington, which was consulted on six years ago, where we were to have social and truly affordable housing built on a particular site. As of last week, that has been changed and we will have 80 units with 92 beds in more or less the same space. Will he meet me to discuss that matter and will he explain how the planning changes will ensure communities get what they want, which is truly affordable housing?
Of course, I would be happy to meet the hon. Gentleman to discuss the issue he raises. The whole point of the Bill is to strengthen the development of local plans in the first place, so local planning authorities can address the housing needs they have in their area, including the types of housing they need; and to strengthen enforcement issues around planning applications. I am more than happy to speak to him further to understand the issue in greater detail.
Access to Employment: Rural Areas
The levelling-up fund announced at the last spending review saw £1.7 billion awarded to 105 successful projects across the UK, including projects to improve access to employment for those without the use of a car in rural areas.
Market Drayton and a number of other towns in North Shropshire are seeing cuts to their bus services, with Market Drayton set to lose them all together at weekends. It has received none of the funding that it has applied for to date, including from the Bus Back Better fund. Like many other towns across Britain, its beautiful high street is struggling to recover from the pandemic. For such towns that have been unsuccessful in their bids so far, and where people are struggling to get in and out of them, what is the Government’s plan to level them up?
The hon. Lady needs to work with her local transport authority—that would be Shropshire Council—to look into resolving those issues. The pandemic had a huge impact on the delivery of local services and the Government provided nearly £1.86 billion in grant funding for bus services in England. Shropshire Council received about £2.17 million of that, so I encourage her to speak to the council to see what it, along with commercial bus operators, can do.
Our levelling-up White Paper sets out our plans to support economic growth across the whole of the UK. Since September 2020, we have allocated more than £7 billion through our levelling-up funds, including the recently announced allocation for the shared prosperity fund.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that answer. Coastal communities such as Lowestoft and Waveney are the forgotten powerhouse of the UK economy. Can my hon. Friend confirm that the opportunities and challenges they face will be given the highest priority as the Government set about delivering their levelling-up agenda, and will the money from the Crown Estate that was originally used for the coastal communities fund be targeted at realising the full potential of coastal areas and meeting their needs?
I have met my hon. Friend about this issue several times and I agree that coastal communities have the potential to be real powerhouses for our economy. That is why the future high streets fund has allocated £149 million to coastal local authorities, and why coastal local authorities got £287 million of funding in the first round of the levelling-up fund. That comes on top of the £229 million, which he mentioned, that we have invested in coastal towns and communities since 2012 through the coastal communities fund.
Look, can the Minister not see the crisis unfolding across the country? There has been the biggest fall in living standards since the 1950s. Pensioners are boarding buses just to keep warm. On every measure, the gap is widening; there is less for the regions, in terms of public spending; salaries are falling; homes are less affordable; and local economies are on the verge of collapse. Surely he recognises how absurd it is that all we have had from the Secretary of State in the past week is the promise of an al fresco dining revolution, and three full pages of legislation giving us the power to rename our Mayors. What exactly is stopping the Government scrapping business rates, bringing in a windfall tax to cut money off energy bills, uprating benefits now, rather than waiting till later, or doing any of the things that will get money back into people’s pockets and get our economy growing?
The hon. Lady could also have mentioned the fact that our national living wage, which this Government introduced, is putting £1,000 extra in the pockets of working people. She could have mentioned the changes to universal credit, which will make full-time workers £1,000 better off. She could have mentioned the record increase in the national insurance threshold, which will make nearly 30 million households better off, or any of the other measures that we are taking through the levelling-up agenda: the £4.8 billion being spent through the levelling-up fund; the £3.6 billion being spent through the towns fund; and the £2.6 billion that is helping to transform town centres across the country. I notice none of those things got a mention in her question.
It is increasingly as though the Government are living on a completely different planet. The other day, the Secretary of State was in Stoke, which has had £35 million taken off it by him—that money used to flow freely back to us via Brussels—and £20 million stripped out of the local economy because the Government scrapped the £20 million universal credit uplift.
The bigger problem is that a pattern is emerging. The Secretary of State could not get money from the Chancellor. He could not get visas from the Home Secretary. He could not convince his former junior Ministers to stop closures of Department for Work and Pensions offices in the north. He could not even persuade his civil servants working on levelling up to move out of London. For all the nonsense that there has been, two thirds of his civil servants working on levelling up are trying to level us up from the capital. At least now he knows what it is like for the rest of us—in the north, Scotland, the midlands, Wales and the south-west—to be treated with total contempt by a bunch of Ministers in Whitehall. Seriously, what hope has he got of convincing us in this country that he can level us up when he cannot even convince a single one of his colleagues around the Cabinet table?
I thank the hon. Lady for drawing attention to the Cabinet’s visit to Stoke the other day; if she had been a Government Back Bencher, people would accuse her of toadying for teeing up this answer so brilliantly. She mentioned several things that allow me to mention the three successful levelling-up bids that we have had in Stoke, and she mentioned the shared prosperity fund, about which I will make a point. Under the last Labour Government, money was decided on in Brussels and then given to remote regional development agencies. That money is now going directly, with no strings attached, to the fantastic Conservative-run council in Stoke, which is transforming the fortunes of that city after years of Labour neglect.
Despite the bullish posturing, the Minister knows that households across the UK are suffering terrible hardship because of the cost of living crisis, which has the Tories’ name written all over it. Despite the rhetoric, the reality is that Scotland’s resource budget allocation has been cut by Westminster by 5.2%, and the capital budget allocation has been cut by Westminster by 9.7% in real terms. How can he claim to support economic growth across the UK when the Scottish Government’s ability to support business, investment and people through the cost of living crisis can only be severely constrained by these cuts?
The hon. Lady talks about Scottish public spending. The truth is that the record block grant that Scotland has just received is the biggest settlement since devolution—it is huge. For every £100 of spending elsewhere, there is £126 of public spending in Scotland. The implication in the hon. Lady’s question is just not correct.
The problem for the shadow Secretary of State is that some of us remember what 13 years of a Labour Government meant for the north of England: we received very little. Since the Government came to power, not only have they cut the Humber bridge tolls in half and supported the development of the Siemens wind turbine factory in Hull and the new Siemens train factory in Goole, but we have received huge sums of cash, including through the town deals that are coming our way. However, we want even more. Although we missed out on the levelling-up fund bid the first time round, will the Minister assure me that he will look very closely at the bids that are about to be submitted for my area for the next round of funding?
I will look very closely at them. I hope that through the very exciting talks that are going on, and through the Hull and East Riding devolution deal, we can pick up many more of the exciting opportunities in the area. Of course, the reviews of Labour’s performance in Hull are so good that it has just been kicked out of the council.
Long-term Funding Settlements
We know how important multi-year certainty is to local authorities and we aim to provide it whenever possible. We are making £54.1 billion available to local government in England through this year’s settlement—an increase of up to £3.7 billion on last year. We are also providing an additional £1.6 billion of grant funding per year across the spending review period.
Long-term challenges need long-term solutions. We have had too much of an ad hoc bidding war, which creates winners and losers. A perfect example is my constituency: in the past three years, we have had our bids to the future high streets fund, towns fund, Restoring Your Railway fund, levelling-up fund and Bus Back Better fund rejected. Any one of those could have made a real difference to the constituency, but after each bid, we have been back at square one. Can the Minister not see that to truly level up, we need a strategy, not a lottery?
I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman’s area has not been successful in bidding for funds, but I remind him that it has received £12.6 million from the shared prosperity fund. The levelling-up bids are competitive, and the strength of the bids is part of what is measured, so I encourage him and his local authorities to continue trying.
A new study by the Centre for Business Research shows that by the end of next year, more than half the UK’s slowest-growing economies will be in the north of England. So much for the Government’s commitment to levelling up the country! If we want true levelling up, we need proper regional investment. Instead, we have a rolling series of beauty parades: the levelling-up fund, the towns fund, the high streets fund, the buses fund, the brownfield fund and all the others. Do Ministers really believe that levelling up is best served by making communities come cap in hand to Whitehall, where only some can win, and most must lose?
Competitive funding has its place, and we think that it has been an effective tool for protecting value for taxpayers’ money. The hon. Gentleman knows that, as I said in answer to his colleague the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders), that is not the only funding that we are providing. We have increased funding for local government by £3.7 billion.
The hon. Lady knows that the story for local government over the past decade has been a devastating one. Even if an area is successful in the bids that I have talked about, it will still be worse off overall as a result of Government cuts. With this Government, the reality never matches the press release, and we see that once again with the shared prosperity fund: the Tory party promised, in its 2019 manifesto, that the amount in the fund would match the what used to be received, but now we can see that the fund is worth hundreds of millions less. So I ask the Minister what I asked the Secretary of State last month, when I received only a grammar lesson in response: levelling up is a sham, is it not?
I completely reject the hon. Member’s assertion. It is not true that the shared prosperity fund is less; it is more. The Opposition are looking at different sources of funding to arrive at their inaccurate figures. If he would like us to explain how it works, I would be very happy to provide him with a letter.
Bloomberg’s devastating forensic analysis of the Government’s progress with their so-called levelling-up agenda has found no overall levelling-up progress in Scotland. On the contrary, the UK Government are levelling down Scotland compared with London, which has had significant levelling-up funding and gains since 2019. Disparities across the UK are widening. To what extent does the Minister agree with Bloomberg’s analysis that the Tories are levelling down Scotland and prioritising the south of England?
I am afraid that is not a statement that we accept. I looked at the Bloomberg figures, and I noticed that Bloomberg was using a 2019 baseline, when the whole purpose of levelling up is to ensure that we solve the problems identified. I would like the hon. Lady to look at the metrics that we have included in the “Levelling Up the United Kingdom” White Paper, and at the missions in it; it is through those that we will level up across the country.
Housing Associations: Right to Buy
The Government remain committed to the right to buy and to spreading the dream of home ownership to even more people. The midlands pilots for the voluntary right to buy were completed in 2021. An independent evaluation was published; we are reviewing the findings and will announce further details in due course.
There is a desperate shortage of social housing in this country; more than 1 million households are waiting for social homes. However, rather than taking the decisive action that is needed to get to grips with this housing crisis, Ministers have threatened to jettison their manifesto commitment to building 300,000 affordable homes a year, refuse to commit themselves to building the council housing that we so desperately need, and are openly considering extending the right to buy to housing association properties. Will the Minister concede that an extension of the right to buy scheme will make the housing shortage much worse, will cause continued misery for many millions, and will deal a grievous blow to the hopes of thousands of my constituents who just want somewhere that they can call home?
I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman is completely wrong. We have a very ambitious affordable homes programme. More than £11 billion is being spent on a range of different options. We are also introducing an infrastructure levy that makes as many, if not more, contributions to the delivery of affordable homes. I do not understand why the hon. Gentleman has a problem with giving people in social housing the opportunity to become homeowners. I have to tell him that on the council estate where I grew up, it made a real, transformational difference to the social mobility of the families who were able to enjoy that great policy.
Local Authority Budgets
As I mentioned before, this year’s local government finance settlement makes available £54.1 billion for councils in England—an increase of £3.7 billion on last year’s settlement—to ensure that councils have the resources that they need to deliver key services. That includes more than £1 billion for councils to meet social care pressures, and a new un-ringfenced 2022-23 services grant worth £822 million.
As a result of the Government’s actions—they cut Bedford Borough Council’s revenue support grant from over £30 million in 2015 to just £6.1 million in 2022-23—local authorities have been forced to raise council tax precepts to meet vital costs. The adult social care burden is ever increasing, and cannot be paid for unless the RSG is increased to a realistic level. Will the Minister tell us when the fair funding review will finally be published?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising this issue. We recognise that adult social care costs are increasing, which is why we have provided additional funding. For the hon. Gentleman’s borough of Bedford, we have provided an additional £2 million for this settlement year. We will continue to look at the pressure that councils are under, but I remind him that this settlement increased budgets significantly. Bedford Borough Council received a core spending power increase of 6.5% this year, worth £9.6 million. That makes available up to £156 million-worth of spending.
Ministers cannot escape the fact that according to the National Audit Office, 50% of central Government grant funding has been cut from the budgets of local authorities up and down the land since 2010. Ministers are living in a parallel universe where less is more. Millions have been taken out of the shared prosperity fund. The consequences are all too plain. We even have Sir Rod Stewart doing DIY, filling in potholes in Essex—a county with which the Minister will be familiar—and a third of libraries are closing. Those are real consequences.
At what stage will the Minister grasp the bull by the horns and provide fair funding for local authorities, based on genuine need? This should not be about competition or jumping through unnecessary hoops; we should be providing first-class public services for all.
I remind the hon. Gentleman that the reason we have had such difficulties in local government spending is the terrible state of public finances that this Government found when they came into power 10 years ago. It is only because of the hard work that we have done over the last decade to repair the public finances that we have been able to provide additional funding for local government.
This is essential to our planning reforms. The Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill introduces a new infrastructure levy. It will ensure that developers contribute funding for infrastructure such as schools, GP surgeries and new roads, and it will give local authorities control over how that is provided to best meet the needs of local people and development.
Can I encourage the Minister in his push for an “infrastructure first” approach with an example from my constituency? Quite a few years ago, a developer in the village of Biddenham proposed that a GP surgery be located there, and gave some land for it. It was to bring in patients from Biddenham and the neighbouring village of Bromham. All the houses have been built, but no part of that new GP surgery has been built. The good news is that the building will start later this year, but can the Minister assure me that the problem regarding the interactions between the clinical commissioning group, Bedford Borough Council, NHS Estates, GPs, the developer and the builder will be cleared up? No one is to blame, but I bet that if he had already introduced “infrastructure first”, we would have that GP surgery today.
I completely agree with my hon. Friend. Councils, health bodies and everybody else need to get much better at this. Local planning authorities and CCGs should work together to provide the planned provision. Under our new levy, councils will be able to borrow against future levy receipts to forward-fund the infrastructure that is needed. I am arranging meetings with colleagues in the Department of Health and Social Care to discuss the very issue that he brings to our attention.
It is vital that infrastructure is provided before development is allowed. It is also vital that houses that are given planning permission are then used for the purposes agreed on when the permission was granted. I am talking about second home ownership. Homes that are built for local families become second homes, and that leads to communities being hollowed out. Will the Minister look again at bringing in new change of use rules through the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill, so that second homes and holiday lets fall under a separate category of planning use, and homes in Cumbria can remain for local families, and do not become part of ghost towns?
I seem to be dealing with the issue of second homes daily; colleagues from around the country are raising it with me and highlighting their concerns for their communities. The Bill allows local councils to increase council tax on second homes, but there is more that we need to explore. That is why I am holding a series of roundtables across the country. Perhaps I could come up to the Lake district and hold one there.
On-site community facilities are also vitally important. Last summer I was at the St Clements development in east Ipswich, where Bovis, Vistry and Trinity Estate Management have failed to meet many of their obligations. The Foxhall community centre was meant to be brought back into use, but has not been, and there are many concerns over littering and lighting. Will the Minister meet me to discuss how we can hold developers to account to make sure they do not let residents down, as they have over the St Clements development?
Again, I am happy to meet my hon. Friend. He is right: when communities think that a development is coming and that there will be a particular benefit for them, and it is then not developed, it erodes trust in the whole planning system. That is exactly what our Bill is designed to address, so that communities can have more engagement, and more confidence that what has been agreed will be delivered.
Will the Minister wake up to the reality of what is going on in local authorities up and down the country? Cuts since the 2010 election have run down the resources of every planning department in the country. There are not enough professionals being trained, and not enough people to provide an adequate service. What will he do about the planning authorities across this country that cannot deliver for the public?
One of the points of the infrastructure levy is that it takes out the necessity for negotiation. It will be a set levy that developers cannot wriggle out of, and it will be for local authorities to set the levy. Of course, we are looking at the broader issues that the hon. Gentleman raises, and I will hopefully report further on them in future.
Levelling Up: Empowering Local Leaders
The Department is delivering the Government’s plan to empower local leaders, including offering devolution deals by 2030 to anywhere in England that wants one.
I thank the Secretary of State for visiting Barrow recently to see how the £25 million town deal and the £16 million levelling-up funding will transform our community.
Cumbria has just elected its first ever councillors to the new Westmorland and Furness Council and Cumberland Council. This is a historic moment for our county. Does my hon. Friend the Minister agree that there is further to go and that the new councillors have the opportunity to secure a bountiful devolution deal that supercharges the county with an elected Mayor? What advice would he give to them?
I agree with my hon. Friend. I was in Barrow and Furness a couple of weeks ago, and I was struck by the fantastic progress he is helping to drive using levelling-up funds, such as the marina village, the new bridge, the new university campus and more. I was also struck by the common linkages and opportunities across Cumbria, and I can see the case for an ambitious devolution deal covering both new authorities once they are up and running.
Across Government, the Places for Growth programme has seen civil servants relocated from London and the south-east to different parts of the United Kingdom, whether it is Treasury civil servants going to Darlington in County Durham, Home Office officials going to Stoke-on-Trent in Staffordshire or indeed my own officials relocating to Wolverhampton in the west midlands.
There was speculation in some newspapers at the weekend that that estimable effort by civil servants should be joined by Members of the other place. I would wholeheartedly welcome the relocation of the House of Lords to one of our great cities. In particular, the attractions of the six towns that constitute Stoke-on-Trent, as I saw last week, are formidable. If the House of Lords were to relocate to Stoke-on-Trent, it would be assured of a warm welcome in one of the most attractive places in England.
Northstowe in my constituency is the biggest new town in the UK for 50 years—the biggest since Milton Keynes. It now has 1,000 houses, but it has no dedicated community centre, no permanent café, no pub and no shop. Thousands of frustrated residents lack anywhere to go for a pint of milk or a pint of beer. This new town is also causing environmental problems. There is flooding in the neighbouring village of Swavesey, and the neighbouring village of Longstanton is running short of water. Both problems arise from the failure of the local planning authority. Will my right hon. Friend tell me what his Department might do to address these problems and to make sure they do not happen again as Northstowe is built out to 10,000 homes?
Steps taken in the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill and changes to the national planning policy framework should absolutely address the problems my hon. Friend identifies. Of course, the biggest problem he identifies is the fact that, sadly, South Cambridgeshire has a Liberal Democrat-controlled local planning authority that does not care about community but pursues a narrow political agenda, to the detriment of all.
With rent levels surging in the private sector and with the local housing allowance frozen once again, millions of hard-pressed tenants across the country are at risk of arrears and eviction. We know that rent tribunals are not an effective safeguard against punitive rent rises, and that the risk of such rises is likely only to increase when section 21 no-fault evictions are finally scrapped. Will the Secretary of State therefore tell the House why his planned renters reform Bill appears to be completely silent on protections for tenants against unaffordable rent rises?
I pay tribute to David Wright and North Warwickshire Borough Council, because they have done a fantastic job, particularly during covid, in supporting the local community and local business. I would be delighted to visit—to hop across the A5—not least because it is only 20 minutes away from Harborough.
We allocate levelling-up fund bids, as the Local Government Minister pointed out earlier, on the basis of appropriate competition in order to ensure value for money, but I have had a chance to talk to the excellent Conservative leader of Shropshire Council, Lezley Picton, to make sure that she and her superb team of Conservative councillors can deliver for the people of Shropshire, as Conservatives always have.
That scored quite high on the cliché count, with “postcode lottery”, “moving the goalposts” and “narrow political calculation”. Instead of rehearsing for YouTube clips, the hon. Gentleman would be better employed looking at what we have done, not just for Portsmouth and Southampton, but for communities including Liverpool and Birkenhead, where this Government have been responsible for ensuring that local government receives the support it needs. If he wants to hang on to his seat, he would be better employed concentrating on delivering for his residents, not making party political points.
My hon. Friend is right to say that the social housing Bill will help social housing tenants in Kensington to hold their landlords to account, but we are not waiting for the new legislation; we are driving the “Make Things Right” campaign to make sure that tenants understand—[Interruption.] I am disappointed that Opposition Members think it is funny, as I think it is completely appropriate that tenants are able to hold their landlords to account. We are making sure that they understand how to do so and how to escalate complaints to the housing ombudsman should that be necessary.
Last week’s Bloomberg report suggests that levelling up in Scotland is just not happening. Given that Scotland is self-sufficient in gas and has great offshore renewables, should not the stewardship, licensing and revenues be linked to the Scottish Government budget, rather than to Her Majesty’s Treasury? Minister, when will these negotiations start? Can we kick-start some serious levelling up?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising the issue of the importance of the Scottish Government and the UK Government working together on levelling up. That is why I am so pleased that, working with the Finance Minister in the Scottish Government, Kate Forbes, we have been able to agree a prospectus for two new freeports in Scotland. I am sure that Fife will be one of the communities, areas and local authorities that will be working with the UK Government to exploit the opportunity that freeports provide outside the European Union.
High street rental auctions will apply to commercial property and make tenancies more accessible to businesses and community groups. We recognise the importance of diversifying high streets and have introduced permitted development rights to allow a wide range of commercial buildings to be changed to residential use without the need for a planning application. My hon. Friend is right: depending on the circumstances and the type of building, there could be opportunities to increase housing in areas such as hers where there are real challenges.
In the Homes for Ukraine scheme, it is left to the individuals involved to sort out matches with hosts for themselves, often through ad hoc Facebook groups. It is not surprising that that has led to reports such as:
“Ukrainian refugees using Facebook groups to seek a safe home in the UK are being put at risk of sexual exploitation”.
Criminal record checks on their own cannot prevent such exploitation. What assurance can the Secretary of State give in respect of the rigour and effectiveness of the separate home checks that are undertaken for the scheme?
The right hon. Gentleman raises an important question. I am very grateful to the more than 100,000 UK citizens who have signed up to offer their homes for the scheme. As well as criminal record and police national computer checks before visas are granted, there are vetting and barring and other checks, often conducted by local authorities, at the time that individuals find themselves in homes. I would be more than happy to provide the right hon. Gentleman and others with a full briefing about the processes we undertake.
I thank my hon. Friend for his service to his country. The Government are committed to making the UK the best place in the world to be a veteran. Veterans with urgent housing needs are always given high priority for social housing, and we are investing £11.5 billion under the affordable homes programme to deliver more social homes, including housing for veterans.
For many in the privately rented sector, the Government are like Nero, fiddling while Rome burns. When are they going to get on and publish the timetable for the renters reform Bill? Last week’s was the third Queen’s Speech in which the Bill has been mentioned, yet there is still no timetable, while section 21 evictions are on the increase in many of our constituencies.
The hon. Lady suggests we are being Neronian in fiddling while Rome burns, but I prefer to think that we are like Julius Caesar: we have crossed the Rubicon, alea iacta est—the die has been cast—and the Bill will be on the statute book in this parliamentary Session.
The Forget-Me-Not group in Blyth is working hard to secure better opportunities for everyone in its local area of Cowpen Quay; however, the group needs a base in the community to house and deliver its services. This is grassroots levelling up, so will my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State agree to meet me to discuss exactly what we can do to help these people?
Will Ministers join me in recognising and commending the work of Ellel parish councillor Lisa Corkerry? She is never afraid to don the marigolds, grab the litter pickers and clean up Galgate. Lisa would like to know when the Government are going to provide adequate funds for local authorities such that she can put her efforts into making her community better rather than clearing up the mess left behind by others.
Energy performance improvements to domestic dwellings are an important part of the Government’s agenda in respect of climate change obligations, as well as in respect of the cost of living. May I draw the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to private-rented off-grid properties, for which it is much more difficult and expensive to achieve energy performance improvements than for normal domestic dwellings?
It will indeed be much more challenging, which is why I am working closely with the Under-Secretary of State at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, Lord Callanan, to see how we can address the problem. I look forward to discussing the issue further with my right hon. Friend to see how we can find an appropriate solution.
Many agree that investment in levelling up should be not a competition but a considered plan created in partnership between central and local government to address the areas of greatest need. Ministers are meeting many Conservative MPs, but will the Minister meet me to discuss the levelling-up bid for my area to fund the Horden masterplan as well as to identify funding for other much-needed regeneration schemes in Easington Colliery and Peterlee town centre?
Full fibre broadband coverage is essential to the Government’s aim to level up, but we lag behind most of Europe in rolling it out. What discussions has the Minister had with the Culture Secretary to ensure that the Government have a strategy to work with industry to improve coverage and speed up progress in rural and urban areas of the devolved nations, which currently have the poorest broadband?
The Culture Secretary and I talk daily. One thing at the top of our agenda is ensuring that we have connectivity across the whole United Kingdom. We are, of course, working with the devolved Administrations to make sure that every citizen of the United Kingdom benefits from UK Government investment.
I am sure that the Secretary of State will want to acknowledge the increasingly important role played by metro Mayors. May I therefore encourage him to make contact with Mayor Tracy Brabin, the excellent metro Mayor for West Yorkshire who now chairs cross-party group of Mayors, the M10, to ensure the closest working relationship between national, regional and local government?
I take the opportunity to thank the hon. Gentleman for his years of service as metro Mayor for South Yorkshire, during which, all party political differences aside, he did a superb job. I also congratulate his successor, Oliver Coppard. I look forward to working with Oliver and, of course, Tracy Brabin in the years ahead.
One of my constituents wants to sponsor a family of Ukrainian children, but the pause in applications has delayed the family’s ability to travel to the UK because they are travelling separately. The delay cannot be about safeguarding, as Ministers have claimed, because it has made them less safe. Will the Secretary of State intervene with his ministerial colleagues and enable Ukrainian children who are at risk to reach sanctuary in this country as soon as possible?
I cannot comment on any individual case, but it is absolutely the Government’s responsibility to ensure that as many Ukrainian parents and children benefit from our scheme as possible. We have to balance safeguarding concerns with the policy of the Ukrainian Government, but the hon. Gentleman raises an important question, and more will follow.
The levelling-up White Paper offered practically no new investment for the north-east, but it did have grandiose missions. Now we see from the draft Bill that those missions—and targets—can be changed at will by Ministers. Is not that a cheater’s charter, and are the missions worth the White Paper they are written on?
Newcastle has benefited from great civic leadership from Nick Forbes, who, sadly, is no longer the leader of Newcastle City Council as a result of a Corbynite coup. I want to thank him for his leadership. I stress that the missions can change because we live in a democracy, and this House should be capable of deciding the destiny of this nation. For that reason—[Interruption.] I know that the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah) finds the idea of democracy laughable, but democracy, I am afraid, returned a Conservative Government in 2019 to level up and unite this country, and that is the mission we will fulfil.
The Secretary of State likes to discuss the shared prosperity fund in abstract policy terms, but let us bring it back to brass tacks. In Angus, in 2019, we received £2,750,186 from the EU’s structural fund. Can he assure my constituents that we will get at least that, plus inflation, minus the Union Jack ribbon?
Whether they are in Arbroath, Montrose or Kirriemuir, people will recognise the vital importance of UK shared prosperity funding and other funding. When the hon. Gentleman talks about “no Union Jack ribbon” is he really suggesting, for example, that UK armed forces based in Arbroath and Montrose should leave? Is that what he is suggesting? Is he suggesting that we rip up the Union Jack in order to make a narrow, nationalist political point? Does he want the Marines to leave his constituency? That is what it sounds like to me. It sounds to me that he is more prepared to make a narrow, partisan nationalist point than to see this country defended at a time of testing.
Shireen Abu Aqla
The United Kingdom Government was shocked to hear of the very sad death of the respected and renowned journalist Shireen Abu Aqla while working in the west bank. On 11 May, the Foreign Secretary and UK Ministers made clear our concern, and we have called for a thorough investigation into the events. On 13 May, in company with the other members of the United Nations Security Council, we strongly condemned the killing and stressed the importance of an immediate, thorough, transparent, fair and impartial investigation. We also stressed the need to ensure accountability.
The work of journalists across the globe is vital and they must be protected to carry out their work and defend media freedom. We were also deeply distressed by the scenes at the funeral of Shireen Abu Aqla on Friday. Her death was a tragedy and those mourning must be treated with respect and dignity. The situation on the ground makes clear the need to make progress towards a peaceful two-state solution and the UK stands ready to support.
Shireen Abu Aqla was a veteran correspondent of al-Jazeera’s Arabic news channel and on Wednesday 11 May she was killed while covering Israeli army raids in the city of Jenin in the northern occupied west bank. Her killing has been widely condemned by world leaders, the UN and civil society, and it has shocked the world.
The killing of Shireen Abu Aqla was not only an outrageous act, but an attack on the freedom of the media and the independence of journalists working around the world, playing a crucial role in reporting conflicts, seeking truth and telling the stories of those affected. On Friday, deeply disturbing footage was released from Shireen’s funeral. The scenes of violence at the funeral were appalling: Israeli police were seen firing teargas at mourners and attacking them with batons, almost causing the pallbearers to drop the coffin and send it crashing to the ground. The attacks on mourners were indefensible and only heightened demands for justice and the pain felt by Shireen’s family.
The Labour party unequivocally condemns the violence by Israeli forces. International and human rights must be upheld, and we stand with all those demanding accountability for the killing of Shireen. There must be an urgent, independent and impartial inquiry to secure that. More widely, we will continue to support justice and the protection of the human rights of the Palestinian people and a sovereign Palestinian state alongside a secure Israel. Tensions in the region were already high: Israel has seen a number of deadly terrorist attacks and both Israelis and Palestinians have been killed in what has been the worst wave of violence and attacks in Israel in years. We are deeply concerned that Shireen’s death and the treatment of mourners at her funeral could spark further cycles of violence.
Has the Minister made any representations to her Israeli counterparts on the killing of Shireen Abu Aqla? Will she condemn the violence at Shireen’s funeral? Can she confirm that her Department will stand up for international and human rights by encouraging an independent inquiry into Shireen’s killing so that we can ensure that there is accountability for her death?
I thank the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Bambos Charalambous) for his comments. He is right that Shireen’s death was outrageous and shocked the world. He is also right to mention the very disturbing scenes at her funeral. It is so important that mourners are given respect and dignity, and indeed that the deceased is shown respect and dignity. That was immediately called out over the weekend by my fellow Minister, Lord Ahmad.
The hon. Gentleman asked about the investigation and we are working with other members of the UN Security Council to give that firm statement that we want an investigation, which needs to be immediate, thorough and, crucially, impartial.
I thank my hon. Friend for her answer to the urgent question. Clearly there is a concern that we do not know exactly what happened on that terrible day when the journalist was killed. Does my hon. Friend agree that the Government of Israel and the Palestinian Authority need to co-operate so that there can be a full and thorough investigation that is seen to be independent? Does she regret the fact that the Palestinian Authority are refusing to hand over the bullet that killed the journalist?
We on the SNP Benches unequivocally condemn the murder of Shireen Abu Aqla, one of the Arab world’s most respected journalists, who was shot dead by the Israeli army despite wearing full press coverings, body armour and a helmet. Shireen’s death takes to 50 the number of journalists who have been killed by the Israeli occupation forces over the past 20 years—deaths for which no one has ever been held to account. It is therefore absolutely essential that, along with the EU, the United States and the UN, all democracies unreservedly condemn the killing, and all who support a full, impartial and transparent investigation must be supported.
Does the Minister agree that the investigation should be carried out by the International Criminal Court, so that the person responsible for this awful crime can be found, tried and, if convicted, given an appropriate sentence? What sanction against Israel does she think would be appropriate in those circumstances? Finally, will she also unreservedly condemn the disgraceful actions of the Israeli police when on Friday they attacked Shireen’s cortege with batons and stun grenades, denying her even in death any sort of dignity or respect?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that the killing has been condemned across the world, and indeed by us in the UK. As I have said, we have called for an immediate, thorough, transparent, fair and impartial investigation. It is really important that that happens soon and that it is very thorough. I think that we were all completely shocked by the scenes at her funeral. We are deeply concerned about the rise in violent attacks in the area, and we continue to call for peace, as we always have done; working to deliver peace is our top priority. She was an incredibly respected journalist and the hon. Gentleman is right to point to the risk to journalists across the world. I believe that across the world 26 journalists have been killed so far this year, including six in Ukraine—it might even be more since the last update I received. We must stand for journalists and for media freedom.
My hon. Friend is entirely right to express concern about the scenes at the funeral of Shireen Abu Aqla, but given that there can be absolutely no doubt as to what happened at the funeral, when mourners and pallbearers were attacked by Israeli police officers, will she confirm that the Government have already made representations to the Israeli authorities expressing concern and indicating how deplorable those scenes were?
Yes, my right hon. Friend is absolutely right about the deplorable scenes. We have already stated that we are deeply disturbed by those scenes, and we are looking at what further measures might be taken. Most importantly, we continue to call for urgent steps to de-escalate tensions and for restraint in the use of force. It is absolutely vital that tensions are reduced and that we get parties back to dialogue and working towards peace.
Thank you, Mr Speaker.
First, I send my condolences to the family and friends of Shireen Abu Aqla, a true Palestinian heroine who was brutally shot in the head and murdered. Let us be clear: this is not a one-off attack on journalists by Israel. We cannot forget that Israel had a raid last May on the al-Jalaa building that hosted Al Jazeera and the Associated Press office. This is not just the story of Shireen either, but many other journalists, including the 55 Palestinian journalists killed since 2000. How can the Palestinians have any faith in Israel to hand over any bullet and with this whitewash of an idea that they are going to investigate when nobody has been held to account over lots and lots of years? What representations are the Minister and this Government making to their Israeli counterparts to make sure that we get justice on this occasion, not just for Shireen but for all the Palestinians who are continually being brutalised?
The UK is very concerned by the number of Palestinians who have been killed by Israeli security forces in recent weeks. We continue to urge for thorough and transparent investigations into the deaths of Palestinian civilians and call again for restraint in the use of force.
Is my hon. Friend aware that 19 Israelis, not including foreign nationals, have also been killed by terrorism since 21 March, and that Jewish lives, and Israeli lives, matter as much as the life of the journalist who tragically lost her life? Is she also aware that a Hamas leader recently incited the Palestinians to act in ways of terrorism with the use of the knife and the gun? What is she doing to help the Israelis to combat terrorism and these awful murders of Israeli citizens?
This is an important point. Israel does have a legitimate right to self-defence and the right to defend its citizens from attack, but it is absolutely vital that all actions are proportionate and in line with international humanitarian law, and they must make every effort to avoid civilian casualties.
I send my condolences to Shireen’s family, friends and colleagues at Al Jazeera. She was unlawfully killed while doing the job she loved and was greatly respected for, while clearly identified as a journalist, in what can only be described as a targeted attack for reporting actions of Israeli forces in the occupied territory of Jenin. Does the Minister agree that an international criminal court should undertake a full independent, not just impartial, investigation, and that swift action should be taken to bring those responsible to justice?
I thank the hon. Member for reminding us that there are family and friends involved. I add my condolences and those of the Government to the family and friends of Shireen. In losing such a talented person in such an awful situation, my thoughts are with them. We have called for an immediate investigation that does need to be fair and impartial, because it needs to have the trust of all those in the area. That is why it is so important that it happens soon.
I draw the attention of the House to my declaration in the register as a founder director of the International Centre of Justice for Palestinians. In that respect, I have since then avoided engagement on Palestinian issues in this House. However, this Opposition urgent question about the killing of journalist Shireen Abu Aqla, almost certainly by a targeted shot coming from the forces who are in illegal occupation of a Palestinian territory, allows me to ask how long we must wait for the United Kingdom to actually do anything to enforce accountability on the state of Israel for its gross and worsening breach, over 55 years, of the fourth Geneva convention, while noting the shaming contrast with our own brave and principled policy towards Ukraine.
My hon. Friend is right to be concerned. The UK Government are very concerned about the very fragile security situation in Jerusalem. We continue to call on all parties to de-escalate tensions. The British ambassador to Israel and the British consulate general in Jerusalem have been engaging with Israeli and Palestinian leaderships to support them in restoring calm. We have made it clear that there is a need to protect holy sites. This sort of horrific violence against civilians is truly contemptible. We absolutely call on all sides to de-escalate the situation and come to the dialogue tables to work towards peace.
I acknowledge my role as chair of Labour Friends of Israel. The killing and the events at the funeral are shocking by any standards. I absolutely condemn what happened at the funeral, but as I understand it Shireen Abu Aqla was killed during a gun battle; the facts have not yet been established, and the Palestinians have rejected an offer of a joint investigation with the Israelis. Surely in this place it helps no one to state as fact what people want or feel inclined to believe. Will the Minister do everything to offer British resources and assistance to ensure that an independent, impartial investigation is established, and that we participate in it, if that would be helpful?
Shireen Abu Aqla has been referred to as the voice of events in Palestine as part of a much-needed open and free press, but there are fears that her killing will spark refreshed conflict in the west bank. Can my hon. Friend assure the House that if anything can come from this tragedy, it is that it is the Government’s priority to secure peace in the region?
I acknowledge my role as chair of Labour Friends of Palestine and the Middle East and of the Britain-Palestine all-party parliamentary group. Will the Minister state exactly how the Government intend to support an impartial investigation, which needs to be independent? Under this Government this country has a poor track record on impartial investigations, including on the issue of the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court, which the Prime Minister opposed, as well as the UN commission of inquiry report on Gaza, from which the UK abstained.
The immediate actions that we have taken have been, first, to condemn the situation and then to work with the UN Security Council on that joint statement of condemnation which also calls for the investigation. We are obviously using our own diplomatic links both in Israel and in Jerusalem, engaging with the leaderships; and, of course, we will always look at what further measures should be taken.
The Minister is right to condemn the recent terror attacks on innocent Israelis, which are increasingly being directed from the west bank by Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. She is also right to condemn this killing and to express her belief, which we all share, that journalists should be allowed to report anywhere safely. However, too many people, for whatever reason—sinister or otherwise—have already determined what the facts are, and did so as soon as the story broke. I urge my hon. Friend once again to ensure that the UK Government’s position continues to be in support of an independent inquiry, and emphasise that any inquiry, if it is to be worth anything at all, will require the buy-in of both the Israeli Government and the Palestinian Authority, or else it will simply become a political dividing line.
Shireen Abu Aqla was a Christian Palestinian like my family, and her death feels like we have lost a sister. The scenes from the funeral were deeply upsetting, but the Minister may be aware that the Israeli police were trying to segregate the Christians from the Muslims in their mourning. Indeed, the day before they had stormed Shireen’s house. They went in, disturbed the wake and took a Palestinian flag from the room. It is disgraceful, and it is a clear provocation. I ask the Minister simply this: has she summoned the Israeli ambassador to make it clear how unhelpful to the peace process this is?
Shireen Abu Aqla was a respected journalist, and I thank the Minister for her statement. I am pleased at the role the UK played, as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, in securing unanimity in its condemnation. Does the Minister share my concerns about what this means to the relationship between the Palestinian and Israeli communities over the long term, and does she agree that the best action in memory of Shireen Abu Aqla would be an open and transparent investigation participated in by all parties?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. As I said in my opening statement, both those who mourn her and she herself should be treated with respect and dignity. Again, that is another reason why this investigation needs to be so thorough. It needs to be deep, it needs to fair, it needs to be impartial and it needs to happen soon. We are very concerned about the escalating tensions we have seen over recent weeks and months with increased violence, and it is really important to fight for calm rather than see more violence.
The reality remains that every time a Palestinian child is born there is one certainty—that in life they will face persecution, oppression and humiliation at the hands of an occupying Israeli military. However, the soul-shattering scenes we saw last week, with the funeral procession of Shireen Abu Aqla brutally attacked by the Israeli security forces, now mean that they will be stripped of their dignity in death as well. Yet again, all the international community and this Government do is offer empty words, so I ask the Minister: just what are this Government waiting for, and why will they not immediately recognise the state of Palestine? What message are this Government sending to Palestinians, who have now been stripped of their dignity in life and death?
We consistently call for an immediate end to all actions of violence, and we immediately call out—and continue to do so—against all actions that undermine the viability of a two-state solution. We are also a key development actor in the region, especially working to lift the overall standards of living for Palestinians and to meet humanitarian needs. The hon. Member asks about recognising a Palestinian state. We will recognise a Palestinian state at the time when it best serves the objective of peace, because achieving peace is our primary objective.
I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests in relation to a recent delegation to Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
As has already been stated, the Palestinian Authority have so far refused to participate in a joint investigation into the tragic death of Shireen Abu Aqla. An initial autopsy has found that it is not possible to tell whether she was killed by Israeli or Palestinian gunfire. Facts matter, so does my hon. Friend agree that those who, for whatever reason, are jumping to blame Israel will only deepen division and make peace harder to achieve?
It is really important that there is a proper investigation—a thorough, fair and impartial investigation—but I repeat that we are concerned by the number of Palestinians who have been killed by Israeli security forces in recent weeks, and we urge thorough and transparent investigations into the deaths of civilians as well. It is really important that there is restraint in the use of force, and we will continue to say that again and again.
A constituent of mine who went to school with Shireen Abu Aqla has been in touch to share her sense of helplessness at what seems to be yet another state-sanctioned killing in the occupied territories. She said to me at the weekend that it seems to her that it is always incumbent on the Palestinians to prove their innocence and fight for basic human sympathy for the events that befall them. I fully accept that the killing has to be investigated independently, but having regard to what followed—the raiding of the home, the appalling behaviour of the Israeli authorities at the funeral—can the Minister please answer the question she was asked earlier: will she summon the Israeli ambassador? Clearly, the Minister feels outrage at what has happened—she has been very honest about that—so will she summon the Israeli ambassador to communicate her outrage?
We have been very clear that we have condemned this killing. We absolutely share the hon. and learned Member’s concern for the distressing and disturbing scenes at the funeral. We have called for a thorough investigation, we have called for respect and dignity, and we call for all parties to reduce the tensions and to come and work together towards peace. Delivering peace is what Shireen would have wanted and is what we all want.
As the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe), the chairman of Labour Friends of Israel, said earlier, this was in the middle of a gun battle between Israeli forces and Palestinian forces. The Labour Friends of Israel chairman is right, and my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Greg Smith) is also right in saying that the initial autopsy—which was conducted by the Palestinian authorities, not the Israeli authorities—said that it was impossible because the bullet removed was a 5.56x45 mm NATO round used both by the Israelis and the Palestinians. Therefore, may I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to ensure and put pressure to ensure that this is an independent inquiry, because justice must not only be done, but be seen to be done?
I am secretary of the National Union of Journalists parliamentary group and we have raised these issues before, but, with regard to this killing, let us put it in the context of the systematic abuse of Palestinian journalists. The International Federation of Journalists already a month ago referred these incidents to the International Criminal Court. May I therefore, in that context, and in view of the happenings subsequent to the killing, which were disgraceful, repeat the question for the third time? The minimal action any Government can take is to call the ambassador in to express the concerns of the Government about the Israeli state’s behaviour, so can we ask for the third time: have the Government invited, or do they intend to invite, the Israeli ambassador to the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office for that discussion?
I have been very clear about the actions the Government have taken to date. We continue to condemn this, we have called for an investigation, we have, through our ambassadors and the British consul in Israel and in Jerusalem, made very clear our position supporting the leaders to restore calm, the need to protect holy sites and the need for dialogue to move towards peace, and of course we always take any future measures into consideration.
The Minister will have heard Members across the House calling for not just an impartial investigation, but an independent investigation. I will tell her why it matters: because in this modern world, independent fact checkers have been able to put together compelling, open-source evidence that points clearly to the responsibility of the Israeli forces for the murder of Shireen Abu Aqla. Given that, will the Minister confirm that the UK’s official position is that there should be an independent inquiry, not just an impartial one, so that the Israelis and the Palestinians can both have confidence in the outcomes? Will she clarify that: yes or no?
I think that it is really important that we work with partners across the world through the UN Security Council. It is the UN Security Council’s wording, agreed among all those countries, that calls for an impartial investigation. That is the wording that has been agreed by the UN Security Council.
I find it heartbreaking that, after decades of violence, illegal occupation, demolition of Palestinian homes and complete disregard for human rights, the UK has failed in its obligation and duty to recognise the state of Palestine. It took the Foreign Secretary more than 24 hours to put out a statement after the murder of al-Jazeera’s esteemed journalist Shireen Abu Aqla. What message does that send to those responsible for Shireen’s tragic murder? In the light of the history, why are the Government not pushing for a full independent inquiry? Given the close relationship between the UK and Israel, now, for the fourth time of asking, will the Minister summon the Israeli ambassador to demonstrate the outrage at the behaviour of security forces during Shireen’s funeral?
Shireen’s death was a true tragedy and we have condemned it. On 11 May, the Foreign Secretary condemned it. We have also worked very rapidly with our colleagues at the UN Security Council to deliver the joint statement of condemnation and to call for the investigation that I have mentioned. We continue to press for peace. We saw those very distressing images at the funeral and will always look at what further steps should be taken.
I refer to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, including my role as co-chair of the cross-party National Union of Journalists group and on various Palestinian groups. I want the Minister and Members to imagine for a moment attending the funeral of a family member or friend. In what circumstances would what we witnessed on our TV screens happening to the pallbearers carrying the coffin be reasonable or proportionate? How can it be acceptable for the police or security services of any nation to attack pallbearers to the extent that the coffin falls on the ground? Not only do we call for the Minister’s condemnation, but, for a fifth time, I call on her to summon the Israeli ambassador here to account for her actions.
I have attended many funerals in my life, from early childhood, and that is one that will always stay with me. Mourners should always be treated with respect and dignity. Shireen and her family should have been treated with respect and dignity. We totally condemn her death and the manner in which she died. We believe that this really urgent investigation is needed to help to rebuild peace. That must be our priority.
Diolch yn fawr, Mr Llefarydd. The International Federation of Journalists’ complaint to the ICC about the treatment of Palestinian journalists is about not only protecting the human rights of journalists, but safeguarding the work that they do as a profession to protect collective human rights. The Secretary of State has spoken many times about the need for an independent and impartial investigation. To ensure that independence and impartiality, will she support the IFJ’s complaint to the International Criminal Court to ensure those very virtues?
As if the ongoing dispossession and discrimination faced by the Palestinian people was not enough cruelty, Israel continuously targets Palestinian journalists. There is not only the murder by Israeli snipers of Shireen Abu Aqla, who for decades bravely reported the crimes inflicted on her people. Since 2000, Israel has killed an estimated 51 Palestinian journalists and an independent UN commission of inquiry found that, during the 2018 march of return, Israeli snipers intentionally shot Palestinian journalists who were clearly marked as such, killing Yasser Murtaja and Ahmed Abu Hussein. What will it take for the Government to stop equivocating over these horrific crimes and hold Israel to account for its routine violations of international humanitarian law? And for the seventh time, will the Minister summon the Israeli ambassador?
We stand by journalists all across the world and it is a tragedy that so many journalists have been killed in recent years, and particularly this year. That is why we continue to raise issues of media freedom on the global stage. In February in Estonia, we announced support for the secretariat for the Media Freedom Coalition, which we founded and which now has 52 members. We will absolutely stand for media freedom and for journalists all across the world.
It is important that the Minister has condemned this killing this afternoon and I thank her for doing so several times. Many of us are puzzled by her reluctance to summon the Israeli ambassador; that seems like the first step that should have been taken. Will the Government now commit to supporting the International Criminal Court investigations into not only this incident, but the wider behaviour of the Israeli Defence Forces in the occupied territories?
Not only have we worked with other members of the UN Security Council in strongly condemning this incident and needing to have this investigation, as I have mentioned, but we have been very clear that we are very concerned about other incidents of Palestinian civilians being killed by Israeli security forces in recent weeks. We continue to urge further transparent investigations of those killings as well.
Another journalist is murdered in occupied Palestine. Next, the occupying power raids her family home, and then its forces brutally attack pallbearers and mourners at Shireen’s funeral. In the light of that, the Government’s response has been pathetic and inadequate. The Minister will not even call for an independent investigation—that is, independent of the Israeli forces, who have whitewashed previous deaths in this way. Will she do that? Will she say what single step the Government have taken—not said, but taken—to oppose the occupation of Palestine, which is at the root of this violence? Will they recognise Palestine? Will they ban trade with illegal settlements? Will they sign up to the ICC inquiry? If not, her words are completely empty.
I am answering the question—please do not heckle me.
This is a tragic death—a really tragic death. We have led the work at the United Nations to put the pressure on to make sure, to the best extent that we can, that this investigation happens, that it is fair and transparent, and therefore, to use the word that the UN has used—I will repeat this, because it is the word from the statement—that it is “impartial”. The hon. Gentleman asked about the settlements. We are very clear that settlements are illegal under international law. They call into question Israel’s commitment to the two-state solution. We urge Israel to halt its settlement expansion—that threatens the viability of a Palestinian state—and we will continue, always, to press for peace.
Does the Minister appreciate that everyone in this House regrets the killing of men and women in Israel, whether they are Israeli or Palestinian? It is quite wrong to imply anything else. There has been talk of the necessity of establishing the facts. Does she appreciate that the facts of the terrible scenes at Shireen’s funeral are beyond doubt? Millions of people around the world have seen those images. Finally, does she understand that it is no use telling us that Shireen’s death is a tragedy? We know that. We will take her words seriously only when she commits this afternoon, in this House, to calling the Israeli ambassador to the Foreign Office. Otherwise, her words are just words.
The right hon. Lady is absolutely right that all deaths in this situation are a total tragedy. What happened at Shireen’s funeral should not have happened. I cannot give further comment at this point; I have told her what we are doing, and that Ministers always consider what further steps can be taken. Our fundamental priority must be to continue urging a de-escalation of tensions, an end to violence and a pathway to peace.
The murder of Shireen Abu Aqla and the attacks on mourners at her funeral have shocked the world. It is not enough to condemn those actions; we must take action. When will the UK Government stop authorising arms sales to Israel, as we know they are killing innocent Palestinians?
We take the export of arms extremely seriously. As has been said many times in this House, the United Kingdom has one of the most robust arms export control regimes anywhere in the world. I hope all hon. and right hon. Members would agree that the important thing now is to call on all parties to de-escalate the tensions and to work towards peace.
In the Minister’s statement and subsequent answers, she mentioned her attempts to get a statement at the United Nations. The problem is that Israel has consistently ignored any critical statements coming out of the UN, and has even sought to undermine the legitimacy of the UN and other international institutions. Why does she think this time will be any different?
This is not the first time this has happened; nor will it be the last. Under occupation, Palestinians’ human rights are abused, and as we have seen, they cannot even bury their dead with dignity. Does the Minister understand that until we have a lasting peace, we will not tackle the situation at its root? Does she understand that although the UK has committed to a two-state solution, we cannot have two states if only one is recognised? Perhaps she would like to reconsider her answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford East (Imran Hussain) and tell us when exactly she will recognise the Palestinian state.
The killing of Shireen Abu Aqla by the Israeli military and the subsequent attack on her funeral in Jerusalem demonstrate the reality of the occupation of the west bank. Amnesty International has said that it constitutes apartheid, which is a crime against humanity as defined in the Rome statute and the apartheid convention. Will the Minister not only condemn this act of inhumanity but commit now to summoning the Israeli ambassador? Will she take steps to ensure that the UK ceases all arms trade with Israel, and to ensure that Britain is not complicit in the illegal occupation of Palestine?
I have had a great many letters from my constituents since the brutal murder of Shireen Abu Aqla, as have, I am sure, many other Members from across the House. They are saddened. They are sickened by the scenes at her funeral. They are also deeply angry about the lack of reaction. The Minister said the word “impartial”, but can she not press the Government to push for an independent investigation into this death? Will she please place on record for the House the dates and agendas of the meetings she has had with the Israeli ambassador? We need some sort of resolution, and to establish a two-state solution in that land.