House of Commons
Monday 27 March 2023
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—
Social Rented Housing
Before I answer the questions, may I on behalf of the Government extend my congratulations to Humza Yousaf on his election as leader of the Scottish National party? We look forward to working with him in the future. It has been noted that he won by 52% to 48%, so I hope that SNP colleagues will agree that there is no need for another vote.
Everyone should have access to a high-quality and safe affordable home. Our affordable homes programme is investing £11.5 billion to deliver tens of thousands of new affordable homes, and a significant proportion will be made available for social rent, directly helping those most in need.
I was shocked to read recently that only 6,400 new social rent homes were built in England last year, when pretty much everybody agrees that about 100,000 are needed every year to deal with present and future housing needs. What figure between those two numbers does the Secretary of State think would be acceptable in developing social and rented housing in future years?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising this issue. Actually, I believe that the figure was closer to 30,000 overall, but I believe, as the National Housing Federation and others have made clear, that we need to increase the proportion of new homes for social rent, and that is one of the aims as we reprofile the affordable homes programme.
Last year the Public Accounts Committee assessed the Government’s affordable homes programme. It concluded that targets were being missed, that areas with high demand were not prioritised and that savings to be made by reducing temporary accommodation were not assessed. In Wakefield the council is using hotels such as Citilodge to house homeless people, because it lacks the funding and resources to acquire enough social housing. When will the Government step in and help councils to address the social housing shortage?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the point he makes. There is a housing shortage overall, not just in social housing, and we need to work with local government and others to increase supply. The affordable homes programme is a critical part of that, and that money would not be available if we were to follow the prescriptions on the economy that those on the shadow Front Bench put forward.
The Conservative group at North West Leicestershire District Council has already committed to hundreds of additional houses for social rent. Will my right hon. Friend inform the House how his Department is going to help my council deliver on that very welcome commitment?
North West Leicestershire is one of a number of local authorities with which we are working. The affordable homes programme and, indeed, the ability to use right-to-buy receipts are critical to making sure that we deliver the social homes the country needs.
Cambridge-Milton Keynes-Oxford Growth Arc: National Infrastructure Commission Report
The Government completed a 12-week public consultation gathering views to shape a vision for an Oxford-Cambridge arc spatial framework. We are currently considering the responses to that consultation and will provide more information in due course.
Over the past decade, housing growth in Bedfordshire has been two and a half times the national average, with acute pressures on our GPs, dentists and other local services. Today’s progress review by the National Infrastructure Commission confirmed what many of us have always known—namely, that East West Rail is an excuse for even greater housing development in Bedfordshire and the region. Will my hon. Friend please meet me and ensure that we do not progress housing growth in the Ox-Cam arc before the shortages in services are settled?
I thank my hon. Friend for raising the concerns of his constituents, which are shared by many communities. We know how important it is that infrastructure is delivered alongside housing growth. That is why, through the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill, we will require local authorities to produce an infrastructure strategy as part of the infrastructure levy. I would be delighted to meet my hon. Friend to discuss it further.
Last week London Economics reported that the University of Cambridge contributes almost £30 billion per annum and supports 86,000 jobs across the whole country. When Cambridge does well, the whole country does well. The arc is the key to future UK prosperity, so will the Government play their part by giving local leaders the tools and access to investment so that they can use the wealth that we create to set the stage for Labour to achieve our mission to be the fastest-growing economy in the G7?
As I said to my hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Richard Fuller), we are considering the report of the National Infrastructure Commission, but this Government are committed to levelling up and to devolution across the country. We saw in the Budget, delivered by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor, that we have devolved significant powers to Mayors across the country, such as Andy Street in the west midlands. That is the right thing to do to drive prosperity across the country.
National Planning Policy Framework: Consultation
Our consultation on proposals for the national planning policy framework closed on 2 March. We are now considering all the comments that we received and will publish an update in due course.
Sites in Chiswell Green and Colney Heath in my constituency and the north of St Albans district are under threat from the Government’s top-down housing targets that do nothing to tackle our problems of overcrowding or the lack of affordable homes, but do decimate the green belt. In 2015, Ministers issued a statement saying that these targets could not constitute a very special circumstance for allowing green-belt destruction, but they failed to incorporate that statement into the national planning policy framework. Seven years on, can the Secretary of State please say when those changes will be made and whether they will be put in place in time to stop the planning inspectorate forcing through speculative applications if they go to appeal?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for raising that point. It is precisely because we want to stop speculative developments wherever possible that we are encouraging a plan-led system, and our changes to the NPPF should achieve precisely that. But under threat? Honestly, the Liberal Democrats have a right cheek on this. They say nationally that they want more than 300,000 homes everywhere, and then, on individual planning applications, they out-nimby every other political party. I know that the word “hypocrisy” is unparliamentary, Mr Speaker, but there is no other way to describe Liberal Democrat policy on planning and housing.
Notwithstanding the answer that the Secretary of State has just given, can he assure me that when we do come back with the NPPF revisions, there is very much a brownfield-first thread throughout the guidance and rules?
Absolutely. Our aim, as always, is to promote brownfield first housing delivery and urban regeneration. It will sometimes be the case that individual planning authorities will designate sites for development that are not brownfield sites. The new NPPF will, I hope, give both communities control and developers certainty.
Investment Zone in Scotland
My ministerial colleagues and I are in constant contact with our counterparts in the Scottish Government. My officials have had positive discussions so far with the Scottish Government to co-create an approach towards investment zones in Scotland and we will continue to work together to develop an investment zone, or zones, that build on existing Scottish strengths and our shared national strategies.
Given that both the green ports went to the east coast of Scotland, which flies in the face of the well-known convention that west is best, can the Minister assure me that when Inverclyde Council puts together its bid for an investment zone, the Minister will balance that against the devastation caused in the area by the lack of investment over decades by consecutive Labour and Conservative Governments?
Greenock and Port Glasgow are two of the most attractive communities on the west coast of Scotland, but I do have to say that pitting east against west within Scotland is as bad as pitting Scotland against the rest of the United Kingdom. Scotland succeeds when all of us work together. The new Leader of the SNP is simultaneously a Glaswegian and a Dundonian, which is one of his many achievements, and I do believe that we should work together east and west, north and south, in the interests of the whole United Kingdom.
A total of 7,000 council jobs in Scotland are under threat from SNP cuts to local government. Council leaders across Scotland have written to the former First Minister warning of the devastating impact of those SNP cuts—huge job losses and vital local services across Scotland slashed. Can the Minister confirm what the impact of those job losses will be on people in Scotland, and can he say what the difference is between Tory and SNP cuts to councils, or are they just two sides of the same coin?
Talking of the same coin, we have the same coins in England and Scotland because we are one United Kingdom, and it is the SNP that wants a separate currency for Scotland as part of its plans for separatism. I have to say that there are excellent SNP councillors in Scotland, but they are being let down by the Scottish Government. The hon. Lady is absolutely right: the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities is up in arms at the way in which the Scottish Government have undermined local authorities, in contrast to here in England where we are working in partnership with local Government to devolve more power to the frontline. I refer the hon. Lady to the paeans of praise for our approach that we had from Labour leaders of local government just last week. In contrast to that, I am afraid local government in Scotland has been let down by the SNP. It was a key feature of Kate Forbes’s leadership race that she said more powers should be devolved within Scotland, and I hope the new First Minister will take note.
New Homes: Regenerated Brownfield Land
This Government are committed to making the most of brownfield land. The national planning policy framework sets out that planning policies and decisions should give “substantial weight” to using suitable brownfield land, and through our brownfield funds we are investing significantly in supporting redevelopment and release of brownfield sites for housing. We have also committed to launching a review to identify further measures that would prioritise the use of brownfield land.
Under the leadership of West Midlands Mayor Andy Street and Conservative councils such as that in Walsall, we are demonstrating the value of regenerating brownfield land to create the homes we need while regenerating communities and protecting precious greenfield in areas such as mine around Streetly and Aldridge. I welcome the £100 million deal we received as part of the trailblazer devolution deal, but will my hon. Friend continue to look at the possibility of creating a register of brownfield land, as a further tool to deliver a brownfield-first approach?
I thank my right hon. Friend for her consistent advocacy in championing this vital issue. That is absolutely what the Government are doing. We are introducing a number of measures, as she set out, to support that brownfield-first approach, including requiring every local authority to publish a register of local brownfield land suitable for housing in their area.
In Chelmsford there are many households living in temporary accommodation. New affordable homes are being built on greenfield sites, but that is not keeping pace with the need. Will the Government look at better ways to use brownfield sites, such as office block to residential conversions, to help to deliver more affordable homes?
My right hon. Friend is doing a superb job of pushing forward affordable homes for her constituents in Chelmsford, and we are wholly committed to that shared agenda. Since 2010, over 829,000 households have been helped to buy a home by Conservative Governments. That is a massive achievement. However, it is vital to prioritise brownfield sites such as those in Chelmsford, and we recently consulted on proposed policies to further encourage the use of those small sites. I am happy to meet her to discuss that further.
I know my hon. Friend expresses the concerns of his constituents who live in those villages in the Tewkesbury area. That is why we have already introduced range of policy and funding initiatives to support the development of brownfield land. The Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill will go much further to empower local leaders to regenerate those towns, cities and villages by introducing a new infrastructure levy, which will capture a higher land value uplift to enable more infrastructure to be delivered alongside housing.
On 1 March, the Secretary of State received a letter written by 10 civic societies from Britain’s biggest cities, including Coventry, about the 35% housing uplift. Given the widespread condemnation of that arbitrary target, will the Minister meet me to explain why it has been imposed on Coventry?
I will be happy to meet the hon. Lady to discuss housing targets in Coventry. In the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill we have set out the measures under which local areas will have more power to ensure that the right housing is built in the right places. I am happy to discuss that with her.
In Yorkshire, there are tens of thousands of families desperate for affordable housing. CPRE, The Countryside Charity, says that there are 115,000 potential brownfield sites in our county alone, and tens of thousands of more are land banked, with planning consent already given for housing. Yet there is executive housing popping up like mushrooms in a forcing shed all over my constituency on the green belt. Is the Minister happy that her legacy will be a Government that poured cement and tarmac all over Yorkshire’s green and pleasant land?
I think that this Government will be extremely proud of our legacy of delivering affordable homes and homes for first-time buyers all over the country. We need a locally led planning system; that is why we are delivering measures in the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill to require more infrastructure and a brownfield-first approach, backed by billions of pounds-worth of funding.
The statutory requirements for the houses that we build today fall far short of the challenges of a changing climate. Humber is the second most flood-prone region in the UK after London, with more than 190,000 at-risk homes, which equates to a third of all properties in the region. Will the Minister consider urgently introducing to the national planning framework stricter statutory requirements for flood protection and mitigation?
The hon. Lady raises a vital issue. We recognise the importance of protecting communities from flood risk. That is why we have been clear in the national planning policy framework that areas of flood risk should be avoided and that, where that is not possible, all risks should be mitigated. That is further supported by the flood risk and coastal change guidance, which has been updated. I am very happy to discuss that in more detail with her as it affects her communities.
Voter Identification Requirements: Local Election Turnout
We all know that turnout can vary significantly from election to election because of a wide range of factors, so it is not possible to model robustly the impact of a single factor on voter turnout. That was noted by the Electoral Commission during its review of the 2019 voter identification pilots. Our measures were introduced to help protect the integrity of our democracy—something that every one of us in this House should seek to do.
Part of the reason is to spread awareness about the new voter ID regulations. We have given that additional funding to the Electoral Commission, as well as additional funding of more than £4 million to local authorities, to promote those additional measures locally. We do not want to price anyone out of democracy, but we must protect its integrity at all costs.
Will my hon. Friend join me in reminding the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith) that it was Labour that first introduced voter identification, in Northern Ireland in 2003? The Electoral Commission was unable, in its 2021 public opinion tracker, to identify a single respondent who said that they were unable to vote.
I am told by the Association of Electoral Administrators that some returning officers plan to use greeters at the front doors of polling stations to check whether people have the correct ID. If they do not, they will be turned away. Currently, those who are turned away will not be logged as having been refused a ballot on the grounds of a lack of ID. Such a person will be logged only if they make it to the main desk and are refused there. That is totally daft and will, of course, completely skew the data for the independent review. I cannot believe that that is what the Minister wants. Will she commit today to correcting it?
We know that about 98% of electors have the right identification. We have put additional funding into rolling out our information campaign so that people know what identification is required. It is right that local authorities take whatever measures they can to ensure that people have the right ID. Ultimately, we are confident that this will not reduce voter turnout.
Private Rented Sector
In our White Paper, we set out plans to reform the private rented sector, giving renters greater security and safer, higher-quality homes. We will introduce legislation in this Parliament.
I listened to the Minister speak to the Renters’ Reform Coalition last week. She handled the questions very well, and I was pleased to hear her announce that a Bill would be introduced by autumn of this year. But since she gave the speech, 900 people have been served section 21 notices. Every week that we wait means thousands of people being evicted. Today, her Government have announced tougher measures making it easier to evict people. Will she give me assurances that renters will be protected, not forced out, by her new Bill?
I thank the hon. Gentleman very much for his kind words, and I am delighted that he was there to hear me reaffirm the Government’s commitment to abolish section 21 evictions as soon as parliamentary time allows. We are levelling up the private rented sector to produce more safeguards for renters and allow more renters to live in safe and decent homes.
I am grateful to the Minister for her answer. Bracknell is blessed with many people who rent their accommodation from private landlords, and it is really important that we do the best we can for them. But by the same token, good law is balanced law. Will she please outline what is being done to protect landlords against tenants who do not fulfil their responsibilities?
As I said at the public event, good landlords have absolutely nothing to fear from our reforms, which are right, proportionate and balanced. As my hon. Friend is asking, we will strengthen the grounds for landlords to use to regain possession, including when a tenant is at fault. That includes making it easier and quicker to evict tenants who commit antisocial behaviour, as set out in the action plan today.
On the answer that the Minister has just given, I should say that the Select Committee recommended that when section 21 goes there has to be a means of dealing speedily with cases of antisocial behaviour. I am pleased that recommendations are made in the antisocial behaviour action plan to prioritise such cases in the courts. But antisocial behaviour also occurs in the social housing sector, and it can often take a year or more to get to court. Will the Minister agree that if we are prioritising such cases in the private rented sector, we should have a similar system for prioritising them for social housing as well?
I thank the hon. Gentleman very much; it was a real pleasure to discuss those issues and many others when we met last week to talk about the renters reform Bill. He has made a very good point, and I have committed to take it away and look at it with my officials.
Blackpool has a significantly higher than average proportion of private rented houses. I am sure that my landlords will be delighted to hear about the increased flexibility that they will have to deal with more problematic tenants. However, has the Minister considered extending the provisions on mould and damp that will now apply to the social rented sector to private rented properties as well, to level up the private rented sector?
I thank my hon. Friend very much for drawing the House’s attention to the issue of damp and mould. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has been extremely active in pushing forward improvements to social rented housing. It is right that we should level that up to private rented housing. We will be bringing forward the decent home standards in the private rented sector in the renters reform Bill.
Service Charge Increases: Leaseholders and Social Housing Tenants
Service charges must be reasonable and works and services must be of a reasonable standard. We will empower leaseholders by legislating, so that service charges are more transparent. We are encouraging registered providers of social housing to limit service charge increases for social housing tenants to 7% or less.
I have been told by constituents who live in housing association properties that not only their rents but their service charges will be going up this year. One constituent has told me that their service charge will increase from £15.18 per week to £127.74—over £5,800 per year more for their service charge. These constituents are already struggling at the top of their budgets to accommodate increased heating and living costs. The Government have placed a cap on the maximum that their rent can be raised by, but that is surely arbitrary if the service charge can be increased by such a drastic amount.
As I have said, service charges are payable only to the extent that the costs have been reasonably incurred. If the hon. Lady’s social housing tenant believes that the costs have not been reasonably incurred, I really encourage them to go to the housing ombudsman. Similarly, leaseholders can also challenge any service charges through the first-tier tribunal.
Following on from the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Sarah Olney), although it is welcome that the Government have capped rent rises below inflation for those in the social rented sector, residents of Hyndburn and Haslingden, and across Lancashire, are also facing rises in service charges—increases of up to 11%—so can the Government set out what support is available for those who cannot afford a combined rent and service charge increase?
Obviously, we are very sympathetic to those who are feeling cost of living pressures, which is why the Treasury put together the £37 billion package at the autumn statement, followed by a further £26 billion. Service charges should be reasonable, they should reflect costs and there should be access to the ombudsman, as there is.
Attracting Investment: Support for Towns
The Government are supporting towns to attract investment through a wide number of levelling-up initiatives. We are establishing freeports and investment zones designed to incentivise private sector investment and job creation in some of our most deprived communities, and devolution deals are giving local areas the opportunity to tailor policy to local investors. The £2.6 billion UK shared prosperity fund has been designed around a key theme of growing the private sector across the United Kingdom, and the levelling-up funding programmes, totalling almost £10 billion, are designed to revitalise town centres and grow local economies.
Manchester and Trafford are cracking on with regenerating Wythenshawe and Sale town centres in my constituency, despite submitting excellent but ultimately unsuccessful levelling-up bids. Does the Minister really think that the best way to level up is to force cash-strapped councils to waste millions of pounds entering endless beauty parades, just to get the investment that they deserve?
That is why the Government will be publishing a full funding simplification plan in due course, but it is also why we are focusing on devolving more power and more money to local areas. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will join me in welcoming the fantastic trailblazer deal that we have just introduced in Manchester, which is giving the power and authority there to complete projects such as the one that he has referenced.
In Darwen, we have taken our £25 million town deal and managed to increase that to £100 million with private sector investment, and in Rossendale, as part of our £50 million-plus levelling-up funding—I thank my right hon. Friend the Chancellor for the £18 million in the Budget to level up the Rossendale valley—we look forward to going out and courting businesses. Does the Minister agree that the whole point of the levelling-up fund is to ensure that local authorities have to work with their local businesses to make sure they deliver best for their communities?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right; Government funding is just one part of the puzzle to ensure that local areas get the investment they need. Attracting that private sector investment is absolutely crucial, and I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for all the work he has done locally to make sure we are fully levelling up Rossendale and Darwen.
Building Safety Costs: Support for Leaseholders
The Building Safety Act 2022 introduced extensive protections for leaseholders in buildings above 11 metres. Developers in Government schemes will pay for cladding remediation, and developers that have signed contracts or are associated with landlords will also pay for non-cladding work.
It is a national disgrace that nearly six years on from the Grenfell tragedy, leaseholders in Battersea are still stuck in buildings that are below 11 metres. It is not right for the Secretary of State to say that this will be assessed on a case-by-case basis when we know that shorter buildings will have more vulnerable people in them, will have more cladding, and will suffer from greater fire safety defects. When will the Government finally get a grip and allocate resources, and prioritise those according to risk?
I am sorry to disagree with the hon. Lady, but it absolutely is the case that buildings under 11 metres typically have a lower set of issues associated with them when reviewed on the basis of the PAS 9980 principles, which are utilised to assess whether issues are there or not. Where colleagues are aware of problems in buildings, we have asked—and continue to ask—them to get in touch with us, so that we can look at those problems. We are doing so—I looked at a case in Romford only last week. If the hon. Lady wants to provide me with further information, I would be happy to look at those individual cases.
As my hon. Friend will know, the cost to leaseholders does not just end with funding safety measures; many are paying extortionate insurance premiums. Can he tell the House what discussions he has had with the Treasury about reducing those costs and making them more affordable?
Along with my colleagues in the Department, we are trying to find an industry solution for insurance, and we have been working closely with the Association of British Insurers and with insurers directly on what they can do and how the costs for insurance come down as remediation is concluded. I spoke with the ABI only last week, and I will continue to meet it regularly to try to resolve this incredibly important issue.
They will only ever deal with a fraction of the problem at best, but the developer remediation contract and the forthcoming responsible actors scheme are welcome. Yet, as things stand, all we know is that the scheme will initially focus on sufficiently profitable major housebuilders and large developers, and it may then expand over time to cover others. Blameless leaseholders trapped in unsafe buildings deserve far greater clarity now as to whether or not the contract and the scheme may eventually cover their building. Will the Government give them that certainty by committing today to publishing a full list of all developers that the Department believes are eligible and should therefore ultimately participate or face the consequences—yes or no?
I have the greatest respect for the hon. Gentleman, but the reality is that he cannot suggest that only a fraction of buildings are covered by the developer contract. Just in the past two weeks, it has been confirmed that more than 1,100 buildings will be fixed, with £2 billion of work covering 44 different developers. There will be more announcements in due course, but where individual leaseholders have concerns about moving those buildings forward, we are happy to hear about them, but extensive Government support schemes are already in place to allow remediation to occur without waiting for the conclusion of these developer discussions.
English City Region Capital Regenerations Projects
I was delighted that my Department could provide more than £200 million of additional funding to 16 transformational capital regeneration projects, including Rotherham’s vital bid to regenerate Dinnington and Wath upon Dearne. My officials will be working closely with applicants to ensure that these projects can kick-start regeneration in these local areas as quickly as possible.
I welcome the Minister’s response, and it is great news that Dinnington high street got £12 million from this new pot of money. Can she confirm that she will also look kindly on further bids, when I bring them, for my other high streets, such as in Maltby, Thurcroft and Kiveton? Will Rother Valley still be eligible for round 3 of the levelling-up fund, as we got this money from a different pot?
My hon. Friend is a fantastic champion for Rother Valley, and I know that two of his councillors who have been championing this project are sitting in the Gallery—Councillor Ball and Councillor Mills—and I thank them for their dedication. This project is due to provide almost £20 million for local regeneration schemes, including in Dinnington and Wath upon Dearne, but that is of course in addition to Rotherham’s two successful levelling-up fund schemes in the first round, worth a total of £39.5 million. Labour let the Rother Valley down, but the Conservatives are levelling it up.
Thornley Lane North is literally the boundary between Denton and Reddish, and the Minister will not understand the incredulity of local residents to see these huge electronic billboards plastered with “Levelling up”. Denton did not succeed in round 2 of the levelling-up fund. Reddish did not succeed in round 1. What is the Minister going to do to help me level up Denton and Redditch, rather than leaving us out?
Levelling-up Fund Bids
The levelling-up fund continues to invest in infrastructure that improves everyday life for local residents across the UK. Levelling-up fund projects that are in delivery are closely monitored through quarterly reporting, with payments made to local authorities every six months. We have also agreed a £65 million support package to ensure that local authorities have the capacity they need to deliver. I am pleased to say that details of the next round of the levelling-up fund will be outlined in due course.
For generations the people of Billingham have made a massive contribution to the British economy—through the chemical and pharmaceutical industries, among others—and they continue to do so today. Sadly, the once state-of-the-art town centre, also built on their backs, has seen better days. Can the Minister explain why, when it comes to levelling up, the Government have turned their back on those who have contributed the most and deserve investment in their town?
I suggest that perhaps the reason that some areas have been run down is due to decades of poor Labour management and investment. This Government are putting billions of pounds into regeneration, and I encourage the hon. Gentleman to make sure a bid comes in for round 3 of the levelling-up fund.
I was delighted that the Chancellor confirmed in his Budget that the next round of levelling-up fund bids would go ahead. The Minister has just said that the next round will be “in due course”. Would she like to be a bit more specific about when we might expect the deadline for bids, and will she confirm that her Department will work closely with Bradford Council to make sure that the much-needed bid for Bingley town centre will be successful next time around?
I am very grateful to my hon. Friend, who is a fantastic champion for Bingley. As I have said, the third round of the levelling-up fund will be announced in due course, but of course I will work with him and Bradford Council to ensure that the bid is as strong as it possibly can be for that round, so that we can deliver for the people of Bingley.
Barnsley Council has lost 40% of its budget and half of its workforce since 2010, which is a loss of £1.2 billion. Just £10 million has been given back to the borough through levelling-up funding, with nothing for my constituency of Barnsley East. Does the Minister really expect communities to be grateful for that?
Stoke-on-Trent was delighted to receive a UK-leading £56 million from the levelling-up fund, righting the wrongs of 70 years of Labour neglect and failure, when instead it has spent £60 million on brand-new council offices. Having already seen Tunstall’s £3.5 million for the old library and baths, will my hon. Friend allow Stoke-on-Trent another bid for the great mother town of Burslem so that we can invest in our indoor market, the Queen’s theatre and the Wedgwood Institute?
My hon. Friend is never quiet in his forthright campaigning for Stoke-on-Trent. He is a fantastic champion, and of course I will work with him to ensure that any additional funding opportunities are there for Stoke. He has had a fantastic record so far on attracting Government investment, but of course we want to do more.
Mr Speaker, you and the rest of the House will probably know that Huddersfield is a very large town that has never shown all that much interest in becoming a city, but we are feeling very aggrieved that we are not getting the help we need for some prime development projects, particularly with the old market site. Could the Minister look into our area, which is very split between Labour and Conservative—and I am asking quietly and I hope persuasively?
For decades, Ynys Môn has suffered from lack of investment. Now, thanks to this Conservative UK Government, who are committed to levelling up left-behind areas such as Ynys Môn, this has changed, with £17 million from the levelling-up fund to regenerate Holyhead and the brilliant news that Anglesey is to be a freeport. I would like to put on record in this House my sincere thanks, and those of my Ynys Môn constituents, to the UK Government—diolch yn fawr.
I want to put on record my thanks to my hon. Friend for her brilliant campaigning for Ynys Môn, really putting the island on the map. Ynys Môn is benefiting from an incredible sum of money from the levelling-up fund, and of course has the incredible benefit from that freeport, in no small part thanks to her brilliant campaigning.
Homeless Children: Bed-and-Breakfast Accommodation
The Government have been clear that the long-term use of bed-and-breakfast accommodation for families with children is inappropriate and unlawful. We will continue to work with local authorities to limit its use, and we are giving councils £654 million through the homelessness prevention grant for 2023 to 2025 to help them prevent homelessness.
I thank the Minister for her response, but the reality for a constituent of mine is very difficult. My constituent has been stuck in a Travelodge for seven months with his wife, a wheelchair user, and two sons. One son is autistic and has been increasingly distressed at constantly changing rooms. The number of families living in B&Bs for more than six weeks has increased by 180% in London in a year, as councils struggle to find affordable accommodation for families on benefits. Can the Government commit to uprating local housing allowance at least by the rate of inflation?
I am sorry to hear about the circumstances of the hon. Member’s constituent, and I am happy to talk in detail. There are currently 1,200 families in B&B accommodation for over six weeks. As I have said, we think that is inappropriate. We have made it clear to local authorities that B&Bs are a last resort, and they are an interim measure to more stable accommodation.
Every year since 2011, the number of children in temporary accommodation has risen—we are talking about well over 120,000 children without a home to call their own. It is a form of homelessness that is out of sight, out of mind and on the rise under this Tory Government—thousands of children stuck in bed and breakfasts for longer than the statutory maximum of six weeks. What do Ministers intend to do about the shocking numbers of homeless children in temporary accommodation, and when? May I remind the Minister that they are in charge of the parliamentary schedule for as long as they have left in government?
Homelessness and rough sleeping is one of the biggest priorities of this Government. We are devoting £2 billion over three years to alleviate homelessness and rough sleeping. This is a major priority of ours. Every family and child deserve to live in decent, secure and safe housing. That is why we have helped half a million people since the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017 came in to prevent homelessness. We have spent £366 million this year on the homelessness prevention grant and £654 million over the next two years. The Government are committed to getting people out of temporary accommodation and into long-term, stable accommodation.
Today, the Home Secretary and the Prime Minister launched the cross-Government antisocial behaviour action plan. My Department plays a critical role in ensuring that the facilities are available to divert young people from antisocial behaviour and into productive youth work.
Regeneration is taking place across Burnley and Padiham thanks to this Government, but to realise the potential we have to crack down on antisocial behaviour in our town centres. What steps is my right hon. Friend taking to crack down on ASB in town centres?
My hon. Friend is right. Across the country, we need to have more uniformed officers in crime hotspots and faster justice, so that those who are responsible for damaging an area make reparation. Above all, we need to ensure that the moral relativism that those on the Opposition Front Bench have taken towards crime is at last countered by a robust, pro-law-and-order response from this Government.
It takes some brass neck from a Government whose Prime Minister has two fixed penalty notices to accuse us of “moral relativism” when it comes to antisocial behaviour. In fairness to the Secretary of State, he has had a busy weekend: another week, another promise and another press release—he is at least consistent with that. But I have here a document that reveals that, even on his flagship levelling-up policy, he has been able to get only 8% of his funds out of the door. He is good at getting press releases out the door—why not our money?
In the Budget just the other week, the Chancellor of the Exchequer was responsible for making sure that tens of millions of pounds were spent, including £20 million in the hon. Lady’s constituency and tens of millions of pounds across the country, in order to level up. We heard during earlier from Members across the House who have received support, had projects delivered and seen change delivered. This Government are impactful, effective and focused. On the other side of the House, I am afraid all we hear is the cackle of impotence.
The desperation is absurd, Mr Speaker—8% of the levelling-up funds have been spent. I am glad the right hon. Gentleman mentioned the Budget, because in just one day his Government spent three times more on a tax cut for the richest 1% than they have managed to spend on the whole of the north of England in well over a year. Doesn’t that just sum the Government up? They can get their act together when it comes to the 1%, but when it comes to investment in our town centres, local transport, decent housing and delivering on a single one of the levelling-up missions, why do the rest of us always have to wait?
The hon. Lady does not have to wait for the truth. The truth is that, in the Budget, we adopted a policy put forward by the Labour shadow Health Secretary to get waiting lists down. Now that a Conservative Government are actually acting, the Labour party turns turtle on it. That is no surprise coming from the hon. Lady. When we published our White Paper on levelling up, she said that our levelling-up missions were the right thing; in fact, she wanted an additional mission. Now she says that those missions should be scrapped. One position one week, another position the next. Inconsistency, thy name is Labour.
May I say, as a dog lover myself, that my hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight that issue. Pets can bring joy, happiness and comfort, which is why the Government will prevent landlords from unreasonably refusing a tenant’s request to have a pet. We will give landlords more confidence by allowing them to require insurance to cover pet damage.
May I add to the Secretary of State’s congratulations to Humza Yousaf, who shares many constituents with myself? It is a great day for Glasgow Pollok and Glasgow South West. May I ask the Secretary of State some questions on intergovernmental relations? A third tranche of levelling-up funding is yet to be distributed, £90 million of which should go to Scotland. Rather than the botched and broken system, seen in the last month or so, of funding distribution from this place, is it not time to devolve the funding to devolved Administrations to enable its fair and efficient use?
I welcome the desire of the hon. Gentleman, and indeed the Scottish Government, to work with us on levelling up. I hope that that means there will be a legislative consent motion passed for our Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill. We will work with the Scottish Government to ensure that funding is spent as effectively as possible, but it is UK Government money that supplements the block grant, over which the Scottish Government have total control.
Before the spring Budget, the Deputy First Minister, John Swinney, sent a letter to the Chancellor raising several concerns, all of which were ignored. What does it say about the state of intergovernmental relations when the UK Government refuse to consider even a single concern raised by devolved Administrations at Budget time?
We not only consider, but meet regularly with our colleagues across the devolved Administrations. Last year, we had over 270 intergovernmental ministerial meetings, bringing together colleagues. Of course, from time to time, given our respective positions, we may disagree, but there have been a number of significant successes where we have agreed, not least the delivery of two green freeports in Scotland—an example of both Governments working together in the interests of the whole United Kingdom.
I absolutely will and I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the work he has done to ensure that our antisocial behaviour action plan hits criminals where it hurts. I should add that apparently the Leader of the Opposition was in Stoke-on-Trent North the other week. He gave a speech on crime, taking over 30 minutes, without any new policies. He should be arrested for wasting police time!
Obviously, the capacity of people who are Members of this House to do work to supplement the role they perform here is one that is properly—if there is anything improper about it—a matter for the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards and the Privileges Committee. I should say, however, that the hon. Gentleman was happy to serve under the leadership of Alex Salmond when he was, at one point, a racing columnist for the Glasgow Herald and, at another, a paid—
That sort of behaviour is completely unacceptable. I thank my hon. Friend for bringing it to our attention. We are committing to providing buyers of new build houses with strong powers of redress. We have legislated to establish the new homes ombudsman scheme in the Building Safety Act 2022, membership of which will be mandatory for developers.
Yes. Eastbourne council is wrong. The pre-election period does not stop councils from responding to Members of Parliament, and they should do so.
The shared prosperity fund is vital for many people, as it replaces EU funds. Last week, the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee heard from First Steps Women’s Centre, Women’s Support Network, Mencap and the Kilcooley Women’s Centre, among others, about their huge budget problems, particularly given the lack of a functioning Executive. Can the Secretary of State update us?
My hon. Friend has been vigilant on behalf of communities in Northern Ireland. We will make a statement later this week. The Minister for Levelling Up, my hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland (Dehenna Davison), and I will do everything we can to ensure continuity of funding for those services.
The south-west is one of the least affordable areas in the UK. The Liberal Democrat council in Bath wants to build at least 1,000 more social homes for rent by 2030, but faces significant barriers to purchase land. Will the Secretary of State give councils the first right to purchase public land as it becomes available, so that they can build desperately needed social housing?
We will do everything we can. I congratulate Bath and North East Somerset Council on wanting to build more social homes. It must be a first that a Liberal Democrat council is in favour of homes for its residents—normally, they oppose such developments. I am glad to hear it.
A number of charities make sure that all play parks, both new and refurbished, are fully accessible to all children, including those with disabilities. That is a given in my patch and a Government commitment, but the national design codes are still too vague. Will the Minister hurry the officials up and unlock this for all children?
Absolutely. My hon. Friend and I had a fantastic chat about this issue recently. I am committed to following through on that.
At a meeting in Leeds on Saturday of leaseholders affected by the cladding scandal, nearly two thirds said that they have absolutely no idea when their home is going to be made safe—six years after Grenfell. Does the Secretary of State agree that that is completely unacceptable? What is he going to do to make their homes safe?
I thank the Secretary of State for coming up to Hinckley only last month to hear about the problems we are having with the Liberal Democrat-run borough council, which does not have an up-to-date local plan. The biggest problem it causes is to my community, who put in neighbourhood plans that are ridden roughshod over. What is his message to my constituents?
Well, I think the message has to be “Vote Conservative”, because as we have heard there is a Liberal Democrat council in Eastbourne that is not answering letters, a Liberal Democrat council in Hinckley and Bosworth that is not ensuring that it has a local plan in place, and a Liberal Democrat council in St Albans that is paralysed in the face of the need for new housing. The message is very, very simple: if you want action, get the Liberal Democrats out.
This Friday, hundreds of groups across Northern Ireland will face a situation where their funding finishes and they will have to close their doors. Will the Minister give us an assurance that the problems with the shared prosperity fund, which was meant to replace the European structural funds, will be sorted out and that those groups, including Monkstown boxing club in my constituency, will be given an assurance of funding?
The Under-Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, my hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland (Dehenna Davison) has been working incredibly hard. I am grateful to Members of Parliament from the DUP and to the Chairman of the Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee for holding our feet to the fire.
Devon needs a devolution deal to deliver new powers and money to the towns there. A good deal would give local leaders the levers they need over affordable housing, public transport and local skills. Will my right hon. Friend meet me to discuss how we can get the best deal for Devon?
Absolutely. My hon. Friend is a formidable champion for Devon, unlike the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Richard Foord), who is not in his place today when these issues are being raised. I do not know what he is doing, but what he is not doing is working for people in Devon, which my hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Simon Jupp) does so effectively.
I welcome the Secretary of State’s words in the media yesterday, saying that it is unacceptable for private sector landlords to raise rents above the level of inflation, which is a big issue in Vauxhall. Just last week, someone in Brixton contacted me to say that their rent had been doubled in a year. Is it not the truth that the Secretary of State needs to hurry up, put words into action and bring forward the renters reform Bill now?
First, I thank the Secretary the State for the money for the Eden Project Morecambe; it has been gratefully received in Morecambe.
However, we have another problem that I would love to meet the Secretary of State to discuss. The town council or the parish council has raised the precept from £200,000 two years ago up to £1.5 million. Apparently, that is to buy a piece of land that is already owned by the public for a knock-down price of £1 million, when it was bought for £3 million. If that is not the case, the remaining money will go into a fund. As we both know, funds cannot be raised against what is already there, unless it is half. Will the Secretary of State meet me to discuss the issue as soon as possible?
Solar companies across the country are cynically putting in for just 49.9 MW to avoid having to get national approval from the Government for their solar farms. Will my right hon. Friend meet me to discuss this playing of the system and the Mallard Pass solar farm proposed in my constituency, which will be built with Uyghur blood labour?
In response to an earlier question, the Secretary of State said how important locally-led planning policies were, but frequently the Planning Inspectorate drives a coach and horses through decisions made by local planning authorities, as was recently the case in the village of Wootton, in my constituency. What is he going to do to ensure that the Planning Inspectorate takes more notice of local opinion, expressed through local councils?
Our changes to the national planning policy framework are designed to do exactly that. I talked to the new chief executive of the Planning Inspectorate earlier last week to reinforce the point that my hon. Friend has consistently made on behalf of his constituents in Cleethorpes.
Earlier today, the Minister was keen to pray in aid the Electoral Commission in support of the Government’s voter ID plans. Will she remind the House: in the commission’s detailed analysis of the 2021 elections across the whole of Great Britain, how many cases of voter impersonation produced enough evidence to lead to a police caution? If she does not know the exact number, I will give her a hint: it is half the number of people on the Government Front Bench right now.
I, too, have many constituents who are leaseholders and who are stuck in limbo and facing astronomical bills through no fault of their own. Meanwhile, developers such as Galliard have refused to sign the Government’s latest pledge. What is the Secretary of State doing to fix that aspect of the building safety crisis?
Oil Spill: Poole Harbour
I can confirm that at 8 o’clock on Sunday 26 March, the Poole harbour commissioners declared a major incident following an oil spillage of approximately 200 barrels into Poole harbour in Dorset. The spill is understood to be of a product that is 80% saline solution and 20% crude oil. The cause of the spill has been reported as a fault with a land-based pipeline operated by Perenco Oil and Gas. The pipe has since been shut off and depressurised to prevent any further contamination, and booms have been deployed to help contain the spill. Investigations are under way to determine the reason for the fault and to prevent similar incidents from occurring.
This has been designated a tier 2 incident. If it were to escalate to tier 1, the Maritime and Coastguard Agency would lead the response, which in Government is under the Department for Transport. However, we consider that unlikely because of the rapid response and deployment of the oil mitigation plan by the harbour commissioners.
The Poole harbour commissioners are leading the response to the oil spill incident and have activated their emergency oil spill response plan. Specialist oil spill response companies are assisting with the operation. The Dorset local resilience forum has convened a strategic co-ordination group to co-ordinate the response to the incident, working closely with the commissioners, the Maritime and Coastguard Agency and the Environment Agency. The current situation appears to be stable. The continuing focus of the strategic co-ordination group is on gathering further data to assess the environmental implications and continue to progress a clean-up operation. To support that, specialist aircraft completed a site assessment this morning and local responders are assessing the shoreline and harbour.
I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Richard Drax) shares my concern about the impact on wildlife in the area, especially as Poole harbour is a site of special scientific interest and a special area of conservation. I thank all other Dorset MPs who have been in touch about the issue and have worked on it as a co-ordinated group. The Government are closely monitoring the situation and will continue to do so. The Environment Agency and Natural England will monitor the impact and provide appropriate advice.
Thank you very much for granting this urgent question, Mr Speaker. I thank my hon. Friend for her statement.
This unfortunate incident has occurred in one of the most beautiful and fragile ecosystems in my constituency. It is not just my constituency that is affected, but those of other Dorset MPs, particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Poole (Sir Robert Syms), who is here in the Chamber. He has been very supportive and I owe him my thanks.
Having spent many, many years near, in or under the water in Poole harbour, I am acutely aware of the area’s sensitive environment, both on land and under the sea. I am therefore very concerned about this spill, which is potentially catastrophic—and let us not forget the many thousands of humans who enjoy the harbour, especially in the summer. I have been assured this morning that the spill is not as serious as was first thought: the majority of the fluid that leaked from an underground pipeline was contained yesterday, as the Minister said. However, a thin sheen of oil did escape the booms that were put in place, and today a handful of birds have been found covered in oil. Mercifully, that number remains low. The effect on the marine environment is unknown.
This morning I spoke to Perenco, which estimates that nearly 5,000 litres of fluid leaked from the pipeline. The fluid is 15% crude oil and 85% water. The leaking underground pipe is located in a very sensitive, marshy, low-lying area in the south of the harbour. The contamination was exacerbated by a high tide and a river that runs through the site into the harbour. A large operation to combat the spill using helicopters, drones, and vessel and onshore patrols continues today. Specialist clean-up companies have been called in to give advice, and that operation will start as soon as possible.
May I ask my hon. Friend to ensure that, as is paramount, the regulator conducts a full investigation into why the leak occurred and, once the cause has been identified, to make certain that any repairs are carried out to the highest standard? Will she also seek assurances from Perenco that the rest of its network is being properly maintained and checked? We do not want this ever to happen again.
I thank my hon. Friend for the assiduity with which he has dealt with this incident, which, as he has said, occurred in an extremely important nature and wildlife area that is recognised across the world and is a very sensitive site.
I give him an absolute assurance that a full investigation is under way. It is critical for that investigation to be carried out so that we can have the full details of what occurred—exactly where the leak started and exactly which bit of the pipeline was involved—and also the full details of how we should react in future and what will need to be done about cleaning up. The pipe has been shut off and depressurised to prevent any further discharges. I also give my hon. Friend an absolute assurance that I, as the Minister, will be following the investigation very closely to ensure that all the correct procedures are carried out, so that that can inform what we do in future when it comes to regulation and the regulators.
Thank you for granting the urgent question, Mr Speaker, and I thank the hon. Member for South Dorset (Richard Drax) for asking it. In a sense, it is good not to be talking about sewage discharges today, but this oil spill is far too serious a matter for political points to be made about it, so I will confine myself, in the limited time available to me, to highlighting the worries and concerns of local people and businesses in the Poole area.
I realise it is still early days for the investigation, but I hope that it will be thorough and speedy, and that any lessons to be learned will be published and acted on as quickly as possible. We do not want this to happen again and to blight another coastal community. Can the Minister enlarge on her previous responses and, in particular, tell us what work the Department and the Environment Agency are undertaking together to address the impact that this incident could have on the local population and environment in Dorset, not just on the site but in the surrounding area? What are the Government doing to assess the impact on small businesses which rely on the harbour for trade, and what support will be made available to them? Will the Minister confirm that the relevant agencies will have all the support that they need to address this incident, including manpower?
Poole harbour commissioners’ latest oil spill contingency plan appears to be dated July 2021, although the review date was August 2022. Can the Minister confirm that that is the latest version, and that the review was carried out in 2022? If so, what was the outcome?
I thank the hon. Lady for recognising the importance of this incident, and for focusing on it specifically. We are taking it extremely seriously. The investigation is under way, and all the right protocols are in place. The Poole harbour commissioners have activated their emergency oil spill response plan, and specialist oil spill companies are assisting the operation. The Dorset local resilience forum has already set up and convened its strategic co-ordination group involving all the relevant bodies, including the commissioners themselves, but also the Environment Agency and the Maritime and Coastguard Agency. Each of those is contributing its input, as is Natural England, which has set up its south-west environment team to do its own work. All that will feed in the details that we need to ensure that all the necessary measures are taken and we can understand exactly what has occurred. I give the hon. Lady an assurance that the harbour remains open as usual, the ferry service is working and the local beaches are open, although as a precaution the public have been told to avoid using the water in Poole harbour for recreational purposes until further updates are available.
I fully support my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Richard Drax) in the comments he has made. The harbour commissioners have, of course, planned for this sort of thing over the years and are constantly updating their plans. The latest information is that 60% to 70% of the oil that was on the surface yesterday has been reduced, so we are well on top of the situation.
Clearly, the incident has an impact on public confidence, which is why we need an inquiry to look at it. This is a mature field that has been producing for more than 40 years, and some of the pipes might need replacing. Secondly, if the ability of fishermen and companies in Poole harbour to export seafood to France is temporarily suspended, my colleagues and I might wish to talk to the Minister for Food, Farming and Fisheries, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Mark Spencer) about compensation.
I thank my hon. Friend for the work he has been doing on this. He is right to say that it is about giving assurances, which is why it is critical that this investigation is undertaken fully and in all the right ways. As he says, the oilfield has been worked since 1979 and this is the first such incident that has occurred, but it must be dealt with extremely seriously. I believe that that is happening, with all the right teams being brought to bear to give us the information and assurances that we need. People should follow the advice of the UK Health Security Agency on eating seafood, and I will relay my hon. Friend’s comments to the Fisheries Minister, who will be in touch if necessary.
Poole harbour, from the Arne bird sanctuary through to Brownsea island, is nature-rich. Bearing that in mind, and in light of the age of the infrastructure, can the Minister say when it was last examined for safety compliance to avoid such incidents occurring?
I agree that it is a wonderful and sensitive wildlife site, famous for its incredible birds, including terns, avocets and even gulls, as well as its red squirrels on Brownsea island. A full regime to check pipework and so forth is run through the regulator, but all the records, including the maintenance records, will be looked at in the investigation.
Tourism is an important part of the county’s economy, and public confidence in using water for recreational purposes is pivotal to that offer, allowing people to visit the countryside in North Dorset and elsewhere in the county. Will my hon. Friend say what further work the agencies will be doing to monitor sea bathing quality, and what her Department and the Tourism Minister can do with Dorset Council and others to ensure that the message that Dorset is safe to swim in and visit is seen across the country?
My hon. Friend is right to mention Dorset’s phenomenal tourism offer, both for people from this country and abroad. That is why the investigation and the messaging are so important, and the public must adhere to the UK Health Security Agency guidance. At the moment, the local resilience forum has not issued any concerns about the impact on tourism, but this will be kept under guidance.
My hon. Friend should take confidence from the standing environment group set up by Natural England and the involvement of all the environment non-governmental organisations. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds is already saying that it believes this is being well handled and well dealt with. We do not want any wildlife to be impacted, so every precaution needs to be taken. I have heard that, so far, just two sea birds have been found with oil on them, and they have been carefully washed off—a fantastic process that I witnessed myself when I was an environment reporter. We need to ensure that we know fully what is happening, through the investigation, so that there are no adverse impacts on tourism, which is such an important industry to this country.
I thank the Minister for her diligent approach to responding to this troubling occurrence, and I congratulate the hon. Member for South Dorset (Richard Drax) on bringing it to the House’s attention.
I am sure the Minister will agree that not only is there an ecological price to pay for this spillage but, as has been mentioned, there will be an impact on the potential bathing water status of Poole harbour. Does she agree that bathing water status is an important tool in ratcheting up water quality, both on our coasts and in our rivers and lakes? Will she reflect on the fact that, last year, only 10% of applications for bathing water status for our rivers, lakes and coastal areas were accepted? In my constituency, Coniston Water and the River Kent were turned down, despite having many more bathers than some rivers that were accepted. Does she agree that consistency is important if we are to keep our waterways free of oil and sewage, and will she look again at the applications that were turned down?
Unlike the hon. Member for Newport West (Ruth Jones), who stuck to the subject of this important urgent question, the hon. Gentleman asks a question that is somewhat irrelevant. Well over 70% of our bathing water is excellent, and more than 90% is rated good or excellent.
As a number of Members have said, not least my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Richard Drax), the Dorset coast forms part of an incredibly fragile ecosystem across much of the south coast. Part of its fragility and uniqueness is because it is fed by a network of chalk streams—80% of the world’s chalk streams are in our part of the world. In January, the River Anton, which flows through my constituency, saw a not dissimilar spill of 30,000 litres of oil. I commend the Environment Agency for its swift response: it tells me that it has recovered about 17,000 litres and that work is under way to recover the rest. Although there will be an investigation into the cause of the spill and any culpability, which may have consequences, where does accountability and transparency lie in the Environment Agency for the conduct of the investigation? Police and crime commissioners are accountable to police and crime panels for the work of the police, but the system for the Environment Agency is more opaque. How can my constituents have confidence that any investigation is conducted with alacrity and that culpability is apportioned appropriately?
An investigation is important for gathering the correct information. We also need to be careful about spreading fear about what exactly a pollutant might be. That is why there must be an investigation, and why the exact make-up of a pollutant needs to be fully known. The EA will, of course, investigate if there is enough evidence to suggest that a crime has potentially been committed. Where a crime has been committed, and after the due process is followed, fines are possible.
While cleaning up the incident is the priority, what lessons can the Government learn about the wisdom of allowing future drilling on environmentally important sites, such as the Rosebank site, which goes through a marine protected area? We need to learn lessons from such incidents. Will the Minister assure me that she will speak to her colleagues?
I would be the first Minister to say that we need assurances on looking after our wonderful environmentally sensitive sites. This oilfield has been working since 1979, and I understand it is the largest onshore oilfield in Europe. The investigation must take place and we must find out what happened—and correct anything that needs correcting—but we should not spread fear about this particular operation or others like it, as they are an important part of our energy make-up.
Poole harbour is a haven for wildlife and is home to rare species, so this spill is incredibly saddening. The Minister says she wants to ensure the disaster is not repeated, but she must know that where there is drilling, there is some spilling. There have been a staggering 721 oil spills in the North sea alone over the past three years. Just last month, the Planning Inspectorate overturned West Sussex County Council’s refusal of permission for more testing for shale oil reserves in Balcombe, beneath the High Weald area of outstanding natural beauty. Given the huge risk to the natural world when things go wrong, will she ask the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities to review this decision?
It is all about balance—it is important that we protect our natural environment, particularly in areas as precious as Poole Harbour, because that is as important to our economy as the oil—and ensuring that the investigation is correctly carried out as swiftly as possible. Anything that needs to be put in place to enhance our environmental protections and measures must be put in place—and I would say the same for any other similar project.
I was a little surprised that the Minister could not answer the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) about who is responsible for regulating the facility—perhaps she has the answer on a piece of paper—and when it was last inspected. If she does not know and cannot get the answer from her officials before the end of this urgent question, perhaps she could provide the House with a written statement.
I thank the Minister very much for her diligence and clear commitment to address the oil spill at Poole. When we had a spill in one of our local rivers back home, environmental work was carried out immediately with local conservation bodies to replenish the wildlife. The outstanding Poole wildfowlers association is active in the area. Will the Minister confirm that Natural England and EA have expertise—I say that gracefully and respectfully—in conservation efforts and can undertake not only to remove the oil but to restore the eco-balance as soon as possible.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising the importance of the environment and conservation of the area. In addition to the investigation that is under way, Natural England has already set up a standing environment group, and has brought in environmental groups that have great knowledge and that run many wonderful nature reserves, including the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, which is doing its bit. A shoreline clean-up team is gathering data on shore and in boats right now so that we know exactly what is happening. All that will be fed into the investigation.
Antisocial Behaviour Action Plan
With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement about the antisocial behaviour action plan, which I published today with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities.
I am proud of what Conservatives have achieved since 2010: overall crime, excluding fraud, is down by 50%; neighbourhood crime is down by 48%; and we are within days of securing the historic achievement of a record number of police officers nationally. That is all thanks to this party’s commitment to law and order.
But we must always strive harder to keep the British people safe. The worst crimes flourish when lower-level crime is tolerated. Let me be clear: there is no such thing as petty crime. Public First polling found that people cited antisocial behaviour as the main reason why their area was a worse place to live than 10 years before. The decent, hard-working, law-abiding majority are sick and tired of antisocial behaviour destroying their communities. Nobody should have to live in fear of their neighbours, endure disorder and drug taking in parks, see their streets disfigured by graffiti, fly tipping or litter, or feel unsafe walking alone at night, with gangs of youths hanging around, getting up to no good, intimidating us all and degrading the places that we love.
Personal experience of antisocial behaviour is highest in the police force areas of the north-east, the midlands and the south-east. In Derbyshire, Northumbria and Durham, at least 45% of adults have experienced antisocial behaviour. As one of the research participants from our polling in Liverpool reported, anti-social behaviour
“makes you feel unwelcome, like you’re not wanted or loved, like you don’t feel you belong. It does affect your emotional wellbeing. You don’t feel safe…you don’t know what is going to happen next. I’ve felt like this for the three years that I’ve lived here, and I’ve been planning on leaving for the past year.”
Such sentiments are why my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has made tackling antisocial behaviour a top priority for this Government.
Our antisocial behaviour action plan will give police and crime commissioners, local authorities and other agencies the tools to stamp out antisocial behaviour across England and Wales. It targets the callous and careless few whose actions ruin the public spaces and amenities on which the law-abiding majority depend. Our plan outlines a radical new approach to tackling antisocial behaviour, and it is split across four key areas.
First, there is stronger punishment for perpetrators. We are cracking down on illegal drugs, making offenders repair the damage that they cause, increasing financial penalties, and evicting antisocial tenants. The Opposition cannot seem to make up their mind on whether they want to legalise drugs. While the Leader of the Opposition and the Mayor of London argue about cannabis decriminalisation, we are getting on with delivering for the public.
Drugs are harmful to health, wellbeing and security. They devastate lives. That is why I have taken the decision to ban nitrous oxide, also known as laughing gas, which is currently the third most used drug for adults and 16 to 24-year-olds. By doing so, this Government will put an end to hordes of youths loitering in parks and littering them with empty canisters. Furthermore, under our new plan, the police will be able to drug-test suspected criminals in police custody for a wider range of drugs, including ecstasy and methamphetamine. They will test offenders linked to crimes such as violence against women and girls, serious violence and antisocial behaviour.
We will ensure that the consequences for those committing antisocial behaviour are toughened up. Our immediate justice pilots will deliver swift, visible punishment for all those involved. Offenders will undertake manual reparative work that makes good the damage suffered by victims. Communities will be consulted on the type of work undertaken, and that work should start swiftly—ideally within 48 hours of a notice from the police. Whether it is cleaning up graffiti, picking up litter or washing police cars while wearing high-vis jumpsuits or vests, those caught behaving antisocially will feel the full force of the law.
The upper limits of on-the-spot fines will be increased to £1,000 for fly-tipping and £500 for litter and graffiti. We will support councils to hand out more fines to offenders, with councils keeping the fines to reinvest in clean-up and enforcement.
Nobody should have to endure persistent anti-social behaviour from their neighbours. That is why we plan to halve the delay between a private landlord serving notice for antisocial behaviour and eviction. We will also broaden the harmful activities that can lead to eviction and make sure that antisocial offenders are deprioritised for social housing.
Secondly, we are making communities safer by increasing police presence in antisocial behaviour hotspots and replacing the outdated Vagrancy Act 1824. The evidence is compelling: hotspot policing, which is where uniformed police spend regular time in problem areas, reduces crime. That is why we are funding an increased police presence focused on antisocial behaviour in targeted hotspots where it is most prevalent. Initially, we will support pilots in 10 trailblazer areas, before rolling out hotspot enforcement across all forces in England and Wales in 2024.
We will also replace the 19th-century Vagrancy Act, which criminalised the destitute, with tools to direct vulnerable individuals towards appropriate support, such as accommodation, mental health or substance misuse services. We will criminalise organised begging, which is often facilitated by criminal gangs to obtain cash for illicit activity. We will prohibit begging where it causes blight or public nuisance, such as by a cashpoint or in a shop doorway, or directly approaching someone in the street.
Rough sleeping can cause distress to other members of the community, for example by obstructing the entrance of a local business or leaving behind debris and tents. We will give police and local authorities the tools they have asked for to deal with such situations, while ensuring those who are genuinely homeless are directed towards appropriate help. We will build local pride in place by giving councils stronger tools to revitalise communities, bring more empty high street shops back into use and restore local parks.
Thirdly, there is prevention and intervention. Around 80% of prolific adult offenders begin committing crimes as children. We are funding 1 million more hours of provision for young people in antisocial behaviour hotspots and expanding eligibility for the Turnaround programme, which will support 17,000 children on the cusp of the criminal justice system. Our £500 million national youth guarantee also means that, by 2025, every young person will have access to regular clubs, activities and opportunities to volunteer.
Fourthly, we will improve accountability to the public. A new digital tool will mean that members of the public have a simple and clear way to report antisocial behaviour and receive updates on their case. We are also launching a targeted consultation on community safety partnerships, with the aim of making them more accountable and more effective.
This Government are on the side of the law-abiding majority. We will take the fight to the antisocial minority. This Government have set out a clear plan and a clear set of measures to do just that: more police, less crime, safer streets and common-sense policing. I commend this statement to the House.
This plan is too weak, too little, too late. The Home Secretary says people are sick and tired of antisocial behaviour. Too right they are—because people have seen serious problems getting worse and nothing has been done. But who does she think has been in power for the last 13 years?
It is a Tory Government who have decimated neighbourhood policing. There are 10,000 fewer neighbourhood police and police community support officers on our streets today than there were seven years ago. Half the population rarely ever see the police on the beat, and that proportion has doubled since 2010. This is a Conservative Government who weakened antisocial behaviour powers 10 years ago, brought in new powers that were so useless they were barely even used, including the community trigger and getting rid of powers of arrest, even though they were warned not to.
The Government abandoned the major drug intervention program that the last Labour Government had in place, slashed youth service budgets—the YMCA says by £1 billion—and have let charges for criminal damage halve. Community penalties have halved and there is a backlog of millions of hours of community payback schemes not completed because the Government cannot even run the existing system properly. Far from punishing perpetrators of antisocial behaviour, the Government are letting more and more of them off.
As a result, criminal damage affecting our town centres is up by 30% in the last year alone. It is a total disgrace that too many people, especially women, feel they cannot even go into their own town centres any more because this Government have failed them. They do not see the police on the beat and they do not feel safe.
So what are the Government proposing now? We support some of the measures, largely because we have long called for them. We called for hotspot policing; we called for faster community payback. We support stronger powers of arrest and a ban on nitrous oxide. But let us look at the gaps. There is nothing for antisocial behaviour victims, who are still excluded from the victims code and the draft victims law. On the failing community trigger, all the Government are going to do is rename and relaunch it. They are re-announcing plans on youth support that the Levelling Up Secretary announced more than a year ago. I notice one new thing in the document: an additional 500 young people will get one-to-one support. Well, there were 1.1 million incidents of antisocial behaviour last year, so good luck with that.
The Government are not introducing neighbour respect orders. Astonishingly, neighbourhood policing is not mentioned even once in the document. How on earth do the Government think they will tackle antisocial behaviour without bringing back neighbourhood policing teams? Their recent recruitment—to try to reverse their own cuts of 20,000 police officers—is not going into neighbourhood policing. There are 10,000 fewer neighbourhood police officers and PCSOs in our teams than there were seven years ago. Labour has set out a plan for 13,000 more neighbourhood police on the streets, paid for by savings that have been identified by the Police Foundation but which Ministers are refusing to make. Will the Home Secretary now agree to back Labour’s plans to get neighbourhood police back on the beat to start taking action?
Hotspot policing is not the same as neighbourhood policing. We support hotspot policing to target key areas, but that is not the same as having neighbourhood teams who are there all the time, embedded in the community, and know what is going wrong and why. There are plenty of things that are already crimes—that are already illegal—on which the police already have the powers to act but do not. No one comes because there are not enough neighbourhood police.
Will the Home Secretary apologise to people across the country for her cuts of 10,000 neighbourhood police and PCSOs, and for taking the police off the streets, meaning that people do not see them any more? If she does not realise that having fewer police in those neighbourhood teams is causing huge damage and undermining confidence, she just does not get it. Really, after 13 years, is this the best the Conservatives can come up with?
The more I listen to the right hon. Lady, the more confused I am about what Labour’s policy is. She criticises our plan while claiming that we have stolen Labour’s, so I am not sure which it is. In the light of the embarrassing efforts of the shadow Policing Minister, the hon. Member for Croydon Central (Sarah Jones), to explain her own policy on television last week, I am not sure that any Labour Members really know what their antisocial behaviour policy is. Let me tell the House one big difference between the right hon. Lady’s plan and ours: unlike her, we call tell the public how much ours will cost and how we will pay for it—a big question that Labour is yet to answer.
The shadow Home Secretary talks about policing cuts. Never mind that we are recruiting 20,000 extra police officers—the highest number in history. Never mind that we have increased frontline policing, which leads to more visible and effective local policing. Never mind that by the end of this month, we are on course to have more officers nationally than we had in 2010 or in any year when Labour was in government.
The shadow Home Secretary wants to talk about safer streets. Well, let us compare our records. Since 2019, this Conservative Government have removed 90,000 knives and weapons from our streets. Since 2010, violence is down 38%, neighbourhood crime is down 48%, burglary is down 56%, and overall crime, excluding fraud, is down 50%. What does Labour’s record show? That where Labour leads, crime follows. [Interruption.] I know it hurts, but it is true. Under Labour police and crime commissioners, residents are almost twice as likely to be victims of robbery, and knife crime is over 44% higher. In London, Labour’s Sadiq Khan wants to legalise cannabis. In the west midlands, a Labour PCC wants to close police stations. Labour opposed plans to expand stop and search. Labour Members voted against tougher sentences for serious criminals. They voted against the increased powers for police in our Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022. So we should not be surprised that, while this Conservative Government are working to get violent criminals off our streets, Labour is campaigning to release them. The Leader of the Opposition and some 70-odd Labour MPs signed letters—they love signing letters—to stop dangerous foreign criminals from being kicked out of Britain. One of those criminals went on to kill another man in the UK, and we learned this week that many others went on to commit further appalling crimes in the UK. Shameful! Outrageous! Labour Members should hang their heads in shame!
The truth about Labour is that they care more about the rights of criminals than about the rights of the law abiding majority. They are soft on crime and soft on the causes of crime. The Conservatives are the party of law and order. Our track record shows it, and the public know it.
As the Home Secretary pointed out, crime is now at half the level it was when Labour told us that there was no money left in the coffers to continue the fight. I congratulate her on bending her elbow and putting so much effort into driving the number down even further. I particularly commend her on the publication of the plan today, which builds on the focus on antisocial behaviour that we published in the beating crime plan not so long ago.
May I urge my right hon. and learned Friend to examine carefully the routes of supply of nitrous oxide? We need to avoid a situation in which the substance moves from the legitimate market into the illegitimate market and becomes another hook for drug dealers to draw young people into their awful trade. How can she restrict supply to those who genuinely need it without it necessarily becoming an illicit substance that drug dealers use for their business?
Let me put on the record my admiration for and gratitude to my right hon. Friend for all he has achieved and led—not just when he was at the Home Office but before that, when he worked for City Hall on the frontline of policing and crime fighting. He talked about our plans to ban nitrous oxide. We are clear: there needs to be an exception for legitimate use. It is used in a vast array of circumstances that are lawful, commercial and proper, and those will not be criminalised.
Most of this statement does not apply in Scotland because, thankfully, justice is devolved. The Scottish Government take a public health approach to criminality—the violence reduction unit’s approach, which has been emulated by the UK Government. I gently suggest that criminalising young people in this way will not help—[Interruption.] If the antisocial behaviour from the Government Benches could stop, that would be helpful.
The independent Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs recently concluded that the evidence shows that the health and social harms of nitrous oxide were not commensurate with a ban. Why has the Home Secretary overruled her advisers? The Misuse of Drugs Act has completely failed to prevent people from taking heroin, cocaine and cannabis. Why does the Home Secretary believe that it will stop people from taking nitrous oxide?
The overall legislative framework on illicit drugs continues to strike a balance between controlling harmful substances and enabling appropriate access to those drugs for legitimate medicinal research and, in exceptional cases, for industrial purposes. But with respect, I am not going to take any lectures from someone from the SNP, which has overseen in Scotland a total collapse of confidence in policing and, more devastatingly, a record high in Europe when it comes to the number of drug-related deaths.
There is a lot to welcome in this statement, particularly some of the ways in which increased police resources are being used; we are seeing that in Torquay town centre, with the launch of Operation Loki. I also very much welcome the reform of the wholly outdated Vagrancy Act—a useless tool against organised gangs that in theory also criminalises the most destitute. Could my right hon. and learned Friend outline how traders and residents in places such as Torquay and Paignton town centres will see the difference the plan is making and hold the local force to account?
There is a wide range of measures in this plan, and we are going to consult on many of them, but one example is where we want to potentially streamline the availability of public spaces protection orders, so that the police can access those really important orders more quickly and efficiently and take action to prohibit nuisance and antisocial behaviour in local areas.
My local police tell me that in the Rhondda, which is a very low-crime area in general, the single biggest issue that we face is domestic violence: we probably have higher figures in the Rhondda than for three other neighbouring constituencies added together. I hope the Home Secretary will forgive me if I am not very impressed by what she is announcing today, because I want to see the police really focusing on what might save lives.
In particular, can she look into the role that brain injury plays? In poorer communities, there is lots of evidence to suggest that nearly two thirds of those going into prison these days—both women and men—are people who have suffered significant brain injuries that have not been diagnosed or treated before they come into the criminal justice system. Sometimes that leads to them truanting, falling out of school and coming into the criminal justice system. Is it not important that we base everything we do on evidence, rather than sloganising?
I think this is highly evidence-led, because we are focusing heavily on restorative justice, prevention and diversion, whether that is through hotspot policing, the investment in youth facilities, or the diversion of people who engage in drug-using behaviour on to treatment facilities. That is about prevention, rather than cure.
I put on record my thanks to the Prime Minister for taking time to speak with constituents impacted by antisocial behaviour when he came to Essex Boys and Girls Clubs in Chelmsford this morning. The hotspot policing will make a huge impact, but can I also particularly thank the Home Secretary for the youth guarantee, making sure that every young person will have access to clubs, activities or other opportunities?