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Commons Chamber

Volume 733: debated on Monday 5 June 2023

House of Commons

Monday 5 June 2023

The House met at half-past Two o’clock


[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Speaker’s Statement

Before we start today’s business, I would like to inform the House that I have written to the Speaker of the Lok Sabha to express the deepest condolences of all Members following the tragic train collision in Balasore. I know Members will wish to extend their sympathies to all those affected.

Oral Answers to Questions

Levelling Up, Housing and Communities

The Secretary of State was asked—

Deposit Return Scheme: UK Internal Market Act

1. Whether he has had discussions with (a) Cabinet colleagues and (b) the Scottish Government on an opt-out under the United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020 for the Scottish Government’s deposit return scheme. (905265)

I appreciate that. It just shows that even though the reds had a good run, in another contest the blues managed to out-class them in the end.

I have regular discussions with Cabinet and devolved Administration colleagues on our shared ambition to deliver the priorities of the people of Scotland. That includes the drive to increase recycling across the UK, while also addressing the needs of businesses within our shared internal market for drinks manufacturing.

I am reminded of the old adage that had the Scottish National party invented the lightbulb, the Secretary of State would call it a dangerous anti-candle conspiracy. The reality is that in 1997, his party’s manifesto opposed devolution. It said it would

“create strains which could well pull apart the Union”


“would risk rivalry and conflict between these parliaments and assemblies and the parliament at Westminster.”

His 2019 manifesto committed to a

“deposit return scheme to incentivise people to recycle plastic and glass.”

Why is he working so hard to fulfil the vision of 1997, and not his commitment of 2019?

I am tempted to reply that if I ask the question, “How many SNP MPs does it take to change a lightbulb?” the answer is, inevitably, “Well, we have to wait for the motorhome to arrive.” [Interruption.] I have to try, don’t I?

On the central question, we want a deposit return scheme that works across the United Kingdom. The strongest critics of the Scottish Government’s approach have been within the Scottish Parliament and within the hon. Gentleman’s own party. If they cannot satisfy Fergus Ewing—the Minister who was responsible for environment policy in the Scottish Government with such distinction for so long—they will not be able to satisfy manufacturers, consumers and citizens in Scotland and across the UK.

Let us quote from the 2019 Conservative party manifesto—in this job, reading fiction is a necessary evil. It says:

“We will crack down on the waste and carelessness that destroys our natural environment and kills marine life…and introduce a deposit return scheme to incentivise people to recycle plastic and glass.”

The Conservatives even put it in bold to show how serious they were. Other than a decision to oppose and undermine devolved Parliaments and Governments, what has changed from the manifesto, or are the UK Government simply bottling it?

I am tempted to say that the SNP should can it on this question, because the businesses with which the Scottish Government have been interacting have been uniform, loud and clear in their determination to ensure that the scheme works interoperably across the whole United Kingdom. We have been very clear that an exclusion can be granted, but only if the Scottish Government work to ensure a scheme that works for all the citizens of the UK and all the businesses of Scotland.

The First Minister of Wales has now been contacted by the UK Government to make changes to the Welsh DRS scheme to remove glass, which reneges on what was previously agreed in the UK Government’s consultation with the Northern Ireland Executive. The Welsh First Minister’s own words are:

“The English Government is the outlier here.”

Surely, instead of walking on broken glass, they could simply recycle it?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that wonderful reference to the Eurythmics classic. We are both Annie Lennox fans, whatever else may divide us.

The Scottish Government have singularly failed to carry Scottish business, Scottish public opinion, Scottish consumers and even their own MSPs with them. We stand ready to help—to rescue the Scottish Government from their own folly—but that relies on the Scottish Government doing something that they have been singularly reluctant to do: to take a small slice of humble pie and acknowledge that in this area, they have got things wrong.

Cladding and Building Remediation

2. What plans he has to help leaseholders affected by potentially dangerous cladding with increases in insurance charges. (905266)

17. What recent progress he has made on cladding and non-cladding remediation for residential buildings. (905284)

The Government intend to enact reforms to improve the buildings insurance market by banning commissions, increasing the transparency of information and preventing unjustified legal costs when premiums are challenged. We are also pressing the insurance industry to launch its scheme. In 95% of all identified unsafe high-rise aluminium composite material buildings, and in 400 buildings supported by the building safety fund, remediation works have been either completed or started.

I have raised before in the House the predicament of residents of Barrier Point, in my constituency, whose insurance premiums have risen sixfold. The Secretary of State told me in January that such insurers were

“squarely in our gun sights”.—[Official Report, 30 January 2023; Vol. 727, c. 55.]

Can the Minister offer any prospect of imminent relief to my constituents, some of whom face a demand of an additional £6,000 this year?

I completely appreciate the point the right hon. Gentleman makes. That is why I have met with the Association of British Insurers multiple times in the last few weeks alone. I am hopeful that the scheme it hopes to bring forward with the insurance industry will come forward in the next few weeks. Later today, I am meeting the British Insurance Brokers’ Association again to talk about how it will reduce commissions, in advance of the work that the Secretary of State has already announced to ban such commissions.

In my constituency, there are two main housing developments where remediation work has been promised to fix unsafe cladding on buildings. I hope that the Minister is fully aware that living in unsafe buildings has meant individuals and families have had to put their lives on hold. Leaseholders cannot sell, move or staircase their homes, and some have had to put starting a family on hold. Will the Minister acknowledge that that is unacceptable? Will he agree to implement a timeframe so that work is prioritised by housing providers and building firms?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for highlighting the challenges her constituents are facing. I appreciate the point that she is making about challenges. That is why we are trying to push forward with remediation as quickly as we are able to do so. Since the announcement by the big six lenders in December, taking effect in January, it should now be possible for more owners and leaseholders in properties like these to be able to buy, sell or remortgage. Early data received by the Department indicates that while the market will take some time to become more functional, it is moving in the right direction.

Will the Minister recognise that this is not just a question of ridiculously escalating premiums? There is also the problem experienced by my constituents in Northpoint in Bromley, which I have mentioned in the House before. The previous insurer, Aviva, which had insured the building up until the Grenfell fire, is refusing to quote at all. That withdrawal from the market is putting many people under real pressure. The cladding has already been removed from the building, the risk has gone and there is a zero claims record, but a major firm like Aviva will not even quote. There is a market failure here. Just as we did with the EWS1 fire safety certificates, when there was a withdrawal of professional negligence insurance, please can we intervene and make sure that people at least come into the market properly?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. That is exactly why we are trying to encourage and work with the ABI and the large insurers, to bring forward this new scheme that should help with the kind of issues that he has highlighted. I hope we will have more news on that in the coming weeks. If not, I would be very keen to talk to my hon. Friend and his local residents about how we can move forward.

Levelling-up Fund: Delivery of Funds

3. What assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the process of delivering funds for successful levelling-up fund bids. (905267)

My Department has undertaken a robust assessment and decision-making process in both rounds of the levelling-up fund. Taking on board feedback, we made a number of improvements to better support applicants in the most recent round, including by making £65 million of support available to help with the delivery of projects. We are currently reflecting on the lessons learned from the first two rounds of the fund, and we will be making an announcement on round 3 shortly.

It is deeply concerning to hear from Bridgend County Borough Council officers that the Minister’s officials are suggesting that any local authority that was successful in the second round will get no additional funding in the third round. My Ogmore constituency has lost out on all levelling-up funding, despite Department for Transport officials suggesting that the only way I could get a level crossing closure in my constituency was by accessing levelling-up funds. What assurances can the Minister give the officials in Bridgend County Borough Council and my constituents that the much promised levelling-up funding will be delivered to the people of Ogmore? Or is it another case of the Tories misleading the people of Wales?

I know the hon. Gentleman has been campaigning hard for the level crossing in his constituency. As I said, we are reflecting on lessons learned, but no decision has yet formally been made on allocations in round 3. We will keep the House updated.

North Edinburgh Arts in my constituency recently joined the City of Edinburgh Council in a project to provide a new state-of-the art venue in a deprived area, building on already vital work, but that project failed to receive funds in both levelling-up rounds. Only 21% of bids are currently successful, and only 8% of the funds are going to Scotland. Does the Minister think we should review the criteria to make applications more efficient, so that communities can benefit from the levelling-up fund?

I am certainly willing to meet the hon. Lady to discuss the project. It is worth noting that the allocations we have made to Scotland meet the commitments that we made in our first levelling-up fund prospectus, but of course we want to ensure that the funds reach the areas that need them most.

Given the soaring costs in the construction sector, many local authorities, including Pembrokeshire County Council in my constituency, will find it a real challenge to meet the full scope of their successful levelling-up bids. I know that the Minister has been proactive in reaching out to councils, but can she assure the House that she and her team will continue to provide all possible support for local authorities to ensure that money is spent well on meaningful projects that fulfil our levelling-up objectives?

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his engagement with his own levelling-up funding projects. As I have said, we have made £65 million available specifically to support the development and completion of projects, which will include some cost engineering in some cases, because we recognise that inflation has been extremely hard on the construction industry, but my officials and I stand ready to help in any way we can.

Halesowen town centre has recovered well from the covid pandemic, not least as a result of the work done by Vicky Rogers of the Halesowen business improvement district and Eve O’Connor of the Cornbow shopping centre, but we were not successful in the last round of levelling-up bidding. Will the Minister meet me to discuss the Halesowen bid and how it might need to be improved to meet any criteria for the third round?

My hon. Friend’s council will now have received written feedback explaining why the bid was not successful, but he is a fantastic champion for Halesowen, and I shall of course be happy to meet him to discuss the project further.

The Committee recently produced a report on levelling-up funding, which I hope the Minister has had a chance to read by now. Commenting on the current arrangements, we said that despite the Government’s commitment to reducing requirements for competitive bidding, we had seen no evidence that it had yet been implemented. We were also shocked to discover that the Department did not know how many

“pots of money across Government contribute towards levelling up”.

Does the Minister accept the Committee’s finding that the policy currently lacks

“a long-term, substantive strategy and funding approach”,

and does she agree that the Government need to sort this out if levelling up is to be delivered—given that, in principle, there would probably be widespread support for that on both sides of the House?

I disagree with the Select Committee Chair, in that we do have a long-term vision for levelling up. Indeed, our White Paper “Levelling Up the United Kingdom” set out our 12 core missions. I have engaged with the hon. Gentleman in the past about the funding point. I have also told the House that we will be publishing a funding simplification plan; that is coming soon, and I shall be happy to meet him to discuss it when it has been published.

Nearly 18 months after the publication of the levelling up White Paper, instead of meaningful levelling up, all that we have is disorganisation and disappointment. The levelling-up directors were supposed to cut through the dysfunction to help areas obtain the support that they needed, and it was announced with great fanfare that there were nearly 600 applications for those roles. But as with everything this Department does, it was all smoke and mirrors, because the roles have now been quietly dropped and no levelling-up directors are to be appointed. Will the Minister come clean? The Government have given on levelling-up directors because they have given up on levelling up, have they not?

Local Authorities: Inflation

I am not sure that I can respond with quite so much brevity, Mr Speaker!

In the most recent financial settlement, the Government provided billions more in taxpayer subsidy to support councils, including funds to mitigate inflation. Councils are always under a duty and a responsibility to improve and transform services and make them more efficient, but the Government continue to support them when we are able to do so.

A recent report from our Select Committee highlights the fact that local authorities’ revenue funding from central Government has been reduced dramatically since austerity began in 2010, and notes that levelling-up funds generally do not replace grant funding because they are capital, not revenue. Can the Minister be honest and admit that the latest local government finance settlement will entrench and widen already huge regional inequalities, leaving the levelling-up agenda in tatters?

I am sure that many Members of the House will share my experience that, on the doorstep, an issue that comes up almost more than anything else is potholes. Barnet Council is clearly failing in its duty to fill them in. Does the Minister have any advice for our failing local council on how it can improve its record on filling in potholes?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that one of the core responsibilities of local councils is to do the basics, and one of the basics is potholes. That is why the Chancellor recently announced additional money for local councils to ensure that they are filled, and it is for local councils to translate that into reality on the streets.

Under a Government who created a cost of living crisis that has sent inflation levels soaring, there are now 4.2 million children living in poverty, and 70% of them are in working households. One third of children in the west midlands and 200,000 children in the north-east live below the poverty line. Shockingly, a quarter of all children growing up under the Scottish National party in Scotland now live in poverty. What support can local authorities expect in order to deal with this increase in child poverty, and is the Department’s decision to award levelling-up funding to only one in four deprived areas a factor in the heartbreaking levels of child poverty we see in Tory Britain today?

The Government offer a huge amount of support to the most vulnerable in our society. We have seen that all the way through covid and through the inflation and energy issues, and we will continue to do it through the welfare system as a whole. The best way out of poverty, where it is possible, is to work, and that is why this Government are ensuring that work pays, work matters and work achieves.

UK Levelling Up

Levelling up is a central mission for this Government. We want to ensure that the full potential of our economy, businesses, people and places is reached. The Government have allocated £9.9 billion to my own Department alone since 2019 to support levelling up, in addition to the £7.5 billion committed to the nine mayoral combined authorities in England.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his response. May I ask him to join me in congratulating the towns of Peterhead and Macduff in Banff and Buchan on the success of their levelling up bid? Can he confirm that the success of that bid does not necessarily disqualify future bids, particularly if they are of a strategic transport nature, such as the much-needed safety improvements on the A947, which my right hon. Friend, being from the area, will be familiar with? That road travels not just through my constituency but through multiple others in the Aberdeenshire Council area.

I congratulate Aberdeenshire Council on its success in levelling-up fund round 2. My hon. Friend is absolutely right: success in that round does not preclude further investment. One thing, though, that would be devastating for Aberdeenshire and the north-east of Scotland would be if the Labour party’s policy of stopping all new oil and gas development in the North sea were taken forward. That would be catastrophic for levelling up and for the north-east of Scotland.

I thank the Secretary of State for his efforts on levelling up, but I must stress to him the importance of speed in reaching the communities of my Sedgefield constituency. It was disappointing that the knife was applied to the second round, knocking out many Durham bids, particularly mine in Newton Aycliffe, and it is painful to see the slow progress on the restoring your railway fund bid for Ferryhill station. It is critical for my constituents that these initiatives get past the decision stage so that we can get spades in the ground. When does my right hon. Friend think we will see delivery?

My hon. Friend makes a good point. It is important that we support the work that is anticipated for Ferryhill station. In his constituency, Hitachi produces state-of-the-art railway investment, and we need to make sure that its vision is matched by the Government’s commitment.

Given that the UK is one of the most regionally imbalanced of all of the major economies, and given the massive potential that is waiting to be unleashed, is it not time to accelerate the now stalled Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill and push forward urgently with Northern Powerhouse Rail, planning reform, devolution, secure affordable energy supply, gigabit broadband and all the other levelling-up measures that will make this the strongest and most prosperous economy in Europe?

I take this opportunity to thank my right hon. Friend for his leadership on this issue. The levelling up White Paper would not have been published without his determination to ensure that there are 12 clear missions at the heart of Government to ensure that this country achieves its full potential. It is interesting that the Leader of the Opposition, as he currently is and will long remain, decided that the way to endear himself to this country is by having five missions. As ever, he has nothing like my right hon. Friend’s scale of ambition and vision when it comes to making this country great.

The Government took £15 billion from local authorities—local communities —and set them a “hunger games” competition to fight over £3 billion. How is that levelling up?

I do not recognise that characterisation. Once again, I smile at the way in which “hunger games” trips from the lips of Labour MPs. Only this Administration have been responsible for devolution in England outside London. In 13 years in power, Labour had an opportunity to institute meaningful devolution, and it did not do so outside London. Now Labour is attempting to deny the people of the north-east of England a democratic choice to have Jamie Driscoll as their Mayor. I will not take anything on this from the hon. Gentleman.

I place on record my sincere condolences to the family of stalwart trade unionist Tyrone O’Sullivan, who recently passed away. Tyrone was a typical Welshman: proud of his roots while always fighting for more for our communities. He was an inspiration to us all.

The all-party parliamentary group on coalfield communities will soon publish a landmark report on the next steps for levelling up. As it stands, millions of our constituents across the country are being left behind, so will the Secretary of State commit to meeting me to discuss the report’s recommendations?

I also pass on my condolences to Tyrone O’Sullivan’s family. The coalfield communities’ travails throughout the 1980s and ’90s weigh with us, and some of the investment made since then has seen many of those communities turn the corner, but there is more to be done. I look forward to talking to the hon. Lady about what more we can do.

On any index we choose—social mobility, inequality, deprivation, the funding of public services and so on—our constituencies in the so-called red wall have been sinking throughout this Administration. A Minister recently told the House that we will get £20 million from the levelling-up fund, but it never came. In any case, £20 million would not transform our constituencies. What does the Secretary of State say to the old miner I met in the Co-op on Saturday afternoon in our village, who said, “Will you say to Mr Gove, ‘Levelling up, who does he think he’s kidding?’”?

The hon. Gentleman is a very effective and passionate advocate not just for his constituents but for coalfield communities more broadly, but recent work by the Onward think-tank has pointed out that, under this Government, coalfield regeneration—the establishment of new enterprises and the creation of fresh opportunities—has accelerated at a rate not seen under the last Labour Government. That is why so many coalfield communities, from Blyth to Derbyshire, voted for the Conservatives, under the leadership of my right hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson), in 2019.

Thanks in part to £20 million-worth of levelling-up money, Peterborough University has constructed a brand-new research and innovation hub and is constructing a new living lab. We are turning Peterborough into a high-skill, high-wage economy. Will my right hon. Friend come to Peterborough and visit the university to see our progress and to congratulate everybody who is transforming Peterborough?

I can think of few things I would enjoy more. I always enjoy visiting Peterborough, which gives me an opportunity not only to work with my hon. Friend, who is such an effective advocate for Peterborough, but to meet the stellar council leader Wayne Fitzgerald, who did so well in the recent local elections—a vote of confidence in Conservative leadership in Peterborough.

One of the clearest examples that rural communities are in desperate need of levelling up is the shocking state of bus services and the decline in access to them. The £2 fare is very welcome, but it is of no use to people who live in a community with no bus service. In the next few weeks, we face the withdrawal of the 530 Cartmel Peninsula service and the S1 Sedbergh to Kendal service. What funding and additional powers can the Secretary of State promise to the new Westmorland and Furness Council to make sure such communities retain their buses and that less well-served areas get new services?

The hon. Gentleman is right to say that bus services are vital, not least for rural communities such as those he represents. I would like to talk to him and to Westmorland and Furness Council, which is relatively newly formed and Lib Dem-led—at the moment. I am looking forward to talking about what we can do to provide, with the Department for Transport, suitable services for his constituents.

Planning Authorities: Designation Warnings

The Government expect all local planning authorities to deliver an efficient and effective planning service. On 12 April, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State wrote to 10 local authorities that did not meet the required performance levels for speed of decision making on non-major applications. Those local authorities have been given the opportunity to demonstrate improved performance. If the performance falls below the required threshold, the Secretary of State will use his powers to designate the local planning authority later this year.

There are 329 local planning authorities in England, 315 of which performed above the 70% expected performance rate. With others in Leicestershire all above 84%, my local council, the Lib Dem-run Hinckley & Bosworth Borough Council, was at 46%, which is the lowest level in the country. The staff in the department are doing their best with the Lib Dem failures, but what more can a local MP and the Government do to help support the staff and our community to get the support they need?

I thank my hon. Friend for bringing this important matter to the House’s attention. Where authorities fall behind, as in the case of that Lib Dem-run local authority, which he has highlighted effectively, we will not hesitate to take action. We are working to provide all local authorities with the support they need, including by increasing planning fees and ensuring that planning departments have the skills and capacity they need. I am happy to meet him to discuss this further.

Short and Long-term Rentals

7. Whether his Department is taking steps to change the balance between short and long-term rentals. (905274)

We are consulting on a registration scheme for short-term lets and on the introduction of a short-term let use class and associated permitted development rights. Those changes would give councils more control over the number of new short-term lets and help them to meet local housing needs.

I appreciate the Minister’s response, but where we have non-unitary councils it turns out that the Government’s measure of 200% council tax will see 92% go to counties and only 8% to districts. Will that be looked at? In addition, will we also examine how we can incentivise long-term landlords? We demonise landlords at our peril and we need to make sure that if we are going to repeal section 21, we do it in a way whereby we can offer them justice on being able to remove tenants where they need to do so.

My hon. Friend is right to highlight the Government’s progress on all the work we are doing to be fair, not only to landlords, but to tenants, who have suffered some appalling experiences in many cases. That is why we are bringing forward the legislation, which will be a balanced package, but he is right to highlight the issue of council taxes and I know he is having discussions with the Treasury on that matter. We are determined to make sure that local authorities have the right balance between having those holiday and tourist areas, and homes for local people.

We are only a few months away from having millions of people surging to the west country, and to rural and coastal communities right across the land. That puts enormous income into rural and coastal economies, which is very welcome, including in places such as Plymouth. However, it is also another nail in the coffin of people being able to locally rent and locally afford a home, as more homes are flipped to be second homes and more Airbnbs are created by chucking families out of long-term rentals. Will the new measures that the Minister has announced and is consulting on be in place by the summer recess, so that families know that when they visit a location they are not taking away the possibility of living locally for the people who provide the services on which those tourists will rely?

The hon. Gentleman has set out clearly the reason why the Government are taking these significant steps to make sure that we get the balance right between tourists visiting an area, bringing in vital income and supporting local businesses, and those local communities having the necessary housing for people and workers to live in and to buy. We are progressing this consultation as quickly as possible and will make further announcements in due course.

Leasehold Reform

I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Member’s Financial Interests and to the fact that I am a leaseholder. Ten days ago, I met some of my residents who are leaseholders. They are yet another group of residents in Hackney who are frustrated by the inaction and slow actions of their freeholder. They desperately want commonhold and yet, despite a manifesto commitment in 2019 and promises from Secretaries of State in each of the past three years, we have seen nothing from this Government. Why is this dither and delay continuing?

I do not agree that there has been dither and delay. We have already capped ground rents for significant numbers of leaseholders. We are committed to creating a housing system that works for everyone. We are determined to better protect and empower leaseholders to challenge unreasonable costs, extend the benefits of freehold ownership to more homeowners, and introduce more legislation within this Parliament.

There is no clearer example of the need for leasehold reform than in my constituency. The leaseholders from Rathbone Square and their affordable housing neighbours at 14 Newman Street are having a nightmare with their co-owners, WestInvest and Deka, and the managing agents, CBRE. There is no transparency. The affordable housing residents are being charged five times more for their energy. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we do need to ensure that there is a complete shake-up of leasehold reform and of property management in general?

Yes, my hon. Friend is absolutely right and I thank her for bringing the concerns of her residents to the Floor of the House. We are determined to reform this system. It is a hugely complex reform. I point out to the House that Labour had the opportunity to do this in its 13 years in government and did nothing.

Almost every country in the world has banned leaseholds. We are tired in York of nearly every development putting in place new leasehold arrangements, extracting thousands of pounds from residents, so that when they move into what is often their “forever” home, they are having to pay out more and more, which then leaves them trapped in that form of accommodation. When will the Government bring forward commonhold, because we have been waiting for it for far too long and seen no action?

It is right to point out to the hon. Lady that, since the Government’s announcement in December 2017 that we would ban the sale of leasehold houses, the number of newbuild leasehold houses coming on to the market has significantly decreased. Land Registry records show that 1.2 % of newbuild houses were registered as leasehold in 2020 compared with 17% previously, so the Government’s reforms are already working, but we need to bring forward more legislation, and we will do so.

Perhaps the Minister could clarify the situation at the Dispatch Box today. She could say that this is a priority of the Government and that the leasehold reform Bill will come forward in the next King’s Speech, because, after 21 years of not seeing any reform, it is high time that we had some.

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. Obviously, as a Minister at the Dispatch Box today, I cannot pre-empt what is in the King’s Speech, but I am sure that my hon. Friend will recall the number of times that not only I, but my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, have stood at this very Dispatch Box and made those commitments very strongly and I am happy to repeat them today.

In an Opposition Day Debate that took place before the recess, the Minister claimed that there has been no Government U-turn on leasehold reform. She also refused to commit to the fundamental and comprehensive reform package that leaseholders had been led to expect was forthcoming. Can she give the House and the country a straight answer today: will the Government legislate to implement all of the Law Commission’s recommendations on enfranchisement, commonhold and the right to manage before the end of this Parliament—yes or no?

The hon. Gentleman will remember I am sure the detailed debate that we had on this very issue where we dug into many questions that he and many others asked. I have given my answers from this Dispatch Box. I have been very clear that we will bring forward comprehensive reforms to leasehold, which is something the Opposition failed to do for the whole time they were in Government. We have made a start, and we will make good on that promise.

National Planning Policy Framework

The consultation on our new national planning policy framework closed on 2 March. We received more than 26,000 responses. We are giving them consideration at the moment, and we will publish a response in due course.

My understanding is that the framework currently states that housing developers only have to ensure that drainage is in place for a building site once the last house is completed. For residents in Orchard Close in Burton Joyce in my constituency, that was too little, too late, because heavy rain and insufficient drainage from a building site at the top of the hill caused their road to flood, damaging the street and property. I am looking into a similar situation at a building site in Hamilton Close in Arnold. I understand Gedling Borough Council is looking at introducing a supplementary planning document to require developers to install drainage first. Will the Government consider introducing such a requirement nationally, so that others do not have to go through what some of my Gedling residents have gone through?

As well as being a brilliant constituency Member of Parliament, my hon. Friend makes an important point that will resonate with many Members across this House. I hope that we will be able to see more about sustainable drainage systems in the NPPF.

Some 2.6 million homes are at risk of flooding, so we urgently need to take action to improve flood resilience and mitigation. In Hull we have our first permeable street as part of the Living With Water initiative, designed to look at new and innovative ways to deal with excess floodwater. Will the Secretary of State use this opportunity to reform the national planning policy framework to make it stronger in dealing with floodwaters, and will he attend an event I am hosting on this issue—all Members are welcome—on 5 July?

I know Hull is the second most flood-prone city in England and I applaud the work undertaken by the local authority and championed by the hon. Lady. I do not know whether I will be able to join her on 5 July, but I will be visiting Hull soon, and I hope that when I do so I will have the opportunity to talk to her and others who are making sure that people’s homes are adequately protected.

House Building: Densification of Urban Areas

10. If he will take steps to increase house building through densification of urban areas through the use of local authority-approved building codes that pre-approve buildings. (905277)

We are committed to ensuring that the planning system promotes the efficient use of land and creates more well-designed places in collaboration with local people. We are introducing street vote powers in the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill to allow residents to come together and propose additional developments on their street in line with their design preferences.

I am delighted that street votes, which I and others have campaigned for for many years, is in the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill. However, we need even stronger measures to stimulate housebuilding now that housing targets are rightly going to be much weaker. Will my hon. Friend consider building up, not out, which is street votes on steroids and is supported by many in the construction industry as the fastest, greenest and cheapest way to build many more beautiful urban homes for owner-occupiers and renters alike?

I thank my hon. Friend for his determination in bringing forward this innovative measure, which will enable the Government to meet their ambition of delivering the houses that are needed all over our community. He is right to say that local communities should be able to set their own local design codes. That will be a fantastic way for them to create a huge number of houses, building up, out and possibly around and across as well.

Bristol is committed to building more houses, and we know that density is very much part of that, but with that comes pressure on local infrastructure. Can the Minister update the House on what the successor is to the housing infrastructure fund and on what funds will be available to ensure that local communities can cope with that new density?

The hon. Lady is quite right: not just in Bristol, but across the country, pressures on infrastructure are one reason why communities sometimes have concerns about new housing developments. It is right that we are reforming the planning system to make that infrastructure available in advance of developments so that we can deliver the housing the country needs, in Bristol and elsewhere.

Awaab’s Law: Private Rented Sector

Any preventable death of a child is heartbreaking. Awaab’s law will require social landlords to remedy hazardous conditions quickly. For private rentals, we have given councils strong powers to force landlords to remedy hazards, and the Secretary of State has made it clear that he expects councils to use them.

May I remind the House of the tragic case of Awaab Ishak? He was a two-year-old boy, living with his parents in a one-bedroom flat in Rochdale, who tragically and needlessly died following prolonged exposure to mould. Despite several complaints from his family over a number of years, his social landlord took no action and shamelessly blamed the extensive mould on the family. The coroner in Awaab’s case stated that damp and mould are not simply a social housing problem, but a significant issue in the private rented sector. My understanding is that the decent homes standard will not appear in the Renters (Reform) Bill and there is no equivalent to Awaab’s law either. Will the Secretary of State go back to the Department and put in proper measures to ensure that we have decent homes in the private rented sector?

I think the whole House is united in expressing our sincere sympathies about the tragedy that occurred in the case of Awaab Ishak. It is completely wrong that people are living in homes that do not meet decent home standards. I thank the hon. Gentleman for the debates that we have had in this place. We are improving the quality of properties all across the private rented sector. We are introducing a decent homes standard. We will do that at the first legislative opportunity and we will be the first Government ever to do so.

The Government’s lack of strategy to combat all forms of homelessness is failing our most vulnerable children. Over the past 13 years on the Government’s watch, the number of households in temporary accommodation has doubled to more than 100,000. That includes 127,000 individual children. The number of households with children in bed-and-breakfast accommodation for longer than the statutory maximum is up 196% on the previous year—many are in appalling conditions. That should shame everyone on the Government Benches. My question is simple: when on earth do they intend to do something about it?

The hon. Lady highlights the problem of homelessness, which, of course, the Government take extremely seriously. I point out to the Opposition that we have already introduced the Renters (Reform) Bill, which is the biggest reform of the private rented sector in a whole generation. That key measure will abolish section 21 evictions, which are one of the major causes of homelessness. We, on the Conservative Benches, are going to end them.

Elections Act 2022: May 2023 Local Elections

13. What assessment his Department has made of the impact of changes introduced in the Elections Act 2022 on the local elections in May 2023. (905280)

We are encouraged by the first roll-out of voter identification, and we are confident—based on sector feedback and our own observations—that the vast majority of voters will have cast their votes successfully. We have also been pleased to see initial positive feedback to the accessibility changes for disabled people. We will, as set out in legislation, conduct an evaluation and publish the report no later than November.

Of course, the UK Government rejected the Electoral Commission’s suggestion and advice to delay voter ID until after the council elections last month. Does the Minister agree with her former Cabinet colleague, the right hon. Member for North East Somerset (Mr Rees-Mogg)? He said:

“Parties that try and gerrymander end up finding their clever scheme comes back to bite them, as…we found by insisting on voter ID for elections”

and that the Government had

“upset a system that worked perfectly well.”

Does the Minister not accept that voter ID has disenfranchised voters across the political spectrum? Does she want more voter ID restrictions, including for postal votes?

The anecdotal feedback is very much that this has been a successful enterprise. We will have our report come November, and the Electoral Commission’s interim report in June and full report in September. We are prepared to learn lessons, but our evaluation from anecdotal feedback is that it has been a successful roll-out.

Social Rented Housing Provision

The Government are committed to increasing affordable housing of all kinds, which is why we are investing £11.5 billion, through the affordable homes programme, to deliver tens of thousands of homes for rent and sale right across the country.

The availability of social rented and affordable housing is the No. 1 issue that my constituents contact me about. Although Bristol’s Labour council is building more social homes for the future, the Government’s decision to scrap targets means that neighbouring authorities are not rising to the challenge. What analysis has been conducted by the Department on the impact on local housing supply of the Government’s decision to water down its housing targets?

I would like to gently correct the assertion that the hon. Lady made about watering down housing targets. The Government are committed to building 300,000 houses across the country. We are building them in the right places, with community support. We understand the importance of social rented housing, and that is why we made a commitment in our levelling-up White Paper to ensure that more are built with the £11.5 billion of Government funding that her Labour-run council is no doubt benefiting from.

Topical Questions

This Government are committed to ensuring that we have a fitting memorial to the holocaust, and we will be bringing forward legislation to ensure that we can do just that. That legislation has been designated a hybrid Bill, which, Mr Speaker, you and others will be aware adds an additional layer of complexity to legislating for that memorial. I repeat at this Dispatch Box my commitment on behalf of this Government: we will do everything possible to legislate, consonant with our responsibilities to this House and to the other place, with the maximum level of speed and with unwavering commitment, because we know that, as the voices of those directly affected by the holocaust fade, we must do everything we can to ensure that there is a fitting memorial to this country’s role and place in supporting them.

Why is my right hon. Friend refusing to let Members of this House see the original and revised impact assessments of his neo-socialist Renters (Reform) Bill? The independent Regulatory Policy Committee rejected the first impact assessment as not fit for purpose. Will he ensure that we see that and the second version before we debate the Bill on Second Reading?

I am hugely in favour of publishing impact assessments, but I reassure the House that the proposal that my hon. Friend mentions as neo-socialist was in the manifesto under which we secured a record-breaking majority in 2019, and the key provisions of it were backed not just by my right hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson) but by other noted neo-socialists, including my right hon. Friend the Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss).

It is nice to see an outbreak of consensus in the House; the Secretary of State is a neo-socialist, and the Bert and Ernie of British politics have been reunited once more. Will he tell us, though, why he did not decide to allow the National Audit Office to investigate the serious allegations about misuse of public money and assets on Teesside?

We consulted with the NAO and with others, and we felt that it was most appropriate to have a genuine independent inquiry. It is important to state that there is no evidence that has come to light hitherto of any suggestion of corruption, as has been alleged by some in this House. What we need to do—this was the explicit request of the Mayor of Tees Valley—is quickly, expeditiously and authoritatively to provide people with the reassurance they all want. I am afraid that at the moment there is a real risk that investment in Teesside could be frozen or chilled as a result of the programme of misinformation that has been sedulously spread by Labour party colleagues in Tees Valley.

It really does beggar belief. The Secretary of State knows very well that the Mayor in question asked specifically for an NAO investigation, and that that request was backed by three Select Committee Chairs, the official Opposition and countless others. Instead, the Secretary of State has chosen to launch an investigation on his own terms, hand-picking a panel to investigate an issue where accountability has totally broken down as a result of a flawed system of accountability over which he has presided for years, without heeding the concerns of Members on both sides of the House and the NAO itself. These are not his assets; they belong to the people on Teesside, and those people deserve answers, so I ask him, seriously: how could anyone possibly have faith in this investigation process or this Government when they have chosen to block the NAO from investigating?

The hon. Lady once again seeks to raise question marks over what has happened in Tees Valley, as her Labour party colleagues have done. I gently point out that, under the 13 years of Labour Government, the constituencies and communities of the Tees Valley were neglected. That is why Ben Houchen was elected as Mayor. He is bringing investment to the Tees Valley that never happened during the 13 years that Labour was in power; and because it hurts so much for the Labour party to acknowledge that it is a Conservative Mayor who is delivering for working people in Tees Valley, it engages in a campaign of innuendo unworthy of the party of working people.

According to the ONS, Kirklees Council is significantly underperforming in delivering education, health and care plans within the 20-week target, particularly compared with the national average and other councils in West Yorkshire. Does the Minister agree that the council is letting our children and parents down, and that we need to see a real improvement when the next ONS report is published later this month?

That policy area is led by the Department for Education, but I agree that Kirklees Council needs to improve its performance on EHCPs. I understand that colleagues from the Department for Education have been working closely with that council to support it in doing so. We are awaiting the most recent publication of figures, which are due to be released imminently.

T2. Over 1 million households are waiting for social homes, including more than 9,000 in Nottingham alone, but rather than expanding our council housing stock, there was a net loss nationally of 14,000 council homes last year. When will the Government take action on our housing crisis and enable council housing to be built en masse? (905291)

I share the hon. Lady’s commitment to making sure that there is more socially rented housing, and indeed more affordable housing overall. Again, I would gently point out that we have built more social homes under this Administration than were built under the previous Labour Government. I should also point out that, under the previous Conservative Mayor of London, more homes were built than under the current Mayor of London.

And, indeed, the previous Labour Mayor. If you want affordable urban housing, you need to have Conservative leadership in City Hall.

After speaking to residents in Mercer Park in Hyndburn this weekend following the successful “Let’s Move Hyndburn” event, it came to my attention that we have a real lack of disabled facilities in parks across Hyndburn and Haslingden. Will the Minister agree to meet me to discuss how we can provide local authorities with the funding that they need, so that people do not have to travel outside of the constituency?

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that issue. Whether it is Oswaldtwistle or Accrington, we need to make sure that people living with disabilities have the support they need, and we will make sure that a meeting happens quickly, whether with myself or with another Minister in the Department.

T3.   Hundreds of families in my constituency are living for months on end in hotels, as they can no longer afford to rent and the council has no suitable temporary accommodation left. Local authorities currently do not have the powers or funding they need to tackle the crisis, so will the Secretary of State confirm how he is going to change that and give councils such as Enfield the resources they need to end this hotel crisis? (905293)

I appreciate the nature of the problem that the hon. Lady mentions: too many people are in temporary accommodation. I will look at the challenges that Enfield Council faces in terms of the delivery of housing, including affordable housing for the vulnerable families that she champions, and hope to be able to report back more in due course.

House prices are all over the headlines yet again, but affordability is the key issue. Does my hon. Friend the Housing Minister agree that when we do get new houses built, often taking years and years to go through planning, they all look like identikit estates, just like the estates we have already? We need affordable homes that local people can aspire to and retirement homes for later living. Does she agree that we need to build the right houses in the right places?

I thank my hon. Friend very much. He represents a new town, as I do—I am very proud to represent the new town of Redditch. We are absolutely committed to building the right houses in the right places, and that includes enabling local communities to have more say over the design and type of housing. We are doing that through the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill: through design codes, street votes and reforming the planning system. I am pleased to report to my hon. Friend that I have also launched a taskforce for older people’s housing to address the housing needs of older people.

T4. I do not think that the staggering complacency of the Secretary of State in dismissing legitimate, serious complaints and concerns about the use of hundreds of millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money will have passed anybody’s attention. I warn him that that type of response may well come back and bite him. However, if there is to be any possibility of this House and the people of Teesside having any confidence in the findings of the inquiry that he has commissioned, that inquiry must have all the powers it needs to demand and secure whatever evidence and documentation it determines is necessary, and anyone must be able to submit that evidence to the inquiry. Will the Secretary of State give those commitments? (905294)

I am tempted to say that if the hon. Gentleman has evidence, he should please share it. It is the case that Labour in Teesside, including Labour in Middlesbrough, has consistently sought to undermine, thwart and oppose those efforts at economic development and investment that the Mayor of Tees Valley has brought forward. I recognise that the hon. Gentleman has made a number of allegations in this House that he has been reluctant to repeat outside. We look forward to him putting us right in a way that actually contributes to the welfare of the people of Tees Valley, rather than advancing the agenda of the Labour party.

I have allowed some contributions to stretch, but we are on topicals, so you will not mind staying a while.

Wiltshire urgently needs a lot more housing, and the good news is that we are getting it. For the past six years, we have met our house building target by 130%, with 4,000 new houses in Wiltshire every year, but because developers routinely underestimate their future building forecasts, we have a theoretical shortage in the five-year land supply. Because inspectors routinely declare that local plans are out of date, it means that developers can impose unwanted and ugly developments that communities do not want. Will the Secretary of State use the NPPF review to exempt—

Order. I am sorry, but topical questions are meant to be short and punchy. It is not like your previous question. You have just got to shorten it down. Can somebody answer that question please?

T6. I have raised the issue of overseas voters in this place before, and I understand that the regulations will be brought forward by the end of the year, but we might have a general election by then, and we need six months between the regulations being made and a general election in order for them to take effect. Can the Secretary of State provide more clarity on the guarantee that overseas voters will be able to vote? (905296)

I will do everything in my power to ensure that there is at least six months between those regulations coming forward and any general election.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for levelling up, the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Dehenna Davison), has been generous with her time in discussing the future of Essex. Can she reassure the House that no plans for a combined authority will go forward without the support of the majority of Essex MPs, because at the moment I am pretty sure that none of us wants it?

We are absolutely clear that any devolution deals must be locally led with local consent. I have consulted my hon. Friend, and we will continue to have such conversations, but ultimately this is about getting the best for the people of Essex, and I know he shares my ambition to deliver that.

T7. Homes England’s new strategic plan contains commitments to work with local leaders to deliver “a brownfield first approach” and to “support biodiversity” by working with partners “to protect, enhance or create new environmental assets”,yet there are plans to put 260 housing units on Brislington meadows, a beautiful nature-rich site in my constituency, going against the wishes of the council, local residents, the mayor and me. Does the Secretary of State really think the plan is worth the paper it is written on if Homes England does not put its principles into practice? (905297)

I have a lot of sympathy with the hon. Lady’s position, and I will look closely at that proposal. I agree with her and, indeed, with the shadow Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy), that the green belt is a valuable environmental asset that we need to protect, but sadly that is not the view of the Leader of the Opposition.

In reforming planning policy to deliver more homes, can I have an assurance that the brownfield-first policy will be paramount to protect the green belt and green fields from development?

Yes, absolutely. As the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) has pointed out, that is absolutely at the heart of the strategic plan for Homes England.

What discussions has the Secretary of State had with devolved counterparts on the potential location of investment zones in Scotland? What steps is he taking to tailor those zones to Scotland’s economic strengths and the Scottish Government’s ambition of transitioning to a wellbeing economy?

I have had good conversations with the SNP leaders of Aberdeen City Council and Dundee City Council and, indeed, the SNP leader of Glasgow City Council, as well as with the Deputy First Minister about precisely this issue. We want to make sure that investment zones, such as freeports, are an example of the Scottish Government and the UK Government working in a way that is better together.

To hit the Government’s new sewage reduction targets, water companies such as South West Water must make sure that the infrastructure can cope with new housing developments. With that in mind, will my right hon. Friend update the House on what plans the Government have to make sure that water companies are statutory consultees in major housing developments?

My hon. Friend has talked to me about this issue before, and I think his concerns are absolutely on the button. I should say that proposals have been brought forward by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to dramatically improve the way in which waste water treatment works operate, but there is still more to do, and his point is very well made.

Residents in Master Gunner Place in my constituency are still paying for a waking watch, despite a new fire alarm being introduced. These properties were built with major defects by Countryside Properties, and they are now owned by Samnas. I want to know what the Minister is going to do to take these people to task, because they are costing my constituents a lot of money, which should have been resolved before.

The hon. Gentleman will have seen that we have recently reopened the waking watch fund, but on the specific issue he has raised, I would be happy to meet him, because I also want to understand why this has not been removed as a result of the money spent.

Personal Statement

Thank you very much, Mr Speaker. I am grateful to you for giving me the opportunity to make this personal statement at the earliest possible opportunity.

In March, I wrote to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards to give context to an investigation he was leading about actions taken in response to a Government call to arms during the pandemic. The commissioner found that, in doing so, I inadvertently committed a minor breach of the House rule that forbids Members from lobbying the commissioner or members of the Committee on Standards over an investigation. The Committee found that I did not seek to break the rules, had no prospect of personal gain and acted without malice. However, it recommended that I apologise to the House and to the commissioner for this minor breach and underlined that respect for the code of conduct and the processes of investigating potential breaches of the code is an important and necessary part of the code. I am happy to do so.


(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs if he will give an update on the situation in Kosovo.

The latest spike in tensions in northern Kosovo is deeply concerning. Violent protests in northern Kosovo on 29 May resulted in injuries to at least 30 troops from NATO’s KFOR mission, along with 50 civilians, including journalists. Since then, the mood has calmed slightly, but tensions remain high. Daily protests are continuing around municipal offices in the four Kosovo Serb-majority municipalities, where Kosovan authorities are insisting that newly elected ethnic Albanian mayors should work and be based.

We are working closely with international partners to de-escalate the situation and encourage a return to dialogue. On 18 May, along with the United States, France, Germany, Italy and the EU, we called for work towards a long-term solution for representative democracy in these municipalities in northern Kosovo. We also warned against the use of force or actions that might heighten tensions. On 26 May, we expressed strong concerns about the move to install mayors in municipal buildings by force, and Serbia’s raising of the state of its forces’ readiness at the border. We are urging the Government of Kosovo to withdraw special police forces from the immediate vicinity of the municipal buildings, and to allow mayors to discharge their functions from alternative locations.

The Prime Minister’s western Balkans special envoy, Lord Peach, visited Kosovo on 30 May, where he met political leaders, the KFOR commander and other key actors. Alongside France, Germany, Italy, the US and the EU, we have raised strong concerns with Serbia’s President Vučić and urged moves to de-escalate. The Foreign Secretary will meet Serbia’s Prime Minister Brnabić in the coming days. We welcome all efforts to chart a path forward towards de-escalation and dialogue, and are playing an active part in international efforts to that end. The Prime Minister reiterated this message when he met Kosovo President Osmani at the European Political Community summit on 1 June, as did Lord Peach during his visit to Kosovo.

Managing down current tensions is a first and necessary step towards this goal. We support the call made by France, Germany and the EU on 1 June for fresh and inclusive municipal elections, and work to establish the association of Serb-majority municipalities. We welcome the initiative and current follow-up by the EU special representative, Miroslav Lajčák, and his US counterpart in the region, Gabriel Escobar, for meetings today.

Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this important urgent question. Kosovo is often faced with a cycle of escalatory and de-escalatory violence on its streets. I wish to set the context: Kosovo is not Serbia. Earlier this year, however, Belgrade orchestrated a boycott of democratic elections. As a result—a result that we in the west recognise, although we are now asking them to rerun it—there was only a 3% turnout. That was due to foreign interference, which so often seems to be missing from the discussion.

Last week, elected mayors did seek to take up their roles, not in a violent manner, although it became violent due to orchestrated violence around the mayoral offices. While I recognise that this was an escalatory action, it would not be. Should hostile forces take control of a mayoral office in the UK, we would not say, “Well, you just need to go and work from home.” We would say, “This is an unacceptable attempt to suffocate democracy.”

We then saw orchestrated violence on the streets, by Belgrade-funded and armed militias against KFOR and the police. There were Molotov cocktails, the firing of guns against them, and police cars were set on fire. Why was there such a disproportionate and unbalanced response by our allies? It is wrong that the United States and the European Union chose to attack Kosovo, with no criticism of the armed militias who created the situation. A democratic ally bore the brunt of those sticks.

What counter-measures are we putting in place in Belgrade, because at the moment it appears to be a failure of deterrence diplomacy? How does our policy differ from that of the US and EU, because we are too quiet about what is happening right now? Will we finally call out those Belgrade-armed and funded militias, because when an individual says, “No, I don’t want to support your militia,” they find a grenade on their child’s doorstep the next day. That is intimidation in its worst sense. Finally, how are we supporting Serb-Kosovan communities to ensure that they can live the lives they want, and participate in democracy without foreign interference having a chilling effect on that democracy in Kosovo?

I thank my hon. Friend the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee for raising this matter. She has followed this area of policy closely, and the House will recognise her expertise.

The Government are exercising a very responsible role in this matter and, as she knows, we know that part of the world extremely well. We emphasise the importance of dialogue and de-escalation. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister had a chance to mention those matters when he met the President of Kosovo on 1 June, and the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Leo Docherty), who has specific responsibilities for that part of the world, visited Kosovo and Serbia in mid-December.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton will feel that we are trying to de-escalate the situation. I know that our ambassador will be speaking with her later today, and I hope she will be reassured by what he and I am saying about the contribution that Britain is making.

The situation in northern Kosovo is extremely precarious and warrants the urgent attention of this House. Last week, 30 NATO peacekeepers and more than 50 Serbian protesters were injured. Labour pays tribute to the NATO mission and our troops, and condemns all actions that raise tension, lead to violence and undermine efforts towards normalisation.

I visited Kosovo in January. Its people remain hugely grateful for the NATO intervention in 1999, led by the then Prime Minister, Tony Blair, and President Clinton. That intervention brought bloody violence not witnessed on European soil for decades to a halt. We are proud of our historic actions, but it is crucial that Britain plays its part now too. We must remain focused on de-escalation and the re-establishment of constructive dialogue between Pristina and Belgrade, uphold the sovereignty of both Kosovo and Serbia, ensure the rights of minorities on both sides of the border, and protect democracy. This matters for the strategic interest of our whole continent. We must seek difficult conversations today to avoid further violence and escalation tomorrow. Labour is committed to that, and that is why I visited earlier in the year, when tensions began to rise.

Despite our historic role in the region, the UK has all too often been absent from it. The issue has been absent from the Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary’s diaries, despite the important work of the UK envoy; the UK has been absent when it comes to taking actions to prevent interference in the region by bad actors such as Russia, which has been sowing the seeds of discord in the region; and, most crucially, we have been absent from the EU-led dialogue process. Does the UK support the rerunning of elections in the four municipalities concerned, and does the Minister agree that Kosovo’s Serbs should be expected to take part? Does he share my serious concern about the fact that the Serbian armed forces have been placed on the highest alert? Why has no UK Foreign Secretary visited Kosovo since 2016? It is time that the UK remembered its historic role in the region, and urgently started to show some leadership.

I thank the shadow Foreign Secretary for his contribution. He emphasises the significant British involvement in the region, and its importance to Europe, and to the United Kingdom in particular. On his question about the Foreign Secretary visiting, I point out that the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot, was in Kosovo and Serbia at the end of last year. As recently as 1 June, the Prime Minister had a brush-by with the President of Kosovo.

I agree with what the right hon. Gentleman said about the appalling attack on NATO forces. We have condemned without qualification that attack on the troops. I emphasise that additional Turkish troops will now be joining. As he will know, there were serious casualties among Hungarian and Italian soldiers; I join in what he said about that.

We are working very closely with our Quint partners to ensure rapid de-escalation of the violence. As Lord Peach, the Prime Minister’s envoy, has said, the UK has stood by Kosovo in the best and worst of times, and will continue to do so. On the elections that took place, we are clear that they are legal, but it does look as though they lack legitimacy.

Kosovo has not been absent from my interests over the past few months, and distinguished international lawyers have been appointed by the Council of Europe to take further Kosovo’s membership of it. How will my right hon. Friend ensure that the Serbs participate in the elections?

I thank my hon. Friend for his comments. He knows much about the issues that the House is discussing. The UK supports Kosovo’s wish to join the Council of Europe. The Council of Ministers has referred the matter to the Parliamentary Assembly, and I hope that it proceeds in the manner that he and I would wish it to.

I saw for myself the work of NATO’s Kosovo Force troops when I visited Kosovo on a cross-parliamentary delegation last year. Their work is really important, but it is not given the significance that it should be given by national capitals, including London. Will the Minister put more emphasis on building on the UK’s unique position as an ally of Kosovo? Next year will be the 25th anniversary of the NATO-led intervention. How can we use Kosovo’s substantial good will—it is probably the country in Europe with the most good will towards the United Kingdom at present—to bring about greater understanding between communities, and a de-escalation of the dangerous rhetoric coming from Belgrade, potentially with involvement from Russia? I fear that it is not a coincidence that this is all happening at the same time. What can the Minister do to ensure that we really use our position, and are not just a commentator but a participant in finding a solution?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his perceptive and accurate comments. I reassure him that we will do everything we possibly can to advance the aims that he set out, and I underline the point that he made about Britain making a unique contribution. I will ensure that his comments are relayed to the Foreign Secretary and to the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot. The hon. Gentleman may rest assured that the essence of what he says is precisely in line with the policy of His Majesty’s Government.

As the Prime Minister’s trade envoy to the western Balkans, I have a brief that includes both Serbia and Kosovo. I recognise the importance of stability in encouraging UK businesses to take advantage of the great opportunities that exist in the area, so I fully support my right hon. Friend’s comments about de-escalation. Only if we reduce the tension can British businesses benefit the economies of Serbia, Kosovo and the wider region. May I urge my right hon. Friend to do all he can to, as he said, de-escalate the situation?

I thank my hon. Friend, on behalf of the House, for all the work he does in his role as an envoy, and I underline the important point he made about steps towards de-escalation. Both Kosovo and Serbia have a role to play in de-escalation. Kosovo must now enable mayors to work from locations outside municipal offices and withdraw special police units from the vicinity. Serbia needs to reverse its decision to raise the level of readiness of its armed forces at the border with Kosovo and use its influence to encourage an end to the violent protests. All parties must exercise maximum restraint, avoiding inflammatory rhetoric and actions. That is the essence of what my hon. Friend is calling for, with his experience of that part of the world and those specific issues, and I strongly agree with what he said.

We all agree with the UK Government’s joint statement condemning the violence. No one in the House, or in any part of Parliament, wants a return to the terrible violence of the 1990s. We all agree on the need for de-escalation, but what actions precisely—as opposed to just words—are the UK Government taking to achieve it? What investigation is the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office undertaking into the involvement of Belgrade, and possibly the Kremlin, in manipulation and misinformation around the elections that led to such a poor turnout? Prime Minister Kurti said that he is open to rerunning the elections to try to establish support and legitimacy, but if they go ahead, what actions will the Foreign Office and embassy officials take to ensure that they do so safely and that both communities take part? Finally, what actions are the UK Government taking to bring the recent agreements, of February and March, to fruition and establish the association of Serbian-majority municipalities?

I thank the hon. Lady very much for what she says. I reassure her that we are not in any way naively equating the two sides. She asked at the beginning of her question about the action we were taking to deter the violence. We view the attacks on KFOR personnel as completely unacceptable. We have been clear in Belgrade that attacks on NATO personnel are unacceptable and that any claims KFOR attacked peaceful protesters are completely unfounded. Many of those responsible for attacking KFOR troops were not peaceful protesters. They came with the means and intent to pursue violence. As far as her comments about the activities of the Russians are concerned, the British Government, along with our allies—in particular those in the Quint—are acutely aware of the issues to which she refers.

May I ask for a bit more detail from my right hon. Friend on what the Department is doing to oppose Russian attempts at destabilisation in the western Balkans?

My hon. Friend will, I hope, allow me not to get ahead of ourselves in respect of specific details on that, but his point is noted.

In the region there is, as we all know, a hidden agenda being pursued by Russia and its supporters. But at this precise moment, does the right hon. Gentleman agree that what is needed is a real, huge effort to de-escalate the situation? The former UN special envoy to the Balkans and former Swedish Prime Minister, Carl Bildt, has called for an unprecedented “robust diplomacy” to be exercised by the United States, the European Union and the United Kingdom. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that that must be the priority at this precise moment?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for reinforcing the wise words of Carl Bildt. The specific issue he raised is very much at the top of the Quint’s agenda.

Kosovo is a much valued and very active member of the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance, which I chair. It is my privilege to work with its representative in the alliance on a regular basis. Other countries in the region are also members of the alliance. Will the Minister indicate how other means can be used to strengthen diplomatic relationships between countries in the region, and so de-escalate tensions?

I thank my hon. Friend for all her work in this area, which the House has acknowledged on many occasions. On the last part of what she said, the work of Lord Peach is particularly helpful in trying to achieve that. The whole House will want to thank Lord Peach for his work.

As the Minister has acknowledged, the whole world will be watching the UK’s response for the impact it will have not only on Kosovo but in the wider Balkans region. The comments about the legitimacy of the elections are welcome, as is de-escalating Serbia’s heightened military alert. Can the Minister say what the UK is doing to strengthen civil society in Kosovo—those bringers of peace, women’s groups and other organisations who are working for peace alongside military and diplomatic means?

The embassy, on behalf of the Foreign Office and the Government, runs a range of programmes that engage specifically with civil society. We will look at whether we can do more to energise the excellent work that the embassy is already doing.

I thank the Minister for his response. Thirty peacekeepers and 52 Serbs were injured while protesting the installation of the mayor. NATO has sent additional troops, on top of the 700 already there. Everyone recognises that NATO has a key peace role to play; will the Minister indicate what the position will be for those peacekeepers? Will they be respected by both sides? We should be ever mindful that the innocents suffer the most—the women, the children and the elderly. What discussions have Government had with officials in Kosovo to reduce any possibility of an escalation of violence and to protect civilians?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his perceptive comments, as usual, about what is going on, particularly his focus on the abhorrent violence committed against the peacekeepers in the way that he described. He may rest assured that Britain, through a whole series of different international and local entities, is doing everything it can to protect peacekeepers from vile attacks. We will continue to do exactly that.

Before I come to the statement, is the shadow Home Secretary happy to continue, or does she want me to suspend the sitting to give her time to read it?

I received the statement only at half-past. If it is possible to have a further 10 minutes, that would be appreciated, but I do not want to inconvenience the House. Unfortunately, we have become used to late statements from the Home Office.

In fairness to the Home Secretary, I understand that the statement was available; it was very late coming to me. I have not had time to look at it, and the shadow Home Secretary has not been given sufficient time. The Home Secretary said that, unfortunately, it was ready but it did not arrive at our office. I will suspend the sitting for 10 minutes to give us time to read it.

Sitting suspended.

Illegal Migration

With permission, Mr Speaker, I will make a statement about the progress of the Government’s plan to stop the boats. This is a complex and enduring problem, which we must tackle on multiple fronts. It is a moral imperative. That is why the Prime Minister, unlike the Leader of the Opposition, made stopping the boats one of his five pledges to the British people.

While Labour has no plan, we are getting on with our plan to stop the boats, and although there is a long way to go, there are several outcomes to note. First, the small boats operational command was established in December to oversee operations in the channel, with a new senior director, Duncan Capps, a former general, appointed to lead it. We have doubled the funding for Project Invigor—which brings together the National Crime Agency, Home Office intelligence and policing—over the next two financial years to help disrupt the people-smuggling gangs upstream.

Secondly, freeing up immigration enforcement officers meant that there were over 50% more illegal working raids between January and March this year than in the same period in 2022. Since the introduction of the Nationality and Borders Act 2022 in June last year, Immigration Enforcement has doubled the number of arrests, charges and convictions in comparison with the figures in the same period in the preceding year. We have established the UK’s first cross-Government ministerial taskforce on immigration enforcement, so that only those who are here lawfully can work, receive benefits or access public services. Meanwhile, data sharing with the financial sector recommenced in April, as we crack down on illegal migrants accessing banking services.

Thirdly, the asylum initial decision backlog is down by 17,000 and we are on track to abolish all legacy cases by the end of this year, having doubled the number of asylum decision makers over the last two years. We continue to improve the system and aim to boost the productivity of the caseworkers by simplifying the process with shorter interviews and the removal of unnecessary steps.

Fourthly, the current accommodation system is unsustainable and hugely unfair to taxpayers. We recently set out to the House our plans for a fairer, more cost-effective asylum accommodation system, starting with the former Ministry of Defence sites at Wethersfield and Scampton. We will see an accommodation barge arrive in Portland within the next fortnight and we have secured another two to accommodate another 1,000 individuals. We are also making more efficient use of hotels by asking people to share rooms where appropriate.

Fifthly, on the international front, we have signed the biggest ever small boats bilateral deal with France and strengthened co-operation with a range of other European partners including Belgium, Italy and the EU. In 2023 so far, more small boat migrants have been intercepted by France than have reached the UK’s shores. French interceptions this year are more than double what they were two years ago. Additional drones, aircraft and other surveillance technologies will be deployed to support French law enforcement. French forces have increased the proportion of small boat launches that are prevented and have arrested more than 200 people smugglers so far this year. As part of the new deal, France will establish a new 24/7 zonal co-ordination centre in Lille, with permanently embedded British officers. My right hon. Friend the Immigration Minister was in France last week to see at first hand the impact of UK funding and to discuss a joint plan to intensify our engagement on the channel as we move into the summer.

Sixthly, the Government continue to prioritise the return of individuals with no right to remain in the United Kingdom. We established through the Nationality and Borders Act a disqualification from modern slavery protection for individuals who meet specific criteria, including foreign national offenders with custodial sentences of 12 months or more and individuals convicted of terrorism offences. Between January and March this year, over 4,000 people with no right to be in the UK were removed or departed voluntarily—an increase of more than 50% compared with the same period last year.

We recently signed the UK-Georgia readmissions agreement and have made significant progress on our returns relationship with Pakistan. We are also continuing to progress our returns relationship with India following the implementation of our migration and mobility partnership. Since the Prime Minister signed a joint communiqué with Prime Minister Rama in December, nearly 1,800 Albanian nationals without the right to be in the UK have been returned to Albania. We are not complacent. We will continue to monitor this as we enter the summer, but the number of Albanians arriving by small boats so far this year is almost 90% less than in the same period last year. Last month, we delivered a groundbreaking new arrangement whereby Albanian prisoners will be sent home to serve the remainder of their jail sentences.

Seventhly, we continue to prepare to deliver the Government’s migration and economic development partnership with Rwanda. This partnership is an innovative international solution to an international problem. The Home Office has always maintained that this policy is lawful, and the UK High Court upheld this in December 2022. Legal proceedings are ongoing, but we are committed to delivering this policy and getting flights going as soon as legally practicable. I visited Kigali in March and saw that Rwanda is more than ready to help people thrive in a new country.

These efforts demonstrate our commitment to doing all we can within the existing legislative framework, but we have also been clear that, to stop the boats, we must go further, and that the framework needs to change. That is why, lastly, we are reforming our laws. This is what the public want, and all politicians should get behind our Bill. Our Illegal Migration Bill will make it clear to anyone coming here illegally that they will not be able to build a life in this country. Instead, they will be liable to be detained and will be swiftly removed either to their home country or to a safe third country like Rwanda. This is the deterrent factor we need to break the people smugglers’ business model.

We will introduce new safe and legal routes for those at risk of war and persecution to come to seek refuge and protection in the UK, within an annual quota to be set by Parliament and informed by consultation with local communities. The British people are generous and welcoming, but they rightly expect immigration to be controlled. Coming here illegally from other safe countries is unnecessary, unsafe and unfair. It must stop. We have a long way still to go and we are not complacent but, unlike the Opposition, we have a plan. We are delivering that plan, and we will not rest until we stop the boats.

Before I finish, I put on record my apology to the Opposition for the late delivery of this statement.

I commend this statement to the House.

Thank you, Mr Speaker, for your response. I thank the Home Secretary for her apology.

The Prime Minister flew to Dover today to congratulate himself and to tell us that his plan is working, even though the asylum backlog he promised to clear is at a record high, decisions are down, caseworker numbers have dropped, hotel use is up, returns are still down, only 1% of last year’s small boat cases have been processed, and seven and a half thousand people arrived on dangerous small boats in the last few months alone. The massive gap between the Tories’ rhetoric and reality shows that the Home Secretary still has no grip on the system. This Conservative chaos is letting everyone down.

The Prime Minister claimed today that he is stopping the boats, but the 7,600 people who have arrived in the last few months alone is three times more than two years ago and eight times more than before the pandemic. We all hope that the limited reduction in the winter months, compared with last year, will be sustained when the weather improves, but criminal gangs have already made an estimated £13 million in the last few months alone from putting lives at risk and undermining our border security as a result of the Conservative failure to go after the gangs and maintain that border security. The Home Secretary boasts about an increase in enforcement, but that is compared with the covid period. Compared with before the pandemic, enforcement visits are down 22% and arrests are down 17%. This is not an achievement.

The Home Secretary also says she has cut the backlog, but the backlog is at a record high of 170,000. It has gone up, not down, since December. There has been an 18% drop in asylum decisions in the last quarter, and it is no good claiming they are only clearing a so-called legacy backlog of cases from before June 2022. What about the growing backlog of 60,000 people and more who have arrived in the last 12 months? They are still in the asylum system, still in hotels and still in limbo. A backlog is a backlog, no matter how much the Government try to spin it away. The only legacy we are talking about is the legacy of Tory failure to tackle the problem. All the Home Secretary has managed to do is take a few decisions on cases that are more than a year old. That is not an achievement—that is her job.

The Prime Minister and Home Secretary promised to end hotel use, but it has gone up, to 47,000 people, which is higher than the 40,000 she told us about in December. The Prime Minister also said in December that he already got locations for accommodating 10,000 more people, but now the Home Secretary says it is only 3,000, from the end of this year. What she has not admitted is that this is not instead of hotels—it is additional, because of their failure and the consequence of their new immigration Bill, the bigger backlog Bill, which is just going to make the backlog worse. Today’s press release reveals the truth. It says that these accommodation changes

“could reduce the need to source an additional 90 hotels.”

Why are the Government in such a mess that they need to be thinking about sourcing an additional 90 hotels? Why have they so totally lost any grip that the backlog and costs are getting worse and worse?

Enforced returns are lower than they were pre-pandemic, and only 23 of the 24,000 people the Government have tried to return to safe countries they have travelled through have actually been returned. Even in the case of Albania, with which there is a return agreement in place, we find that 12,000 people arrived on small boats last year but fewer than 1% of those cases have been decided and barely a few hundred people have been returned. As for Rwanda, as my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) has said, the Government have sent more Home Secretaries there than asylum seekers, and no one expects the numbers to be high. The taxpayer is already footing the bill for Conservative failure, and now we hear reports that the new legislation will cost £6 billion. Is that true—yes or no?

The Home Office has already had to claim £2.4 billion extra from the Treasury reserve, so how much more will it claim this year? The Times reports that illegal immigration will have to fall below 10,000 a year for it even to be possible to implement the new legislation, because the Home Office says that Ministers’ plans are “based on demented assumptions”. So will the Home Secretary tell us whether the demented assumptions are hers or the Prime Minister’s?

Time and again, the Government have voted against Labour proposals to help stop dangerous crossings. They have voted against action to go after criminal gangs; against the cross-border police unit, against fast-track decisions for safe countries; and against new return agreements and legal routes with Europe. People want to see strong border security and a properly controlled and managed asylum system, so that our country does our bit, alongside others, to help those fleeing persecution and conflict. Under the Tories, we have neither of those, because the gangs have been allowed to let rip across the borders and the asylum system is in chaos. All we get is rhetoric, while the reality gets worse; we get demented assumptions, unworkable plans and empty spin. Instead of all the press conferences, we need a proper plan. The asylum system is broken, the Tories broke it and there is still no plan today to sort it out.

I thank the right hon. Lady again for her extensive words. The theatrics get even more colourful every time we meet. I say “words” because, as ever, that is all we get from the Opposition; we get no serious alternatives and no credible plan, just empty rhetoric and endless noise.

Last December, the Prime Minister and I set out a plan to stop the boats. Since then, we have been working flat out to deliver that programme. What has the right hon. Lady been up to? It is hard to say. The question is: will Labour ever bring forward a plan of its own, a plan with details, a plan that delivers? I am sorry to say that the answer is that Labour does not have a plan and does not care that it does not have one. It is this Conservative Government and this Conservative Prime Minister who are dealing with the priorities of the British people.

So what is Labour actually doing? Labour Members are good at carping from the sidelines, but when it comes down to it, how do they actually act? They have voted against every single measure that we have put forward to stop the boats. They would scrap our world-leading plan with Rwanda, and they continue to oppose our laws to detain and remove. Contrast their opposition to our common-sense proposals with their urgent activism when it suits them. Let me tell you, Mr Speaker, more than 100 Opposition Members—over half the parliamentary Labour party—signed a letter campaigning for dangerous foreign criminals to be spared deportation. Those criminals included murderers and rapists who went on to commit further terrible crimes here in Britain. Indeed, 14 of the current shadow Cabinet campaigned to stop those vile criminals from being deported, including the shadow Foreign Secretary, the shadow Attorney General, the shadow Health Secretary and even the Leader of the Opposition. I will spare the rest. I am still waiting for an apology, Mr Speaker, but I fear that it will never come.

I know that the right hon. Lady did not sign that letter. Perhaps the Leader of the Opposition should take that into account before he decides to remove her from the Front Bench. Labour Members continue to oppose our Illegal Migration Bill, saying that it will not work. Frankly, that is totally unsurprising, because, unlike the British people, Labour wants more migration, not less; it wants open borders, not control.

I am a democrat. The British people have spoken clearly and repeatedly. They welcome genuine refugees and do not want people to come here illegally. The Opposition parties and the right hon. Lady are supremely indifferent to this problem. They are happy with the status quo that lines the pockets of the gangsters, is lethally dangerous and grossly unfair on taxpayers, and puts intolerable pressure on our local communities. We on the Conservative Benches are committed to stopping the boats. We have a plan to do so and we are delivering that plan.

The Home Secretary will know that I am a big supporter of her hard work to sort out this crisis, but sharing rooms, using barges and drones and relying on the French is not the answer. I think that anyone with any common sense in this place knows what the answer is, and that is to get the flights off to Rwanda as quickly as possible. Can she please advise me and the great people of Ashfield when these flights will go ahead?

I have huge confidence in our world-leading plan with Rwanda. As my hon. Friend will know, that plan was endorsed by the High Court in a legal challenge at the end of last year. We have had a Court of Appeal hearing, and we now await its judgment. As soon as we complete the full legal process, we will ensure that the flights take off as soon as possible.

The Home Secretary comes here with selective statistics that she has put together to suit the press release that she wants to put out, but the reality is that the total asylum backlog has increased by more than 40,000 people since this time last year. There are fewer decision makers in the Home Office now than there were in January. It is all distraction and sleight of hand. There is no evidence that the plans so far have had any impact or that the heavy-handed deterrence, which is based, as her own officials say, on demented assumptions, works. Policies such as the hostile environment, which were started by Labour, have been turbocharged by successive Tory Home Secretaries. The Nationality and Borders Act 2022, the Rwanda plan, deals with Albania and the Illegal Migration Bill are not working because the central fact remains that people are coming here in small boats because they are desperate and they have no other choice.

The latest Office for National Statistics figures for May show that just 54 Afghans were resettled under pathway 1 of the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme since August 2021. There have been 40 under pathway 2 and only 14 under pathway 3. At the same time, 8,429 Afghans arrived in the UK on small boats. They are coming because they cannot get here to safety any other way.

I do agree slightly with what the Home Secretary said in her statement about the accommodation system being unsustainable and unfair. It is also absolutely brutal for asylum seekers, such as those in my constituency, who are being left to wait indefinitely. Yet the Home Secretary proposes to throw yet more money, reportedly £6 billion, at private providers and prison ships instead of tackling the real problem: the outstanding backlog she has created. She gives no thought to the trauma and stress that has caused incidents such as that at the Park Inn in my constituency and led to reported suicides of those stuck waiting under her incompetence.

At Napier Barracks, sharing spaces caused the spread of infectious disease and had a significant impact on mental health, so what safeguarding consultation has the Home Secretary done on the proposal to make total strangers share hotel rooms? How will she ensure that people from rival factions do not get put in a room together, which could be incredibly dangerous? Will she fast-track Afghans, Syrians, Eritreans, Sudanese and Iranians, who have a very high grant rate, and let them work and contribute, as they dearly want to do? Finally, will she accept that all she has done so far is make life significantly worse for some of the most vulnerable and brutalised people in the world?

I refute the characterisation the hon. Lady puts forward. I am proud of this Government’s track record of welcoming hundreds of thousands of vulnerable people from across the globe over several years, through schemes that have offered them sanctuary. It is a track record of which we can be incredibly proud. The SNP’s criticism is frankly astonishing, talking piously about wanting to provide more sanctuary despite doing virtually nothing to help. As we have said before, there are almost as many contingency hotels in Kensington as there are in the whole of Scotland. The truth is that the SNP is all talk and no action; until it gets real, I really must question its seriousness on this subject.

I welcome the statement from the Home Secretary. This is progress, and I hope it will accelerate at pace. However, I ask her to investigate a recent incident, a boat crossing where it was alleged that the French border force co-operated with the British Border Force, but in so doing escorted a boat from French territorial waters to the British Border Force. I assume this is not the kind of co-operation she was alluding to earlier.

I will look into the incident to which my hon. Friend refers, but on the whole we are seeing improvement and very positive collaboration with our colleagues in France. For example, for the first time we now have embedded Border Force officials working side by side with their French counterparts, and the French are preventing more crossings than previously. There is a long way to go, but there is some improvement.

May I ask about those who are seeking sanctuary, as the Home Secretary said? Uganda has just passed the most virulently and appallingly homophobic legislation, which outlaws not only homosexual sex, but promoting homosexuality or using one’s premises to be used for homosexuality. Some 34 countries in Africa have made homosexuality illegal. If somebody comes to the UK by whatever means, lands on these shores and seeks asylum because they are Ugandan and because of their sexuality, will she grant them sanctuary?

Every application for asylum is determined on its own merits, in conjunction with consideration of human rights laws, international conventions and our domestic laws. Depending on the circumstances of the case, all applications for asylum are considered.

If we reduced the waiting time from, say, a year to three months when making a decision on an illegal migrant, would that not cut the accommodation and other public service costs by three quarters and relieve a lot of the pressure? What is a reasonable time to come to a conclusion on whether someone is illegal and should not stay, or is welcome here and can get a job?

That is why I am encouraged by the progress we are making on our initial decision backlog, cases preceding last summer where people have been waiting for many months and in some cases years for a decision on their asylum application. It is essential that we bear down on that backlog, shorten the time that people are waiting for a decision and fundamentally reduce the cost to the taxpayer.

If the Home Secretary’s approach were cruel but effective, it would at least be effective. If it were generous and well-meaning, but was accidentally leading to too many people coming here, it would at least have the merit of being generous. But her entire approach has been both cruel and hopelessly, woefully ineffective. When she comes here to make a statement and the reality is that the backlog is actually increasing, why should anyone watching have any confidence that she has a grip on this situation?

As I said, we have set out the progress that we have made on all aspects of the plan. I say gently to the hon. Gentleman that he should consult his constituents, because the vast majority of the British people support the Government’s plan to stop the boats. They back the Government in tackling illegal migration, and they want to see a response. I only wish that he would get behind them, too.

Increasing capacity for deportation and processing overseas is key for dealing with illegal migration. Will my right hon. Friend update the House on what more is being done, in addition to Rwanda, to increase that capacity?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right that the processing of asylum claims is fundamental to bearing down on the backlog and reducing the number of people accommodated in hotels, which costs us £6 million a day right now. That is why I am very pleased that we have increased the number of caseworkers making those decisions and improved and made the process more efficient and speedier, so that we can make progress in bearing down on the asylum backlog, ensure that we save money for the taxpayer, and, ultimately, fix the challenge of illegal migration.

May I take the Home Secretary back to the point about Afghan asylum seekers made by my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss)? As my hon. Friend said, the latest ONS figures show that only 108 people have been resettled under pathways 1, 2 and 3 since the fall of Kabul nearly two years ago. At the same time, 8,429 Afghans arrived in the UK by small boats in the year ending March 2023, as compared with 2,466 in the previous year. Can the Home Secretary not see that the absence of functioning safe and legal routes means that many eligible Afghans to whom the United Kingdom owes a debt of honour, including war veterans, feel that they have no choice but to use small boats to get here? Can she not acknowledge that Home Office intransigence on the Afghan schemes is pushing vulnerable Afghans—some of them veterans, as I say—to come here by small boats?

I disagree. I am very proud that a high number of Afghans have been resettled in and welcomed to the United Kingdom between 2015 and 2022. Almost 50,000 people have been resettled or relocated; more than 21,000 of them went through the Afghan schemes—the ACRS and ARAP—and more than 28,000 went through established resettlement schemes relating to other countries. I think that that is a good track record. There is a high number of people coming from those countries where there are troubles. The simple truth is this: there is never a good reason to pay a people-smuggling gang to embark on a lethal journey and take an illegal crossing over the channel to get to the UK.