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House of Commons Hansard
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Written Statements
01 November 2017
Volume 630

Written Statements

Wednesday 1 November 2017

Communities and Local Government

Grenfell Recovery Taskforce

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On 25 July 2017, I appointed the independent Grenfell Recovery Taskforce to support and challenge the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (RBKC) following the Grenfell Tower disaster.

I am grateful for the taskforce’s work over the last three months, working with the council, community and partner organisations to understand progress on the recovery plan.

I received the taskforce’s first report yesterday. I am considering its findings and will be discussing these with RBKC. Before recess I plan to make an oral statement to the House and will publish the report.

[HCWS213]

Tenant Fees Bill

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The Government want a private rented sector that provides fairness, security and stability for tenants and landlords and are keen to see all tenants receiving a good and affordable service. We recognise the valuable service that good letting agents provide to both landlords and tenants in ensuring that properties are safe, compliant and professionally managed.

We continue to promote competition as the best driver of value and service. However, the Government are prepared to act where markets are not working for all consumers, and the lettings market is a clear example of this. Tenants have little control over letting fees because the agent is appointed by the landlord and as a result those fees can run into hundreds of pounds. This is not fair.

It is not simple for tenants to understand and compare agent fees since there is significant variation in the way that agents charge for their services. Further, agents charging fees to both landlords and tenants increases the risk of unfair practices in the form of double charging.

The Government committed in their manifesto to banning unfair letting fees paid by tenants following an announcement at the 2016 autumn statement. A ban is necessary to recognise the stronger market position of landlords and to reflect that agent services are primarily provided on their behalf. Landlords will choose the agent that provides the quality of service that they are seeking at a price that they are willing to pay. Banning unfair letting fees will sharpen and increase letting agents’ incentives to compete for landlords’ business, resulting in a more transparent and competitive private rented market with a higher quality of service.

The ban will make renting fairer for tenants by enabling them to see what a given property will cost them at the advertised rent level without any additional hidden costs. This will facilitate movement into and within the private rented sector. Tenants will have confidence that they are only committing to a property that they know that they can afford.

The draft Bill sets out the Government’s detailed approach to banning letting agent fees to tenants. The Bill will also ban landlords from charging tenants letting fees and ban agents and landlords from requiring tenants to make payments to third parties. This mitigates the risk of tenants being charged agent fees through other routes, avoids creating a situation where landlords are encouraged to self-manage their properties purely on financial grounds and avoids some tenants being charged fees while others are not.

The Bill will cap the amount of money that can be required as a deposit at the outset of a tenancy at six weeks’ rents. This will improve affordability for tenants while ensuring financial security for landlords.

The Bill enables agents and landlords to charge a holding deposit to a tenant to ensure that there is a financial commitment from a tenant to a given property. It also sets out the circumstances in which agents and landlords will be required to refund the holding deposit to tenants.

The Bill requires local authorities to enforce the ban and contains a provision for tenants to recover any unlawfully charged fees. It creates a civil offence with a fine of £5,000 for an initial breach of the ban and creates a criminal offence where a person has been fined or convicted of the same offence within the last five years. Civil penalties of up to £30,000 can be issued as an alternative to prosecution.

The Bill will amend the Consumer Rights Act 2015 as it applies in relation to housing in England to clarify that the requirements on letting agents to display any letting fees, which redress scheme they are a member of, and whether they have client money protection should apply to property portals. It makes new provision regarding fines in the event of a continuing breach of these requirements in England and will also require letting agents to display the name of the client money protection scheme to which they belong (if they are required to belong to such a scheme).

Finally, the Bill will establish a lead enforcement authority to provide oversight, guidance and support with the enforcement of requirements on letting agents. This includes the ban on letting fees and related provisions, the requirement to be a member of a redress scheme under the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Act 2013, the fees transparency requirements of the Consumer Rights Act 2015 as they apply to letting agents in England, and the requirements to be a member of a client money protection scheme under the Housing and Planning Act 2016.

We very much welcome the forthcoming parliamentary scrutiny on whether the draft Bill achieves its aim of delivering a fairer, more competitive, and more affordable lettings market where tenants have greater clarity and control over what they will pay and where the landlord is the primary customer of the letting agent.

[HCWS212]

Education

Safeguarding

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I am pleased to publish this statement about the safeguarding of unaccompanied asylum-seeking and refugee children jointly with the Minister for Immigration, my right hon. Friend the Member for Great Yarmouth (Brandon Lewis).

Today the Department for Education and the Home Office are publishing three documents relating to the care of unaccompanied asylum-seeking and refugee children.

The new safeguarding st rategy for unaccompanied asylum- seeking and refugee children

This new safeguarding strategy sets out the additional actions the Government will take to safeguard and promote the welfare of unaccompanied asylum-seeking and refugee children that recognise the increasing numbers and specific needs of these children in the UK.

The strategy includes commitments to:

increase placement capacity, improve the skills and confidence of foster carers, and review funding available to local authorities;

improve information and advice available to children and families who are reunited through the Dublin regulation;

support professionals caring and working with these children through revised guidance, information and resources;

improve processes for transfer of children from Europe and supporting local authorities to assess and provide support for both them and their families.

Alongside the safeguarding strategy, we are publishing two related documents: the Government’s response to the consultation to revise the statutory guidance; and the updated guidance, now called: “Care of unaccompanied migrant children and child victims of modern slavery”, for local authorities on the care of unaccompanied asylum-seeking and trafficked children—first published in 2014. This updated guidance acknowledges the safeguarding challenges that local authorities and partners continue to deal with to give these children stability. I will place a copy of these documents in the Libraries of both Houses.

Events around the recent migration crisis have meant that it was necessary to update the guidance to be of maximum use to local authorities who are caring for a bigger and more varied cohort of children. A number of respondents during the public consultation requested that there should also be further recognition of the needs and vulnerabilities specific to unaccompanied children and the measures required to keep them safe, and the guidance has been expanded accordingly. The updated statutory guidance also reflects legislative developments such as the Modern Slavery Act 2015, and policy developments such as the national transfer scheme for unaccompanied asylum-seeking children.

We would like to take this opportunity to thank all the local authorities, non-governmental organisations and carers who have helped us develop the safeguarding strategy. They will play an integral part in delivering its commitments and we continue to be immensely grateful.

We would also like to express our deep thanks and gratitude to Edward Timpson for all of his work supporting vulnerable children. We are pleased that we can fulfil the commitment to publish this strategy, set out in a joint written ministerial statement in November 2016, in our new roles as Minister of State for Children and Families and Minister of State (Immigration and International).

Attachments can be viewed online at:

http://www.parliament.uk/business/publications/written-questions-answers-statements/written-statement/Commons/2017-11-01/HCWS216/.

[HCWS216]

Home Department

Hillsborough: Bishop James Jones Review

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Following the conclusions of the fresh Hillsborough inquests, the then Home Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May) commissioned the Right Rev. James Jones KBE, the former Bishop of Liverpool to produce a report on the experiences of Hillsborough families, Official Report, 27 April 2016, column 1436. As my right hon. Friend said at the time, we were keen to understand and learn from the families’ experiences and I am grateful to Bishop James for undertaking this important piece of work.

During the course of his review Bishop James met members of the Hillsborough families and in part those discussions helped shape the terms of reference for the review which were published on 18 January 2017, Official Report, column 33WS. I made it clear at the time that Bishop James’ report would be published once his review was complete.

Bishop James has now completed his review and I am today laying before the House and publishing his report, “The patronising disposition of unaccountable power”—A report to ensure the pain and suffering of the Hillsborough families is not repeated (HC 511). The report will also be available on gov.uk. We welcome this thoughtful and considered report which raises important points. The Government will want to study carefully the 25 points of learning and we will provide a full response in due course. The Government will ensure that they do nothing to prejudice the active Hillsborough criminal proceedings.

[HCWS215]

Violence Against Women and Girls

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The Government have today laid before Parliament and published a report on progress toward ratification of the Council of Europe convention on combating violence against women and domestic violence (the “Istanbul convention”). The UK sighed the Istanbul convention in 2012 to signal the UK’s strong commitment to tackling VAWG and this Government remain fully committed to ratifying the convention.

The report sets out the steps which the Government and the devolved Administrations have taken to tackle VAWG since signing the convention, and the remaining steps required as we progress toward ratification. The report is set out in line with the Istanbul convention’s key objectives and provides an overview of work being taken forward across the UK, with dedicated funding, for example £100 million for England and Wales, to ensure victims get the right support when they need it.

As this report sets out, in most respects the UK already complies with, or goes further than the convention requires. Since signing the convention, we have continued to step up our efforts to combat VAWG. We have significantly strengthened our laws and introduced new tools to protect victims. This includes the criminalisation of forced marriage, two new stalking laws, and the national roll-out of domestic violence protection orders and the domestic violence disclosure scheme and a new offence of domestic abuse covering controlling and coercive behaviour.

We know there is more to do. That is why we are introducing a new stalking protection order to protect victims at the earliest possible stage, and a landmark Domestic Abuse Bill, to transform our approach to these crimes. The Bill will protect and support victims, recognise the life-long impact domestic abuse can have on children, make sure agencies effectively respond to domestic abuse and extend our extra-territorial jurisdiction over VAWG-related offences in England and Wales.

The publication of this report fulfils the requirement of section 2 of the Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence (Ratification of Convention) Act 2017. I will be updating Parliament on progress in due course.

Copies of the report will be available in the Vote Office and it will be published on the Government’s website at gov.uk.

[HCWS217]

International Development

Loan Guarantee Agreement (Egypt)

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In November 2016 the IMF approved a three-year, $12 billion loan to support the Egyptian Government’s comprehensive economic reform plan. This also required the international community to commit support to fill the Government of Egypt’s remaining financing gap, and in mid-2016 the G7 countries committed to provide $600 million of support.

The World Bank’s share of this international support package has been provided through a series of three $1 billion development policy loans from the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD). The first two loans have already been disbursed, and the third is due for disbursement in the last quarter of 2017.

In order to obtain the IMF loan, the Government of Egypt have committed to undertake the boldest economic reforms in a generation. While necessary, these reforms will be difficult for the population in the short term, with a sharp currency devaluation leading to a short term increase in inflation. If the impact on citizens is not managed, discontent among the population may increase the political risk of the reforms, which could undermine Government commitment to them.

A loan guarantee from the UK will enable the World Bank to increase the size of its upcoming development policy loan. This will support measures to protect the poor, which will mitigate the impact of the reform programme and therefore increase the likelihood that the necessary reforms will be implemented.

As a result I have today laid a departmental minute outlining details of a contingent liability estimated at $224 million (equivalent of £169 million) which DFID proposes to undertake, in respect of the World Bank Group. This guarantee does not involve DFID providing any resources up front. Resources will only be disbursed if Egypt defaults on its loan the risk of which is low.

The IBRD’s internal rules on loan exposure to any one country constrain the extent to which it can increase its lending to Egypt. This proposed UK guarantee will allow the IBRD to increase the size of its 2017 loan by $150 million (equivalent of £113 million). DFID’s contingent liability under this agreement is expected to be $224 million (equivalent of £169 million), covering the equivalent of £113 million of loan principal, plus the equivalent of around £56 million of interest payments, assuming current exchange rates and interest rate levels. The agreement would be in place for the expected 35 year life of the IBRD loan. The guarantee will be denominated in US dollars to maximise the value of additional IBRD lending. As a result, the size of the contingent liability will vary depending on movements in the exchange rate between the US dollar and sterling. The IBRD loan will have a variable interest rate, hence the interest payment element of the liability will also vary along with movements in global interest rates.

For the guarantee to be triggered, the Government of Egypt would have to be in arrears with the IBRD for over 180 days. The risk of Egypt defaulting, and the UK guarantee being called upon, is the same as the risk of Egypt defaulting on other IBRD lending. This risk is deemed to be low. Defaults on IBRD lending are rare. There are strong incentives for Egypt to avoid a default, as this would prevent the IBRD from providing any further funding to Egypt, would halt disbursements on already agreed lending and would lead to penalty charges. In the event that the Government of Egypt does default on a loan repayment to the IBRD, and the liability is called, the UK will provide a payment to the World Bank, in proportion to the UK’s guaranteed share of the overall IBRD loan. The payment will prevent the loss on the loan from impacting on the World Bank’s other lending activities. If the liability is called, provision for any payment will be sought through the normal Supply procedure. If the Government of Egypt subsequently provides a payment to reduce its arrears, the World Bank will transfer the right to pursue and retain recoveries to the UK Government, should it wish to do so. This will avoid undermining the Bank’s preferred creditor status, which is so critical to its ability to borrow at very favourable rates from the market and pass these on to its borrowers.

[HCWS214]

Official Development Assistance

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I am pleased to be able to update the House on the Government’s significant recent achievements in modernising the global definitions of official development assistance.

No task is more urgent than ending extreme poverty. Our aid saves lives and brings hope to people who have none. It is right that that we have clear, common international rules about what counts as aid. The UK is a firm champion of the rules-based international system. As one of the few leading countries to honour our promise to invest 0.7% of national income as aid, it is in our interests to ensure that the quality, poverty-focus and value for money of other countries’ aid investments match our own high standards.

The world is changing rapidly, with extreme poverty now increasingly concentrated in fragile states, and climate change increasing the risks of natural disasters. The global rules that govern aid spending—agreed by the 30 leading donors comprising the OECD Development Assistance Committee—were first set over 40 years ago. We are determined to ensure that they remain up-to-date and effective in the face of the complex challenges of the 21st century.

As a country that plays by the rules, we take a leading role in influencing and shaping these rules. We committed in our manifesto to work with like-minded countries to change the rules so that they are updated and better reflect the breadth of our assistance around the world. At a meeting of leading donors earlier this week, the UK delivered on this commitment.

The UK has argued for flexibility in the rules for how the world responds to catastrophic humanitarian crises such as the recent hurricanes in the Caribbean, and how the rules can properly recognise the unique vulnerabilities of small island developing states. As a direct result of the UK raising this issue, the DAC has for the first time agreed on the need to create a new mechanism to re-admit countries that had graduated from ODA eligibility back to the list of ODA-eligible countries, if their GNI per capital falls low enough, for example as a result of a catastrophic natural disaster or other crisis. This addresses a long-standing gap in the rules and recognises the fact that development is not linear.

In addition, members of the DAC have agreed to establish a process which could allow previous ODA recipients to receive short-term ODA support in the event of catastrophic humanitarian crises, such as the recent hurricanes in the Caribbean, even where their gross national income per capita would normally rule them out of receiving ODA. This is a significant and welcome step, and a clear response to the UK’s work on this issue.

We have also achieved changes that more than double the amount of our multilateral contribution to UN peacekeeping operations we can count as ODA, from 7% to 15%. This will help incentivise stronger international support for such missions. This is important because people cannot pull themselves out of poverty when they are surrounded by war and violence—and global stability helps prevent the chaos in which terrorists and extremists thrive.

Further, we have secured changes that recognise that 85% of the UK’s contribution to the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank can count as official development assistance for 2016—a critical acknowledgement of this organisation’s important work to boost investment across a range of developing countries.

As a result of these changes, we have formally confirmed that over £100 million of UK Government spending will be classified as ODA this year and count towards the 0.7% target.

This set of changes builds upon an ambitious set of reforms to the ODA rules that the UK Government have already delivered in recent years. The meeting in Paris this week confirmed previous reforms that will ensure that a wider range of military activities—such as demining—can count as aid, and recognition that certain types of work to tackle violent extremism should count as aid.

Over the long term, we want to continue to build consensus for further reforms that support delivery of the sustainable development goals. We will work with the DAC to examine whether the ODA rules could do even more to better incentivise and capture the development effects of UN-mandated peacekeeping activity that creates the necessary conditions for sustainable development. The system should properly recognise the contribution of the multilateral system to poverty reduction—especially that of the Commonwealth. We would therefore support a review of both the UN and Commonwealth Secretariat’s regular budgets in order to better capture their ODA- eligible activities. Further, we believe the DAC can do more to ensure that other countries’ aid meets the same high standards on gender equality and transparency that the UK’s aid does. We will work on these issues over the coming years.

Taken together, we believe that the new steps this week—on UN peacekeeping, support to the AIIB, assisting counties hit by disasters, and re-admitting countries which fall back into low-income status, including as a result of catastrophic crises—represent very significant achievements. Combined with the important reforms which were agreed last year, these successes demonstrate that, when we work patiently and constructively with international partners, we can drive through important changes and get these rules updated. Over the coming months and years, the UK will continue to work in a patient and constructive spirit to maximise the impact of the significant reforms which have been agreed, and to secure further progress. Our commitment to maintaining the integrity of the global rules remains strong. And our objective, throughout all our efforts, will be to deliver the best possible outcomes for the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people.

[HCWS211]