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Westminster Hall

Volume 670: debated on Tuesday 28 January 2020

Westminster Hall

Tuesday 28 January 2020

[James Gray in the Chair]

Flats and Shared Housing: Fire Risk

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the fire risk in flats and shared housing.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I start by paying tribute to the Grenfell families. As I said in the House last week, it is difficult to imagine the suffering that they have been through. They deserve our respect and our support. I also pay tribute to those in the fire service, who protected local residents as best they could and with such dedication during the night of the tragedy, and to all those in the local community and beyond who have supported local people as the aftermath of the tragedy has unfolded across London and, indeed, across the country.

Today’s debate is an opportunity to discuss some of the many important issues that have arisen in the aftermath of the Grenfell disaster. I will focus my remarks on the following: cladding, of both aluminium composite material and other materials; fire doors and other fire safety matters; problems in flats under 11 metres tall, of which we have many in Reading and Woodley, in my constituency; and, above all, the need for a completely new approach to fire safety from central Government, the fire service, local government and, indeed, the construction industry, all of which have important parts to play. I urge the Minister, who is listening attentively and has offered her support, to urge her colleagues in Government to take determined action on the matter, which has been going on for too long.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. He has not specifically said that he will do so, but I hope that he touches on the concerns of leaseholders in such blocks, and how they are to meet the often very high costs of remediation. They cannot always access the block insurance that the developer has taken out in their name, or in the name of their managing agent. I hope that the Minister will address that point, and I am sure that my hon. Friend will touch on it.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who makes an excellent point. I will address that very issue, which is of great concern to many of the residents I represent and to many people across the country. I heard a very moving report on BBC radio over the weekend discussing the concerns of a young couple in Leeds who were living in a block with ACM cladding and who were deeply traumatised not only by the fire safety issues, but by the lack of amelioration of these serious problems. That links to insurance, and to the situation that leaseholders in such blocks face.

I find it simply staggering that two and a half years after the Grenfell disaster, the Government are still only beginning to address this terribly important issue. Little ACM cladding has been removed in that period. In my borough of Reading, four blocks were identified by Royal Berkshire Fire and Rescue Service as having ACM cladding on the exterior. I believe that only one of them is in the process of having that cladding removed, and that represents a very serious continuing fire risk.

I have been advised that that risk may be getting worse because of the continued possibility of human error. Although additional fire safety measures have been instituted—such as waking watches, where fire wardens are on site during the night—as time goes by, there is a greater possibility that a resident or another person will accidentally do something that induces a fire risk, or that some other problem will cause an accident or a terrible tragedy. I have been advised by fire service personnel that with the passage of time, the risk of human error increases, so the fact that nothing has happened to address the issue in the past two and a half years is significant. The problem is ongoing, and it may be getting worse because of the lack of response from central Government.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) rightly pointed out, local residents who live in blocks with ACM cladding face significant stress and concern. The issue affects many of us around the country, because many towns and cities have blocks containing that dreadful material and very few buildings have had it removed. Many of the people affected are private tenants or leaseholders, who have little recourse to take any substantial action on their own. They are often locked into a situation where the freeholder has the power to remove the material but is struggling to do so. Alternatively, they may need to come together with other leaseholders, and it may be difficult in practical terms to agree a way forward. I urge the Government to address that issue in particular. I hope and believe that the Minister is very much in listening mode and will consider how best to push that forward immediately.

I will also pick up on some related concerns. ACM cladding has been mentioned in the Grenfell inquiry, the second part of which opened only yesterday. Without going into significant details, it is worth pointing out that from the opening day of the second phase of the inquiry, it appears that some businesses involved may have known about the potential fire safety risk of ACM cladding some time before the Grenfell disaster. That relates to the problem of current ACM cladding. Cross-party support for much tougher action appears to be emerging. I listened with interest to the comments of Lord Porter, the Conservative chairman of the Local Government Association and a Member of the other place, who rightly picked up on the Government’s lack of action on this important matter.

There are many other forms of cladding, and I will mention some concerns that have been raised with me about the wide range of other materials. In Reading, two buildings have other types of cladding that have caused fire safety concerns. One is the Chatham Place development—it is a series of large multi-storey blocks near the town centre—which has wooden cladding. Wooden cladding is a serious issue, which we need to address as well as ACM; indeed, it played a part in the recent fire in Barking, which was very nearly a complete tragedy. Luckily, residents managed to escape.

Serious concerns have been raised regarding other forms of composite material. Crossway Point, another large block in my constituency that contains a lot of social housing, has other forms of cladding that also need to be addressed urgently. Indeed, there was another fire in Bolton, in the north of England, from which students had a very lucky escape; the Minister is nodding wisely. I appreciate that colleagues in central Government are aware of the problems, but I ask them to act as fast as they can to deal with the wide range of cladding issues.

My hon. Friend raises an important point. I know that the Government are doing a review of those other materials. Are we not slightly uncomfortable about the fact that material that has now been banned from use on new buildings under Government regulations is still allowed on existing buildings? Materials that are not of limited combustibility cannot be put on new buildings, but such materials are still on existing buildings, and they pose a risk to residents.

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. The issue is that the use of such materials has been allowed for many years, and we now face a national crisis—I do not use that word lightly—in building safety and standards, with a legacy of dangerous materials across the whole United Kingdom. We need to take urgent and determined action to address that. My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. I understand that the Select Committee on Housing, Communities and Local Government, which he chairs, has carried out some excellent work on that issue, and he is working on a cross-party basis to try to move the matter forward as fast as possible.

I am aware of the need to press on. I will address some specific issues beyond the exterior of buildings, because a number of important points have been made about internal fire safety, an area in which serious dangers could also be lurking for many existing buildings. I draw colleagues’ attention to the issue of fire safety doors, and I will give two examples from Reading residents I have spoken to who have serious concerns about this matter. Obviously, because of the number of buildings that are either tall or are flatted developments, fire safety doors should play a crucial part in stopping the spread of fire—rather like compartmentalisation, which I will come to later.

Perhaps I should apologise for interrupting the hon. Gentleman as he is getting to the bit I am particularly concerned with. One problem is that although we have lots of legislation regarding the assembly of fire doors—such as BS 8214, which I think was revised in 2016—on a hot day we may walk through buildings where doors are, ironically, held open with fire extinguishers, as often happens on this Estate. Additionally, during the life of a building, a lack of routine maintenance may mean that its fire doors become less effective than they were previously. Certainly, one of the things that was identified in Grenfell was that some fire door closers were not functioning correctly.

The hon. Gentleman makes excellent points about the need for proper maintenance, for sensible information to be shared with residents, and for greater awareness of the importance of fire safety doors.

I will give two examples of potentially substandard fire safety doors in two types of development in my constituency. One was a piece of casework that came to me only last week, when an elderly gentleman in his 70s was asked—quite understandably—by the landlord of a shared retirement block to replace his front door, because it was a fire safety door. Although this resident has real concerns about fire, he is an elderly man with a limited income.

Rather like the problems with insurance, one aspect of the issue is the cost of fitting new doors. It is not just about fear and risk, but about the cost to some residents, and the resident I have mentioned told me what happened in his case. The hon. Member for Walsall North (Eddie Hughes) made a good point about the need for maintenance; in this case, the freeholder, which is the business that runs that block of private retirement flats, had asked residents to fit new doors. This gentleman spent £1,500 fitting a new door, only to be told that a different standard applied, and he has now been asked to fit another door, which will cost £2,000. This is an issue of information, of regulation, and of providing clear advice to vulnerable people.

My other point relates to the pure unease and deep concern felt by many residents. I spoke to another gentleman who lives in a block in Reading town centre. He is in his 20s—completely at the other end of the age range—and he described the poor maintenance of some fire doors, which the hon. Member for Walsall North also mentioned. In the block in which this resident lives, which I believe dates from the 1990s, the doors already seem flimsy. They may not have been up to the relevant standard when they were built, and they certainly seem poorly placed to withstand a prolonged fire. There is little information and little support for residents facing this deep concern, so I emphasise that residents are very concerned about fire doors; that there is poor information; and that many residents face significant extra costs when fitting such doors in private rented or leasehold accommodation.

The hon. Gentleman and I have common cause here. My understanding is that some of those fire doors are regarded as 30-minute compliant, or whatever, but they have subsequently been retested and found to not have that level of resistance. Even when somebody thinks they have bought a product that complies, subsequent testing can prove it does not.

The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point, and I appreciate his intervention. In many ways, the issues are similar to those with cladding: residents have been left with poor-quality building materials in their homes. The advice and the testing of those materials is not up to modern standards. As a result, residents face a great deal of anxiety, and potentially the huge extra cost of retrofitting adequate doors.

A further related issue, which has been discussed quite widely in the media, is compartmentalisation. I have serious concerns about this issue as well, both in tall buildings and in lower ones. Again, I refer colleagues to some of the advice I received as a councillor when the Royal Berkshire Fire and Rescue Service investigated blocks in our county. It shared some of the horror stories it had heard about conversions of buildings where compartmentalisation had been clearly breached, leading to a serious increase in fire risk.

For example, I was told that in a block in Slough—obviously not in my constituency, but a similar town not very far away—builders had inadvertently drilled large holes in walls that were meant to compartmentalise fire, to allow service pipes to gain access through the walls, and had not adequately sealed the holes. In a large block of flats, that type of work can breach compartmentalisation. Just as I have raised serious concerns about the exterior of buildings and about fire safety doors, I am equally concerned about the need to maintain compartmentalisation, as are many other Members. This all comes back to the issue of legacy buildings with significant problems, as well as the need for far greater resources for the fire service, local government and private sector contractors, along with regulation and training for staff working on these matters.

There is a growing awareness of the series of problems in tall buildings, and I understand that the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government is particularly aware of the issues related to ACM. However, I want to highlight how many other blocks also contain the same potential fire risks. This is an issue not just with the very tallest of tall buildings, but with the far greater number of lower-rise buildings that are still flats and contain a large number of residents. To give an idea of the scale of the issue, I want to discuss how it affects Reading and, indeed, the county of Berkshire. I am using Berkshire as an example because our fire service is still operated on a county basis, although the county is made up of small unitary authorities.

Between 2,000 and 2,500 buildings in Berkshire are flatted or multi-occupancy purpose-built buildings under 11 metres tall. I understand that Ministers are currently looking at buildings above an 11-metre threshold, but I urge them to look at those below 11 metres, because of the large number of them across much of this country. I hope that my local examples will give Ministers a flavour of the sorts of problems they may come across when they discuss this issue with local authorities and the building industry. Across Berkshire, there are a large number of buildings—student accommodation at universities and colleges, old people’s residential blocks, a wide range of other residential buildings, and possibly some other buildings—where there may be issues such as faulty fire safety doors and problems with cladding and compartmentalisation, as well as other matters that we have not yet discussed. The scale of the issue is simply enormous.

I appreciate that many Members may have visited Reading only on the train, perhaps while on their way home to their constituencies in the midlands, the west country or other parts of the UK. To give them a simple illustration, if Members were travelling through my constituency on the train, they might notice four or five tall blocks, but below those individual high points on the horizon they would see a townscape of many, many flats. In my constituency office, we carried out an exercise of trying to establish how many addresses had the term “flat” attached to them. It is difficult to fully establish that fact, because some buildings are described as “court”, “residence”, or with some other prefix or suffix, but the number is huge. Several thousand people in Reading itself live in flats. Imagine the number of flats across the whole county of Berkshire, with neighbouring towns such as Slough or Bracknell, which are heavily built up and developed. Indeed, some of the market towns such as Wokingham, Windsor or Newbury may also contain a large number of new flats or retirement homes for older residents, all of which are potentially affected by these same serious issues.

The scale of the problem is simply enormous, and it exists across the whole of the UK. I imagine that every Member here today has dozens and dozens of similar low-rise flats in their constituency, all with the same potential problems as the high-rise flats, yet those buildings are not on the Government’s target list at the moment. I appreciate that looking at buildings below 11 metres may require a significant injection of resource, but given the scale of the concerns and what we have already seen with Grenfell and those other fires, which were in lower-rise buildings at or around the 11-metre threshold, this is a very serious and substantial issue. I also appreciate that the Minister took time to talk to me before this morning’s debate, but I urge her once again to find the necessary resources to address this extremely serious problem, which affects so many residents.

There are two or three other issues that act in combination with those relating to lower-rise buildings below 11 metres. There are not only structural issues, which we have discussed, but important related issues to do with tenure and the nature of conversions, which are also germane to the debate. I will use Reading and Woodley as examples, because I know them well, but I am sure that every hon. Member present could describe the same thing.

Simply, there has been an explosion in the number of houses of multiple occupation in the United Kingdom in the last 20 to 30 years. Many hon. Members may have rented properties in their youth. It is now common to rent properties by room, rather than a couple renting a flat together or a single person renting a small flat by themselves. It is common for terraced houses, including taller three-storey houses, to be divided between multiple occupiers who often do not know one another and who may be cooking and using the building at different times. That building may be old and not have fire safety doors or other measures fitted, which is potentially a massive problem that is linked to the issues with lower-rise buildings. It is an additional and to some extent overlapping problem. I urge the Minister to look at the regulation of that part of the housing sector.

Some local authorities have been quite robust in registering landlords, which is my preference. In my borough, there are serious problems with resourcing, but the local authority has cracked down on the worst offenders. That is typical of many local authorities, which are doing their best with limited resources. One or two local authorities have led the way with full registration schemes, such as Newham Council and Liverpool City Council. I urge the Minister to consider finding the resources for local authorities across the country to run registration schemes, because of the fire safety risks and other related health and amenity risks.

My local fire services told me that, although it has not been widely discussed in the media, there are a large number of unregistered HMOs, which are particularly dangerous, because vulnerable people may be living there and being exploited by unscrupulous landlords. That is beyond the sector where landlords register with the local authority.

Office-to-flat conversions are another pressing issue because building standards are much more lax than in other forms of development. A significant part of the new housing in the borough of Reading, which makes up a large part of my constituency, comes from that type of conversion. If someone were to drive from Reading town centre to the M4, they would see a series of buildings built in the 1980s, which were then the most attractive office buildings. Because of changes to building design and the use of IT in buildings, however, they have been converted to flatted accommodation. A wide range of other risks could lurk inside those buildings. I urge the Minister to address that point, as I am sure she is willing to, when she considers the other issues that I have mentioned. Local authorities lack sufficient powers to investigate the full nature of those conversions, so many fire safety risks may exist in such buildings.

I appreciate that I have spent some time on these matters, so I will address the new fire safety Bill and the need for significant resources. I welcome the Government’s Bill, which I hope will contain the type of regulation that I have suggested that we will need to address those serious concerns, but I ask the Minister to address the full scale of the matter and to make sure that fire services, local authorities and the construction sector have the necessary resources to address the crisis as new legislation is introduced.

I have discussed the measure with colleagues in local government and the fire services in Berkshire. It is estimated that Royal Berkshire Fire and Rescue Service would need 30 extra staff, which is 5% of their total headcount. It is a significant extra resource, which would be needed to inspect the buildings that I have described, which are not currently being inspected. After Grenfell, the service rapidly inspected tall buildings in Berkshire, but did not have the necessary resource to address the 2,500 additional buildings of 11 metres and below, the large number of HMOs or the other buildings that I have mentioned, which may need to be inspected.

The 5% increase in the establishment number for Royal Berkshire Fire and Rescue Service is just one example of a county fire service needing further resources. It is estimated that it would take between two and a half and four years to train some of the key staff. The figure of 30 includes support staff, admin and legal support, all of which are important parts of the fire service team. It will take time to train the fire inspectors, some of whom have significant academic qualifications at degree level, and in some cases at masters level, in fire safety and building matters. I am sure that our fire services are willing to undertake that important work, but they will need extra financial resources.

Our fire services face specific pressures, as the Minister is aware. Many services in areas near major conurbations—in our case, London—face additional financial pressures due to problems in recruiting and retaining public sector staff because of the high cost of housing. In Berkshire and many other places, there is a lack of flexibility in the current fire service precept. In our case, the precept went up to around £65 per household per year across the county, which was only a £1.20-per-household increase. The fire service would dearly like a £5-per-household increase to allow it to carry out further work. That would not cover the extra 30 staff, but would enable other recruitment and retention measures.

In addition to the fire service, there is a clear need to invest far more in local government and to revise the model of accreditation of fire inspection and building control inspections to make it a more professionalised service. The Chair of the Select Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts), has carried out more detailed work on this important issue, about which I have spoken to him. Again, it relates to the need for personnel in the fire service. I urge the Minister, who I am sure is aware of the issue, to look at it as a matter of urgency because of its importance and because of the lead time for training staff, many of whom have degree-level qualifications, which are necessary given the complicated world of construction. The staff we need are highly trained and skilled. As a country, we need time to invest in those people, to pay them and to retain them in the public sector.

I urge the Minister to consider the work of other, related Departments, such as the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Department of Health and Social Care, and other forms of regulation in local authorities that overlap with fire safety responsibilities. It is also worth considering the pressure on private sector firms that operate in the construction industry. Yesterday, I had an interesting conversation with a small business in my constituency about that pressure and the fact that there needs to be greater awareness in the industry of different types of cladding and materials, so that it can move away from ACM cladding. As hon. Members may know, part of the problem is that the inner core of ACM cladding is petrochemical-based, which is highly flammable. Many members of the construction industry would like to know more about alternative materials, but they have training needs. They would be grateful if they could work in greater partnership with central Government and local authorities to address those needs.

I have had similar conversations with local councillor Ayo Sokale, who is a civil engineer and has a lot to offer on the subject in Reading. She pointed out the desire of civil engineers to learn more as specialists in their field, which again relates to the issue of building construction safety. There are needs within professions and within the wider construction industry that must be urgently addressed. I encourage the Minister to work closely with the sector through industry bodies, as I am sure she wishes to, to provide it with the support that it needs.

In Reading, we are lucky to have a great academic tradition in the University College of Estate Management, which is now more than 100 years old, and the University of Reading, which provide academic training and support, architecture degrees and other estate management and surveying courses. That type of investment is greatly needed to support the training of people within the industry, working with the sector and related professional bodies, to help them to provide the level of service that they wish to, and to move away from a low-cost, low-quality model, so that we encourage buildings that are safe, that will last for generations and that will provide the kind of homes that people want to live in.

I thank you, Mr Gray, and the House for allowing me this debate. I thank colleagues for their helpful and thoughtful interventions. I look forward to hearing more from the Minister and from other colleagues. I urge the Minister to take those points on board and to act with the greatest urgency to address these very important matters.

I thank the hon. Member for Reading East (Matt Rodda) for setting the scene so well. He has given the perspective from his constituency and I wish to do the same for Northern Ireland.

I have been considering this issue and liaising with our Housing Executive and others since the terrible Grenfell disaster highlighted massive concerns. I am pleased to see the Minister in her place and I look forward to her response to the debate.

The blocks in Northern Ireland were built in the 1950s and ’60s. Of the 33 blocks in Northern Ireland, 25 are in Belfast, and the 1,931 flats in them primarily have two bedrooms. Of those flats, 1,650 belong to the Northern Ireland Housing Executive and 281 have been sold. That complicates the problem—I have heard the issues discussed on the media here on the mainland—as some people who have bought their properties find themselves in a Catch-22 situation.

Although our buildings differ in scale from those on the mainland, the issue must still be taken seriously. I am deeply concerned about this matter. I chair the all-party parliamentary group for healthy homes and buildings. Safety and healthy living are important qualities, and this debate on risk in flats and shared houses is important to the APPG.

One of my constituents has a massive interest in this issue due to his extensive knowledge of it. He has provided me with notes, which I have brought to the attention of the Northern Ireland Housing Executive back home. Those notes should be taken seriously, and I thank my constituent for the information.

Although we use a different type of cladding from that used on the mainland, my constituent says that there are still issues to be addressed. The PVC cladding on tower blocks owned by the Northern Ireland Housing Executive was tested under the BRE 135 and BS 8414 standards. The tests were carried out in 2013, long before the Grenfell fire, but they raised an issue about which I believe we should have been more aware. BRE concluded that the PVC cladding was safe, even though it fully combusted within five minutes of being exposed to temperatures exceeding 600°C. That is a very surprising conclusion, to say the least.

The PVC cladding company claims that the material is Euroclass B, which is of limited combustibility. Other documents, however, suggest that it is Euroclass E, which is fully combustible. The Government must reconsider the continued use on blocks higher than 18 metres of any material below Euroclass A. Under that standard, many blocks would be non-compliant. I hope the Minister can give an idea of how that proposal would impact on existing proposals across the United Kingdom.

According to BRE, smoke toxicity is a major concern. Burning PVC emits significant quantities of hydrogen chloride gas, which can kill people in minutes, long before they have a chance to escape the building. How many of the people in the awful tragedy of Grenfell were dead before the fire got to them, because of the emissions? If people can be killed by the emissions, those emissions have to be addressed. Proposed smoke toxicity regulations from Brussels have not been adopted. We must address the issue, regardless of pre-existing regulations. I hope the Minister can tell us where we stand on the implementation of those regulations.

Nothing can bring back those who died in the Grenfell fire on that dreadful day—it is important to remember those who were lost—but we must use the tragedy to spur us on to make sure that another preventable tragedy does not happen. We must think about the action that could have been taken and the lives that could have been saved.

I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response, including on how we will filter information to the devolved Assemblies to ensure that we are all on the same page. It is vital that there are UK-wide regulations and guidelines—that all of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland has the same policy, law, guidelines and rules, that all people will be safe and that what happened at Grenfell will never happen again.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Reading East (Matt Rodda) on an excellent opening contribution. It was serious, thoughtful and comprehensive. I am sure the Minister will respond accordingly, as my hon. Friend made some valid points.

I begin by thanking hon. Members for re-electing me as Chair of the Select Committee on Housing, Communities and Local Government. I say that because I want to refer to the Committee’s work on these matters in the previous Parliament. It looked many times at post-Grenfell issues. Dame Judith Hackitt and Ministers appeared before the Committee, to discuss her excellent report and the Government’s response.

I could not be in the House last Monday, but I read what the Secretary of State had to say on further Government proposals. Most are welcome and I think there is cross-party agreement about the direction of travel. The cross-party concern on the Select Committee has been that while the Government’s response has ultimately moved in the right direction, they have not moved as quickly as they should have done. Many of the proposals that the Government are now considering implementing were recommended by the Select Committee some time ago.

The cladding and aluminium composite material were a major factor in the Grenfell disaster. The Government moved very quickly to ban that material, and they were right to do so. The problem is that it has taken time to remove it from buildings. There are still far too many buildings with ACM material on them, partly because, even though the Government brought in the ban, it took an awful long time to persuade the Treasury to come up with the funding to remove the material from social housing, and then to offer a financial assistance scheme to the private sector.

There is a real issue that will affect any other Government action on leasehold properties. It is absolutely right that leaseholders are in no position to pay for cladding removal. In cases involving fairly recent developments, the property developer may still be the freeholder, so the ownership will not have changed and they might be in a financial position to pay for the cladding to be removed. If the freehold has been sold to a company whose only source of income is ground rent, that company is unlikely to be able to fund the removal. That is a Catch-22 situation. If neither leaseholder nor the freeholder can pay for it, we are back with Government responsibility.

That leads us to other forms of cladding. The Government have quite rightly banned the use of non-limited combustibility materials on new developments. However, certain cladding that cannot be put on new buildings is allowed to remain on existing buildings. There is something fundamentally wrong with that situation. I hope it does not take another disaster before the Government recognise that some of that other material has to come off as well. I know that the review is taking place. Experts tell me that zinc composite material is just as dangerous and combustible as aluminium composite material. High-pressure laminate material has been reviewed and tested. It is not allowed on new buildings but it can stay on existing buildings. As my hon. Friend said, there is also wood cladding material. If, eventually, the Treasury were asked to fund a scheme for those materials that is similar to that used for ACM, the bill would potentially run up to £3 billion. I suspect that is why Ministers cannot move faster at present. There is a real challenge there.

My hon. Friend the Member for Reading East rightly mentioned that this is not just about height. The focus has been on buildings that are more than six or 10 storeys, but buildings do not necessarily have to be high in order to be at potential major risk. Such buildings include student accommodation, residential accommodation for the elderly, hotels, hospitals or nursing homes. The risk posed to each is different, and there must be specific regulations to deal with it. Any material of limited combustibility on those buildings, irrespective of their height, creates a greater risk. That is something else that the Government now have to address.

The Select Committee also focused on an issue that came out of Dame Judith’s report—namely conflicts of interest, which often mean that the wrong things are done. I will highlight just two examples. The first involves building inspectors appointed by the developer who then sign off the work of the company that appointed them. Dame Judith was caustic about this practice, and she made it very clear that this has to end. That does not mean that every building should be inspected by a local authority-employed inspector, but the local authority should do the appointing so that there are no conflicts of interest, and that has to be resolved quickly.

The Royal Riverside development in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) is a horrible case. The resident students had to be moved out by the council and the university. The building had been signed off as fit to live in, but there were fire doors missing and it had not had a fire risk assessment. A whole catalogue of problems meant that the building was a real fire risk, but it had been signed off by the building inspector, who could not have been to the site to check those things. It was proved later that he had not been to the site. This is simply not acceptable.

Fire authorities also have conflicts of interest. They often set up their own trading arms and then mark their own homework. That has to stop as well, and the Committee was very clear on that.

May I draw my hon. Friend’s attention, and that of the Minister, to a third conflict of interest, in relation to warranties? Warranty providers appoint their own approved inspectors, which, again, leaves the resident with no independent redress.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to draw attention to that further conflict of interest. The National House Building Council refused to honour a warranty because the development had not been signed off by its own building inspector. That is in the small print of the warranty agreement. These fundamental problems need to be addressed.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Reading East has said, people in private sector accommodation face fire risks. Houses in multiple occupation have real challenges and difficulties. My hon. Friend drew attention to licensing schemes, which are really valid. It is not the licence itself that matters, but managing the licence and ensuring that proper inspections are done. Local authority resources are key, but local authorities often do not have the resources to do it properly. I am disappointed that the Government did not accept the Select Committee’s recommendation that it should be down to the local authority to decide which areas should have licensing schemes. Why do the Government have to second-guess this? We said this should be a local authority decision. In the age of devolution and local democracy, let local authorities do it. As long as people can appeal to the Secretary of State if local authorities do not follow the proper process, the decision should be for the local authority and local community, and not something for Ministers to second-guess.

The Minister kindly wrote to me about the Government’s right decision to bring in inspections every five years of electrical installations in private rented accommodation. The Select Committee recommended that in 2015, which was five years ago—we got there in the end. She can probably give a very simple answer on this point. She said that the work will be signed off by a “competent inspector”, but what does that mean? One of the problems with part P of the building regulations is that, although there is a competent person scheme, that does not mean, ironically, that a competent person has to do the work. It simply means that the company has to be part of a competent person scheme and that it has someone with the necessary qualification, but that someone does not necessarily have to be the person who does the work. Will the inspectors have a certificate to say they are competent, or will they simply be employed by a company that is part of the competent persons scheme? That is a really fundamental point.

My hon. Friend has covered many points, and I will not go into all of them. He raised an important issue about not just how well buildings are built when it comes to fire safety, but about how they are managed and maintained afterwards. One of the strengths of Dame Judith’s report was that it looked at the whole life of buildings, including residents’ involvement in ensuring that they are properly informed about their buildings, and at how buildings are maintained and managed. It also looked at ensuring that a properly accountable person is in place to do that, so that the organisation has rules and procedures on whether doors should be changed to improve their fire resistance, whether they are being kept open, and whether they are being properly maintained. All of those issues are absolutely crucial to the safety of buildings.

There are an awful lot of issues to examine; the Minister is probably grappling with some of them in her new post. There are major challenges. I look forward to the Minister, along with Dame Judith, attending the Select Committee before long, to see what progress has been made. Our job is to challenge and scrutinise the Government, and hopefully to push them to move a little quicker than they have moved in the past.

It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts), the Chair of the Select Committee. I am pleased to see him back in his position and to speak in this crucial debate, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Reading East (Matt Rodda) on securing it. He, the Chair of the Select Committee and the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) have covered many of the important issues at stake. It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray, and I wish you all the best in the elections this week.

Housing is a devolved matter, and I pay tribute to the Welsh Government for their work on fire safety and building issues—particularly the groundbreaking law on sprinklers in buildings that was introduced in 2016; the ban on combustible cladding that was announced just last week by the Minister for Housing, Julie James; and the plans to bring forward a crucial White Paper on the wider life cycle of apartment buildings and buildings in general. There are many things here on which we can work UK-wide, as the hon. Member for Strangford said.

Many of the construction companies involved in building these blocks are based across the UK, and many issues relating to insurance and legacy regulation are at a UK level. Co-operation between the UK Administrations, and with the UK Government, is therefore crucial to ensure that we keep our residents safe and expose companies—I will come on to some very specific concerns—that, quite frankly, should be ashamed about their buildings and their failure to live up to construction standards.

I will talk about a specific example in my constituency that has been heavily in the media in recent months: the Celestia block in Cardiff bay, which is a short distance from the National Assembly and other developments. It is one of the many developments that have brought people into the former docklands areas of Cardiff bay over the past 15 to 20 years. In my constituency we now have something over 16,000 individual apartment units in a range of different styles. Some of them are extremely pleasant, with beautiful views across the water, and they have brought in people from all over to contribute to Cardiff’s economy.

However, I am sorry to say that some very serious issues have been raised with me about defects in the buildings, and a significant number of them relate to fire safety. I do not want to name all the other blocks; as Members will be aware, one challenge that we face as elected representatives is that if we expose such things in the media, we can cause serious damage to the financial standing of owners and leaseholders, and we can create panic and fear. In the aftermath of the horrific events at Grenfell, many constituents have come to me with serious fears and concerns that have led to mental health worries and other difficulties, especially for people who live in taller blocks.

With the city’s public high-rise housing, which is run by Cardiff Council and other providers, I am pleased to say that the council has taken significant steps to address fire safety concerns and reassure residents. I pay tribute to my colleague Councillor Lynda Thorne for the work she has done on these issues for Cardiff Council; to the councillor for Butetown, Saeed Ebrahim; and to my Assembly colleague Vaughan Gething, with whom I have worked closely.

Unfortunately, we have not seen the same in the private sector. Celestia, the development, was built by Redrow and Laing O’Rourke. I am sorry to say that their response to me, other elected representatives and, most importantly, the residents of the Celestia block has been, quite frankly, shameful. The failure of the chief executive, John Tutte, and others even to respond to the concerns that I and others have raised with him shames the company. They have some very serious questions to answer.

Celestia is a huge development built in 2006, comprising 457 leasehold residential development dwellings, ranging from one-bedroom flats to multi-bedroom apartments. It is spread across seven apartment blocks in Cardiff bay that are joined together. We have been advised by residents and, more recently, in inspections that the building has several serious dangerous defects ranging across, but not limited to, fire safety. They include defective render, defective roof anchors and defective balconies, which are not safe to go out on. Sewage has spilled into people’s apartments. I was told of a sewage pipe that had been propped up on a Starbucks cup behind a wall, resulting in one of the flats being flooded with sewage. The issues go well beyond fire safety.

On fire safety, the inspections found very poor or non-existent compartmentation measures, which my hon. Friend the Member for Reading East spoke about, missing or defective external fire cavity barriers, and the use of timber cladding insulation that is not of the required standards. In response, Redrow and Laing O’Rourke have washed their hands of the issues. I have been dealing with two organisations at the block: the Celestia Action Group and the leasehold association, Celestia Management Company Ltd. Both have separately raised concerns with me.

Redrow and Laing O’Rourke responded to me. Redrow said:

“Redrow procured the services of Laing O’Rourke as main contractor…Redrow are no longer the freeholder…and any works required to be carried out would require the consent of the freeholder…Redrow acknowledge the potential issues relating to fire safety and will continue to work closely with the management company, freeholder and main contractor,”

and so on and so on, but it gives no commitment. To add insult to injury, its suggested remedy for work that will potentially cost millions of pounds on such a large block is to offer the residents a loan to pay to rectify defects that it is responsible for. That is, quite frankly, shocking and an insult to the residents in the block.

Laing O’Rourke similarly washed its hands of the issue, saying:

“We are aware of the background to the issues raised in your letter. The present situation is that the current building management company has engaged third party technical advisers”—

blah, blah, blah.

“We have fully co-operated…We are however unable to comment further on the issues raised in your letter whilst the technical review is in progress.”

From a pride point of view, I think of what I would do if I were involved in a company responsible for a building with so many defects, particularly relating to fire safety, which put residents’ lives at risk to the point that South Wales Fire and Rescue Service had to intervene and issue orders that could have resulted in the immediate evacuation of the building. Thankfully, it was possible to undertake some immediate remedial work, so that was not required, but the fact that work had to take place within the next 12 months shows the scale of the problems.

I have met Councillor Lynda Thorne and Cardiff Council to discuss building control and environmental safety, and they are working closely with South Wales Fire and Rescue Service to try to address some of the immediate concerns. There are also issues relating to access for fire appliances around the building. Such access involves a path on the edge of the docks that often floods, and the fire service is understandably worried about being able to get appliances round to the side of the high-rise building.

One of the residents wrote to me to say:

“Although the most shocking fire safety issues were only discovered in the last year or so, the majority of the defects from a cost point of view have been known about for many years, yet you”—


“have refused to put them right. These aren’t defects caused by wear and tear, or poor maintenance, they are fundamental construction defects. Indeed, I haven’t once heard an argument put forward by either company”—

Redrow or Laing O’Rourke—

“that the defects are a fault of leaseholders, and my understanding is that the reason you aren’t paying to put them right is because you are hiding behind legal loopholes. Morally, I find your attitude absolutely disgusting. I like many others, am currently stuck in an apartment that is”

potentially worthless.

“I would like you to explain to me why, after buying this apartment in good faith, I am essentially out by”

a very large sum of money. They asked why they should have to pay the sum,

“instead of you—the builders and developers of the complex.”

Celestia Action Group told me and other elected representatives in December that, despite its attempts to secure a standstill agreement with Redrow—there is a belief that Redrow has been dragging out this process to go over a 12-year period to try to avoid its responsibilities further—Redrow rejected that. Celestia Action Group believes that there is a deliberate attempt to try to frustrate the interests of the building’s leaseholders and residents.

Celestia Action Group is equally shocked by the proposal of a soft loan, not least because Redrow did pay out for and rectify the issues at the Ropeworks building in Barking. My right hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Dame Margaret Hodge) raised that issue at the time. The block was built at around the same time as Celestia and there are very similar issues, and yet Redrow paid out there. Why is it one rule for a block that the company built in Barking and a different rule for a block that it built at about the same time in Cardiff? I believe that the company was building similar blocks to similar standards in other cities around the UK at the time. Clearly, it was attempting to get away with avoiding its responsibilities in a couple of places to save itself money, and in other places it was paying up.

The company is predicted to make £406 million in pre-tax profits this year, so I understand residents’ outrage at its failure to deal with this problem. John Tutte himself received something like £2 million annual compensation, so the loan that the company is offering the residents in Celestia is about 50% of what he gets, let alone what the company makes. Understandably, people are absolutely shocked. I was delighted to join residents protesting when, to our shock, Redrow was being recommended for an award in Cardiff bay just before Christmas. I stood outside another building where the awards ceremony was taking place, protesting with residents. Many of them had not had the courtesy of a response from Redrow and Laing O’Rourke. Many residents attending the awards ceremony live in the block of flats and were unaware not only of the scale of the building’s problems, but of Redrow’s and Laing O’Rourke’s failure to deal with them.

There are some very serious issues here, and we have heard about the wider context that they sit within. It is clear that such issues occur across the United Kingdom. They relate to serious defects in fire safety and other building construction standards. They go back many years, and companies simply wash their hands of them, often by self-certifying, not having adequate inspections and offering worthless guarantees. Then, when problems are identified, instead of doing the right, moral thing—rectifying the issues and coming to agreements with leaseholder associations and others—they simply try to wash their hands of them and bat them off to somebody else. It is not good enough. The senior management of Redrow should sit down with me and the residents of Celestia in Cardiff bay. There needs to be much wider investigation and regulation of the industry, particularly because in cities such as mine—my hon. Friend the Member for Reading East said the same—new apartments blocks are going up all the time. This is about not just the high-rises, but the lower-rise blocks, too. I am sorry to say that I am frequently told about serious concerns and problems.

I will continue to work with my Assembly colleagues and others, and I am pleased by the work that they and Cardiff Council are doing. The UK Government must look at the matter too, and companies such as Redrow and Laing O’Rourke should take responsibility for their shocking and shameful behaviour.

As ever, it is an enormous honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. Like others, I thank the hon. Member for Reading East (Matt Rodda) for securing this debate on a hugely important and topical issue. We of course await sight of the fire safety Bill, but I know from last week’s debate on the phase 1 report of the Grenfell inquiry that there is rightly significant cross-party support in the House on this issue, as evidenced by the four Back-Bench speeches this morning. I am glad to be summing up for the Scottish National party.

In his very comprehensive speech, the hon. Gentleman spoke about concerns about cladding. We are moving into phase 2 of the Grenfell inquiry, and we all agree that we should wait and see what happens over the course of phase 2, so that our actions can take that in. Certainly, there is a wider point about the Treasury and leaseholders.

The hon. Gentleman spoke about issues relating to internal safety in buildings—particularly high-rise blocks—after the Grenfell inquiry. I have 10 tower blocks in my constituency of Glasgow East. I was very grateful to Glasgow Housing Association for taking me on a tour of those blocks, where we looked at internal issues, some of which related to fire doors. The hon. Member for Walsall North (Eddie Hughes), who is no longer in his place, was right to make the point that we can have all the legislation in the world, but cultural issues sometimes mean that people might use fire extinguishers to hold doors open, for example, which is not necessarily ideal.

The hon. Members for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) spoke about some of the devolved issues in Wales and Northern Ireland. The hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth was right to take to task some local organisations that are definitely not stepping up to the plate. As ever, the hon. Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts), who chairs the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee, spoke very powerfully and with great authority. He was right to make the point about the impact on leaseholders.

We covered so much ground in last week’s debate in the main Chamber, so I will not repeat much of what I said then. I will focus instead on a number of ancillary issues that I did not manage to touch on last week. In the context of the debate, let us not forget that people are still living in dangerous homes, so it is imperative that we reassure our constituents, as the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth tried to do. He made the point that we cannot have just words; we must have actions from Westminster.

Last year, we saw the chilling sight of a block of flats in Barking go up in flames. The psychological impact on survivors of Grenfell, as well as on those who were bereaved, can scarcely be imagined. The fact remains that tens of thousands of people live in privately owned tower blocks in which remedial work on fire safety has yet to be completed, while the British Government pass the buck to freeholders. My message to the Government remains very much the same as last week: we must make better progress in reassuring people who live in high-rise blocks and shared accommodation.

According to the charity Electrical Safety First, in 2017-18, 150,000 fires were caused by an electrical ignition source, which accounted for 60% of all accidental domestic fires across the UK. The Government’s strategy to tackle that problem has been poor. The concentration of consumer messages has centred on the “Fire Kills” campaign, but despite the British Government’s advertisements last March—including some messaging on the dangers of overloading sockets—more definitely needs to be done to focus on electricity in future campaigns.

In Scotland, Electrical Safety First has been running the successful “Inequality Street” campaign, the aim of which is for everyone to be protected by the same electrical safety laws regardless of tenure or dwelling type. The campaign’s focus this year will be electrical safety in mixed-tenure blocks, which I welcome. Put quite simply, flat owners should be expected to meet higher standards when there is a potential impact on their neighbour’s safety.

North of the border, the Scottish Government have shown their commitment to high safety standards in Scottish homes by introducing new legislation last February that requires all domestic properties in Scotland, regardless of tenure, to have the same levels of smoke and fire detection. Private landlords have also been required to carry out five-yearly electrical checks since 2015—the Select Committee Chair, the hon. Member for Sheffield South East, made that point—and will soon be required to fit residual-current devices, which cut off the power if a fault is detected, in all their rented properties.

When it comes to tumble dryers and washing machines, there have been two major recalls recently, so electrical appliance and fire safety need to be a priority, especially for people living in flats. How is the Minister working with colleagues in the Department to communicate messages to the public about appliances causing fires? Will we soon see, for example, TV advertisements from the Fire Kills campaign about appliance fires? Will she also think about how fires are recorded by fire and rescue services?

Consumers are charging their devices more than ever before, so will the Minister commit to ensuring that British Government records include fires caused by, for example, mobile phone chargers rather than trouser presses, which must surely be falling out of use? A wider point is that more and more consumers use websites such as, and we essentially import products from China that do not meet British standards. That is a concern.

The hon. Member has outlined what the Government need to do. Does he agree that companies also have great responsibilities? The Government perhaps need to introduce legislation or make changes to the law to ensure that companies are accountable to the people to whom they sell their electrical products, because currently, if the products catch fire, the companies seem to walk away.

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point; the Government absolutely have a role in ensuring that we hold those companies to account. Equally, we have a role as consumers on a personal level. We have to consider the standard of an Apple charger that is sold for only £2 or £3, for example. We know that consumer behaviour is evolving and it is important, as he has said, that the Government keep pace.

As I said at the outset of my remarks, there is much cross-party consensus on ensuring that we have the highest possible fire safety standards, on which Scotland is already leading the way. The SNP would certainly support some kind of team approach—of the sort mentioned by the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth and the hon. Member for Strangford—to ensure that we are on the same page across the UK. My fundamental message is that action needs to come at a much greater pace.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Reading East (Matt Rodda) on—as the Select Committee Chair, my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts), said—his incredibly thoughtful, considered and detailed speech. We will all be listening to the Minister’s response.

Nearly a thousand days since the Grenfell tower fire, it is hard to know where to begin on the chaos of building controls and safety systems in this country. Before this debate, the Royal Institute of British Architects, which is a well-respected body, sent a briefing in which it said that it remains deeply concerned that, apart from the ban on combustible cladding in certain buildings, regulations remain exactly the same as they were when the fire occurred over two years ago.

I will run through events since the fire. Following the fire, the first phase of the public inquiry was 18 months overdue, and the response to the Grenfell survivors was woeful, as the Government admit. On the removal of ACM cladding, nine in 10 private blocks are still covered in it, and three-quarters of all residential blocks with that cladding are still wrapped. A thousand days on since the fire, developers and freeholders are not taking responsibility at all, as my Friend the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) said, but the Government also need to step up to the plate. I congratulate my hon. Friend on the number of times that he mentioned Redrow and Laing O’Rourke. I hope that their public affairs firms, to which I am sure they direct significant resources, will pick up on this debate and take some action.

The Government are more than a year overdue in publishing the results of testing of suspect non-cladding materials other than ACM cladding. They told us that publication would be set for summer, then autumn, then before Christmas, and now spring. How much longer will we have to wait? The delays and contradictory advice in government guidance mean that up to 600,000 people are now trapped in unsafe or unsellable buildings—their lives are on hold and they do not know whether their flats are worthless. In my constituency, there are several cases of people who cannot sell and are trapped. Last week at my surgery, I saw some people who work in the NHS and who are moving to Southampton in two years to start a new job. They cannot sell their flat because they have not got the paperwork that says whether it is safe.

On sprinklers, which have been mentioned, Labour research from last year revealed that just 5% of tall council blocks are fitted with sprinklers. The two-tier system that the Chair of the Select Committee talked about is growing ever wider; there are some rules for new buildings but not for people in existing blocks. That is completely unfair and the Government have offered no funding to help with the retrofitting of sprinklers.

No legislation has been promised. Ministers have made 21 announcements on building safety since Grenfell and have made repeated promises to legislate, but nothing has reached statute, not even a draft Bill. Will the Minister give us a date for the introduction of the fire safety Bill? That would be very helpful.

We still do not know how deep the scandal goes. That is perhaps the most worrying aspect of all, because the Government have still not audited tower blocks, which they should have done straight after Grenfell. Despite saying that HPL cladding is lethal and must be removed, Ministers cannot tell us how many blocks have HPL—or other types, such as timber cladding, as mentioned—or where they are.

Last week’s Government announcement was welcome, but it is a half-hearted response, long overdue and too weak. We have been calling for naming and shaming developers and freeholders since last June, but the Government have set December in the timetable. Why wait? Seventy-five block owners still have no plan, although they have had two and a half years of warnings. Why not name them today?

Reducing the height threshold for sprinklers and combustible cladding, as my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield South East said, serves only to increase the gulf in our two-tier system. The Government apply a safety standard for those in new blocks but not for those in existing blocks. That disproportionately affects social housing tenants because, fundamentally, they are the ones in the existing blocks. Thousands of blocks over 30 metres do not have sprinklers—let alone those over 11 metres—because they were built before Labour introduced the 30-metre threshold for sprinklers.

Why do we need more consultations when last year we had months and months of consultations on Approved Document B, which covers sprinklers, combustible cladding, fire doors and more? The responses were clearly in favour of greater safety, so why wait? Why not legislate now? Why ignore the recommendations that for specialised housing, such as care homes and hospitals, the ban on combustible cladding should apply to all heights of buildings? Talk to anyone in the fire service and they will say, “We need to have sprinklers in care homes.” The London fire service advises that every new school built should have sprinklers. The cost is about the same as putting in carpets, but only 3% of new schools built have sprinklers. We need to address all such issues.

There are also some big questions about the announcement that ACM cladding should be removed from all buildings, regardless of height. If that is what the Government are suggesting, the implications for Government, local authorities, housing associations and leaseholders are profound. If the Government had always been clear that ACM buildings below 18 metres must be remediated, as the Secretary of State implied last week, why are they not collecting information on how many buildings there are and where they are? Why are they not publishing the information in the monthly building safety updates? Why are those buildings not entitled to help from the ACM remediation fund, or will they be going forward? Have the residents been informed? What guidance was sent to local authorities to indicate that that was the Government’s view? Most of all, why did the Government guidance, post Grenfell, in amendments to building regulations last year, explicitly refer to buildings over 18 metres?

Finally—I want to give the Minister plenty of time to respond—the scandal at the heart of all this is that hundreds of thousands of leaseholders and people in blocks do not know what is happening to them. They do not know what they will have to pay. They do not know whether they will be able to move out of their blocks. They are suffering deep anxiety and stress. We all have people in our constituencies in that situation, although rather highlighting those in my constituency, I will highlight some who have been trying to get in touch with the Secretary of State for a long time. For months, the residents of the Skyline Central block in Manchester have been asking him to intervene after they were charged up to £25,000 each. The deadline for when they were supposed to pay has now passed, but they have still not heard from the Secretary of State.

Nearly 1,000 days after the fire, everything comes down, fundamentally, to trust. There are so many problems that the Government have yet even to begin to solve. They have a responsibility to do so. The Government won a large majority in Parliament, on which I congratulate them, but now they have a responsibility to fix the problems, which will not go away and are only getting bigger as we uncover more and more issues at play. Please, no more excuses and no more delays.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray.

I thank the hon. Member for Reading East (Matt Rodda) for securing this debate and for speaking so thoughtfully on fire safety last week in the Grenfell Tower public inquiry debate. I am also grateful to all Members who brought key issues before us today and made pertinent points. I thank the hon. Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts), the Chair of the Select Committee. His job is to scrutinise, and he has been present to do exactly that. There is much—if not all—that we agree on, but the question is how we deliver safety to everyone so that when they go to bed of a night time, they know that they are in a safe home and can feel safe and secure.

I hope to get through the points that everyone has made as best I can, but I will also recap briefly some of the key things that we have already done, because people have asked what has been done. The Government have committed to bringing about the biggest changes in building safety regulation in almost 40 years. After the Grenfell Tower tragedy, we took decisive action on the safety risks exposed by that fire. We banned the use of combustible materials in cladding systems on high-rise tower blocks and committed to £600 million of funding to replace aluminium composite materials of the Grenfell style. In the autumn, we committed to adopting in full the recommendations of the Grenfell Tower inquiry phase 1 report and, on 21 January, we published our Government response to that report. However, as more issues arise, the Secretary of State says that we will widen up to address concerns as they are brought forward.

We have established the new regulator, and we are doing that at pace. We are ensuring that the regulator has the information it needs. We are reviewing fire safety guidance and the sprinkler and fire safety measures, going further on combustible materials, which the hon. Member for Sheffield South East spoke about. We are providing clear advice to building owners, setting clear expectations for all residential buildings, for remediation of fire doors—that was raised—ensuring that there is a more comprehensive assessment of building risk, speeding up the remediation of unsafe ACM cladding, reviewing all remediation timescales and ensuring sufficient action. Inaction will not be allowed. We will bring forward the fire safety Bill and the building safety Bill to ensure that the necessary remediation happens. We will also support those who were affected. I agree wholeheartedly that that must be done at pace. The hon. Member for Reading East talked about the enormous scale of the task. What we do has to be thorough and rigorous, but it has to go at pace.

The Government have also accepted the independent Dame Judith Hackitt review of building safety, and we will introduce that legislation. We expect all housing developers not only to deliver good-quality housing, but to deliver it on time and to treat house buyers fairly. We intend to legislate to introduce a requirement for developers of new home buildings to belong to a new homes ombudsman, to protect the interests of home buyers and to hold developers to account when things go wrong. The hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) raised that point. What are those developers doing, how are we bringing them to account and are they delivering the building—the homes—that people expect?

The new homes ombudsman is an interesting idea, and we look forward to hearing from the Government about the timetable for that legislation. Will the ombudsman have teeth? If it finds one of those scandalous situations in which developers have built shoddy homes, will individuals be able to get compensation? Will the ombudsman be able to ensure that the compensation is paid?

The hon. Gentleman is correct. The ombudsman must have teeth so that it can support homeowners and ensure that they get full recompense. It must have teeth so that they will not be needed, and so that people follow the rules, the guidelines and the regulations.

Members have talked about sprinkler system safety. Our consultation on sprinklers and other measures for new build flats is now closed, and we have carefully considered the responses. The Secretary of State has said that he is minded to lower the height threshold from 18 metres to 11 metres. We will set out detailed proposals on that and the plans for other aspects in the full technical review of the fire guidance in February.

In December 2018, the Government banned the use of combustible materials on the external walls of high-rise buildings, and my Department has concluded the review into the effectiveness of the ban. Last week, the Department launched a consultation on the ban, including on lowering the height threshold from 18 to 11 metres. As I said, when things come forward, we have to look afresh, and that is why there has been a wider consultation.

I share the frustrations of the hon. Member for Croydon Central (Sarah Jones). The Government seem often to conduct reviews and consultations on issues where action has already been taken in Scotland. Why on earth are we doing more consultations when action has already been taken north of the border? What is the need to consult when we can see what is happening there?

We are doing further consultation because although we have put in place bans and measures, we are now seeing whether they need to be strengthened, and whether the height threshold needs to be reduced. We are going further than we said in the first instance, because further matters have come to light. We are always led by an expert panel, and we always seek the latest advice. As points come forward, we scrutinise the various composite materials and look at what is best.

It has never been the case that simply because a building is below 18 metres, owners are exempt from ensuring the safety of residents. There is a requirement on building owners to ensure that buildings of any height are safe, and we expect all owners to act responsibly. The consolidated advice note also clarifies the actions that building owners should take in relation to fire doors. The Government have welcomed the commitment from members of the Association of Composite Door Manufacturers to work closely with building owners to remediate doors that have failed tests. We will continue to monitor the situation closely.

My hon. Friend the Member for Walsall North (Eddie Hughes) and the hon. Member for Reading East talked about security and safety in buildings, and how other safety measures were being carried out. My hon. Friend talked about people blocking doors to keep them open. For the full safety of the building, we must adhere to the safety rules. It is not just about the safety of the materials used in buildings, but about whether the due safety process is followed.

Last week we published a call for evidence to seek views on the assessment and prioritisation of risks associated with external walls, such as cladding, in existing buildings. For many years, we have relied on crude height limits with binary consequences, yet it is clear that when approaching a building’s risk, height alone does not reflect the complexity of the challenges at hand. As the Secretary of State has made clear, we need a better, more sophisticated system to underpin our approach. Height will remain a significant and material factor, but it will sit alongside a broader range of risk factors. We have therefore commissioned leading experts in the field to develop, as quickly as possible, a sophisticated matrix of risks that will replace the historical system and underpin our approach to future regulatory regimes.

Hon. Members asked what was happening and how quickly it was happening: across all sectors, remediation is complete in 135 buildings; remediation has started in 123 buildings; and there are plans and commitments in place to remediate a further 182 buildings. At the end of December 2019, remediation had started or been completed on 145—91%—of the 159 social sector buildings with unsafe ACM cladding systems, and there are plans in place to remediate the remaining 14 buildings. At the end of December 2019, of the 197 private residential buildings, remediation had finished or started in 54, or 27%. Plans and commitments are in place for 143— 73%—of the other buildings. There are no buildings where plans for remediation remain unclear. We are following closely the speed with which that remediation is taking place and what is happening. Although mitigation safety measures are in place for unsafe ACM cladding where required, we do not underestimate the concerns of residents who live in buildings where remediation has not started. We are therefore appointing a construction expert to review remediation timescales and identify what can be done to increase the pace in the private sector.

We are aware of leaseholders’ concerns about meeting the cost of remediation. The hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) and others mentioned that. We do not want cost to be a barrier to remediation, so we are considering, with Her Majesty’s Treasury, options to support leaseholders. The Chancellor and the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government will set out further details in due course.

Will the Minister consider looking at what might be done in the area of insurance to broaden access to the insurance cover currently taken out by developers or freeholders, so that leaseholders or their managing agents might be able to make a direct claim under such policies?

The hon. Member makes a very good point. Those are exactly some of the measures that we are looking at, to make sure that the remediation is done in the best way, while being mindful of leaseholders.

Does the Minister agree that it is inappropriate for companies such as Redrow to offer soft loans to people to deal with things that were not wear and tear but fundamental building defects, in relation not just to cladding but to many other aspects of fire safety? Those people should be allowed to access insurance and opportunities to remediate that do not bear down on them financially. It was not their fault, and they should not have to pay.

The hon. Member makes a good point. I wonder whether we could have a meeting to talk about some of the things we think should be put in place, so that I can make representations to the Secretary of State and the Chancellor.

I would like to leave some time for the hon. Member for Reading East to make his closing remarks, but first I want to talk about the stringent rules that private landlords must follow. By law, privately rented properties must already be free from the most serious health and safety hazards, which include fire. Landlords must put up smoke detectors on every floor, and they must have gas boilers and installations checked every year. Earlier this month, we laid before the House regulations requiring landlords to carry out safety inspections at least every five years, and to prove that the electrics in their property meet the legal standard. If they do not, the landlord must get the work done to make them safe.

The hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden) mentioned electrical safety inspections and the safety of electrical goods that people buy and plug in at home. He asked whether we could work with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and other Departments to ensure that such goods are safe. That is a fair point. We do work across Departments, but we need to do that as well as we possibly can. Landlords must ensure that all fire escapes are clear—

I will, but I was just about to talk about households in multiple occupation—a point that the hon. Gentleman raised.

Going back briefly to inspections, what is a competent inspector? The question of who will do the inspections is important.

As time is running out, I will write to the hon. Gentleman to explain what is meant by a competent inspector.

Enforcement is key. We will hold landlords to account to ensure enforcement. At the end of the day, we must ensure that homes are safe and people can sleep safely at night, knowing that we are mindful of those points.

I am grateful to the Minister for her detailed response, particularly her final point about the importance of enforcement and her response to the intervention from my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts). I thank hon. Members for attending the debate, particularly as they represent such a wide spread of places in the United Kingdom. We have had a wide discussion of issues ranging from particular developers to a whole number of other matters. I ask the Minister, once again, to act with the utmost urgency, and to arrange a meeting with me and members of our local fire authority and local councillors in Berkshire.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the fire risk in flats and shared housing.

UKAEA Public Service Pension Scheme

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the UKAEA Public Service Pension Scheme survivor’s pension.

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Gray, for this short but important debate. I requested the debate to highlight the inconsistent and discriminatory application of rules across public sector pension schemes in respect of awarding survivor benefits to unmarried partners upon the death of members. I want specifically to address the refusal of the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority pension scheme to award a survivor’s pension to my constituent, Ms Eve Shields, on the basis that she was not married to her partner, Mr Anthony Sysum, at the time of his death in 2017.

Mr Sysum, an employee of British Nuclear Fuels Ltd, was a member of the UKAEA pension scheme for 37 years, retiring in 2005. In a committed relationship for 23 years, Anthony and Eve shared a home and were financially interdependent, and Anthony’s UKAEA pension was their primary source of income. Despite being in poor health herself, Eve dedicated herself to being Anthony’s primary carer following his first stroke in 2006. A subsequent stroke in 2013 left Anthony in a semi-comatose state, unable to communicate effectively and requiring significant nursing care. Sadly, Anthony died in 2017. UKAEA responded to my inquiries regarding Ms Shields’s entitlement to a widow’s pension under the scheme, stating:

“Under the scheme rules, the member has to be legally married or in a civil partnership to be eligible for a dependent’s pension to be paid out after their death. Therefore there is no pension due.”

In July 2019, I wrote to the then Chief Secretary to the Treasury, the right hon. Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss), questioning why the UKAEA pension scheme rules appeared to be out of line with more recent reforms to public sector pensions, under which survivor benefits are awarded to unmarried partners and should be paid for life, not removed upon subsequent marriage or cohabitation. In response, she confirmed that the UKAEA pension scheme is based on the civil service classic scheme. New pension arrangements for civil servants introduced in 2002, which are known as premium, were not incorporated into existing classic schemes. As the UKAEA scheme remained a classic scheme, it was not subject to those reforms.

Further examination of the current UKAEA scheme highlights a glaringly inconsistent approach to the rules regarding what constitutes an “eligible widow”. Although a widow’s pension will be awarded to a survivor who was married to or in a civil partnership with a scheme member at the time of their death, that benefit will end should the survivor remarry or live with another person as though they were married.

In 1998, the then Labour Government decided that public service schemes should be able to provide survivor benefits to unmarried partners if the membership was prepared to meet the cost. In October 2002, a new scheme, known as premium, was introduced for new civil service members. The existing classic scheme was closed, with members given the option to transfer to classic plus. The revised classic plus scheme provided, among other benefits, survivor pensions for unmarried partners. The UKAEA scheme is a statutory defined-benefit public service pension scheme, yet it seems that its members were excluded from the reforms made to the range of other civil service pension schemes on which it was modelled. Will the Minister say why?

We know that in 1996, following the privatisation of the commercial arm of UKAEA, members of the existing scheme were offered the right to transfer their benefits from the public service pension scheme to an alternative private scheme, the Atomic Energy Authority Technology scheme, with the promise of “no less favourable” benefits. We also know that that failed, with the AEAT pension scheme transferred to the Pension Protection Fund in 2012 and the Government “promise” in the Atomic Energy Authority Act 1995 subjected to review by the pensions ombudsman. It seems to me that UKAEA members who, like Anthony, chose to remain in the existing public service scheme fared little better, given their exclusion from the opportunity to transfer to a classic plus pension scheme in line with public service employees in other public sector workforces.

Turning to the existing rules, aside from the blatantly gender-based language they use, I am incredulous and, frankly, astonished at the position adopted by the current UKAEA scheme. Rule 6.05 of the scheme states:

“A widow’s pension under Rule 6.01 will be paid from the day after her husband’s death until the date of her death, unless she remarries or was (at the time of her husband’s death) living or begins to live with a man as if she were the person’s wife or, if the member died on or after 5 December 2005, the member’s widow forms a civil partnership or marries a woman or begins to live with a woman as though they were a married couple.”

The scheme rules employ a very narrow definition of what constitutes an “eligible widow” in making any widow’s pension award, but the scheme is considerably less narrow in its definition and interpretation of “partnership” when removing that pension at a later date.

It is my view that that position may be considered discriminatory on the grounds of marital status, in line with the 2017 Supreme Court judgment in the case of Brewster. The Brewster case concerned a similar public service pension scheme, the local government pension scheme, and its requirements that unmarried cohabiting partners must be nominated by their pension scheme member partner in order to be eligible for a survivor’s pension, and that the survivor must show they had been a cohabitant for two years prior to, and two years after, that nomination. Neither of those requirements was in place for married or civil partner survivors. The Supreme Court determined that, where a pension scheme provides a survivor’s pension for an unmarried partner, there is no requirement for the member to nominate their partner in order for that pension to be applied.

Denying bereaved cohabitees access to survivor pensions can cause huge distress as well as significant financial hardship. Lawyers acting for Ms Brewster, the surviving partner, responded to the judgment by calling for urgent further reforms and drawing attention to the decision by the Supreme Court that there had been unlawful discrimination on the grounds of marital status. They noted that the rule the Supreme Court had declared unlawful could be found in most of the UK’s public sector pension schemes, potentially affecting around 12 million members in the UK.

In September 2017, in response to a written question, the then Chief Secretary to the Treasury confirmed that Her Majesty’s Treasury had written to all public service pension schemes making clear that the Supreme Court ruling should be applied to all cases similar to that of Ms Brewster. However, in response to my inquiry about my constituent Eve’s opportunity to have the Supreme Court judgment applied in her circumstances, I was informed that that ruling was to be applied only to those public service schemes that provide pensions for unmarried partners. As that does not include the classic UKAEA scheme, Eve remains ineligible.

In summary, the various reforms to public service pension schemes intended to streamline and modernise them to reflect the changing lifestyles of scheme members appear not to have been applied to the UKAEA scheme. That scheme’s rules remain narrow—some may even say patriarchal—in their approach to what constitutes a widow when assessing claims of survivor benefits. However, they seem only too willing to be broader in their understanding of partnership when considering whether any such benefit entitlement should cease.

My constituent Eve, a survivor of a loving relationship with a UKAEA scheme member, is left not only bereaved but financially worse off as a result of the rules. She is now in a financially precarious position, relying on state welfare benefits. Anthony, as a member of a public service pension scheme, should have been afforded the same opportunity as others across public services to transfer to an appropriate scheme providing benefits to unmarried survivors. I would be grateful if the Minister could explain why the UKAEA scheme was excluded from pension reforms that allowed unmarried partners to receive benefits. Does he feel, as I do, that the UKAEA scheme is unfair and discriminatory, given how it is less narrow in defining how a widow can lose a pension than how a widow might be eligible for one?

My constituent Eve is following the debate closely, as no doubt many others will be, too. What advice does the Minister offer Eve and so many others like her who find themselves in this situation? There needs to be urgent action to address the anomalies across public service pension schemes such as that of the UKAEA, and, most importantly, to make right the injustice and discrimination experienced by survivors such as Eve.

It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I thank the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith) for calling this debate. I understand that the subject is complex, sensitive and frustrating for a small number of individuals affected, including her constituent, Eve. I pay my greatest sympathies to her on the sad death of Anthony.

I hope it is worthwhile to offer clarification on some of the terms of the UKAEA pension scheme and on the Government’s position, although the hon. Member has already set out eloquently the history of some of the decisions taken. The scheme took on its current form in 1972, based broadly on the terms of the principal civil service pension scheme, which following changes was subsequently known as the classic scheme. These are unfunded public service pension schemes ultimately governed by and adhering to Treasury policy.

We know that the societal circumstances that shaped the scheme’s rules when they were created are significantly different from today, particularly with regard to women in the workplace. Initially, adult survivor benefits were provided only to the spouses of male scheme members, funded by a 1.5% employee contribution. That benefit was extended in 1987 to include the spouses of female scheme members, at which point women began to pay the contribution. The pension for survivors of female members is paid only in respect of reckonable service from that particular date. If the benefit’s scope had been wider—for example, to include unmarried partners —it would have required a higher contribution rate to fund it.

As the hon. Member mentioned, in 2002 the new civil service pension scheme, known as premium, was introduced, which offered a range of important improvements over the classic scheme, including a survivor’s pension for unmarried partners. The classic scheme closed to new members in 2002. She asked about the transfer at that moment. Existing members were given the choice to stay in their current section, to join premium for future service or to join for future service and convert past service to the new terms at a conversion factor of approximately 8% to account for improvements in premium at the time. Those improvements were therefore paid for by an increase in member contributions, making the change cost-neutral to the taxpayer. At that point, members of the classic scheme were offered, as I said, the opportunity to retain their current scheme or join premium. All subsequent civil service pension schemes have included adult survivor pensions for unmarried partners.

The new arrangements were not introduced to the UKAEA pension scheme. Instead, the model analogous to the civil service classic scheme remained unchanged. I understand that the differences between the UKAEA pension scheme and the civil service classic scheme were judged at the time to be sufficient, so a decision was taken that reform was not required. Following the McCloud judgment and the requirements of the Public Service Pensions Act 2013, the UKAEA scheme will close. Timetables are to be determined, following the judgment and the Treasury response. In terms of survivors’ pensions, these remain payable only to spouses and civil partners after 2005. Employees continue to benefit from the lower contribution rate.

It is clear that if an individual’s circumstance changes and the survivor cohabits with a new partner, gets married or enters a civil partnership, the benefit is no longer payable. The employee contribution paid by members was based on those rules and would likely have been higher if they had been different. I know this will disappoint the hon. Member and her constituent, but the Government’s established position is to avoid making any retrospective changes to public sector pensions at taxpayer expense.

The hon. Member mentioned the Brewster Supreme Court case in relation to any possible discrimination. In 2017, the Supreme Court judgment determined that where a pension scheme provides for a pension for unmarried partners on the member’s death, there should be no requirement for the member to nominate their partner for the pension to be paid. The Government believe that that decision has no bearing on cases where pension schemes do not provide pensions to unmarried partners.

As I have said, the Government’s established position is to avoid making retrospective improvements to public service pension schemes at taxpayer expense, other than in very exceptional circumstances, and we do not envisage that policy changing in future. I realise that that does not give the hon. Member the answer that she and her constituent would wish for, but, to follow up her comments, if she would like a meeting with responsible officials in my Department and others, I happily make the offer to sit down with her and go through in greater detail some of the provisions she has mentioned, with the caveat that the Government’s position on retrospective changes remains unchanged. I have liaised closely with the Department for Work and Pensions and the Treasury, and she is aware, having written to the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, that a number of the issues relating to public service pensions are ultimately Treasury decisions.

I thank the hon. Member for raising this case. As a constituency MP, I have dealt with a number of cases where changes have occurred over a number of decades to pension schemes—not the UKAEA scheme in particular—and individuals on previous schemes have sometimes been unable to qualify for particular benefits that came in at a later stage. I recognise the pain and dissatisfaction that her constituent feels with the current arrangements, and I pay tribute to her in coming to the hon. Member as the local MP on this particular issue. On changes enacted over a number of decades, unfortunately I am unable to give the response that the hon. Member would wish for. I am happy to arrange for subsequent meetings to continue the dialogue.

Question put and agreed to.

I suspend the sitting until 2.30 pm. The afternoon will open with a particularly interesting debate on Antarctica science and diplomacy led by none other than the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (James Gray).

Sitting suspended.

Antarctica: Science and Diplomacy

[Mr Laurence Robertson in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered Antarctica science and diplomacy.

The world today faces probably the greatest challenge it has faced for thousands of years. Unless we do something about it—something dramatic and urgent—we face environmental catastrophe not only in the Antarctic, but across the globe. That applies especially, but not only, to climate change.

Antarctica is living proof of what we are currently facing with regard to climate change. We must do something about Antarctica, and by doing something about it we can also help the rest of the globe. By focusing on every aspect of life on the great white continent and its governance, I hope that this debate will help environmental considerations elsewhere.

I start by welcoming you to the Chair, Mr Robertson, and by calling attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I am chairman of the all-party parliamentary group for the polar regions, which is largely funded by the Mamont Foundation, and I personally have enjoyed a great deal of hospitality and indeed travel in the colder parts of the world courtesy of my friend, a great polar explorer and philanthropist, Dr Frederik Paulsen, who has done great work at both the north and south poles.

Dr Paulsen also inspired my interest in the poles, together with my great mate and drinking companion, probably the greatest polar explorer in Britain today, Sir David Hempleman-Adams, who has done enormous work. I pay tribute to them for inspiring my interest in the polar regions. That may be a minor interest in Parliament, and I may be the only person with it, but none the less in my view it is an extremely important one.

The APPG has been running for five years under the direction, first, of Dr Duncan Depledge, who set it up with me, and, more recently, of Sophie Montagne. I thank them both for the magnificent work they have done. The APPG has achieved great things in raising polar issues in Parliament. As well as our regular meetings and written briefings, the “Polar Notes”, which we do once a month, we have taken groups of colleagues on expeditions right up to the north end of Spitzbergen, to Greenland, and this year to Iceland. We hope this year to take an expedition to Canadian Nunavut to visit some of the most remote Inuit communities on Earth. Hon. Members will hear more about that.

Last year—admittedly, unfortunately, in the middle of a general election, but we cannot be blamed for that—we arranged the first ever Antarctic Parliamentarians Assembly, in which representatives from 18 nations around the world came together here in London on 2 and 3 December to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the signing of the Antarctic treaty. It was a magnificent diplomatic triumph that we were able to get a statement bringing together China, Russia, Brazil, Argentina, the UK and a whole variety of those other 18 nations from across the globe. The assembly agreed some very outspoken and robust conclusions, and I hope that the other Antarctic nations will have taken account of it.

In all that work I have been very much helped by the polar regions department of the Foreign Office, under the de facto ambassador to the poles, Jane Rumble, who has been doing the job for a few years now, ably assisted by Stuart Doubleday. They do a great job together. I have also been helped by that other great British institution, the British Antarctic Survey, so ably led by Dame Jane Francis, and the Natural Environment Research Council under Henry Burgess. Theirs might not be the most glamorous of public jobs, but they do fantastic work in those two regions of the world—regions that may well hold keys to other parts of the globe—so I salute them for all they do.

Antarctica is the last great wilderness of the world, about which just about everyone on the street knows something, and more or less nobody knows everything. Most people know that Antarctica is a continent of the size of the United States and Mexico put together. It is a huge continent, an enormous continent, covered in ice. Almost every single inch is covered by ice—not quite every inch, but nearly. It is a mile thick across the continent, and three miles thick at the deepest point. It is huge, vast ice and there is nothing else there. It is an interesting continent, because there are no trees, towns, villages, roads or people, apart from scientists—and brave people they are. It is an entire wilderness, consisting purely of ice. Most people know that that is where polar bears come from. But do they?

Almost nobody picked me up on that. If we asked people out there, they would say, “Antarctica? Oh yes—polar bears.” But that is not the case. Polar bears are in the north, penguins in the south. It is important to remember that. The north is a sea, the Arctic ocean; the south is landmass, covered by ice. It is completely different.

Most people probably know about Scott and about Roald Amundsen. Most people might know a bit about Shackleton, although that is rather specialist knowledge. However, at least until the great Sir David Attenborough highlighted these issues for us all in “Blue Planet II” and more recently in “Seven Worlds, One Planet”—both superb TV productions—most people did not know much more about Antarctica. I hope that today’s debate will help to spread the word about the great white continent and some of the challenges it faces.

I particularly wanted to hold the debate today because it is within a day of the 200th anniversary of the first occasion on which the continent was sighted. A Russian by the name of Bellingshausen claimed in retrospect—he did not claim it at the time—to have sighted the continent for the first time on 27 January 1820. In 1819, the previous year, I am glad to say that a Brit, William Smith, had sighted the islands to the north of the continent and subsequently made a landing there. He came back in 1820 with a Royal Naval officer, Edmund Bransfield, and they definitely sighted the continent on 30 January 1820, a couple of days later than Bellingshausen claimed to have done so. I think it was a great British first sighting.

Is it not astonishing that that happened after the battle of Waterloo? By that time, this country was entering into the industrial revolution, yet we had not even sighted Antarctica, far less landed on it. We followed that up: Weddell sailed 74° south a couple of years later and discovered what would become the Weddell sea, and in 1841 James Clark Ross, on HMS Erebus and Terror—ships famous because they were subsequently lost on the Franklin expedition, seeking the north-west passage—got through the ice, into the Ross sea and right up to what is now known as the Ross ice shelf. Then, of course, came the great era of Antarctic exploration, just before the first world war, with Scott, Amundsen, Shackleton and all that. We know about all that.

Rather curiously, after the first world war not much happened in Antarctica until well after the second world war. The importance of the continent for the world’s climate in particular, its potential for scientific discovery and the need to save it from either commercial exploitation or militarisation became known from about 1950 onwards. That led to the signing of a huge milestone in diplomatic activity, the Antarctic treaty, the 60th anniversary of which we celebrated during the Antarctic Parliamentarians Assembly just before Christmas.

In the 60 years since we signed the Antarctic treaty, it has ensured that there is neither commercial exploitation nor any kind of militarisation on the continent. It is kept for peace and for science, and it is entirely free of commerce. That in itself must be a significant diplomatic triumph. One can think of no other treaty in the world that has preserved an entire continent for 60 years so far and, I hope, for many years to come. I am glad that Britain took a leading part in arranging the Antarctic treaty 60 years ago.

Now, however, we must move forward from the relatively peaceful times we have had in Antarctica over the past couple of hundred years, because some astonishing and appalling things are occurring down there. Unless we do something about it now, significant changes will come in Antarctica. I remember attending the Earth Summit in Rio as long ago as 1992, when I was a special adviser to the then Secretary of State. It was a great summit, but we have not done the things we claimed we would do. We have allowed climate change to get worse and worse ever since, and Antarctica not only suffers the worst consequences of climate change, but creates and amplifies it.

It is interesting that at last year’s conference of the parties in Paris, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change targets did not include the Antarctic ice sheet at all. The Paris COP predictions of a 40 cm rise in the oceans did not take into account the Antarctic ice sheet. Including the Antarctic ice sheet would likely more than double that figure.

Amazingly, the Antarctic ice sheet contains 70% of the world’s fresh water. Think of that: 70% of all the fresh water in the world is in the Antarctic ice sheet, which is definitely showing signs of melting and collapsing into the sea at a most alarming rate. A couple of years ago, an iceberg the size of Manhattan broke off from the Thwaites glacier, leading to a serious international study led by the British and Americans. If the ice sheet were to collapse, water levels could rise by up to 12 feet. The northern hemisphere could be particularly affected by that, because of the way in which oceans flow. If that were to occur, we would not be able to sit in this Chamber—unless we had our snorkelling equipment. We would be well under water.

My friends at the British Antarctic Survey have just come back from a season on the Thwaites glacier carrying out probably the largest and most complex scientific field campaign ever undertaken, to try to discover exactly what is happening to it. They drilled several holes through the ice, to try to provide insight into what happens when the warm water that is increasingly coming south—the Southern ocean is warming up—meets the ice. They think the answer is that the warm water undermines the ice to the extent that, sooner or later, the ice shelf breaks off. That seems to be what happened with that huge iceberg just a couple of years ago. They have deployed robots under the ice, to try to see what is happening down there, and installed a whole host of instruments to measure the effects on the glacier.

The west Antarctic ice sheet is one of the most dramatic pieces of evidence in the world of climate change and of the catastrophe that awaits us if we do not do something about it. This debate is not about climate change, but when looking at the great white continent, the Antarctic, it is terribly important that we think seriously about it. I hope the Minister will do that in a significant way when she responds.

We in the UK have led science in the Antarctic since the very earliest days. There are about 50 research stations there from virtually every nation in the world, including Mongolia, if I am not wrong. When I visited the south pole about three or four years ago—I flew out; I did not ski—I was disappointed by the American permanent research station down there. It is a great, huge black thing stuck on the pole itself, ruining what Scott and Amundsen saw all those years ago.

The flags around the south pole itself were alternately American, British, Norwegian, American, British and so on. For the sake of my photographs, I went around and took all the American flags down and replaced them with Norwegian and British flags, because it is the Amundsen-Scott base. As a result they were very good photographs, but the Americans came out of their base and stuck all the American flags back up again. I meant no disrespect to my great friends in America, but none the less I think Scott and Amundsen would have been surprised by the huge presence of Americans at the base itself.

The British Antarctic Survey does great work. It is refurbishing our base in Rothera, on the peninsula, and of course recently commissioned, and has nearly completed, the RRS Sir David Attenborough, which will make a huge and significant contribution to polar research in both the south and the north.

Last year’s Antarctic circumnavigation navigation expedition—on a Russian ship, the Akademik Tryoshnikov—by Dr Paulsen, who funds us, was the first to take 80 scientists, many of them British. They circumnavigated the entire Antarctic content, taking samples all the way round. That is one of the most significant contributions to Antarctic science for many years. We do a huge amount for science.

The hon. Gentleman is making an excellent and informative speech. I have several declarations of interest to make, including that my mother is in Antarctica at the moment—possibly with the Minister’s relatives. We are blessed with the science that the hon. Gentleman mentions. My niece works on a research project on microbial life in glaciers and has mentioned to me work taking place in Antarctica, under the auspices of Aberystwyth University. Does he agree that we need to support and value that scientific research? That microbial life may offer the clues to address all sorts of problems, as well as having unintended consequences, which will also need researching.

I am most grateful to the hon. Lady—my constituency neighbour, more or less—for her important contribution. She is absolutely right: the work we are doing now in the south is incredibly important science. However, it is becoming more and more expensive, and we need to increase the amount we spend, through BAS and in other ways, to improve our scientific research. Antarctica is the most brilliant place to research things, quite apart from the continent itself, but we need to significantly increase spending on it, which is well worth doing.

These and so many other challenges and opportunities have been managed so well under the Antarctic treaty. In 1959, 12 countries, the main claimants, came together to agree the treaty. It is a short document, with only 14 articles—often the best documents are the shortest—but has been one of the most effective and long-lasting of all diplomatic treaties. It has achieved its aim of preserving the continent for peace and science, and as a result the continent is unique in having had no military conflict in the 67 turbulent years since it was first signed, which is quite some going.

In the 1980s, the treaty was followed up by the convention on the conservation of Antarctic marine living resources—CCAMLR—which has done great work in regulating and conserving fish stocks and other mammals in the Antarctic and the Southern oceans. That was followed by the environment protection protocol in the early ’90s, which effectively established Antarctica as a natural reserve. That protocol ensures the biosecurity of the continent and regulates tourism, which we think will become a significantly increased problem over the years to come. It plateaued slightly after the banking crisis in 2008, but we now predict its exponential growth, as the hon. Lady mentioned a moment ago, over the next three to five years.

We have to think carefully about how we handle the biosecurity consequences, and the consequences for the continent, of allowing people to visit it. Most people like to go ashore at least once, to one of the places with penguins and so on, but the consequences of that could be severe. I spent some time a couple of years back in South Georgia, which had become entirely covered by rats, which came ashore from whaling ships in 19th and 20th centuries, and also, incidentally, by reindeer. Only by eradicating the rats and the reindeer, which was an enormously expensive and complicated job, has South Georgia managed to more or less return to its pristine, original condition. We would not want that to happen on the Antarctic continent, which at the moment is more or less pristine. There are signs of some cross-contamination, but by and large the continent is the pure wilderness that it always was. We must make sure that the increase in tourism, and perhaps in fishing and other activities, does not in any shape, size or form contaminate that.

International agreements, such as that to be discussed in Glasgow later this year, could learn an awful lot from the way in which the Antarctic treaty system, CCAMLR and the protocol have worked over the years. They have been a huge success in environmental terms, and we could learn some lessons from that with regard to the future of the global climate.

Britain has truly led the world in terms of science and diplomacy, and we should be proud of that, but there is an awful lot more to be done. We have championed marine protected areas around the world. In particular, in a miracle of international diplomacy, last year we had the Ross sea, just off the continent, designated as an MPA, which was superb. The Weddell sea is the biggest sea down there and an absolutely fantastic bit of ocean, but the ice is retreating on it. We are desperately trying to get it recognised as an MPA, but we are being thwarted by the Russians and Chinese, both of whom see the potential for commercially fishing it. We must overcome that. We must preserve the rich biodiversity and mammal life in the Southern ocean and, to some lesser degree, the Antarctic ocean as well.

With climate change and the growth in fishing and tourism, the treaty system needs to redouble its efforts on biosecurity in Antarctica and avoid the worst consequences that we have seen in South Georgia. The treaty parties must remain vigilant and ensure that the co-operation of the past 60 years continues and endures into the future.

It was for that reason that, as I mentioned, we took the opportunity last December of calling together Parliaments—parliamentarians—from all the Antarctic treaty countries. Eighteen countries came, and those were the leaders; we hope that when the event occurs again in two years’ time, there will be more than that. We think that Parliaments have an extremely important role in preserving the Antarctic continent and doing all the things that we have talked about with regard to peace and diplomacy and science. Governments tend to suffer from inertia or perhaps even self-interest. That is reasonable enough: the Government’s job is to look after their country. Parliamentarians are answerable to their electorate and have a very important role to play in holding their Government to account and making them do things that the Government would not necessarily otherwise want to do. It is popular pressure, after all, that has accelerated the drive towards combating climate change. There is so much more that we as parliamentarians can do here by talking about Antarctica and, incidentally, about the Arctic and encouraging the Government to do the right thing, which they might not otherwise do.

That is why we created the assembly last year. It was enormously successful. We had briefings from international scientists, tourism experts and policy makers about the work of the treaty and the challenges ahead. That was the first day. On the second day, we produced a statement, which I think will be looked back on as an important statement in the history of Antarctica. It was outspokenly robust. This was not a committee producing—what is that saying about a camel being a horse designed by a committee? It was not one of those. It was actually an extremely robust, clearly worded and sensible statement, and I hope that it will be an important beacon in the years that lie ahead.

We agreed that it would be a biannual assembly. The Arctic parliamentarians already do this every two years, so we agreed on a biannual assembly, the second one, in two years’ time, being in the southern hemisphere and probably—we hope—in Australia. We hope it will be a much bigger organisation than it was this time round, although that was a good start for what we hope will become a very long-term and important organisation.

Britain has led the world in the 200 years since the first sighting of Antarctica—it was 200 years ago today or thereabouts—and in the 60 years since the signing of the treaty. We have led the world in exploration, and I pay tribute to the great British explorers, who have done fantastic work over the years. We have led the world in scientific research, particularly from, but not limited to, the British Antarctic Survey. And we led the world in diplomatic negotiations leading to the establishment of the continent as a haven for peace and nature and scientific research. It is terribly important that we now, in a similar way, lead the world in seeking a solution to climate change, without which the future for Antarctica and for all of us looks pretty bleak. We here in the UK have pledged to uphold the Antarctic treaty and to continue to invest heavily in Antarctic research. In COP26 and elsewhere, we must now pledge ourselves to strain every sinew to combat climate change.

This week is the 200th anniversary of the first sighting of the great white continent by Bellingshausen, or perhaps by Bransfield. If we do not combat climate change and its consequences, our descendants will not live to celebrate the 400th anniversary.

It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (James Gray) for securing this debate on an extremely important issue. He is a great advocate for the polar regions and of the need to protect our oceans. I am pleased to be a member of the APPG for the polar regions, which he chairs. My interest in the polar regions came about when I went on holiday with my husband to the Arctic region in 2015. I found the place both beautiful and fascinating and have been pleased to be able to go back since.

As has been said, 2020 is a historic year because we are marking the 200th anniversary of the first sighting of Antarctica by the Royal Navy Captain Edward Bransfield in 1820. In the 200 years since, Antarctica has had a very special place in people’s minds, but it has never been at greater risk than it is now—from two things: intrusive foreign powers and climate change.

The first threat is the more diplomatic issue. Many countries are interested in the potential of as yet unexplored and untapped mineral wealth in the region. The Antarctic treaty, which my hon. Friend mentioned, has stood the test of time—indeed, it celebrated its 60th anniversary last year—but it bans exploration for natural resources only until 2048. Obviously, when the treaty was written, that seemed like a long time ahead; it is now just 18 years away, so I am interested to know what my hon. Friend the Minister is doing to ensure that there is no exploration after that date. The possibility of unexplored oil and gas fields, coupled with the world’s largest supply of freshwater, means that the Antarctic is potentially a very attractive place to foreign actors interested in exploiting rather than preserving it. It is particularly concerning that China has stated that its objective is to “understand, protect and use” Antarctica. Concerns have been raised about what it means by the word “use”.

The second issue is climate change.

I am sorry to interrupt my hon. Friend so soon; she is making an excellent speech. If it is any reassurance, the Chinese were at the Antarctic parliamentarians assembly before Christmas and they signed up to the statement and showed no inclination of any kind whatever to breach the Antarctic treaty now or in the future, so I think we can be assured that the Chinese are firmly onside.

That is fantastic news. I am pleased to know that all countries will work together to preserve that fantastic continent and I am therefore hopeful that we will be able to sign another Antarctic treaty lasting for another 75 years.

It seems ironic that it is the fossil fuels and the possibility of finding them that make Antarctica alluring to foreign powers but are also the thing that is causing its demise. I was interested to read a BBC report from Justin Rowlatt today. He had a very exciting visit, by the sound of it, to Antarctica and has talked about the challenges that he faced just in getting to the ice sheet and being able to stay there and see what was happening, because of the storms. The report describes the east Antarctic ice sheet as being on land and about a mile thick, being relatively stable and not really sinking into the sea, and being relatively unchanged, but it describes the west of Antarctica as being ice largely floating rather than on land. That is a smaller proportion of Antarctica—only 20%—but it is much more vulnerable to the effects of climate change, of global warming, and therefore to melting into the sea.

The Thwaites glacier, which my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire described, is about the size of Britain, but is melting. Unfortunately, there seems to be a bit of a vicious circle, in that the more it melts, the faster it starts to melt. That glacier alone, although only a small part of Antarctica as a whole, could, if it melted completely, cause sea levels to rise by more than half a metre. The effect of that, particularly on low-lying areas of the world and the populations that live there, would be almost immeasurable.

The Antarctic serves as a bellwether for the changing climate. Some data recently produced by Antarctic scientists suggest that there is now an onset of irreversible ice sheet instability—the cycle going so far that we will not be able to reverse it. That would lead to sea levels rising by several metres, which would have catastrophic effects.

I congratulate the Government on what they have done to protect those bits of the marine environment that they can down near the south of the world, particularly in the 4 million sq km of marine protected area, including around South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands. That was described by my hon. Friend earlier, but I will stress again what he said. We need to have the Weddell sea as a marine protected area and to work with countries around the world to make that happen. I understand that there is a little bit of resistance, but the hope is that we will be able to overcome that. We have opportunities, particularly as we host the international climate change conference this year, to bring that issue right to the fore. I am interested in what the Government are doing to try to stop the potentially irreversible depletion of ice sheets before it is too late.

Finally, I want briefly to talk about science. Much of the knowledge about climate change has been gathered by brilliant British scientists. They have made a brilliant contribution to polar and climate science. In fact, in the period from 2011 to 2015, the UK produced the second greatest number of scientific papers in relation to Antarctica. It is crucial that we inspire a new generation of polar scientists. I was pleased to hear the hon. Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire) say that her mother and her niece are engaged in this field, suggesting multi-generational interest in Antarctica. It is great that they are both women. As a Conservative party vice chairman, I am interested in how to encourage more girls to study science, technology, engineering and maths. I am interested in projects such as Homeward Bound, which took 100 women from 33 countries on a three-week expedition at the end of last year, visiting 10 bases and research stations over three weeks, with the aim of getting women interested in Antarctica, giving confidence to female scientists and inspiring younger girls to consider this field of science. That kind of programme will help to bridge the gender equality gap in science. Currently, 72% of those researching globally are men; we need to get women in there too.

It is vital that the UK continues to lead the other signatories to the Antarctic treaty in fulfilling its objective to preserve the continent for peace and science, and ensures that another treaty is in place when this one runs out in 2048.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I thank the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (James Gray)—perhaps I should call him my neighbour, given that he is a Glaswegian—for securing this debate. The work that he, as a member of the all-party parliamentary group for the polar regions, has done to bring the House’s attention to Arctic and Antarctic matters is invaluable. As a member of the Defence Committee in the last Parliament, I was delighted that we were able to publish the work of the Defence Sub-Committee that he did so much to set up during his time on the Committee.

As is usual in debates on the polar regions instigated by the hon. Gentleman, there has been a lot of agreement. I will address three areas: the profound challenge of climate change in the polar regions, the value of scientific research-based evidence in developing policy responses to challenges in those regions, and the existing and developing defence and security challenges in the polar regions. In his intervention about China and the Antarctic, it was interesting to hear that there is a belief that the People’s Republic of China will continue to support the treaty, and I am glad to hear that. Nevertheless, I am concerned, being an observer in the Arctic Council, that there has been some dubiety about China’s support of that council in the northern polar region, and we need to keep our eye on that.

As the rest of the planet has seen the return of a geopolitical competition that we thought was over, it is important to restate for everyone listening that the type of co-operation fostered by the 1961 Antarctic treaty is not an anachronism, but an example of the rules-based order to which we should all aspire. I look forward to the Minister reiterating the Government’s commitment to the treaty’s aims and aspirations. I see a lot of positive nodding coming from the Minister.

However, that does not mean that we should not be cognisant of the changes that have taken place in the past half century. Environmental concerns have come to the fore. Losing 3 trillion tonnes of the ice sheet is not just a symptom of global heating; it encourages the usual suspects to ponder the potential of what lies beneath. Whether those resources are mineral or animal, we would be foolish to think that there was not already a quiet gold rush under way—fostered, I think, by greed rather than by necessity. Even the strictures of the 1961 treaty allow some limited economic activity. We need to get the balance right, with a real emphasis on preserving the pristine nature of the Antarctic landscape. I think I might be the only Member in this debate who has never been to either of the polar regions.

The hon. Lady has not either, but her family all seem to be going. The hon. Member for North Wiltshire was clear about the challenges posed by tourism. The Antarctic landscape can be the best friend of environmental campaigners by provoking a real interest in broader environmental and conservation issues, but that increased interest has started something of a tourist boom in the Antarctic, which could put real pressure on the pristine environment if managed incorrectly. We have not often seen that dilemma.

What can be done? I sometimes worry that there is an inverse relationship between our level of agreement on issues in this place and the seriousness with which they are taken by Her Majesty’s Government. For example, in the broader security debates—in which the hon. Member for North Wiltshire and I often take part—although we all generally agree that the current spending and strategic path this Government are on will cause real problems in the near future, defence and security continue to slip down the agenda and were barely mentioned during the election. I hope that the hon. Gentleman would agree.

I will sound one discordant note. Although it is precisely on issues such as the Antarctic treaty that the United Kingdom should choose to define itself as a reliable and active partner for the rules-based order, I can only wonder whether this will be yet another area where a lack of a coherent worldview will impede that resolve. The Foreign Secretary is giving a statement as we speak, and I may fundamentally disagree with him if it contains a positive for a certain investment in the Communist party of the People’s Republic of China, which has specifically stated that China now defines itself—rightfully or wrongfully—as a polar-region power. We all know the stories of the derring-do that have defined the UK’s historic relationship with the most inaccessible of places, but we cannot escape the fact that those adventures were undertaken at a time when these islands of the north Atlantic had a much surer idea of where they were going.

As a Scottish constituency MP, it would be inappropriate not to remark on the contribution that Scots have made to Antarctic exploration, which I was reminded of when my colleagues and I had our post-election photocall next to RRS Discovery in Dundee. As the most northerly nation of the United Kingdom, we know a thing or two about the polar regions, and I hope the Government will engage with the Scottish Government on their Arctic strategy. I look forward to the Minister reiterating the UK Government’s commitment to the principles of the 1961 treaty, and I thank the hon. Member for North Wiltshire for securing this debate.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. This is my first Westminster Hall debate of the new Parliament. I hope the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (James Gray) will not mind me calling him my friend. He and I have travelled together to all sorts of far-flung parts of the globe, but sadly not to Antarctica, though we did attend the polar regions conference together in Iceland under the then chairmanship of the then President of Iceland, President Grímsson.

The hon. Gentleman made some important points. The world faces its greatest challenge in trying to preserve this extraordinary area of our planet. He said that unless something is done about climate change, we will suffer hugely—a point also made by the hon. Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Dr Johnson). The hon. Member for North Wiltshire also spoke about the all-party parliamentary group for the polar regions, which would not exist without him. He has done remarkable things to get that group set up and ensure it has the impetus to do things and visit those regions. I congratulate him on that excellent work—long may it continue.

The hon. Gentleman thanked the officials in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. I will leave it to the Minister to say more about them—they are her officials—but they do a remarkable job, as does every official of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. He said that Antarctica was the last great wilderness on earth, reminding us that it is larger than the United States and Mexico combined; it is, indeed, a continent of ice. He added that we must redouble our efforts on biosecurity, because who knows what is locked up in that ice and may well be released, should it melt?

The hon. Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham said that the effect of climate change in Antarctica would be irreversible if we allowed the ice to continue to melt at the current rate. That would lead to an unprecedented rise in sea levels, which, as the hon. Member for North Wiltshire pointed out, could drown us here in the Palace of Westminster, never mind most of London and a lot of the United Kingdom.

When the hon. Gentleman mentioned the Terra Nova expedition led by Robert Scott, I reflected that Lawrence Oates, who died many years before I became a Member of Parliament, came from Meanwood in my constituency. On 17 March 2012, the centenary of his death, I had the privilege of unveiling a memorial plaque to him in Meanwood Park. I remind hon. and right hon. Members that he was born on 17 March 1880 and died on 17 March 1912—his 32nd birthday—during that tragic expedition. Of course, the expedition lives on in our collective memories and is absolutely vital to our understanding and our discovery of the importance of Antarctica.

As has already been mentioned, it was a Russian naval officer named Fabian—Fabian Gottlieb Thaddeus von Bellingshausen, a cartographer and explorer who became an admiral, and who lived from 1778 to 1852—who first spotted the ice shelf on the Princess Martha coast on 27 January 1820. That was 200 years and a day ago, according to my information. As has already been mentioned, the Antarctic is home to 70% of the world’s fresh water. Can we afford to have the ice melt into the sea, which is, of course, not fresh water? That would have a terrible effect on our ability to supply our world—humanity and all its living creatures—with fresh water.

The Antarctic treaty has been mentioned quite a lot this afternoon. It was signed in Washington DC on 1 December 1959 and came into force on 23 June 1961. It protects an area that constitutes 10% of the earth’s surface from national interests and dedicates it to peaceful scientific purposes. It is, as we have heard this afternoon, the world’s largest marine conservation area. Among its principal purposes, the treaty has to ensure

“in the interest of all mankind that Antarctica shall continue forever to be used exclusively for peaceful purposes and shall not become the scene or object of international discord”.

Perhaps that is why I am replying for the Opposition this afternoon in my role as the shadow Minster for peace.

The treaty currently has 54 member states. Article IV states:

“No new claim, or enlargement of an existing claim, to territorial sovereignty in Antarctica shall be asserted while the present Treaty is in force.”

There have been further additions, such as the protocol on environmental protection to the Antarctic treaty, known as the Madrid protocol. Article 7 of the protocol states:

“Any activity relating to mineral resources, other than scientific research, shall be prohibited.”

The protocol also states that Antarctica is a

“natural reserve, devoted to peace and science.”

Article 7 absolutely prohibits any form of mining until a further review in 2048—I suspect well beyond my lifetime.

The Antarctic Act 1994 implements the treaty into UK law, thus allowing the British Government to grant permission for and monitor British activity in Antarctica: science programmes, expeditions, tourism or, indeed, heritage management, although I am slightly baffled as to what that could mean. In 2017 the British Antarctic Survey announced a £100 million investment programme to upgrade polar infrastructure. We have mentioned tourism this afternoon, and my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire) talked about her family currently visiting the area; the Minister has family there at the moment as well. In 2018, 50,000 tourists visited Antarctica, with an expected increase of 10% in 2019. To protect the region from excessive tourism, the signatories to the treaty agreed to prevent vessels carrying more than 500 passengers from landing on the continent and to allow no more than 100 passengers to land at any one time—a very sensible precaution.

We have also talked about global warming this afternoon. As we know, global warming opens up new challenges to Antarctica that will necessitate new and more robust laws to protect the continent. More and more countries, however, have been using the United Nations convention on the law of the sea—UNCLOS—to stake a claim to marine territory. Article 76 of that treaty provides the legal means by which coastal states can gain sovereignty over vast areas of submarine continental shelf offshore from their coasts, which is something we should be wary of.

The Antarctic, as we know, is home to the Antarctic krill, the last untouched marine living resource on the planet, and long may it remain so. It is believed that the continent contains huge amounts of hydrocarbons and minerals such as zinc, iron and uranium, along with a significant number of rare earth elements. Again, we must be vigilant in ensuring that there is never the temptation to exploit the continent of Antarctica for such minerals. Doing so would wreak further destruction not only on Antarctica, but on our whole planet.

Finally, I will mention some new technologies. Thankfully, the use of drones on Antarctica has been restricted, and their use by tourists for recreational purposes is banned. Antarctica is well suited for increasing the accuracy of global positioning satellites. Since the treaty was signed in 1959, technology has advanced massively and rapidly, and the fear among many of the signatories is that some of the technologies being used and tested on the continent could be used for military purposes elsewhere. I hope that that is not the case. Perhaps the Minister will answer that question.

I am sure that across the House we all believe in a rules-based international order. We in the Opposition will play our part, and I know the Government will play theirs, in protecting the international order and the treaty so that the wonderful continent of Antarctica will be protected for future generations and for our planet Earth.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (James Gray) for securing this important debate. I pay tribute to him for his work as chair of the all-party group on polar regions. It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I commend my hon. Friend’s impeccable timing. As we have heard, the debate comes slap bang between the anniversary of when the Russians claim to have discovered Antarctica and when we believe Edward Bransfield and the Royal Navy did—very diplomatic! My colleague the Minister for the Polar Regions, Lord Tariq Ahmad of Wimbledon, sits in the other place, so it is my pleasure to respond on behalf of the Government. I, too, thank my officials at the FCO for their diligent work for us all on this issue.

I very much agree with what my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire and others have said today. The United Kingdom is an Antarctic nation. We have a proud history of exploring, studying and protecting the continent. We remain committed to our territorial claim to the British Antarctic Territory and to the links between Antarctica and our South Atlantic overseas territories. We can leave historians to debate who actually spotted Antarctica first. The 200th anniversary is a perfect opportunity to reaffirm our commitment to the continent and to push for greater environmental protection, as has been mentioned so much today.

Science has been and remains a key part of the work. It was integral to the creation of the Antarctic treaty 60 years ago. It is explicitly named as the primary Antarctic activity, and its importance has continued to grow since the treaty was signed. It is good to hear about female scientists getting stuck in. We are indebted to numerous people involved in such important work for us.

The United Kingdom is at the forefront of efforts to study the continent. We are second only to the United States in terms of the volume and impact of our science, and the British Antarctic Survey is a world leader in its field. We want BAS to continue performing at this level. That is why we are investing £300 million in the new state-of-the-art polar research ship—the RRS Sir David Attenborough—and upgrading our research stations.

Scientists from British universities and other institutions use BAS vessels, aircraft and bases to understand global changes in weather, biodiversity and ocean currents. They contribute to UK Government objectives, including on climate change, energy security, global food security, innovation and economic growth. Thanks to the scientists, we now know that Antarctica drives the global ocean and atmosphere and is fundamental to understanding our planet. Antarctica is a unique place and a barometer of the global impacts of climate change. The challenges of operating there mean that international co-operation is essential.

I am most grateful to the Minister for her firm commitment to continuing the work she has described. On the question of climate change, should responsibility within the Government primarily be with the Foreign Office? I think it should be because, as she says, Antarctica is the responsibility of the Foreign Office. Alternatively, is it primarily a responsibility of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs—and which should it be?

There is even better news: the Prime Minister will chair the Cabinet Committee on Climate Change in the run-up to the conference of the parties in November, in Glasgow, and I do not think there can be a higher authority than that.

An example of international scientific co-operation is the Thwaites glacier research programme, a UK and US-led project studying the west Antarctic ice sheet, which is crucial to understanding the size and speed of sea level rise caused by the melting of the Antarctic. Colleagues may have seen reports about it on the BBC this morning. BAS scientists are also part of an international project to extract cores of ice up to 1.5 million years old. Those will help us to understand how carbon dioxide levels have varied in the past and, in turn, help to predict future changes. In the year when the UK is hosting the UN climate summit, COP26, in Glasgow, that sort of vital research can show the world that what happens in Antarctica matters to all of us. Changes observed by scientists in the polar regions show how crucial it is that we agree a new comprehensive deal in Glasgow to address climate change. That will be a tough test of international diplomacy, but we are ambitious and determined. Science shows us that we have no choice.

Diplomacy is also crucial to preserve Antarctica for the long term. The UK is playing its part. For example, British diplomats are working with our scientists to improve protection for the emperor penguin by having it declared a specially protected species. As the hon. Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire) mentioned, my brother and sister-in-law have been there recently and are on their way back to Santiago as I speak.

We are, as several hon. Members have mentioned, committed to creating a network of marine protected areas in the Southern ocean. Our success in the designation of MPAs across our family of British overseas territories provides valuable insight. The first Antarctic MPA, close to the South Orkney islands, was a British proposal. We are also co-proponents and vocal advocates of two further large-scale MPAs, in east Antarctica and the Weddell sea. To answer my hon. Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Dr Johnson), our Government are calling on those countries that are blocking progress on the proposed MPAs—particularly China and Russia—to engage more constructively so that together we can deliver the long-promised network of marine protection across the Southern ocean.

My hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire warned of countries seeking to challenge or undermine the Antarctic treaty, and I share his concerns. In response, again, to a question from my hon. Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham, I can refute any suggestion that the Antarctic treaty’s environmental protocol, and its ban on commercial mining in Antarctica, expire in 2048. That is fake news. The protocol does contain a 50-year review mechanism. However, the ban on commercial mining cannot be changed without consensus on an alternative approach. The UK would not support any lessening of environmental protection in Antarctica and I do not believe that many other countries would either.

I want finally to highlight the role that parliamentarians can play in preserving Antarctica for science. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire for organising the first Antarctic Parliamentarians Assembly last month, to mark the 60th anniversary of the Antarctic treaty. It was encouraging that representatives from 18 countries took part, from across the global political spectrum. They indicated full support for the principles and objectives of the treaty and sent a clear signal to Governments and policy makers around the world to remain ambitious with regard to the protection of Antarctica. I know that they will hold Governments to account for our actions.

The Government are committed to both Antarctic science and Antarctic diplomacy. The UK is a world leader on Antarctica, thanks to the expertise of our diplomats and scientists, and the valuable support from many UK-based Antarctic organisations. Two hundred years after Edward Bransfield sighted the continent, we continue to learn more about it. The United Kingdom will continue to lead the way in efforts to study and protect it for the benefit of the whole planet, and I thank all hon. Members for their contributions today. I am much obliged to them.

I am enormously encouraged and enthused by what we have heard in the Chamber today. There has been not a single dissenting voice and what has been said echoes what nations around the world equally feel—that in Antarctica we have a world gem, which needs to be preserved for all time to come. Nations from China to Russia, and from here to America, accept that that is the case, and the Antarctic treaty crystallises that view. I am hugely encouraged by the passion and enthusiasm with which the Minister has expressed her support for Antarctica, despite the fact that it is not, I think, her primary responsibility in the Foreign Office—she is better at hot places than cold places. Her Majesty’s loyal Opposition have been equally clear about the subject in all that has been said, and that is hugely important. The Scottish National party may be nearer the Arctic than the Antarctic, but none the less its support is equally welcome. I am most grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Dr Johnson) for what she has said.

Looking back, for 10 or 20 years there was no mention in Parliament of the Arctic or the Antarctic—leaving aside the good work on the Antarctic Act 2013 done by my friend Neil Carmichael, to whom I pay tribute, when he was the Member for Stroud, and a very good report produced by the House of Lords three or four years ago. I pay tribute to those who run the all-party parliamentary group on the polar regions and am glad that it has raised the profile of both polar regions in this place. I hope that the debate, and the APA, with some of the trips that we do, will take that work further. Both the Arctic and the Antarctic are of enormous significance in the world—much more than they were a few years ago—and it is right that we in Parliament should pay good attention to them. I am most grateful to all those who took part in the debate.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered Antarctica science and diplomacy.

Sitting suspended.

Local Services: London Suburbs

[Stewart Hosie in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered London suburbs and local service provision.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Hosie. This debate on services in our suburbs is in many ways an SOS, because the voice of the suburbs—the bits at the edges of our cities, rather than those at the centre, or the periphery before the shire counties kick in—has been silenced in current debates about under-investment and fair funding. Instead, considerations of heartlands and the red wall have predominated. I will pose the Minister some questions, and will chiefly address London. However, arguments about suburban neglect by successive Governments apply everywhere outside of the Westminster bubble, in Ealing, Acton and Chiswick, as well as Solihull in Birmingham or Didsbury in Manchester. Those places are all dealing with demographic and economic change, the climate emergency and the housing crisis, among many other issues.

The idea of suburbia under siege might sound contradictory, because unlike “those inner cities”, as Thatcher called them in 1987 when she won for a third time, suburbs are not seen as a problem, so they are not approached in problem-solving terms. Instead, they are left to get on with it, which for the past 10 years has meant dealing with the effects of austerity across the board and across the age scale, with pressures on both youth services and elderly adult social care. Ealing borough has had its budget slashed by 64% since 2010, meaning that it has 36p for every £1 it used to have. Given that its population is approaching 350,000, it is trying to do more and more with less and less, as can be seen from the fact that, for example, five libraries are now going to be community-run. That decision has been forced by dwindling budgets; it is not a choice. Whenever I have asked parliamentary questions about this issue, Ministers always recommend dipping into reserves, which is not a sustainable solution. Once those reserves are gone, then what?

My hon. Friend is already making a strong case, and I know that she will continue to do so. Can I raise with her, and through her with the Minister, the problem of schools in the suburbs? Many of those in my constituency face a challenge in recruiting teachers, particularly maths and science teachers, because inner-London teachers get an additional payment. It is therefore more attractive for new teachers to work in an inner-London school than one in outer London, such as in the great suburb of Harrow.

As always, my hon. Friend is totally right. We were never part of the Inner London Education Authority, as Harrow was not, and the cost of housing in north-west London boroughs is exorbitant. We need rebalancing between the London boroughs, rather than seeing this as just an issue of London versus the rest.

Suburbs were traditionally seen as havens of peaceful prosperity—safe and reassuring, away from the big, bad city—but are now riven by pockets of poverty. Organisations such as the Smith Institute have shown that, partly due to benefit changes, deprivation previously associated with inner-city poverty is reaching the outer suburbs. Two chunks of South Acton ward are among the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government’s most deprived 10%, a statistic arrived at by examining measures such as homelessness, overcrowding and morbidity. Does the Minister accept not only that deprivation exists in suburban London, but that the fair funding review needs to recognise that fact and be future-proofed, so that as suburban areas face new challenges, the funding formula keeps up with them, rather than being based on a crude population calculation?

Employment patterns and demographic trends are recasting suburbs from the parochial dormitory towns they were once seen as into symbols of globalisation. For the 20,608 EU nationals in my seat—that statistic is from an old census, so the figure is probably higher now—Friday’s departure from the European Union will be a moment of profound sadness. The most recent census data shows that Ealing is Britain’s most Polish borough and its fourth most Arab borough, and ending freedom of movement is going to be disastrous for our local businesses. In the Park Royal industrial estate, we have a conglomerate of purveyors of middle eastern food who supply olives and baklava far afield, and they have told me that it is going to be really bad for them.

The stereotypical attraction of suburbia was as an escape from the grime of satanic mills for an easy life: predictable, safe, sometimes even boring. However, a whole set of 21st-century pressures have left suburbs beset by difficulties and insecurity. Crime—itself ever-diversifying, with drug and gang networks and county lines—and fear of crime are top issues on the doorstep, as anyone who knocked on a door during last year’s election will have heard. In 2011, riots hit Ealing, and we have not been immune to stabbings and all of those things, shattering notions of suburban tranquillity.

We used to think of suburbia as a green and pleasant land, but it is also changing in its physical form. Relaxed planning restrictions threaten trees and greenery, with the developer-led “presumption to build” thrust of policy ushering in bulldozers, incentivising high-rise projects and challenging notions of suburbs as low density, which is the kind of thing people used to like about them. I was encouraged to hear in the Queen’s Speech that planning applications will eventually have to prove biodiversity net gain before approval is given—that is, they will need to demonstrate that they are leaving nature in a better state than before. Can the Minister issue guidance to ensure that, as a matter of best practice from here on in, planning committees should be considering that factor?

Plans for the last green field in Ealing Broadway to be concreted and astroturfed over have received a green light, putting protected species of bats at risk and destroying 45 mature trees. This has been hugely controversial locally, across the political divide; they were even labelled “environmental vandalism” by the hon. Member for Rother Valley (Alexander Stafford), the new Conservative MP for that seat. To date, he is still an Ealing councillor, as is the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Joy Morrissey), another Conservative who opposes these plans. The Mayor of London’s new London plan makes the right noises about protecting green spaces, but it will be put to the test when this matter and others come to his desk. I could pass details of those plans to the Minister. What particularly bothers me is that astroturf in planning terms is considered equivalent to grasslands, although studies show that it is potentially carcinogenic. It is plastic, basically; if it is ingested by species, it is very harmful. It interferes with natural drainage, soil systems and ecology, so those plans need to be looked at.

When a “no to overdevelopment” candidate stood against me two elections ago, declaring “We want to live in Acton, not Manhattan”, I agreed. In fact, he folded his candidacy for me in the end, but still got 150 votes because he was on the ballot paper. I won by 274 votes, so who knows where those 150 votes would have gone? He had a point: a whole list of future horrors is coming the way of Ealing’s planning committee, including a bunch of tall towers at West Ealing that are completely antithetical to the low-rise Edwardian skyline that people love that area for.

Connectivity is a key suburban characteristic. Not only do all roads lead to Ealing, Acton and Chiswick, through the arterial network, but we seem to have every major infrastructure project there, bringing boon as well as bane. The Old Oak super-development opportunity area will, in time, provide 24,000 dwellings and an interchange that will be second only to King’s Cross. HS2 has already compulsorily purchased the neighbouring back gardens of people who live there, who feel that that company acts with no humanity at all. They will basically be living in a building site 24/7 for at least the next decade, and with the ever-increasing price tag of that project, many people are wondering whether it is worth it and whether they will live to see its benefits. The same is true for Crossrail, as well as Heathrow expansion—which, if we are sticking to our climate change targets and accepting that we are in a climate emergency, seems completely nuts, given that Heathrow is the biggest emitter of carbon dioxide in Europe.

Another thing that I have been told when I have asked is that, “You will get a new upgraded Piccadilly line,” which does not seem to be a good deal. I take that line every morning and it cannot cope. It is already an airport transfer route as well as a commuter line. The trains date from the 1970s. It is a far cry from those old adverts about metroland, which told people to leave the drudgery behind and move to Hounslow or wherever, and showed utopian neighbourhoods a comfortable commute from the city.

Shrivelling school and hospital budgets, as my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow West (Gareth Thomas) mentioned, hollowed-out high streets and unaffordable housing with unlet retail units below have turned suburbs into ghost towns. Will the Government’s plans for business rate retention allow councils to intervene to assist suburban high streets?

We may be moving towards the French model of the banlieue, with diverse communities on the outskirts and the rich in the inner cities, as seen in the film “La Haine”. Prohibitive pricing puts any kind of London property out of reach of ordinary pockets to rent, let alone get a toehold on the property ladder. Urgent house building for all tenures and more council housing are needed to reverse the damaging effects of right to buy, which never replenished the secure tenancy stock that was lost. Does the Minister agree that it is scandalous that the national housing benefit bill is £22 billion, dwarfing the £6 billion spent on building homes?

In place of urban stability, transitory communities and churn are features of the suburban landscape, as seen in phenomena such as beds in sheds. Ealing is a borough where families are both dumped by councils from further in London and exported to further out, sometimes within the same borough because it is geographically so big.

My hon. Friend speaks powerfully about the transitory nature of the communities and the urbanisation of some of our suburbs, on which she worked as an academic before becoming an MP. A good case in point is the London borough of Havering, which has seen extraordinary transformations in the last few years, often unbeknown to the council, which has been slow to adapt.

Those transformations have huge implications for the opportunities of young people in Havering. The rate of referrals to children’s services has increased by 115% since 2014, which is eight times the outer London average. Since 2013, there has been a 170% increase in serious youth violence incidents, which is the highest rate of increase in London. Those are examples of the dilemmas that outer London boroughs are facing.

My hon. Friend makes a good point. There are many outer Londons, with different types of housing, and different 21st-century pressures that affect all London suburbs, east and west. Dagenham and Ealing are probably mirror images of each other, although we in Ealing like to think that we are further in.

Ealing was once known for being leafy—and for its comedy—but it now ranks as the 10th-worst borough in the country on the barriers to housing index of multiple deprivation. It ranks particularly badly on housing affordability as a quality of life indicator. That has an impact on educational attainment, employment and public health. Some 18 of the top 20 worst boroughs are in London, with 12 of those in outer London.

We must recognise that the binary divide between inner and outer London is inadequate for boroughs such as Ealing and those of my hon. Friends the Members for Harrow West and for Dagenham and Rainham (Jon Cruddas), who have mentioned that their boroughs have characteristics of both. If the current boundary had not been not arbitrarily drawn by political bureaucrats, somewhere such as Acton could, socially and geographically, easily fall into most definitions of inner London—it has two tube stations in zone 2. Meanwhile, Southall, which is some miles west, is indisputably and cartographically in outer London. They have similar deprivation problems, however, which lead to higher costs for the local authority.

Some 65% of adults speak English at home in Ealing borough compared with the London average of 77%. Diversity is a strength, but it comes at a cost that is not recognised in the formula. There are disparities not only between boroughs but within them. Child deprivation in the Chiswick part of my seat is at 13%, but in the East Acton ward, which borders it, it is above average, at 23%.

The Outer London Commission, which was established by the previous mayoralty, made a start on some of those issues. It has since folded—a symptom of political cycles and the need to do away with the old when the new lot come in—but it could surely be revived in some form. Voter volatility is alive and well in the suburbs. My constituency, and those of Putney, Enfield, Southgate, Manchester, Withington and Sheffield, Hallam, have all gone Labour-wards since 2015, so the old pattern of white flight and suburban nuclear families between twitching net curtains is being turned on its head by the new patterns that I have referred to.

There are people of all faiths and none. Census data shows that adherence to the Christian faith is declining, but it often feels as though Christian charities are filling the gaps where the state has failed, with food banks, Ealing Churches Winter Night Shelter and the Ealing Soup Kitchen to name but three. None of those were ever in “The Good Life” or “Terry and June”—the stereotypical suburban popular cultural images from which we get our idea of what a suburb is—but perhaps we should update our examples. The Who came from Ealing and Acton, as did Naughty Boy and Jamal Edwards.

Suburbs were established in optimism as the ideal between city and country, a slice of rural idyll in easy reach of the city centre, but they appear a bit worse for wear. The Campaign to Protect Rural England has a set of recommendations, and I believe that the late Roger Scruton’s report on beauty and planning is also about to be published. New challenges include encouraging car-free sustainable lifestyles despite a double garage often being a status symbol of suburbia.

Suburbia is not what is used to be. Nostalgia Avenue is all well and good, but to right those wrongs, I call on the Government to create a cross-departmental suburban taskforce, as Heseltine did in an earlier age with those inner cities, but in a non-pejorative way—the word “suburban” often has narrow-minded undertones. The taskforce, housed in the Minister’s Department, should symbolise joined-up thinking between transport, planning, welfare, public services, the public purse and developers, because it is only when they work together that we can begin to answer the question: what do we do with a problem like suburbia?

I will be brief. I thank the Minister for allowing me to speak. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing Central and Acton (Dr Huq) on securing the debate. I will highlight a couple of areas that have already been mentioned. I support the need for a taskforce to join up some of the areas that are looked at differently by different Departments but which, when joined together in someone’s life, make a big difference or are detrimental.

I will focus on a particular area in my constituency, Roehampton, which sums up many of the problems experienced by suburbia in other cities. It used to be a place with lots of villas, but it now has the second-biggest council housing estate in the country. The main issue, which comes up all the time, is transport links. There is one station, Barnes, but the buses are so infrequent that many residents have written to me, even since my election in December, about the one-mile walk that they have to do in the rain because there is no bus. We do not have tubes; we would love to have a tram.

The lack of transport links affects employment opportunities and reduces the chance of social mobility for those residents. People say that they feel like a forgotten village—not at the edge of suburbia, but a village beyond London—when it comes to transport links.

The lack of transport also affects health services. There is no A&E in our Queen Mary’s Hospital, so people have to travel. The substance misuse service in Roehampton was withdrawn in September 2018 and has not been replaced. There is a knock-on effect for mental health services. People have to travel quite a long way—it is a two and a half hour round trip to Springfield Hospital. Mental health services, and access to them, are limited. Youth services have also been cut. The Roehampton youth club was closed last summer. Regeneration in Roehampton is not going to replace the youth services and will not address those needs. Crime is increasing as well. Drug dealing is regularly seen in local areas and is not being addressed.

The final area I want to touch on is pre-school services. We have Eastwood Nursery, but state nurseries are also under threat of cuts. The wonderful Newpin service works with local pre-school children, but the whole area has experienced cuts. There are no more Sure Start centres in the area. There is a playground in the middle of the estate. Everyone can look at it, but it is closed and locked all the time, which is very hard for local families. It should be an area of greenery and, as my hon. Friend has said, an area where people go out of London to get to, but it faces all the same problems as inner London. I would like the Minister to address how we can have a joined-up response to the need for public services in suburbia. I like the idea of a taskforce.

I think this is the first time I have served under your chairmanship in this Parliament, Mr Hosie. I congratulate the hon. Member for Ealing Central and Acton (Dr Huq) on securing an important and very enjoyable debate. I welcome her comments about her constituency, which painted a picture of the suburban lifestyle in its most modern of settings. It is quite right that we take this opportunity to discuss some of the challenges that people living in suburbia face in London and elsewhere.

To pick up on the hon. Lady’s comments about voter volatility, she pointed to some high-profile wins for her party at the general election. If she and her colleagues ventured north and joined me in the northern powerhouse, she would note that Heywood and Middleton, Bolton, Bury North and Bury South are similar in many ways to the areas that she highlighted, but their voter volatility was in the opposite direction. I think what that shows is that there is dissatisfaction with the status quo in many areas, and sometimes people who have concerns about their area are rebelling against the status quo, not in one particular direction or the other.

I will start by addressing the questions the hon. Lady asked, as I would like to cover those before I come on to set out the departmental agenda. I am sure no one will weep if I do not get the opportunity to read the voluminous notes handed to me by my civil servants—I can show them to hon. Members at the end if they want.

The first question raised by the hon. Lady was in relation to deprivation, its spread across cities and the challenge of deprivation in inner and outer areas of cities. I have been concerned about this issue for some time, and it is absolutely right that we give it an airing in this House. I do not think that any Government over the past three decades have properly grasped the challenges. There are often significant pockets of deprivation in suburban areas, smaller towns and rural areas, which are not as easily mappable, or for which the Government have failed to have a real plan. It has therefore fallen to local authorities—which have in-depth knowledge of the communities that they have the privilege of representing, as do hon. Members in this House—to tackle those challenges. The hon. Lady is quite right to say that funding for local authorities has to be done in a dynamic way that can recognise pockets of deprivation, no matter how small or large, whether in major city centres, suburban areas or areas further outside the city.

The fairer funding formula that we are currently looking at includes deprivation as one factor, but I agree with the hon. Lady—we are certainly listening—about the challenge in addressing how funding can be dynamic and change rapidly as circumstances change. It is unacceptable that those pockets of deprivation have for decades been allowed to grow without being properly challenged or without any Government of any political hue suggesting a proper solution. We should certainly seek to tackle that in the fairer funding formula.

I recognise the Minister’s approach in saying that for many years pockets of deprivation have established themselves in places such as my constituency and others, and they must be addressed. Will he also acknowledge, however, that changes in recent years to the benefits system, particularly to caps on local housing allowance and other benefits that people on low incomes receive to rent privately in London, have caused a rapid shift of population from inner to outer London, and that that needs to be given particular attention?

We absolutely do continue to give that attention. It is a real London issue but certainly not a London-only issue—it is a metropolitan issue—but I am afraid to say that when I entered Parliament in 2010, the benefits system had lost public trust. The benefits system has to be fair for those people who, quite rightly, rely on it—any of us at any point in our lives could fall through the gaps and need a safety net to catch us, and I am proud to live in a country where that safety net exists—but it also has to be fair for taxpayers, who get up in the morning, go to work and pay their taxes to fund the benefits system. My personal opinion is that, in 2010, what brought forward the benefits cap was the lack of fairness in the system. We could probably have a separate debate about that. We would certainly need more than a brief half-hour debate to get to the bottom of it.

The link between planning permissions and biodiversity is a hugely important issue. I commend the hon. Member for Ealing Central and Acton for picking up on that issue from the Queen’s Speech. Tackling the climate emergency is probably the greatest challenge that any of us will face in our time in Parliament. The hon. Lady will of course be aware that the national planning policy framework currently has biodiversity net gain as one of its planning principles. Should the Government go further? Yes, and we will, and that is why we brought forward the additional protections that we talked about, including protecting nature by mandating biodiversity net gain into the planning system; ensuring that houses are not built at the expense of nature; and delivering viable natural spaces for communities. We will make sure that we improve and protect habitats and that areas have a local nature recovery strategy. We want to give local communities a greater say through the planning system and our planning White Paper, not least so they can have a greater say on protecting local trees, which, as hon. Members know, is often an issue that exercises our constituents, and quite rightly so.

The hon. Lady also raised concerns about density and high-rise development. Of course, all local planning decisions are a matter for the local council, in many ways in concert with the Mayor of London. If we look across the country, however, we see that such communities are a great way of tackling the housing shortage across the UK, and that they often lead to better communities with a greater concentration of services in one place. Often, people prefer to live in a more dense, as opposed to sparse, community, although many people may decide to move to the suburbs for the exact opposite reason. That is why planning is driven locally.

In terms of business rates and protection for suburban high streets, business rate localisation is again about giving those who are on local councils power to drive the ambition that they will know better than any Government Minister—maybe not better than the local Member of Parliament, but certainly better than any Government Minister. However, there is a wider agenda about protecting high streets and ensuring that they thrive, which we are addressing through the future high streets fund. In the prospectus, we acknowledged that suburban high streets could bid for that fund. They are a very important community asset and the Government should rightly ensure that they are protected.

The hon. Member for Putney (Fleur Anderson) spoke about youth funding and youth clubs. If she has read our manifesto, she will have seen that it made a significant financial commitment to a youth fund, which will come forward with many millions of pounds to ensure that we can increase youth provision in our communities. The Blackburn Youth Zone is on the border of my constituency and I know the huge contribution it makes to people’s lives. We must build on that.

Hon. Members also raised the issue of crime. It is correct that we seek to protect all communities, and we will do that by increasing the number of police officers on the street.

On the cross-London suburban taskforce—

May I just correct the Minister? My proposal was for a cross-departmental taskforce that would cover all suburbs, not just London ones.

Right. On the cross-departmental suburban taskforce, I think the idea has merit. The hon. Lady said that one of her famous constituents is called Naughty Boy—I don’t think she was referring to me. On the basis that the Government are not currently proposing such a taskforce, why does the hon. Lady not be a bit naughty and set it up herself? Once it is up and running with some recommendations, I will happily meet her and other members of the taskforce to discuss how we can drive that agenda across Government.

Question put and agreed to.

Industrial and Commercial Waste Incineration

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the incineration of industrial and commercial waste.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie, and to see many Members from different parties, and indeed from across the UK, at this important debate. I know that the issue that we are debating is of great concern to Members across the House, and I hope we will hear some of their points during the course of the next hour.

Looking out towards the east of Cardiff today, one can see the waters of the Severn estuary stretching into the distance and, not far from our brand-new Eastern High School, a large wind turbine—visible evidence of the green transition that we all want to see to renewable energy and renewable sources for the future. Now, imagine planted right next to that a huge industrial burner, complete with a chimney of pretty much the same size as the wind turbine pumping out yet more carbon emissions, and a trail of heavy goods vehicles delivering waste while providing their own blast to local air quality with diesel fumes, PM10s, particulates and so on. What a contrast and, fundamentally, what a contradiction. Worse still, it comes as part of a chain of proposed incinerators running from Swansea to Barry, to Splott in my constituency—where we already have an incinerator that I opposed—right through to Monmouthshire and across the water to Avonmouth, and in many other clusters across the UK.

I want to set out my total opposition to the proposals for the so-called energy recovery facility—it is, in fact, a huge industrial-scale burner—for the Rumney and St Mellons area in the east of Cardiff. The proponent, Môr Hafren Bio Power—businesses always choose these greenwashed names to cover up what they are up to—is essentially an arm of CoGen, a well-known company that is involved in these activities and based in Stoke-on-Trent. Interestingly, the main director, Ian Charles Brooking, has a series of other commercial interests, from rubber crumb companies to food products, as well as multiple variations of the Bio Power brand that are planning lots of speculative burner applications across the UK. An allegation has been made to me that CoGen and other companies will probably end up burning their own industrial and commercial waste—how convenient. I have been pleased to join thousands of local residents across the area in making our opposition known over the past six months, and we have been supported by colleagues on our local council and from across the parties.

There are many reasons why this facility is completely inappropriate, and I shall touch on them before I go into the wider issues. The first is about emissions and traffic. Much is made of the treatment of emissions through burner chimneys, but, given the climate crisis we face, the carbon emissions from such facilities make a crucial difference. I have already mentioned the emissions from traffic, and we are talking about potentially hundreds of vehicles going to and from the facility to deliver waste.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. I represent a neighbouring constituency. According to a recent Birmingham University study, air quality in Cardiff is the fourth worst in the UK. It is even worse than in London. Does he agree that allowing the incinerator to be built not only risks moving our city further up the league of shame, but undermines the hard work that has gone into Cardiff Council’s wide-ranging transport and clean air green paper, which is currently out for public consultation?

My hon. Friend and neighbour makes a crucial point. The proposed facility would represent a contradiction to the excellent and forward-thinking paper on air quality in Cardiff that the council put so much work into, and to which I hope residents will contribute. The facility would sit in opposition to that direction of travel.

There are many other issues, including the financial viability of this prospect; whether waste can be burned there commercially or whether things will be shipped in, which I will return to; the proximity to schools and residential locations, including a Travellers’ site; the traffic and the HGV movements, because despite being next to the south Wales main line, they will not be using rail; the visual impact of the clustering of existing incinerators in the area; the failures in the consultation process; and even a GDPR breach that the company has been involved in.

The hon. Member is making a very good point. Does he agree that when we talk about building incinerators, we are talking not just about the incinerators themselves, but about their effect on traffic and all their other potential unintended consequences, which make them so unwieldy and inappropriate for places such as Cardiff?

I am reluctant to make this point to my hon. Friend, because I am a good friend of his. Is he aware that many of us who have specialised in this area over the years think that energy from waste is absolutely part of the answer to climate change, when it comes to the waste that towns and cities create and do not want to take responsibility for? Is he aware that modern energy from waste can be excellent in scooping up that stuff, bringing us energy and stopping us exporting waste all over the developing world?

My hon. Friend and I take slightly different approaches to this issue. In the waste hierarchy pyramid, which will be familiar to many people, incineration of waste is only just above landfill; indeed, there is some controversy about that. The key thing is that we need to reduce the waste that we create in the first place, so that we do not have to burn it, put it into landfill or export it, as he suggests.

I will make a bit of progress, then I will happily take some more interventions.

Ultimately, the decision on this particular project is a devolved matter, and I hope that Welsh Ministers, the Planning Inspectorate for Wales and Natural Resources Wales will listen to the growing cross-community and cross-party opposition to the proposal. However, the implications of a wider policy on the incineration of waste and, most critically, on whether we continue on the path of wasteful waste production and the climate-changing linear economy or revolutionise the way we live our lives, are a matter for the whole of the UK and globally. I hope Wales will uphold its own responsibilities to future generations, but this is part of a wider context. I do not want Wales to become a dumping ground for waste from other parts of the UK or further afield. I am sorry to say that sometimes it feels, particularly in my area, as though that is an issue. We saw what happened with the mud from the Hinkley nuclear sites, and we have seen other incinerators being built in the area. When we look at the history of Wales, we can think back to the dark days of Tryweryn, for example. We do not want that sort of relationship between Wales and the rest of the UK.

I will not give way to my hon. Friend, because I have done so already. I will give way to others shortly.

I thank all my constituents who have raised concerns, and I thank the various campaigning organisations who have provided evidence for the debate.

My main concern is that we do not know about the end destination of our household waste. Stuff gets incinerated or recycled, but it may actually go further afield or get dumped at sea. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that an onus or a legal obligation on councils to disclose the end destination of household waste would be a way forward?

I absolutely agree with the hon. Lady’s point. Indeed, a lack of data on that is an issue I will come on to very shortly.

It is clear that this is a topic we need to talk more about, given the climate emergency that we face. In 2016, the commercial industrial sectors produced 41.1 million tonnes of waste, which is some 18% of all waste produced in the UK, but there is no clear published breakdown of how waste from those sectors is treated. The average UK incinerator produces approximately 230,000 tonnes of CO2 per year. To provide a comparison, 200,000 tonnes of CO2 is equivalent to 6.1 million cars driving from Cardiff to London per year. That is quite an extraordinary comparison. In Wales alone, there are already 10 sites for proposed incinerators, nine of which are in south Wales, where two are already located.

I support much of what the hon. Member has said, and I have sympathy for the communities living near incinerators. Barry in my constituency has been battling this issue; it was one of the first things I challenged nine years ago on being first elected to represent the Vale of Glamorgan constituency. Does he recognise that the Welsh Government took a conscious decision, back when my hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth (David T. C. Davies) and I were Assembly Members, to prioritise incineration as a means of dealing with waste, and that has led to the string of incinerators along the estuary that he talks about?

The right hon. Gentleman makes his point. He will know that one of the strongest opponents of the Barry incinerator is the Assembly Member for the Vale of Glamorgan, Jane Hutt, who sits in the Welsh Government. She was with me at the protests outside the Senedd, making her views clear alongside many of my other friends. It is good that concern is being raised across the political spectrum. In fact, the Chair of the Climate Change, Environment and Rural Affairs Committee in the Senedd, Mike Hedges, has made it clear that he thinks there should be a moratorium on incineration.

I am going to make some progress, because I am conscious of time. Lots of people want to make speeches—[Interruption.] I will let my hon. Friend intervene before the end of my speech, but I want to make some progress.

The lack of data is crucial. I have been asking a series of parliamentary questions over the past few months about this issue, and there appears to be a lack of data and no strategic approach for locating incineration facilities, in relation to travel times, emissions from travel and so on. For example, there is apparently no clear information available on how much waste travels between England, Wales and Scotland, on how much waste we are exporting and importing, or on the emissions caused by transporting waste by road to incineration locations, including the differences between, for example, transferring things by rail and other means. If we do not take that holistic picture of carbon and other emissions into account, how can we make strategic decisions?

The proposed incinerator in my constituency would lead to as much as 200,000 tonnes of commercial waste being burned each year, and it would operate 24 hours a day in a predominantly residential area. Where would the waste come from? How far would it travel? What is the impact of clustering incineration facilities? I hope the Minister will be able to explain why that information is not recorded at a UK level and made available so that decisions can be taken, whether by the UK Government or by devolved Administrations and councils.

I am also concerned—I hope the Minister can answer some questions on this—about why the UK Government have been promoting, in their UK Trade and Investment “GREAT Britain” strategy, overseas investment into CoGen and the facility in my constituency. In a glossy brochure on the energy investment portfolio, the former Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for North Somerset (Dr Fox), asked for investment in the proposed incinerator in my constituency. Again, that seems to be at odds with what the UK Government are saying overall about carbon emissions. We are hosting the Conference of Parties this year. Given their position, why is that going on? Why are they actively promoting this facility, which has not even received planning permission yet?

My hon. Friend knows that I was a councillor in Wales many years ago, so I know a bit about Wales. I have to ask him the acid test question: what is the answer to all the waste that is generated in south Wales? Most of the local authorities have low performance in recycling; the national average is certainly not good. Will the waste be exported to my constituency, or to Indonesia or some other country? What will he do to take responsibility for that waste, which he has a moral duty to deal with in some modern way?

Actually, Wales has extremely strong targets and good performance on recycling. This is industrial and commercial waste, and it is not clear that all of it will be coming from Welsh sources. That is an issue that I have been raising. It looks like it will be shipped in from elsewhere. Unless we can be clear about where that waste is travelling from, how can we take strategic decisions about how it should be dealt with? I certainly feel that three incinerators located within five miles of each other in my area of Cardiff and the Vale of Glamorgan seems like overkill. Why are they not being shared out fairly across the country?

I thank my hon. Friend and constituency neighbour for securing this debate. He is making some powerful points, especially about Wales leading England in recycling. Does he agree that it is crucial that the views of the local people who will be affected by the incinerator are taken into account? After all, it is their lives, communities and homes that will be affected, and we must take account of that.

I absolutely agree. I thank my hon. Friend for her support of the campaigners. The issue obviously affects her constituency, in locations such as Marshfield, Peterstone and elsewhere. I am glad that she will be supporting the campaign and meeting the campaigners and others.

I want to touch on a few more issues before concluding, but I am conscious that others want to speak, and of course we want to hear from the Minister. One of the big arguments that is often made for these plants is, “Well, they’re going to generate combined heat and power and they are going to give all this energy back to the grid.” However, the reality is that, although there are 40 energy-from-waste plants in England, only eight currently operate in combined heat and power mode. In fact, the official CHP list includes the Viridor plant in Splott in my constituency, but, although the plant might be enabled for combined heat and power, it is not currently providing that. Viridor told me that the plant cannot export as much energy to the national grid as it is capable of doing, because of infrastructure issues relating to the feeders—I do not understand the technology behind it—and the technology that would allow it to export to the grid. It is not even being used in that way.

I hate the sort of “jam tomorrow” promises that developers often make—they say, “This facility will contribute to district heating and cheaper bills and provide energy into the grid,” when the ability to do so is not there, and the benefits may not be realised for many years. Such contracts often lock in councils and Administrations for 20 to 25 years. I hope that in 20 to 25 years, we will have made a dramatic transition to a more circular economy and will not be producing the type of waste that needs to be burned or sent to landfill, and yet we are locking ourselves into a model for dealing with waste that is not the worst, but is one of the worst.

Incinerators such as the one planned in my constituency emit more carbon dioxide per megawatt-hour than any other fossil fuel source, including coal. As well as the emissions from the traffic coming to and from the site, and potentially other emissions coming out of it—there is a lot of controversy about that—there is also the issue of what happens to the ash. Incineration is not a complete replacement for landfill, because the ash has to go to landfill, potentially in a soluble form. There is much concern about the risk to water courses, lakes and water supplies. Incineration is not some sort of magic panacea that solves all our waste problems. As I said, we need to address the production of waste in the first place. The idea that incinerators such as this are some sort of magic solution is very far from the truth.

What are the alternative ways forward? As I said, I think we need to be looking much more at creating a circular economy and reducing waste in the first place. We need to understand that there is a difference here: we have a landfill tax, but we do not have one on incineration. Where are the incentives to recycle more and produce less waste in the first place? I am aware that the Treasury considered that in 2018 and said that it would be willing to consider an incinerator tax once more infrastructure had been put in place. Will the Minister update us on where the Government are on their thinking on that, particularly given the example that we will need to set this year as we approach the crucial COP conference? What are the Government doing to reduce the amount of waste that needs to be incinerated or go to landfill?

There is a whole bunch of challenging issues here. There is a very clear case against the proposal for my constituency, but it sits within the wider issue of the responsibility for waste and how we deal with it. Obviously, there is a lot that we can do on an individual, personal level. I urge those at the top of businesses that are sending vast amounts of commercial and industrial waste to incinerators to reconsider their business practices.

There is also the uncertainty around Brexit. Some of our waste usually travels via Europe, so perhaps the Minister can update us on how the import and export of waste will be managed after 31 January. I know that one of the cases being made for the incinerator in my patch is that it is thought that trade with the Netherlands is somehow part of the solution. How will that be affected, and will it add further uncertainty?

The negative impact of incinerators cannot be ignored. Burning waste into our atmosphere is simply not the solution to coping with waste. Skyfill does not replace landfill. My message to CoGen and Môr Hafren Bio Power is this: we do not want you in south Cardiff. I hope that the Welsh Government and others will listen to the many people from across the spectrum who oppose the project.

Order. Before I call the next speaker, there are six people on their feet and 25 minutes before I call the Front Benchers to sum up, so they have five or six minutes each.

It is a pleasure, as ever, to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie. I congratulate the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty). He and I have not historically agreed on much, but we certainly agree on this. I will not pretend that I am bringing expert views to the debate, but my impassioned plea to the Minister is this: please can we get our policy on industrial-scale incineration right?

I thank my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, who met me last week to discuss this issue. I appreciate the constructive manner in which she engaged with it. We have an ambitious plan to reach net zero by 2050, and everyone in the Chamber—I hope—is committed to clean energy generation and waste reduction.

Just last week, in the room next door, we had a giant Womble carrying a placard and insisting that we recycle, reuse, rethink, and that is absolutely the direction of travel in which we must move. All over the country, however, from Cardiff South to Romsey and Southampton North, there are proposals for yet more incinerators that are, in many cases, dressed up as energy producing waste plants. As we heard from the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth, in many instances that energy cannot be put into the national grid. The connections are remote and, in some cases, the energy is like a Trojan horse—it is presented as clean, green way to heat the local town, but is actually far from being that.

We have to account for the true cost of those facilities, the impact on air quality, the emissions from heavy diesel vehicles driven many hundreds of miles to bring waste from far afield, and the current policy, which allows CO2 from biogenic sources to be ignored in the context of climate change. At best, only 50% of the energy generated from the facilities can be considered renewable, and we should be extremely concerned about the other half. That 50% of energy comes from burning fossil carbon—plastics—and emits as much pollution and CO2 as coal-fired energy. Would we really consider building new coal-fired power stations?

Of course, there is a baseline: to keep running, the giant incinerators have to have enough fuel source. While industry urges us to believe that there is more than enough industrial and commercial waste to exceed the demand generated by the monster incinerators, we are seeing a sea change in public opinion. People—especially young people—are coming to understand that we cannot continue to consume and dispose at the same rate as we have been.

Even the big supermarkets are coming on board. Last week, Tesco—and this week, Sainsbury’s—announced a reduction in packaging, particularly plastic packaging. Corporates are not paying lip service to their need to minimise waste. They are actually getting involved and ensuring that they do it. Businesses small and large across my constituency recognise that this is not just good for the environment, but good for their costs.

I am conscious that we have only a little time, but I will turn to the reason for my attendance. In my constituency, the American conglomerate Wheelabrator plans a giant energy-from-waste facility. It will be twice the size of Winchester cathedral, but with none of that glorious building’s architectural merit, and with chimneys that would reach 80 metres high. The facility would be built between the beautiful Test Valley villages of Barton Stacey and Longparish.

One of Wheelabrator’s arguments in favour of the facility is that by using Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs methodology for calculating carbon impact, the applicant can claim that the project will be a net gain on CO2 equivalents, compared with landfilling the same waste. However, DEFRA, among others, recognises that the results from that model are sensitive to the type of waste incinerated. In other words, a small change in the ratio of biogenic and non-biogenic carbon sources can reverse the impact from a net positive to a net negative. The analysis carried out on commercial and industrial waste to justify those results dates back to 2003. That is incredibly out of date, but is the only source from the UK that can be relied on.

So much has changed, and continues to change, since 2003. Far greater efforts than ever are being made ensure that we remove green waste and food waste from the waste streams and, although there is still a long way to go, we are getting better at removing recyclates, and we will continue to improve.

Aside from the specifics of the massive plant that is planned at Harewood, we need to pause and rethink our strategy on incineration. Time does not allow me to examine in detail the issue of air quality and the balance—I use that term loosely—that the applicant must strike between the visual impact of tall chimneys and the need to make them high enough to disperse the emissions over a less concentrated area. In Test Valley, we are blessed with exceptionally good air quality, which means that the chimneys might not need to be as high. That of course means that more pollutants can be released without breaching Environment Agency limits. What sort of horrific equation is that? Applicants are able to get away with emitting more because the air quality is currently good. Surely our aim should be to work with the Environment Agency to reduce those limits and seek an overall improvement, not the lowest common denominator.

We need to improve regulations to make them tighter, rather than having applicants rely on the emissions set out within existing regulations, which I raised in the Queen’s Speech debate a couple of weeks ago. Although I recognise the specific needs of local authorities, this debate is about commercial and industrial waste, not municipal waste, so we have to consider commercial operations and whether it is fair, as the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth has said, to have a landfill tax and not an incineration tax. Incineration is simply not an environmentally sustainable way to tackle waste management. It may be better than landfill in the waste hierarchy—only just—but to allow incineration to proliferate simply does not address the climate emergency that we all agree exists.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty), both for securing this important debate and for his excellent speech to set the scene.

In 2017, a planning application for a gasification plant to be built in Hillthorn Park in Washington was submitted to Sunderland City Council. Since then, approximately 10,800 people have signed petitions opposing the plant—I presented one of them to the House last week.

Many of my constituents have contacted me about the planning application, and it came up a lot on the doorstep during the general election, so I am left in no doubt about how my constituents feel. Never in my 15 years as an MP have I seen an issue galvanise my constituents in such a way. They are totally against it. I share their concerns and join them in opposing the application. Although the planning application was submitted almost three years ago, we still do not know what type of gasification technology will be used if it is approved.

I am told that some of the options have never been used in the UK or in Europe. The technology has, however, been used in Japan, which has very different safety measures from the UK. Does the Minister think it right or fair for our constituents to be used as guinea pigs to test a new technology? Would she be happy if this took place in her constituency? I am sure that her constituents would not. My constituents are concerned about the short-term and long-term health and safety of those living around the plant.

The proposed site is as close as 100 metres to homes, and there are nine schools within a one-mile radius. Those communities will bear the brunt of increased traffic and the associated pollution, and they will be most at risk should anything go wrong with the plant, bearing in mind that the technology is totally untested in this country. The plant would not even be a great future employer—only 35 full-time equivalent jobs would be created. Basically, I can see no positives at all in the building of the gasification plant in my constituency—only many negatives.

The planning application is in direct contradiction to the Government’s own policies on climate change and waste processing, and the proposed plant could be expected to release millions of tonnes of CO2—my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth mentioned that risk—within its anticipated lifetime. Undoubtedly, that will have a negative impact on our environment and on climate change. What assessment have the Government made of the impact that waste incineration could have on climate change?

I am happy to report that the planning application for this gasification plant was rejected in July last year by the local planning and highways committee. However, the application is up for appeal by the applicant, Rolton Kilbride, and the appeal will start on 18 February. I am sure that Members present will have no doubt that, based on my concerns—some of which I have raised today and many others I have not had time to mention—I plan to make strong representations to the planning inspectorate and to ask it to reject the application.

I have already written to the planning inspectorate and the national planning casework unit to request that, in the event that the application is approved, the Secretary of State recovers the appeal. If that request is approved, it will then give the Secretary of State the final say on the application, which I will lobby her strongly to reject. For now, it is a waiting game for me and my constituents, but I remain absolutely committed in my opposition to the plant. The health and the lives of my constituents should not be gambled with.

I will continue to work ceaselessly with constituents, campaigners and local councillors of every party—they all oppose the plans—to oppose the building of this plant. It must not be allowed to happen, and the united voices of all local people must be heard and heeded.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) on securing this debate.

The contributions we have heard so far were made by Members who face the threat of an incinerator being built in their constituencies. I am in the unfortunate position of representing a constituency that lives in a shadow of the massive Beddington incinerator. I hope to give a perspective of what it is like once such things have been built.

The incinerator was championed, in an extraordinary show of arrogance, by an out-of-touch Lib Dem council, which has shown a total lack of ambition in tackling air quality in Sutton. Thanks to its complete incompetence, the incinerator is now an eyesore on the landscape that we can see from every single corner of the constituency. In 2018 alone, bearing in mind that it was not fully operational at the time, it pumped more than 21.5 million kg of CO2 into the local atmosphere.

I am a local councillor and my group and those of other parties—but not the Lib Dems, unfortunately—campaigned to put additional air quality monitoring next to the site. That would have given local residents the assurance that if emissions were breached, they would have full access to the data—I thank the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth for the good point he made about data—so that swift action could be taken in reporting the issue to the Environment Agency. At least that would give people some peace of mind that the air they breathe is safe. Time and again, however, shamelessly, the Lib Dem council has continued to oppose that proposal and to spout the benefits of a so-called “energy recovery facility”.

I stress the fact that it is not just the incinerators that are significant; there are other consequences to having one in the area. As we have heard, they have a potential impact on recycling rates. As the UK Without Incineration Network has rightly pointed out, for an incinerator to be anywhere near commercially viable, waste often needs to be imported and sometimes even non-recyclables are burned. They also have an impact on traffic and air quality. The route to Beddington incinerator on my patch of Carshalton and Wallington is already congested. Rubbish from four south London boroughs is taken along Beddington Lane, which leads to the incinerator. They all take their waste to that incinerator, all against the backdrop of seemingly endless roadworks that never seem to be completed but are meant to help Beddington Lane cope with the capacity.

The final impact is on energy bills. The Beddington incinerator is one of a few with an operational decentralised energy network, which in Sutton we call the SDEN—the Sutton Decentralised Energy Network. It is a way to justify having an incinerator in the constituency, because it creates energy to heat local homes. The development of New Mill Quarter in Hackbridge, in my constituency, is connected directly to the incinerator via a series of pumps and so is being heated by the Beddington incinerator.

That SDEN, however, has trapped New Mill Quarter residents in an energy scheme that they cannot get out of. They are not allowed to go on the open market to change their energy provider and, I am told, the cost of their energy bills is at least three times higher than the highest market average currently available. That is completely outrageous. Thankfully we now have a price cap under energy legislation, but we are pushing it to the limit for our New Mill Quarter residents, many of whom were not told about the energy scheme when they were being sold their house.

Now that we are unfortunately stuck with the Beddington incinerator, I hope the Minister will agree that the council should heed our calls to put additional air quality monitoring on Beddington Lane and not let Viridor hold itself to account. The council should also get on with delivering its promises of proposed farmlands in the area, which are supposed to offset some of the damages. It should also improve Beddington Lane and allow New Mill Quarter residents to go on the open market to change their energy provider, if that is what they want to do. We need to be so much more ambitious in tackling air pollution.

Does my hon. Friend agree that there must be detailed scrutiny of the impact that incineration has on the surrounding environment as a result of the harmful pollutants and emissions released into the atmosphere, and of the impact of exhaust fumes from the increased traffic bringing waste to the site? An incinerator has been proposed for my constituency, in Marley. The site is located right next to playing fields, community assets and residential property, and in the bowl of a valley. If the proposal is not able to contribute any positives for health and wellbeing, does my hon. Friend agree that it should be disregarded altogether?

I will be brief in my response. I totally agree with my hon. Friend—I could not agree more. We need to be a lot more ambitious about tackling air pollution. All I can say to the local authorities of other hon. Members fighting incinerators is that I hope that they will succeed where Lib Dem Sutton has unfortunately failed.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie.

Like me, my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) has a proposed site for a new incinerator in south Wales in his constituency. I therefore thank him for securing this important debate.

Clarion Close in Llansamlet, in my constituency, is on the Swansea Enterprise Park, at the heart of a small community. About 7,000 people live there, and the proposed site is close to a local school, Ysgol Lonlas, and to the Swansea Vale nature reserve. My great concern is about the effect of the incinerator on air quality, which is already a serious issue in Swansea. Only yesterday, the local press reported that Swansea has one of the highest PM2.5 levels in the UK, due to heavy industry in the city and the surrounding areas. PM2.5 are the tiny particles that cause the air to be hazy and, because they are so small, they are able to penetrate people’s respiratory and circulatory systems with ease. Those pollutants are incredibly dangerous and potentially fatal, in particular for vulnerable people such as the elderly and those with illnesses.

Llansamlet is located between the M4 and two other major thoroughfares through Swansea. Consequently, that further affects the air quality in this part of the city, and asthma rates among residents are disproportionally high. We do not need the threat of further health implications from an incinerator in the area, and I have no doubt that those living in the area would agree with me resoundingly.

We should be looking at recycling and reusing as much as we can, and at finding alternatives to waste incineration whenever possible. The proposed Swansea bay tidal lagoon, which would have brought clean green energy to our city and further afield, was scrapped in the previous Parliament. However, I have already been in touch with the new Minister in the Wales Office to invite him to Swansea to discuss the tidal lagoon again. We must stop ignoring environmental issues and start looking at what can be done to halt the climate catastrophe that we appear to be hurtling towards. We need to target spending on clean, sustainable and low-carbon projects. Building these toxic towers to incinerate waste is not the answer, not for now and certainly not for the future of our children, our towns and cities, and our planet.

It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) on securing this important debate.

There are of course policy differences between in England and Wales. In essence, the backstop for this issue and the challenges faced by all our communities, certainly in Wales, is planning policy. My request of the Welsh Government and the regulators is therefore for consistency, not only in the policy itself, and in its interpretation and consideration, but from politicians as well.

It is easy for politicians to stand up in a public meeting, wherever that might be in our constituencies, having played a part from the outset in setting the policy in place that has led to the position we are in now. I am pleased to say that my position on incineration has been consistent from the time I was a Member of the National Assembly for Wales, when I represented South Wales West, which includes the Swansea East constituency. The hon. Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) will remember the Crymlyn Burrows incinerator that later burnt down. That sparked my original interest, which led me to oppose the Welsh Government’s policy, which is instinctively in favour of incineration.

The original debate in the Assembly, post the 2001 application in Swansea, was about trying to set some parameters for the consideration of those applications. It led to the policy, which led to proposed developments not only in Swansea and Cardiff, South and Penarth, but in Llanelli and in my constituency.

The Biomass UK No. 2 Ltd plant has been proposed in Barry, but the way it has been treated has been wholly inconsistent. On this occasion, the local authority’s planning committee unanimously rejected it, only for that to be overturned by the Welsh Government’s Planning Inspectorate because it had to follow the policy that the Welsh politicians had put it in place. This is a 10 MW power station that did not have an environmental impact assessment and, significantly, was not considered a development of national significance, which it would have been had it been considered consistently with the policy here in England, which I believe was the intention at the time.

In the very limited time left, I want to underline the risk of planning creep. Originally, the application would have been for clean wood. That policy has changed, yet the Welsh Government are refusing to consider it again as a development of national significance under the changed criteria. My request is that we have consistency. Also, as hon. Members from across the House have pointed out, the policy and recycling rates have changed in a positive way; therefore, the policy that gives rise to these incinerators also needs to change.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) on introducing this debate. This is the second debate in Westminster Hall that we have both participated in today, the first one being at 9.30 this morning.

This issue hit the headlines in Northern Ireland when the Northern Ireland Assembly collapsed and a decision was taken by the permanent secretary to allow an incinerator to go ahead, after a Planning Appeals Commission decision deemed the application acceptable. At that time, Mrs Justice Keegan ruled that that a senior civil servant did not have legal power to give the green light to the major waste disposal facility at Hightown Quarry in Mallusk, following the collapse of devolution, leaving the application waiting for the new Minister. Many of the questions about that have been raised by the hon. Gentleman.

We have to find a method of waste disposal. We create the waste and we have to get rid of it—that is a fact of life. How do we do that? We encourage councils to recycle using the carrot and stick approach: if they recycle, that is great and they may win an award, but if they do not, there will be financial penalties. I understand and agree with encouragement. My council has been proactive and has met every target it has set; every new target it has set, it has met that, too. We all know how it goes: glass in one bin, plastics and paper in the other one, and green waste. This issue is above and beyond that.

It is not clear how we deal with the issue of burning waste, but Government must lead the way. Controls must be in place to address the issue of landfill and the lack of space, but also to ensure that any incineration that takes place is done in the right way and is as environmentally friendly as possible.

Figures were published in the weekend press about air quality in the United Kingdom. The number of deaths has risen. The proportion of deaths in Northern Ireland due to air quality is higher than the UK average. We have a serious problem in Northern Ireland, as we do in the rest of the United Kingdom. I agree with my colleague the Minister for the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs, Edwin Poots, about waste incineration in Northern Ireland. He said that he did not believe that burning waste was necessarily damaging to the environment, but that incineration

“requires an awful lot of waste and there are better ways of dealing”

with it. For him, the issue was clear. He highlighted the fact that European countries with some of the highest green credentials use incineration. I agree that it is uncertain whether Northern Ireland needs an incinerator of this scale—that is probably the case in many parts of the United Kingdom, as hon. Members have mentioned.

We put so much pressure on our local councils, yet this debate and the ongoing issues at home show that there must be clearer guidance from the Minister. We look to her for a positive response. I hope that direction and guidance comes from this debate.

This debate is about incineration and energy from waste, and the way in which we can dispose of our waste in an inefficient and climate-friendly way. We have heard from a number of speakers in what has been an excellent debate, particularly on the role of very large incinerators in dealing with waste in future. We heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty)—whom I congratulate on securing the debate—who is particularly concerned about the effect of a very large old-style incinerator plant on his constituency, local residents and air quality. There is a question of whether the waste will be attracted to the plant, which is not a municipal plant but a commercial plant—I understand that a municipal plant is already in place in the city.

That is a good example of the crossroads we have come to in waste disposal and resource management in this country. Do we continue to go down that route of incinerators taking an increasing part of our waste, or do we move to different modes—much more environmentally friendly ones, I would argue—of dealing with our waste in future. That might resolve the problems raised not only by my hon. Friend but by my hon. Friends the Members for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) and for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) and others, and a number of Members who raised similar issues about the role of incineration in our waste management arrangements.

Although I cannot say anything specific about the application for the incinerator near Cardiff—that is a matter for the Welsh Government—it is quite clear that, although it was the case that incineration was an improvement over previous waste disposal arrangements, it is decreasingly apparent that it is something we should pursue as a fundamental part of our future waste disposal activities. We can see what happened with landfill and other forms of waste disposal. There has been a rapid trajectory away from landfill, down by 64% since 1999 and now at about 20% of our waste disposal. There has been a rise in incineration, with 9% of waste dealt with by energy-from-waste or incineration plants in 2001 and 41% now. A substantial part of our waste is dealt with by those means.

In the middle of that, we have the imperative of the waste hierarchy. I think all parties agree that our aim in waste policy—the trajectory of our policy—should be to move up that hierarchy from disposal, through other forms of recovery, to recycling, preparation for reuse and, of course, prevention, which is the highest point of the hierarchy. Our aim should be to move consistently up the hierarchy so that waste is recycled into another resource or, ideally, does not enter the waste stream at all.

Old-style incineration is right at the bottom of the hierarchy, marginally above landfill. There has been considerable success over the years in removing waste from landfill. That is important for addressing climate change, as it leads to a substantial reduction in methane emissions, which are avoided by not using landfill in the first place. However, moving just to the next stage up in the hierarchy is a little like a landlord responding to someone complaining about getting wet in their house by putting a tarpaulin on the roof. It is a bit better, but it is not a solution to the problem. We need to be much more imaginative in moving up from those solutions.

There will always be some residual waste that needs to be dealt with by disposal means, but what we mean by “residual waste” is a big question. The plant that my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth mentioned will take a large amount of so-called residual waste, but in many instances it will not be real residual waste; it will be stuff that people have not bothered to recycle. Only 8% of plastic film, for example, is recycled—most of it goes into residual waste—but most of it could be recycled and ought to be taken out of residual waste. Real residual waste is a fairly small proportion of the waste stream, which suggests that a policy of introducing very large incinerators to collect that waste would fix us in place on the waste hierarchy rather than move us up it.

A second point that I think is—

Indeed, Mr Hosie. I understand that. I hope to make my second point very briefly so that the Minister can respond.

I am particularly concerned that, if we have any sort of energy-from-waste facility for residual waste as we move up the waste hierarchy, we should ensure that it recovers the maximum energy possible, including heat for combined heat and power. At the moment, the scheme that my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth mentioned does not have that facility. In their waste strategy, the Government commit themselves to ensuring that all new energy-from-waste plants are in the category of “other recoverable”. That suggests that those plants will have to have combined heat and power facilities to maximise energy recovery, and that they will not be incinerators with a bit of hobby electricity attached to them. I would be grateful if the Minister assured me that that will be her policy for the future of energy from waste, and that she will pursue that in considering what happens with energy-from-waste plants. Among other things, that would ensure that plants that do not have that sort of facility are not normally regarded as suitable to receive planning permission.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie. I do not think I have had the pleasure before. I commend the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty), who referred in particular to a proposed incinerator in his constituency, for securing the debate. The fact that so many colleagues took part in the debate shows what heat this subject generates, from Carshalton and Wallington to Strangford and everywhere in between.

I must point out right at the outset that waste and managing air quality, which was also touched on, are devolved matters. I cannot comment on the specifics of the waste strategy in Wales or how policies in Wales influence the case for the plant that the hon. Gentleman mentioned; I can give my views only on what we are doing in England. However, I was heartened to hear the intervention of the former Secretary of State for Wales, my right hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Glamorgan (Alun Cairns), who pointed out that it was the Welsh Government that prioritised incinerators of various types. That perhaps should be taken into account.

I do not have much time, so let me first tackle a few misconceptions to ensure that I answer some of the questions that were asked. I want to clarify that the scheme mentioned by the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth was part of a £5 billion portfolio of energy investment by the UK Government. That was in 2018, when the site was owned by CoGen. The project was removed from that list when its proposed technology shifted from gasification to incineration. We must not spread misconceptions. I just wanted to point that out.

Similarly, I think the hon. Gentleman suggested that we export a lot of waste from England to Wales. Obviously, where to site the plant in Wales is a commercial decision, but I would point out that in 2017, for example, nearly 60,000 tonnes of Welsh waste went to landfill in England, and 70,000 tonnes went to incineration.

I also want to clarify the position on PM2.5 emissions, which another hon. Member mentioned. Emissions from waste incineration represented 0.02% of PM2.5 emissions in the UK in 2017. A much higher amount—15%— came from transport. I thought that clarification might be useful.

I want to set the record straight: as my right hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) highlighted, our focus as a Government is on “reduce, reuse, recycle”. We are sticking to that, as well as to the drive towards an ever more circular economy, which many Members touched on. That means extracting maximum value from our resources, then recovering and regenerating products and materials at the end of their lifespan. Through that, we seek to minimise the amount of waste that goes to incineration or landfill, which certainly are at the bottom of the waste chain.

However, needless to say, there is commercial and industrial waste classified as municipal waste. I agree entirely with the shadow Minister that much of it ought to be recycled. That is why the forthcoming environment Bill, which I hope everyone present will support, will include far-reaching measures to drive us towards a circular economy. We will also introduce legislation to increase the separate capture of business waste, promoting high-quality recycling. That will include food waste from the catering sector, for example, which will have to be captured separately and, wherever possible, diverted from landfill or incineration into anaerobic digestion.

I have so little time, so I hope my right hon. Friend does not mind if I do not.

We are going towards high-quality recycling, but clearly we have residual waste. That is dealt with in a number of ways, which include landfill, incineration with energy recovery and export as refuse-derived fuel. Landfill is the least favoured option. Policies aimed at diverting waste away from landfill mean that, in addition to recycling gains, the volume of waste being treated at energy-from-waste plants has increased. Of course, however, the aim with all the measures in the waste and recycling strategy is to bring that down.

Energy-from-waste plants are regulated by the Environment Agency and must comply with strict emissions limits set in legislation. The agency assesses every application for a new plant to ensure that it will use the best available techniques to minimise emissions and will not have a significant effect on local air quality. The Environment Agency will not issue an environmental permit if the proposed plant would have a significant impact on the environment or harm it. Once operational, energy-from-waste plants are closely regulated and constantly monitored. The views of Public Health England about the potential health effects of such plants are also taken into account, because safety is paramount.

The Government have been very clear about maximising the resource value of waste, including residual waste. That is why we are working to ensure ever greater efficiency in these plants. Waste-to-heat plants were touched on; the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy has a fund to move towards heat networks. I know the shadow Minister will welcome that, because it is something he is particularly interested in. If the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) would like a little more information about that particular technique in the plant she mentioned, I am happy to get my experts to advise her.

Motion lapsed, and sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(14)).