House of Commons
Monday 5 October 2020
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Virtual participation in proceedings commenced (Order, 4 June).
[NB: [V] denotes a Member participating virtually.]
Oral Answers to Questions
Housing, Communities and Local Government
The Secretary of State was asked—
Affordable Homes to Buy
This Government are making sure that hard-working families and first-time buyers have affordable, quality homes to call their own. Last month, we confirmed over £12 billion of investment to build more affordable homes—the most significant of its kind in living memory. This includes our new affordable homes programme, which will deliver up to 180,000 homes from next year.
I thank the Secretary of State for his answer. My constituents are keen to see villages grow gently, sympathetically and with a range of larger and more affordable homes, and I am pleased to hear him focus on quality. How will my right hon. Friend’s planning reforms focus on quality and ensure that no new three-storey, densely packed, large developments of identikit houses are allowed to ruin the edges of small villages?
Like my hon. Friend, this Government believe that beautiful high-quality homes should be the norm in every area of this country. Our reformed planning system will place a much higher regard on quality, design and local character, such as that in Lincolnshire, than ever before. Local planning authorities already have the power to set high standards for housing, including setting parameters for density, open space and private gardens. However, to go further, I have announced that we will create a new national design code, and I have asked Nicholas Boys Smith, the founder of Create Streets, to establish a new body to help every local community to create their own design code and deliver locally popular architecture for everyone.
Local Authorities: Funding
We said we would support councils throughout this pandemic, and that is exactly what we are doing. We have provided £4.8 billion in additional funding for spending pressures, including £3.7 billion of un-ringfenced funding. This is in addition to councils’ core spending power rising by over £2.9 billion this financial year, which is the largest year-on-year real-terms increase in a decade.
The Minister will know that Rochdale council has lost some £200 million in Government cuts over the last years, and this year it is likely to be £20 million short of money, even with the extra Government funding. The people who will suffer most from this are those dependent on acute services, children’s services and, of course, the elderly and the vulnerable. How does the Minister intend to make sure that they do not suffer?
The hon. Gentleman of course knows that this year’s local government finance settlement saw Rochdale Borough Council receive an increase of £12 million this year, which he did not object to when the finance settlement came through the House in February. More widely, throughout this pandemic we have supported Rochdale with £93 million to local councils, businesses and the local area. If Rochdale council is concerned about its financial settlements or about the financial situation, it should get in contact with my Department at the earliest opportunity. I would say that over half of the £4.8 billion allocated to local authorities has been spent on social care, but I am always happy to discuss it with him further.
Councils are facing in-year cuts of around £3 billion because the Secretary of State broke his promise to fully fund councils for the cost of getting communities through the pandemic, and that is according to the Conservative-led Local Government Association. The Minister tries to wish this away by bandying around Government funding intended for specific purposes that cannot be used to plug gaps in the council’s general funds. Since he would not wish to try to pull that same trick again here, would he tell the House which services he now expects councils to cut to plug the funding gap created by his broken promises?
Let us step back and look at the facts here. If we look at the local government finance settlement—the hon. Gentleman did not object to it in February; he supported it—and at the fact that local government has reported a £3.1 billion increase in spending pressures for covid, we have supported them with £4.8 billion, including £3.7 billion of un-ringfenced funding. What is not surprising is the hon. Gentleman turning up again today and talking down councils and their ability to respond to this crisis. Local authorities are proving themselves to be a resourceful, dynamic force, and we should be praising them.
Could I say that the Government’s decision to help councils with loss of funding, particularly for leisure centres, parking revenue and such things, is welcome? There is one group of authorities, however, that have not been compensated—the councils that run their leisure services at arm’s length. I raised this with the Minister’s predecessor back in July, and the response I got was that the Government
“are very serious about tackling it.”—[Official Report, 9 July 2020; Vol. 678, c. 1224.]
Since then, because Sheffield has lost over £10 million, which it has not been compensated for, from its leisure centres’ loss of income, we have written as Sheffield MPs to the Secretary of State twice—once in August and once in September, the second with the local leisure clubs—and we have not had a response. Could the Minister therefore update the House on what is happening in general on this issue, and will he agree to meet Sheffield MPs to discuss this issue, which really affects our city and its finances?
I thank the Chair of the Select Committee for his question. We recognise the vital role leisure centre facilities play in keeping our communities safe and protecting mental health. We are working closely with the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport on a further package of support for leisure centres. I am happy to meet the hon. Gentleman and other Sheffield MPs to discuss the matter.
Brownfield Sites: Development
Delivering much needed new, higher-quality greener homes across the country is central to the mission of this Government. To do that, we will continue to prioritise building on brownfield sites to deliver the homes that we need while also regenerating our towns and cities. As a first step, we have allocated more than £400 million from our brownfield fund to seven mayoral combined authorities, unlocking 26,000 new homes while protecting our greenfield sites. Even as we overhaul our outdated planning system, our reforms make very clear that we will continue to protect the green belt and prioritise development on brownfield land.
I am very happy to assure my hon. Friend once again that the protection of the green belt remains a priority, as does developing brownfield land in all parts of the country, including Hertfordshire. We do need to build more homes, including in places where homes are most expensive. It is, and will continue to be, however, for local councils to decide which sites are available, and which sites are viable and suitable for new homes. That will involve reimagining high streets and it will involve promoting gentle density, but we will do everything we can to protect both the green belt and our beautiful countryside.
Places of Worship: Covid-19
As Communities Secretary, ensuring places of worship can reopen and remain open has been a priority for me and my Department. Their contribution to our country as places of solace, as well as for significant moments such as weddings and funerals, is clear to us all. Places of worship remain open today for more than six people for communal prayer and services with existing covid-secure requirements continuing to apply.
During this pandemic we have seen a sharp spike in Islamophobia, from blaming Muslims for the spread of covid-19 to fuelling online hate. I am sure the Secretary of State will want to join me in commending the community for its patience and hard work in these difficult months. Given that the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies has previously highlighted the good work of the Muslim Council of Britain in reaching minority groups that the Government are unable or unwilling to reach, can he outline what discussions he has had with the MCB and other Muslim organisations on the safe reopening of mosques?
Like the hon. Gentleman, I want to praise and thank the Muslim communities throughout the country for their forbearance. We have worked closely with them through our places of worship taskforce that the Prime Minister and I set up. I have had the privilege to meet representatives from mosques, including the London Central Mosque on the eve of the Eid celebrations, to thank them once again for their forbearance. We have put in place detailed guidelines to help mosques to reopen safely and will continue to work with Muslim groups in the weeks and months ahead.
It is clear from what the Secretary of State has said that he recognises that in these troubled times places of worship are more important than ever in providing for the spiritual and material needs of their congregations and in combating loneliness and mental health problems. However, they face their own challenges in making their premises safe for their worshippers and meeting the costs of that as well as for their own people. What help is the Department giving directly to places of worship to facilitate that provision, and is it engaging with them regularly to ensure that this can be effectively implemented?
The right hon. Gentleman makes a series of very important points. At the start of the pandemic, I recognised that places of worship needed to be prioritised. They should not be relegated behind other activities, whether shops, casinos or other important things that we want to keep open to protect people’s livelihoods. Places of worship matter for those with faith, and we needed to ensure that they could reopen. I worked extremely closely with faith leaders through our places of worship taskforce. That work continues, and we have very good relationships with all the major faiths. The guidelines are in place and are now extremely detailed. They cover not only basic guidelines for all faiths, but very detailed guidelines for individual practices for particular religions. We saw that prominently recently, for example, with the Jewish holidays, when we worked out detailed guidelines for Yom Kippur. We will continue to work closely with faith leaders in the weeks and months ahead.
Since reopening, mosques have incurred the cost of PPE, which is an additional financial cost to them, along with deep cleaning several times a day after members and visitors visit. The Muslim Council of Britain estimates that it has already given out £500,000 in small grants, but there are far more mosques in need than those funds can reach. What action is the Secretary of State taking to financially support places of worship to reopen in a covid-secure way?
Planning System: Design and Beauty
With our planning White Paper “Planning for the future”, we are seeking views on proposals to achieve just what my hon. Friend refers to in his question. We are putting the creation of beautiful places at the heart of national planning policy, encouraging greater use of design codes based on what people want to see in their area, supporting local authorities and directing Homes England to help deliver that.
Under the White Paper, Bournville, an area that I am lucky enough to part-represent, was used as an example of an area of beauty. George Cadbury in 1893 had his vision of building houses for the area. Today, there are 25,000 people across 8,000 homes in Bournville. Will the Minister please accept an invite from the Bournville Village Trust to come and see the area for himself and the excellent work it is doing to maintain that beautiful community?
I am obliged to my hon. Friend for that question and for that invitation to his constituency, being as it is just a hop, skip and a jump from my constituency of Tamworth. George Cadbury certainly had a vision for his community. I look forward to joining my hon. Friend and his friends in Bournville village to realise their modern 21st-century vision for his constituents.
Rough Sleepers: Covid-19
Since the beginning of the covid-19 pandemic, nearly 15,000 vulnerable people have been housed in emergency accommodation thanks to the hard work of local councils and charities, saving hundreds of lives. We are now moving on to the next steps through our Next Steps Accommodation programme. We have recently announced over £90 million for local authorities in England to prevent those we have accommodated from returning to the streets.
May I warmly welcome my hon. Friend to her new role on the Front Bench? This Government’s commitment to end rough sleeping is clear to see in the extensive and regular funding given to councils over the past year. I commend David Newbery, senior homelessness prevention officer at Guildford Borough Council, who successfully found appropriate accommodation for a victim of domestic violence I had spoken to on a Saturday morning by that very evening—there was the additional complication of a positive covid status—so that she did not have to spend another night unwell and fearful. Will my hon. Friend join me in paying tribute to the commitment of those on the ground in Guildford, who are working tirelessly in partnership with central Government to end rough sleeping?
I thank my hon. Friend for highlighting the tremendous work of those in her constituency. I join with her in paying tribute to those, not only in her constituency but across the country, who worked so hard with the Government to end rough sleeping and on the delivery of the significant programme of accommodating nearly 15,000 people during covid-19. We are committed to protecting victims of domestic abuse, investing over £80 million since 2014. Today, a new £6 million fund will help tier 1 councils to prepare for the implementation of the new legal duty in the Domestic Abuse Bill.
The coronavirus pandemic and the Government’s actions during it have shown that homelessness is a choice—not of the homeless themselves, but of the Government. Will this Tory Government choose to permit the existence of homelessness, or will they extend their actions during the pandemic to eradicate the problem once and for all?
The hon. Gentleman knows that this Government are committed to working hard to end rough sleeping by the end of the Parliament. That is clear in the investment the Government have made, particularly during the pandemic and, as I have just outlined in my previous response, with the Next Steps Accommodation Programme. We are committed to making sure that during the pandemic all individuals who were accommodated are supported, so they can move forward and have great lives, and we keep many individuals off the streets.
Local Authorities: Additional Funding for Covid-19
We have provided local authorities with an unprecedented package of support, including £4.8 billion funding for spending pressures, £3.7 billion in un-ring-fenced grants, and £1.1 billion for the infection control fund. We have also introduced a co-payment scheme to help councils recoup irrecoverable losses in sales fees and charges. In total, we have committed over £28 billion to local areas to support councils, businesses and their communities since the start of the pandemic.
All of which is welcome, but last week the Liverpool City Region Combined Authority called for a comprehensive Government-backed package to deal with the problems for the local economy that will be caused by the introduction of the latest covid-19 measures. Today, the combined authority and the Metro Mayor announced a £40 million welcome package to support local businesses and jobs. Will the Minister agree to hold an urgent meeting with local MPs, the combined authority and the Metro Mayor to discuss what further assistance the Government can provide to support our local economy?
The right hon. Gentleman will be fully aware that Knowsley has received £30 million in additional un-ring-fenced spending to deal with pressures resulting from the pandemic, on top of the £10 million increase in its core spending power this financial year. More widely, Knowsley received £51 million to support councils, businesses and the community. He will be interested to know that to prepare for local outbreaks we have provided a £300 million grant to all upper tier authorities to develop strong and effective local outbreak plans. In relation to ongoing engagement, I met the Mayor of Greater Manchester last week and I believe he is meeting the Secretary of State tomorrow. We are, of course, happy to continue those discussions.
Future Homes Standard
Our future homes standard reforms propose an ambitious uplift in the energy efficiency of new homes. The homes will have at least 75% lower emissions than current standards. That is real action toward a cleaner and greener built environment. Furthermore, ahead of 2025, we have consulted on a meaningful interim increase in the requirements of part L of the building regulations, which will act as a stepping stone to a full uplift.
If I cannot persuade the Minister to be more ambitious in his deadline, perhaps I could encourage him to use the time to be more ambitious in his target. Instead of a target of reducing carbon emissions by 75%, will the Government set a target of net zero carbon for new builds?
I am obliged to the hon. Lady. She seems to have forgotten the ambition of this Government, which has already been stated. We were the first Government in the world to legislate for net zero. She seems to have forgotten that just a few days ago, we introduced the green homes grant; 600,000 homes will benefit from that grant. She seems to have forgotten the work we have done to drive down poor energy performance certificate standards; now only 5% of homes are in the G category. We will certainly be ambitious. We will continue to work hard to build green homes for our country, and I am sure that when it comes to it and the hon. Lady stops talking, she will start to walk with us.
High Street Businesses: Covid-19
Revitalising our towns and high streets is vital to the Government’s effort to respond to the coronavirus pandemic, supporting people’s jobs and getting businesses trading again. Last month, we provided an £80 million boost to over 100 towns from our £3.6 billion towns fund, kickstarting important local investment projects.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his answer. I also thank the Government for deciding to ease the lockdown on Bolton so that people can start using cafés, pubs and restaurants more normally. This has also had the benefit of bringing more people on to our high streets and increasing footfall. As a further step, will he consider having 10 pm as last orders to enable a safe exit from pubs and restaurants as people leave and perhaps use public transport?
I thank my hon. Friend for his question. The requirement for pubs and some other businesses to be closed to the general public by 10 pm was designed to strike the balance of allowing people to continue to socialise while reducing social contact and minimising negative impacts on the economy. He will know that we do not take these decisions lightly. None of us would want that to continue a day longer than is necessary, and as with all measures, we will keep them under constant review.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. Many business owners in Fylde and their employees have found themselves on the frontline of enforcing social distancing guidelines in recent months. What is the Minister doing to support those businesses, as well as local authorities, to ensure that high streets remain safe and public confidence high?
My hon. Friend will be pleased to hear that we published the safer urban centres and green spaces guidance to provide exactly that kind of information to business owners and councils. We have supported that with a £50 million reopening high streets safely fund and, more recently, with £60 million for the police and local councils to provide enforcement and compliance. This comes on top of our cuts to the taxes of local businesses through the business rates holiday, the 5% cut in VAT, and the reforms that we have taken through to help small businesses, whether that is on use class orders, outdoor dining and markets, or creating a simpler route through the planning system for regeneration—all measures designed to support businesses and protect jobs, and all opposed by the Labour party.
English Devolution and Local Recovery: White Paper
The Government intend to bring forward the English devolution and local recovery White Paper in due course, setting out how we will partner with places across the UK to build a sustainable economic recovery. I was very pleased to see that the parliamentary order to implement the Sheffield city region deal in law was made in July, and I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on all his work and support in finally reaching that significant milestone in his work so far as Mayor.
I am grateful to the Minister for his response. He will know that devolution has the power to transform people’s lives and local economies, but as a Mayor, it too often feels like I do not yet have the powers and resources to make transformative changes. The White Paper represents a golden opportunity to reset the dial, so does he agree that to properly empower local and regional leaders, the Government should commit to place-based, multi-year, flexible budgets so that we can better deliver for our communities?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. I was delighted to meet him and nine colleagues from across the country to discuss their representations about the upcoming White Paper. We are genuinely pleased with the combined authority Mayors and the progress that they are making, but of course, we recognise that there is more to do. We will publish the White Paper in due course.
In the 2019 Conservative manifesto, the Government promised that every part of the country would have the powers to shape their own destiny. Given the broken promises that councils have had from the Government recently, can the Minister confirm that the White Paper honours that manifesto pledge, and that local leaders will have the powers to decide what works best for their communities?
I am not exactly sure what promise the hon. Lady was referring to, but we have certainly kept our promises to protect councils during this pandemic by providing them with billions of pounds of funding to support their covid response. We see the devolution and local recovery White Paper as an exciting opportunity to lay out our plans for devolution in this Parliament. We will bring it forward in due course, and I am very happy to listen to her representations about what should be in it.
Agricultural Land: Development
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has already alluded, in his answer to the question of my hon. Friend the Member for South West Hertfordshire (Mr Mohindra), to the £400 million brownfield fund, delivering 26,000 homes, and our commitment to prioritising brownfield sites does not end there. Our national planning policy framework is clear that brownfield should be prioritised for redevelopment for housing, and that local authorities should avoid using our best and most versatile farmland wherever and whenever possible.
My right hon. Friend knows that I have a high regard for him personally, but I am afraid that that does not extend to a planning White Paper that seems designed to smother the south-east of England and the garden of England in houses not for local people but for people from elsewhere. In responding to my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North (James Daly), the Secretary of State said that the brownfield fund would be made available to metropolitan areas. Will that be extended across the board to rural areas as well? Also, could my right hon. Friend give us an assurance that all of the 1 million consents already granted will be used before a single further blade of greenfield site in agricultural land is also used?
I am obliged to my right hon. Friend for his question. I can confirm that, though he is correct that the £400 million made available for the brownfield regeneration fund was targeted at mayoral combined authorities, the home building fund has in it £5 billion to support new housing, including brownfield projects. More than 300 projects in England will receive a share of the £900 million to get Britain building: the getting building fund. That will also, I trust, support his constituency. I also remind him that just a couple of days ago we voted for permitted development rights, which will allow for the reimagining of town centres, and the demolition and rebuild of disused commercial buildings. That will also take the weight off any pressure on green spaces, so the Government are committed to the end that my right hon. Friend wants: building brownfield first.
Dangerous Cladding: Residential Buildings
We are taking action with the biggest reforms of building and fire safety in nearly 40 years through the Building Safety Bill. To tackle the most urgent problems, we have already made available £1.6 billion to remove unsafe cladding systems, and appointed expert construction consultants to review aluminium composite material remediation timescales and to work at increased pace. There therefore should be no excuse for delay.
There should indeed be no excuse for delay, but a constituent of mine tells me that she and her partner are stuck between a rock and a hard place because they cannot sell their flat. Up to half a million people are now in the same position. The Minister will know that whether buildings are above 18 metres or, as in the case of my constituent, below that height, mortgage lenders are requiring EWS1 forms for fire safety clearance. My constituent’s management company refuses to test her building because it is below 18 metres. The Select Committee called for urgent action in June, so what is the Minister doing to help all those who are trapped by the failure of remediation and by these requirements?
With respect to buildings below 18 metres, we are following the advice of Dame Judith Hackitt to target the tallest buildings—those over 18 metres—because they are at greatest danger of fire if they are clad. With respect to the EWS1 form—a Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors form—I can confirm that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has had discussions with lenders and that my noble Friend the noble Lord Greenhalgh has discussed with the insurance industry how to resolve these matters better. We are encouraging the industry to accept alternative evidence of assurances. Not all lenders require EWS1 forms, and we will encourage more lenders to take similar action.
Countless Salford residents are among over 700,000 nationally who are still living in dangerously cladded homes, yet only 65 registrations to the building safety fund have been allowed to proceed, an estimated 1.5 million people cannot sell their homes, and exorbitant remediation costs are still being passed on to leaseholders for defects that they did not cause. Will the Minister end this protracted scandal today and commit to the proposals set out by the End Our Cladding Scandal campaign and the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee?
I have every sympathy with the situation that the hon. Lady’s constituents find themselves in. She will understand that in order to target the right buildings and ensure that the buildings most at risk are prioritised, it is important that the money disbursed by the Government is spent effectively. We have had 2,784 registrations to the end of September, and 1,857 of those—many of them received on the last day of application in July—were incomplete. We are working with the owners and with the submitters of the registrations to ensure that they get the information right, and as soon as they get the information right, we can determine when we can get the money out of the door. I hope that we get the first money out of the door very soon indeed.
According to leading civil servants, the building safety fund will cover less than a third of the buildings that require external remediation, and it does not even cover the interim safety measures and costs that may unscrupulous freeholders have been pushing on to leaseholders, including at Raphael House in my constituency. My constituents and I are wondering whether the Government could increase the budget for that fund so that all buildings are covered, including the cost of the expensive interim safety measures, and extend the application deadline beyond April so that freeholders can act responsibly in the best interests of leaseholders and tenants.
The objective of the £1 billion fund is to target those properties that most need help, where there is no other immediate means of helping them. £1 billion is not a small amount of money and it is important that we get that money out of the door first to help those places that need it. The hon. Gentleman might, while he is at it, have a word with the Mayor of London, because London is lagging well behind the remediation of properties around England. That is why Lord Greenhalgh had to organise a London summit to get London to up its game. So, as much as we are determined to get the money out of the door, he must encourage the Mayor to do the same.
Ritu and Rebecca are among the many thousands of people now trapped in this situation despite their good intentions. Hon. Members across the House have discussed the EWS1 form today. The current estimate for the 1.5 million people stuck in this situation is that it will take 15 years-plus to resolve. This requires a sense of urgency. When the Minister going to get a grip of the situation?
As I explained to the House just a moment ago—I think the hon. Gentleman heard what I said— the Government are working with lenders to make sure that this situation moves as quickly as possible, so that lenders require other more easily available assurances and are encouraged to act much more quickly. We continue to work with the industry to make sure that those people get the help and support they need, and I can confirm to him that we will bring forward further proposals very soon.
Regeneration: Town Centres
We are committed to supporting regeneration in town centres through the £3.6 billion towns fund, which includes the £1 billion future high streets fund. Last week, we made an announcement on £80 million from the towns fund, which will go to more than 100 towns in England, to kick-start regeneration projects. We are also providing support to local leaders through the High Streets Task Force and have protected businesses from eviction during the covid pandemic.
My constituency office is in Liskeard, a small market town that is more than 1,000 years old. It lost the head office of the local district council when that authority was abolished and its farmers’ market has left the town. What more can be done to increase demand again in small town centres such as Liskeard?
I thank my hon. Friend for highlighting the beauty of her town of Liskeard, and she knows that I, too, am a fan of her part of the country. The Government are totally committed to helping our high streets and town centres to adapt to changing consumer behaviour during this challenging period. To achieve that, the Government are supporting places across the country with the High Streets Task Force, which will work with local authorities and groups to get the access to the experts required to come up with the ideas and drive to build the skills for sustainable place making and share that best practice. We have also introduced reforms to planning use to enable that mixture on the high streets to drive footfall and businesses into our town centres.
High streets such as mine in Dudley have undergone a period of profound change—they did so even before the pandemic struck—so does the Minister agree that making it easier to convert commercial and retail units into new homes will help regenerate the high street and create more housing?
My hon. Friend is right. We agree that turning disused commercial and retail units into new homes can provide more housing, and create more vibrant town and city centres. A number of national permitted development rights allow for shops, offices and high streets to change to residential use, which will have the impact of creating environments where people want to live, work—[Interruption.] And play.
I am grateful to you, Mr Speaker, for letting me stand in for my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford West (Naz Shah), who has not been able to get here, and I hope that the Minister will not be lost for words with this one. The Secretary of State has been criticised for the way he allocated taxpayers’ money through the towns fund. He will share my concern that there must never be any question of gerrymandering public funds, so will he explain why he ignored civil servants on how the towns fund should be spent, and blocked funds for Sunderland, Stockport and Ashington but handed out money to wealthier towns with more prosperous high streets, such as Newark, which he just happens to represent?
The hon. Gentleman knows that I have had a lot of respect for him in his previous work in this House, but I am disappointed with his position there. As an elected Member of Parliament, I am totally committed, like this Government, to driving up regeneration across the country, in no matter what part of the United Kingdom. Suggesting that there was anything underhand in relation to that towns fund is totally out of order. I can tell him that that fund has been allocated to towns up and down the country. They are dying for that regeneration and people want to see their towns developed, and we are committed to continuing to deliver on the promises we have made.
Overdevelopment: London and the South-East
We are committed to delivering the homes and communities that this country needs, while protecting our important green spaces and avoiding overdevelopment anywhere in the country. Our consultation sets out the elements that we intend to balance when determining local housing need, including building 300,000 homes, tackling affordability challenges in the places where people most want to live, and levelling up our towns and cities. The consultation recently closed and we are reflecting carefully on the feedback.
In March, the Secretary of State wrote a strongly worded letter to the Mayor of London to express concern that his London plan tilts away from family homes towards one-bedroom flats. How does the Secretary of State reconcile the inconsistency between that letter and his new housing algorithm, which will generate such high targets that they are unachievable without tower blocks full of predominantly one-bedroom flats?
As I said, we will reflect carefully on the feedback that we receive from the consultation on calculating local housing need. My right hon. Friend refers to the desire to protect quiet neighbourhoods and ensure that they are not overborne by tall tower blocks. I am keen to make sure that local authorities are at the heart of decision making, and we will make sure that that is a fundamental part of our response to the consultation. I reassure my right hon. Friend, who is a doughty campaigner for the fine borough of Barnet, which builds lots of homes, that we will bring forward proposals to achieve the sorts of ends that she is looking for.
Our town centres and high streets are the beating heart of our communities. Our landmark towns fund, through which we are investing £3.6 billion into more than 100 towns, is just one part of that commitment. We also want to give local communities the freedom to transform their areas for the better—to give boarded-up eyesores on the high street a new lease of life, to give shop owners the flexibility to change the use of their property, and to allow families the chance to increase the size of their home as their family grows. Each of these reforms will help small businesses and individuals to sustain jobs and invest in local communities. That is the mission of this Government.
This year marks 75 years since the liberation of Auschwitz. It vital that we remember what happened so that we can learn the lessons of the past, so will my right hon. Friend reassure me and the House that the Government remain committed to delivering a national holocaust memorial?
I am delighted that the Leader of the Opposition, the right hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer), has expressed his support for the national holocaust memorial. I hope that now is the moment for Members from all parties in this House and, indeed, in the other place to unite behind the proposal and ensure that the memorial is built as soon as possible.
With millions of people living in homes that are cold, damp and expensive to heat, in the midst of a respiratory illness pandemic, with millions more looking to the Government to give hope for the good jobs of the future, and with a climate change crisis as well, what part of cancelling Labour’s zero-carbon homes standard does the Secretary of State think was a good idea? When will he commit his Government to returning to a zero-carbon—not low-carbon but zero-carbon—homes standard?
As we have set out time and again, we are committed to net-zero homes—we do not want to see any new home built in this country that needs expensive retrofitting in future. If anyone thinks that the Labour party is going to deliver that or indeed any other strategy for homes in this country, they will be “sorely disappointed”—those are the words of The Guardian, not myself. The hon. Lady said that it would be years before she was able to bring forward any plans for housing whatsoever. What a sad indictment of the Labour party—the party of Herbert Morrison and Clement Attlee. We are planning to build a million new homes in this country; the Labour party’s plans are as empty and vacuous as a Wendy house blown over in the first gust of autumn wind.
I will. I would like to see further investment in estates regeneration of the kind that my hon. Friend describes, and he will know that my hon. Friend the Chancellor recently announced £2 billion for the green homes grants to improve homes across the country.
Scotland has had more structural rules on cladding than the rest of the UK for several years now and has different tenancy forums from England, so does the Secretary of State have any idea of the potential consequences of the internal market Bill on Scottish housing regulations and building standards, including those on cladding?
The decision to which my hon. Friend refers is now being challenged in court, so it would not be appropriate for me to comment while those proceedings are live. None the less, he makes an extremely important point that people across the country want to see infrastructure flowing with new housing, whether that be hospitals, GP surgeries or schools. I would highlight that, in our planning reforms, our new infrastructure levy will drive more investment in infrastructure—both social infrastructure and physical infrastructure—in the years to come.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. Of course we are in regular contact with the M9 group of Mayors about the covid-19 response and indeed, as I have said, we have meetings with him and colleagues tomorrow with the Secretary of State. Metro Mayors do occasionally attend Cobra meetings where it is appropriate. In relation to the pandemic, it is particularly important that we recognise the crucial working relationship with Public Health England and the fact that we are led by the chief medical officer. I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman that the importance of close working with metro Mayors up and down the country is absolutely vital.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right that too many homes have been built in this country to poor standards in the recent past. That is why we are now legislating for the new homes ombudsman, and we are already taking action by working with the New Homes Quality Board to raise standards. We will also respond in due course to the Law Commission’s important reports, with which we intend to right the wrongs of leasehold as quickly as possible.
I absolutely agree with the hon. Lady. I pay extreme tribute to the residents, businesses and charitable organisations in New Ferry who have worked so hard to recover and get the town back on its feet over the past three years. I know that she is meeting one of my ministerial colleagues later this week, but as a Local Government Minister I am also at her disposal to discuss this hugely important matter in her constituency.
My hon. Friend and I have agreed on this point for some time. The housing infrastructure fund directs funding to those areas where there is the greatest affordability challenge. That is important, in some respects, but any Government who want to level up must also direct infrastructure investment for housing to other parts of the country as well. I will certainly bear that in mind as we design the successor to the housing infrastructure fund later this year.
As I said, we have provided £4.8 billion to local authorities up and down the country to support them with the cost of the pandemic, and £3.1 billion has been spent in addressing those pressures. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that his council has received £21 million in additional covid funding on top of the increase in core spending power of almost £18 million this year, which of course he supported.
My hon. Friend has been a doughty champion for Blackpool in his time in the House so far. It is absolutely right that Blackpool receives further investment to help it to continue to drive forwards. That is why I am pleased that it is a recipient of funding from the high streets fund and the towns fund. I look forward to announcing the outcome of both this autumn.
It is 232 days since Storm Dennis flooded many, many properties in Rhondda. A quarter of all such properties in the whole of the UK were in one constituency, Rhondda, and that is wholly disproportionate to the normal funding for the Welsh Assembly. It is 222 days since the Prime Minister promised my hon. Friend the Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Gerald Jones) that the money would be passported through to the local authorities from Westminster to Wales to pay for that. It is 97 days since the Prime Minister wrote to me to say that this was all going to be sorted out. It is 74 days since the Treasury said that it was going to sort this out. Yet we still have not had a single penny. Can the Secretary of State prove to be the best Minister of the lot and sort it out by the end of today?
I do not agree with that analysis of the actions that we have taken as a Government. We are bringing forward the biggest change to building safety regulations in a generation. We have outlined plans for our £1.6 billion fund. Of course there is more that we could do. This is one of the most challenging and difficult issues faced by the Government today, or indeed any Government, and has built up over many generations, but we intend to tackle it and to provide support for those in need.
We are working with the chief medical officer’s team and Public Health England to prepare guidance as to how night shelters could be opened safely and in what circumstances, but the hon. Gentleman is obviously right that it is difficult to do so in a covid-compliant manner, so we are working with local councils to consider alternatives so that nobody should be left on the streets in the coldest weather this winter.
I can certainly confirm that. We want to ensure that the green belt is protected so that there are beautiful green spaces for our constituents to enjoy and the identity of villages and communities such as those that my hon. Friend represents is protected and preserved for future generations.
The hon. Member is entirely incorrect. We are determined to build more homes in this country while protecting and enhancing standards, and absolutely nothing that we do will compromise building safety regulations. Indeed, quite the opposite. We are creating the largest change to building safety standards in my lifetime.
I thank the hon. Lady for her question. Of course she is right that the dedicated schools grant is administered by the DFE, which is responsible for its amount and allocation, but we are certainly working closely with the DFE, the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy and the sector to understand what more can be done to mitigate the immediate risks. I am personally very happy to meet her and her council to have a discussion about what more can be done.
Before I call Kevan Jones to ask his urgent question, I wish to make a short statement about the sub judice resolution. I have been advised that the 44 cases referred to in the urgent question are formally still the subject of active legal appeal proceedings. Because there is little risk of prejudice now that it is known that the appeals will not be contested, I am exercising the discretion given to the Chair in respect of the resolution on matters sub judice to allow exchanges today by waiving sub judice in respect of these cases. All Members should, however, be mindful that some cases remain contested or may be the subject of future legal proceedings and should be cautious in making reference to individual cases.
CCRC Decision on 44 Post Office Prosecutions
I appreciate the urgent question. The Government recognise that the Horizon dispute has had a hugely damaging effect on the lives of affected postmasters and their families, and its repercussions are still being felt today. I have spoken to a number of postmasters who have been affected by this ordeal.
On 2 October, the Post Office formally responded to the Court of Appeal and Southwark Crown court regarding convicted postmasters whose cases were referred by the Criminal Cases Review Commission. The Post Office has stated that it will not oppose 44 out of the 47 cases. The Post Office also sincerely apologised to postmasters for historical failings and underlined its commitment to delivering a fundamental review of the businesses and to resetting its relationship with postmasters, to ensure that this never happens again.
This decision by the Post Office is an important milestone for postmasters whose convictions are part of this appeals process. Friday’s announcement was not, however, the end of that process. It is now for the courts to decide whether the convictions should be overturned. It would not therefore be appropriate for the Government to comment on these cases until that process is complete.
The Post Office continues to co-operate fully with the CCRC and is in the process of reviewing about 900 historical prosecutions. Should it find any new information that may cast doubt on the safety of a conviction, it has confirmed that it will disclose that information to the person who is convicted. We will continue to monitor the work of the Post Office closely. In addition, I am pleased that the Government last week launched an inquiry, chaired by retired High Court judge Sir Wyn Williams, which will gather relevant available evidence to provide a public summary of the failings that occurred in relation to Horizon and assess whether lessons have been learned and concrete changes have taken place, or at least are under way, at the Post Office.
I had high hopes for the Minister when he was appointed, but unfortunately he is reverting to type, like all his predecessors I have had to deal with over the last eight years. The hon. Member for North West Leicestershire (Andrew Bridgen), Lord Arbuthnot and I have been campaigning on this issue for nearly nine years, and I know that many other Members across the House have individual cases and have been involved in this. It is six years since the three of us met the CCRC, and I am pleased that Friday’s announcement made it clear that the Post Office would not pursue 44 of the cases. But those are simple words, and they belie the agony and torment of these individuals and of hundreds of other individuals who have lost their livelihoods, their good names and, in some cases, their freedom. In other cases, people have lost their lives.
I am sorry, Minister, but what you have said today is not good enough. I cannot get over the fact that this scandal—that is what it is—is still being treated as somehow an issue of the Post Office. The Government are the single shareholder in the Post Office; they are the ones who can actually make some changes, so I would like to ask them some direct questions.
First, as the single shareholder, were the Government involved in the decision not to take forward these prosecutions, in the same way they were involved with the £100 million they spent in defending the civil case last year? Secondly, in terms of the convictions that have been overturned, the Minister said in June that there would be a process in place for compensation. Will he announce a compensation process, or will these people have to pursue cases through the court for compensation? Can I also ask where we are at with the historic compensation process? I understand that 2,000 claims have been made, but not a penny has yet been paid out.
Finally, can I put this issue to the Minister? I am sorry, but the review he has announced is not good enough. It may have a retired judge at its head, but he does not have the powers to summon witnesses and cross-examine them. A full public inquiry is needed. Without that, we will not get to the truth of what is, as I have already said, a national scandal.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for those points, and I will try to deal with them directly. The decision to prosecute postmasters was an operational matter for the Post Office, and the Government are not involved in operational decisions. However, in hindsight, knowing what we know now, it is clear that different conclusions could and should have been reached by the Post Office, and that is why the inquiry is there to look at the lessons.
The right hon. Gentleman asked about a route for compensation, should postmasters who have been convicted have their convictions overturned. There are processes in place for them to receive compensation if appropriate, and that includes a statutory scheme under section 133 of the Criminal Justice Act 1988.
In terms of the latest update on the historical shortfall scheme, the Post Office launched the scheme on 1 May to allow postmasters who were not part of the group litigation to have issues with shortfalls recorded in Horizon investigated and addressed. The window for applications formally closed on 14 August, but late applications are being considered by the Post Office on a case-by-case basis. There have been over 2,200 claims, and the independent panel advising the Post Office on the scheme is now assessing those.
The right hon. Gentleman talked about the inquiry. A judge-led inquiry is very much what was asked for. We have Sir Wyn Williams, a former judge, at the head of that. He will be an independent chair; he will be able to ask the questions, push back at the Government and the Post Office, and get evidence. The reason it is an inquiry rather than a review is that, reflecting on the way its remit was worded, I have always wanted it to be a backward-looking review that enabled evidence to be sought, rather than to be done on just a desktop basis. We have clarified that in the written statement, and I believe this is the inquiry—albeit on a non-statutory basis—that will actually get the answers, and do it in a quick way that hopefully satisfies the sub-postmasters and gets the answers they want.
Almost 20 years ago, Telford resident Tracy Felstead—then a 19-year-old post office clerk—was wrongly convicted and jailed because of a glitch in the Post Office computer system. Last week, the Post Office finally conceded defeat in the long-running battle between David and Goliath. How did a respectable organisation such as the Post Office, a major software company such as for Fujitsu, the great and the good in the civil service, and Ministers from all parties fall prey to groupthink on such a grand scale, so that, despite this computer error occurring across the country, it was assumed that the only possible explanation was that all sub-postmasters affected were dishonest? What action will my hon. Friend take to ensure the Post Office and Fujitsu are properly held to account, and will he commit to determining who knew what and when during this shameful saga?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right that we need to get to the bottom of who knew what and when. That is why I am determined that, under Sir Wyn Williams’ chairmanship, we can seek evidence to complement what is already available from Mr Justice Fraser’s findings by speaking to the Post Office and Fujitsu, who have agreed to comply fully with this inquiry. I also hope that sub-postmasters will, through conversation with Sir Wyn Williams, agree to get involved so that they can share their evidence and stories and so that we can get to the bottom of this, exactly as my hon. Friend says.
The Post Office Horizon scandal may well be the largest miscarriage of justice in our history, with 900 prosecutions, innocent people bankrupted and imprisoned, careers ruined, families destroyed, reputations smashed and lives lost. I pay tribute to the Justice For Subpostmasters Alliance and all who campaigned with them, including Members on all sides of the House, and particularly my right hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr Jones), who secured this urgent question.
For decades, the Post Office denied all wrongdoing, imposing huge stress and legal fees on the victims and spending tens of millions of pounds in the process. Friday’s announcement is a welcome relief for so many, but can the Minister tell us why, as its only shareholder, the Government allowed the Post Office to continue to oppose the appeals for so long? Far from it being merely an operational matter, as the Minister has said, will he admit that this represents a gross failure of oversight, and will he tell us how much this has cost the Post Office and, ultimately, the taxpayer? What is the estimated cost of the compensation that will now need to be paid to those prosecuted, and what of those who were pursued, harassed and bankrupted, but not ultimately prosecuted? It is right that the Government have finally announced a judge-led inquiry into this scandal, which Labour called for months ago, but despite this House having expressed its concerns forcefully, the terms of reference deliberately exclude compensation. Will the Minister amend the terms of reference to include compensation and deliver true justice for the victims?
A miscarriage of justice on this scale undermines confidence in the justice system. Is it right that the Post Office has the power of independent prosecution, and is the Minister reviewing it? The victims need justice, not more unanswered questions. The taxpayer needs to know just how much this failure of oversight has, and will, cost. Finally, the Government need to take responsibility for this debacle and ensure nothing like it can ever happen again.
I thank the hon. Lady for her question—there were a number of questions in that. In terms of the Government’s involvement, as I say, the Post Office’s decisions are operational decisions for it and its board. What happened when—whether there was any Government involvement in terms of the Government shareholder, the board’s appointee, as well as the Post Office—will come up in the independent inquiry, and it is right that they are questioned so that we find out what happened and when.
On the issue of compensation, if the sub-postmasters get involved in this inquiry and share their evidence, they will be able to share their stories and the losses that they have made, both directly and indirectly. However, an inquiry cannot direct compensation; ultimately, that has to be done through the courts.
It is clearly not this very good Minister’s fault, but it is clear, is it not, that a monstrous injustice by the state has been visited upon these poor postmasters and postmistresses, leaving us all, I would hope, extremely uneasy. By refusing to allow the inquiry even to consider the compensation that they should be given, are not the Government, who own, fund and direct the Post Office, in danger of making an already truly dreadful situation even worse?
I thank my right hon. Friend for those personal comments. We are constituency MPs as well, so we can all, I hope, share the horror when we hear the stories of those people, who could easily have been constituents of mine. In terms of compensation, as I say, there are avenues open to those who have been wrongfully prosecuted, there is reason for people to be able to talk about their losses, and it is then for Sir Wyn Williams to present his findings when he concludes the independent inquiry.
During this pandemic, the post office network has shown what a valuable community asset it is. Cases being reviewed in Scotland and the rest of the UK should result in financial compensation to all those innocent people who suffered as a result of the Horizon scandal. I pay tribute to all who have worked for justice in these cases. Will the Minister commit today to ensuring that the costs do not put the post office network at further financial risks? Also, does he still not understand that a non-statutory review is not an independent inquiry, as was promised by the Prime Minister?
In terms of the post office network, it is up to the Post Office to work out how best to compensate people, and it will be looking at that in due course. We will continue to work with the new chief executive, Nick Read, who is looking to put the future relationship with postmasters on a sure footing. In terms of an independent inquiry, this is the judge-led inquiry that has been asked for, albeit on a non-statutory footing. It is judge-led and it is backward looking, in terms of taking evidence from all those involved. When the hon. Lady sees the findings at the end, I hope she will see that, although perhaps not everybody will get everything they want, we will get answers about who knew what, when.
May I congratulate the right hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) on securing this urgent question? The Minister is well aware of my long-term interest in this topic, which has been a running sore for far too long. How confident is he that the review that he announced last week will gain the support and participation of all the stakeholders involved in this issue, and will it be able to hold to account and hold responsible those who allowed this gross miscarriage of justice to occur? If it cannot do the first of those, what confidence can he have that it will ensure that this intolerable situation will never ever be repeated?
My hon. Friend makes an incredibly good point. It is important, first, that Sir Wyn Williams engages with the sub-postmasters, led by Alan Bates, as part of the group litigation, to explain how he intends to investigate and take evidence, and I hope that they would therefore engage. I have talked about the fact that the Post Office and Fujitsu are ready to comply fully with the investigation, but if there are important people with important evidence that is not coming out, for whatever reason, there are mechanisms available to the chairman, Sir Wyn Williams, to look at that further and to re-evaluate.
Two post offices in my constituency are threatened with closure because of the difficulty of recruiting new sub-postmasters or sub-postmistresses. What impact does the Minister think the appalling case of Horizon has had on recruitment? Is he anxious about the future of post offices, particularly rural ones but even those in urban constituencies such as mine? What is the Department doing to work with the Post Office on this issue?
Yes, I am anxious, because it is important that we keep the network up at the target level we set of 11,500. The hon. Lady is right that some of the difficulty is due to the situation gone by; some of it is due to the ongoing complexity of the Horizon system and resource availability. I am glad that the chief executive, Nick Read, comes from a business where he is used to dealing with people as stakeholders, not just as employees, so engaging in a more positive future relationship with postmasters. She is right to talk about rural and urban areas. In London, although clearly we do not want to lose post offices, it is relatively easy compared with some rural areas to get to the next post office, but that is not an excuse to diminish the network in London.
In his previous response, the Minister said he is anxious about the future of the network. I welcome the statement that the Post Office wants to reset the relationship with sub-postmasters, but if he is anxious, what measures is he going to take to make sure that that actually happens? He says that he expects compensation from the Post Office “in due course”, but will he put a timescale on that?
On compensation, it depends on the situation of the people involved. Those who have been wrongfully convicted have recourse through the courts. I have regular contact with Nick Read, the chief executive, and other members of the board to make sure that we look at post office closures as reported to me by MPs and from updates, and increase and improve recruitment of postmasters, which will be achieved through a better future relationship.
Will the Minister join me in thanking all those at the Post Office and Royal Mail who have kept us all going throughout this crisis? As we know, a disproportionate number are from BME communities, who have experienced such death and suffering, like my constituent Varchas Patel and his family. They are pleased that their appeal is not being contested, but they wonder what action is now being taken against those at the top—those in management and leadership positions in the organisation—who presided over this scandal. Or are this algorithm-obsessed Government stuck in a “computer says no” mode?
I have not yet had the chance in this place to congratulate my constituency neighbour and former boss on his ministerial appointment.
I have met Carshalton and Wallington residents, including Nirmala Fatania, who have been affected by the Horizon scandal and whose lives have been turned upside down. Will my hon. Friend assure me that the Post Office will co-operate fully with the inquiry, that we will learn the necessary lessons, and that we will make sure that nothing like this ever happens again?
I thank my hon. Friend—I did not ask him to say what he did, but it is gratefully received and he can come again.
All of us as constituency MPs hear from people like Nirmala Fatania. We are determined to get the answers through the independent inquiry, so that this can never happen again.
Does my hon. Friend accept that those present or former Post Office officials who perpetrated this disaster and perpetuated the agony of the victims must be punished, not promoted, and shamed, rather than rewarded with honours, as I believe happened in at least one prominent instance?
Yes, the Honours Committee and any future employers need to look at the background of any person involved in this. However, as I said, the inquiry is independent, and I do not want to stamp my authority on it. It is now for Sir Wyn Williams to question people and get answers. I want everyone, including people at the Post Office who were involved and are now no longer employed there, to engage in the process.
For years, pleas from MPs to address this scandal have been ignored because of the Government’s cosy relationship with the Post Office. My constituents Kevin and Julie Carter and Dionne Andrew, like hundreds of others, have had to fight for justice every step of the way as they try to clear their names. They have lost more than the Minister can ever comprehend. What protections will the Government put in place so that never again can powerful organisations behave in this way and use the criminal courts with such unaccountability?
I am glad to report that the Post Office is not using private prosecutions any more—the Justice Committee met last week to talk about private prosecutions—but the hon. Member is absolutely right to talk about her constituents and the losses they have suffered. I am glad that the independent inquiry will be able to get to the bottom of that to make sure that it can never happen again.
In my previous life, I remember collecting the mail from post office branches at the time the Horizon scandal was happening. I remember vividly the sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses not being able to balance the tills at that time, and having the stress and anguish of that resting over them. While it is absolutely right that we recognise the hole the Post Office is in, it is worth remembering that at its heart—its very core—is not some mythical bogeyman, but hard-working sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses across the country. The reputational damage that has been done by the Horizon scandal threatens their very livelihoods, and we need to act on this now. With the traditional banking system closing many of the branches in rural communities, what can the Department do to ensure that post office branches have a workable banking system and can offer other services to make these vital rural services more viable?
I thank my hon. Friend for that really important point. It is important to remember what a vital service the post office is for all of us, and we must make sure that while we are looking backwards at the situation with sub-postmasters, we do not threaten the future viability of the network. On banking, we are working with the Post Office as it introduces greater services for various banks to expand the branches and the types of banks they can deal with in-house.
I would urge the 73 Scottish cases whose convictions may be unsafe as a result of this injustice, which was overseen by consecutive Labour, Tory and Lib Dem Ministers, to contact the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission as a matter of urgency. Will the Minister, with his predecessors, write a cross-party letter to the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance apologising for the parts they have played in this saga?
I would echo the hon. Gentleman’s call for people to make sure they are in touch if they believe their convictions are not safe, because the Post Office is determined to make sure, as it looks back and reviews those 900 prosecutions, that it will be in contact—it is committed to being in contact itself—with anybody it feels is part of the Horizon process.
Last week, the Justice Committee, of which I am a member, published a report into private prosecutions, which was prompted by the Horizon scandal. Does my hon. Friend agree with its recommendation that any organisation that conducts a substantial number of private prosecutions should be required to meet the same standards of regulation, accountability and transparency as public prosecutors, and will he discuss that with the Lord Chancellor as a matter of urgency?
My constituent Della Robinson was formerly a local sub-postmistress in Dukinfield, and she lost almost everything in this scandal, including her reputation. I welcome the latest announcement, but when did the Minister know that the Post Office would not oppose the appeals, what discussions did he have with Post Office officials and did they discuss the amount this would cost the Post Office and, ultimately, taxpayers?
We discuss that with the Post Office regularly, and it is the Post Office’s decision not to oppose the appeals. This is clearly part of the recognition that it got things wrong so much over a period of time. I am glad that this change of approach is something that can get to the bottom of sub-postmasters’ questions and clearly right the wrongs of the past.
My father used to be a postman, and I know the vital role that postmasters play in serving many of our communities, especially in rural areas such as High Peak, but the way that many of them have been treated during this scandal is appalling. Can the Minister assure me that he will do everything he can to make certain the Post Office keeps to the commitments it has now made, and that we learn the lessons so that something like this can never happen again?
My uncle was a sub-postmaster in a rural area, and I saw the way he worked; that predated Horizon. We have watched people like him and my hon. Friend’s father work so hard in their communities, and the last thing they should expect is the scandal that has befallen some of these individuals. We must make sure that through this independent inquiry we get the answers so it can never happen again.
Is the Minister aware that I chair the all-party miscarriages of justice group? I have never seen anything as awful as this: so many people’s lives made a misery; their reputations ruined; their whole future and their families broken up. This is so important that I would have expected today at least the Secretary of State on his knees in sackcloth and ashes. Will the Minister make sure that these people get justice, because this was not done by machines or computers; it was done and organised and managed by people, and they should be held to account? Does the Minister agree?
The brief answer is no in terms of the chairmanship; in terms of the Secretary of State and sackcloth and ashes, I am the postal affairs Minister so I am the one who set up the inquiry and I am determined that we get the answers the hon. Gentleman is seeking.
I, too, put on record my thanks to our community post offices; they have provided a vital lifeline during this pandemic in my villages and towns in Colne Valley. In terms of the inquiry, can the Minister assure me that my constituent, Maria, who is one of the victims of this scandal, and all the other victims will be able to give evidence so that they will be heard, and that we will get some conclusion to this inquiry within the next year?
I thank the right hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) and agree with what he said. This has been a dreadful affair during which neither the Post Office nor the Government have covered themselves in glory. A constituent of mine was sent to prison as a result of Horizon issues and was forced to sell their family home, leading to the breakdown of their marriage, yet in a letter to me the Government said they had no plans to prosecute anyone as a number of decision makers were involved. My constituent’s life is in tatters; who is going to be held responsible?
Like other Members across the House, I have constituents whose lives have been destroyed by this scandal, and I welcome the establishment of the inquiry. Can the Minister assure me that any recommendations that emerge from it will be acted on promptly, and will he undertake immediately to speak to senior management at the Post Office to establish whether structures are now in place to ensure that nothing like this could happen in the interim?
Absolutely: I want to ensure this is dealt with in a timely fashion, and we will take all the recommendations very seriously, because we want to get to the bottom of this. I continue to work with, and speak to, Nick Read, the chief executive, and listen to him and push him to ensure that the lessons have been learned and the structures are in place.
Campaigners have labelled the review into the Post Office as a whitewash and a betrayal, and instead are calling for a full independent inquiry with statutory powers, as agreed by the Prime Minister in response to my question to him in February, so will the Minister confirm that statutory powers will be given to the inquiry, meaning that full accounts from former sub-postmasters will be heard as evidence and witnesses will be cross-examined, to ensure that proper justice is served?
The Prime Minister promised an independent inquiry, and that is what we have announced. We want to make sure that postmasters engage with it. The Post Office and Fujitsu have also said they will engage with it. It is now for Sir Wyn Williams to instigate the inquiry and get it under way, and he can always report back if he finds he is not getting the support he needs.
When you have caught and removed the fox from the henhouse, it is never a good idea to put it back in there to compensate the rest of the chickens. We did exactly that with Lloyds, and I fear we are doing exactly that with the Post Office. There is no obvious means of compensation for those with criminal convictions. The jury is out on the historic shortfall scheme, and those who are employed as sub-postmasters through McColl’s or the Co-op have no direct means of compensation. Will my hon. Friend confirm that the Government are committed to making sure that every single person who was disadvantaged is fairly compensated?
There is a separate director within Post Office Ltd who is looking specifically at the historic shortfall scheme to make sure that the rest of Post Office Ltd has the capacity to reset its relationship with postmasters, but we will of course look at Sir Wyn Williams’s findings. Postmasters who have had wrongful convictions have other methods of compensation, as I outlined in my original statement.
My constituent Tracy Major was falsely accused of stealing £24,000 from Anlaby Park post office. She was innocent. She has had her reputation destroyed, she has suffered unimaginable stress, and she is also looking at losing more than £150,000. She has received only £20,000 in compensation. How will the Government and the Post Office ensure she has the justice she deserves?
If the hon. Lady’s constituent was in the group litigation, the compensation was settled in a full and final settlement that was agreed with the Post Office. The Post Office has said it will not contest the wrongful convictions. We will see what happens in the courts, but anybody who has been wrongfully convicted who was not part of that group litigation will have other methods of returning to compensation.
Sub-postmasters often operate in very small communities where everybody knows each other. This has been an incredibly painful experience for them, their families and their communities. I welcome the establishment of the inquiry, but will the Minister please assure us that it will not be a whitewash? Many sub-postmasters in my constituency are anxious to know that.
Yes, I can assure my hon. Friend that it will not be a whitewash. I am determined to get the answers we need from the Post Office and Fujitsu and, indeed, from Government in terms of our role. We want to hear from sub-postmasters about their stories, their evidence and their losses. It is now for Sir Wyn Williams, a retired judge, to get to the bottom of it and to get those questions answered.
People have had their reputations trashed. They have been made bankrupt. Others have gone to prison. What is the Minister doing to ensure that they are assisted while we wait for this inquiry? What we do not need is justice delayed and justice denied. We need action now, so what is he doing to assist those who are in real difficulties?
What I am doing is announcing the inquiry; one of the big reasons I did not want it to be a statutory inquiry, although I can understand the impetus, is that statutory inquiries can last for decades sometimes and cause even more expense. In this way, we can get the answers within a year, I hope, so that we can put this issue to bed and get the answers that people want.
The Minister is aware of the Justice Committee’s report on this matter. He will know that any wrongful conviction potentially undermines the whole of the justice system. Rather than waiting a year for the outcome of this review, will he meet urgently with the Attorney General, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Fareham (Suella Braverman), to discuss the specific recommendations that the Committee makes in its report to ensure that safeguards are applied? Through that, we can ensure that the standards applied by those who have the power to bring private prosecutions are, as my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Rob Butler) said, never less than those applied by the Crown Prosecution Service. Being judge, jury, investigator and victim potentially creates very great conflicts of interest.
I pay tribute to the Chairman of the Justice Committee for all the work he has done and for the report the Committee published last week. I am always happy to speak to the Attorney General, and I will definitely take consideration in due course of that report.
I welcome the progress that we have made thus far in getting at least an element of judicial oversight of this inquiry. Like others, I remain sceptical about whether it will be sufficient, but to proceed on the basis that it is, and that the undertakings that the Minister has given the House today are sufficient to do the job, will he now look at the damage that has been done to the availability of postmasters as a whole across the whole of the country? Communities such as mine rely on them very heavily, and it is becoming more and more difficult with every month that passes to fill those very important positions.
I absolutely see the right hon. Gentleman’s point. This may well be a contributing factor, but there are plenty of other factors that make it difficult to recruit postmasters, particularly in areas such as his. However, we will do whatever we can to fill those places and keep that network up.
The Horizon litigation process has caused immeasurable financial and emotional suffering and distress to the sub-postmasters who have been affected, including some of my constituents. Will my hon. Friend commit to studying whatever recommendations may come forward from the inquiry to ensure that this never happens again?
Yes—one of the reasons for making it a non-statutory inquiry is so that we can get the answers quickly, study them, put things in place, and ensure that the Post Office has put the structures in place to ensure that it never happens again. We can keep its feet to the fire to make that work.
The Communication Workers Union has been campaigning on this issue for a long time. I join others in paying tribute to the right hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) for getting this urgent question. The inquiry that the Minister has set up seems to lack statutory powers. Will he comment on that? I know that he has made other comments on that matter. Also, how much taxpayers’ money was spent opposing appeals on the sub-postmaster scandal?
On a statutory inquiry, as I have said in a number of answers, I want to ensure that we can get the answers quickly, rather than having people, as I described in a previous answer, lawyering up, which adds expense and time for the postmasters who have been through so much. I deal with the CWU on a regular basis. In terms of taxpayers’ money, the Post Office has funded the prosecutions through its own profits.
Sometimes when we hear the words “lessons learned” it can sound a little glib, if not a little trite. Given the extent and the depth of the harm caused by this scandal, can the Minister assure me and the House that we will get to the very bottom of what has gone wrong?
Nobody but nobody, least of all me, can fail to be appalled by what we read about some of the situations, and some of the hardship and worse that many constituents have been through. That is why I am determined to listen to the evidence to ensure that we get those answers, so that it can never happen again.
The truth is that Ministers have set up a half-baked inquiry in response to this extraordinary scandal, without the powers to fully get to the bottom of this mess. Will the Minister at least commit to returning to this House to set out in full both the compensation arrangements and any financial implications for the future of the Post Office?
Let us see what the result is from Sir Wyn Williams’ investigations and inquiry in the first place. Compensation is a matter for the Post Office, which has talked about the historical shortfall scheme. It wants to ensure that people who are wrongfully convicted are compensated accordingly.
On what we can do, we can look for those answers now—not in five or 10 years’ time. These people have suffered enough. They need answers, and they need to be able to draw a line under the stigma that has been attached to so many. That is why the independent inquiry needs to report back, hopefully within around a year, to be able to draw that line for them.
The Minister says he does not want a statutory inquiry. I think many of those affected will be sceptical about his reasons for that. Hundreds of people have been wrongly sued and pursued, with many imprisoned and many more losing their businesses and livelihoods. His Government and previous Governments have been central to an epic scandal. The Prime Minister promised a full independent inquiry. Why is that promise now being broken, like so many others by his Government?
With permission, I would like to make a statement on coronavirus. The virus is spreading, both here and overseas. In the past week, over 450,000 people tested positive for coronavirus in Europe, almost double the number of cases a month ago. Here in the UK, the number of hospital admissions is now at its highest since mid-June. Last week, the Office for National Statistics said that while the rate of increase may be falling, the number of cases is still rising. Yesterday, there were 12,594 new positive cases. The rise is more localised than first time around, with cases rising particularly sharply in the north-east and the north-west of England, and in parts of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Now more than ever, with winter ahead, we must all remain vigilant and get the virus under control.
Let me turn to the operational issues on data publication, the future plans for medicine licensing and, of course, the announcement of 40 hospitals made by the Prime Minister on Friday night. I wish to take the first available opportunity to set out to the House the technical issue relating to case uploads that was discovered by Public Health England on Friday evening. It is an ongoing incident and I come to the House straight from an operational update from my officials.
On Friday night, Public Health England identified that over the previous eight days, 15,841 positive test results were not included in the reported daily cases. This was due to a failure in the automated transfer of files from the labs to PHE’s data systems. I reassure everyone that every single person who tested positive was told that result in the normal way and in the normal timeframe. They were told that they needed to self-isolate, which is now required by law. However, the positive test results were not reported in the public data and were not transferred to the contact tracing system.
I thank colleagues who have been working since late on Friday night and throughout the weekend to resolve this problem. I wish to set out the steps we have taken. First, contact tracing of the relevant cases began first thing on Saturday. We brought in 6,500 hours of extra contact tracing over the weekend. I can report to the House that, as of 9 am today, 51% of the cases have now been contacted a second time for contact tracing purposes. I reassure the House that outbreak control in care homes, schools and hospitals has not been directly affected because dealing with outbreaks in those settings does not primarily rely on this particular PHE system.
Secondly, the number of cases did not flow through to the dashboards that we use for both internal and external monitoring of the epidemic. Over the weekend, we updated the public dashboard, and this morning the Joint Biosecurity Centre presented to me its updated analysis of the epidemic based on the new figures. The chief medical officer’s analysis is that our assessment of the disease and its impact has not substantially changed as a result of the new data, and the JBC has confirmed that it has not impacted the basis on which decisions about local action were taken last week. Nevertheless, this is a serious issue that is been investigated fully. I thank Public Health England and NHS Test and Trace, which have been working together at speed to resolve this issue. I thank everyone for their hard work over the weekend. This incident should never have happened, but the team have acted swiftly to minimise its impact. It is now critical that we work together to put the situation right and make sure that it never happens again.
Another important area of our coronavirus battle plan is treatments. As the House knows, the only treatment known to work against coronavirus was discovered here in the UK. As we leave the EU, I want to use the opportunity to improve how quickly we get new drugs to patients, so the UK is joining Canada, the United States, Australia, Switzerland and Singapore in Project Orbis, which will allow international regulators to work together to review and approve the next generation of cancer treatments faster. It will mean that pharmaceutical companies can submit treatments to be reviewed by several countries at the same time, meaning that we can co-operate with the best medical regulators in the world and make approvals quicker so that we can get patients the fastest possible access to new drugs. It is an exciting development. We will join the scheme fully on 1 January, after the end of the transition period, because we will stop at nothing to bring faster access to life-saving treatments on the NHS.
We are investing in hospitals, too. Two weeks ago, I announced to the House that we are investing an extra £150 million in expanding capacity in urgent and emergency care so that hospitals have the space to continue to treat patients safely in the pandemic. I am delighted that on Friday my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister set out the 40 hospitals we will build by 2030, as part of a package worth £3.7 billion, with eight further new schemes, including mental health facilities, invited to bid for future funding and also to be built by 2030. This is the biggest hospital building programme in a generation, and the investment comes on top of an extra £33.9 billion a year that the Government will be providing to the NHS by 2023-24. We passed that into law right at the start of this Parliament, and the 40 new hospitals across England will support our mission to level up our NHS so that even more people have top-class healthcare services in their local area, and so that we can protect the NHS long into the future.
Finally, it is critical that our rules are clear at local level so that the public can be certain of what they need to do to suppress this virus, and I will update the House in due course on what action the Government are taking, so that we can have more consistent approaches to levels of local action, working with our colleagues in local government. For now, it is essential that people follow the guidance in their local area, and if they need to check the rules, they can check on their local authority website. History shows us that the battle against any pandemic is never quick and never easy. It requires making major sacrifices and difficult choices. I know that this has been a tough year for so many, but we are asking people to persevere as winter draws in, because the only safe path is to suppress the virus, protecting the economy, education and the NHS, until a vaccine can make us safe. I commend this statement to the House.
I thank the Secretary of State for giving me advance sight of his statement. In recent weeks, we have had people being told to travel hundreds of miles for a test; we have had hundreds of children out of school unable to get a test; we have had tracers sitting idle, watching Netflix; and we have had care home tests taking days to be processed. Yesterday, we had a Health Minister saying that this could be a moment of national pride like the Olympics, and we have had a Prime Minister in a complete muddle over the rules. Now, at one of the most crucial points in this pandemic, we learn that almost 16,000 positive cases went unreported for a week. That means that as many as 48,000 contacts have not been traced and are not isolating. Those thousands of people, blissfully unaware that they have been exposed to covid, are potentially spreading this deadly virus at a time when hospital admissions are increasing and we are in the second wave.
This is not just a shambles; it so much worse than that. It gives me no comfort to say it, but it is putting lives at risk, and the Secretary of State should apologise when he responds. No doubt he will complain about my tone, or say that he will not have any divisive talk, but people want answers. He has just said that over half the 16,000 people have been spoken to by tracers, and they have presumably handed over their contacts, but when will the other 49% be spoken to by contact tracers? How many of the contacts have now been traced and spoken to, and how many are isolating? Why did nobody notice this issue until Friday night? Why did it take until 9.30 on Sunday evening for this to become public? The Prime Minister was clearly aware of the problem, because he said on “The Andrew Marr Show” yesterday morning that there had been a
“failure in the counting system, which has now been rectified”.
Speed is of the essence when dealing with a pandemic, so when were local directors of public health informed? The Secretary of State says that this is an ongoing issue, so it has not been rectified, as the Prime Minister said on “Marr”. When will it be fully resolved?
Public Health England sources say that they report the data when they get the data from test and trace. Can the Secretary of State confirm that the data could not be handed over to PHE because of the size of the Excel spreadsheet files? Was this an issue at one particular Lighthouse lab, or across all the Lighthouse labs? Why are critical databases in a national pandemic being hosted on Excel spreadsheets? Why are they not using specialist database software? The right hon. Gentleman likes to boast of his background in software development, so did he sign off this system? Was he aware of it? The Department of Health and Social Care is responsible for the integrity of pillar 2 testing data. His Department is the data controller, so he is ultimately responsible for this mess. It is a mess made up of fragmented systems passing data back and forth between his Department, PHE and outsourcing companies such as Serco and Deloitte, and it is costing us £12 billion. Surely now is the time not to renew Serco’s contract and instead give responsibility and resources to NHS labs and local public health teams to deliver testing and tracing.
The Secretary of State says that the data does not impact decisions that have been made about local restrictions, but areas already under restrictions such as Bury, Hyndburn, Burnley, Manchester, Liverpool and Newcastle have seen increases as a result of this data. Will those areas and others under restrictions now be given extra help and resources to battle the virus? Infection rates in other parts of the country that are not under restrictions, such as Newark and Sherwood, are climbing higher with this new data, so should we expect more local restrictions this week?
The Secretary of State says that he is set to bring in a new three-tiered system to replace the confusing network that is in place. Will he update the House on what the new criteria will be for an area going into restriction and leaving restriction? So far, it has been a bit like “Hotel California”—you can check out, but you can never leave. Families deserve answers.
The Prime Minister told the House on 20 May that we would have a “world-beating” system in place by June. It is now October. The system is neither competent nor improving. Problems are getting worse. The Government are failing on the basics. When will they finally fix this mess?
I will start by answering a couple of factual questions. As I said in my statement, as of 9 am this morning, 51% of these cases have been contacted by the contact tracing system, and their contacts are contacted immediately after the initial contact—concurrently.
The hon. Gentleman asked about the tiering system. Absolutely, extra support will go to areas where there is an increased number of cases. He asked about the criteria in the proposed approach. Of course, we cannot have fixed and specific criteria, because it depends on the nature of the outbreak. For instance, if there was an outbreak in one individual employer, we would not necessarily put the whole local area into local action. We try to make the intervention as targeted and as localised as possible, but sometimes it needs to be broad, as it is in the north-west and across large parts of the north-east. For example, the intervention in the west midlands covers four of the seven council areas of the west midlands, but not the other three, because that follows the data.
The hon. Gentleman asked about the particular IT system in question. The problem emerged in a PHE legacy system. We had already decided in July to replace this system, and I commissioned a new data system to replace the legacy one. Contracts were awarded in August, and the work on the upgrade is already under way. While, of course, we have to solve the problem immediately, we also need to ensure that we upgrade this system, and we have already put in place the contracts to ensure that that happens. In the meantime, it is critical that we work together to fix these issues, which were identified by PHE staff working hard late on Friday night. I want to thank the PHE staff who did so much work to resolve this issue over the weekend.
In answer to the hon. Gentleman’s final question, we need to ensure that we contact trace all those cases as soon as possible. In two days, we managed to get to 51% of them, and that work is ongoing.
The Health Secretary deserves enormous credit for the expansion of testing capacity that he has personally championed, but is not the underlying problem that the Lighthouse laboratories have been, and will continue to be, overwhelmed by demand? Do we not need to think about the structures and, in particular, whether the responsibility for NHS staff testing and care home staff testing should be moved to hospital laboratories and universities, in the way that was advocated this morning by Sir David Nicholson, the former chief executive of the NHS? Sometimes it is tempting to think that, by dealing with the latest problem, we will solve the whole problem, but ahead of winter and the second wave, we need to think about whether these structures are right for what we have to deal with.
The expansion of the NHS testing is, of course, critical as well. The system in question, where the problem was over this weekend, brings together the data both from the NHS systems and from the so-called pillar 2 systems. The challenge was in a system that integrates the two, rather than just on one side or the other, but my right hon. Friend makes a broader point, which is that as we expand the NHS’s capacity as part of the overall expansion of testing, we have to ensure that we use that capacity to best effect. In many parts of the NHS, increasingly, it is NHS testing capacity that is used for NHS staff testing. That system works well, because the test is local and convenient, and we are looking to expand in exactly the sort of direction that he outlines. I urge colleagues away from trying to bifurcate between the two systems. Essentially, we have a whole series of different ways to access a test, and we need to make sure that people get the tests that are easiest to access for them as much as possible.
The delay in entering almost 16,000 covid cases into Government databases has resulted in last week’s case numbers being totally inaccurate. The Secretary of State says that the updated statistics would not have led to additional measures, but are there any new areas of heightened concern? PHE has blamed the problem on test result files being too big to load on to its central system. Was that, as has been suggested, due to the transfer of data between formats? If the underlying issue was due to the rapidly rising number of positive cases, why was that not anticipated or identified sooner? Can he be sure that something like this cannot happen again?
Just as importantly, this means that none of those cases was registered with the tracing system. While, as the Secretary of State says, people with a positive test got their result and, we hope, self-isolated, they did not get direct advice and they did not give the details of their contacts. From the Government’s data, people with covid report an average of three to four contacts each, so that would represent 50,000 to 60,000 contacts who were not identified and asked to isolate and therefore will have continued to spread the virus. While up to 10 days have lapsed and the opportunity to prevent onward spread may have been missed, the Secretary of State mentions that 51% of cases have been contacted, but on what timescale does he hope to reach all the contacts of those cases? Given that only about 60% of community contacts in England are currently reached, will he involve local authority public health teams in what is now a massive contact-tracing operation?
On the core of the hon. Lady’s point, the assessment of the epidemic on the basis of the updated data is core to our approach to tackling the epidemic. The chief medical officer has analysed the new data, which we have now published—on coronavirus.data.gov.uk we can see the data, and that is on the corrected basis. Based on Joint Biosecurity Centre analysis, the CMO’s advice is that the assessment of the disease and its impact have not substantially changed. That is because the just under 16,000 cases were essentially evenly spread, so it has not changed the shape of the epidemic. It has changed the level, in terms of where we are finding the epidemic and in what sorts of groups.
The hon. Lady asks how many contacts have been contacted, as opposed to how many of the primary index cases. As I said, that is happening concurrently, so as soon as the index case has been contacted by Test and Trace and interviewed, the contacts are immediately contacted. As I said, we have got through 51% of the backlog over the weekend, and we have brought in more resources to complete that task.
My right hon. Friend and everyone in the House hopes that there will be a safe and effective vaccine available during the months ahead, but the head of the vaccines taskforce has said that she expects it to be available to only half of the population, concentrating on the over-50s and the most vulnerable. Is that the Secretary of State’s understanding? What are the implications for the other half of the population?
This is a very important question. The vaccines taskforce has done incredibly important work in supporting the scientific development and manufacture of vaccines and in procuring vaccines—six different types of vaccine—from around the world. The work of deploying a vaccine is for my Department, working with the NHS and the armed forces, who are helping enormously with the logistical challenge, and we will take clinical advice on the deployment of the vaccine from the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation. My right hon. Friend the Chair of the Science and Technology Committee will know that 10 days ago the JCVI published a draft prioritisation, and it will update that as more data becomes clear from the vaccine. That is the Government’s approach: to take clinical advice from the JCVI.
The Secretary of State will know that south Manchester now has some of the highest infection rates in the country, but the figures are skewed by the very high rate among 17 to 21-year-olds. Many of those appear to be students who are confined to halls of residence, so the spread of the virus ought to be contained. May I therefore ask for an assurance from the Secretary of State that we will not have any extra local lockdown restrictions in Manchester as a result of figures that give a misleading picture of the extent of the virus in the wider community?