Thursday 15 July 2021
[Judith Cummins in the Chair]
Virtual participation in proceedings commenced (Order, 25 February).
[NB: [V] denotes a Member participating virtually.]
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I beg to move,
That this House has considered the future of the planning system and the upcoming Planning Bill.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Cummings.
I thank the Minister for being present and Members for taking part in the debate. I am very respectful of the Minister and I do not underestimate the challenges that he faces in changing a complex system. We need sensible reform, but we need to get it right, and it is in that positive spirit that I intend to speak. I will speak for no more than 10 minutes, because I want to get as many people in as possible.
I will reiterate some concerns and, significantly, suggest as many solutions as I can; some have been made by me and some by near 100 Members on the WhatsApp group. I sent those ideas to the Prime Minister and to the Housing Department a few weeks ago for thought, and I look forward to a response. I put forward an approach to planning based on three principles: that it should be community led, levelling-up led and environment led. I commend those to Ministers. First, however, I will outline some concerns.
Reform, I believe, is better than scrapping and starting again. Scrapping threatens to misdiagnose the problem. Nine in 10 planning applications are approved, but only 60% of permissions are built, so there are more than 1 million unbuilt permissions in a decade. The basic fact is that we have a flawed market. The building cartels, which build the majority of homes, restrict supply. That is not a secret; it is in their building model. They act to prevent prices falling. That is why using housebuilding alone, or predominantly, to lower prices will not work.
Furthermore, the standard method damages the levelling-up agenda. That is critical, especially given the Prime Minister’s excellent speech today. Levelling up is a moral and economic imperative. It is also a political imperative for the Government. However, a flawed planning Bill will undermine that levelling-up process. Some red wall colleagues are now beginning to see that.
Knight Frank reported that the current methodology, the standard method,
“systematically disadvantages poorer parts of the country, particularly in the North and Midlands”.
The north has 23% of the nation’s population, but its housing need is estimated at not even 16% of the total, and its share of public expenditure on housing is barely 18% of the total. The housing infrastructure fund spends £115 per head in the east of England and an astonishingly low £4 per head in Yorkshire.
The standard method directs investment away from levelling up communities. It heats up the already hot and it cools down those people who need to be cooking on gas—pardon the analogy. Other people will talk about the potential loss of democracy and other concerns, so I will not dwell too much on them, because I want to focus on one or two specific issues, but it is clear from talking to colleagues that there is much variation in people’s concerns. For some it is green fields and damage to tourism or quality of life, and for others it is suburban density, building height or the absolute absurdity of building on floodplains. For others, it is a system that is simply not delivering affordable homes.
I will say that there is a slight frustration. Opponents of reform—well, opponents of scrapping the system rather than reforming it—are sometimes portrayed as nimbys. On the Island, on the Isle of Wight, we have been yimbys for 50 years—we have been in our backyard. We have increased our population by 50% in 50 years. In that time, the cities of Newcastle, Sunderland, Hull, Liverpool, Manchester, Blackpool, Birmingham and Stoke have all declined—not relatively declined but declined in absolute percentage and numbers. So when people say that opponents of a developer-led system in the south are nimbys, I respectfully argue that they should acquaint themselves with some basic facts about the history of development that has taken place in this country since world war two. We have barely no new infrastructure on the Isle of Wight, and our key gas supplies, water and electricity interconnectors are already operating at near capacity.
So what are the solutions? I want most of this speech to be positive. I will look at our three principles and suggest perhaps a dozen or 15 ideas in the time I have available. Some of them are community led, some environmentally led and some levelling-upled, but they all gel together to look at ways we can support the Minister in the important work that he is doing, which we want to support.
Our reforms are: first, enshrine the ability to object to individual planning applications; secondly, give greater weight to reforming neighbourhood plans; thirdly, outlaw gazumping. We know that communities with neighbourhood plans accept higher housing allocations because they see what is in it for them. We know that gazumping slows down the market and imposes costs. Good democracy and good law help good development.
On levelling up, there are many things one could say, but I will stick to one. We need to fundamentally reform the standard model and redirect infrastructure funding and house building jobs to levelling-up areas as a deliberate act of policy. Without that, we will have to explain to our voters in a few years’ time why all that infrastructure funding, or so much of it, is going down south, and it will not be a pretty conversation with southern colleagues and voters or red wall and levelling-up communities.
Finally, a series of ideas linked to the environment. We need to end the use of lazy greenfield development. I know Ministers want that, but it would be great if they could want it more. We need a recycling culture in land use. I am aware that some good ideas in the White Paper are about infrastructure levies, but it needs to price in the true cost of using up very valuable rare greenfield land. For many areas I fear that will be a markedly higher price than will be factored into the Bill. We need, in short, to change the economics of land use.
We need a greenfield tax so that money goes into brownfield clean-up in a dedicated way. If we are using, especially in a place such as the Isle of Wight, rare greenfield land, we need to get a greater good out of it than Persimmon’s bottom line. We need to zero-rate brownfield development, encourage it and build in financial incentives, especially for small-scale brownfield in small towns and communities, to make it work.
There are many loopholes that I could suggest closing, but I will not, given the time. I will just say that we need greater powers of compulsory purchase to force people to act more quickly. There are 600 unused and derelict properties on the Isle of Wight. If the Minister wants to get 600 extra properties on the Isle of Wight, he should give the Isle of Wight Council more power. Make it easier for us to enforce action on derelict and unused properties in order to force sale or to force use. Introduce a character test to screen out dodgy developers. If he wants to clean up the system, let him be the sheriff who gets rid of cowboy developers.
Buyers who turn homes—I think this was suggested by a colleague who will be speaking shortly—into Airbnb or holiday homes should be required to apply to councils for change of use. Councils should be allowed to frame localised plans to reverse and lower the percentage of long-term holiday and commercial holiday rentals in specific communities.
We help first-time buyers, so why not last-time sellers with stamp duty exemption? It will cost money. One in five over-65s would be, according to facts and figures, more likely to move. That could affect 2 million people—£900 billion-worth of property. That would free up the market and allow market-driven solutions where there is not market failure. Clearly, there is an element here.
Finally, land banking. If we want to boost supply, we need to create a use-it-or-lose-it rule for permissions within a realistic time bracket. That means more than starting a development by digging a trench six foot by six. Agreeing a start date means agreeing just that and making council tax payable on all plots after a given date, regardless of whether they are built. If the purpose of the Minister’s planning Bill is to help developers, these ideas will not be attractive to many of them, but if its purpose is to get people into homes and to help first-time buyers—I am sure it is—these ideas, and many others suggested by colleagues, will help him produce a markedly better planning Bill, or a planning Bill that is as good and as attractive as we all want it to be.
We need solid principles behind the planning Bill. It should be community led, levelling-up led, and environment led. We need to be sensitive to local democracy. We need a levelling-up agenda that spreads prosperity and hope around our country. To make it environment led, we have to move away from unsustainable, lazy, car-dependent and carbon-inefficient greenfield development, and we need to build for communities and in communities.
It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Mrs Cummins, and I thank the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Bob Seely) for securing the debate.
I wanted to speak in this debate because I want the Minister to succeed and I want my community to succeed. I am here to offer support and help where we can get the solutions right. There are four key elements that I want to address: how we maximise economic opportunity, how we meet housing need, how we have transport integration and sustainability, and how we engage the community. Those are all equal partners and are all needed in how we take developments forward.
Looking at this issue, I think about our 45-hectare brownfield site in the middle of York. It is adjacent to the railway station and it is publicly owned land, so we can really do something innovative there for the future of our city, in order to address the huge inequality in our economy and to ensure that we get the investment right. Tragically, whereas 36,000 jobs are being created at Curzon Street and 37,000 jobs at Crewe, York Central will have just 6,500 jobs. That is only two and half times the number of houses being built; in Birmingham, nine times as many jobs are being created than there are houses being built. That says to me that we need to understand how we can use such sites for economic growth, and that we need consistency.
What is not happening? Housing is not talking to the economy, to transport or to the environment, and it is certainly not talking to our communities. That is what matters to take us forward, which is what I want to do. People in my city are being priced out of it, which is skewing the local economy. We cannot get the care workers we need and people to work in our hospitality sector and tourism, which is a major economic driver, so we have a negative cycle. Unfortunately, building luxury apartments, which clearly provide a quick receipt from public land sales, pushes up the rest of the market and drives people further away from our city, meaning that people cannot have the amenities and services that they need. We are moving into the wrong spaces, and it just does not work. It is a broken system, which is why I am looking for reparation, so that we actually use such sites to drive economic opportunity.
Given its connections to the east coast mainline, the trans-Pennine route, Northern Powerhouse Rail and High Speed 2, we are told that York will be one of the best-connected sites in the country, and we need to take advantage of that. On housing, we need to ensure that we have a real match between the need in a local community and what is built. We are seeing luxury apartments that no one can afford, when we have a real housing crisis. We need to get the balance right. There is a requirement for 80% of developments to be family homes, yet they are not being built. Instead, we will see luxury homes, which will be moved on for holiday lets and Airbnb. Our city really does not want more Airbnb.
On transport, we need to ensure that the site in the middle of York is sustainable, yet 2,697 new car parking spaces are being placed in the heart of the city, which is sucking in traffic, making our air quality worse and jamming up our city. We cannot have that. All the people on the strategic board are not from York, and they do not understand our community. We need community voices right at the heart of planning decisions, to ensure that they can talk about their aspirations and their future. That is what levelling up has to be about, and that is what the planning Bill has to be about. I trust that this is what the Minister will enable to happen in the future.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Bob Seely) for securing this debate. He has already highlighted many of the points that I intend to raise. Like him, I am keen to work with the Minister to ensure that we have a solution that works for local communities.
Planning is broken in North Devon. We can illustrate why we need reform quite dramatically. We have a local plan, yet our local community does not believe in it; our local council votes against developments in the local plan, even though it is on brownfield sites. We have exceeded the number of houses that are built in the community, yet we have nowhere for local people to live. For over four years we have built more than we required, yet we still do not have places local people can live in. We have a conservation office and a planning department from which most developments take up to a decade to emerge.
We have always been a community that welcomes tourists and second home owners, but unfortunately that dynamic is now slightly tilted in the wrong direction. New builds are snapped up as second homes or holiday lets, sometimes by locals because they can make so much money. Why would they rent out a property for a few hundred pounds a month when you can make several thousand a week up here in North Devon?
Post pandemic, North Devon is one of the top 10 places in the country to move to, and I agree that it is a fantastic place to live. However, as the hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) said, we need people to move here, to get jobs, to stay here and to build communities here with their families. Building homes is not about houses; it is about communities. It is not about a winter ghost town. Croyde, which boasts one of the best surf beaches in the country, is currently 64% second home-owned. During the pandemic, in the village where I live—where I am speaking from this afternoon—mine was one of just six houses out of the 30 in my close that was occupied. We also have derelict homes, as well as second homes and Airbnbs.
We really need the council to have more teeth to stop new developments going to more second homes or additional Airbnbs and put in place covenants to ensure that local communities can build more family homes here in North Devon. We need them to be affordable so people can live here. Developing in North Devon is difficult; we are remote, we are rural, we do not have a big work force and it is hard to transport materials here. Overlay that with the time it takes to get things out of planning, and actually it is quite a hostile environment for developers. That is not to mention the opposition from many locals, who see that we do not need additional homes; we need the ones we have here already to be available to local people. We have developers facing death threats here in North Devon. We really do need some interventions to enable communities to reform.
The market is broken. In the village where I am this afternoon, a two-bedroom apartment in need of renovation is currently on the market at £750,000—with a communal garden. Something is not working here in North Devon. The final point I will make is that we need to find a way to ensure that councils can raise revenue when people wish to convert a property into a holiday let, and that there are more protections in the market. The private rental sector is now non-existent here; we need to find a way to ensure that there are more privately rented properties, as well as homes that are affordable for local families to buy. There is no point in coming on holiday to North Devon if we have nobody working in our bars and restaurants and nobody able to service visitors when they get here. Communities should not be full of empty houses for half of the year, they should be full of family homes.
It is a pleasure, Mrs Cummins, to serve with you in the chair. I congratulate the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Bob Seely) on securing this debate. I agree with his opening comments on the broken housing system and the stranglehold of the volume house buildings.
It is also a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for North Devon (Selaine Saxby). It was east Devon where Labour secured a memorable by-election win last week. I congratulate councillor Jake Bonetta and the Labour team. It is, perhaps, wins such as these that are sending a shudder through the Government at the moment. Perhaps this is why the Prime Minister today ignored the unveiling of the hugely important national food strategy, in favour of trying to reassure Conservative MPs in the south that planning changes are not the political dynamite they fear. However, he has a job on, because if the mantra is “build, build, build”, and one characterises those who care about our countryside as newt counters, then one can hardly be surprised when they turn away to people who take a more considered view. It is not only in Devon: many newspaper columns have been written about the battle going on in Horsham, where the legendary Knepp estate fears that Horsham District Council will approve thousands of homes, while the council says that central Government have put it in this position.
We all agree that there is a problem with the current system, but many of us are deeply suspicious of the suggestions put forward in the planning White Paper last year, not least when one sees the level of donations made by developers to the Conservative party. According to The Times, the developer behind the plan at Knepp, Thakeham, has donated more than £600,000 to the Conservatives since 2017. “Build, build, build”—it is not hard to see why. Be in no doubt that I want people housed, I want affordable homes, I want council homes and I want homes of high environmental quality, none of which has been achieved by this Government.
There is much more to be said about planning and housing than can be said in three minutes, but I will highlight one glaring contradiction in Government policy that remains unresolved. I have challenged Ministers on this repeatedly and will try again today. In the Government’s much-delayed but initially worthy Environment Act 2020, there are good proposals to secure biodiversity net gain. They may not be as ambitious as some of us would like, and we have raised some practical concerns, but the principle is right and we support it. However, no one on the Government side has been able to explain how to get biodiversity net gain in a zonal planning system. When challenged, they evade the question. I do not blame them, because there is no obvious answer.
That is not me saying that; it is the planning experts. I refer to an excellent piece in The Planner last summer by Huw Morris, who asked how individual schemes will be environmentally assessed to provide the mitigation. They will not, will they, Minister? That is one reason why Conservative MPs are right to be worried. People in England want homes, and homes for their children, but they want our precious land protected too. I just say: beware the Prime Minister’s bulldozer—it is out of control and it is coming for some green space near you.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mrs Cummins. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Bob Seely) on securing this important debate.
Before I consider the future planning system, perhaps hon. Members will allow me a minute or two of nostalgia. When I was first elected as a councillor to Great Grimsby Borough Council in 1980, just about every planning application went before the planning sub-committee, which met every two weeks and decided whether plans—large or small; a conservatory or a large-scale industrial development—should go ahead or be refused. During the intervening years, more and more decisions have been delegated to planning officers. One thing that people expect from those they elect to represent them is that they actually participate in those decisions and have a vote. Democracy has suffered and voters feel more and more that those they elect to use their judgment have been sidelined, and confidence in the system has waned. There is no going back to what may or may not have been the halcyon days of the Grimsby planning sub-committee, but what of the future? Communities feel that they need to be involved, but they recognise that their influence is limited. If they feel that the proposals that may come forward will further limit that influence, they will be apprehensive and oppose those changes. This is a massive challenge.
Thanks to the Government’s levelling-up agenda, areas such as mine are becoming more and more attractive to businesses. New jobs are created regularly; we have record funding through the Greater Grimsby town deal, tipping over the £100 million mark since the last election; we have gained freeport status for the Humber ports; and the Budget this year announced tens of millions of pounds for a new marine energy park. The end result will be more highly skilled, well-paid, sustainable jobs, which will create greater investment in the area, improving living conditions and requiring more housing.
Like previous Governments, this one is faced with the demand for more housing and the resistance of local people to excessive development. I use the word “excessive” deliberately, as on the whole most people recognise the need for more housing. I also appreciate that, in rural communities, limited growth is required to support local services and facilities such as schools, post offices, pubs and churches. However, they also know that excessive development will overload local services, such as GP practices. It was good to hear the Prime Minister acknowledge that in his speech this morning.
I will give a current example from my constituency of how essential community involvement is to the whole process. North Lincolnshire Council has applied for levelling-up funding to deliver one of the council’s main projects—the western relief road, which is crucial to the continued expansion of the local economy. That road was included in the council’s local plan, but that local plan is unknown to most people: the whole process is a mystery, and they have more important things to do, getting on with their lives. Only last Saturday, I visited two constituents whose property could be severely affected by the road. I spent an hour with them, explaining the local plan and how it had been advertised and they would have been able to submit objections, but of course, like most people, it had passed them by.
I could take the Minister to the village of Wootton in my constituency, where he will see that every other house has an estate agent-style board in its front garden, objecting to another local application. If we are to involve communities, they must be part of the local plan process. Of course, we have to recognise the need for more housing, particularly for our younger people, but on balance I must urge the Government towards caution on this issue. They have the best intentions, and I will gladly work with them to achieve their aims, but caution is the watchword.
It is a pleasure to serve under you as Chair for this important debate, Mrs Cummins, and I thank the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Bob Seely) for securing it. As other hon. Members present will know, planning is an issue that really impacts our local communities and attracts a great deal of attention when contentious applications are made. However, the Government’s proposals limit accountability and local input in the planning system. The proposed changes will lead to local people no longer having the ability to formally object to inappropriate developments in their own street or neighbourhood, with participation limited to consultation on the area’s local plan every few years. They would remove the public’s right to comment on those individual applications, cutting opportunities for public engagement by half. That does not seem fair.
I will give the example of Ryton ward in my constituency, where we have a local plan for Gateshead, and where there is a very contentious housing development. It has been through the local plan, with land allocated for housing, so that was one leg of the argument gone at the application stage, but there is lots of detailed engagement on very specific proposals and conditions. I know, for example, that the people of Stargate—a small mining village—who are most affected, are seeing huge changes. Those changes are not to their direct benefit, but are having a huge impact on their lives. We need to ensure that people have the right to participate in those local decisions, not just at the principle level but at the detailed level, when something happening next door affects an individual’s life.
With nine in 10 planning applications approved by councils and—according to the Local Government Association—more than 1 million homes given planning permission but not yet built, it is clear that it is the housing delivery system that is broken, not the planning system. Raising the number of homes required without incentivising or compelling developers to actually build them will not lead to the provision of more homes, which brings me to an important point: a number of parties have identified that we really need to be funding our planning system effectively, so that the planners can deal with the applications. They are being held back by a lack of staff on some occasions, and I believe the Royal Town Planning Institute has made that very point and believes that zoning is not the answer.
I want to speak specifically—the Minister would be surprised if I did not—about accessible housing, and the need for planning reform to promote accessibility. We must do much more to ensure that older and disabled people can live in homes suitable for their needs: that is essential for people’s independence and quality of life. Over the past year and more we have all spent a lot more time at home, especially vulnerable people, both older people and those with disabilities. However, sadly, new Government data published just last week—on 8 July—as part of the English housing survey revealed that a growing proportion of older and disabled people are forced to live in homes unsuitable for their needs. The Government launched a consultation on accessible homes almost a year ago, in September 2020, but we are yet to hear the outcome.
I will touch very briefly on the environment and the climate emergency. The planning system has a central, vital role in both addressing climate change and facilitating nature’s recovery, but the Government’s proposed changes do not properly address the needs of the natural environment. I fully support the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds in calling for the Government to strengthen protection for sites already designated for nature, giving local nature recovery strategies material weight in the planning system and ensuring robust and fit for purpose environmental regulations.
It is a huge privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Cummins, and I thank the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Bob Seely) for raising some massively important issues for all our constituents. I am speaking from just outside the Lake District in Westmorland, where we have always had a huge problem of excessive second home ownership and, indeed, the pressure that too many holiday lets can put on a local community. However, over the past 12 months that problem has become catastrophic.
We have been deeply concerned that Governments over the years have failed to acknowledge this problem, but surely now it is unmissable. To give an idea of the problem, over the past 12 months, estate agents I have spoken to say that up to 80% of all house sales have been into the second-home market. There are communities in my constituency where 90% of the homes are not lived in. We do not need to think too hard to work out what the consequences of even 30% of a community not being lived in all year round will be: they lose the local school because nobody is going to that school from the homes within that community, and they lose the local bus service, pub, post office and all the other facilities as well. These beautiful places can become ghost towns, but the problem has got so much worse in these last 12 months.
We have also seen the massive growth in the number of holiday lets. Here in the south lakes, we have one of the highest proportions of holiday lets anywhere in the country. That huge number has gone up by 32% in a year. As hon. Members have said, that has come about due to a variety of different sources, but in particular the Airbnb market.
Anecdotally, what does that mean? Constituents that I have spoken to in Ambleside, Kirkby Lonsdale, Grange-over-Sands and other places who had a private rented property costing maybe £600 to £700 a month find they are being kicked out, now that the evictions ban has ended, and they discover that the property is on the market for £1,000 a week on Airbnb. That is outrageous, and it is something that Government have the power to do something about through planning reforms that would actually make a difference.
What I am asking the Government to do—the hon. Member for Isle of Wight alluded to this earlier and I completely agree with him—is to change planning law. The Government should change planning law so that holiday lets and second homes are separate categories of planning use, and they should give the Lake District national park, the Yorkshire Dales national park, South Lakeland District Council and all planning authorities the power and the resource to police that, so that the leakage of those homes out of the family home market is prevented.
It seems outrageous that these beautiful places that we are so proud of, in our rural parts of the United Kingdom, can end up bleeding local talent and families and becoming places where only the wealthy can stay or visit. We wanted these radical interventions to happen years ago, but surely now these extreme circumstances mean that extreme and radical action is necessary. I add that the Government could copy what the Welsh Government have done—give local authorities the power to increase council tax on second homes to well above 100% and up to 200%, and use that revenue first to dissuade people from having second homes in certain areas, but also to invest in the schools, post offices and bus services that would otherwise close, so that we do not, by letting the market let rip, see communities like mine in Cumbria die through the lack of intervention.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Cummins. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Bob Seely) on securing this important debate. Generally speaking, I find the proposals outlined in the White Paper to be positive, but there is much to be done to refine our approach to make it a solid foundation for a 21st-century planning system.
First, as a local councillor for 15 years, I want to emphasise the importance of engaging local communities to get it right from the very start of any planning system. Of course there is a practical side, in terms of context, utilities and amenities, as well as the need to protect well-loved conservation areas, particularly in a constituency like mine.
In my personal experience as a councillor, local people are not nimbys, but want and deserve quality homes that are appropriate to where they live. I know from speaking to constituents in the Cities of London and Westminster that the vast majority of people who live there are keen for their children and grandchildren to be able to remain in the area, but sadly, at the moment that is not always the case. I recognise that the Government are paving the way on bricks and mortar, but there is still a long way to go to reach the Government target of 300,000 homes a year.
It is not just about the numbers. My constituents want homes that they can grow up in and remain in when they have families. We want our children to know a range of people from all walks of life. In the Cities of London and Westminster there is a perception that the housing market is polarised between the multimillion-pound properties for oligarchs and very wealthy people, and council-run estates and housing association homes. What we need, and what local people want, is affordable and appropriate homes in the middle ground that keep neighbourhoods as thriving, friendly communities.
I urge the Minister to ensure not only that local residents are sufficiently consulted, but that there is a concerted effort to increase local democracy when it comes to the final planning reforms, which we will see when the legislation comes forward. On a practical level, one way of doing so is to address the issues of change in use class between residential and different types of commercial activity. There have been recent changes in planning legislation that are already having a major effect on constituencies like mine and not giving local authorities the flexibility that they need. For example, the introduction of the commercial, business and service use of class E, as well as permitted development rights, makes it now significantly more difficult for local authorities to influence the way in which areas develop.
These changes have also removed the funding that used to be provided through section 106 and the strategic industrial locations process. If every commercial use is considered to be the same use class, then any change of use requires little or no approval and provides no funding, even for the infrastructure that is so badly needed to make all of this work.
The same goes for the permitted development rights process. We have an increasing number of class E premises that are changing from shops to restaurants, without any requirement for planning permission to manage issues such as servicing and hours of use. That means that licensing has to take up the slack. Planning is pushing the problem over to local authority licensing committees, and that is not on. It is important that the planning process should listen to residents. It should take into account their views and the appropriateness of changes in residential and commercial uses for communities and local authorities.
A second way to bolster local democracy, which the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government should consider, is improvements to the appeals process for planning applications. That is much in the spirit of the Prime Minister’s stated ambition to give constituents
“a greater say over what gets built”
in their community, but allow me to quote the Covent Garden Community Association, which wrote that we need
“to rebalance the appeals process in the current planning system. The fact that applicants can appeal to the Planning Inspector but local communities can only appeal to the High Court sets up an imbalance of risk”.
There is much to welcome in the planning reforms, but local democracy still needs to be at their very heart.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Cummins. I congratulate the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Bob Seely) on securing the debate and thank him for his valued contribution to the all-party parliamentary group for council housing, which I have the privilege to chair.
We could do much to address the considerable inequality in our society by tackling the housing crisis. Many of us across the House understand that housing is vital to enabling a decent quality of life. In turn, we appreciate that it hinges on a planning system that is fair. I take that fairness to comprise wide-scale access to affordable housing, strong local democratic controls on housing developers and the prioritisation of local communities. Sadly, that is distinctly absent from the Government’s proposed reforms to the planning system.
Although I accept that there is a severe need for housing in this country, a planning system that does not take into account those markers of fairness will do nothing for local people up and down the country, including those in my constituency. The issue is about what housing is required and where. I have more faith in the old system, which had greater powers for authorities and local development corporations, but the Localism Act 2011 greatly denuded the powers of local authorities and, in particular, muzzled the voices of our communities.
Let me give one example that is going through the system and relates to Warwick District Council’s local plan, which runs to 2029. The application for what is labelled the East Whitnash housing development is currently being considered by the planning inspector. The proposed housing development has no regard for local traffic issues or the wishes of residents. It is far from being a sustainable development; it has everything to do with over-development. Our local plan estimates that 20,000 new homes will be delivered, representing an over-development of 3,500 dwellings.
Forgive me, but the common theme throughout the debate has been over-development coupled with overestimation. The challenge has been great enough under the existing planning legislation, which already stifles local voices. The Government’s plans to stop local opponents blocking developments in designated growth zones mean that the concerns raised by the local community in Whitnash and elsewhere will hold no sway—so much for local accountability.
More specifically, I am deeply concerned by the advent of a new planning system in which affordable housing will be increasingly out of reach. As my hon. Friend the Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) stated, there is real unaffordability in many areas across the country. With an increasing amount of power centralised in the hands of housing developers, I struggle to see how the Government’s proposals will turn the tide of the declining number of affordable houses.
I suggest some improvements to the Bill: keep prioritising local government so that local officials will not be stripped of their power to assess building applications; establish regional development corporations led by local authorities, as well as community-led proposals; on community-led housing, ensure that senior Government figures actually take on board that, as we have heard, most communities welcome housing provided that it is truly affordable for young people; and prioritise local, affordable homes—for too many areas, the cost of housing as a ratio of local incomes is way too high. We must also ensure that there are enhanced powers for local authorities. We need to proscribe land banking and provide greater powers to local authorities to buy sites at existing land prices. All too often, developers control land, making millions on land options, while landowners ride off into the sunset, pocketing tens of millions of pounds.
The planning Bill needs to ensure that we build communities, not houses. All too often, there are no shops, pubs or community centres, as has been demonstrated south of Warwick and Leamington. Infrastructure needs to be built in advance, and all that is possible. I urge the Government to listen to us and the public, and to stop listening to the developer-donors who are destroying our countryside, denying communities the right housing and leaving generations impoverished as a result.
It is a pleasure to speak with you in the Chair, Mrs Cummins, as I join the debate from here in West Sussex. I join others in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Bob Seely) on securing the debate.
I welcome that, as much as some may try to make it so, this is not a party political matter. We know that the Lib Dems’ housing policy is for an identical 300,000 homes, while the Green party plans 500,000 homes a year—that is before factoring in the extra building from their open-door policy on settlement.
The Minister is well aware of my opposition to the large-scale and inappropriate development proposals on greenfield land across my constituency, in Adversane, Ashington, Buck Barn, Barnham, Eastergate, Mayfield, Kirdford, Rustington, Westergate and Wisborough Green.
I draw the Minister’s attention to the 556 local residents who, over just the last few weeks, have signed a petition against a development on Rock Road in Storrington. The development is opposed by the parish, the district council and, of course, by me, the Member of Parliament. As a site, it is a spectacular example of the wrong homes in the wrong places. It would put unsustainable strain on infrastructure, such as medical services, GPs, schools and transport. None of that is a surprise, given the very rural setting of Heath Common. The developer Clarion Homes masquerades as a provider of social housing, but so far it appears to be anything but.
Today is about how we move forward. I offer the Minister a five-point plan out of this crisis—one that will give the nation the homes it needs, while protecting the environment we love. First, we need to level up. The economic activity of development has to be spread more evenly across the whole United Kingdom. I know algorithms are not his Department’s strong point, so let me use some basic percentages. Before the second world war, only a fifth of the population lived in the south of England outside of London, while twice as many lived in the north and Scotland. Now, equal numbers live in both.
By piling on even more growth in the south-east, the algorithm is locking the north and midlands into permanent economic disadvantage. That was something the Prime Minister talked about earlier today. He said,
“By turbocharging those areas, especially in London and south-east, you drive prices even higher and you force more and more people to move to the same expensive area. The result is that their commutes are longer, their trains are more crowded, they have less time with their kids.”
Secondly, we need to turn consents into homes. We need a time-based levy between consent and completion with real bite to deliver those 1 million new homes before we have to give planning permission on a single extra green field. Third, we need a truly muscular approach to brownfield first—actions, not words, and a real distinction in the planning system to tilt the playing field brownfield. Fourth, we need to go up, not out. As the Minister knows, we have some of the lowest density urban areas in Europe, yet the London Mayor clearly suffers from acrophobia. The construction rates of tall buildings under his tenure have more than halved. He is a mouse, not an eagle. The failure of leadership is so significant that I am afraid the moment is coming when the London Mayor will need to be stripped of any say on planning.
Fifth, we need a tax system that helps, not hinders, the problem—a stamp duty break for downsizers, which will help free up the market. There is much to commend in the planning White Paper, but there is very much more to fix in today’s planning system. On behalf of all my concerned constituents in Arundel and South Downs, I look forward to hearing the Minister’s reply—not just today, but as he thinks about bringing forward a planning Bill in the autumn.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Cummins. I congratulate the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Bob Seely) on securing this important debate.
After 10 years of devastating austerity, the infrastructure and housing of communities up and down the country are in a perilous state. I am concerned that the Government’s planning Bill prioritises wealthy landlords and developers over working people. The Government’s plan for a new developers’ charter will remove powers from elected local representatives, thus silencing the voices of local people and communities and tipping the balance of power further in favour of profit-seeking developers.
The Government’s plan to scrap section 106 agreements and the community infrastructure levy, which currently results in 49% of all affordable homes, will sell our communities short. In 2018-19, 10 times as many social homes were delivered through section 106 agreements, compared to homes delivered with grants from Homes England. We must improve section 106 to make it more transparent, consistent and certain, and to get a larger share for social housing. Scrapping it altogether risks abandoning one of the chief drivers of affordable living, community empowerment and engagement. Rather than making it harder to build homes that are fit for the many, the Government must rapidly increase the construction of council housing, family homes and genuinely affordable properties to urgently address the housing crisis.
There are insufficient sustainability measures in the proposals; this was an opportunity to focus on sustainability, but the proposals fall way short of that. There is no mention of climate or the ecological emergency—not one—and there is nothing to support biodiversity.
The Government’s plans refer to good design and appearance, but they fail to address the need to make homes safe after the Grenfell Tower fire, with a properly funded fire safety fund and a legal requirement to enforce the replacement of dangerous Grenfell-style cladding on all high-rise and high-risk homes.
There is nothing in the planning reforms agenda to protect renters. Renters must be supported with new indefinite tenancies, an extended eviction ban, rent controls and strong enforcement of decent property standards.
The eradication of rough sleeping and homelessness must also be enshrined at the heart of the Government’s planning system. Rough sleeping in England increased by 141% between 2010 and 2019, while deaths of rough sleepers more than doubled in the most recent five-year period.
The Government must realise that they do not exist only to govern in the interests of landlords and property developers, but to ensure that everyone in the country is able to access secure, affordable and decent homes.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Cummins, and I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Bob Seely) for securing this debate.
I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
I will start on a more positive note—I welcome the reforms in the planning system, particularly those for more local engagement with communities. Only 1% to 3% of the public engage with the current system. It had to change; something had to give. I will now explain why it had to change.
We face a monolithic urban extension of 6,000 dwellings on green belt in the west midlands—the plan started in 2012 and was adopted in 2017. In total, 6,000 comments were made, but not one single comment was listened to, and they were all constructive comments. Residents have been left with a plan that fails to address the real housing need and a plan widely known for the political opportunism of Birmingham City Council. The last remaining green lungs will be ripped out of the city.
The relevance of my mentioning this controversial development today is that it has been delayed and downsized —if only the city council had listened to those 6,000 comments. It really is shocking. It is now anticipated that only 2,000 dwellings will be delivered by 2031, which is the end of the plan, and I suspect that, in fact, the number will end up being only 1,000. Some 6,000 residents said this site was not suitable; 6,000 voices were not listened to. But those voices were right. This was, unfortunately, a lamentable failure of planning. We need planning reform to ensure that it never happens again, so I welcome the reforms on consultation.
My own metropolitan borough council is about to start consultation on the Black Country plan. I hope that it listens to the voices of residents and the comments they make, and I also hope that residents come forward and have their say. After all, this process is about them and their future homes; it is about young adults and their futures. Local authorities seem to forget this, but I am sure my local authority will be listening.
Finally, we must stop building monolithic estates that do not reflect the land they take up. I am passionate about this, as are my constituents. We need to rewrite how we build, and move away from urban sprawl, sprawling concrete suburbs and crammed cities. We must build better; local authorities must plan better. We need renewed vigour in how we build our villages and towns of the future. For many years, urbanism has been turbo-charged with a mandate for place-making on the edge of our cities. We must let the environment be the turbo-charge for future place-making and build homes for the future that are truly environmentally led and that reflect both the surrounding community and the land that is actually used. Communities must be a huge part of that process.
It is a pleasure, Mrs Cummins, to serve under your chairmanship, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Bob Seely) on securing such an important debate.
In the short amount of time available to me, I will talk about two issues: first, the green belt; and, secondly, the standard method for calculating housing need. I will speak in support of the Government position, in many ways. I think the Government are being unfairly blamed by many local authorities who use the blame game to get away from their individual responsibility to set housing need in their own areas. My constituency in Bury North is very different from those of other hon. Members. We have different needs and priorities. We are not an area with many second homes. The best place for decision making lies in a localised planning system that responds to local needs. Our local politicians have to step up to the mark to decide what housing is required, where it should be built, and the type of housing that we need. That is why we elect local politicians.
In the planning White Paper, three categories of land type are identified: growth areas, renewal areas and protected areas. Green belt is part of a protected area. “Planning for the Future” states that the standard method will determine housing requirement, but the green belt will be a constraint on that. In discussing the standard method, the White Paper goes on to say,
“The standard method would make it the responsibility of individual authorities to allocate land suitable for housing to meet the requirement”.
However, the existing policy on green belt will remain in place.
That is taken even further in the Government’s response to the consultation on local housing need proposals, which was updated on 1 April this year, and which makes it clear that
“meeting housing need is never a reason to cause unacceptable harm”
to the green belt. I think all hon. Members would agree with that. It is further made clear that the standard method—the use of 2014 figures—
“does not present a ‘target’ in plan-making, but instead provides a starting point for determining the level of need for the area, and it is only after consideration of this, alongside…constraints…such as the Green Belt, and the land that is actually available for development, that the decision on how many homes should be planned for is made.”
So the position is crystal clear. It is for local authorities to determine precisely how many homes to plan for and where those homes are most appropriately located, taking into account the local circumstances and constraints.
Too often we see local authorities, as I said at the start of my speech, avoiding responsibility. In Bury we have not had a local plan since 1997. Not one elected ruling body at Bury Council has been able to come up with a thoughtful, ambitious plan for jobs, growth or infrastructure for the housing that we need—we need affordable housing—and that is an indictment of local democracy rather than an indictment of the Government, who are handing the decisions for building, the green belt, and how a local area wishes to view itself to local councils and officers who are actually employed to do that.
The standard method is from 2014. There is an argument that the figures are out of date, and I would prefer the 2018 Office for National Statistics figures to be used. We cannot ignore the fact that the Government are giving each local authority in this country the legal tools to protect the green belt and to ensure that the housing that is required for our areas meets local need. If local authorities are incapable of meeting that responsibility, that is not the Government’s fault.
It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Mrs Cummins.
Far from tackling the housing crisis, the Government’s planning reforms will end up delivering fewer homes, and more of the homes that very few people can afford. The reforms mean less local decision making, and they are less strategic and less democratic. We Liberal Democrats believe in community empowerment. It is incomprehensible that the Government propose to remove local input into development applications. My constituents and their local representatives understand the needs of our community far better than Ministers in Whitehall or developers whose main interest is to make a profit.
My Bath constituency is a UNESCO world heritage site. A key part of that listing is not just the architecture of our buildings but the beautiful natural setting that reaches right into the city with its steep, undulating hills. How can a centralised housing algorithm ever reflect the local context of Bath?
Local authorities approve about nine in 10 planning applications. There are more than 1 million homes with planning permission in England that have not been built. The real reason for delay in housing delivery is land banking by housing developers, who make a significant proportion of their profit when land is allocated and then all too often wait for an increase in land value.
The Government’s proposals for a zoning system will in one stroke allow a great deal of land to be released for development without any obvious mechanism to ensure that increases in land values benefit the local community. How will that help us reach our house building targets, and how will it ensure that we build 100,000 much-needed homes for social rent each year? The private sector has completely failed to build the homes for social rent that we need. We need a Government committed to the building of council housing, as progressive Governments did in the past. Only that will address a housing crisis that has created deeper and deeper inequalities. If the Government were truly committed to levelling up, they would start by building social homes, and they would make that a public sector infrastructure programme, instead of building more roads or expanding airports.
However, any review of our planning system should go beyond the delivery of housing alone. Planning authorities play a huge role in creating places for their communities, from connectivity and accessibility to local infrastructure and affordability. The Government should concentrate on such measures, for instance adopting the 20-minute neighbourhood concept or updating guidance to create active neighbourhoods that prioritise walking, cycling and public transport. Domestic heating accounts for about 14% of our emissions—the Minister is not listening—so we must have a proper plan to decarbonise heating. The future homes standard is still not fit for purpose. It is a system for building regulation, not for place making, and it goes nowhere near the challenges of addressing sustainable location and layout. Will the Government commit to binding the Planning Act 2008 and the Climate Change Act 2008 together?
Instead of undermining local authorities and local communities, the Government should direct their energy towards building greener, more resilient, more sustainable homes. Communities must have the right to shape places for themselves. That right must be protected.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Cummins. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Bob Seely) on securing this important debate and on his work with colleagues to make positive suggestions, as he outlined at the start. I thank the Minister for the efforts he has made to listen to colleagues. I welcome the proposals to make changes to the planning system, with the emphasis on a national building design code and locally produced building guidelines. I also support the Government in making building rules clearer and getting local and neighbourhood plans in place everywhere. I understand and support the drive to get more people on to the housing ladder, but we need to do it in the right way. I will make three main points.
First, people tell me time and again that they are not opposed to development but they want the public services and infrastructure to match. For all the new developments we have had in Crewe and Nantwich, how many new GPs and hospital doctors do we have? How many traffic congestion points have been tackled or new roads built? The population rapidly increases, but the services do not increase as quickly to match, if they ever do at all. There is not enough in the White Paper to address that. Simplifying the system may help, but it will not magically recruit new GPs overnight. Secondly, it is crucial that we encourage developers to build on land they already have permission to develop, rather than land banking to maximise prices in what is essentially a broken market. The Government need to focus on the 1 million homes that have been granted permission but have not been built. I put on the record again my desire for the Minister to introduce measures to tackle this. Thirdly, I emphasise the importance of local knowledge and input into planning decisions. I worry that the changes being made may limit the input that councillors and residents have into individual planning decisions. I do not see how loading all the decision making up front and taking away input into individual decisions will secure community support.
We all know that, too often, residents and even local authorities end up locked in legal battles with developers that want to go ahead with something and are often equipped with deep pockets and big legal teams to match. I can see it now: the full weight of their resources will be piled into securing the most aggressive developer-biased decisions on zoning, which will not be in the best interests of our communities. Well-developed neighbourhood plans, and the individual decisions within them, should remain the bedrock of how we approach this issue. I understand the importance of continuing to build more homes, but we need to do it in the right way and in the right places so that it does not negatively impact on our local communities.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship again, Mrs Cummins, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Bob Seely), both on securing this debate and on the many constructive and positive suggestions he made about how the planning system could be reformed, in contrast to the way it is going to be done by this Government. Like many of the Members who have spoken today, I am extremely concerned that the Government are intent on replacing with a developers’ charter a planning system that, although not perfect, has served this country well. In fact, the process of reform is well underway; regular additions to the permitted development rights, making it easier to change use without scrutiny, have been going on for most of the past 10 years.
The hon. Member for Stourbridge (Suzanne Webb) described an example of what she sees as a failure in what is effectively developer-led planning under the current system. This trend has been going on for much of the past 10 years, and unfortunately, the Government seem to want to complete that process. They seek to silence residents and stifle the voice of communities up and down the country, as many Members have said today. Under the proposed plan for growth and renewal zones, residents, local community groups, civic groups and parish councils will lose their right to object to new planning developments. The power of local people’s involvement has been so well described by the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Andrew Griffith), as well as by the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Nickie Aiken)—I should declare an interest in her speech, as my first proper job was with the Covent Garden Community Association. The very people who know their local area—who know what their neighbourhood, village or town needs, and what needs to be protected—will be silenced. We are not saying that people should have a veto, but that they should have a voice.
What can they do once they have been gagged? Well, they could try writing to and meeting their local elected councillors. As my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Liz Twist) said, applications are very often approved by councils—nine out of 10 applications are approved—but the Government have already started to gag local councils as well through the changes to permitted development rights, and will do so further. Democratically elected councillors who understand their communities and the complex and, yes, hard decisions behind planning applications will be denied the chance to stand up and fight for their residents in the way that they have been doing for many years, both with planning applications and through the local plan process, as the hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) described.
People and their representatives are being sold down the river to enable a new developers’ charter. In his response to the Opposition day debate last month, the Secretary of State said that the Opposition wanted to “do absolutely nothing”. That could not be further from the truth: just yesterday, my hon. Friend the Member for Luton South (Rachel Hopkins) presented a ten-minute rule Bill to the House—the Planning and Local Representation Bill—that would guarantee the right of local residents to have a say over new developments in their community. It tackles the long-running issue of land banking and addresses the blight of permitted development reforms so that local councils can at least set local design standards on permitted development changes and avoid the cramped, poorly lit, rabbit-hutch housing that we have seen spring up. The Government’s own advisor labelled this process as building
“the slums of the future”,
which is why my hon. Friend’s Bill sought to address it.
The ongoing and proposed planning reforms also make it harder to tackle the challenges facing society now and in the future, whether that is the climate crisis, sustainability—as mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East (Claudia Webbe)—or the future of high streets. Surely with the challenges we face, Government should want to work together with local authorities, civic groups, and many other highly skilled groups in the community, locally and nationally, to address those challenges in the planning system. That system grew out of a need over 100 years ago to address public health concerns in the expanding industrial towns and cities, and the Town and Country Planning Act 1947 was introduced to ensure that public good was at the centre of all development. No one would argue that the planning system is perfect, or that it needs to remain frozen in stone. There are many things that can and do improve the system, as the hon. Member for Isle of Wight said, and would enable the high-quality, truly affordable homes that we need to be built, but the Government reforms are wrong and they are the wrong answer to the question of how we build more homes.
I will pause to describe what colleagues have told me about some new housing developments in their patches: housing estates with no other facilities that are a car drive away from buying a pint of milk or taking the children to school; estates with roads with no pavements and massive traffic congestion in the area, no broadband and inadequate water, sewerage and even electricity. What is going to happen when the target number of people in this country own electric vehicles and need to charge them overnight? Will our electricity system be able to cope?
It is not the planning system that is preventing 1.1 million homes that already have planning permission from being built, so why not address that challenge? We know that local councils up and down the country are already taking bold steps to tackle the affordability crisis in housing. My local authority is doing that with new council homes that are built with air source heat pumps and good insulation.
My hon. Friends the Members for Warwick and Leamington (Matt Western) and for York Central (Rachael Maskell) talked about the need for planning to deliver affordable housing, but also jobs, transport and schools. My hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon talked about accessible housing and housing for people in our communities with different needs.
The hon. Members for North Devon (Selaine Saxby) and for Cities of London and Westminster mentioned the need to ensure that the new homes built are not just flats or houses but affordable homes for local people who are not crowded out by the holiday business. Let the planning process decide that determination, not the free-for-all that the market provides.
The hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) talked about the loss of basic rural services such as buses and post offices, which need to be protected and enhanced. The hon. Member for Bury North (James Daly) reminded us of the importance of the green belt and the need to protect that.
We need not just bricks and mortar but homes, including affordable homes. We need not just housing estates but communities. The planning system is there to address that and it needs to be protected and enhanced, not decimated, to address not just the numbers game on houses but the climate crisis, the north-south imbalance in this country, traffic congestion and much more.
In fact, the Minister appears to have united many of his Back Benchers against the Government plans and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner) said, many voters in a growing number of areas are punishing the Government for this very programme, as described in the White Paper. Surely the Government should listen to the universal condemnation of their proposed planning reforms, drop their developer’s charter and listen to the constructive voices about what needs to be done, not only about planning or in the Minister’s Department.
This cannot be done in isolation. We need to consider development in the context of other issues such as transport, including providing pavements to new stations; the local economy and jobs; affordable housing of decent quality and designed for the different needs of different people; climate change and biodiversity; community services, including schools, doctors, parks and post offices; and basic infrastructure, as I have mentioned, including power, sewerage, broadband and so on. We need to positively change the planning system, not rip it apart.
It is a real pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Cummins. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Bob Seely) on securing the debate. He is a doughty campaigner for his constituents in the Isle of Wight, and I know that he thinks deeply and for a considerable length of time on these important, and sometimes intricate, planning matters.
I am very happy to look at the proposals that he has written to us about, because we all agree that we want to get our planning reforms right. We also all agree, including representatives from Shelter and KPMG, that we need more homes in our country. Both organisations will say that we need to build north of 250,000 new homes a year in our country to address our housing challenges. However, the present planning system, with all the plans calculated as a total, represents less than 180,000 new homes planned each year, so we do need to build more homes in the right places, and of the right quality, to serve our constituents. That is why we launched two consultations last year; that is sometimes, I think, forgotten. We launched the consultation on planning reform, because yes, we do want there to be more homes, but we also want a planning system that is more transparent, more predictable, easier to navigate and more speedy and that delivers good-quality, well designed homes. That is what we intend to achieve through our planning White Paper and the reforms that we will introduce later this year, and also a White Paper on local housing need in order to ensure that local authorities are planning for 300,000 homes each year. But the LHN—local housing need—number is not binding and is not an end to the process; it is a beginning point from which local authorities can then identify constraints, if they have them, or opportunities, if they want them, to build fewer or more homes than their target local housing need. The green belt is one example that local authorities can use as a constraint on building.
What is important is that local authorities keep their local plans up to date, because if they do not, they expose their constituents—all our constituents—to speculative development from applications that come forward, which the Planning Inspectorate will give great weight to if the local authorities do not have a plan, and do not have control of their local housing supply. I have to tell you, Mrs Cummins, that the local authorities in York, Gateshead, South Lakeland, and Bath and North East Somerset have plans that are out of date. They need to get them “in date” in order to protect their constituents from speculative developments. I say gently to the hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse) that it is little use lecturing me about planning; what she should be doing is encouraging her local authority to get its plan in place and protect her constituents from speculative development.
We are keen to build a planning system that works for the 21st century and that moves faster than the present glacial pace of planning. It takes local plans seven years in many cases—on average—to be instituted. It then takes five years for many planning applications to see a spade in the ground. It is taking far too long. The process needs to be speeded up. But crucially, it needs to engage more people. That is a point that I know my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight has mentioned and that my hon. Friends for Stourbridge (Suzanne Webb) and for Crewe and Nantwich (Dr Mullan) have also raised as an issue. Right now, sometimes as little as 1% of the local population in a planning authority area gets engaged in plan making. That rises to a whopping 2% or 3% when it comes to individual applications. And as we have heard, nine out of 10 planning applications—90%—are passed anyway. That is not particularly empowering; it is not particularly engaging. We want to do better.
I will give way in a moment to my hon. Friend, but I am conscious, if I may say so, that I have a lot of questions to answer that he and others have asked and he does get a second bite of the cherry later.
We do need to ensure that more people are engaged, and we believe that by digitising the planning process, by creating map-based plans of local areas, we can engage many more people in the planning process, and they can get more engaged up front, making real decisions about the sorts of buildings that they want in their local geographies—the densities and the designs—and about the infrastructure to support those homes. That is real power, given to people much earlier in the process, so that they can become much more engaged.
I will give way to the hon. Lady in a moment, but I will make a little more progress first.
My hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight suggested that we are scrapping the planning system. We are not; we are proposing to reform it—and I will give him an example of what I mean by reform, rather than scrappage. These are our proposals. In areas that we have designated as growth sites, a local plan can set design and density standards, and describe the infrastructure expected from developers in those areas.
If the developers tick all the up-front boxes agreed in the plan and consulted on with local people, they will get their outline planning permission to begin their building process. They will still need to keep coming back to the local authority for consents, but they will get their outline planning permission. However, if they do not put forward an application that conforms with the local plan, they will have to put forward an application in the normal way under the present rules.
If developers bring forward an application in what we have described in the White Paper as the protected areas, they will have to bring it forward under the present system. The present system will remain, but we want an accelerated process to identify places where local authorities want to see development taking place, and to bring forward in those places designs and infrastructure requirements that the local communities want, need and have bought into.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. Is he open to considering a process of deliberative democracy around planning, which really involves engaging with all parts of the community to work through the very difficult challenges in planning and come up with solutions that work for everyone?
I think that I am describing exactly that process. We want more people to be involved and we want them to have a say earlier on about specific matters that should concern them, including what areas may be sites for accelerated development in their areas and what the designs, the design codes and the infrastructure should be. I think that is deliberative democracy.
I am not for one second trying to catch the Minister out, but at the beginning of the White Paper the Prime Minister said that he wanted to tear the system down and rebuild it. We are now evolving into a reform process rather than a scrapping process, as part of the very sensible evolution and listening process. Is that correct?
As I said, we want to reform the system. If my hon. Friend listens to what I have said and to what my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has said, he will know that we are keen to make sure that we have a process that reforms our planning system, which is outdated and needs change. However, we are not proposing to scrap it, to use the term that he used.
I am grateful, Mrs Cummins, for that ruling. I am conscious that I probably have only about six minutes left in which to conclude my remarks, to allow my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight time to sum up the debate.
A number of Members have raised the issue of infrastructure. We all know that when we build homes, those homes need the requisite infrastructure to support them: the GP clinics, the parks, the schools, the roads and the roundabouts. We want to make sure that we have a system that provides those things when they are needed and not way down the line. We do not believe that the present system—a mixture of section 106 agreements and community infrastructure levy payments—meets that requirement.
Indeed, 80% of local authorities tell us that section 106 does not work for them. It is loaded in favour of developers, especially the bigger guns, and often means that infrastructure comes late or not at all. If it does appear to be coming, it is often negotiated away in a manner that local authorities and local communities do not want. That is why we have proposed an infrastructure levy, which will provide up front the infrastructure that local communities want and need. We will make sure that, in doing so, we deliver just as much affordable housing as is delivered in the present system.
My hon. Friend the Member for North Devon (Selaine Saxby) made the very important point about the challenge that some rural communities face. I am open to considering ways in which we can help local people to remain living close to where they come from or where they work. One of the initiatives that we have announced is the first homes initiative, paid for through developer contributions, which will ensure that local people will be able to buy, at a discount of at least 30%, a home in their local community. Those homes will be covenanted, in perpetuity, to ensure that when or if they are sold on, the buyers, who will be local people—they could be key workers—will also buy at 30% at least below the then local market rate. However, I am open to hearing from colleagues about what other opportunities there may be to encourage local people to stay close to their communities.
My hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight also raised the issue of neighbourhood plans. I am very keen that we build, and bake, neighbourhood plans into the new planning system. They can be very effective and engaging. The trouble is that there are fewer of them the further north—or further into urban areas—we go, so in our planning reforms we are looking at ways to ensure that more neighbourhood plans are produced across the country so that additional housing is identified, with good designs and local infrastructure, to support those communities.
My hon. Friend also mentioned the importance of recycling. We have already made it very clear—in our national planning policy statements, and in the national planning policy framework—that brownfield ought to come first. We have backed that up with fiscal spending to ensure that we are paying for remediation in and around our country. Some £400 million was made available last year for the remediation of brownfield sites in mayoral combined authorities, with a further £100 million made available by the Chancellor in the latest Budget. We are determined to put brownfield first.
In our permitted development rights reforms—I know some colleagues are not so very keen on those—we also encourage the development of redundant sites, or shops that are no longer viable, in towns and city centres. That means we are building homes in the places where people need them, which takes the weight off the transport infrastructure as they are close to GP clinics and other services that people want and need. We are addressing that issue of recycling, too.
In the short time that I have left, I will speak about build-out. The shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Ruth Cadbury), talked about a ten-minute rule Bill. I would suggest that it is a “ten-minute thought” Bill, because we do not really know from their proposals how the Opposition would deal with issues like gaming or whether they would help and support small and medium-sized enterprises, rather than making the system more difficult for them. We do not know whether they are proposing that the timetable system should relate to the permissions granted or the building commencement date.
However, we are keen to ensure that we find sensible mechanisms to encourage the build-out of permissions where they exist. We have heard what people have said, both across this Chamber and in response to the consultation, and we are determined to ensure that, where appropriate, permissions are built out rapidly.
On a point of order, Mrs Cummins. I want to put on the record the fact that the Minister gave this Chamber incorrect information. Bath and North East Somerset Council has a fully updated local plan in place. It is going through a partial revision and is halfway through the terms of its current plan. But while the partial revision is taking place, the local plan is fully updated.
I am grateful, Mrs Cummins. I can tell you that the information I have is that the plan was last updated in 2014—some seven years ago.
We are determined to ensure that our reforms meet the tests that my hon. Friend, and others, have set—to speed up the planning system to make it more effective, engaging and transparent. I look forward to the support of all colleagues across the House when we bring our proposals forward later this year.
I thank you very much, Mrs Cummins, for your contribution and for keeping order. I thank everyone for taking part in this debate, and I thank the Minister. I am sorry that he does not have a copy of my letter; I will send it immediately. I just highlight the greenfield tax, the windfall taxes and the many other great ideas from myself and other colleagues in it. Finally, I am glad to see that we are moving from scrapping the system to reforming it.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the future of the planning system and the upcoming Planning Bill.
[Mrs Maria Miller in the Chair]
I remind hon. Members that there have been some changes to normal practices to support the hybrid arrangements. Timings of debates have been amended to allow technical arrangements to be made for the next debate, and there will also be suspensions between each debate. I remind Members participating physically and virtually that they must arrive for the start of the debates in Westminster Hall, although I am aware that two Members have been detained in another debate. Members are expected to remain for the entire debate.
I remind Members participating virtually that they must leave their cameras on for the duration of the debate, and that they will be visible at all times—both to each other and to us in the Boothroyd Room. If Members attending virtually have any technical problems, they should email the Westminster Hall Clerks. Members attending physically should clean their spaces before they use them and before they leave the room.
I remind Members that Mr Speaker has stated that masks should be worn in Westminster Hall unless you are speaking. Members attending physically who are in the later stages of the call list should use seats in the Public Gallery at the end of the room and move into the horseshoe when seats become available.
Members can speak only from where there are microphones. Members who are not on the call list but who wish to intervene can only do so from the horseshoe, and I remind Members that those on the call list have priority for spaces on the horseshoe. Those who wish to intervene should not prevent a Member on the call list from speaking.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered peace and human rights in Colombia.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Miller, and to lead this important debate.
The human rights situation in Colombia is out of control; state violence in Colombia is out of control. The 2016 peace agreement has mechanisms to address those issues, but it has not been implemented anywhere close to the levels that it should have been. The Colombian Government are refusing to recognise the scale of the problem; instead, they are seeking to present a squeaky clean image internationally while innocent civilians are being murdered.
Let us be clear: recent events in Colombia have been condemned internationally by Governments, the UN, the Organisation of American States, and politicians from Parliaments across the world. It is essential that our own Government do everything that they can to hold the Colombian Government to account. We cannot support trade deals and training programmes for the Colombian police without also condemning the state violence. We need to increase our practical support for the peace process.
I have visited Colombia on two occasions—in 2013 and more recently in 2018—on delegations to review the human rights situation and the implementation of the peace agreement. On those visits, I met a wide range of stakeholders. What I heard then and what I see now is incredibly worrying. I know that many in this House follow closely the situation in Colombia, and we need to keep doing all that we can to improve the human rights situation and to ensure that the hope given to so many by the peace agreement is not destroyed.
The timing of the debate is pertinent in the light of the recent protests and horrifying police repression of the protesters. Earlier this year, millions of Colombians took to the streets. The response of the Colombian police was to treat the protesters, who were from all sectors of Colombian society, as if they were an enemy to be defeated. The police responded to the protests as if they were at war. The images and videos have been horrifying.
Between 28 April and 26 June, Colombian humans rights organisations documented that between 26 and 44 protesters were likely to have been killed by the police. Twenty-eight cases of sexual assault were reported. There were 257 cases of violence against journalists who were covering the protests, including more than 100 physical assaults. The UN documented that 56 people were killed during the protests, including 54 civilians and two members of the police.
There were numerous incidents and videos showing the close collaboration of armed civilians—or para-state actors—and the Colombian police. That has been highlighted for decades but repeatedly denied by supporters and defenders of the Colombian political elites. In Cali on 10 May and 28 May, armed civilians came on to the street to shoot at protesters while standing alongside members of the police. The response of the Colombian President was to tell the protesters to go home, while remaining silent about the fact that apparent paramilitaries and the police were operating side by side. I hope the Minister can tell me what steps the Government are taking to review their training of Colombian police, to ensure they are not supporting units or personnel who have been involved in cases of human rights abuses during the protests.
The response of the Colombian Government to the protests and violence of the police only highlighted further that they are more determined to stigmatise protesters than ensure their protection. As protesters were being killed, the Defence Minister and the Vice President made statements trying to link protesters to criminal organisations, while the Justice Minister—unbelievably—tried to claim that the protests formed part of an international criminal conspiracy to tarnish the image of Colombia.
These slurs are unacceptable and we must unreservedly condemn them. I give my full support to all those protesting peacefully in Colombia, and I will do whatever I can to defend their right to protest. I hope everyone in this debate will give their full support to that sentiment.
I welcome the investigations opened into the abuses committed by state agents over recent months, but they are not enough. The police are alleged to have killed 13 people during protests in 2020 and to have violently attacked protesters in 2019, but in almost all those cases there has been no justice for victims and their families. Will the Minister join me in fully condemning the violence against protesters and in calling for judicial and disciplinary processes for abuses during these protests and in previous years?
Colombia has long been one of the world’s most dangerous countries in which to be a human rights activist; according to the UN, 133 people were killed in 2020. It is still the most dangerous country in the world for trade unionists, with 22 killed last year. Colombia was also the most dangerous country in the world for environmental defenders in 2019, with 64 killed and a further 44 killed between 20 July 2020 and 30 April 2021. The British Government have been signing environmental agreements with their Colombian counterparts, but we must ask what is being done to ensure there is protection for those on the frontline.
Now I turn to the cause for hope in Colombia. The 2016 peace agreement was a historic moment that brought genuine optimism to many, particularly in the most impoverished regions of the country. Although overall implementation has been slow, and in some areas non-existent, there have been important advances. I congratulate everyone, on all sides, who has played a role.
The advancement of the transitional justice system should be particularly celebrated, and I congratulate FARC on its unwavering commitment to the peace process. The former combatants are trying to create new lives under enormous difficulty, and the former commanders are fully engaged in the peace process by accepting responsibility for their roles in crimes committed during the war.
Just last week, the transitional justice court issued its first accusations against a former general and nine other members of the military for their role in the murder of civilians. It is essential that there is full engagement with this process from state actors who stand accused, and international support from the UK Government for the transitional justice system is also essential.
I hope that the Colombian Government will honour their numerous declarations of commitment to the peace process during their final 12 months in office. I hope that the Minister will reiterate the Government’s support for the transitional justice court and its recent steps to investigate crimes committed by FARC and the Colombian state.
It is extremely worrying that former FARC combatants continue to be targeted. Over 270 have been killed since the deal was signed. In April of this year, eight former combatants who were inside the peace process were killed in just nine days. Their protection is an absolute priority, as is the advancement in the many areas of the agreement that have seemingly stalled, particularly the implementation of the rural development programmes and the illicit crops substitution programmes.
The cocaine economy is often pointed to as the cause of the insecurity and violence in the countryside, yet of the 99,000 families signed up to the mutually agreed crop substitution programme, only 7% have actually received support for alternative crops. Without an alternative economic option, the coca growers have no way of surviving.
The peace agreement is comprehensive, and we must do all we can to ensure all its chapters are fully implemented. I welcome the UK Government’s repeated statements of support for the peace process over recent years, but I am sure we all agree that that must be backed up with maximum presence and pressure wherever, and whenever, necessary. As we approach five years of the peace agreement, I will finish by calling on the Minister to ensure we honour our role as penholder, taking a lead in international efforts to support a full implementation of the Colombian peace agreement, which is undoubtedly the best hope we have to bring an end to the human rights crisis and see Colombia truly in peace.
Thank you, Mrs Miller, for your guidance on the four minute limit, which I will try my very best to adhere to. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow (Kate Osborne) for securing this debate, and for the House authorities for allowing it to take place.
Colombians are a good-natured and democratic people, who love liberty and life. However, they are experiencing a prolonged crisis, the roots of which lie deep, both in Colombian society, but, above all, in the current failing economic model. The economy is in freefall, and the Government wanted to raise taxes on the hardest hit, so social cohesion is breaking down as inequality accelerates in this wonderful country.
Almost half of all Colombians now live in poverty—15% in the most extreme conditions. Meanwhile, the richest 10% in Colombia earn two fifths of all the country’s income. Many Colombians will speak of endemic elite corruption, and of the power of the cartels in the economy. There is little surprise that throughout the country, civilians, in very large numbers, have become increasingly active in fighting for justice. I am sure that all parts of this House express our solidarity with all those citizens fighting for a just settlement in Colombia, or anywhere else in the world.
Undoubtedly, wealthier Colombians, and the international corporations that have become implanted there, have felt threatened by this citizen activity. Therefore, this very right-wing Colombian Government have done what such Governments always do, everywhere, which is to defend extreme privilege, wealth and power, even at the expense of their own people’s freedoms and, sadly, at the expense of some people’s lives.
The Colombian criminal justice system has, too often, been used as a Government tool to attack human rights in an attempt to supress this insipient citizen movement. We have heard the figures given by my hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow about the number of deaths: 5,000 cases of police violence; 44 police killings; 2,000 arbitrary arrests; 77 protesters who have been disappeared—and that is only in the last three or four months. The ITUC —International Trade Union Confederation—and Amnesty have declared that Colombia is the most dangerous place in the world to be a trade unionist fighting back or an environmentalist. They might have added being an indigenous activist or an LGBTQ rights activist.
Let me turn to the involvement of the British Government. The UK’s College of Policing has been training Colombian police officers. Our very own Crown Prosecution Service provided so-called criminal justice advisers. The British Government spent £2.3 million training specialised cadres of police in Colombia. There are other programmes as well, too lengthy to mention. British policing, however, is meant to be based on the principle of consent, so what on earth have we, the British, been doing, apparently in cahoots with a Government that seems to remove civil liberties and human rights from what ought to be a central role in their criminal justice system in Colombia?
Finally, I turn to the Minister. The British Government need to come off the fence and to do so clearly. There is no evidence that the situation in Colombia is improving—in fact, it is deteriorating—so there can be no justification in offering words of good will, in effect, to a President who is a human rights abuser on the grandest scale. Minister, please condemn the abuse of civil rights in Colombia and ensure that all UK programmes either comply totally with democratic values henceforth or cease immediately.
I am genuinely grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow (Kate Osborne) for securing the debate and for introducing it so skilfully. What she outlined matters; it matters to anyone who respects things such as the right to peaceful protest or even the most basic human rights. What has been going wrong in Colombia in recent months is shocking, even for a country that is used to shock.
The demonstrations against Government policies have, in sheer scale, been unprecedented over the many years that I have known Colombia, and yet those demonstrations have been overwhelmingly peaceful. That has been acknowledged by the United Nations, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the European Union. Even the Colombian Government have accepted that they were, overwhelmingly, peaceful demonstrations.
As my hon. Friend said, however, that was met by the Defence Minister calling the demonstrations a “terrorist threat” by “criminal organisations”. That is not simply ludicrous, but dangerous, because that has led to the death toll following the protests, which my hon. Friends talked about, and to the arbitrary arrests and use of massive levels of violence by the Colombian police who, frankly, have been out of control. That included 28 sexual assaults on people held in custody, as my hon. Friend pointed out, including the sad case of 17-year-old Alison Melendez who was raped by the police and then went home to commit suicide. Nothing can bring back Alison or undo that damage to her family. It matters, and it matters to those of us who care about Colombia, as we should.
The peace accords in Colombia were a wonderful step forward, but as we have seen in the use of violence by police against the demonstrations, we have seen in effect in a denial for those who gave up guerrilla warfare: 278 members of FARC have been murdered since the peace accord was signed and there has been a lack of progress on land reform and on things such as funding those who give up the growing up of coca leaf for manufacture into cocaine. Those are deliberate policies of the Colombian Government and, being deliberate, they are sabotaging the peace effort.
Like my hon. Friend the Member for Hemsworth (Jon Trickett), I must say to the Minister, I have seen condemnation from different sources—the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has condemned such levels of violence recently and even in the United States, there have been calls for restraint—but few words from Ministers in the British Government. The Minister must stand up and make it clear that we denounce the kind of violence we are seeing from the Colombian police and military.
We need to look at our relationship in terms of police reform. Yes, it is right and proper that we push for police reform and, as penholder at the UN, the British Government have a unique role in bringing forward verification missions to see that that takes place. However, the big prize has got to be that we look at the capacity under the democratic clause in the UK-Andean pact, which makes it clear that human rights violations trigger certain consequences. It is about time that our Government looked at that human rights clause and considered whether now we have got to trigger it.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Miller, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Jarrow (Kate Osborne) on securing the debate. It is the first we have had on Colombia since 2019 in Westminster Hall, and timely to have it before the recess and while the situation in Colombia is deteriorating so seriously. It is unfortunate that the Minister is all by herself on the Conservative Benches. It would be nice to see some Government Back Benchers show an interest in this, and perhaps they might reflect on whether they have any activists or, indeed, expat Colombians in their constituencies whose voices should be heard.
Some of those voices are communicated to us through organisations such as Justice for Colombia, and ABColombia and its partner organisations, Scottish Catholic International Aid Fund, the Catholic Agency for Overseas Development, Christian Aid and others. I thank them for their support in helping us prepare. For many years, I heard about Colombia and met people from Colombia through SCIAF, and in 2018 I finally had the privilege of visiting the country. Such a lush, beautiful country, rich in its diversity of peoples as well as natural resources and rich in the potential to be a model of sustainable development and conflict resolution. However, it is also at risk of the exact opposite: backsliding from the progress that has been made and falling into the hands of those who would exploit and strip the country of its bounty, oppress its people and destroy their cultures. We are hearing about that in the debate today.
The context caused by the pandemic and the tax rises to pay for economic support are leading to dreadful outbreaks of violence, and we have heard some of the statistics. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees reckons that at least 56 people—54 civilians and two police officers—were killed up to 16 June. In recent meetings by the all-party parliamentary group for Colombia and Justice for Colombia, we have heard first-hand testimony from people caught up in that violence in the country. That simply demonstrates what we have heard already: that it is one of the most dangerous country in which to be a trade unionist or any kind of human rights actor or defender.
As the hon. Member for Hemsworth (Jon Trickett) said, some of the ongoing frustrations among the population, particularly among younger generations, are very deep rooted. When constitutional rights and processes exist on paper but are not followed in practice, it is perhaps not surprising that this leads to increased frustration, which ultimately expresses itself in violence. That sense of powerlessness when communities see the land that their ancestors have worked for generations given over to mining or monocropping, and especially for indigenous communities, for whom the land has important religious or spiritual significance. We can understand how a sense of desperation leads to the lure of the quick buck that can come from coca production, and the country is now sadly producing more cocaine than it did in the 1990s—a very serious challenge for all of us.
The country is moving into the ranks of developed countries, yet there is massive inequalities. There is lively downtown Bogotá, all built up, and then there is the Chocó region, which is one of the poorest in the world, let alone in Latin America. That tension becomes palpable, but where there is risk, there can also be reward. That is why there is a need for action and support for all sides of the disputes.
I support the proposals that have been put forward by CAFOD, ABColombia and others that the UK should be looking to activate the democratic clause in the UK-Andean free trade agreement, that it should be pushing for civil society participation in the implementation of the peace accord, and the points about police reform, which have already been made.
This is the opportunity to prove what a soft power superpower is like. This is the opportunity to prove the worth of the merger of the Department for International Development and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office that so many of us were concerned about. Yes, step up diplomatic efforts, but also support crop diversification, supporting education, and tax and regulate multilaterals and hold them to account, especially if they are based in the UK or listed on our stock exchanges. Peace is possible and the rewards could be great, but equally, if the scales tip the other way, the results would be devastating. As others have said, the UK has a special responsibility as the UN penholder on Colombia. It should live up to that responsibility.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Miller. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow (Kate Osborne) on securing this timely debate. I will continue on the theme of the recent abuses committed by the Colombian police against protesters, which are absolutely appalling. Millions of Colombians—mostly young people—came on to the streets during April and May this year to call for an end to the growing poverty and state violence and for a full implementation of the peace agreement. The response from the Colombian police was violence.
As has already been said, up to 44 protesters were killed, according to human rights organisations. There were also reports of sexual violence, and thousands of arbitrary arrests. As young people are beaten, killed and sexually abused on the streets of Colombia, we need the UK Government to step up to the plate and send a clear message that such blatant human rights abuses will not be tolerated or accepted. We must immediately review our training programme with the Colombian police and suspend it immediately if it is going to units involved in the repression of peaceful protests.
The Colombian Government have continually failed to accept responsibility for the violence carried out by the police. Instead, they have tried to hoodwink the international community. Just yesterday, during a session at the UN Security Council, the Colombian Foreign Minister and vice-president, Marta Lucía Ramírez, bizarrely blamed the killing of protesters on people who infiltrated the marches and committed vandalism. We should not be fooled: we have witnessed the Colombian police attack peaceful protesters over the last few years, not just the last couple of months. We cannot stay silent in our calls for justice as the Colombian Government try to deflect our attention. I hope that the Minister might make representations to the Colombian authorities to ensure full investigations of all alleged killings by the Colombian police during recent protests.
I was in Colombia in 2014. I visited the city of Buenaventura. I was there with a local human rights organisation, a church organisation, and I went into a neighbourhood where paramilitaries were using local houses to chop people into pieces while they were still alive. I met the communities—predominantly Afro-Colombian—whose children had to listen to the screams of the victims, and who had then organised to remove the paramilitaries from the streets. It was horrifying, but it was inspirational in equal measure.
Even though that was seven years ago, sadly we know that violence against activists from these communities continues. The facts and the figures have been recited by colleagues already. We really need an immediate implementation of public policy to dismantle paramilitary successor groups, as stipulated in the peace agreement. If there is true commitment to bringing an end to the killings of human rights defenders, why after their three years in government have we still not seen a plan of action to dismantle these illegal armed groups that have such deep, historic links to the Colombian state?
Will the Minister reiterate our Government’s commitment to ensure the full implementation of the peace agreement and explain what steps they have taken as the penholder at the UN Security Council, as described earlier? I also call on the Colombian Government to use their last year in office to do everything they can to advance as much of the implementation as they possibly can. I know that many of my colleagues will continue to monitor the situation closely.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Miller, and I will try my best to speak as fast as I can in my thick Scottish accent. I congratulate the hon. Member for Jarrow (Kate Osborne) on securing this important debate.
We have seen poverty increase around the world as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. In Colombia, however, the resulting economic suffering has proved all too much to bear in a country that has pre-existing social and political discontent. Since protests began this year, the demands of the Colombian people have increased beyond economic reform. Protesters have been calling for the dismantling of the riot police, the creation of a universal basic income programme and free university tuition. Those demands have grown out of increasing inequality, lack of social mobility and what many deem to be the oppression of marginalised groups by police forces and the Government.
As the hon. Member for Jarrow mentioned in her opening remarks, there have been a number of deaths in Colombia. It has been reported that more than 220 social and community leaders were killed in 2020 alone, with claims that the majority were killed at the hands of the Colombian state security forces. At least 18 trade unionists have also been killed. According to the UN verification mission, a total of 133 human rights defenders were murdered. The deaths have led to the condemnation of the country by rights groups such as Amnesty International, which has stated that Colombia is widely recognised as the most dangerous country in the world for people who defend human rights. Military intelligence has also been found to be spying on human rights defenders, journalists, High Court magistrates and members of the opposition. In fact, information has been sold to neo-paramilitaries.
The response of Colombia’s riot police to the ongoing protests exemplifies the country’s failure to protect and uphold the human rights of its people. The police have responded to overwhelmingly peaceful social protests with excessive force and violence, as confirmed by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. It has been confirmed that at least 30 protesters have been killed, and over 100 people are reported to have disappeared. Hundreds have suffered serious injury, and over 800 arbitrary arrests have taken place. As many Members have spoken about, there have been reports of cases of sexual violence at the protests.
It is evident that the Colombian people’s cry for the dismantling of the riot police is not unfounded, and comprehensive police reform is urgently needed to prevent significant violations in the future. We must urge the Colombian Government to take urgent measures to protect the human rights of their citizens and to initiate a comprehensive police and security reform effort, to ensure that officers respect the right to peaceful assembly and bring those responsible for abuse to justice.
In the midst of the horror and unrest taking place in Colombia, it was heart-warming to note that members of Edinburgh and Glasgow’s growing Colombian community have taken to the streets of Scotland in solidarity with those in Colombia. This act of international solidarity is representative of the people of Scotland, the Scottish Government and the Scottish National party’s care and commitment to social justice around the world.
It is an honour to serve under your chairship, Mrs Miller, and I refer Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow (Kate Osborne) for securing this important debate, and for her powerful contribution. I also thank my constituents in Liverpool, West Derby who have been in touch with me regularly and have asked me to raise their concerns about human rights violations in Colombia directly with the Minister.
I previously raised my concerns in the House on 20 April, both about the alleged involvement of Colombia’s security forces in the deaths of at least 30 protesters last year, and about worrying reports of an increased number of protesters losing their sight after being hit with projectiles fired by police, including 19-year-old Yuri Camargo and 22-year-old Miguel Angel Linares in 2019. I asked the Secretary of State whether he would raise the importance of full legal and disciplinary investigations of those cases with his Colombian counterpart, but no firm commitment was given. So will the Minister today confirm whether those cases have been raised and will she update us on their progress?
Since late April the situation has become worse. There has been a violent police response to mass protests organised to object to the proposed tax reform and in response to longer-running demands about growing poverty, the murder of social activists and the failed implementation of the peace agreement. Between 28 April and 26 June, Temblores—a Colombian human rights non-governmental organisation—has registered 4,687 cases of police violence and 73 killings, at least 44 of which appear to have been carried out by the police; more than 2,000 arbitrary arrests; 82 victims of eye injuries, principally caused by police projectiles; and 28 victims of sexual assault.
There has been international condemnation of the Colombian Government’s response to the mass mobilisation and protests. The UN has condemned the use of excessive force, and the EU has called for the disproportionate use of force by the security forces to stop. Will the Minister today join those calls and issue a full condemnation of the violence of the Colombian police and of the Government’s comments undermining the right to protest?
I visited Colombia with JFC—Justice for Colombia—in 2018, and I met some of the most inspiring people I have ever met: trade unionists, mainly mothers, who put their lives in danger every single day to fight for a more equal society. The sight of them getting into vehicles with armed guards is something that will not leave me when I think back. I left with the impression of a beautiful country and a proud nation who had seen the glimpse of a chance of peace, but who distrust that the Government would honour their side of the agreement. The past two years have proved them heartbreakingly correct. Overwhelmingly all parties in 2018 said that international pressure would be needed to eventually achieve the peace that they all sought. Will the Minister work with her Colombian counterpart to bring about the implementation of the 2016 peace agreement that gives hope and a real chance to end the human rights violations taking place now?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mrs Miller. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow (Kate Osborne) on securing this important debate, particularly because recently I spoke to students at Saint Gabriel’s College in Camberwell, where I am proud to be a governor.
South London, where my constituency of Streatham is, is home to one of the largest Colombian communities in the UK, and many will have attended the solidarity protests that we saw recently in London. I was so proud of the students and their lobby, and I want them to know that, as young as they are, they have power as citizens and their words can make it directly to Parliament, so I will use mostly their words today.
Gabriel explained to me how Colombians feel the Government are not listening to them. He talked about the sheer force and unity of the protests recently organised by the country’s largest trade union, joined by teachers, university students, trade unions, Afro-Colombians and indigenous groups; about a united demand to withdraw the proposal that originally levelled a sales tax on public services and some food; and how years of inequality and injustice, combined with covid lockdowns with no support, had thrown even more people out of work and left many Colombians destitute.
Juan-Pablo was born in Cali, at the epicentre of the violence. He explained how important the place is for the whole country because of agriculture, and that that is why the paro nacional started, and that the Government were using it to make food more expensive. The students had done their research, and Juan David explained how the UK’s College of Policing has been training Colombian police over the past three years. They questioned how the UK, the country that some of their families had come to after fleeing human rights abuses, could be so openly complicit in the human rights abuses committed in Colombia.
Yeray, Sara and Alexia, some of the youngest in the group—11, 12 and 13—along with Manuel, explained how worried they are about family members in Colombia. Students at Saint Gabriel’s College are particularly affected. Many have family members who have been shot or injured, and some have even gone missing—one young man’s father has been missing since March. Lucas, Manuel and Alejandro spoke to me about human rights abuses and inequality, and about the widespread police brutality, sexual assault and murders. They were particularly concerned about the ongoing violence against the LGBT community, and said that even though Colombia appears on paper to have strong rights for LGBT people, those rights are not put into practice there. Women in particular are disadvantaged, with 12 in every 1,000 babies dying before their first birthday, and almost 39% of the country’s Afro-Colombian population live in extreme poverty.
Valentina was particularly concerned about not just the mental health of Colombians there, but that of Colombians in the UK who are watching their families go through many of these things and are helpless to change it. Elisa spoke with pride about Colombia, as did all the students—how they felt about the country in which some of them were born and some of their parents were born. Some, like Santiago, spoke about people their age in Colombia who did not have the same opportunities that he now has, because of the economic situation and because of how exacerbated the violence has become.
Colombians in the UK are calling on the UK Government to promote reform of the Colombian security services and full implementation of the peace accord, and to review the UK’s training of the Colombian police and suspend the selling of riot control equipment and arms exports to Colombia. That is a simple demand.
I will end by paraphrasing the words of Nicolas. He said, “As young Colombians in the UK, we are asking the UK Government to not forget Colombia; to open their eyes to the violence and injustice; and, last but not least, to remember that the United Kingdom acts as the penholder for the Colombian peace process, and to live up to what it has promised.” I ask the Minister to please live up to what the UK has promised, on behalf of those young students who lobbied me so well earlier this year.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mrs Miller, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow (Kate Osborne) on securing this hugely important debate.
Since April, Colombia has been experiencing huge, popular citizen mobilisation against unfair tax reform, poverty, corruption, the murder of social justice activists and the failed implementation of the 2016 peace agreement. These mass protests have included many young people, people from poor urban neighbourhoods and other marginalised groups, and of course the organisation of civil society through the national strike committee.
These demonstrations have been met with unacceptable state violence. According to Colombia’s Foundation for Press Freedom, there were 257 cases of aggression towards journalists covering the protests, with the majority committed by state agents. Since protests began, we across the world have witnessed images and videos of police shooting live ammunition at crowds, firing gas canisters at people’s faces and beating isolated protesters, as well as arbitrary arrests, indiscriminate use of high-grade weaponry, and the launching of tear gas into enclosed spaces. Several videos have shown people in civilian clothing shooting protesters, often while standing alongside police, including an incident that left 10 indigenous protesters injured.
Colombia remains, as others have said, the world’s most dangerous country for environmental defenders: in 2019, 64 environmental activists were murdered. Colombia has also once again been confirmed as the world’s most dangerous country for trade unionists, with 22 killed so far in 2021, according to the International Trade Union Confederation. Community activists also continue to face extremely high levels of violence.
The attempts by the Colombian Government to engage with protesters have been criticised for being so cosmetic, unsubstantial and, in some cases, dishonest. There has been widespread international condemnation of the Colombian Government’s response to the protests, from the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, the European Union, the American embassy and others. It is therefore shameful that the UK Government have not condemned the unacceptable violence perpetrated by the Colombian police and Government.
The UK embassy in Colombia and the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office have said that they are “saddened” by the violence. That neutral, passive language does very little justice to the suffering of the Colombian people at the hands of their own Government. I urge the Minister to rectify that by unequivocally condemning the Colombian state for its deadly and violent treatment of peaceful protesters. I encourage the Foreign Secretary to call on the Colombian Government to engage properly with the proposals of the national strike committee.
It is also essential that the UK uses its diplomatic strength to encourage the Colombian Government to uphold the 2016 peace agreement. It is vital that the UK Government immediately review any aid or training support to the Colombian police and suspend any element linked to human rights abuses. We must immediately cease the sale of weapons, including water cannon, tear gas and batons, that could be used against protesters in Colombia. Just as it was morally reprehensible for the UK and other countries to export to America riot equipment that was used against Black Lives Matter protesters following the murder of George Floyd, it is wrong for peaceful Colombian protesters to be brutalised by equipment sold by Britain.
Ultimately, the UK must use its diplomatic might to protect Colombian protesters, who are exercising their democratic rights and making their voices heard.
Thank you, Mrs Miller. I am glad to serve under your chairmanship. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow (Kate Osborne) for securing this important debate.
The right to protest is a fundamental right that must always be respected. It is therefore extremely alarming that Colombian security forces continue to use lethal force against unarmed protesters. Although we have witnessed widespread human rights violations since April this year, violent repression of public protest has been a constant theme under the Government of Iván Duque. Security forces have regularly attacked and killed protesters, but there have been few visible attempts to curtail their actions, and most abuses remain unpunished.
Last week’s Inter-American Commission on Human Rights report found that there was disproportionate use of force by the public security forces. The commission had warned in 2019 that the use of force must be guided by
“legality, strict necessity and proportionality.”
Yet just four days later, ESMAD riot police killed 16-year-old Dilan Cruz as he ran from their attacks.
It is so worrying that the Colombian Government have already said that they will not implement the latest recommendations from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights on how to improve the policing of protests. Will the Minister tell us what assessment the British Government have made of that report and of the disproportionate force used during the recent protests?
In September last year, police killed up to 13 unarmed people during protests following the killing of a man in police custody. Shortly afterwards, the Colombian Supreme Court referenced those killings and others when it was declared that the ESMAD riot police systematically violate citizens’ democratic right to peaceful protest, due process and freedom of expression.
The army has also been responsible for the deaths of unarmed civilians in protests. In March 2020, 20-year-old peasant farmer Alejandro Carvajal was killed during protests over the army forcibly removing coca crops in operations that appear to contravene the 2016 peace agreement’s prioritisation of mutually agreed substitution. Several other peasant farmers have been killed in recent years while protesting against military operations in their communities.
In 2019, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights called on the Colombian state to stop using the military in situations of public protest, while recommending an in-depth transformation of the Escuadrón Móvil Antidisturbios riot police and independent investigations into its conduct towards public protest. Sadly, these recommendations are far from being met.
Instead, Colombia’s inspector general recently opened investigations against Opposition Congress Members over their attempts to protect citizens from police violence, after they had criticised the Duque Government’s response to the protest. Last year, Transparency International warned of a concentration of power across Colombian institutions that blurred the separation of powers and threatened the democratic process. Can the Minister say what the British Government will do to promote greater respect for the rights of people to protest in Colombia?
Finally, I am concerned about the continuing targeting of trade unionists and environmental defenders. Historically, Colombia has been the most dangerous country in the world for trade unionists, with 3,200 killed since the 1970s. Since the peace deal was signed, 35 members of FENSUAGRO—the Federación Nacional Sindical Unitaria Agropecuaria—the agricultural workers’ union, have been killed. We must start to see justice for those crimes. Rather than seeking to crush protests, silence the demands around human rights and peace, and target critical politicians, the Colombian Government should respect their citizens’ rights to mobilise and protest peacefully.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Jarrow (Kate Osborne) on setting the scene and giving us all the chance to participate in this debate.
Recent protests have brought international attention once again on the human rights situation in Colombia. There is considerable concern internationally about the response of the police to protesters and reports of several protesters being killed. The actions of the riot police are particularly alarming—I want to put that on record. I send my condolences to all the victims and their families. I hope that there will be a full and exhaustive investigation, and that those responsible will be held accountable.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson) has a particular interest in Colombia, and so have I. Over many years, I have had a number of invitations to visit Colombia, but I have never had the chance to go due to other commitments. I hope someday that I will have the opportunity to get there.
After a visit to Colombia, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, part of the Organization of American States, said that the Colombian police had used “disproportionate” force, that there was gender-based and racial violence and that there were reports of people being disappeared. Concerns were also expressed about the use of the military during the protests.
One of the commission’s recommendations was to echo the demands of Colombian human rights organisations to move the jurisdiction of the police away from the Ministry of National Defence into a civilian department, such as the Ministry of the Interior. Does the Minister think that can be pursued? I believe it is a necessary step in the context of the ongoing peace process.
I want to speak about the situation for human rights defenders in Colombia. I congratulate them on the great work they have been doing to defend human rights. It is essential that they do not have to put their lives at risk to carry out their work. According to Colombian organisation Somos Defensores, 2020 was the most dangerous year to be a human rights defender in Colombia for more than a decade, with 199 people murdered. According to the organisation Indepaz, over 300 social activists were killed. What can this Government—my Government—do to ensure human rights defenders are more protected in Colombia? We must not drop our focus and commitment to international support to ensure that the Colombian peace agreement is fully implemented.
The recent advances in the transitional justice system are welcome and must be supported, as are the reports of almost 50% of former FARC combatants who have been able to initiate economic projects. However, it is concerning that so many former FARC combatants are still waiting to initiate projects. What has been done to help them? I understand that there needs to be rapid action to ensure they access land to accelerate the process. I have always been supportive of making land available so let us make sure that happens.
Equally, the distribution of land to small-scale farmers, as stipulated in the agreement, has so far unfortunately not advanced fast enough. All advances in the peace process will benefit the work to improve the human rights situation and, conversely, all the work focused on improving the human rights situation and tackling the illegal armed groups that still exist will massively assist efforts to implement the peace agreement.
Coming from Northern Ireland, as I do, let me say that if anyone knows how important peace talks are, it is us in Northern Ireland. I urge the Minister to grasp the opportunity for peace on behalf of those in Colombia, and I sincerely hope we can do something for them.
I am the secretary of the National Union of Journalists parliamentary group, and I want to raise again, as I have done in previous debates on Colombia, the plight of journalists—the abuse of their human rights and the violations of press freedom. The International Federation of Journalists has recently published another report highlighting the targeting of journalists by the Colombian authorities, in particular the killings, physical attacks and obstruction of their work, as well as the undermining of basic press freedoms. This is coming from the national police, public officials and reactionary elements associated with the current Government.
I want to leave the debate with at least some of the words of practitioners in the field in Colombia. Adriana Hurtado Cortés is the president the Colombian Federation of Journalists. Let me quote her directly and briefly:
“There’s an evident regression in the causes of violence against journalists; they are spied on in the traditional way and they’re harassed on social media.”
She says that politicians stigmatise them through messages on social media and accuse journalists of
“spreading misinformation, damaging democracy and polarizing society.”
Aggression against journalists has again increased. There are threats, physical attacks, killings, smear campaigns, legal actions aimed at censoring their work, illegal espionage, and many journalists forced into exile. There is a lack of labour protection for journalists. As a result of the pandemic, they are in a particularly weak economic situation, but their main concern is the loss of the rule of law, the Government acting with impunity and the slowness of justice when crimes against journalists are investigated.
I repeat what others have said: we now need an extremely strong statement from the Government, which links up with European and other international parties, to condemn the human rights abuses of the Colombian Government. I would like inserted in those condemnations the demand for a free press and the protection of journalists, which is essential for any democratic society.
In the past, we have not had the use of other powers in this country. I would therefore like the Government to start mentioning to Colombian Government officials that we now have the Magnitsky clause and, if necessary, we will use that to target human rights abusers through our own legislative system.
I always make my speeches short. Nobody ever criticises a speech for being too brief, so I always try to be succinct. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Miller, and to wind up for the SNP in a very constructive and consensual debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Jarrow (Kate Osborne) on bringing the matter forward, on her contribution and on the timing of this debate. It is a very opportune moment to consider the situation in Colombia. I was also struck by the contributions of my hon. Friends the Members for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) and for Airdrie and Shotts (Anum Qaisar-Javed).
My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North stressed what is at stake if we get this right: the sustainable development potential for Colombia to be a world leader in all sorts of positive societal changes. He also noted, of course, that coca production is now greater than it was in the 1990s. That has immediate consequences domestically for Colombia, but also for us here and in the wider world.
My hon. Friend the Member for Airdrie and Shotts stressed, very correctly, how dangerous Colombia is for journalists and activists and the deterioration in their lives in recent months and years.
The SNP stands four-square with the people of Colombia. We are not pro-Government or pro-protester; we want a durable peace for everybody. We acknowledge that we do not have all the answers from this part of the world, but this is an important moment. We need to recognise that the already fragile peace process has been almost overwhelmed by covid. Of course, covid has brought concomitant disasters in the form of health and economic consequences, exacerbating an already very fragile domestic situation.
We are glad that the—to my mind—rather cack-handed tax reform proposals that were the trigger for the recent protests have been shelved for the moment, but we also acknowledge that there remains a financial crisis within Colombian public finances that risks chaos and further deteriorations. We acknowledge the problems facing the Colombian Government, but we firmly state that the response of the Colombian Government to the protests must be condemned and the right to protest must be defended. That is a crucial point to make, because the figures are very stark. In 2020 alone, as we have heard, 220 community and social leaders were killed. Twenty-two trade unionists were killed, and according to the UN Verification Mission in Colombia, at least 133 human rights defenders were killed. Thousands more are currently in jail or suffering harassment.
The UK is in a position to do more on this. As we have heard, the UK is the penholder in the UN on the Colombian peace process, and there are more things that we can do. I hope that today we can make some concrete suggestions to spur more activity. There have been several concrete suggestions, and I have much respect for the Minister; I hope she engages with the constructive nature of this debate. There are a lot of good ideas from all points of the political compass in the House.
In terms of the macroeconomic crisis that Colombia is suffering, if there is not direct assistance, what capacity do we have to offer advice to stabilise the current economic crisis and to help its people through that process? There is also the issue of support in dealing with the covid disaster. It is one that we are all suffering, but perhaps we can assist with theirs. We have heard concerns about the training of the security services and the policing of public order. What consideration have we given to whether that has been misused or abused? With regard to Magnitsky sanctions—we really should have called that something easier—what consideration has been given to targeting individuals within the Colombian regime or elsewhere who have acted poorly? We would like to see greater financial and practical assistance for human rights defender organisations. They are doing a power of work and need more support. We want to see more facilitation of dialogue with FARC and pressure to implement the 2016 peace agreement more actively from the Government. Of course, there is more than one party to that discussion, but the UK could play a greater role.
There are no easy answers to or quick fixes for Colombia’s problems, but as my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North said, this is a test for the UK’s new and, we are told, improved—merged—foreign and development policy at a crucial time for Colombia and for a number of other partners in the region as well. The progress made in 2016 could be lost, and that would be a disaster not just for the people of Colombia but elsewhere. If the Minister and the Government are serious about protecting that, I will just say that there have been a number of constructive suggestions this afternoon. If the Minister is serious about taking those forward, she will continue to have SNP support.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow (Kate Osborne) on bringing this debate to Parliament today. In a very powerful opening speech, she told us that the peace agreement in Colombia was not working. I am sure that every hon. Member present would certainly agree with that. She also said that recent events have been condemned across the world. That is absolutely true. Every day, I receive emails and messages from other countries and from other activists, saying that the peace agreement is not working and that the violence must be condemned. My hon. Friend made a very important point that this Government—the Government of our country—cannot support trade deals with Colombia without condemning the appalling violence that we have all seen on our television screens. The police response, she said, was as if there was a war between the police and their own population—the human rights activists and the people demonstrating against the breakdown of the peace deal and the murder and violence. It was a very powerful opening speech, and I thank her for this debate.
My close friend, my hon. Friend the Member for Hemsworth (Jon Trickett), who is not in his place at the moment, then made his contribution, talking about the prolonged crisis in Colombia, with the economy in freefall and the Government wanting to raise taxes from the poorest members of the population. He gave us a startling statistic: the richest 10% of Colombians own 40% of the economy, which is quite extraordinary. He said that citizen activity was seen by the state as a threat to the Government, and that the Colombian criminal justice system, which should be there to defend those who are innocent, is actually used as a weapon against the demonstrators.
We also heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale (Tony Lloyd), with whom I work closely on Colombian issues. He said that demonstrations have been peaceful, yet the Defence Minister was calling them dangerous. He said that the Colombian police have engaged in a great deal of violence against their own population, and that 278 members of FARC have been murdered since the peace accord was signed. That is a startling figure, yet FARC is still committed to the peace accord.
The hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) made a powerful contribution, which the hon. Member for Stirling (Alyn Smith) mentioned several times. The hon. Member for Glasgow North visited Colombia in 2018, and he mentioned that tax rises were one of the factors leading to street demonstrations.
My hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery) talked about the Colombian Government repeatedly failing to condemn police violence. He said we must ensure that the paramilitaries are dismantled immediately, and he is absolutely right about that.
We also heard from the hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Anum Qaisar-Javed), who is new to the House. She made a powerful contribution and talked about increasing inequality in Colombia. She said that 220 social and community leaders were killed in 2020, as were 133 human rights defenders. Those are statistics that any Government or nation should be deeply ashamed of.
My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Ian Byrne) talked about individual cases that he wanted the Minister to respond to. He reeled off some horrifying facts about the assault and killing of those individuals, and he asked whether the Minister would condemn the violence. I will obviously let her speak for herself shortly.
My hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Bell Ribeiro -Addy) talked about her experience with young Colombians living in her constituency. She spoke about the police brutality and the assaults on women and LGBT activists, and the effect that this has on the mental health not only of victims and their families, but of people living safely in the United Kingdom, which is something that we often forget.
The hon. Member for Leicester East (Claudia Webbe) talked about the failure of the implementation of the 2016 peace agreement, the unacceptable state violence—a theme that ran through the debate—and the aggression towards journalists. She talked about gas cannisters being fired in people’s faces. Can you imagine that, Mrs Miller? It is absolutely horrifying.
My hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham (Mary Kelly Foy) talked about the right to protest being a basic human right, and she mentioned the role of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and its guidelines, which are clearly being breached.
We also heard from one of my old friends, the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). In his typically generous fashion, he sent his condolences to all the victims of violence in Colombia and their families. Pertinently, he asked what the United Kingdom can do to help defend human rights in Colombia.
We also heard my right hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell), who was previously one of our most senior Front Benchers and who has a long and proud record of protecting and defending journalists all over the world. Again, he talked about the targeting of journalists and the undermining of press freedom. A basic tenet of democracy is press freedom, yet the politicians and leaders of the current Colombian Government are stigmatising journalists and undermining the press freedom that is so important to guaranteeing democracy.
The violence that we have seen across Colombia over the past few months has run completely out of control. The country’s police and security forces have used unnecessary violence to contain widespread protests, which has put the historic 2016 peace agreement at severe risk.
Between 28 April and the end of June, at least 73 civilians, including many trade unionists, human rights activists and indigenous people, have been killed in the protests, with hundreds more injured. Colombian human rights NGO Temblores says that 44 of those killings were allegedly carried out by the police, which is extremely disturbing, and many hon. Members have mentioned that this afternoon. Alongside the killings Temblores registered 4,687 cases of police violence, 2,005 arbitrary arrests and 82 victims of eye injuries principally caused by police projectiles.
Since the protests began, videos posted to social media have shown police shooting live ammunition at crowds, firing gas canisters into people’s faces, beating isolated protesters, making arbitrary arrests, indiscriminately using high-grade weaponry, and launching tear gas into enclosed spaces. Such behaviour, we all agree, is entirely and completely unacceptable. We must be clear. The protests were largely peaceful; the violence was by the Colombian police and security forces.
So far, all that the British Government have done is to sign a trade deal with Colombia in which both parties guarantee to respect democracy and human rights. Worryingly, despite that, two years on from signing the deal, the UK Government have not directly criticised the violence committed by the Colombian police. I urge the Minister to take this chance to condemn it fully today.
Not to embrace our role as the penholder and not to use our considerable influence could lead to further violence and further needless loss of life in Colombia. I urge the Minister, therefore, alongside condemning the violence, to commit to starting a review of any training support given to the Colombian police, and to call on the Colombian Government to ensure full disciplinary and legal investigations against all perpetrators of violence, especially considering the lack of advancement in cases from 2019 to 2020, when 2020 was the bloodiest year on record since the peace agreement was signed.
I also urge the Minister to call on the Colombian Government to listen to the proposals set out by the national strike committee. Finally, will she tell us what representations she or the United Kingdom Government have made, if any, to the Colombian ambassador to London and her counterparts in the Colombian Government, in particular with regard to increasing the Colombian Government’s efforts to implement the 2016 peace agreement?
It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Mrs Miller.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Jarrow (Kate Osborne) for securing this debate. Peace and human rights in Colombia is an issue that means a great deal to her, as it does to me, and judging by this afternoon’s debate and the correspondence that I receive as a Minister, it means a great deal to hon. Members throughout the House. I am grateful for the contributions of all Members today. I will do my best to respond to as many of the points as I can.
Let me start by saying that the UK is a key supporter of Colombia’s historic 2016 peace agreement. We are proud to lead on the issue at the United Nations Security Council. Colombia is also a human rights priority country for this Government and an important partner to the UK in Latin America. Members may read our assessment of the current state of human rights in Colombia in the annual human rights report that was published by the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office last week, on 8 July.
This debate is set against a backdrop of worrying protest, which has spread across Colombia. Starting on 28 April a national strike, accompanied by widespread demonstrations, was carried out with the support of a broad range of civil society actors. The strike was mostly characterised by peaceful protests, with demands revolving around a range of issues. However, the protests also led to violent clashes between the public security forces and protesters, the deliberate destruction of public infrastructure, lengthy road blockades and alleged abuses by public security forces.
From 28 April to 16 June, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights registered allegations of 56 deaths—54 civilians and two police officers—in the context of the protests, and hundreds were injured. The British Government understand the deep concern about the reports of human rights violations in relation to the protests, and we engaged with the Colombian Government at an early stage of the protests to raise our concerns. On 14 May I spoke to the then acting Foreign Minister, Adriana Mejía, to express our concerns and to welcome Colombia’s commitment to transparent investigations into allegations of excessive use of force by the police.
On Monday this week, I spoke to the Colombian ambassador to the UK for an update on the investigations and was pleased to learn that more than 200 investigations into alleged misconduct by police are now open. We have made it clear that we look to the Colombian authorities to fully investigate any reports of excessive use of force, and to take appropriate action against those responsible. We firmly support the right of all Colombians to protest peacefully, and the Colombian Government know that we look to them to guarantee respect for the rights to peaceful assembly and association. I reiterated that message publicly on 6 May, and in doing so mirrored the messaging from our embassy in Bogotá on 4, 5 and 7 May.
Some hon. Members asked about police training. The UK’s engagement goes beyond ministerial and official discussions. We work closely with the UN verification mission and the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in Colombia, as well as the wider international community, in support of their efforts to reduce tensions and to promote dialogue. We are firmly committed to our programmes to help implement the peace agreement, to support peace, stability and security and to build a more prosperous Colombian society. President Duque’s promise of police reform, including increased oversight of officers, is an important step in response to the protests. One of our programmes supports the modernisation of the Colombian national police and is being implemented through the International Organisation for Migration, with strategic support and advice from Police Scotland. Like all our training of overseas law enforcement officers, the project is supported by the cross-governmental International Police Assistance Board and received an overseas security and justice assistance assessment to gauge and mitigate any human rights risks that arise from providing training to specific forces. We are not aware of any police units in Colombia that had received UK training support being involved in human rights violations.
One of our top priorities for Colombia is to support the Government to implement the 2016 peace accords. Since 2015, the UK has spent more than £63 million in support of peace, stability and security in Colombia. As hon. Members have highlighted, we lead on the issue at the UN Security Council, and we are the largest donor to the UN trust fund supporting the implementation of the peace agreement.
We recognise the important progress that has been achieved so far. Security conditions in much of the country are considerably better than over the past five years, and strides have been made towards the reintegration of former combatants. Our work at the United Nations in New York as penholder on Colombia’s peace process is making a real difference. In May, the Security Council unanimously adopted a UK-drafted resolution to expand the mandate of the UN Verification Mission in Colombia. This is a significant step, tasking the mission with verifying compliance with the transitional justice sentences of the special jurisdiction for peace.
On transitional justice specifically, which was raised by the hon. Member for Jarrow and others, the UK has always supported the vital work of the transitional justice elements of the peace accords, and we are extremely pleased that those institutions have been able to continue their work despite the challenges posed by covid-19. The UK Government have contributed over £26 million towards transitional justice mechanisms and victims of the conflict in Colombia since 2016, which includes supporting the truth commission’s work to gather testimony from Colombians—both in Colombia and abroad, including here in the UK—as well as working to enhance the investigatory capacity of the special jurisdiction for peace, Colombia’s post-conflict special court.
The transitional justice institutions established by the peace agreement are now reaching a critical phase in their work, with the special jurisdiction for peace due to hand down its first sentences, and the truth commission due to issue its final report, later this year.
Colleagues have also raised the issue of human rights defenders, so let me just say a few words on that issue, because despite what I have said and despite the fantastic progress that has been made, the situation in Colombia remains challenging and fragile. The country is in the grip of a prolonged third wave of covid-19. During 2020, Colombia saw a 6.8 percentage point increase in poverty levels and 7.4 million people, which is 15% of the population, now live in extreme poverty.
The continued presence of illegal armed groups in Colombia, and the impact that their violence and intimidation have on the vulnerable population, is a serious concern. In 2020, the UN confirmed that 133 human rights defenders had been killed. Since the signing of the peace deal with FARC in 2016, over 275 community leaders and former FARC members have been killed.
The UK has funded programmes to help Colombia tackle the conditions that make people susceptible to recruitment by armed groups, and that foster the persistent level of violence towards human rights defenders, social leaders, former FARC-EP combatants, trade unionists and others.
I will not delay the Minister for too long. I asked about the transfer of land, because I believe that if we tackle the real bread-and-butter issues, such as giving the land to the people who should be getting it through the agreement and the peace accords, that would also help to take away some of the sting.
The hon. Gentleman raises an important issue, and I was just about to come on to the issues of sustainable recovery, trade and economic opportunities, all of which are important.
As for raising our concerns, I can assure Members that we regularly raise specific cases of concern with the Colombian authorities. In February, the UK ambassador for human rights, Rita French, conducted a virtual visit to Colombia to discuss human rights issues. That followed on from Lord Ahmad’s human rights-focused virtual visit to Colombia in October 2020.
As Colombia begins its recovery from the coronavirus pandemic, the UK is committed to supporting the promotion of sustainable economic opportunities that will help tackle some of the root causes of the ongoing violence there. Our international climate finance commitments play a vital role in addressing that challenge. Since 2011, we have provided over £237 million in Colombia to help halt deforestation, improve land use and create profitable, sustainable supply chains that protect the environment. Last year, we announced a £64 million programme to support the Colombian Government in reducing deforestation, specifically in conflict-affected areas.
I am also pleased to say that this year marks the second anniversary of the signing of the UK-Colombia partnership for sustainable growth. As we look forward to COP26 later this year, that partnership is a concrete example of how a bilateral commitment for nature and sustainable growth can foster climate ambition globally.
Let me assure Members of our continued commitment to prioritising human rights in our relationship with Colombia, and I thank colleagues from across the House today for their interest, concern and activism, as well as for sharing their many ideas with me today. We welcome your perspectives, all of which help us to build a productive dialogue with the Colombian authorities and civil society groups to address the ongoing challenges in the implementation of the peace accord and to shore up the gains made since 2016.
I thank hon. Members for all their powerful contributions. I take the opportunity to thank Justice for Colombia and Grow Colombia for everything they do to help bring peace to the Colombian people.
Anyone who has been to Colombia—I know that a lot of us here today have had at least one opportunity to visit the country—will know that it is truly a beautiful country, with warm and welcoming people. So it is an absolute tragedy that it has been, and continues to be, the site of so much violence. It is a tragedy that all those who stand up to ask for an end to the huge disparity in wealth, for an end to the human rights abuses, for justice for crimes committed against their loved ones, for the protection of the environment, for their right to remain on ancestral lands and for the right to live in peace must risk their lives to do so.
However, there is hope: there is hope still in the peace process and in the advances that have already been made; and there is hope in seeing so many people in Colombia continuing to stand up in the belief that they can build a better future, in spite of all the risks that they face. So we must continue to do all that we can, as MPs and as a Government, to support everyone in Colombia who is working to improve the human rights situation and to make peace a reality for all.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered peace and human rights in Colombia.