House of Commons
Monday 25 October 2021
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
Oral Answers to Questions
Levelling Up, Housing and Communities
The Secretary of State was asked—
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
We come now to the newly named Department. We have questions for the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communications—[Interruption.] I mean Communities, not communications! I hope that there will be communications, because otherwise we will be in trouble.
The response to last year’s consultation on the planning White Paper generated significant interest. I am considering all those responses and will make an announcement on next steps in due course.
I welcome the Secretary of State to his role.
The Gosport peninsula is more than 80% built on, and a further 12% of it is conservation area. There is simply nowhere to build the wildly unrealistic 2014 housing numbers without decimating any remaining green areas and, of course, the vital strategic gap. Worse, the 2018 Office for National Statistics population data reveal that our actual housing need is 3,000 fewer homes. I really understand that the nation needs houses, but this Government champion localism. Will he please give me hope that they will not be imposing unrealistic, outdated housing numbers on us?
It is still something of a surprise to me, Mr Speaker. I do not know what it is like for you.
I completely understand the unique issues faced by my hon. Friend’s constituents. The unique geography of the peninsula and the communities she represents poses particular challenges when it comes not just to meeting local housing need, but to respecting the environment and, indeed, the nature of the communities and their special cherishable character. As we take forward our proposals for planning reform, we will be balancing the need for new housing with environmental concerns and also the vital importance of listening to local people.
The Harlow and Gilston garden town development is the largest release of green-belt land for our housing for generations. The scale of the challenge for magnificent community groups such as the Hunsdon, Eastwick and Gilston neighbourhood plan group to get their voices heard is a David and Goliath challenge. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we need to listen to and trust local people, and will he meet me to discuss this project and how it can provide a live case study for the design of future planning reform?
My hon. Friend makes a very important point. It is thanks to the work of organisations such as the Hunsdon, Eastwick and Gilston neighbourhood plan group that we involve local communities in making these uniquely sensitive decisions. As we consider our plans for the future, one thing we want to do is to make sure that the voice of local people is integrated more effectively into planning decisions.
The two district councils that Wantage and Didcot cover are in the top 10 areas of England for houses built, but in the bottom third for infrastructure. People would be less unhappy with the house building if it came with more GP surgeries, the reopening of Grove station and better roads. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that, as he reforms planning, there will be a greater emphasis on improving infrastructure to support the population that the houses come with?
My hon. Friend makes a very important point. Across the country, many people would welcome new housing development enthusiastically if they had the assurance of knowing that there was sufficient investment in infrastructure to ensure that public services and other utilities were there for them so that additional pressure was not applied unequally. His argument is correct, and it has been incorporated into our thinking about the future of planning reform.
I welcome the Secretary of State to his new role and look forward to seeing him at the Select Committee next week. I do not know whether he has had the chance to read yet the Select Committee’s review of the planning reforms. May I suggest that local plans need to be at the heart of a plan-led system, indicating where development is likely to happen? To do that, local plans need to be simpler, easier to understand and get more people involved in the process so that there is real community buy-in to them. Finally, even when local plans are in place, there still needs to be an opportunity for local people to be able to comment on, object to, and, where necessary, influence the outcomes of individual planning applications.
I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who is a very distinguished Select Committee Chair. At the danger of establishing a treacly consensus right from the very beginning, may I say that I entirely agreed with the first part of his question? As for the second part, I certainly welcome that direction of travel.
Today, York has been voted Britain’s most popular city. However, if we get planning wrong, we will embed inequality into our city. The governance structures over projects such as York Central are currently in the wrong place, so they will not deliver for the people in my city. Will the Secretary of State meet me to discuss York Central, as I have met many of his Ministers, so that we get the governance structures right for the future?
I would be delighted to meet the hon. Lady. It is important to recognise that we want to work with York to ensure that there is a local plan in place, but it is also the case, as she knows, that this Government are investing in York, deploying more resource and bringing more civil servants to the beautiful city that she represents. I hope that we can continue, in that consensual manner, to deliver for the people of York.
I welcome the new Secretary of State to his role. I also welcome his replies to hon. Members, as he said that, effectively, the Government’s developers charter is being reviewed. I have not seen the right hon. Gentleman torpedo something so effectively since he sunk the Prime Minister’s leadership bid in 2016. But we know that, like Lazarus, the Prime Minister came back. Will the Secretary of State therefore take this opportunity to confirm that the Government’s wholly unpopular and disastrous planning reforms will never return?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for taking me back to the halcyon days of 2016; it was not so much a torpedo being launched as an unexploded bomb going off in my own hands. As the former Member for Kensington and Chelsea, Sir Malcolm Rifkind, pointed out, one of the things about committing political suicide is that you always live to regret it.
On the hon. Lady’s broader point, it is only fair to say that the planning White Paper was mischaracterised by many. There is so much that is good in it, but it is important that we listen to concerns that were expressed in order to ensure that an already powerful and compelling suite of proposals is even more effective.
Domestic Abuse Victims: Safe Accommodation
My Department works with others across the Government to tackle this serious issue. I am pleased that on 1 October the new duties in the Domestic Abuse Act 2021 came into force to require local authorities to provide support for all victims who need safe accommodation. We are supporting councils with £125 million this year to help them to deliver on those duties.
One of the really important parts of breaking the domestic abuse cycle is providing safe spaces for the women who need them to go to. I welcome the millions of pounds that the Government have invested in this area, but in East Surrey we have created an innovative local financing model, with the work of Surrey County Council and Reigate and Banstead Women’s Aid. Will the Minister meet us in order that we can explain how we have created this model, so that it could be recreated elsewhere?
I am huge admirer of the work of Women’s Aid across the country. During the summer, I was delighted to have the opportunity to visit Birmingham and Solihull Women’s Aid to see the excellent work that it does. Of course, I would be delighted to join my hon. Friend in a visit to Reigate and Banstead Women’s Aid to see the innovative work that it is doing to provide more accommodation.
The Government’s landmark Building Safety Bill will drive the most significant regulatory, cultural and behavioural improvements to building safety in a generation. In addition, as the House will know, we are investing £5.1 billion of taxpayers’ money to remove unsafe cladding from high-rise buildings, with a new tax and levy on industry. We will offer further support to leaseholders in buildings between 11 metres and 18 metres high.
I welcome the action taken so far, but it is not fast enough or far enough for the thousands of leaseholders in Putney who are trapped in a perfect storm, with some living in unsafe buildings and many more caught up in a crisis of confidence in building safety. They cannot sell their homes, yet through no fault of their own, they are forced to pay thousands in ongoing costs for waking watch—or sleeping watch, as they call it—and insurance, before we even get to the costs of remediation works. They need Ministers to get a faster grip of the situation and solve the crisis. Will the Minister agree to Labour’s plan for a building works agency to find, then to fix, fund and, crucially, certify these buildings as safe; and then pursue those who are responsible for the costs, not the leaseholders?
The hon. Lady will know that through the building safety fund we have now distributed £734 million for 689 identified buildings—identified by local councils and communities, which are best placed to do this—with the result that 65,000 homes are now in the process of being remediated. Ninety-seven per cent. of buildings with unsafe aluminium composite material cladding have been remediated or are in the process of so being. Of course we want to speed up the process and of course we will work with developers, local authorities and fire and rescue services to make sure that the work is being done. It is being done, it shall be done: she can be assured of that.
The building safety charge is a charge to ensure that the building safety regulator—the most important and powerful regulator of building safety in the world—will be responsible for ensuring that through the life cycle of the development of a building, from design to construction through to its operation, it will be safe. We will be ensuring that there are accountable persons for those buildings who will be responsible for them. We will make sure that the cost that falls on individual leaseholders will be sensible and as limited as possible. My hon. Friend can be assured that that cost will be transparent so that they can see exactly what they are paying for.
First, let me pay my respects to Sir David Amess. He was a tireless campaigner for building and fire safety, chairing the exceptional all-party parliamentary group on the subject. I last met him only a few weeks ago to discuss the omissions in the Building Safety Bill. His loss will be greatly felt in these crunch weeks of the Bill’s passage.
I also welcome the new Secretary of State to his role. He has been brought in by the Prime Minister he tried to torpedo to sort out the building safety crisis. Given his reputation for getting things done, expectations really are very high.
In the spirit of David Amess, I offer my commitment to help to resolve this crisis, because it is now urgent and getting worse. Every day, more innocent homeowners receive new and enormous bills for remediation, their insurance costs soar, and lenders will not lend. Does the Minister agree that we face an important, and closing, window to bring forward any necessary legislation? Will he work with us and campaigners to put into law the protection of leaseholders from any remediation costs and bring forward a comprehensive plan to resolve this?
I am obliged to the hon. Lady for her question and the spirit in which it was asked. I certainly associate myself with her remarks about our late friend Sir David Amess.
During the passage of the Building Safety Bill, which is currently in Committee, a number of amendments have been tabled. Nine amendments tabled by the Opposition and have been withdrawn, and only one has been divided on. That is an example of the collegiality that we have managed to establish as this very important Bill progresses through Parliament. Of course we want to make sure that leaseholders are not exposed to unfair costs. That is what we have been working towards since the Grenfell disaster, and we shall continue so to do. The hon. Lady’s support in helping that endeavour will be gratefully received.
It is good to hear that that is what we are working towards, but it has been some time now and this does need enacting in law as the only way to ensure protection.
Can I give the Minister, in the same spirit, some gentle advice as someone who has been dealing with these issues for many years? He will not get resolution on this issue by rehashing some of the previous failed approaches like naming and shaming of developers, nor will it be dealt with by just looking at the symptoms of the problems such as insurance, as pressing as that is. Does he accept that he must tackle the problems at their root: namely, I repeat, by protecting leaseholders in law, as the Government promised; and bringing forward a comprehensive plan to assess, fix, fund and certify all tall buildings by overseeing risk assessment and removing the 2020 consolidated advice? We have the fund, but it simply will not work without dealing with those two fundamental issues, so will he do all this before the window closes firmly?
I am obliged to the hon. Lady for her question and how she couched it. She will know that we have committed to raise a significant amount of funds through a residential developers property tax and a tall building levy, which will ensure that buildings that need to be remediated are remediated, so avoiding costs falling on leaseholders. In the Building Safety Bill, we have made it absolutely clear that we expect building owners to pursue every route to find funding before passing on any cost to leaseholders. If building owners do not do that, the costs they may impose can be challenged in the tribunal. We are looking at further evidence we have received on the prevalence of cladding in the 11 metre to 18 metre building cohort. That will help us finalise our decisions, and we shall bring them forward in due course.
The Minister has been very accessible, and I have had conversations with him over this issue, but I am still not clear what people can do if they have already been stung with costs in respect of remediation. To go to a tribunal is a gamble, because legal costs may be incurred. Can he give further thought in his approach to this matter to how to get money back for people who have wrongly been charged when they are merely innocent leaseholders?
I am obliged, as ever, to my right hon. Friend. He is right. We have met on a number of occasions to discuss these issues. I will not labour the point about the public funds we have already expended on remediation or the plans we have to bring forward further support for those who find themselves in this very difficult and distressing situation. I will always talk to him and consider the thoughts and ideas he presents.
Supported Accommodation: Care Standards
Supported housing plays a vital role in delivering better outcomes for some of the most vulnerable people in our society. My Department has been working with local authorities on several pilots focused on improving the quality of accommodation and support for people in exempt accommodation. We have given more than £5 million to five councils, including almost £2 million to Birmingham City Council. The pilots concluded in September, and we are assessing the findings to decide our next steps.
I am aware of the pilots, but the Minister must know that in more than 150,000 exempt accommodation premises across the country, vulnerable people are living in the most appalling circumstances. The regulator recently judged that the largest provider in Birmingham was non-compliant, while it is costing the taxpayer £110 million in Birmingham alone. For how much longer does he think the Government will be able to tolerate this state of affairs?
It is important that we consider the fact that there are some excellent providers of supported housing across the country, and I say that with a vested interest, because I worked for one of them in Birmingham before I came to Parliament. Although I fully appreciate that the number of units of supported accommodation in Birmingham has doubled from approximately 11,000 to 22,000, it only takes a small percentage of rogue landlords to create a significant problem. As I said, we will continue to work closely with the council and Sharon Thompson, the councillor responsible there, to ensure we come up with a solution. I respect the hon. Gentleman tremendously, and I look forward to working with him on this issue.
Devolution Across the UK
This Government plan to expand, augment and increase devolution across the United Kingdom, and we have already begun discussions with areas interested in county deals, and we will be setting out next steps in the levelling up White Paper.
I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. In the east midlands, we look with some envy at neighbouring regions that have elected mayors and have successfully attracted more investment. I urge him to make progress on an east midlands elected mayor. In the meantime, if he cannot do that, Derbyshire stands ready for a county deal and would appreciate being a pathfinder.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. Expanding the model of combined authority mayors and a greater level of devolution are at the heart of making sure that local communities have strong leaders who can make a decisive difference, not least in the economic sphere. I know that Derbyshire County Council is now under exemplary Conservative leadership and we hope to be able to build on that.
I, too, welcome the Secretary of State to his place. The United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020 fundamentally undermined the devolution settlement and was explicitly rejected in Holyrood and the Senedd. He claimed again today that he seeks to augment devolution, so can he explain how riding roughshod over democratically devolved Parliaments does that?
We never ride, roughshod or otherwise, over the devolution settlement. I have two things to say: first, I hope that we will shortly receive news from the Chancellor of the Exchequer about the allocation of funds under the Act’s financial assistance power through the levelling-up fund. I am pleased to say that a number of SNP MPs—the hon. Lady’s parliamentary colleagues —as well as SNP councils, have backed bids to that fund. It is great to have locally elected representatives on the ground supporting the financial assistance power of the Act and the vital importance of working together. Secondly, although of course I will not interfere in the devolution settlement, there is a contrast between our approach, where we devolve more power to local government in England, and that of the current Scottish Government, which takes power away from Scottish councils.
Across Lancashire, we are ambitious about having a county deal—with a mayor, I hope—but levelling-up bids must come first. Can the Secretary of State give some clarity about the timing of the second round of those bids? In Rossendale, where we are working with our levelling-up board on a plan, we need to know the timeframe.
My right hon. Friend is right: east Lancashire is one area that we will focus on in the coming months. Much more needs to be done, and he has been at the forefront of ensuring that the voice of the whole of the north of England—not just that of east Lancashire—is heard clearly in Whitehall. The Chancellor of the Exchequer will be in a position to share details of the next round with the House a wee bit later.
UK Community Renewal Fund
We are committed to ensuring that the community renewal fund reaches those most in need. To achieve that, we identified 100 priority places across Great Britain based on an index of economic resilience measuring productivity, household income, unemployment, skills and population density. Other places were also able to bid and the assessment process considered both the strategic fit and the deliverability of bids.
Could the Minister tell us, when the pilots have concluded, how the shared prosperity and community renewal funds will interact with levelling-up bids? In future, will there be an overlap? Will it be possible to bid for both? On the levelling-up process, will he meet me to discuss Ellesmere Port’s excellent and ambitious levelling-up fund bid?
I would be delighted to meet the hon. Gentleman. As he knows, the community renewal fund is intended to act as an innovative source of funding to try new ways of doing things as we move on from EU structural funds, and to enable us to start working on new ideas ahead of the levelling-up fund.
Support for Towns
The Department is investing billions in regeneration across the whole UK as part of the Government’s central priority to level up and unite our country. Programmes such as the £3.6 billion towns fund and the £4.8 billion levelling-up fund will help to achieve that by supporting the renewal of our towns and cities, including in my right hon. Friend’s constituency of Harlow, which has been awarded a £23.7 million town deal.
I am pleased to report to the House that almost 8,000 new apprentices have been taken on in Harlow since 2010. Does my hon. Friend agree that the best example of levelling up is providing young people with the skills they need to climb the educational ladder of opportunity? To that purpose, will she, my constituency neighbour, support our bid of £20 million to the levelling-up fund to provide vital regeneration for Harlow to help our town to grow and evolve?
As a fellow Essex MP, I am delighted that so many apprentices have taken their step towards a career in my right hon. Friend’s constituency. I know many of them will have come from my own constituency next door in Saffron Walden. It is fair to say that we both agree that equipping the next generation with the skills to compete and succeed is integral to levelling up. Having said that, I cannot comment on individual bids to our levelling-up fund—I suspect I will be saying that quite a lot during this afternoon’s session—but I will say to him that we are determined to help Harlow transform local skills and infrastructure, capitalising on his brand-new hospital, science park and, of course, the £23.7 million town deal.
If the ministerial team are serious about levelling up, they must look at towns and their sustainability. As the Minister is travelling around, will she bring her team to visit Huddersfield, where we have committed to being a sustainable town with health and wellbeing at its heart, using the United Nations sustainable development goals to deliver in a meaningful way?
Shipley was delighted to receive £25 million from the towns fund, and Bingley in my constituency is another town in urgent need of support. The Secretary of State talked about the timing of the levelling-up fund. Will the Minister confirm whether the criteria for the next round of bidding to the levelling-up fund will be the same as for the first round of bidding, and will she look favourably upon a bid from Bingley to the levelling-up fund?
At the moment, we are reviewing the first tranche of the levelling-up fund, so the criteria for the second and future tranches will be decided in due course, but I can tell my hon. Friend that we have heard his plea. We shall be looking, as we will across the House, at all the pleas from people who would like to see more from the levelling-up fund.
I am sure that the Minister will join me in welcoming the bold and ambitious plans to transform our town centres in St Helens borough—in St Helens, Newton-le-Willows and Earlestown. We have reached an innovative partnership with the English cities fund and the private sector. The missing part of the jigsaw are the Government. We want a hand up, not a handout, so will she guarantee that the levelling-up fund will be based on need and on the merit of the proposal?
I think that goes without saying. Yes, of course, we recognise that many places would like to see additional funds from the levelling-up fund, but we will evaluate the strength of the bid from the hon. Member’s constituency. That will be taken across with everybody else’s bid, and those most in need shall get what they require.
You will be aware, Mr Speaker, that the city of Stoke-on-Trent was born out of the five towns—or the six towns, depending on whose course of history you took—but unfortunately Burslem and Tunstall, the two towns I am pleased to represent, have vanity projects such as Ceramica and an out-of-town retail park right next to the high street—both built under former Labour administrations—with both high streets suffering as a result. Does my hon. Friend agree that the £3.5 million levelling-up fund bid for Tunstall, which will go a long way to regenerating our high street, Tunstall town and the baths, plus the high streets task force, will help us bring these towns back to life?
Houses in Multiple Occupation: Local Authority Powers
I hate to interrupt private conversations, but we have equipped local authorities with robust powers to regulate both the standards and the management of houses in multiple occupation, or HMOs. These include mandatory and additional HMO licensing, civil penalties of up to £30,000, rent repayment orders and, for the worst offenders, banning orders. Local authorities also have planning powers to limit the proliferation of small HMOs within their area, and of course we will continue to monitor closely this part of the housing sector.
I recently held a public meeting arising from the many concerns expressed by local residents regarding HMOs that have been developed, and more HMOs that are being developed, in a particular area. The issues they were very much concerned about were antisocial behaviour and poorly developed conversions of houses into HMOs. I am aware of a young person paying £1,000 to rent a single room in one of those HMOs. The councils can put in place article 4, but that takes 12 to 18 months, on the basis of the Government’s agreeing to it. My residents want to know: what more can the Government do to support them, and to give local authorities the regulation they need to act earlier?
I am obliged to the hon. Lady for her question, and she is right that in Bellingham, Downham, Grove Park and Whitefoot, article 4 restrictions are in place. We have provided more than 180 authorities with further funding for enforcement powers, and she will know that her council can bring to bear a range of powers to ensure that HMOs are properly maintained. The conditions that can be imposed on mandatory licences include that gas safety is properly recognised and electrical appliances are in order, that fire and smoke alarms are properly installed and maintained, and that the property ought to be improved. Her local authority has all the tools it needs, and we will keep the issue under review. I am always happy to talk to her and other colleagues about this matter.
First-time Home Buyers
The Government are committed to helping more people own their own home. We offer several schemes to support first-time buyers, including our recently launched First Homes programme, which provides discounts of at least 30% on first homes. Our Help to Buy and shared ownership schemes also offer affordable routes into home ownership.
Greater Cambridgeshire, the city and South Cambridgeshire combined, is planning to build 49,000 new houses and flats over the next 20 years, which is as many as already exist in the city of Cambridge. In South Cambridgeshire district that amounts to 53% more house building than the Government assess is needed, and it will double the amount of house building over the next 20 years. Will the Minister confirm that that unprecedented house building bonanza is not being imposed on South Cambridgeshire by the national Government, but that it is an active decision of the local planning authority, South Cambridgeshire District Council?
My hon. Friend is a doughty campaigner on behalf of his constituents. Of course we need more homes to be built in the right places, and there are parts of our country where the cost of buying or renting a home is many multiples of local household income. However, he is right: local housing need is not a binding target, and local authorities have responsibility for working out what their local target should be, and agreeing that with the Planning Inspectorate. Although we welcome ambitious local authorities, they have an absolute responsibility to set their own housing targets.
I appreciate the Minister’s response to the question. We all recognise that we need a mix of housing provisions for the market to thrive, but does he agree that home ownership remains a huge aspiration for many of our constituents across the country, and that schemes such as Help to Buy have been a vital tool in supporting thousands of first-time buyers on to the property market?
My right hon. Friend is right. Every time we poll people, more than 80% say that they want the opportunity, the right, and the dream of owning their own home and having a stake in their community and country. That is why the Help to Buy scheme has been so important. Just a few weeks ago we announced the 300,000th Help to Buyer, Sam Legg and his partner Megan, who live in Asfordby in Leicestershire. They said that without Help to Buy they would not have been able to get on the property ladder. We want more Sams, and we want more Megans.
Many first-time buyers thought that they had bought the home of their dreams, only to discover that it was rendered worthless because they are caught up in the cladding scandal. Earlier this month, one of my constituents received a service charge bill for £103,000 to fix cladding for which they are not responsible, and requesting sums of money that they do not possess. It is reported that the Secretary of State, who I welcome to his post, has been told by the Prime Minister to “sort out” the problem. It is evident to all our constituents affected that the measures that the Government have announced thus far, which I support, are insufficient to bring this nightmare to an end. When will we see a comprehensive plan to help those leaseholders?
The right hon. Gentleman is quite right: there are many people caught up in a terrible situation. That is why we have already spent more than £5 billion of public money on remediating the highest-rise buildings, and we will be bringing forward further proposals to deal with some of the other issues that he identifies. Fundamentally, this issue needs to be brought back into proportion. If we look at what Ken Knight and Judith Hackitt have said, there are far too many lenders and insurers that have been risk averse and have been ascribing zero values to property where no EWS1 form and no remediation, or very little remediation, is necessary. We are working with that sector to make sure that we fix it, and we will.
Devolved Administrations: Relations with UK Government
My assessment is that they are really not bad at all.
I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. I tend to disagree, but I will accept it anyway.
The chief of staff to the former Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May), said recently that the democratic mandate for a second Scottish independence referendum was “clear” and apparent. He also said that support for Scottish independence rose from the very moment the right hon. Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson) became Prime Minister. That is being driven mainly by opposition to the Government’s Brexit policy and the perceived relative handling of the covid-19 pandemic by the UK and Scottish Governments. Would the Secretary of State care to tell the House and the people of Scotland why he thinks continuing to dismiss Scotland’s democratic rights will strengthen the Union?
Scotland’s democratic destiny was asserted in the 2014 referendum, when a majority of people voted to remain in the United Kingdom. The strength of the United Kingdom is visible daily. In just a week’s time, the dear green place that the hon. Gentleman has the honour to represent—Glasgow—will be home to COP26. One of the things about COP26 is that we would not have that global climate change conference in Glasgow if Scotland were not in the United Kingdom. We would not have a billion-pound-a-year Union dividend if Scotland were not in the United Kingdom, and indeed we would not have the hon. Gentleman’s mellifluous tones gracing this House if Scotland were not in the United Kingdom.
This Government are committed to at least one new freeport in Wales. I chair the Anglesey freeport bidding consortium. Can the Secretary of State reassure my Ynys Môn constituents that he is working with the Welsh Government to ensure that there is at least one new freeport in Wales?
Freeports are one of the many advantages that all the nations of the United Kingdom can enjoy as a result of our departure from the European Union. Freeports will allow investment in every part of the United Kingdom, and I am looking forward to working with partners in Wales, and indeed in Scotland and Northern Ireland, to make sure that we can seize the opportunities that Brexit provides for our coastal communities.
I feel I should doff my cap at the munificence of this Parliament towards Scotland.
Devolved Governments are not involved, consulted or considered in trade deals; Scotland is shut out of carbon capture and storage, despite the hot air of Better Together promises; and the United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020 undermines the last two decades of the devolution settlement. In what ways does the Secretary of State think that bypassing the democratically elected devolved Parliaments shows that this Union is indeed a partnership of equals?
I meet weekly with First Ministers from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. If the hon. Lady were privileged enough to be able to observe those meetings, she would see that they are like a nest of singing birds. They are festivals of cordiality. I recognise that the SNP needs to keep its activist base happy with the recitation of these grievances, but the reality is that those who serve in the Scottish Government know that we in the UK Government are their friends and partners, and Scotland has no better friends than the other citizens of the United Kingdom.
Regeneration in Towns and Cities
The Department is investing billions in local growth funds—including the towns fund and the levelling-up fund, which I mentioned earlier—to deliver regeneration across the UK as we level up across all parts of the country. Our high streets strategy, published earlier this year, outlined our vision for supporting thriving places. We have an ambitious agenda for improving opportunity, living standards and public services, and for renewing pride for the whole of the UK. That will be set out in our upcoming levelling-up paper.
I thank the Minister for that response. Supporting cities such as Stoke-on-Trent, so that we level up opportunity and get the investment we need, is vital. Will my hon. Friend have a chat with the Chancellor and the Secretary of State about supporting our levelling-up bids through this week’s Budget, so that we get the investment we need in Stoke-on-Trent?
I recognise that hon. Members from Stoke-on-Trent are very keen and have thrown their full support behind the levelling-up bids that have been submitted. The bids are being assessed in line with the published assessment process. The outcomes of the first round will be announced this autumn, as we have said, but I cannot comment specifically on his bid.
Does my hon. Friend agree that initiatives such as Conservative-run North Lincolnshire Council’s policy of two hours’ free parking are incredibly important for supporting our high streets and town centres? I extend an invitation to her: if she wishes to make use of one of those free parking spaces, we would be very glad to show her our ambitious levelling-up plans.
I agree with my hon. Friend: parking policies are important in supporting high streets to thrive. That is one of the reasons why, in the build back better high streets strategy, we announced a package of measures to make parking more accessible. I thank her for the strong support she has shown for North Lincolnshire’s levelling-up fund bids. She will know that we expect to announce the outcomes later.
The Government’s levelling-up agenda will finally bring much-needed investment to the east midlands, and the town of Kimberley in my constituency may gain hugely from it. Kimberley has some fantastic ideas, such as moving its cricket pitch and building a new community hub. However, there is concern among local community leaders that if the money is committed for a three-year time span but is not spent on time, it will no longer be available for use on the new hub. Can I have a commitment from the Minister that that is not the case?
We are looking to empower local communities such as Kimberley as part of our levelling-up agenda, but I must stress that any project that wishes to gain Government funding must have a fully developed plan before bidding. Places should have confidence in their capacity to deliver to agreed timescales.
Falmouth has huge potential. It is the third-deepest natural harbour in the world and is the gateway to the Atlantic. However, it is crying out for investment, and often gets overlooked because of how well the town does with very little. I stand ready to make the case for Falmouth in the next tranche of the levelling-up fund. Will the Minister confirm that the next tranche will be forthcoming? The Secretary of State said that we would have it in a wee while. Could the Minister perhaps expand on that? Will she, or the Secretary of State, join me for a tour of Falmouth to see how it could unleash its potential?
First of all, I congratulate my hon. Friend on the Truro town deal in her constituency and welcome her continued work as a champion of the area. I encourage her and local partners to continue to work with us on our shared ambition to level up Falmouth and towns throughout Cornwall as future opportunities emerge. She will know that as part of this work, £88.7 million of towns fund investment is driving regeneration and growth in Camborne, Penzance, St Ives and Truro, and there are real economic benefits for Falmouth, too. I am sure she and I can discuss a potential visit in due course.
Levelling up has sometimes been mis-described as a transfer of resources from the south to the north, but is it not a better analysis to say that it spreads the opportunities often seen in cities to the towns and villages of our communities, as part of the wider social covenant? If so, what plans does the Minister have to support towns in Broadland, including Fakenham, Acle and Aylsham?
I should start by saying that the levelling-up agenda is not transferring resources from cities to towns, or from south to north. Levelling up is about empowering local leaders and communities to drive real change, and restoring local pride across the UK, so I thank my hon. Friend for asking that question. The Government are investing over £17 million in Norfolk’s towns, with ambitious town deals already delivered in Norwich, Great Yarmouth and King’s Lynn. The UK shared prosperity fund will help to ensure levelling up for people in places across the UK. It will increase and spread opportunity for people no matter where they live, including in places like Fakenham.
The town deal is incredibly important to us in Staveley, and we welcome the fact that the Government are supporting the plans for the town centre. Will the Minister stress to her colleagues that the cut to universal credit will fatally undermine retail in Staveley, and that these plans would benefit from universal credit not being cut?
The hon. Gentleman will know that the Government are doing everything they can to support communities such as his. He knows the official Government policy on universal credit. We are putting other resources in place to support those people in his community who need them the most.
With Question 16 in mind, which we may not fit in today, may I ask what urgent action the Department will take, with COP26 around the corner, to ensure that local authorities have a proper grip on flood defences and the environmental issues that councils face day by day?
Even if we add up all the piecemeal pots of regeneration funding that the Government like to mention in their press releases, they still come to nowhere near the £15 billion that has been cut from local councils under the Tories. The Government have failed to deliver on promises to reimburse covid costs, and the Tory-led Local Government Association says that there is now £2.6 billion in non-covid cost pressures on councils. On Wednesday, the Chancellor has the chance to tackle the council funding crisis that the Government have created, so what demands have Ministers in this team made to get the Budget settlement that all our towns and cities need?
I cannot comment specifically on what will be announced in the Budget this Wednesday, but I will tell the hon. Gentleman what, for instance, we did in the most recent local government finance settlement. In this year’s settlement, we made available an increase in core spending power in England; it will go from £49 billion this year to £51.3 billion in 2021-22—a 4.6% increase in cash terms. We see ourselves as a supporter of local government across the country; we very much speak up for it in our discussions with the Treasury, and I am sure that will become apparent on Wednesday.
I would like briefly to pay tribute to two of my predecessors. It is an honour to follow my right hon. Friend the Member for Newark (Robert Jenrick) in this role. I thank him for his dedicated service, and particularly for the role he played in championing integration and social cohesion in this county, and in ensuring that we recognise how vital beauty is in the built environment. It is also a privilege to follow our departed friend James Brokenshire in this role. There is not enough time now for me to say how much we all owe him, but he was a truly wonderful guy and a great Secretary of State.
I associate myself with the comments made by the Secretary of State. The great benefits that HS2 will bring to the east midlands and Yorkshire will be undermined if we do not get the increased capacity and reliability that new lines would bring, so it was deeply concerning this weekend to hear the Government suggesting that future plans for the eastern leg of HS2 might not involve new lines. Can the Secretary of State confirm that he is an absolute advocate in Parliament and around the Cabinet table for the letter sent to him by the leaders of Leeds City Council and Nottinghamshire County Council, which stated that levelling up would
“fall at the first hurdle”
if we did not get full investment in the eastern leg of HS2, with new lines attached?
Having been in this House for 16 and a half years, I am familiar with what zoos look like, but it would be an absolute pleasure to visit my hon. Friend’s constituency. He makes an important point about the importance of linking environmental awareness and levelling up in the drive to unite and level up the country, and ensure that we address our broader environmental concerns.
May I associate myself with the comments made about the former Members for Southend West, and for Old Bexley and Sidcup, who are both immensely missed by the whole House?
It is a pleasure to welcome the Secretary of State and the new Ministers to their place, and to see older Ministers as well—why not?
It has been four months since the deadline for community renewal fund bids. The mid-point reviews are due to start next week, but many areas still have no idea whether their bids have been successful. Some tell me that the Government’s delays mean that their projects may collapse. There is no point in the Government trumpeting funding that never turns up, so will the Secretary of State commit to letting every area know the outcome of its bid before the end of this month? Can he guarantee that the Department’s delays so far will not jeopardise jobs or investment linked to any of those projects?
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. The UK community renewal fund and its successor, the UK shared prosperity fund, are both examples of how we can have more effective control of the money that needs to be spent to support communities in improving productivity now that we have left the European Union. He is right that it is a cause of regret that we have not been able to respond as quickly as we might have wanted, but there will be more news later this week.
Local authorities are vital delivery partners for the Government’s grant-funding initiatives to decarbonise homes. I am sure that my hon. Friend will have been delighted to hear that the heat and buildings strategy, which was published last week, committed further funding to those initiatives, with £950 million for the home upgrade grant and £800 million for the social housing decarbonisation fund between 2022 and 2025. The strategy also committed to investing £1.4 billion in our public sector decarbonisation scheme to reduce emissions from public buildings.
I welcome the new Ministers to their place. In 2019-20, the Government oversaw a net loss of 17,476 social homes. House building fell short of its national target by 90,000 homes. That caps more than a decade of house building failure. Every year, the Government do not meet their housing targets and do not build enough genuinely affordable homes. Will the Secretary of State grab the bull by the horns and build a new generation of green homes for social rent at scale?
The Government’s net zero strategy sets out our ambitions to help the construction sector improve its reporting on embodied carbon in buildings. We are also exploring the potential for a maximum embodied carbon level for new buildings in future, while encouraging the sector to reuse materials and make full use of existing buildings. In championing low-carbon materials, increased energy efficiency and enhanced product design, we are supporting the sector to deliver cleaner, greener buildings for tomorrow.
My right hon. Friend campaigns assiduously for her constituents in this regard. She and the House will know that the national planning policy framework makes it very clear that houses and other properties should be built in a sustainable way in sensible places, but she will also know—partly because of the campaigning that she brought to bear in this regard—that we have told the Mayor of London to amend his policy to allow for a tall buildings provision in local planning, enabling local authorities to say where they want tall buildings and where they do not. That will afford local communities much greater protection as to where tall buildings should or should not be built, thanks partly to my right hon. Friend.
The bulk of the affordable homes programme funding goes on homes that are out of reach of even families on average incomes, and analysis from Shelter shows that the richest 28% of private renters are the only ones who earn enough to access the Government’s new first homes scheme. If the Minister is so committed to levelling up, does he agree that it must involve building homes that people on low incomes can actually afford to buy?
I am obliged to the hon. Lady for her question. Yes, we want to make sure that people are able to buy homes that are affordable. That is why we have introduced the first homes scheme, which allows for a discount of at least 30%, and up to 50% in areas of high unaffordability. It is why we have changed the affordable homes programme to allow people to buy a smaller share of their property and then “staircase” at lower amounts. It is why we have the Help to Buy scheme, and why we have the guaranteed 95% mortgage scheme. The Government are absolutely determined to ensure that people can get on to the property ladder, in a way that the Opposition never have and never will.
I warmly welcome my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to his post. In doing so, I cannot miss the opportunity to request a meeting with him so that I can convey the real concerns of local residents to the west of my constituency boundary, in the parish of Ifield, at proposals for 10,000 houses on greenfield sites.
Of course I cannot comment on any individual planning application, but I know what a brilliant job my hon. Friend does in representing his constituents, so I look forward to meeting him to listen to the case he is making, or to a member of my ministerial team doing so.
Despite Bristol University students being housed in Bath because there were not enough students from Bath University, a planning inspector ruled this year that more purpose-built student housing was needed. What does the Secretary of State suggest a local authority should do when it is overruled in this way?
The planning inspector is, of course, there to ensure that there is effective compliance with the housing requirements on the part of local authorities. However, one thing that I would say for any planning inspector is that they depend on consistency, and there has been consistency in the way in which the Government have approached these issues. Where there has been inconsistency is in the position of the Liberal Democrats, who campaign in seats such as Chesham and Amersham on the basis that they are wholly opposed to new housing and development, and then, at a national policy level, call for even more houses to be built than this Government. Were it not for the fact that the phrase “hypocrisy” would be unparliamentary, that, I am afraid, would be the best description of the multi-faceted bottom-feeding perversion of consistency that is Liberal Democrat housing and planning policy. To describe it as hydra-headed would be an understatement, when it comes to the many contorted positions that the Liberal Democrats occupy on this issue.
NHS England Funding: Announcement to Media
While I am not obliged to explain my decisions about urgent questions, I want to make it clear why I have agreed to this urgent question. I have made it clear, repeatedly and as recently as last Thursday, that Ministers must make important announcements first to this Chamber. Despite those very clear comments, it is evident that the Government and the Treasury briefed journalists on the content of the forthcoming Budget over the weekend, including on NHS funding. Therefore, and in line with what I told the House last Thursday, I am giving the House the earliest opportunity to hold the Government to account.
I repeat to the Government that if they persist in making announcements first outside this House, Ministers will be called to account in this Chamber at the earliest opportunity. The Chair of Ways and Means, who oversees the Budget, is also very upset by the briefing that has gone out. At one time, Ministers did the right thing if they briefed before a Budget: they walked. [Interruption.] Yes, absolutely! They resigned. It seems to me that we are now in a position where if they have not got the information out five days beforehand, it is not worth putting out. Members are elected to this House to represent their constituents and those constituents quite rightly expect their MP to hear it first in order to be able to listen to what the Budget is about and also, in the days following that, to hold the Government to account. This is unacceptable and the Government should not try to run roughshod over this House. It will not happen.
Mr Speaker, I hope that you will recognise that I seek to be assiduous in my accountability to this House and in adhering to its protocols and forms, not least as a former member of the Procedure Committee. I can reassure you that what you said just now will have been heard not just by me but by colleagues in my Department and in Her Majesty’s Treasury.
Just as we are determined to keep this country safe from covid-19, we also want to tackle the backlog that the virus has brought with it. We know that “business as usual” will not be enough, so we will do whatever it takes to ensure that people get the treatment they need as quickly as possible. In September, we announced plans to spend £8 billion to tackle the elective backlog over the next three years, in addition to the £2 billion this year.
The House will have seen the announcement of £5.9 billion to tackle the NHS backlog of diagnostic tests and procedures and to support the delivery of millions more checks, scans and treatments for patients across the country. This includes £1.5 billion for increased bed capacity, equipment, new surgical hubs to tackle waiting times for elective surgeries and at least a total of 100 community diagnostic centres to help to clear backlogs of people waiting for clinical tests such as MRIs, ultrasounds and CT scans, as well as £2.1 billion of investment to modernise digital technology on the frontline.
This is an historic package of investment that will support our aim of delivering around 30% more elective activity by 2024-25 compared with pre-pandemic levels. That of course comes on top of the work we are doing to strengthen the NHS workforce, who have performed so brilliantly throughout this crisis. All of this is vital if we are to help get our NHS back on track and ensure that no one is left waiting for vital tests or treatments and that we have the right buildings, equipment and systems so that our NHS is fit for the challenge ahead.
Almost every elected Member of this House woke up this morning to see the announcement of extra cash for the NHS in England to reduce the covid backlog, although it contained absolutely no details at all. There were no details on where the money will come from, no details on what this means for the almost 6 million people still waiting for treatment, and no details on what it means for our exhausted NHS staff. The Minister has reportedly said that this money is new. Well, is it? How do we scrutinise that claim? Will the Minister set out clearly today—not on Wednesday—where the money is coming from?
Many hospitals in the Government’s so-called new hospitals programme, including those in west Hertfordshire, have been waiting months for funds to be released so that they can start renovation work. Is any of this so-called new money actually part of these existing commitments? There are almost 6 million people stuck at home in pain waiting for treatment. Senior medical staff are predicting thousands of early deaths if the Government fail to act. People are desperate to know how many more weeks they have to wait for their operation. Can the Minister tell them?
Finally, it is all very well announcing money for new diagnostic tests and medical equipment, but there are tens of thousands of vacancies in the NHS. Without the trained medical staff to use these new facilities, this plan is doomed to fail. Without a serious plan to recruit the NHS staff that we desperately need, England could face an epidemic of empty wards and shiny new scanners and superfast broadband going to waste because the staff who make our NHS what it is simply are not there any more.
The hon. Lady is right that the waiting list is 5.7 million and growing. As she will have seen, the Secretary of State has made it clear that the number could grow to more than 13 million if all those who would normally have come forward in the previous year do come forward. That is exactly why we are taking these steps. Rather than expressing concern about the announcement, I would have thought she would welcome this investment, this new money, to help tackle those waiting lists. Of that 5.7 million, around 1.36 million—I may be slightly out—are waiting for diagnostic tests, which is why this is so crucial.
The hon. Lady asks where the money is coming from. She tempts me, but I am afraid she will have to wait until Wednesday’s Budget for the Chancellor to set out how he is funding each of the announcements.
The hon. Lady touched on the single most important element of our ability to tackle the pandemic and to respond to the consequences for the elective waiting list and, as I know she would, I put on record our thanks and gratitude to those staff. Radiologists and radiographers are the key people in this space, and since 2010 we have increased the clinical radiology workforce by 48% from 3,239 to 4,797 full-time-equivalent posts. The number of diagnostic radiographers is up by 33% since 2010.
Does that mean we need to continue to do more? Of course it does, and she is right to highlight the need for continued investment in our workforce. She will have seen last month’s announcement of £12 billion of funding, a significant part of which will help to build that workforce, on top of the commitments we made at the last election and on which we are delivering.
The well-known journalist Michael Crick put out on Twitter:
“Tonight, in quick succession, I—& no doubt other reporters—received 6 Treasury press releases about what’s in next week’s budget—5 of them embargoed to various times over weekend… Whatever became of budget secrecy & announcing things to MPs first?”
The Government have put up a good Minister, so we cannot have a go at him for that, but why does he not go back and tell his friends in the Treasury, at the very least, to provide Members with copies of these embargoed press releases? If it is good enough for the media, it is good enough for us in this House.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, indeed my friend, and I understand and entirely appreciate where he is coming from. He is an assiduous parliamentarian and quite rightly, as Mr Speaker alluded to, he takes the role of this House extremely seriously, as do I. I suspect that what he says, just as what Mr Speaker said, has been heard loud and clear both in the Department of Health and Social Care and across the Government, including in the Treasury.
Thank you for granting this urgent question, Mr Speaker. I remember a time when Chancellors went into purdah before a Budget. Perhaps that tradition needs to return.
Fortunately, I received the press release on Sunday. I should not have, but I was sent it, and obviously Members should have received it, too. Of course the NHS is in a desperate state and is under crushing, unsustainable pressure, partly because of a decade of under-investment in infrastructure, the cutting of thousands of beds and raids on the capital budget. It means that today, hospitals are facing a repair bill of £9 billion, and we have sewerage pipes bursting, ceilings collapsing and equipment breaking down. The number of safety incidents in hospitals as a result of these problems has increased by 15% in the last year alone. Not only is the equipment old and outdated but, on a head-for-head basis, we have some of the lowest numbers of computed tomography and magnetic resonance imaging scanners in Europe and the highest numbers of fax machines. Capital budgets have been raided throughout the last 10 years. Will the Minister confirm that, in what he is announcing, the total capital budget will be ring-fenced and not raided in the coming years?
The Minister has not mentioned mental health, but we have thousands of unsafe and undignified dormitory wards. Will there be extra capital investment to get rid of them? If so, by when? Will the diagnostics centres that he mentioned be provided and run by the NHS or run and supplied by private sector contractors? He said that we will clear the 1.3 million backlog in diagnostic tests by the end of the Parliament, but nobody wants to see ghost surgical hubs or new equipment standing idle. Who will staff the diagnostics centres? Who will staff the surgical theatres? Who will operate the new equipment?
The Minister mentioned diagnostics staff, but we are short of one in 10 of them. We are also short of 55% of consultant oncologists, short of radiologists and short of 2,500 specialist cancer nurses. Will he guarantee that the Health Education England budget will be not frozen or cut but properly funded to recruit the thousands of extra doctors, nurses and NHS staff needed to provide safe care and bring waiting times down?
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman—my constituency neighbour—for his sensible and reasonable questions. I will endeavour to answer each of them in turn. On capital, he will know, not least because his local hospital—mine as well—is in that list to receive capital investment as part of the overall 40 new hospitals programme, that an initial £3.7 billion has been already allocated to the 40 hospitals that we are committed to delivering by 2030. That is investment not just in maintenance but in replacing old or outdated stock with new hospitals to minimise those longer-term maintenance bills. He is right that we must continue to support ongoing maintenance, as we have done. To take one example, we did exactly that by making an extra £110 million available to help support the maintenance of RAAC—reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete—plank hospitals around the country.
On mental health, the right hon. Gentleman is right to talk about capital investment. In the context of those new hospitals, mental health facilities and hospitals are included. They have not been left out; they have got their share.
The right hon. Gentleman also rightly talked about staff, which, as I said to the hon. Member for St Albans (Daisy Cooper), is a key point. We have seen significant increases in the number of doctors and nurses. He is right to highlight the need for continued increases in specialisms such as radiographers and radiologists. I highlighted the increases that we have seen, but we know just how valuable they are. I alluded to the £12 billion that the Secretary of State announced back in September, a significant part of which will go to support the workforce in the delivery of elective recovery.
On how community diagnostic centres and community diagnostic hubs will both be selected and operate, we are working closely with the NHS on exactly how to do that to ensure that the workforce are sufficient and that we do not impose burdens over and above those already imposed on them. I think that I have answered the right hon. Gentleman’s questions, but I am sure that his hon. Friends will come back if I have missed anything.
Mr Speaker, you spoke for many of us in the guidance you gave the Government. I trust that they will follow it.
Given that in the last two years very large sums of money have been spent on test and trace, establishing a successful vaccine programme, Nightingale capacity and other one-offs for the pandemic, how much of that money will become available to spend on the other work that is now so desperately needed in the NHS?
My right hon. Friend will know that by far and away the overwhelming majority of that money was one-off spending to tackle the pandemic in its most acute phase. We will need to continue to spend some of that on therapeutics, vaccinations and similar. On other things, such as the significant increase in infrastructure and understanding that we have built in test and trace and in testing and diagnostic capacity, I am looking at how a long-term legacy can be born of that and how we can transition the learnings and infrastructure from that to continue to deliver for patients in more normal times.
This announcement goes to the very heart of what is wrong with the Union. Ministers make decisions from here in real time for England based on their perception of needs, while the devolved nations get the consequentials. The Health Secretary’s announcement mentioned that consequentials would be coming. Can the Minister tell us today exactly how much money is coming to Scotland and when the Treasury will send it?
I warmly welcome the huge sums that the Government are devoting to the NHS, but I echo other people in saying that for the funding to work we need to have the people working in the NHS. Will the Minister set out what the Government are doing to improve the retention of doctors and nurses in our national health service, and particularly to persuade women to stay in the workforce because of the crucial roles that they play and the importance of having that capacity in the NHS?
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. We have rightly set out what we are doing to increase numbers through recruitment, but as she says a key part is retaining the skilled and dedicated workforce. We need to recognise that there is not a separate workforce who have been dealing with the pandemic and who will now to be dealing with elective recovery—they are the same NHS workforce, who will all have been working very hard. We have to be sensitive to the fact that they need the time to recover physically and emotionally after the pandemic. That is what we are seeking to do.
We are being realistic in setting expectations about how long it will take to clear the backlog. It is right that we do that with the public, because we must look after our workforce. One of the single biggest things we can to do help with retention is to be flexible with our workforce—recognising, exactly as my right hon. Friend says, the need for flexibilities, not just for female members of our workforce but for all our workforce, as well as the need for additional staff to come through and help ease the burden.
The waiting lists are now the longest we have ever seen, plus there are the 7 million people who did not come forward during the pandemic. That means that the validation of the lists is a mammoth task. The clerical validation is quite simple—phoning people up to see whether they still live at the relevant address, whether, sadly, they have died or whether they have moved on—but the clinical validation is now really important. What conversations is the Secretary of State having with clinical leaders about the criteria being used to validate these lists? Crucially, how are local people going to be involved in how and why clinical decisions are being made about who will be treated and in what order?
The hon. Lady and I have spent many days in recent weeks sitting opposite each other in the Health and Care Bill Committee, and she knows of what she speaks given her background in the NHS. She is right about the validation of those lists and then the prioritisation, but although it is absolutely vital that we ensure that patients and those on the waiting lists are kept informed and included in the decisions and discussions about their care, her key point was about clinical decision making. In this context, the decision making and prioritisation must be clinically led.
I have spoken with the Royal College of Surgeons and others of the royal colleges about how we approach the issue. We should look at a number of factors. Is it possible with these new approaches to deal quickly with a large number of high-volume, low-complexity treatments that impact on quality of life? Equally, there are very complex treatments for which a month, a week or even a day longer can lead to more adverse clinical outcomes.
It is right that we go for clinical prioritisation. Although I am keen that we should keep people informed and engaged as participants in the process, it is vital that we see this issue as clinically led.
I warmly welcome the funds that have been provided to the NHS to deal with the backlogs, particularly for those who stayed away from the NHS during the pandemic. Does the Minister agree that this is effectively a deal—a contract, if you like—with the NHS? We are providing the resources, which we voted for; it is the job of NHS chief executives to take those resources and now turn them into the healthcare that our constituents need. It is not their job to send their representatives on the radio to try to get us to shut down the economy. If we do not have an economy to generate the wealth, we will not have the resources that we need to fund our NHS.
I always listen with great care to my right hon. Friend. He is right that we in this House, on behalf of taxpayers, provide the resources to the NHS and others to deliver the outcomes that we want for all of our constituents, but it is absolutely right that the NHS and others set out their plans for doing so, and that we hold the NHS to account for delivery against those plans. Ministers will draw up those plans in tandem with the NHS because, quite rightly, just as I will hold the NHS to account, I know that my right hon. Friend will hold me to account in this House. A key element of those plans for tackling the backlog must also be reform and innovation rather than simply more of the same.
I honestly despair. This announcement will not make the blindest bit of difference to the backlog. There will not be the kit in place anywhere near in time to make sure that people get their biopsies back in the next 18 months or two years. There will not be enough staff, because we are not training enough this year even to backfill the number of people who are leaving all of these professions this year. The problem will get worse, not better, unless the Government can tell us how they will make sure that more doctors, oncologists, pathologists and dermatologists stay in the profession and that more of them do more additional sessions a week, for instance, by increasing their overtime payments. The Government might want to sort out the pension problems, which mean that many people are leaving. They might want to provide some kind of golden staying-on bonus for people and make sure that they have a few extra days’ holidays. Most of them are not desperate for money; they are desperate for just a moment to be able to draw breath so that they can do a decent job. However, if we do not have the people, this is all a waste of money.
I know that the hon. Gentleman genuinely feels strongly about this issue. He and I discussed it in a recent debate in Westminster Hall, and I think I am due to meet him to discuss the 10 points that he flagged up then as genuinely practical suggestions to help improve both retention and recruitment in the NHS workforce. He knows that I am always happy to do that. Hopefully, my office will have been in touch with him. If it has not been in touch, it will be, because I want to have that conversation with him.
On the hon. Gentleman’s key point, there are number of things. This is about not only tackling the urgent backlogs now, but building a system that is resilient for the future and that can actually tackle the broader challenges that we as a society face. That means more diagnostic capacity and more diagnostic capacity at an earlier stage, as some other countries have. I am quite happy to acknowledge that, under Governments of both political complexions, we could have done more, and that is why we are doing more now, and I say that to him gently. He talks about urgency; he is right. He also makes a very important point, which I tried to allude to in my earlier answer. If I did not land it clearly, I will attempt to do so now. He is absolutely right to highlight the risk of burn out and exhaustion, for want of a better way of putting it. As I said, it is very easy for people to say that X specialty was not working during the pandemic because that surgery was not happening, but you can bet your bottom dollar that the people involved were probably helping out—the anaesthetists and theatre nurses were—so we do need to address that point. I will be happy to see the hon. Gentleman.
To answer one of the points just raised, one of the key problems with driving productivity is that about 10% of a clinician’s time is spent on chasing admin. Can the Minister confirm that some of this money will be put into dealing with the primary and secondary care interface, for example, so that people do not have to spend their time chasing letters and appointments and finding out what has been happening? Those things should happen as easily as they do in our phones.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, which is why part of this figure—£2.1 billion—is allocated for things such as ensuring that digital patient records and shared care records are rolled out across every trust. There has been an extensive roll-out, but there is more still to do.
I hate to tell the Government but there has been a shortage of clinical radiologists for at least 20 years. It takes 12 years to train a clinical radiologist, three to six years to train a radiographer, three to five years to get a specialist nurse and the same for a biomedical scientist. While the investment in the infrastructure is welcome—I would never shy away from welcoming investment in the NHS—there is a very real problem with staffing these centres. What assistance will be provided to NHS trusts to mount an international recruitment drive, because we will have to go to the international market to recruit the staff to these centres?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for welcoming the capital and for his tone. Quite rightly, he highlights the workforce point again. I go back to what I said to the hon. Member for St Albans (Daisy Cooper): on the basis of the figures that I have, since 2010, we have increased the clinical radiology workforce by 48% and the number of diagnostic radiographers is up by 33%. We continue to build on that. The hon. Gentleman is right about the long lead time, which is why it behoves me to say that the increase in numbers is a reflection not just of this Government, but of the previous Government’s investment in this space.
It is certainly true that vast numbers of NHS staff have done an amazing job in the last 18 months in my constituency and elsewhere, and in secondary and primary care. It is right that we are committing these extra resources to help them to get the job done, and it is certainly the case that in the past we have not trained enough professionals in this world. However, I echo the comments of my right hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper): it is simply not right to have the profession at this stage—when we are all, as taxpayers, making a big new commitment to the health service—demanding more lockdowns and more restrictions. We have got to live with this virus. It is also not right, when these large amounts are found by taxpayers—with some doubts from some of them—that we hear the same representatives still turn around and say, “It’s not enough.”
I entirely appreciate where my right hon. Friend is coming at this from. I hope that, in answering my right hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper), I was clear that we hugely value the amazing work done by all our NHS workforce. This is about providing them with the money and resources they need to do the job, but also stimulating reform and innovation alongside that. The final point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) was about the calls by some for particular policy approaches to this winter by Her Majesty’s Government. He will have heard my response to that on various media outlets on Thursday morning.
We are all agreed across the Chamber on the importance of the workforce in the NHS and social care. Will the Government consider—alongside a decent pay rise—a covenant to protect and support our NHS and social care staff, akin to the one that they are introducing for the police and the one that we already have for the armed forces?
Thousands of new homes are being built to the east of Leighton Buzzard and to the north of Houghton Regis. Does my hon. Friend agree that those residents deserve a plan for a rational and budgeted increase in general practice capacity?
My hon. Friend is coming back for a second bite of the cherry after Health and Social Care questions last week. I am well aware that there is significant housing development in his constituency and in many others. We need to ensure that the GP and broader health facilities follow that development, and do so in a way where the local health system can predict it and plan to deliver on that basis.
Minister, any investment in the NHS is welcome, but let us be honest: this is just a drop in the ocean compared with what has been taken out over the last 11 years. I am very concerned that there is still a lack of parity between mental health and physical health. In Rotherham, the longest wait time for a child’s mental health assessment is 204 weeks; that is nearly four years. What will the Minister do to speed the process up and ensure that there is parity of funding?
The hon. Lady knows that I have a huge amount of respect for her and her work in this House. She is absolutely right to highlight the need for parity of esteem not just to be a phrase, but to be made a reality in our constituencies and on our streets. That is why we have significantly increased funding for mental health not just in revenue terms, but in the capital terms about which we are speaking today—as I alluded to in response to the shadow Secretary of State, in terms of investing in eliminating mental health dormitories, but also in terms of new hospitals. I suspect that the hon. Lady was possibly alluding to child and adolescent mental health services. I am always happy to discuss that issue with her, as is the Minister for Care and Mental Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Gillian Keegan).
My good friend and the very excellent Minister is going to help me out here, because he said that we will hold the NHS to account for these plans. He knows that I have raised this matter in the House before, when we announced the £12 billion of funding. I know that there is a plan for the catch-up; I know that it has been agreed with the Department and I know that it has been agreed with the Treasury, because a Treasury Minister has told me from the Dispatch Box. How can we all hold our local health trusts to account when we have not seen that plan? Please can it be published?
The new money is very welcome, but North Tees and Hartlepool NHS Foundation Trust is having to spend millions of pounds every year just to keep University Hospital of North Tees safe and operating. It is doing a grand job. But the Minister knows the facts of this: we really do need a new hospital in Stockton. So will the new one be announced any time soon?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. Everyone loves a trier in this place, particularly on behalf of their constituents. I have met him to discuss this, as he alludes to. I think I am overdue giving him an update letter on where we are. As he will be aware, we have had significant numbers of expressions of interest in the opportunity to be one of the next eight hospitals. We look forward to making an announcement on them in the spring of next year. I cannot say any more than that—but, as ever, he makes the point on behalf of his constituents.
I warmly welcome this funding announcement. A few weeks ago, I visited the biochemistry department in Furness General Hospital. It is one of the best in the country, so I am glad that there is this focus on diagnostics capacity. Can the Minister confirm that funding will go to centres that already have capacity and the will to do more, rather than creating additional units that may draw it away from them?
My hon. Friend makes an interesting and important point. These will be new diagnostic hubs, but he alludes to a central point. For example, there could be a hub in the car park of an existing hospital where these services are delivered to allow it to deliver them in a covid-free environment, rather than having the same front door for A&E or similar. We are working through the exact detail of how these new hubs will be delivered, but we will be looking at how they can potentially fit with existing services.
Capital investment in our hospital estate is desperately needed at Royal Lancaster Infirmary—an incredibly old hospital site, which comes with its challenges. Does the Minister agree that closing two hospitals—Royal Lancaster Infirmary and Royal Preston Hospital—to make one new hospital is not creating a new hospital but is in fact a net loss of one hospital? He has a letter on his desk from me asking for a meeting to discuss the future of the hospital site at Royal Lancaster Infirmary. Does he agree that my constituents in Lancaster, which is a growing city, need to have a hospital that they can access?
The hon. Lady will know that, while her local clinical commissioning group—her local health system—may well be considering various options, it has not put any particular option forward to me in that context. I look forward to seeing her letter, but I am certainly happy to meet her if that pre-empts my reply.
My constituents in Peterborough will be thrilled with the £5.9 billion to clear the backlog and the extra cash for diagnostic services, but they will also be keen that that money is spent well. Will the Minister ensure that many more clinicians practise at the top of their licence doing the things that we need them to do, rather than spend their time doing things that clerical staff and more junior colleagues would be better placed doing?
We need to make sure that our NHS workforce, which is diverse in terms of its skills and background, is able to work where those skills are most effectively deployed to deliver the best outcomes for patients. My hon. Friend is absolutely right: where are there are administrative tasks, which I do not in any way denigrate, that are better performed by an administrator than a clinician, we should be looking to deliver that.
I commend the Minister for being assiduous and incredibly dedicated. We welcome money wherever it comes from because it is important to have it. In Northern Ireland we are very keen to see what that money will mean. Will similar money be provided for Northern Ireland through the Barnett consequentials? Will there be any direction as to how the money is spent—for example, to address this year’s non-elective surgery waiting list to give people their sight back, their ability back, and indeed, for some, their lives back? What discussions have taken place with Robin Swann, the Health Minister, in relation to that?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman —my hon. Friend—for his question. The Chancellor will set out the detail of Barnett consequentials in due course. The hon. Gentleman knows that I speak to Robin Swann, to whose work I pay tribute, at regular intervals—almost fortnightly—about a number of things. I have not yet discussed the detail of this matter with him, and it will be for him as a devolved Health Minister to make those decisions, but I will of course discuss it with him.
My constituents in Kettering will welcome the extra NHS investment in diagnostics and elective care, but the best way to permanently increase elective capacity in Kettering is for permission to be given for the go-ahead for the redevelopment of Kettering General Hospital. In that regard, will the Minister impress on NHS England and NHS Improvement the urgent need to approve and give permission for the strategic outline case for the hospital redevelopment?
For a brief moment, I thought my hon. Friend was not going to mention the new hospital at Kettering. Yes, I am very happy to have that conversation with NHS England colleagues as I continue to discuss the new hospital in his constituency with them at regular intervals.
Workforce planning failures have brought us to this point, but many of the patients on the elective waiting lists will be showing up in primary care, and with greater acuity as they wait longer for their treatments. What additional support will the Minister give primary care to manage people on all these waiting lists?
The hon. Lady is right to highlight that primary care and GP practices are often the front door for the vast majority of these people on the waiting lists, and I pay tribute to the hard work of GPs up and down the country over the past year and a half to two years. She will have seen the announcement a few weeks ago by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, in which he set out further support that would be made available to help GP practices.
Our GPs have done an amazing job across the country, but especially in Rother Valley, whether that is the Dinnington Group Practice, Swallownest Health Centre or the Stag Medical Centre. I note that there has been a 35% increase in the amount of junior doctors wanting to become GPs. Can we make sure that some of those new GPs and new applicants are in Rother Valley?
We should make sure that general practice is an attractive career for newly qualified doctors wherever they are in the country. I suspect it will be for those individuals joining the profession to determine where they wish to practise, but I suspect my hon. Friend will do a very good job of explaining to them the joys of working in Rother Valley.
The hon. Lady asks a very important question. Patient safety, including in midwifery and births, is central to what we are about in this Government and in NHS England. That is one reason why we have seen more than 9,000 more nurses, midwives and health visitors recruited, but we need to continue to do more, and we will continue to do so.
I am certain my constituents will warmly welcome this additional funding. There is currently unprecedented demand on health and care services in Cornwall, more now than at any point in the pandemic. The Royal Cornwall Hospital in Truro has escalated its operational level from operational pressures escalation level 4, or OPEL4, to “internal critical incident”. I welcome the meeting that the Cornish MPs had with the Minister last week. I have written to the Secretary of State to ask how we can get some additional support to help us to de-escalate this unprecedented situation.
As my hon. Friend alludes to, I met her and other hon. Friends from Cornwall last week to discuss this matter. I appreciate the pressures facing the NHS in Cornwall, particularly after the pressures it faced over the summer, when other parts of the system may have experienced slightly less pressure, because of all the holidaymakers who rightly go to visit Cornwall. I look forward to working with her further on this and thank the staff of the trust for what they are doing. We recognise the challenges, which is why we are providing this extra capital funding, including capital funding from previous pots, to her trust. I am happy to have a further meeting with her and her chief exec, if she feels that would be helpful.
The Royal College of Radiologists reports that, as of today, another 1,675 consultants are needed to keep up with current NHS demand. The Minister pointed earlier to a recruitment drive and said that 48% more have been recruited. Still, 1,675 consultant staff are needed. If he cannot give us the answer today, how on earth will he recruit these important people very soon? Will he come back with a statement very soon on how this situation will be resolved?
What I said in response to the hon. Member for St Albans (Daisy Cooper) and other hon. Members was that we have seen the number of radiographers and radiologists grow steadily since 2010, and it continues to increase. I appreciate the point made by the hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse) about the rate of growth, but it is growing. We are recruiting and training more, so I think we are on track to continue recruiting more into that space.
I strongly welcome the new money for the national health service on top of the £34 billion that will be spent. Is it not the case that the new money—the many billions being spent on the NHS—is one of the reasons why we will be able to fund our new hospital programme, including the new Princess Alexandra Hospital in Harlow?
I, too, welcome the significant extra resource for our national health service as we tackle the covid backlog. I seek an assurance from the Minister that more difficult to detect conditions, such as blood cancers, will be at the heart of what those diagnostic hubs will deliver.
The purpose of the investment in diagnostic capacity is not only to tackle the backlog but to provide a long-term solution to allow diagnostic tests to take place for more people earlier in the illness and to detect illnesses at an early stage. We know that is a key part of tackling illness, preventing serious illness and aiding recovery.
I welcome the funding for the NHS, and I ask the Minister whether the funding will get down to our ambulance trusts too. Around the country, including in my constituency, waiting times are under huge pressure. What help will there be for winter ambulance pressures, particularly in North Norfolk?
The funding is capital funding for diagnostic hubs and surgical hubs, which will ease pressure by allowing day surgery to continue but without taking up beds in acute settings and while allowing the flow of patients through A&Es. On my hon. Friend’s specific point, we have already announced and provided £55 million to aid our ambulance trusts this winter.
Can I say thank you to the Minister? In fairness, he had to answer the urgent question because of the actions of others. Hopefully the message has gone back to the Treasury that it ought to ensure that the House hears first. Hopefully there is a lesson that may have been learned; if not, we will continue with the same lessons.
Afghan Citizens Resettlement Scheme
I promised in my statement to the House on 13 September that I would update the House regularly on Operation Warm Welcome. I am in the process of drafting a “Dear colleague” letter, which will be sent to colleagues later this week, but the hon. Lady has beaten me to it. I am, of course, pleased to appear before the House today in the meantime.
The Government worked at pace to facilitate the largest and most complex evacuation in living memory, assisting the Ministry of Defence and the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office to help more than 15,000 people from Afghanistan to safety in the United Kingdom. A huge programme of work is now under way across Government to ensure Afghans brought to the United Kingdom receive a warm welcome and the vital support they need to build bright futures in our country. That work spans across Government, charities, other organisations, local authorities and communities. The aim is to give Afghans arriving here the best possible start to life in the United Kingdom, while also making sure that local services can work effectively to support people.
On 13 September, I made a statement, and the Home Office published a comprehensive policy statement, confirming that the Government have committed to take around 5,000 people in the first year and a total of up to 20,000 people over the coming years under the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme. The statement also set out who would be eligible and who would be prioritised, and how we will work with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and other organisations to ensure the ACRS provides a safe route for vulnerable people at risk. While we appreciate the need to act quickly, it is also important that we do this properly and ensure that any scheme meets the needs of those it is being set up to support.
Our work to support Afghan citizens has not paused while the resettlement scheme is being developed. The Home Office is continuing to work with partners across Government, including in the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, given that many of those requiring support are in fact British nationals, to provide permanent housing for the thousands already relocated here. Some of the people evacuated will form the first part of the 5,000 people being resettled.
I am pleased to tell the House that over 200 councils have agreed to house those who have been evacuated. I am extremely grateful for that and, as always, I continue to encourage councils that have not felt able to make offers or those that can perhaps offer more places of housing to do so. This is a national effort. We are all determined to give Afghan people a warm welcome in this country, and I look forward to working with colleagues across the House to achieve this.
I am grateful to the Minister for her response. She says the Government are working “at pace”, but I can promise her it does not feel like that for the Afghans still stuck in Afghanistan with no idea if and how they will be able to get to safety or if and how the Government will deliver on their promises. It certainly does not feel like that to hon. Members who have been writing emails and making phone calls, desperate to get some kind of response from the Home Office and the Foreign Office, and who again and again, frankly, have just been fobbed off with standard, formulaic emails that do not address the problems we are raising with them on a daily basis.
The Afghan citizens resettlement scheme was announced on 18 August, and on 6 September the Prime Minister told the House that the scheme was
“upholding Britain’s finest tradition of welcoming those in need.”—[Official Report, 6 September 2021; Vol. 700, c. 21.]
Yet two months on and counting, we have still heard nothing. That is utterly shameful: lives depend on that scheme—not just those who are at risk from the Taliban, but she will know of the deep and growing humanitarian crisis gripping Afghanistan, with about half the population starving.
Can the Minister tell us how much longer do we have to wait until the resettlement scheme opens? If the scheme is going to be by referral, when will those at risk get information about how their cases can be referred and assessed? Has the Government’s derisory 5,000-person cap on how many Afghan nationals will be helped in the first year already been reached or exceeded before the scheme is even open? Will the Minister tell us, on behalf of all those desperate for safety, including former BBC staff and freelance journalists, how many places have already been allocated and how many are left?
Ministerial promises need to be kept, especially to Chevening families and alumni, so when will the scholars at Sussex University and others elsewhere be told if they are to be included in the ACRS? Will former Chevening scholars and their families get the help they are owed? Those who have been very high profile in their support of Government programmes, especially the president and vice-president of the Chevening alumni, live in daily fear. Why have they not been prioritised, and why have some current scholars been allowed to bring their wider families to the UK, and others not?
Local authorities such as Brighton and Hove, a city of sanctuary, want to know: when will they get firm written assurances that they will receive the promised package of financial support?
Lastly, will the Minister stop sending Afghan family members of British citizens still in Afghanistan into Kafkaesque nightmare situations with referrals to a visa process that the Home Office itself admits is not currently possible from within Afghanistan? Will it instead issue the visa waivers and the emergency travel documents that will help people get the safety they so desperately need?
In answer to the hon. Lady’s many questions, she may recall that, in the course of the oral statement on 13 September and indeed in the “Dear colleague” letter that accompanied it, I had to be frank with the House in relation to the emails Members of Parliament had been sending—about people in Afghanistan who are not constituents, but whose safety they understandably want to ensure if they have emailed been and contacted by them—that due to the new situation as it then was in Afghanistan, we would not be able to work those cases as we would expect to in other casework scenarios.
Regrettably, the situation in Afghanistan has not changed since I last addressed the House. We do not have a British Army presence in Afghanistan and we do not have a British consular presence. There are, of course, many members of staff in countries around Afghanistan who are doing their absolute best to work with those who have made the journey into surrounding countries, but we must be realistic about the situation in country. We are working with international partners to find ways and routes out of Afghanistan, but we must do so with the international community.
The hon. Lady mentions the ambitious target of 5,000 that the Prime Minister set for the first year of the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme, and that is in addition to the Afghan relocations and assistance policy, under which many thousands of people were evacuated both before and during Operation Pitting. The majority of Chevening scholars were evacuated, and we are working with international partners to try to find ways for those who remain. The foundation on which the Government are working is to try to do things in what are difficult and fast-evolving circumstances, and to do what is right for people who have already been evacuated here, and those we wish to evacuate in future. I am afraid these things take time, but I hope I have the support of the House in creating the scheme in a way that best serves the interests of Afghans. I understand why the hon. Lady secured this urgent question, but I suggest we will achieve this through day-to-day work and by working together to ensure that the scheme addresses the concerns she raised.
This morning I attended an Afghan community day, hosted by the Stronger Communities team in Southampton, and supported by Hampshire County Council, Southampton City Council, and Test Valley Borough Council. That was for Afghan families who are already settled here, or who have come here as part of the ARAP scheme. Their big concern is about families still left in Afghanistan, and they are desperately looking for detail and information about how the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme will work. My hon. Friend is right to point out the complexities, and we know that this will be harder than the vulnerable persons resettlement scheme, precisely because of the situation on the ground in Afghanistan. Will she please give us some hope that the application and allocation scheme is on its way, and that we will be able to provide our constituents with some sort of update?
I can certainly provide my right hon. Friend with that assurance. We want to get this right, which is why it is taking us a bit of time. I understand the concerns of colleagues, and also, as she said, the real concerns of Afghans already in this country. I have met many, and every one has raised concerns about their families and friends left behind. I understand that, but it will take a bit of time, and I ask the House to bear with us while we try to ensure we get it right.
I echo the concerns raised so far. It has been two months since the Kabul airlift, and as we know, many of those who needed to be evacuated, having been accepted as high risk, were left behind in Afghanistan and now face persecution under Taliban rule. I share the frustrations of many about the slow progress of the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme, and we are still waiting for details from the Home Office about how that scheme will operate in practice. The Government’s website offering guidance on the scheme has not been updated since 13 September. At the same time, there have been increasing reports of violence against women and girls, and members of the LGBTI community in Afghanistan, and efforts must be made to step up help for those in desperate need.
The hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) mentioned Chevening scholars, and my office has raised concerns on behalf of Chevening scholars who remain at high risk in Afghanistan due to their links with the UK. They were eligible for evacuation but were not called forward, and since raising those cases I have had no response from the Government. Will the Minister provide an update on the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme, and inform the House what measures have been taken to ensure that those most at risk are guaranteed safe passage and access to neighbouring countries? What support will former Chevening scholars who are a priority for assistance and still in Afghanistan be eligible to receive, and through which mechanism? I am not sure whether the Minister answered the question about whether they will be guaranteed a place under the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme. What steps will she take to speed up the community sponsorship scheme to help those in Afghanistan who may not qualify for the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme?
I can deal with the hon. Gentleman’s point on Chevening scholars. The scheme has not been launched yet. We want to get this right, so I am afraid that I will have to give him the holding answer, which is that we are working on the scheme. I know that he would not expect me to give details, thoughts or running commentary on how the policy is being developed before we have, as a Government, come to a collective agreement on it so that we can best ensure that the policy meets the very real needs that many in this House have raised.
I imagine that only today, we will hear not just about Chevening scholars but, for example, about religious minorities, about people who are LGBT+ and about extraordinary women who have done extraordinary things in Afghanistan in the last 20 years in pursuit of equality and the rights of women before the law. Those are all categories of people that we have set out in the policy statement that we want to help, but we have to do this in a managed and measured way so that we get the scheme right and, over the coming years, it delivers the sorts of changes and help that everyone in the House expects.
I really sympathise with the Minister, who is trying to pick up the pieces left behind by the US Administration’s appalling behaviour in withdrawing from Afghanistan so suddenly and with so little regard for the people left behind. With regard to the people in Afghanistan who are most at risk and therefore cannot show themselves easily to the authorities without risking extreme persecution, is her Department giving special thought to how they might be catered for, perhaps separately from the more routine—if I dare use that word—cases that are currently being dealt with, under the proposed new scheme?
I am extremely grateful to my right hon. Friend for highlighting one of the factors that I must bear in mind while I am at the Dispatch Box and that the Government must bear in mind in public communications: the unintended consequences of what we say at the Dispatch Box, how that may reverberate into Afghanistan and the impact it may have on people still in Afghanistan. I know from conversations I have had with Afghans who have been evacuated that when pronouncements are made in this place or in the media, they really do have unintended consequences in Afghanistan. I am afraid that I have to temper all my answers to ensure that neither I nor anyone else in this place inadvertently creates consequences that none of us would want.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) on asking some pretty basic but vital questions about the resettlement scheme. We all want to support resettlement, but we all need to know more, too. Even the expression “up to 20,000” is far too vague. What does that mean? Is the Minister confident that 20,000, or even close to it, will be achieved?
Thirty of Scotland’s 32 local authorities are among those that have committed to supporting Afghans under the different schemes, but specific offers are made more difficult because we have seen delays in matching families to properties, and worries that vital housing stock will have to sit empty for weeks and months. What can be done to speed up that process so that more properties are released?
If over 3,000 Afghans in the asylum system were granted refugee or humanitarian protection as a matter of urgency, more properties could quickly become available, so is that happening? Crucially, when does the Minister aim to have people who are already here out of bridging hotels, and how many are currently in them? Does she share my concern that hotels are being targeted by far-right activists? What lessons do we learn from that for asylum accommodation policy?
Why are there delays in issuing Aspen cards and biometric residence permits? Does the Minister agree that more mental health support is urgently required for those stuck in these hotels? Finally, will she comment on the shocking revelations yesterday that the number of people dying while accommodated in the asylum system has increased hugely, and explain what the Department is doing to understand why that is the case and what the implications are for its future asylum accommodation policy?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his questions. May I also take the opportunity to thank the Scottish Government for the work they are doing to help us with our resettlement programme for Afghans? It really is appreciated. I know that the Scottish Government, as well as the Welsh and Northern Irish Governments, are working with us to ensure that we are able to offer accommodation to Afghans across the United Kingdom.
On matching delays, one thing we tried to do, and indeed have done, over the last two months since Operation Pitting finished was conduct detailed induction interviews with every single family in bridging hotels. There may be some who say, “Why didn’t this happen in Kabul?” Well, with the best will in the world our soldiers on the ground in Kabul, we will remember, were in an emergency and in highly dangerous circumstances. They were not able to conduct the sort of detailed interviews that we have been conducting over the last few weeks. We have been able to do that and are cleansing that data at the moment. Having that data now means we will be able to match homes to families much more quickly in future. Again, as hon. Members will appreciate, an offer of a two-bed flat is not much good if a family has five or six children. We have to match very carefully. We are also mindful that, where we can, we want to take into account,