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Commons Chamber

Volume 728: debated on Monday 20 February 2023

House of Commons

Monday 20 February 2023

The House met at half-past Two o’clock


[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Member Sworn

I understand that the hon. Member for Stafford wishes to take the oath to the King, as she was unable to do so earlier.

Theo Clarke took and subscribed the Oath.

New Member

The following Member took and subscribed the Oath required by law:

Ashley Dalton, for West Lancashire.

Oral Answers to Questions

Levelling Up, Housing and Communities

The Secretary of State was asked—

Residential Buildings: Remediation

1. What recent progress he has made on cladding and non-cladding remediation for residential buildings. (903613)

5. What steps he is taking with Cabinet colleagues to help ensure that residents are adequately protected from increases in insurance premiums caused by remedial works. (903617)

12. What steps he is taking with Cabinet colleagues to help protect leaseholders in low-rise apartment blocks from increases in building insurance costs caused by cladding issues. (903626)

It is wonderful to see such a strong contingent from Lancashire in the Gallery. Skelmersdale and Ormskirk will be proud of their new MP, I am sure.

Developers are lining up to sign our contract to remediate approximately 1,500 buildings. Some 95% of those buildings with the most dangerous Grenfell-style cladding have already been remediated or have work under way. The number of buildings that are being fixed by the building safety fund has doubled in the past year. The pilot for our new mid-rise scheme is making good progress ahead of its full opening in the coming months.

Even after the horrors of the Grenfell tragedy in 2017, the Government have failed abysmally to get to grips with the cladding scandal. While the Government dither and developers delay, the leaseholders of potentially dangerously clad apartments are stuck in limbo. Many, including people living in West Central in Slough constituency, and in other blocks, cannot sell or remortgage their apartments, and many face ever-rising service charges and other charges that they cannot now meet. Does the Secretary of State think it is fair for my Slough constituents to have to continue to suffer intolerably under such dire and demoralising conditions?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising the plight of his constituents, but the action we have already taken will ensure not only that the ultimate owners of those buildings—whether that is the developers or the freeholders—are responsible for remediation, but that those leaseholders who are currently trapped and unable to move will be able to do so and to secure a mortgage on their property if required.

I declare an interest: I live in a block with cladding. There are many real concerns, and I commend the Secretary of State for some of the progress he has begun to make, but there is still a big issue with insurance premiums that are way too high for the risk involved. Will he update the House on what progress he has made with the insurance industry to get premiums down?

The hon. Lady is absolutely right. Not only have insurance premiums been too high, but some of the middle people involved have been gouging at the expense of leaseholders. We have made it clear that there are responsibilities on the Association of British Insurers and others to change their ways. The Under-Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, my hon. Friend the Member for North East Derbyshire (Lee Rowley), is responsible for local government and engaged in work to make progress on that.

My constituent Joanne Davies faces a nightmare scenario. In a few weeks’ time, she will have to fork out £5,000 because of regulatory change in the light of Grenfell. She gets no support because she lives in a low-rise block. Will the Minister meet me to discuss her case?

I will absolutely make sure that I or another Minister meets the hon. Gentleman and takes up the case of his constituent, yes.

Does the Secretary of State recognise that issues like the cladding scandal being foisted on innocent leaseholders will continue until there is fundamental reform of the leasehold system? I know he has plans to do that. When does he think they might be put into effect?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. We hope, in the forthcoming King’s Speech, to introduce legislation to fundamentally reform the system. Leaseholders, not just in this case but in so many other cases, are held to ransom by freeholders. We need to end this feudal form of tenure and ensure individuals have the right to enjoy their own property fully.

Levelling-up and Town Centre Funding: Gillingham and Rainham

2. What levelling-up funding and town centre funding has been provided to Gillingham and Rainham constituency. (903614)

I am grateful for the question from my hon. Friend, who is a great champion for his constituency. He will know that his constituency has benefited from nearly £5 million of levelling-up funding since 2020, including £4 million from the Getting Building fund for the redevelopment of Britton Farm and the Connecting Rural Kent and Medway project, and £600,000 from the community renewal fund for the Medway Together project. His constituency will also benefit from £3.3 million that Medway Council was allocated from the UK shared prosperity fund.

I thank the Minister for that answer, but it was for the wider Medway. I think Gillingham received £2 million with regard to the Britton Farm skills hub.

Having worked very closely with Medway Council to put forward an outstanding bid for Gillingham Open Lines, covering an area with high levels of deprivation, I was disappointed to see that application turned down. It raises real concerns about fairness and a merit-based system of government, which the Prime Minister assured me would be the case. Will the Minister visit Gillingham with me and meet stakeholders to look at—

Order. Please, there are a lot of people on the Order Paper who I want to get in. Let us help each other. If somebody does not want to get in, please tell me and then we can help each other.

I will, of course, visit my hon. Friend’s constituency again, after a fantastic visit just a few months ago. I should really reiterate that all the funds in the Department are distributed fairly and objectively, and that different allocation methods are used for each fund to ensure that funding reaches those who most need it, but of course I will meet him to discuss his own project further.

I commiserate with the hon. Member for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti) and the people of Gillingham and Rainham for feeling let down. The Tory Mayor of the West Midlands went further. He said, after the disappointing results for his area—including Druids Heath in my constituency, one of the most deprived parts of the country—that it was time to end this “begging bowl culture”. Does the Minister agree?

I am sure the hon. Member will be very, very pleased to read the funding simplification plan we will be publishing in due course.

Rent Controls: Local Government

The Government do not support the introduction of rent controls in the private rental sector. Evidence suggests that they discourage investment, lead to declining property standards and may encourage illegal sub-letting, which would help neither tenants nor landlords.

In September last year, a survey by the tenants’ union ACORN found that 48% of private renters had received a rent hike from their landlord since January 2021. Some increases were as high as 67%. In a cost of living crisis, that is fuelling poverty and homelessness. Will the Government act now to freeze rents, allowing vital breathing room while more permanent solutions to tackle spiralling housing costs are devised?

In the UK, rent increased by 4.4% in the year to January 2023. We are clearly aware that there is a lot of pressure on household budgets, which is why the Treasury put together an enormous £37 billion cost of living package in 2022-23. A further £26 billion will be available in the coming year.

More than 40 households have been served with a section 21 notice every single day since the Government first announced their intention to scrap such notices. That is a total of nearly 53,000 households, and the number is rising. I must sound like a broken gramophone record, but the situation out there, in the real world, is desperate for so many people at the sharp end of the private rented sector. The Opposition are ready to support them. Enough of the talking: when can we finally expect the Government’s renters reform Bill to be put to the House?

The Government have a manifesto commitment to abolish section 21, and we will do so as soon as parliamentary time allows. We have just finished the consultation on the decent homes standard, which concluded in mid-October. It is important that we get this legislation right, and we intend to do so.

Trading Standards: Staffing and Resources

4. What assessment he has made of the impact of variations in staffing and resources on the effectiveness of local trading standards teams. (903616)

As my hon. Friend will know, local authorities are responsible for determining resourcing priorities in accordance with the needs of their local electorates, and the members of those electorates will differ according to the areas where they live. That said, the local government finance settlement for 2023-24 makes available up to £60 billion for local government in England in response to the requests of the sector, and the majority of that funding is ringfenced in recognition of the fact that local authorities are best placed to understand the priorities.

There is a widespread concern that some local trading standards teams are no longer capable of protecting local citizens from scams, fraud and rip-offs, or of delivering the strong and fair competition locally which will ultimately be the only route for levelling up jobs, exports and growth in left-behind communities. Will the Minister meet me to discuss the proposals for minimum standards in my Government-commissioned report “Power to the people”, so that we can level up opportunities in communities throughout the country?

I have read that report, and I should be happy to meet my hon. Friend to talk more about this important issue, in which I know he has a long-standing interest.

Local Planning Authorities: Land for Employment and Industrial Use

6. What steps his Department is taking to support the provision of land for employment and industrial use by local planning authorities. (903618)

National planning policy makes it clear that local plans and decisions should help to create the conditions in which businesses can invest, expand and, most importantly, create jobs and life opportunities. We are consulting on how the national planning policy framework could better support these developments, and we welcome contributions to that consultation.

And I welcome my hon. Friend to her new position.

The businesses and jobs of the future will need modern premises from which to operate. In my constituency, Rugby Borough Council recently agreed to review its local plan emphasising the provision of more land for employment to help levelling up and to create jobs and opportunities. What further support and incentives can the Department give local authorities such as Rugby which are seeking to do the right thing and enable our businesses to grow?

I thank my hon. Friend for his kind words. We are delighted to see ambitious local authorities such as Rugby, which he doubtless champions on behalf of his constituents, promoting the development that will help to level up his area. We are therefore creating a new framework to make local plans easier to produce, and they will be given more weight in decision making so that we can create certainty and foster a genuinely plan-led system.

When land is available for urban development, external partners of local authorities often determine the future economic strategy for locations such as my constituency. How is the Department ensuring that there is a focus on a levelling-up agenda that benefits local communities, as opposed to a trickle-down agenda that benefits only the investors’ interests?

The hon. Lady will know that the Government are committed to levelling up areas throughout the country, including her constituency. Working with Homes England, we deliver significant investment funds to enable York and other partners to deliver homes and, more importantly, places that people will want to come to, in order to drive all-important economic growth and level up the country.

Statutory Public Consultations

7. What recent assessment he has made of the contribution of statutory public consultations to local decision making. (903619)

Meaningful engagement with local communities is essential to the improvement of public services, and our reforms in the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill will strengthen community engagement in planning and increase the opportunities for engagement through the development of digital services.

I thank my hon. Friend and welcome her back to her well-deserved place on the Treasury Bench. Would she agree that the Mayor of London’s decision to go ahead with the expansion of the ultra low emission zone despite overwhelming opposition to the scheme expressed in a public consultation shows complete contempt for the people of outer London? Would she further agree that what appears to be a clear attempt by Transport for London to interfere with the outcome of the consultation in order to predetermine the result further undermines the democratic process?

I thank my hon. Friend for his vital question. I have seen the reports he refers to and I totally share his concerns about the consultation process led by the Mayor of London. Clearly these plans will have a significant impact on the communities that my hon. Friend represents so ably, which is why we must get to the bottom of what happened and hold the Mayor of London to account.

Levelling-up Missions

We are advancing on all fronts, rolling out deeper and broader devolution across England, allocating extra resource to the poorest regions and taking steps to enhance productivity everywhere. In Portsmouth, £20 million has already been received through the levelling-up fund to transform the visitor economy, and nearly £7 million has been allocated from the future high streets fund. Portsmouth is also receiving £48 million as part of the national bus strategy.

The Government promised that their levelling up plans would provide much-needed funding to communities such as my own, but last month Portsmouth South was once again deprived of funding that would have revitalised our city centre. Having rejected a bid twice, can the Minister confirm what action the Government are now taking to make Portsmouth city centre a place that local people can be proud of once again?

I think we can all be proud of Portsmouth city centre, the visitor attractions and the historic communities that the hon. Gentleman is so fortunate to represent. I look forward to working with Gerald Vernon-Jackson and others like him across the party divide in local government in Portsmouth to ensure that the next bid can be successful.

On the subject of the next bid, my right hon. Friend will know that we are very disappointed in Lichfield that after two bids we were not awarded any grant to help with the leisure centre, but does he agree that an application for Burntwood, an ex-mining town in the Lichfield constituency, might be more successful?

My hon. Friend is a brilliant advocate for Lichfield. It may well be that his impassioned advocacy for the community that he has come to call Lich Vegas has meant that bids for the leisure centre might have been seen as de trop, but Burntwood certainly seems to be one of the communities that would be a prime candidate. I took the opportunity when I was in the west midlands recently to visit Willenhall to see how the levelling up fund was helping to transform communities there. My hon. Friend the Member for Walsall North (Eddie Hughes) has done an amazing job in making sure that communities that have been overlooked and undervalued for years are at last getting the investment they need. That is levelling up in action.

Levelling-up Fund Round 2

9. What assessment he has made of the adequacy of the levelling-up funding allocated in the second round. (903621)

19. What assessment he has made of the adequacy of the geographical spread of the funding awarded in the second round of the levelling-up fund. (903633)

The second round of the levelling-up fund will invest up to £2.1 billion in 111 vital local infrastructure projects. We prioritised investment in high-quality bids in places that have not previously received levelling-up fund money in order to maximise the spread of overall funding from rounds 1 and 2. In this round of the fund, two thirds of the funding went to those places in the greatest need, which we designated as category 1. In Scotland, across both rounds, the amount of money awarded exceeded our public funding commitments.

The Earl of Rosebery said at the opening of the People’s Palace and Winter Gardens 125 years ago that they would be

“open to the people for ever and ever”.

The M8 motorway driven through the centre of Glasgow was called the

“scar that will never heal”.

Can the Minister tell me why Glasgow’s bids to address both of those issues were rejected in a process that she has already admitted to Members of this House was rigged?

I ask the hon. Lady to retract that statement, because in no way have I said that the process was rigged. It absolutely was not. The decision-making framework that we use was outlined in full, in writing, in the technical note that we published, and I would be happy to send her a link to it on She has raised the question of the People’s Palace, and I would be happy to sit down with her to talk about the bid once she has received the written feedback, to see if we can strengthen it for any future funding rounds, potentially including round 3 of the levelling-up fund, which will be announced in due course.

Projects to protect coastal communities against erosion and flooding bring significant economic and social benefits on their own. Can my hon. Friend therefore review the investment criteria for round 3 of the levelling-up fund to include stand-alone coastal defence schemes that are not part of a wider transport regeneration or cultural bid?

My hon. Friend is a fantastic champion not only for the east of England but, in particular, for coastal communities. We know that coastal communities add unique value to our country and offer significant growth potential, which is why 22 coastal areas are benefiting from more than £673 million of investment via the towns fund, why eight English freeports are in coastal areas and why coastal areas such as Ramsgate continue to benefit from the levelling-up fund, but of course I will be happy to meet him to discuss this further.

It was not just councils that put time and money into these bids; local people put their heart and soul into developing their community’s submissions, only to find that their bid would never have been allowed to win, that their time had been wasted and that they had been taken for fools. The Minister does not seem troubled about wasting Members’ time, and certainly not local authorities’ time, but surely she will apologise to those volunteers.

I have already expressed my admiration for the incredible work put in by local government officials, volunteers and Members across the House, and I have apologised—the hon. Gentleman can read the Select Committee transcript for himself.

I need to make the point that we had £8.8 billion-worth of bids for round 3 of the levelling-up fund and only £2.1 billion to allocate, which unfortunately means difficult decisions had to be made. We are not a Government who shy away from making difficult decisions, and my own county council unfortunately faced a detriment, too. Ultimately, in line with the decision-making framework outlined in the technical note, we were keen to ensure geographic spread so that the most areas possible benefited from the levelling-up fund across rounds 1 and 2.

The Minister gave assurances in Westminster Hall less than two weeks ago that unsuccessful local authorities would receive feedback and their scorings. Local authorities are now being told that they will not receive their scorings. Why has that decision been taken?

As I outlined in the Westminster Hall debate, local authorities will receive detailed feedback on their specific bids in due course. Some areas have already received feedback, and it will be rolled out further in the weeks to come.

Let me recap, then. As the Minister admitted in Westminster Hall, councils that received money in round 1 were told at the very end of the process that they would not receive money at the end of round 2, despite the many hours that officials had spent putting bids together. We are now being told that councils will no longer receive their scorings. What confidence can local authorities have that this process is fair and transparent? Or is it simply the case that this policy is in tatters and no faith can be placed in this process?

I would ask the hon. Gentleman to visit some of the areas that are benefiting from the levelling-up fund. He should visit some of the incredible projects that are benefiting local communities and then look me in the eye and tell me that this policy is in tatters.

Metro Mayors: Transfer of Powers

10. If he will make an assessment of the potential benefits of transferring powers from central Government to (a) the Mayor of Greater Manchester and (b) other metro Mayors. (903624)

Devolution gives local leaders the tools to level up. Mayors already drive economic growth, improve public services and respond to local priorities, which is why the Government are committed to deepening the devolution settlement for the most mature institutions, supported by stronger processes for accountability. The west midlands and Greater Manchester trailblazer deals will act as a blueprint for other areas.

Devolving powers seems like such a great idea, but is the Minister as concerned as I am that Mayors like Andy Burnham are using the role to build a personal power base and to implement policies, such as the so-called Manchester clean-air zone, that are diametrically opposed to Conservative values?

I thank my hon. Friend for staying vigilant on the creation of socialist power bases, which those of us on the Government side of the House take incredibly seriously. I believe that levelling up this country by devolving power is the best way to champion the Conservative values and principles of entrepreneurialism, innovation and individualism. As I have already outlined, this will happen alongside a deepened accountability framework.

The trailblazer deals in the West Midlands and Greater Manchester imply that everyone else will have to sit and wait, and not get extra devolution. Will the Minister disabuse me of that by setting out a timetable—nothing in her response indicates a timetable—for when the Mayors of other combined authorities will be given the same powers as Greater Manchester and the West Midlands?

Our priority at the moment is securing these trailblazer deals—securing the devolution of vital powers on things we know really matter to communities in Greater Manchester and the West Midlands. Following that point, we will be talking to other metro areas about how we can deepen their devolution deals as well.

Does the Minister share my concern about the Mayor of Greater Manchester’s proposals for a workplace parking levy? It is a tax on business, jobs and families, is it not?

My hon. Friend is a great champion for his community and I would be happy to meet him to discuss this policy further.

The Minister knows that I am very supportive of the devolution of more powers to Greater Manchester, but one area that she needs to look at carefully is the increase in scrutiny that will be necessary at a very local level. As powers shift from this place, where scrutiny is strong, to local government, where scrutiny is not as strong as it perhaps ought to be, we need to look afresh at those powers.

I could not agree with the hon. Gentleman more on that point. If powers are being handed to local areas, which I think we all agree is right, it is important that that comes with a proper scrutiny framework. That is why we will shortly be publishing a detailed devolution accountability framework, alongside the trailblazer deals.

Local Authority Budgets

11. What assessment he has made of the implications for his policies of trends in the level of local authority budgets. (903625)

17. What assessment he has made of the implications for his policies of trends in the level of local authority budgets. (903631)

The local government finance settlement 2023-24 recently made available nearly £60 billion of funding for local government in England in the coming financial year, responding to the requests of the sector for clarity, space and additional resources.

Shropshire Council has recently reported that it needs to find £10 million of cuts this quarter and £50 million in the coming years. Some 85% of its budget is spent on social care, so 97% of residents are going to pay more for reduced services. Will the Government consider reviewing the fair funding formula, so that councils in rural areas can continue to provide proper services to their constituents?

The main message we heard from the local government sector in the past 12 months, after covid, inflation and all the pressures it had, was that it wanted stability. What we have tried to offer as part of the financial settlement for 2023-24 is a stable platform upon which colleagues in local government can plan, reform and work through where they are going in the future.

Both adult and children’s social care are in crisis, but the social care grant, which can be used for both, excludes from its flawed funding formula the needs of tens of thousands of vulnerable children across this country. That means that in London alone councils will miss out on some £600 million by 2025, leaving boroughs such as mine in Richmond struggling to provide high-quality care for those children in need. Will the Minister look at fixing this faulty formula so that the most vulnerable children in our society can get the care they desperately need?

As I said to the hon. Member for North Shropshire (Helen Morgan), we are prioritising stability this year. Of course we always look at elements of the settlement and what we can or cannot do, and how we can make them better for the long term. However, substantial additional funding, support and resources are going into the local government finance settlement, which we hope will make a difference on the frontline.

Over a decade of Tory cuts are not the only thing damaging council budgets; fly-tipping is a stain on our communities and costs nearly £400 million a year. Taxpayers are left footing the bill for the 16% increase in this crime under a Tory Government. Councils should not pay the price for Conservatives being soft on crime, so does the Minister agree that it is time to get tough on people who do not respect our neighbourhoods? Will he back Labour’s plan for stronger punishment for fly-tippers and the introduction of clear-up squads?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her comments. I absolutely agree that fly-tipping is a scourge and a crime, and that local authorities have the resources and the ability to try to do this and to crack down on it. I encourage them to do so.

Antisocial Behaviour: Local Authorities

Across Government, we are developing an action plan to tackle antisocial behaviour. We are looking at stronger enforcement and swifter justice, as well as supporting young people into sports and other activities. This action builds on our wider investment in tackling crime and antisocial behaviour, including our recruitment of an additional 20,000 police officers.

Antisocial behaviour and petty crime have long been a problem in Blyth Valley, which is why I have been meeting the police, community groups and local retailers to try to resolve the issues. Will my right hon. Friend please agree to meet me to discuss the matter in greater detail, and hopefully find where the support is?

I absolutely will. My hon. Friend, who is a spirited champion for the communities in Blyth Valley, recognises how important it is that we work together with other agencies to deal with antisocial behaviour, that we have swift and certain justice, and that we ensure that perpetrators clear up the mess they have created. Above all, we have activities to intervene upstream and ensure that the persistent absentees and truants of today, who could go on to become the antisocial actors of tomorrow, are helped back on to the right path.

My constituents on Ashby Road, the A511 and the former A50 trunk road, are suffering as a result of drivers racing along the road with no consideration for residents who need to pull in and out of their driveways. Excessive speed, aggressive driving habits and numerous traffic collisions are very worrying for those who live there. What support can my right hon. Friend give local authorities to help them tackle such instances of antisocial behaviour?

My hon. Friend is quite right to raise this issue. Vehicle crime—whether those driving cars or using e-scooters in an antisocial fashion, or otherwise making life difficult for their neighbours—often needs attention. That is why an additional 231 uplift officers have been added to Staffordshire police, but I will be working with Staffordshire’s police and crime commissioner to ensure that this issue is tackled appropriately.

Second Homes in Coastal Areas

The Government fully understand that beautiful areas attract large numbers of holidaymakers and, therefore, large numbers of second homes. That is why we have introduced higher rates of stamp duty land tax for those purchasing additional properties, which will help to support local areas that have a large number of second homes.

The ability to double council tax on second homes is a real step in the right direction to help communities, such as mine in North Norfolk, that suffer from a high concentration of second homes. However, clause 73 of the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill requires greater clarification. Currently, a district council such as North Norfolk benefits from just 8p in the pound from council tax revenue. Does the Minister agree that we ought to look at that clause and ensure that the communities affected by second homes are the ones that benefit from additional taxation raised?

My hon. Friend does a superb job of representing communities affected by large numbers of second homes. That is why the new council tax second homes premium will enable councils, particularly in areas such as his with a strong tourism industry, to generate significant additional funding for local services. If they introduce the maximum premium, they will benefit from double the council tax revenue. I am happy to discuss that issue with him in more detail.

The pandemic turbocharged the housing crisis in rural areas, especially in Devon and Cornwall. Families are being turfed out of their private rented homes under section 21 notices so that they can be turned into second homes and Airbnbs. Does the Minister agree with south-west supporters of the First Homes Not Second Homes campaign, which I run with Cornwall councillor Jayne Kirkham, that it is time not only for increased council tax on second homes but for a proper licensing regime, so that communities can decide how many second homes should be in their community, to stop them being hollowed out?

I thank the hon. Member for bringing this issue to the Floor of the House on behalf of his constituents and communities. We are looking at the issue of registration of second homes through the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill and other frameworks. We understand that, naturally, people want to go on holiday to beautiful areas, but there is an impact on communities. We need the registration scheme so that we understand and better mitigate that.

Rural Areas: Housing Provision

We want to ensure that affordable homes are available to anyone who needs them, including in rural locations where stock is limited and often difficult to replace. Our £11.5 billion affordable homes programme is one of the vehicles through which rural housing is delivered. It will provide thousands of affordable homes in rural communities such as his across the country.

I wholeheartedly agree with the suggestion of my hon. Friend the Member for North Norfolk (Duncan Baker): we need to build more houses and put them in the right places and spaces, in the right style and at genuinely local affordable levels. One of the ways to do that is through community land trusts. Could the Minister outline how we can do better to support community land trusts in south Devon to build the houses that local people need, on a primary residency basis?

The Government completely agree with those comments. We are clear that the community-led housing sector offers significant untapped potential for helping to meet housing need. It is the support and close involvement of the local community that helps secure that planning permission, so that we can build the homes that local people support and can afford to buy.

May I once again welcome the new Minister to her place?

Over a quarter of a million people in rural England are on a housing waiting list, yet the Government are on course to miss even the paltry target of 13,000 new rural affordable homes set out in the current five-year affordable homes programme. At the same time, the steady erosion of our country’s social housing stock continues apace, with data released by the Department only last month making it clear that the Government presided over the net loss of 14,110 social homes last year. Is it simply not the case that, when it comes to providing rural and urban communities with the genuinely affordable rented homes they need, Ministers are failing woefully?

No, that is not the case. It is a pleasure to respond to the hon. Gentleman. This Government are taking the delivery of affordable housing across the whole country incredibly seriously. That is why more than 243,000 affordable homes have been provided in rural local authorities in England, such as those represented by Members across this House, between April 2010 and March 2022. We must get the planning system right. We have a mission to level up the country, which includes building affordable homes in rural areas, as well as in urban areas.

Housing Developments: Primary Care Capacity

16. What discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on provision of primary care capacity for large-scale new housing developments. (903630)

New housing needs to be supported by the right infrastructure, including primary care services. The new infrastructure levy that we are introducing through the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill will be able to provide funding for local infrastructure and so contribute towards addressing that vital issue.

I am running out of ways to describe how unbelievably awful the current system is, which is failing to allocate sufficient increased general practice capacity when we build tens of thousands of new homes. Do the Government recognise the urgency of this matter? If we are going to build housing, people must be able to see a doctor when they move into their new homes.

Yes, the Government do recognise the urgency of this issue, and I thank my hon. Friend for raising it. He is right to be consistent about it, because, as we recognise, access to healthcare is one of the most important concerns—if not the most important concern —of local communities when new housing is planned. Our community infrastructure levy places much firmer requirements on local planning to engage with healthcare provision in the local community, and I would be happy to meet him to discuss this matter further.

Devolving Power to Local Communities

In 2022 we signed six new devolution deals—with York and North Yorkshire, the east midlands, Norfolk, Suffolk, Cornwall, and the north-east—with £4 billion of long-term investment funding and key powers devolved to local leaders. When these deals are implemented, more than half of the English population will benefit from devolution.

My constituents benefit from access to places such as Ruislip woods and the Pinner Memorial Park as a means of getting to green spaces in the local area. What measures does my hon. Friend have in mind to ensure that, through the access to nature target, more local authorities can use these devolution powers to create good-quality green spaces?

I completely agree with my hon. Friend about the importance of access to green space. My Department has made significant funds available to local areas, including through the UK shared prosperity fund and the levelling-up parks fund, which can be used to regenerate green spaces, but I would be happy to sit down with him to discuss the matter further.

Can the Minister confirm whether there is levelling-up funding within the Department that has not been spent or allocated?

I am not quite sure whether I understand the hon. Lady’s question. If she would like to write to me, I will certainly follow up in writing.

Building Regulations: Energy Efficiency

22. What assessment has he made of the impact on energy efficiency of the part L uplift in the building regulations. (903636)

The part L uplift, which came into force in June 2022, delivered a significant improvement in energy efficiency. New homes now produce 30% fewer CO2 emissions, and new non-domestic buildings produce 27% fewer. The uplift will act as a stepping stone to the 2025 standards, which we will consult on in due course.

Is the Minister aware of a simple additive called EndoTherm, which can be added to both domestic and non-domestic wet heating systems for condensing boilers? Tests have proved that it reduces energy use and hopefully it will soon be standard assessment procedure-approved for testing. If he is not aware of it, will he meet me and Andrew Bean to discuss its properties?

I was not aware of it until now, but I thank my hon. Friend for highlighting it. As he knows from his time in the Department, our approach is agnostic on technology and materials, but where there are opportunities to find out more about how things are working and how we can improve things, I am happy to do so.

Topical Questions

I was honoured 10 days ago to have the chance to meet the family of Awaab Ishak, the child who died so tragically in horrendous circumstances in Rochdale. I was able to thank them for their campaigning work and, as a result, with co-operation from bodies across this House, we are taking forward legislation in his name and in his honour to ensure that the scourge of damp and mould is at last effectively dealt with.

In the levelling up White Paper the Government rightly confirmed that they would match European Union structural fund receipts for Cornwall. They could do the same for South Yorkshire, Tees Valley, County Durham and Lincolnshire, but so far have not. Will they?

I think we may be arguing from slightly different premises, because it depends how one defines the replacement for EU structural funds. I am more than happy to take the hon. Gentleman through the figures and point out the ways in which the funding we have supplied through the funds at our disposal match European commitments.

T3. One issue recently discussed at the Stoke-on-Trent summit at 10 Downing Street, led by my right hon. Friend, was setting free Homes England and Stoke-on-Trent City Council on their fantastic, UK-leading strategy for the regeneration of industrial cities. Will he update the House on how his mission to set free Homes England is going to date? (903641)

Stoke-on-Trent and all the six towns are enjoying a renaissance under this Government in a way that they did not under the last Labour Government. We are ensuring that investment is going into Burslem, Tunstall, Stoke and Hanley in a way that did not occur under that Labour Government. Homes England is at the heart of that investment, providing new homes and cultural investment and ensuring that people who voted Conservative at the last general election recognise that they made the right decision.

I wish the Secretary of State good luck with that. Last week, he told ITV News that,

“nobody will get in the way of making sure we get money to those who are vulnerable and who deserve it”.

Was he referring to the Chancellor or the Chief Secretary to the Treasury?

Seriously, the Secretary of State no longer has the power to sign off on a park bench. There are now reports of significant underspends in his Department that are about to be clawed back by the Treasury. Can he guarantee to the towns crying out for investment in town centres, high streets and affordable housing that the full allocation of the towns fund, the future high streets fund and the affordable homes programme will be spent? If he cannot, will he tell us who is to blame—him, or the Chancellor?

Just before the Secretary of State replies, I remind him that we should not use the name of the Member but their constituency, and also that he is certainly a right hon. Member.

My apologies to you, Mr Speaker, and to the right hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer)—the “human roadblock”, as he was once memorably described by my right hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson). Returning to the issue, it is absolutely the case that this Department is responsible for the disbursement, successfully, of funds to the frontline, helping to transform communities that were overlooked and undervalued by the last Government. No one is going to get in the way of this Department spending the money we need on the communities that need it. The only thing I would say is that there is not a single spending commitment that the hon. Lady has been able to make because of the shadow Chancellor. Labour—

Secretary of State, I do not want to do this every time we have questions. We get to topicals, and because the question is asked you feel it is a free-for-all. It is not your questions; it is Back-Benchers’ questions. Please, let us get everybody in, and let us start with Greg Smith, who wants to ask a good question.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. Whole communities have been up in arms after perverse decisions by the Planning Inspectorate, most recently on a site between Askett and Meadle and another between Twyford and Poundon. What steps is my right hon. Friend taking to reform the Planning Inspectorate to stop it walking all over local wishes?

The new national planning policy framework ensures that the Planning Inspectorate will work with, not against, local communities. The Planning Inspectorate also has a wonderful new chief executive officer—an official from my Department who helped to deliver the homes for Ukraine programme and understands what communities need and want.

T2. With around 1,000 jobs and 17,000 placements at stake in Northern Ireland, the shared prosperity fund is too little, too late for those organisations that are currently availing themselves of European social fund support. Can the Minister ensure that, at the very least, decisions on funding will be taken before the end of March to allow successful bids to continue without interruption? (903639)

Solar is an important part of the UK’s energy mix, and, as the Secretary of State will know, the sun always shines in Shropshire. Does he agree that solar farms, which are often of huge scale, need to be in the right place, not the wrong place? So often, a lot of good agricultural land is lost.

Shropshire, home to the “blue remembered hills” of A. E. Housman, is one of our most beautiful counties. It is vital, even as we pursue renewable energy across the United Kingdom, that we recognise that our environment is just as much about natural beauty as it is about striving towards net zero.

T4. According to the Government’s own reports, the Prime Minister’s Richmondshire local authority is the 67th least deprived local authority in the country, while Bradford is the 21st most deprived. Was levelling up at the heart of the Government’s decision to approve roughly £20 million of funding for Richmondshire and no funding for my constituency of Bradford South? (903643)

That money went towards ensuring that service families get the accommodation and support they deserve. If Labour wants to be taken seriously as a patriotic party, it should stop talking down our armed forces and ensure that they receive the money they deserve.

Devon, Cornwall, Dorset and Somerset secured £152 million from the levelling-up fund last month. The four counties make up the region’s new powerhouse, the great south west, of which I chair the all-party parliamentary group. Will my right hon. Friend meet me to discuss the fantastic opportunities that lie ahead for the great south west?

I absolutely will, and I will make sure that the Under-Secretary of State for Levelling Up, my hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland (Dehenna Davison), is with me as well. There is nothing that the two of us enjoy more than hearing good news from fantastic constituency MPs such as my hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Simon Jupp).

T5. Thank you very much, Mr Speaker.Not only have the Government legislated to allow sewage on to our beaches and into our sea, but they are now limiting funds for local authorities to stop historic coastal landfill sites polluting our coast. One of those sites is in gorgeous South Shields. When can we expect the Government to do something about it? (903644)

Actually, the way that this Government have handled Ofwat has ensured that we have done more to improve water quality—[Interruption.] If the hon. Lady were to ask the chief executive of any water company about the toughest Environment Secretary that they have had to deal with, they would know. But anyway, on the key question of South Shields, I agree that it is beautiful, and I will have the chance to visit soon. The additional money that we are making available for the devolution deal for the north-east should help, but I would be delighted to visit and find out more.

There have been multiple frivolous applications in my beautiful South West Hertfordshire constituency, including in my hometown of Tring, where such applications would increase the population by 30%. What advice can the Secretary of State give me on how best to engage with his Department on these issues so that my constituents’ voices are heard clearly?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I know that the new Minister of State for housing and planning, my hon. Friend the Member for Redditch (Rachel Maclean), will be meeting him shortly. It is absolutely vital that communities in the suburban green belt such as his have the opportunity to ensure that people have the new homes that they need and that we preserve the communities that make his constituency so attractive to so many.

T6. Around one in 10 owners relinquishing animals to the Dogs Trust cites housing issues as the reason. Can the Minister confirm that planned measures to protect pet ownership in the renters’ reform Bill will be maintained to prevent further pets from being given up unnecessarily? (903646)

Fisherman’s Green has been identified by the local council as a potential housing development site in Eastbourne. Local people do not support that, and I support them. Can my right hon. Friend confirm that the council, which owns the land and has put the site into the strategy, can take Fisherman’s Green out of the strategy without sanction?

My hon. Friend is absolutely spot on. I have been taking a close interest in the activities of Eastbourne Borough Council. The decision to develop Fisherman’s Green is the council’s alone, so the council could easily take it out—the changes that we have made in the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill would allow it to do that. I am afraid that there has been a campaign of dissimulation on the part of her local council; it is a case of Lib Dems spinning here.

T7. Will the Secretary of State join me in congratulating the leaders and elected Mayor of the north-east’s authorities on their work with the Government to secure a strong devolution deal? As his work concludes with Greater Manchester and the West Midlands, can he confirm that he will move quickly to work with those north-east authorities to convey “trailblazer” status and powers, as agreed in the deal? (903647)

I could not agree more that the north-east is on the up. Newcastle and Sunderland are doing well in footballing terms, but even better in political terms, thanks to the leadership of local figures, who are uniting with central Government to deliver devolution.

Antisocial behaviour is causing misery for my constituents, as I can tell from responses to my survey. Does the Secretary of State therefore welcome the stronger action that we have seen from Staffordshire police since its new local policing model was introduced last June? In the last month, that action has included a closure notice in Knutton, working with Asda to stop boy racers in the Wolstanton car park, and a section 34 order in Chesterton. It is a big issue, but we are moving in the right direction.

Staffordshire’s police and crime commissioner is certainly moving in the right direction, as is Staffordshire police, supported ably by my hon. Friend and others such as my hon. Friend the Member for Burton (Kate Kniveton). Boy racers and others who cause misery for their neighbours need to be dealt with effectively. That is happening in Staffordshire and should be happening more broadly as well.

Many constituents are contacting me about the rental market; I am sure it is the same across the country. The shortage of available properties is making it hard for private renters who are seeking accommodation. One constituent emailed to say that she had been told to keep requests to a minimum if she wanted to have a chance of getting a property. What will the Secretary of State do about the frankly disgraceful emails that tenants are receiving from letting agents?

There are challenges in the private rented sector and with housing supply everywhere. I would say two things: first, we need to work together to unlock additional supply, which is why it is important for the Mayor of London—I am not criticising him—to play his part; secondly, we need to ensure that renters have the protections that they deserve. That is why we are bringing forward legislation, which I know the hon. Lady supports.

The Help to Buy scheme has helped hundreds of my young constituents to get on to the housing ladder, yet it is due to end shortly. Can the Secretary of State assure me that he is badgering the Chancellor to ensure that that vital scheme continues?

I do not need to badger the Chancellor; we are not just constituency neighbours, but brothers from different mothers. More than that, the newly appointed Minister of State, Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, my hon. Friend the Member for Redditch (Rachel Maclean), was immediately on the case. We will secure an extension to make sure that my hon. Friend’s constituents get the benefits from the scheme that they deserve, and I look forward to meeting him next month.

Does the Government’s commitment to look at helping blocks below 11 metres with cladding apply not only where that cladding is found to be dangerous and needs to be removed, but where lenders are still demanding EWS1 certificates, which cannot currently be provided?

Let me look into the specifics of any individual case. It should be the case, however—as the conversations that the Under-Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, my hon. Friend the Member for North East Derbyshire (Lee Rowley), has had with lenders show—that there has been a significant diminution in the demand for EWS1 forms. Where they are still being demanded, however, I would like to know more, so I look forward to working with the right hon. Gentleman to find out more about any kinks in the system.

On-street parking is a policy of Warwickshire County Council. Does the Secretary of State agree that the council has got it wrong in allowing people who drive internal combustion engines to park all day directly in front of the electric vehicle chargers that it has provided?

I will have to look closely at that. It is rare that Warwickshire gets things wrong, in my experience, but my hon. Friend seems to have identified an anomaly that stands in the way of the effective transition to electric vehicles, so I look forward to considering more closely the issue that he raises.

How can taking away £25 million from Halton Borough Council over the next three years be classed as levelling up? For Cheshire West and Chester Council, it is nearly half a billion pounds since 2010. That is not levelling up. When can we expect a genuine, fair funding review?

It is the case that at the last spending review, we secured a significant increase in local government spending, and as my hon. Friend the Member for North East Derbyshire pointed out when we had the debate on the local government finance settlement, authorities such as that of the hon. Member for Weaver Vale (Mike Amesbury) have received the funding they need in order to deliver the services on which constituents rely.

Does the Secretary of State agree that when we build thousands of new homes, we need to do as well at providing extra general practice capacity as we do at providing extra primary school places? If he does, what will he do about it?

I do, and our new infrastructure levy in the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill is designed to do just that. I look forward to working with my hon. Friend and with the new Minister of State for Housing and Planning, my hon. Friend the Member for Redditch, in order to make sure that the infrastructure levy delivers as we both would want.

While people in Levenmouth certainly welcome the fact that the levelling-up process gave us some of our own money back again, can the Secretary of State identify a single measure of need or deprivation by which the Prime Minister’s constituency is as needy and as deprived as the Levenmouth area in my constituency, and more deprived than the entire city of Glasgow?

First, as I mentioned earlier, the reason that money has gone to the Prime Minister’s constituency is that it is going to help service families who do so much in order to make sure that we are all kept safe and protected. Secondly, I am grateful that the hon. Gentleman acknowledges that it is a good thing that the UK Government are distributing this money in this way. It is the case that his party used to oppose that, but we are now delivering that money; for two successive years, cash has been delivered to Glenrothes, to Glasgow, and to other communities.

The third thing I would say is that I hope the hon. Gentleman is not the SNP MP quoted in The Times at the weekend as saying that the thing about the Scottish Government is that they cannot even—

The latest round of levelling-up funding has once again failed to provide much-needed investment in my part of Devon. The proposals put forward by East Devon District Council would have funded vital investment in Seaton and Axminster. What does the Secretary of State say to people in towns that are attractive to tourists, who feel taken for granted and feel that this Government are not serious about levelling up for them?

I say, “Vote Conservative,” because with a Conservative MP such as my hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Simon Jupp), you have an effective advocate who can work with central Government in order to deliver.

More people rent privately in my constituency than own their own homes, and more people rent socially than both of those groups combined. When I visit those people, week in and week out, they are massively overcrowded with no prospect of renting in the private sector or buying. What is the Secretary of State doing to deliver properly affordable social rented housing?

The hon. Lady’s point is very similar to that made earlier by the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Florence Eshalomi), and my answer is also very similar: we need to work with the Mayor of London, who has clear responsibilities in this area. Once again, I am not criticising him, but I am stressing that the delivery of so much of the funding required to improve housing in the capital depends on effective action by the Mayor.

Some of the Homes for Ukraine six-month placements are now starting to come to an end, and some Ukrainian nationals in my constituency cannot get into private rented accommodation because they have no credit history. The local council is ready to look at rematching families, but if that does not work out, some of those Ukrainian refugees will have no choice but to present as homeless. Will the Secretary of State look at this issue, and look at the suggestion of a guarantor system backed by the Government?

That is actually a very fair and constructive point. Making sure that there are not just banking facilities, but the kinds of guarantees that the hon. Lady asks for, is something we have been looking at in the past. I will ask the Under-Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, my hon. Friend the Member for Kensington (Felicity Buchan), to talk to the hon. Lady and to St Albans council in order to make sure that the generosity of her constituents is not undermined by the activity of the financial sector.

That completes questions. Will those who wish to leave before we start the urgent question please do so?

Knowsley Incident

Before we come to the urgent question, I wish to make a short statement. I understand that at least one individual has been charged following the incident at Knowsley. Once charges are brought, the case in question is covered by the House’s sub judice resolution and should not be referred to. However, I accept that there are important wider implications raised by the events in Knowsley, and I am prepared for the House to discuss them, but I request that Members do not refer to any specific cases where charges have been brought.

To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department if she will make a statement on the wider implications of the violent incident in Knowsley on Friday 10 February 2023.

The incident at the asylum accommodation centre in Knowsley on 10 February was totally unacceptable. As the Home Secretary and I have repeatedly made clear, there is never any excuse for violence. A substantial police response was deployed to the incident, and I offer my thanks to the officers involved on the night and subsequently for their service. A number of arrests were made, and the police investigation is ongoing. The Home Office remains in close contact with Merseyside police.

The Home Office takes its responsibilities to those in temporary asylum accommodation and to local communities extremely seriously. Alongside the police and Home Office accommodation providers, we are closely monitoring the situation around the country and the activities of relevant groups. Security at our accommodation sites has been enhanced and is kept under constant review.

We will always defend the right to peaceful protest and freedom of speech, but we will not tolerate violence, intimidation or attacks on the police. The police have a range of powers to deal with unlawful behaviour, and anyone taking part in criminal activity can and should expect the full force of the law. I have met senior Home Office officials and the police to discuss the lessons to be learned from this and other incidents and to ensure that appropriate steps are being taken.

The unprecedented number of illegal, unnecessary and dangerous small boat crossings has pushed our asylum system to breaking point. We share the frustrations of the British public about the abuse of our generosity by human traffickers and illegal migrants, who are leaving the evidently safe France and entering our country in flagrant breach of our laws. Just as everyone has the duty to obey the law, they have the right to expect that the law, including our immigration laws, will be enforced.

The enduring solution is to break the business model of the evil people smugglers and to stop the boats. The system we will build is one where if someone comes here illegally via a safe country, they will not have a route to life in the UK, and we will bring forward legislation to that effect in due course. That does not mean we are abandoning our country’s instinct and history of generosity and compassion. We will continue to assist those in genuine need of our protection. To do that, we must address illegal migration, and that is what this Government’s reforms will do.

May I begin by thanking the right hon. Member for Newark (Robert Jenrick) for contacting me following the appalling incident that occurred on 10 February at a demonstration outside a hotel in Knowsley? A further smaller scale demonstration took place on Friday evening. The scenes that unfolded were truly shocking, with three people, one of whom was a police officer, receiving minor injuries and a police vehicle being vandalised and set on fire. I should point out that the demonstration was attended by a substantial number of residents, many of whom conducted themselves peacefully and lawfully. Unfortunately, some did not, as the number of arrests regrettably illustrates. This is not, however, typical of the people of Knowsley or Kirkby, who are not bigoted, racist or unwelcoming.

I do have concerns, as the Minister is aware, about the involvement of far-right groups from outside of Knowsley, such as Patriotic Alternative, Yorkshire Rose and Britain First, in promoting that event and seeking to stir up racial hatred in our community and others.

Before concluding I would like to put some questions to the Minister. First, does he share my concern about the involvement of those far-right groups in such incidents, and will he consider proscribing them? Secondly, will the Minster undertake an urgent review of the use of hotels to house refugees and report back to the House? Thirdly, as part of such a review, will the Minister look at alternatives to hotels, taking into account the housing needs of local residents, and work with local councils to arrive at more suitable options? Will the Minister agree to meet me and officials from Knowsley to discuss what can be done to address the local situation?

Fourthly, can the Minister at some point make a further statement to the House about how the Government propose to fix the asylum system? Finally, does the Minister agree with me that in these circumstances, some social media sites are used as platforms for poison and misinformation? Will he urge the companies that own them to ensure that the platforms are used more responsibly?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for the experienced and measured manner in which he has led his community in recent days. I associate myself with his remarks regarding the people of Knowsley.

The right hon. Gentleman is right to say that a number of groups have been involved in the protest in his constituency, as well as those elsewhere in the country, and that the behaviour of those groups is at times disgraceful and vile, and should be stamped out. We have been monitoring those groups closely, and I have asked my officials at the Home Office and police colleagues, including the National Police Co-ordination Centre, to continue doing so and to step up that activity. If we need to take further action against those groups, we will. We will be monitoring them very closely, including the social media content that they and their supporters are perpetuating.

The right hon. Gentleman is right to draw attention to the social media companies and their involvement in such activities. There have been some vile posts in recent days, including some about Members of this House, for no good reason. Again, we are monitoring that social media content; we raise it with the police and they raise it with social media companies through the appropriate channels.

With regard to accommodation more broadly, none of us wants to see hotels being used in this manner on an ongoing basis. They are an emergency, temporary solution to a serious national emergency. The number of individuals crossing the channel illegally in recent years has been on such a scale that the Home Office had to resort to options that are clearly undesirable.

The Prime Minister set out at the end of last year our intention to end the use of hotels as swiftly as possible. Better forms of accommodation will include dispersal accommodation, where we work closely and constructively with local authorities—including that of the right hon. Member for Knowsley—to find suitable properties, consult the local community and then house asylum seekers for as long as is necessary. That plan is now moving forward, and we have reached regional agreements with local authorities. It is for the Home Office and those local authorities to ensure that it is implemented as swiftly as possible.

More broadly, as I said in my opening remarks, hotels are a symptom of the problem. The cause is the number of people crossing the channel. That will be resolved only by breaking the business model of the people smugglers and deterring those people from crossing the channel. It is for that reason that we will bring forward further legislation very soon.

The Minister, the Home Secretary and the Prime Minister are all doing everything they can to stop this sort of incident from happening elsewhere. It must not happen in places such as Herefordshire. Can the Minister explain why the permanent secretary is still in post, and why no small boats Bill has appeared before the House?

On the legislation that I have mentioned, the Home Secretary, the Prime Minister and I are working closely as we finalise those plans. It is absolutely right that we take time to ensure that this legislation is as effective as possible. As my hon. Friend knows, this is one of the most litigious areas of public life. It is an area where, I am afraid, human rights lawyers abuse and exploit our laws at times, and where the courts have taken an expansive approach in the past. That is why we must get this right, but we will be bringing forward that legislation very soon.

The scenes outside the Suites Hotel in Knowsley 10 days ago—violence, intimidation and a police van smashed up and set on fire—were appalling and shameful, and all of us should support Merseyside police in its response to keep people safe. It comes just a few months after the appalling terrorist attack at Dover, when someone who had been engaging with far-right and extremist groups online attempted to use a petrol bomb on a centre. In the last year, the number of so-called migrant hunts organised by far-right groups has doubled, and there has been an increase in far-right groups organising protests and intimidation and attempting to increase and inflame community tensions.

All of us have a responsibility to take this issue seriously, and there is an important debate about asylum accommodation and asylum policy. We have disagreements, and we have criticised the Home Office for the collapse in decision making on asylum, which has led to an increase in delays and in the backlog. People should not be spending a long time in hotels—they should not be put in hotels in the first place—and we should be targeting the criminal gangs, seeking new agreements with France to prevent dangerous boat crossings, and ensuring that the UK does its bit to help those who have fled persecution. We can have that debate, but we all—Government and Opposition—have a responsibility to do so calmly, with common sense, and in a way that does not inflame tensions or divide communities. The Minister will regret the fact that some of the Home Secretary’s language has appeared on some of the placards. On all sides, we need to have a calm debate.

Let me ask the Minister some specific questions. What is being done to co-ordinate the monitoring of far-right activity around asylum accommodation? What is being done about the hateful extremism that has grown and that can radicalise people into violence? The former commissioner for countering extremism has said that the Government have actually reversed some of their action on this. Will he now revisit the downgrading of the response to far-right extremism as part of the Prevent strategy? Serious concerns have been raised about the links between some far-right extremist groups and people who have been exploiting these issues, as well as some links between them and National Action, which has been proscribed because it was so serious.

Does the Minister agree that, nationally, the responsibility is on all of us to be calm and to promote community cohesion and a sensible response to all the challenges we face, rather than divide and inflame tensions that the police and local communities then have to deal with?

I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for her closing remarks. It is absolutely incumbent on all of us to treat this in a respectful and serious manner, and ensure that we do nothing to inflame tensions within our communities. I hope she will appreciate that that is the way in which I have always conducted myself in this role.

The Home Secretary has condemned unequivocally the violence we saw in Knowsley, and that is absolutely right, because there is never any excuse for violence, intimidation or attacks on the police. That does not mean that we should not seek to understand the level of public frustration that lies behind wider concerns about our asylum and immigration system. To understand is not to condone, and there are those who treat those frustrations as a phenomenon to be managed, rather than as a warning to be heeded. We in Government take the approach that this is a serious concern for the British public, and that is why we need to take all appropriate steps to stop the illegal channel crossings as quickly as possible.

On the right hon. Lady’s specific questions, we are co-ordinating with police colleagues to ensure that all police forces have the correct and up-to-date advice on how they can support asylum accommodation and manage protests should they happen in the future. The National Police Co-ordination Centre is assisting us in monitoring the activities of relevant groups, including on social media, and we will take such steps as are required if there is content that constitutes a criminal offence. We have also worked with our asylum accommodation providers to ensure that they put in place enhanced security where appropriate, and have the best possible advice from the police as to how they can protect the people working in the hotels and other centres, and, of course, the residents.

With respect to the right hon. Lady’s question about the review of Prevent conducted by William Shawcross, the findings of that report were not that there were no far-right activities in this country, but that we must follow the facts and take a balanced view as to where to deploy our resources. That is exactly what we will do: we will tackle Islamist extremism with all the robustness it deserves, but we will also address far-right activity, including by the groups concerned in this protest.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his engagement with me on issues connected with far-right politics. Given his response to my representations, I can tell the House that his concern about these matters is genuine.

Will my right hon. Friend deconstruct the point he is making about the fact that we must tackle the organised criminal activity that sits behind all this, as that should redouble the effort to tackle detention in hotels? I have been advised by police representatives that some slave masters are targeting some of these hotels, where they try to entice young men to work on their various businesses. The suggestion that arriving here from a safe country is made illegal would drive people who arrive by small boats back into the hands of the slave masters because there would simply be no incentive for them to give themselves up to the authorities. What representations has my right hon. Friend had on those matters? Does the situation not underline the fact that we need to get the hotels emptied and the Home Office working properly?

I agree that we need to ensure that the operational side of the Home Office performs, but there is no easy way to build our way out of this problem; we have to stop people crossing the channel illegally in the first place, because the numbers crossing the channel today are of an order that will always place our asylum and immigration system under enormous strain.

We are working very closely with the police and the National Crime Agency to bear down on organised immigration crime. We have doubled the budget of the NCA in that regard, and are working with it across Europe and beyond to tackle the gangs upstream in every respect. Here in the UK, we are increasing the number of immigration enforcement visits, including raids on illegal employers, by 50%. That activity started at the beginning of the year.

I do not agree with my hon. Friend’s premise that if we pursue a policy like Rwanda, we will see people escaping into the broader community, although I understand where she is coming from. In fact, almost 99% of people crossing the channel in small boats are apprehended by British law enforcement authorities—mostly when we save them at sea and bring them to Western Jet Foil and Manston—so we do meet people who arrive on our shores. The key thing is to stop them arriving in the first place.

It is clear that putting people in hotels in this large-scale way has allowed right-wing extremist groups to target groups of vulnerable people. It is Home Office policy, therefore, that is putting people at risk—not just vulnerable asylum seekers, but our police, who have to protect everybody in such situations. Does the Minister agree that a lot more needs to be done with social media companies? He said that there is some kind of monitoring and conversations with the police regarding social media companies, but what meetings has he had directly with social media companies? It is very clear that these right-wing extremist groups are organising on social media platforms. I saw some of it myself—was offered it by an algorithm—at the weekend; I do not want to see that kind of hatred on any social media site.

Will any asylum seekers who have been badly impacted by the attack on the hotel, or who still feel at risk, have the option to be moved somewhere else where they feel safer, and will they get additional support if that is required? Will the Minister tell me what additional security measures have been put in place at all sites where asylum seekers are being held in such accommodation, and does he agree with the statement from Merseyside police that,

“Social media speculation, misinformation and rumour can actually damage the outcome of investigations and cause unnecessary fear and consequent behaviour”?

We are working closely with the social media companies, and in fact are stepping up that activity. We supported a recent proposal to amend the Online Safety Bill by putting extra duties on the social media companies in respect of tackling organised immigration crime and abuse of this kind. We monitor social media content closely and the police will raise that with the social media companies through the appropriate channels.

I am afraid that the hon. Lady’s accusation that the Home Office has stoked far right activities is both wrong and deeply offensive; the issue here is the number of people crossing the channel illegally.

It is not the backlog; that is a fantasy. The way to tackle this issue is not by making the UK a more attractive destination, but by tackling the illegal gangs and changing the incentives. We will only do that through having the most robust approach to illegal migration, including by ensuring those who come here in this manner are removed to a safe third country.

Like me, the Minister, the Home Secretary and the Prime Minister believe that hotels are the wrong place to put people seeking asylum, but on Saturday in Skegness another protest is planned against the use of these hotels and, while there are legitimate concerns, I hope the Minister will agree that the shameless use of people’s concerns by far-right groups is to be deplored and stands in the way of our having a sensible conversation that will in the long term allow us to move beyond the use of these hotels. Will he join me in appealing to the people of Skegness to focus, rightly, on those issues but not to join hands with far-right groups?

I know my hon. Friend’s constituents are frustrated by the use of hotels in Skegness—as are we in Government—and want to see action to tackle the small boats issue. They want to see our laws enforced and those coming here illegally apprehended and removed to other safe countries, but I know also that they will not want to join with more pernicious elements such as far-right groups and to stoke disorder or community tensions in his town. I applaud him for the work he is doing with his community; he held an important public meeting recently to listen to community concerns and raise them with me and the Home Secretary as we formulate policy.

The Minister knows that there is a backlog and that hotels are having to be used because of it. He might not want to admit it from the Dispatch Box, but that is the reality.

My constituency is about 10 minutes away from where this incident in Merseyside happened and the Minister mentioned the asylum accommodation providers; may I urge him to work closely with them to ensure that wherever they are placing asylum seekers, they are working closely with the communities, the local authorities and the police there now, and they are ensuring that the accommodation that people are being placed in is able to handle and support them?

The backlog is a contributing factor; it was a contributing factor when we came to power in 2010 and found a backlog of 500,000 cases, three times more than the level today. Simply processing those claims faster and making claiming asylum swifter and easier will not solve the problem, however; the problem will be solved by preventing people from reaching our shores in the first place.

On the situation in Merseyside, we are working closely with Merseyside police; we are in regular contact with them and with local authorities. We hold multi-agency meetings, which include the police, prior to standing up any new forms of accommodation so that these issues can be discussed. Where protests are planned, and we have extensive intelligence about that, we work closely with police forces so that they can make sensible preparations to keep the local community safe.

I join my right hon. Friend in condemning the use of violence and in thanking the police for their response, and I categorically agree with him that we must stop the people smugglers, stop the small boats and end illegal immigration into our country. I hear him on the need for further legislation down the line, but in the meantime can he assure me that every single one of the huge suites of powers that this Parliament granted to the Home Office in the Nationality and Borders Act 2022 is being used to solve the problem quicker?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We passed that Act, which was opposed by the Labour party, and we are implementing every measure in it as swiftly as possible. Many of those measures are already making a difference, as seen in the number of arrests now being made of those people with their hand on the tiller of small boats when apprehended by Border Force and our partners in the English channel. That is important, but we will follow that up in due course with further, even more robust legislation, which I am sure my hon. Friend will support and hope the Labour party will too.

What specific liaison occurred between the Home Office and Knowsley Council prior to the block booking of the hotel for the accommodation of asylum seekers? Did the Minister’s Department anticipate problems such as the ones that occurred? What steps will he take to prevent a recurrence of such problems at other similar sites?

Shortly after taking up this role, I changed the Home Office’s engagement procedures to ensure that when accommodation is stood up, unless it is a grave emergency or we are ordered to stand it up by a court, we will provide at least 24 hours’ notice to a local authority, and that there will be extensive consultation with such a local authority. I am pleased to say that today that level of consultation happens around three to four weeks in advance of standing up a site. There are usually multi-agency meetings prior to doing so and opportunities for Members of Parliament to meet either me or senior officials, but of course if any right hon. or hon. Member feels we are falling short of those standards, I encourage them to bring that to my attention.

I absolutely support my right hon. Friend the Minister and Members throughout the House in calling out and condemning the violence that took place and any far-right activists and groups operating in that area. They have no place in our society, as far as I am concerned.

But I am also clear that I totally agree with the Minister that we have to stop the small boats and stop the illegal immigration coming to our country. On 7 November last year, the Minister said to my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Jack Brereton) that he accepted that the significant number of people taken into our local area is disproportionate. On 13 December last year, the Prime Minister made the point that the use of hotel had to end soon. It is 20 February 2023 and the hotels of Stoke-on-Trent have yet to be emptied. When will this happen? Will the Minister commit to Stoke-on-Trent being the first place in the country to have its hotels emptied?

My hon. Friend has been an assiduous champion of his community and he wants his hotels back and to be put to good use, for the benefit of the local economy, for tourists and for visitors to Stoke-on-Trent. We agree, which is why we have set out our plans, including mandatory dispersal, working with local authorities throughout the country in a constructive and productive manner to find suitable accommodation that is not hotels. That is why we are also exploring a small number of larger sites that will provide decent but not luxurious accommodation at good value for money for the taxpayer. I reiterate that this challenge will be resolved only by reducing the flow of individuals coming across unnecessarily on those dangerous boats. Without that happening, we will be living with issues such as hotels for some time. That is why we are going to bring forward further legislation.

The Minister told us a few minutes ago that part of the problem here is human rights lawyers who abuse and exploit our laws. That is obviously very serious, Mr Speaker. Any lawyer doing that needs to be stopped, so could the Minister tell the House how many solicitors, advocates and barristers have been reported by the Home Office in the last 12 months to the regulatory authorities?

We are monitoring the activities, as it so happens, of a small number of legal practitioners, but it is not appropriate for me to discuss that here. The wider point I was making stands, which is that the British public are looking on askance at the fact that individuals, mostly young males, are setting off from a demonstrably safe country, France, and soliciting human traffickers to ferry them across the channel, and they are invariably throwing their documents into the sea, so that they can exploit our human rights laws. That needs to change. The British public are angry and frustrated at that situation. We understand that and that is why we are taking action.

The best solution to an end to the use of hotels and to protect our communities is to stop the boats, stamp out the human exploiters and people smugglers, and increase deportations. What steps are the Government taking to increase and speed up deportations, and to get the Rwanda scheme going? May I make a suggestion to the Minister? Doncaster Sheffield airport recently closed down. Will he consider using it to fly out illegal immigrants and deport them quickly?

It is absolutely right that, as a deterrent, we increase the number of illegal migrants removed from this country, so that it is clear that anyone who comes here in breach of our laws in this manner will not get to stay in the UK. We have taken a number of steps recently. One has been our communiqué with Albania, a safe European country from which it should be extremely unusual for anyone to come here and successfully gain asylum. That communiqué is now in force, with updated country guidance, and individuals are now being removed from the United Kingdom on weekly flights to Albania. We are working very well with the Albanian Government. That is one example of how we can tackle this issue.

Just months apart, our country has seen two attacks on innocent people from right-wing extremists. First, a terrorist firebombed an immigration processing centre, and now we have seen an angry right-wing mob attack police outside a hotel housing asylum seekers. We are seeing more and more vile incidents that are fuelled by a far-right ideology. Does the Minister agree that it was a mistake for William Shawcross to say Prevent places too much emphasis on far-right extremism?

No, I do not. William Shawcross conducted a very rigorous review over a long period of time which looked at the facts, and the facts are that there is extremism and violence in this country from both the far right and the far left, or Islamist extremists. We need to take action against both, but we need to apportion our resources in a manner that is proportionate to the challenge. That is the point that William Shawcross was making. I fully support what he suggested. The Home Secretary, in her statement to the House, made clear that we will be implementing that as soon as possible.

Liverpool has a very proud history of chasing fascists off our streets or locking them into left luggage cupboards at Lime Street station. Does the Minister agree that the so-called independent review of Prevent failed to recognise the threat levels of far-right groups? What action is being taken to prevent serious incidents, such as that which took place in Knowsley?

It is disappointing that the hon. Lady attempts to draw conclusions from these events with respect to Prevent. The Government have been very clear: extremism of any kind, whether from the far right or from Islamist extremism, is unacceptable and we will bear down on it with the full force of the law. With respect to the groups that were involved in Knowsley, as I said in answer to previous questions, we are monitoring them closely and we will take action, with the police, wherever we need to do so.

Earlier, the Minister mentioned the importance of observing the law. The European convention on human rights is, of course, still part of our domestic legal system, and human rights are not a dirty word; they are, in fact, universal.

The Joint Committee on Human Rights, which I chair, is currently conducting an inquiry into the human rights of asylum seekers. We have heard evidence that a number of rights under the convention are engaged: the right to life, the right to be free from inhuman and degrading treatment, the right to liberty and security, the right to dignity and respect for private and family life, and the right to be free from discrimination in the enjoyment of convention rights. Can the Minister tell me what steps the Home Secretary is taking to ensure that the human rights of asylum seekers are respected in the United Kingdom?

We take our responsibilities to those in our care extremely seriously. While there will of course be occasions when we fall below the standards that we would expect, and we should learn from and correct those errors as quickly as possible, in general we care for asylum seekers well in this country, and we should be proud of that.

I have had the opportunity in this role to visit a range of facilities—difficult places such as Western Jet Foil, where we meet those people whom we have saved at sea; Manston, where we house them while we conduct security and health checks; and the child hotels where we house unaccompanied minors while we find local authority care for them. In general, the standards of these places are high, and the staff who are working in them are doing a good job on behalf of all of us, but if there are ways in which we can improve those services and ensure that we continue to meet our legal obligations, we can and should do so.

The right hon. Gentleman will be well aware that there are people going around claiming to be journalists who are actually stirring up hatred and fear of asylum seekers. I watched one of their reports recently. It was directed at a building in my constituency which, it turns out, is not being used and will not be used to house asylum seekers. That broadcast was designed to create fear, and for the life of me I do not understand why it is still available on YouTube.

Let me ask the Minister this question. Does he think it is better for the Government, or the police or the Home Office, to ask the social media companies to take such videos down, or does he think—given that there is a law against inciting racial hatred in the Public Order Act 1986—that the prosecuting authorities should look at the videos and decide whether the threshold for prosecution has been met?

I think the right hon. Gentleman has answered his own question, in that some of this content is vile and quite probably criminal, and in those instances the police should take action using the laws that are available to them. When we at the Home Office find such content we raise it with the police, and the police then raise it with the social media companies; but if the police feel that it meets the threshold for prosecution, they can and should be prosecuting.

The right hon. Gentleman is also right in saying that there are a small number of cases of so-called citizen journalists visiting hotels. Of course we all respect the right to protest and the right to free speech, but these individuals need to be careful to ensure that their actions do not stir up community tensions or spread disinformation, as is often the case.

Like many others, I am heartbroken following the incidents in Knowsley. I stand in this Chamber as a proud product of immigration: my ancestors fled the great hunger in Ireland, as did those of so many of my fellow Scousers, which is why these events have caused such shock in Liverpool.

This is a wake-up call for those of us who want a society in which all are welcome. The words and the tone of hon. Members in this place and the media matter hugely, so will the Government commit themselves to ensuring that there is an end to the hateful rhetoric that demonises and dehumanises people? Will they put resources into communities to foster hope and understanding, and, crucially, will they provide resources for safe, welcoming and suitable community-based accommodation for all people seeking asylum?