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7 Apr 2010 : Column 354WH—continued

4.14 pm

Eric Joyce (Falkirk) (Lab): I thank you, Mr. Howarth, for your forbearance in allowing me a couple of minutes; I also thank the Minister.

I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Keith Hill); at the end of a pretty salubrious parliamentary career, he made a fine speech about Iraq. That is on top of his many other fine speeches. My right hon. Friend may be best remembered for being a close aide and support to one of our great Prime Ministers.

It was a great privilege to take part in the same scheme as my right hon. Friend and observe what was going on during the Iraq election. I went to Basra, and was hosted by the astonishing Alice Walpole, our consul general there; she runs a flawless operation. It was a
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super time. We had a one-day tour of Iraq-not long for a politician, but short for a soldier-and I saw much of what my right hon. Friend described. It was a good trip; we went round a bunch of polling stations, which seemed to be perfectly well run. There was enthusiastic participation and a pretty good turnout.

It was interesting from a broader perspective. We now know that Mr. Allawi got a larger share of the vote, but most people thought that al-Maliki, the current Prime Minister, would receive the larger number of votes. It was striking that the parties had to rely on support across the religious denominations. A Sunni could not demand Sunni votes, and Sunnis made it clear that if a politician demanded their vote because he was a Sunni or a Shi'ite he would get short shrift. As it was, Mr. Allawi's party seems to have done the best, primarily from Sunnis with Shi'ite support; for Mr. al-Maliki's party, it was the other way round. I was in Basra, and saw substantial support for Mr. al-Maliki. A coalition has not yet been put together, but we shall see.

The FCO staff that put together the programme that my right hon. Friend mentioned were super, as we have come to expect. Inevitably, I still get letters about my having been fairly vocal in support of the Iraq campaign from people who still will not take back their great opposition. I cannot put them right on all of those points, some of which are entirely valid.

We all know that the post-war reconstruction effort could have been a great deal better. However, as my right hon. Friend said, my right hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) has done much work in that respect, and we can be sure of Britain's effort between then and now; it has been exceptional. The aid programme has been extremely successful, and the efforts of our diplomats in Kurdistan, Baghdad and Basra have been equally exceptional. In a way, we tend to forget about that, I guess because people's interests have moved across to Afghanistan. However, our hard-working diplomats and their support staff, and the contractors and security staff there, are all doing great work. I understand that, from a financial point of view, Basra in particular is the subject of some interest at the FCO. The Department cannot keep all its posts open, but I hope that its post at Basra can be kept going for the moment.

I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Streatham for allowing me the great honour of speaking directly after him in his final debate. Perhaps we should reflect on the fact that in 1979, Iraq had a similar GDP to Portugal; within a few years of Saddam taking power, its economy was in pieces. With the elections, we started the long process of moving towards welcoming Iraq as a modern country, again similar to today's Portugal.

4.18 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development (Mr. Michael Foster): I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Keith Hill) on securing this debate. I pay tribute to his work in the House over a number of years. It would be remiss of me not to record the breadth of his contribution.

My right hon. Friend has been a Parliamentary Private Secretary at the Department of Environment, Transport and the Regions, an Assistant Government Whip, an
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Under-Secretary of State at the DETR, deputy Chief Whip, and Minister of State at the Office of Deputy Prime Minister. Then, as my hon. Friend the Member for Falkirk (Eric Joyce) said, he was PPS to Tony Blair when he was Prime Minister. On a personal level, my right hon. Friend was Minister when I tabled a Back-Bench amendment to what became the Transport Act 2000; he kindly accepted it, to great plaudits in my local newspaper. He found fame in my local newspaper for meeting a colleague of mine while surfing; his exploits surfing on the beaches of Cornwall have also been noted.

As one of the observers of the elections in northern Iraq a month ago, my right hon. Friend speaks with some authority about the transformation that has taken place. I respect and value his comments-and, indeed, those of other Members who contributed to the debate. It is worth pausing for a moment to reflect on how far Iraq, its Government and its people have come since Saddam Hussein was overthrown in 2003. External debt is down from 326 per cent. of GDP in 2005 to 68 per cent. in 2009, Government investment increased six-fold between 2005 and 2008, and in 2005, Iraq held its first democratic election. None the less, as Members have noted, more than 20 years of conflict and neglect have taken their toll. Iraq remains a poor country; nearly a quarter of its people live in poverty, and thousands more have left in search of better prospects for themselves and their families.

The UK Government have been staunch allies to Iraq, contributing some £744 million to reconstruction efforts. The Department for International Development has played a key role, disbursing more than £500 million, nearly £200 million of which in humanitarian assistance. DFID has channelled its humanitarian funding through international organisations such as the United Nations and the International Committee for the Red Cross, which are best placed to help the most vulnerable in Iraq. Money on its own, however, is not a measure of success. It is important to look at the outputs and what has been achieved with that money. So far, our money has brought 2 billion litres of safe drinking water to deprived households, schools and hospitals. It has helped to rebuild more than 1,000 schools, to provide food on an ongoing basis to around 1 million displaced and vulnerable people and to repair more than 4,000 emergency shelters for displaced Iraqis.

UK aid, together with that of the wider international community, is working. The number of refugees returning to Iraq is increasing, albeit slowly, and the number of registered refugees has dropped. Food insecurity, a good indicator of real impact, has dropped by 12 per cent. Although humanitarian aid is important, it is only the first step in any sustainable development programme. That is why we have focused our attention on helping Iraq to rebuild its own capacity. Given Iraq's economic potential, our priority is to help it manage its economy and financial resources more effectively while creating the right environment for investment. Through lending our practical expertise to the Iraqi equivalent of the Cabinet Office, for example, we have helped to smooth preparations for the transition of government.

Physical infrastructure is also vital to a country's long-term growth, so we have provided nearly £100 million to secure or improve power and water supplies to more than 1 million Iraqis. Understandably, a lot of our early work focused on Basra, and our efforts were often
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delivered in partnership with the UK military. More widely, we have worked on a number of large-scale projects to improve water and power supply. Overall, international efforts have yielded very real benefits for ordinary people. To take just one example, where people once had an average of four to eight hours of electricity available per day, they now have more than 15 hours of supply.

In the long-term, however, the Iraqi Government must take a more active role, both in maintaining existing infrastructure and by investing in new supply. DFID has been working with the relevant Government institutions in Iraq to train and support them in taking the lead in ongoing reconstruction and development. Ultimately, Iraq's future will depend on its people and on their ability to revitalise the country's economy. Alongside its humanitarian and reconstruction support, DFID has also developed a small business finance programme that will provide some 1,000 loans, a quarter of them to women. The programme has already paid out more than $1 million.

We have also secured work placements for more than 200 young people as part of our youth employment pilot programme; another 200 are currently undertaking training before starting their placement. We are working with the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs to develop a programme that can be rolled out across the whole country, because we want lasting change in Iraq. DFID's role in future will focus on engaging with others. For example, we could work with Iraq's Ministry of Finance in matters of public financial management; the Ministry of Labour in youth employment; the British Council in tertiary education; the UN in humanitarian assistance or the World Bank in Iraqi policy and programmes.

Iraq is a country with enormous potential. Confidence in its economy is growing and security is improving. The real challenges now lie in helping its people to manage their resources so they can deliver better public services and generate growth while at the same time making political processes more effective on the ground. We can only meet such challenges by working in partnership with other donors, the wider international community and, most importantly, with the people of Iraq itself.

4.25 pm

Sitting suspended.

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Housing (Southwark)

4.28 pm

Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): Thank you very much, Mr. Howarth, for calling me. I also thank Mr. Speaker for selecting this debate, which will be the last Westminster Hall debate of this Parliament. I am very privileged to have that opportunity.

I have chosen for this Adjournment debate the subject of housing in Southwark. Like you, Mr. Howarth, I have been a Member of Parliament for a long time. I have been the Member of Parliament for the northern part of Southwark for more than 27 years, and for the constituency that is currently called North Southwark and Bermondsey since the boundaries were redrawn in 1997. This debate will also be the last Adjournment debate in which I have the responsibility of representing that particular constituency. Although I hope to be back in the House after the election, the boundaries will be changed again slightly and the constituency will have the new name of Bermondsey and Old Southwark from next Monday.

Whatever the name of the constituency, however, the issue that has dominated my constituency work for all my time as a Member of Parliament is housing. You and I have that in common, Mr. Howarth, as constituency MPs. Of course, there have been other issues that I have had to address, but housing has been the main one. So it is absolutely right that I use this last opportunity in this Parliament to raise housing with the Government, because there are some very specific concerns that I would like the Minister to address when she responds.

Southwark is unique among London boroughs in that it has more than 40,000 local authority tenants and 12,000 local authority leaseholders who are tenants and leaseholders of the borough itself. I also have the privilege of representing many tenants and leaseholders of the City of London corporation, which has estates in Southwark, so I deal with two local authorities.

According to the new electoral register, the electorate within the boundaries of the new constituency is 84,899, which is one of the largest electorates in the country. Obviously, if we add on the people who are not on the electoral roll, because they are too young or otherwise not eligible to vote, we are talking about a population of probably 120,000 or 125,000.

For many of those people, there is a problem because they either cannot find a home-normally a home to rent-at an affordable cost, whether that is a local authority home, a home provided by a registered social landlord, housing association or housing trust, or a rented home in the private sector, or they are in a property that is still not of the standard that you, Mr. Howarth, or I would wish our constituents to live in.

The issue for them and for me is how we help them, particularly those people on relatively low incomes who cannot afford the sort of prices that properties go for along the river in my constituency, which stretches from the Oxo tower to Deptford, where some of the property prices are very high. Many of them have lived here all their lives, others have lived here for a long time and some have come here more recently. But the issue is how we can ensure they have the sort of housing they need.

7 Apr 2010 : Column 359WH

I have the privilege of being the Member of Parliament in England who represents the highest number of council tenants as a proportion of their electorate. I have always taken that responsibility seriously. Therefore, much of what I want to say today is about providing support for local authorities-in this case, Southwark and the City of London-in the job that they want to do of housing our constituents.

As I have said, there are more than 40,000 Southwark tenants and 12,000 Southwark leaseholders. In Southwark, there are the same number of council properties as in Wandsworth, Westminster and Hammersmith and Fulham put together, or as in Lambeth and Tower Hamlets put together. I think that, in England, only Leeds and Birmingham have more council housing stock than we do in Southwark, and they are much bigger authorities and much bigger places than Southwark, which has a total population of about 250,000.

Eight years ago, for the first time since the London boroughs were created, Labour lost its overall majority in Southwark and the Liberal Democrats became the largest party in the borough, both in votes and seats. The Liberal Democrats took over as the minority administration for four years and for the last four years we have led a coalition administration. So my colleagues have had to take responsibility for housing and they have done so to the best of their ability.

Many good things have been done in that time. I am pleased to say that, just the other day, a housing league table produced by Shelter showed that

According to Shelter:

Southwark council has done very well, but to be honest that is a drop in the ocean. As of today, the number of people on the housing waiting list who are either in private sector accommodation, including bed and breakfast accommodation, of no fixed abode or living at home with somebody else, is about 15,000. In my judgment, it would take at least five years to house that number of people. We now have a banding system. If someone is in the top band, they are likely to be housed very quickly, but if they are in bands 3 or 4, it will take much longer.

The housing requirement study that was compiled for the council in 2008 called for 10,660 additional dwellings to be built by 2013 to satisfy housing requirements in Southwark. So, irrespective of the work that we need to do to improve our housing stock, there is without doubt a job to be done to build more homes. Indeed, there is another job to be done, which is to bring any empty properties back into use. Those properties are normally in the private sector, for example, flats over shops on the Old Kent road, the Walworth road or elsewhere in the borough.

The Communities and Local Government Committee recently produced its fourth report of the 2009-10 Session, dated 8 March 2010. It was a very welcome report called "Beyond Decent Homes". A few years ago, the Government announced a very good initiative, saying that there should be a decent homes programme to bring local authority housing stock up to a better standard. Much of that work has been done. However,
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one of the Select Committee recommendations was that the Government need to pay much greater attention to where the funding will come from to complete the work on the decent homes programme that was begun all those years ago.

That work was originally due to end this year, but the end date was put back to 2011, specifically to the end of the financial year that began this week. I would like to quote from recommendation 18 of the Select Committee's report, on page 92. Under the heading "Access to Public Funding", it says:

the housing revenue account-

I will pause there for a moment. For the record, a "retention authority" is a council that decided to retain ownership of its property. Southwark council made that decision. There are currently four parties on the council: there are councillors from the Liberal Democrats, Labour and Conservatives, along with one Green councillor. All those parties in Southwark have always supported the view that the council should retain control of its housing stock and not divest itself of that stock. Whenever that view has been tested among the people who live in council property in Southwark, it has overwhelmingly been that of those tenants, too.

So there is a political consensus in Southwark that we want to retain our council housing. Therefore, the question of where the funding for that housing comes from is a key one for Government. The Select Committee's report went on to say:

The amount of housing debt that has been incurred in Southwark is extraordinary. Southwark council has a housing debt of-wait for it-more than £700 million. That debt costs £50 million a year just to service. Why do we have such a big debt? We have it for very obvious historical reasons. The London borough of Southwark inherited its housing stock from the three previous boroughs that made up the borough-Bermondsey, Southwark and Camberwell-and from the Greater London council. It has a huge amount of stock that was built after the blitz and other wartime raids, so a lot of our property was built in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s. Some of it predates the 1940s-we had the first council housing in England-but a lot of it is post-war.

That post-war housing was built but not fully paid for, because the money was borrowed, and Southwark council is still paying for it today. The new council in Southwark will be elected on 6 May. Hopefully, the new administration will be made up again of my Liberal Democrat colleagues and ideally without our having to rely on making any arrangement with anybody else. Whoever makes up that administration, however, they will be desperate to have the ability to spend money on housing and not on paying off the debts for our properties, many of which no longer exist, having been demolished a long time ago. Therefore, the first problem is that we have a huge housing debt.

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