Some letting agents and landlords take advantage of students’ transient tenancies. They are usually in a property for only a year and action for remedy may take a long time, so there is often no incentive for students to take action if they will be moving out within a relatively

27 Feb 2013 : Column 108WH

short period. Letting agents and landlords are aware of that and often do only minimal repairs because they think they can get away with it.

Only last Thursday, a group of four women students from Sheffield Hallam university came to see me to share their experience. They had faced a catalogue of problems last July when they collected the keys for their new home, which was unfit to move into. Among a range of issues, the house was filthy and full of rubbish, mattresses had blood and faeces stains, there was no carbon monoxide detector, taps and toilet seats did not fit correctly, blinds were broken and the extractor fan was broken.

When challenged, the letting agent simply said that there had been a busy change-over period with 400 students moving out on 30 June and 400 moving in on 1 July. However, the agent knew that that would be the case; it is like the staff of the refreshment kiosk at Bramall lane complaining that they cannot serve customers at half time because everyone comes in a 15-minute period. Letting agents know when the student change-over will happen, and there is no need for them to organise contracts in that way.

Most contracts for university-provided accommodation are for 42 weeks. Agents know that most students do not want 52-week contracts. The only benefit of a 52-week contract is that landlords get the rent, and that is the wrong driver. There is no reason why tenancy start dates cannot be staggered to allow for inspections and appropriate cleaning and repairs. The house that the young women were expected to move into was uninhabitable for two weeks until they forced basic action to be taken. Not unreasonably, they asked for their rent to be waived for that period, but they were told no, because they had signed their contract and had chosen not to live there.

The problems did not stop there. Sensibly, as young women they wanted individual locks on their room doors, which showed the marks of having had fitted locks previously, but they were told that under the contract they were not allowed to fit locks themselves and that the letting agent would arrange that at a charge of £80 a door. Such scams are unacceptable.

The student advice centre told me about wider problems with tenancy agreements from letting agents. They often do not contain the necessary legal information such as the landlord’s name and address so the students may not know who their landlord is. When they ask the agent, they are often told that they are not allowed to know.

Some agreements contain unfair terms that would not be enforceable in a court of law—for example, that tenants may not have friends or family staying at the property. There is a significant problem with letting agents on behalf of landlords failing to give students 24 hours’ notice that they will be doing repairs or showing prospective tenants round, and they may let themselves in with keys, sometimes without knocking.

The best letting agencies share the aspiration to stamp out bad practice, and the Association of Residential Letting Agents, the largest representative body, has called for statutory regulation. That is the nub of the problem. The absence of legislation governing letting agents is extraordinary.

27 Feb 2013 : Column 109WH

Agents may voluntarily join a regulation scheme, but it is estimated that only 60% do so. Those who choose to join a scheme are likely to be the better and more responsible agents, but there is little that can be done to restrict the actions of the unscrupulous. It is an extraordinary omission that letting agents are not covered by the same requirement to be part of an approved redress scheme as estate agents under the Estate Agents Act 1979. Professional bodies for letting agents provide complaints procedures, but those agents who are not members are often the ones for whom tenants most need the procedures.

The problem is getting worse. The property ombudsman saw a 26% increase in complaints about letting agents between 2010 and 2011—a 26% increase in one year. There is a real need for a process by which all complaints and concerns can be addressed. An amendment to bring letting agents within the scope of the 1979 Act was tabled to the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill in the House of Lords, and it would have been a positive step if the Government had accepted it.

The point we are all reaching is that greater regulation is needed. There is a consensus across the UK. Scotland has already banned the charging of fees by letting agents. In its upcoming housing Bill, the Welsh Assembly is seeking to require them to register and become accredited. As my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham said, the OFT and Which? have called for action to be taken to tackle bad letting practice. Regulation would benefit tenants, landlords and decent letting agents.

Several hon. Members rose

Annette Brooke (in the Chair): Order. May I just remind people that the winding-up speeches will begin at 3.40 pm?

3.11 pm

John Pugh (Southport) (LD): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Brooke. I congratulate the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) on introducing this topic. She has kept the pressure on, and she put her points in a very lucid way.

We all acknowledge that there is a problem. For a variety of reasons, there is an increasing number of new landlords in the private rented market. Some people go in for buy to let. Two of my daughters, who are married, are coincidentally temporary landlords by virtue of not being able to sell their houses—one in Wales and one in London—and they could not let them without using a letting agent. There is also increasing demand for rented property as people fail to stump up the deposit and the finance to purchase their first home.

That all leads to an increasing reliance on letting agents, and there is no dispute that that is a problem. In terms of service, a great deal is left to be desired by the letting process and by the way in which repairs are conducted and deposits are handled. People have illustrated quite forcefully that there is not the same transparency in the system as we would expect from a reputable business.

That is reflected in the high level of complaints we get. At the top end of those complaints are issues of downright theft and sharp practice. We are looking at

27 Feb 2013 : Column 110WH

an unregulated market, and everybody—the OFT, Shelter, charities concerned with homelessness and the political parties—acknowledges that. The Liberal Democrat conference passed a motion emphasising its concern.

The Government acknowledge the problem. In a recent debate on the subject in the main Chamber, the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bath (Mr Foster), made it clear that they would keep the regulation of letting agents under review. When he was in opposition, the Housing Minister spoke favourably of such a proposal.

We all agree, therefore, on the problem. There tends to be a difference of opinion, however, when we come to the solution. One solution staring us in the face is simply caveat emptor: basically, let us have a smarter set of customers. However, that is clearly an inadequate solution and an inadequate hope. Many players in the market—landlords and tenants—are novices. They are making critical decisions, they are short of cash and they are often going through the trauma of moving home, which, as we all know, is one of the major traumas in life.

The second solution, which is favoured by some, is voluntary registration. That leaves out what the hon. Lady called the cowboys. Of course, they are not immediately identifiable: they do not all have stetsons and holsters so that people can pick them out straight away. Even if they did, voluntary regulation has been tried, and it has not been found to be a sufficient solution, because complaints have not gone down. It was a laudable move, and we have to support it, but it is obviously not sufficient to deal with the problem.

Then we come to the thorny issue of whether we need more regulation, legislation or compulsory registration of letting agencies. The Government are right to be sceptical about over-regulation, but it is not obvious what such a proposal would result in. It is not obvious that the burden will in any way be increased for good letting agents, who already pay for voluntary schemes of one kind or another and accept the administrative cost of that. Any scheme we embrace will also presumably be self-funding and therefore not a call on the Government’s sorely stretched coffers. It is not clear in any case why regulation is inappropriate. How would we answer the question: why should estate agents be regulated, but not letting agents? There is no really good answer. Furthermore, if we have a better regulated market, we will deliver some sort of social good. Despite the fact that there is a threshold to be crossed, and despite the fact that this environment is not utterly lawless—there are sensible pieces of ordinary civil law legislation that apply to it—there does seem to be a case for effective market intervention, which would presumably start with some sort of compulsory regulation of letting agents.

The decisive issue is this. We all accept that the issue is in the balance: it is not one on which people have dogmatic or doctrinaire ideas, or which they resist out of an ideological preference. Equally, the issue will not go away, and the problems are on the increase. In introducing regulation, the Government will not reduce the supply of property. The more likely market effect is that they will drive landlords, who one assumes will be just as numerous as ever, to use the services of reputable agents, not agents who are unworthy of effective registration.

27 Feb 2013 : Column 111WH

Of course, regulation is supported by the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors and players in the industry. It is not evident that good markets are unregulated markets. It is also not evident that regulation in this case will necessarily be onerous. I accept the point made by the hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins) that regulation is not necessarily sufficient. Whether or not we have regulation, the elephant in the room is enforcement. We need to draw attention to the fact that most local authorities have quite a lot to do managing their existing budget and delivering the formal commitments the public expect them to deliver, without venturing into a territory where the public may not notice whether they are delivering. Such things would be an easy hit for those who want to reduce council expenditure, and most local authority chief executives are, unfortunately, in that position.

Although regulation is not a sufficient move, therefore, it is the right move; it is a step in the right direction, and I applaud the hon. Lady for having pushed us a little further in that direction.

Several hon. Members rose

Annette Brooke (in the Chair): Order. Four Members are standing, so I am calling for self-regulation.

3.18 pm

Lilian Greenwood (Nottingham South) (Lab): I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak in the debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) on securing the chance to raise issues that affect increasing numbers of our constituents living in rented accommodation and on setting out the arguments so thoroughly and eloquently.

Like many hon. Members present, I was confronted with something of a dilemma over whether to speak in this debate or the debate in the main Chamber on the bedroom tax. Unfortunately, that highlights the fact that those who are not in a position to own their own home face increasingly serious problems, which this Government seem unwilling to address, because they have failed to build more affordable housing and left tenants and landlords to fend for themselves in an unregulated lettings market. Unfortunately, the Government are willing to make the situation even worse through their unfair and unworkable changes to housing benefit. With more than 6,000 households in Nottingham affected by the bedroom tax, more and more families on low incomes will be forced out of their council or housing association homes and into the private rented sector.

As we have heard, 8.5 million people—16.5% of households in England—live in the private rented sector, and two thirds of those households have children. The numbers are rising. Many of those people do not want to rent privately. Every week, I meet people in Nottingham who would love to buy their own home, but who cannot get a foot on the property ladder, and there are more than 10,000 people in Nottingham waiting for a council home. But the Government are not building enough of those desperately needed affordable homes. If we accept that many households, especially those on low incomes, are going to need the private rented sector, we must ensure that the sector is fit for purpose and that it offers renters the security they need.

27 Feb 2013 : Column 112WH

Steve Reed: Does my hon. Friend agree that it is unacceptable that in Croydon, where there are nearly 8,000 people on the housing waiting list, last year only 420 new social homes were built in the entire borough?

Lilian Greenwood: My hon. Friend is right, and that is why it is so disappointing that the Government are so far behind their targets for affordable rented housing.

As we have heard, there is no legislation covering letting agent practices. It is still possible to set up as a letting agent with no qualifications. There are no requirements as to conduct or for the safeguarding of consumers as there are for estate agents, and no obligation to register with a redress scheme. Letting agents simply operate outside any legislation. Agents can voluntarily join a regulation scheme, but it is estimated that fewer than 60% do so. There is no shortage of evidence that supports the need for action. As my hon. Friends have said, an investigation by the Office of Fair Trading found that the lettings market generates a high level of complaints, and the main areas of concern for tenants set out in its report published earlier this month included surprising and high charges, confusion about holding deposits, misleading advertising, repairs not being carried out on the property and non-refund of security deposits. Crisis, the charity for homeless single people, reported similar areas of concern. The property ombudsman reported a 26% increase in enquiries or complaints about letting agents between 2010 and 2011 and, as we have heard, Citizens Advice found that 73% of tenants whom it surveyed were dissatisfied with the service.

Experience from my constituency, consistent with those findings, highlights the need for action by the Government to regulate the private rented sector and, specifically, letting agents. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) I represent a constituency with many students. Some neighbourhoods, particularly Dunkirk, Lenton, Radford, the Park, Wollaton Park and Lenton Abbey, which are close to the campuses of the university of Nottingham, have high concentrations of private rented sector accommodation and especially homes in multiple occupation. Some years ago residents established the Nottingham Action Group on HMOs, because they shared a concern about the way their neighbourhood was being affected by the changing use of local housing. The group has vast experience of the impact of the private rented sector in the city. When I asked for views on letting agents I was told that the most common complaint is agents failing to sort out repairs or carry out regular maintenance. Of course that does not affect only the tenants of the property in question; it often affects neighbours and the wider community, either directly or indirectly, because the local environment becomes run down, the street looks uncared for and further problems flow from that.

However, NAG also had regular reports of other problems, such as agents sending prospective tenants round to view a property without making an appointment, or simply telling them to call round on the off chance. When the current tenants complain they are told to put up with it because the sooner the property is let the sooner people will stop dropping round unexpectedly. There are also reports of agents failing to give prospective tenants sufficient time to look at the property, and pressuring them to sign tenancy agreements and property inventories on the spot. It has been found that agents do

27 Feb 2013 : Column 113WH

not return deposits readily. There is evidence of agents who do not know, or wilfully disregard, legislation. One recent example of that in Nottingham was an agent who has now been fined twice for letting HMOs that required a licence but did not have one. NAG also raised concerns about agents hiring contractors to put up “to let” boards without overseeing the work. Boards have been fastened to fences belonging to neighbours’ properties, and to trees. Thanks to the persistence of NAG, working alongside Nottingham city council, and with the support of landlords and tenants, there are now local controls on the use of letting boards. However, some agents are still acting inappropriately and using every means that they can to circumvent the controls.

The university of Nottingham student union echoed similar themes when it submitted evidence to the Select Committee on Communities and Local Government inquiry into the private rented sector. It said:

“We believe that there need to be mechanisms in place to encourage landlords and letting agents to continually improve the standard of their housing stock. Having worked alongside UNIPOL”—

a voluntary accreditation scheme—

“for many years, we have seen the benefit of accreditation schemes. However, we have concerns that voluntary codes will never catch those landlords who continue to provide low quality housing. We believe that additional licensing in addition to properly supported and valued accreditations schemes would result in improved standards”.

On the regulation of landlords and letting agents the student union was equally clear:

“We believe that registration would improve management of properties by landlords and letting agents. To be registered would indicate that a landlord or letting agent were ‘fit and proper’ to manage properties…working to minimum management standards, and exclude those few landlords whose informal practices leave their tenants in a vulnerable situation”.

I recently heard from Ben, a student in Lenton, who provided a detailed account of the problems he and his housemates had faced. He says:

“Neither us nor our neighbours who are also with the same letting agency received an inventory until quite recently, despite the fact that we were pestering the agency since September. We send e-mails to the landlord and property manager often with complaints and he responds by saying he or one of his agents will come and inspect the property and sort the problems. When and if they come they say things will be sorted and leave and the problems persist with nothing being done. Often they don’t come at all. Our concerns are ignored and disregarded and there seems to be no simple and easy way in which we can launch a complaint and get our issues resolved.”

The Government need to act now to protect tenants like Ben and their neighbours, landlords and the reputations of responsible agents. They need to put an end to confusing and inconsistent fees and charges, so that people understand what they are paying for at the outset and can compare different agents. They should introduce measures to promote longer-term tenancies and predictable rents and should introduce a national register of landlords and give local councils the powers they need to raise standards and tackle rogue landlords. The need for action is clear. It is time for the Government to get on with it.

27 Feb 2013 : Column 114WH

3.27 pm

Chi Onwurah (Newcastle upon Tyne Central) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Brooke. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) on securing this important debate. I shall not attempt to repeat any discussion of the many important issues raised so far, particularly about the experiences of tenants in the private rented sector. I just want briefly to focus on that sector in Newcastle.

Since I was elected, housing has been the No. 1 issue, week after week, that constituents have brought to me. They tell heart-rending tales—I will not recount them here. It is clear to me that a secure roof over one’s head is incredibly important not only for the security of family life, but for mental well-being, for being in a fit state to go out to try to get a job and for the quality of life to which we should all have a basic right. That is why I have launched a campaign in Newcastle to improve the availability of affordable housing, focusing on bringing empty private sector homes back into use and encouraging the building of new affordable housing.

It is clear, however, that new affordable housing cannot be built fast enough and that the private rented sector is increasingly important. I should like the Minister to say that he recognises that the private rented and social housing sectors are directed at different markets. Frequently, in response to questions on the bedroom tax, the Conservative party seems to say that, because certain measures may exist in the private rented sector, similar ones are acceptable in the social housing sector. There seems to be no recognition of the fact that there is a key difference, because many of our more vulnerable constituents live in the social housing sector.

It is important that there should be a strong private rented sector. In Newcastle, the average rent in the private rented sector is £120 a week, whereas it is £67 for council housing. That is beyond the reach of many of my constituents. In the last 12 months that data are available from Shelter, 1,055 landlords started the process of removing tenants in Newcastle. In the same period, only about 350 new homes were started, so the importance of a properly regulated and working market in the private rented sector is clear to me as the local MP. That is why I support the measures that we are proposing to regulate private rented sector letting agencies. In addition, it is clear that good letting agents, of which there are many, often support that as well. They do not want to be tarred with the same brush as those whose behaviour, as we have heard today, is invidious and heartless.

Government Members have spoken about the private rented sector as a market, and I was very interested in some of the points that they made supporting the fact that we are seeing market failure. It is therefore incredibly difficult to understand why the Government, recognising that there is market failure in the private rented sector, do not feel that intervention is appropriate. These clear market failures have an impact on many areas of our society. For example, in Newcastle, where we have high deprivation and poverty, unexpected charges can push families in the private sector into debt and into a spiral of credit and loan sharks, with little possibility of escape.

27 Feb 2013 : Column 115WH

I look forward to hearing from the Minister why he is opposed to improving the sector. We need a strong private rented sector, with tenants who have strong rights and with letting agencies that behave properly and in a regulated fashion.

3.32 pm

Mr David Lammy (Tottenham) (Lab): This is a very important debate, and I want to remind the Minister of the context in which we have it. We can all think back to a period in British history when the vast majority of people were in private accommodation. We had tenements and Rachman-like landlords, and Charles Dickens, for example, was able to illustrate coherently and fantastically just how grim it was for many people, particularly in the capital city. Since then, we have had the welfare state, slum clearance and the Addison Act of 1919. There was a wonderful balance, with subsidised, affordable housing, and where people could afford to buy their own home, as my father did in 1956 for £6,000. People could get easy credit at the bank and could get on to the housing ladder, or they could seek to get private accommodation.

The Minister should be deeply concerned that we have returned, in Britain today, to a context in which the vast majority of people are in private rented accommodation. We are going backwards as a country, not forwards. We are not building sufficient houses. He will know that because of the decision to generate a right-to-buy scheme, while not building housing to replace the right to buy, we have now lost our social housing, and that is leading to a dire state in London. We have come to a new market in which, frankly, many—this does not apply to all—cowboys are operating. They have seen a gap in the market and vulnerable people, and they have rushed in with a whole set of practices that have been well illustrated in this debate.

It is now time for the Minister to deal with a situation in which complaints against the sector have risen by 123% since 2008, and where we recognise that there is conning and fraud by these cowboys. People are losing deposits and extortionate fees are charged that are hard to understand. We need a statutory code and legislation in this area. We need to consolidate fees in one structure and publish clearly what those fees are. We need a compulsory public membership scheme, so that we know who our landlords are and what their practices are. There is market failure in this area. This is something that traditional Conservatives should be concerned about dealing with.

3.35 pm

John Healey (Wentworth and Dearne) (Lab): I came here to support my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) rather than to speak, which given the time, is probably just as well, but I am prompted to make three points. First, there is a problem and it is growing. Secondly, there is a solution and wide support. Thirdly, there is really no excuse for the Minister not to act.

First, the problem is clear. This is a field with no legal requirements or legal restraints for people setting up and running a letting agent or a managing agency. There is no legal requirement to belong to a trade association or to conform to standards of conduct; nor is there a legal requirement to offer some sort of redress

27 Feb 2013 : Column 116WH

scheme or safeguards for consumers. The stories of problems with up-front, unjustified, unfair fees are growing, as are the problems with misleading ads, and with repairs not being done or visits not even being made. My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) mentioned the Citizens Advice research and the scale of dissatisfaction with letting agents. Which? has done a similar survey, showing that letting agents, out of 50 different consumer markets, came second bottom for dissatisfaction—below train companies and even insurance providers. Of course, the private rented sector, for the first time in half a century, is larger than that of public and social housing. Some 8.5 million people are renting privately, and 1 million families with kids are in private rented accommodation. This is a growing problem.

Secondly, on the solution, a regulatory framework is in place for estate agents; as suggested by the hon. Member for Southport (John Pugh), why not have it for letting agents and managing agents as well? Following the Rugg review in 2009, proposals are on the stocks, with wide support. The formal consultation that the previous Government held and published in February 2010 confirmed that the majority of respondents were behind a legal, mandatory framework of regulation for letting agents. The chair of the Residential Landlords Association told the Select Committee on Communities and Local Government in evidence this month:

“Landlords are just as likely to suffer from a criminal or fraudulent agent as a tenant is… All the legitimate agents are supporting legislation. We feel that that would be a good thing.”

There is cross-party support in this debate for action. Even the Office of Fair Trading has made recommendations, as my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham has said, and it must be borne in mind that, with its restricted remit confining it principally to competition issues, it is normally constrained from offering a wide-ranging and full set of recommendations, but it has done so in this case.

Thirdly and finally, I say to the Minister that there is no excuse now for not acting. The need is clear; the support is there; and the proposals have been independently recommended by the Rugg review. Public consultation has been formally conducted on those proposals. The legislative vehicle—the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill—is in the other place at the moment. A coherent change to the legislation has been proposed and debated in Committee. The debate on Report, when amendments are normally made in the other place, is about to take place. Five years ago, the Minister, when moving a clause to a Bill in this House, said:

“The new clause would bring residential lettings within the established legal framework.”––[Official Report, Consumers, Estate Agents and Redress Public Bill Committee, 24 April 2007; c. 192.]

He wanted to do that five years ago, and as Housing Minister, he now has the privilege and the position to do so. I hope that he will take that opportunity and confirm to us today in this debate that that is exactly what he intends to do.

3.39 pm

Jack Dromey (Birmingham, Erdington) (Lab): It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mrs Brooke. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) on the excellent case that she put forward. It was a bravura performance, making a powerful

27 Feb 2013 : Column 117WH

case for change. She started by referring to the private rented sector and the fact that that is growing rapidly. Various contributions in the debate have made the point that it has now overtaken the social sector in size at a time when home ownership has fallen for the first time since the 1950s. The very powerful report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation talks about generation rent—a whole generation of young professionals who are now locked out of home ownership and end up in the private rented sector.

We heard very powerful contributions from my right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) and my hon. Friends the Members for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood) and for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield). They pointed to experience from their own constituencies of the problems that people face in the private rented sector. Undoubtedly, the sector will have an important role to play in the future, but absolutely not on the current terms. There are problems of security. Letting agents encourage churn, which leads to insecurity in the sector. There are problems of affordability. There are problems of quality: 37% of homes do not meet the decent homes standard. There are too many rogue landlords and too many rogue letting agents.

More generally, we need to transform the private rented sector into a sector that works for both tenants and landlords and in which there is no place for the disreputable, who undercut the reputable. Letting agents do perform an important role, because in a sector in which most landlords are small landlords, they depend on letting agents, but my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham was right, in her forensic exposition, to refer to the overwhelming body of evidence that suggests that the current situation is absolutely unacceptable and must change.

According to the CAB report, 73% of those who dealt with letting agents were expressing dissatisfaction. According to the Which? report, this market is second from bottom of 50 consumer markets. There is also the OFT report. My right hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey) was absolutely right about this. It goes beyond what it would normally say to be critical of the sector and is calling for change, as are many others, from Shelter to the Resolution Foundation. Why is that the case?

In this very powerful debate, we have heard testament from a series of right hon. and hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester Central (Lucy Powell). There is the problem of fees and lack of transparency. Often, exorbitant fees are charged. They vary wildly, and frequently there are exorbitant up-front fees. The hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins) is to be congratulated on his mystery shop exposing that in his own constituency. There is the problem of no client money protection. As a consequence, all too often, both landlords and tenants lose out. There is also the problem of repairs often not being carried out.

It is extraordinary that someone can set themselves up as a letting agent with no qualifications whatever. They have no need to conform to requirements or to provide mandatory safeguards for consumers. It is a ludicrous anomaly that estate agents are regulated, but not letting agents. An excellent phrase was used by the

27 Feb 2013 : Column 118WH

Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors. It pointed to the fact that 4,000 letting agents act entirely outside any form of regulation or self-regulation in what it calls the “Wild West”.

In government, my right hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth and Dearne—I am proud to follow in his footsteps—took the initiative over the Rugg report to say then that this was a scandal that had to end. Sadly, when the current Government came to power, the then Housing Minister, who tends to get out the clove of garlic in one hand and the cross in the other at the very mention of regulation, dismissed what Rugg had recommended and what, in the consultative process, had been overwhelmingly supported. He called it red tape; we call it protection for tenants and landlords alike.

The Minister for Housing (Mr Mark Prisk): I am interested to hear that. It has been mentioned that I put down a probing amendment on the question. If it was so important, why did the Labour Government not put the redress measure into law, which it would have been able to do, in Committee on the basis of the amendment that I presented?

Jack Dromey: We moved decisively down the path for comprehensive regulation—

Mr Prisk: You did not legislate.

Jack Dromey: We moved decisively down the path for comprehensive regulation of the sector under the last Government.

John Healey: It is of course hard for me to answer for our colleague who would have been in position as Housing Minister or the Minister responsible at the time, but does my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey) agree that it might have been that the case that was put at the time from the Opposition Front Bench was not persuasive enough? It certainly is now.

Jack Dromey: My right hon. Friend makes a very good point. What the Labour Government did was to establish the Rugg review. The Rugg review made comprehensive proposals, including in respect of regulation of letting agents. We moved decisively down that path.

The hon. Gentleman who is now the Housing Minister, unless he has undergone a damascene conversion and believes the opposite of what he said five years ago in opposition, will no doubt say when he responds, “Yes, this Government now intend to act,” because thus far there has been a lamentable failure to act, despite the chorus of voices calling for change. I am talking about tenants and landlords. The Labour party put forward a very powerful policy proposal, supported by the Association of Residential Letting Agents, the National Landlords Association, the Residential Landlords Association, the British Property Federation, the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors and many other players in the housing field, including registered social landlords, many of which now have private rented portfolios. They all back the proposals that we put forward, calling for change.

27 Feb 2013 : Column 119WH

I pay tribute to the right hon. and hon. Members who have taken part in today’s debate, including the hon. Member for Southport (John Pugh), for the way in which they have spoken up. It is just like we saw in the Opposition day debate last month: there is a growing cross-party consensus that says, “This has to end.” In relation to how it ends, the hon. Gentleman was right when he said that the idea of a voluntary arrangement will not wash.

I pay tribute to Ian Potter and the work of ARLA. For two decades, it has campaigned for regulation, but in the meantime it has also tried to raise standards in the sector. However, that is on a voluntary basis—the rogues do not sign up. That organisation sometimes takes action against its own members who have acted disreputably, but it has arrived, out of bitter experience, at the clear conclusion that a voluntary scheme will never work; regulation is essential. The case put forward by the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors of the potential benefit to the economy of £20 million further reinforces the case for change.

The case is overwhelming. No more evidence is required. An all-party consensus is emerging. The Government have said that they have an open mind on this issue. An open mind, however, is no longer good enough. I ask the hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr Prisk), who is now the Minister for Housing, to have the courage of his convictions five years ago and to tell the House today that this Government will at last move to regulate letting agents.

3.47 pm

The Minister for Housing (Mr Mark Prisk): May I start by congratulating the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion)? I think that this is the first time that she and I have been in a debate together; she is a new Member of the House. Not only was she able to secure an important debate, but she set out her argument. We will not always agree on the outcomes, but I think that we do agree on the challenge that faces this particular market. There is a strong element of market failure, as I have discussed in debate with the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey), who speaks for the Opposition on this matter.

This has been a useful debate, because there is a substantial question and substantial interest from a much wider group. Of course, the number of complaints may have risen because the market is substantially larger than it was, but it would be foolish to assume that that is the only reason and that is certainly not an assumption that I make or any other member of the Government makes, although I did particularly enjoy the idea that the only reason why the Labour Government did not do anything was that the Opposition spokesman did not make a strong enough argument. That is an entertaining argument. It does not quite wash. Nevertheless, I understand and I have a lot of time for the right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey), which may be very damaging from the point of view of his own personal political future, but there we go.

Before I turn to the specific issues, I would like to set out briefly the context of the Government’s overall approach to the private rented sector, because people naturally have wanted to look beyond just the question of agents. People have talked about the question of supply, the interaction with the housing benefit elements

27 Feb 2013 : Column 120WH

and so on, but let me just look at the private rented sector particularly. As I said in the debate that we had only last month, we are very committed as a Government to ensuring that this is a bigger sector, but also a better sector—one that provides tenants with a genuinely good choice of decent, reasonably priced accommodation. We stand first and foremost on the basis that many—not all—of the problems that we have discussed today, including the difficulties that individual families and tenants have, are a consequence of years of under-supply.

The right hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) gave us an interesting historical perspective, but I do not necessarily wish to go back to Dickens; we will stick with the past 25 years. What we have seen in the past 25 years—something on which we have agreed over many years—is that demand has substantially outstripped supply. As a result, the supply available to tenants, and the quality and standards of accommodation, have simply failed to keep up. That has inevitably led to a worsening of the way in which some letting agents operate.

Expanding the supply of rented homes lies at the heart of our strategy. That is why we have taken the radical step of establishing a debt guarantee scheme of up to £10 billion to encourage institutional investment in the sector.

Graham Jones (Hyndburn) (Lab): Will the Minister give way?

Mr Prisk: The hon. Gentleman has not spoken in the debate. Others have and they want a response. If he will bear with me, I will give way in a moment.

We have also put in place a £200 million build-to-rent fund to kick-start innovative quality projects.

Graham Jones: The Minister makes the case that there needs to be an increase in supply in the private rented sector. In my constituency in Hyndburn, we have nearly 3,000 empty properties, nearly all in the private rented sector. There is a complete over-supply, yet letting agents run rampant. His argument does not succeed in my constituency and in many constituencies like mine, where over-supply is not the answer.

Mr Prisk: We have a long-standing issue with long-term empty homes, of which there are 278,000. I am pleased to say that we saw a drop of 22,000 in the past full year, which is encouraging. We have put specific funds into our programme to bring those empty homes back into use. With respect, if I may say, it is a programme that we had to put in place, because it was not there when we came into office. The hon. Gentleman is right to highlight empty homes, but we are taking steps to change that.

Boosting supply is not only about financial support. We need to be careful to avoid excessive regulation that can deter the investment in supply that we all agree we need. If supply is stifled and if we go back to the bad old days of rent controls, we would actually see a stifling of investment and a shrinking of supply. The net result would be that tenants would have fewer properties to choose from and higher rents as well.

Jack Dromey: I am surprised at the Minister’s assertion. I spoke earlier today at the British Property Federation’s conference, where the Minister will be speaking shortly.

27 Feb 2013 : Column 121WH

The unmistakable message from the federation, which represents institutional investors, is that it believes that the time has come for effective regulation of the sector, particularly regulation of letting agents. It does not believe for one moment that that will put future investment decisions at risk.

Mr Prisk: I recognise the role for effective regulation; I will come on to that. However, the idea of rent controls, which one of the hon. Gentleman’s colleagues is proposing in a ten-minute rule Bill, is nonsense. Does he agree with it? Would he care to comment?

Jack Dromey: We are consulting right now on how we move to longer-term tenancies linked to more affordable and predictable rents. We are not convinced by the argument for rent controls, but all those who wish to make contributions can do so. It is to be regretted that the Government have set their face against that, which 1.1 million families badly need in the private rented sector, so that they can plan where they send their kids to school and plan how they manage their household budgets.

Mr Prisk: People will be encouraged if that is confirmation that the Labour party, were it to be elected in some strange manner in a couple of years’ time, will have rent controls. We will see how that develops, but perhaps I should persist, because other hon. Members have raised questions.

Targeted, effective regulation that is carefully thought through, of a statutory nature or otherwise, has a role to play. That is why we have made a particular effort to crack down on rogue landlords, for example, in the case of beds in sheds, which is a dreadful scourge. Frankly, too little has been done in the past. It is an area where people are genuinely exploited and where we want to use the law. That, in a sense, comes to the second question.

Various people have asserted in this debate that letting agents are completely unregulated, but that is not true. That is a myth, which it is important to dispel. We should not be telling tenants that they have no controls and that there is nothing there to protect them and no one to turn to to help them challenge someone who is behaving badly. Whatever our political perspective might be, there is a genuine interest in getting the message right.

Letting agents are subject to regulation. It is important to flag that up. The hon. Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) highlighted a specific issue around students and the fact that they were being told incorrect things about market conditions. The Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008 offer protection against someone who is deliberately misleading and pulling the wool over people’s eyes, enabling individual tenants the opportunity to challenge them.

Also, the Unfair Terms in Consumer Contracts Regulations 1999 protect tenants from unfair conditions. Several hon. Members mentioned the way in which tenants can find themselves facing unfair restrictions on the way in which they can use a property. We have seen—several hon. Members have mentioned this—that trading standards bodies can and will prosecute letting agents. I mentioned a case in West Bromwich in a previous

27 Feb 2013 : Column 122WH

debate and we have heard about a case in Rotherham. In Oxford, a letting agent had to pay £300,000 in fines and costs for consumer protection-related and money-laundering offences after failing to return tenants’ deposits—which several hon. Members have mentioned—letting properties without the authority of their owners, and not passing on rent. So action can be taken. There was a similar case in Plymouth, where the letting agent was jailed for two years for spending client money on foreign holidays—again, that was mentioned by one hon. Member—and propping up his business. That individual may yet face further action to seize his assets. So, serious sanctions are in place, which our constituents can now use. It is important to flag that up.

John Healey: That is a statement of fact, not an argument against proper regulation. The overwhelming evidence mentioned by everybody in the debate is that what is in place at the moment is not successful, not sufficient and not satisfactory to protect tenants and landlords. A statement of fact about the general consumer protection that is in place is not sufficient.

Mr Prisk: It is important to recognise that we need a number of elements to deal with the different problems that have been raised. We need to make sure that we use existing consumer protection legislation now and that enforcement is put in place effectively. I want trading standards bodies to take action not just in the serious cases, such as those that I have flagged up, but in the less serious cases. We have a problem with enforcement. The right hon. Gentleman is right. We cannot mandate trading standards bodies to act in individual cases, but I am determined to encourage those national bodies to ensure that they tackle these issues right across the marketplace. It is not good enough at the moment. We want to make it stronger.

As the hon. Member for Rotherham said, many letting agents who provide services do so quite well and within the law. Several hon. Members have highlighted the Which? report, which showed that one in five tenants are dissatisfied with their agent. That is still too high, but I think that if it is one in five, people will realise that the vast majority—four out of five—seem satisfied with the service that they get. The Which? report is a pretty independent and extensive survey in that context. However, there remain too many agents whose service is poor and unacceptable. Several hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington, mentioned the fact that this is the second lowest of consumer markets.

Our view has been that regulation should not be the first option. Although we recognise that there might be a case for it, the challenge is to make sure that existing law works properly. There is a temptation among all of us as politicians to believe that passing new legislation will deal with people who currently ignore existing regulation. I am sceptical that the changes we make, of a statutory nature or otherwise, will actually catch the rogues that Members of all parties have highlighted. That is the challenge. I am open to consideration. We are looking carefully at what the Office of Fair Trading has said. There are some strong and positive elements there. However, if we are to do this properly—if we are to catch the rogue agents and landlords who perfectly happily flout every other law—we need to make sure that if we change the rules and change the law, we do so in a way that will deal with the individuals in question.

27 Feb 2013 : Column 123WH

Relations with the Arab World

4 pm

George Galloway (Bradford West) (Respect): The highlight of my parliamentary career is undoubtedly the wonder goal that I scored for the House of Commons football team at the Stretford end at Old Trafford—the Manchester United theatre of dreams. The goal has passed into history, but less well known is the fact that the little inside forward who supplied the final pass, in a move involving the legends Pat Crerand and Sir Bobby Charlton, was the Minister whom I face in today’s debate.

The Minister and I have always had civilised—indeed, friendly—relations. I hope that they survive the next 30 minutes, for I am going to say some pretty harsh things about the Government’s policy. As Minister for the middle east, he will have to come in for his share of criticism, but nothing personal is intended, as I am sure he knows.

The Minister is highly qualified as a Minister of the Crown, but the least of his qualifications was the most important in his being made a Minister at the Foreign Office: he was previously a luminary—indeed, a leader—of the Conservative Friends of Israel. That is an indispensible condition in Britain; in the 25 years I have spent in the House, and I suspect for much longer than that, no one has been able to be the Minister for the middle east without being a member, preferably a leading one, of either the Labour or Conservative Friends of Israel. That is the first problem I want to deal with today.

The fact that one has to be a friend of Israel to be the Minister for the middle east speaks volumes about the absolute unwillingness on the part of the British state, the British Government and the British Parliament to face up to their responsibility to the Palestinian people. The entire tragedy of the Palestinian people was authored in this building, when our Foreign Minister, then Mr Balfour, promised on behalf of one people a second people the land that belonged to a third people, when we did not even own the land of Palestine even as an imperial possession.

That is the original sin of Britain—all the blood that has flowed under the bridge since that declaration was made, and the fact that we do not recognise our special responsibility to the Palestinian people. On the contrary, one has to be a friend of Israel to be the Minister for the middle east. That is central to our problems and our credibility in the middle east.

As a result of Mr Balfour’s declaration, the Palestinian people had their country wiped off the map. We hear a lot of talk in the middle east about people threatening to wipe other people’s countries off the map, but the only country that has been wiped off the map in the middle east is Palestine—go to your atlas, Mrs Brooke, and you will see. The Palestinian people were scattered to the four corners of the earth—stateless, paperless and passport-less, hunted from pillar to post and regularly subject to massacre and attack of one kind or another. All the responsibility for that originates here.

Instead of recognising that special responsibility, we do precisely the opposite. If someone is not a known and celebrated supporter of the country that supplanted

27 Feb 2013 : Column 124WH

Palestine and drove the Palestinians out of their country into the four corners of the earth, they will have no chance of becoming the Minister for the middle east.

I could adumbrate the perfidy at great length, but I do not have the time. I shall give only one example: Israel illegally holds hundreds of nuclear weapons, undeclared and subject to no treaty or inspection of any kind. It was a British Government who transferred the heavy water technology that made that illegal acquisition of nuclear weapons possible; it would have been impossible otherwise. We know that Israel has hundreds of nuclear weapons because the brave Jewish whistleblower Mordechai Vanunu told us, for which he was kidnapped in Leicester square and ended up serving 18 years in solitary confinement in an Israeli dungeon. When brought to court, his jaws were wired together, like Hannibal Lecter, in case he told us any more about that illegal mountain of weapons of mass destruction.

Israel has a mountain of weapons of mass destruction. Iran has no weapons of mass destruction. The International Atomic Energy Agency says that Iran has no nuclear weapons and that there is no evidence that it is trying to build them. Yet it is Iran that is subject to endless sanction and threat, while Israel has the red carpet endlessly rolled out before it.

Successive British Governments, both Labour and Conservative—the last one were even worse than this one; Mr Blair is now in almost permanent residence in occupied Jerusalem—have consistently backed Israeli crimes or failed to sanction them properly. Even when our own citizens’ passports were stolen by the Israeli intelligence services to commit murder in Dubai and we called in the Israeli ambassador and deported the Mossad representative from the embassy in London, the new Mossad representative to London flew here on the return flight and is ensconced still.

If this was a debate only about Palestine, I would have much more to say, but the proximate cause of my application for this debate is the ludicrous situation that occurred at Prime Minister’s Question Time a couple of weeks ago. The Minister will have come briefed, I am sure, for this point. I asked the Prime Minister whether he would adumbrate for the House the key differences—just the key ones—between the “hand-chopping, throat-cutting” violent, Islamist and extremist jihadists we were now going to Mali to kill, and the hand-chopping, throat-cutting, violent, Islamist, fanatic and extremist jihadists to whom we were giving money to help kill Christians and other religious minorities in Syria. There was a reply, but it was not an answer; it was a brief ad hominem attack—that if there was a brutal Arab dictator anywhere in the world left standing, he could no doubt count on my support.

As psychologists would say, that is just about as good an example of projection as it is possible to imagine. The Prime Minister projected on to me the sins—indeed, crimes—of which he himself is manifestly guilty.

Mr Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) (Con): One of the reasons why I voted against the Iraq war, like the hon. Gentleman, was that I was worried about the fate of Christians in Iraq. They have had a terrible fate since the invasion. Many of them went to Syria, and their lives have been made a misery now; they are the people in between. Does the hon. Gentleman share my

27 Feb 2013 : Column 125WH

view that it is essential that we do not send, or countenance sending, indirectly or directly, any arms into Syria? That would make the situation far worse.

George Galloway: I agree wholeheartedly. The Christians in Iraq have effectively been wiped off the map of Iraq. Most of them are in Syria, where they live in daily terror for their churches and of their clergy and devotees being slaughtered by the hand-chopping and throat-cutting al-Qaeda elements to whom we are giving money.

However, the hon. Gentleman is wrong—we are already giving them weapons, and we are giving them money, which is the same as giving them weapons. If we give al-Qaeda money, what do we think they buy with that money? Are they buying Elastoplasts and other medical supplies? No, they are buying weapons with which to terrorise not just Christians, but Muslims and other ethnicities—Kurdish people, for example—on a daily basis. The Minister and the Foreign Office know that, and they must give an answer, if not to me, then to the British people.

What are the differences between the jihadists we are killing in Mali and the jihadists we are financing in Syria? I know why the Prime Minister did not answer my question; there can surely be no logical answer to it, for there are no differences. Al-Qaeda is al-Qaeda, and the al-Qaeda mindset is the al-Qaeda mindset wherever it is found.

I demand an answer to that question. The people in this country deserve an answer—after all, it is their money that is being given. I put a question to the Prime Minister:

“Has the Prime Minister read ‘Frankenstein’, and did he read it to the end?”—[Official Report, 30 January 2013; Vol. 557, c. 906.]

Does he not know that Dr Frankenstein’s monster broke free and out of control, which is why it is called a monster?

As a case of projection, the Prime Minister’s response is pretty difficult to beat. In The Guardian, an American journalist by the name of Glenn Greenwald—the day after, if not the day after that—wrote:

“Cameron’s attack on George Galloway reflects the west’s self-delusions. In an act of supreme projection, the British PM accuses a critic of lending support ‘wherever there is a brutal…dictator’: the core policy of the US and UK”.

Who can doubt that?

The Prime Minister has travelled with his sales bag and a retinue of arms salesmen to one brutal Arab dictatorship after another. I do not know where he is today, but it will be a red letter day if he is not trying to sell weapons to a brutal Arab dictator. Saudi Arabia is our best friend in the middle east. We sell billions—tens of billions—of pounds of weaponry to the Saudi dictatorship, some of which is used in other countries. In 2009, the Saudi air force used UK-supplied Tornado fighter bombers in attacks in Yemen, which killed hundreds or possibly thousands of civilians.

The Saudi army is in occupation of its neighbour, Bahrain, where the democracy protesters are daily being gunned down with guns bought from us, by soldiers trained by us. We have a military training mission in Saudi Arabia, the darkest tyranny in the entire middle

27 Feb 2013 : Column 126WH

east. The most brutal dictatorship in the entire middle east is in occupation of its neighbour, killing people because they demand the right to vote.

Keith Vaz (Leicester East) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman mentioned Yemen. Does he agree that it is important that we work with the Government of Yemen to defeat al-Qaeda in the Arabian peninsula, where it is causing so much damage and harm to people?

George Galloway: It is important that we work with the Government of Yemen, who came to power as a result of a popular revolution against a dictatorship supported by British Governments—this one and the last one.

Before I leave the subject of Saudi Arabia, I should say that we have sold it £15 billion of weapons a year. According to a report I have, Saudi Arabia, with which we want to broaden and deepen our relationship—the UK-Saudi relationship is already very broad and deep—is the UK’s largest trading partner in the middle east, with annual trade worth £15 billion. How does the Minister think people in Syria feel when they are told that we are giving weapons to jihadists to bring democracy in Syria, given that our best friend in the region is the darkest tyranny of them all?

I will close on the tragicomic, the absurd—the subject of brutal dictatorships. I never met Muammar al-Gaddafi, and I have never met any of his grisly family. I had nothing to do with Gaddafi or his regime, but the British Government did. First he was a mad dog, then he was our new best friend. The then Prime Minister of Britain kissed him several times in the tent. The LSE or Libyan School of Economics—the London School of Economics—was encouraged to take large sums of money from the Gaddafi dictatorship. Gaddafi’s son had help from No. 10 Downing street to complete his PhD thesis, so that he could become Dr Saif al-Islam al-Gaddafi.

We had the closest possible relationship with Gaddafi’s brutal dictatorship. We sold Libya £100 million of weapons. Worse than that, we sent it dissidents to be tortured on Gaddafi’s torture tables. It was not me who sent them; it was the then British Foreign Secretary, the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw), as the courts will soon decide—though perhaps in secret, if the Government get away with their secret courts legislation.

The letters are there: the man who was tortured discovered them in the British embassy, with their gloating at his safe delivery to Gaddafi’s torture tables. It was the British Government who trained Gaddafi’s secret police and his military officers at Sandhurst. It is the British Government who support dictatorship in the middle east, not me.

I wish I had more time for this debate, but I do not want to cheat a Minister whom I personally respect by leaving him too little time to reply. I close with this: Britain’s relationship with the middle east stinks to high heaven. Indeed, in the Muslim world—1.7 billion-strong —we are seen as hypocrites, as occupiers and as people who support and prop up brutal dictators with weapons, with money if they need it, and with diplomatic and political support if they do not. It is a pity that this Foreign Office Minister, fine man as he is, has done nothing to better that reputation; instead, his tenure has seen that reputation get steadily worse.

27 Feb 2013 : Column 127WH

4.17 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Alistair Burt): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship in this important debate, Mrs Brooke. I thank the hon. Member for Bradford West (George Galloway) for the way in which he introduced the debate. I place on the record my sense that the Stretford end incident, as we shall call it, was certainly one of the finest amateur goals that I have ever seen and the best that I was ever any part of. The hon. Gentleman’s generous notification of that, in publications or this sort of debate, has always been touching. The relationship forged on that common interest has sustained us over the many years during which we have been in Parliament together.

Of course, that is where it all diverges. Although I have always admired the hon. Gentleman’s passion and his rhetorical ability to hold an audience, the gentlest that I can say is that I think, on occasions, his passion and commitment can cloud his judgment. He said a number of things today that I shall endeavour to correct, as I think that he took a particular point and extrapolated it to a position that is genuinely untrue in terms both of fact and of the United Kingdom’s position.

In the short time available, I want to put on the record our interests and relationships in the Arab world, because they are difficult and complex, before dealing with some of the specific points. As the House knows well, it is complex region. Some of the most difficult foreign policy challenges faced by the world—nuclear proliferation, the middle east peace process, the appalling war waged by the Assad regime against its own people, ungoverned spaces providing havens for terrorists and extremists—are found in the region.

The United Kingdom’s security and prosperity are intertwined with the Arab world. A mere nine miles separate Europe from north Africa at the Mediterranean’s narrowest point. Many countries in the region are important partners in tackling terrorist threats. Hundreds of thousands of British jobs are linked to trade and commerce with the wider middle east. It is fundamentally in our national interest that the region becomes more stable, more open, more free and more prosperous over time, and we have a part to play in that.

Our relations with the middle east are designed to further Britain’s security and prosperity, to deliver opportunities that will create jobs in the UK and to ensure the safety of British nationals overseas and at home. That is the heart of our foreign policy, but we seek to do it in a way that upholds and promotes our values—our belief in universal human rights, in justice, and in equality for women and for minorities—at all times. We do so as a matter of principle, but we also know that it reinforces our other interests.

Over the past two years, the region has seen momentous change with the Arab spring. That change has been led at its core by the region’s people in a demand for dignity, a voice and a fair prospect of employment. That change was always going to be a long process, yet much has already been achieved. Tunisia has its democratically elected parliament; Morocco has its free elections; and Yemen is undergoing a political transition. All those are genuine achievements. In a region where almost 60% of the population is under 25, the Arab spring has demonstrated the aspirations of the region’s

27 Feb 2013 : Column 128WH

citizens for a voice and a right to share in the prosperity of the 21st century. They share that aspiration with their peers in other parts of the world. Arab exceptionalism has gone.

The UK has been clear in its support for those strengthening the building blocks on which inclusive, accountable societies are based. We are supporting those who strive to deliver a strengthened rule of law, a thriving civil society, political systems based on genuine citizen participation and a plural, balanced media. Through our Arab partnership initiative in Egypt and Libya, we have supported free and fair elections by assisting domestic observer missions. In Tunisia, we have strengthened legislative protection for the freedom of expression; and in Morocco, we are supporting anti-corruption initiatives.

The support is based both on our values and a clear understanding that, in the long term, a more inclusive, accountable region is more likely to deliver lasting stability and security for the region and for us all. However, bringing together our values and interests can at times be a difficult balancing act. Conflicts sometimes arise. Although we have many mutual values with countries of the region, there are also differences between us. We have different cultures, histories and traditions and we cannot underestimate the significance of that. All that has been done in the past may not have been good, and we are paying a price in the courts and in public opinion.

Where we do not agree on values, however, we need to work that through, dealing with the differences honestly and frankly. We do not see eye to eye on all our values with countries of the middle east or in any part of the world. In an increasingly interconnected world, security concerns pay no regard to borders. We speak of the global economy and British nationals live in all parts of the world. Although we may be an island, isolation and disengagement is not an option. We need to work with countries, in spite of their different beliefs, faiths and value systems, in a way that upholds human rights and values, and that can be difficult.

Dialogue is the most effective way to find common ground on areas where we can work together, to encourage where necessary and to challenge other Governments to policies that are respectful of human rights, justice and equality. That is the approach that we are taking, but I do not pretend for a minute that it is without conflicts and difficulties. Consistency is not an easy aim, and it is not always possible in practice because of the differences in different places.

I will deal with one or two of the specifics that the hon. Gentleman mentioned. On Israel, yes, I have been a Conservative friend of Israel for all the time I have been in Parliament, but it does not preclude being a friend of others in the region as well. When I was last with the president of the Palestinian Authority, he said that he knew of no other politician who was pursuing the case of the young man killed by a tear gas grenade in Nabi Salih at the hands of the Israeli defence force a couple of years ago and that my visits to the family had meant a great deal. I do my best to ensure that our concern for rights and the needs of those in the occupied territories are represented by the United Kingdom.

I am aware of the tensions, and those who know of my past have been perfectly accommodating of it. It enables me to speak toughly to the Israeli Government. It was I who called in the ambassador recently over

27 Feb 2013 : Column 129WH

settlements. It is in my time as Minister holding this job that we were able to support a motion at the United Nations condemning the settlement building, against both the United States and Israel. If the hon. Gentleman does not mind, I will not accept from him that my background with Israel leads me into a difficult position. I remind him that the right hon. Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw), who held my position some time ago, was no particular noted friend of Israel and was able to do the job as effectively as I am trying to do.

George Galloway: Do not be hurt by what I said, because it is a qualification to be the Minister for the middle east. It is not the Minister’s fault. Why did the British Government cowardly abstain in the overwhelming vote to recognise Palestine as a member of the United Nations? Why will they not bring sanctions to bear on Israel—like the sanctions they brought to bear on Iran—for holding illegal nuclear weapons and occupying other people’s territory and refusing to leave it? Why not?

Alistair Burt: In my answer, I was indicating that a friendship with Israel is not a requirement for the job, which is what he was indicating. I was pointing out that one of his colleagues had held the job without such a qualification. The reason why we did not support the vote, which was not for membership but to advance the cause of statehood for the Palestinian Authority, was that we had explained that what we believed was most in its interest was not a vote at the United Nations at that time. Our commitment to statehood for the Palestinian people in due course is very clear, however, and I reiterate it again today.

Without wishing to stay on that subject, I will briefly cover the others. On Iran’s nuclear programme, Iran is still acting in defiance of multiple International Atomic Energy Agency resolutions, including the most recent resolution adopted last September, and no fewer than six UN Security Council resolutions. The IAEA has expressed its serious concerns about the possible military dimension to Iran’s programme. Anyone who mistakes what is going on in Iran and believes that it is purely peaceful is missing the point. If it is purely peaceful, that is not difficult for Iran to demonstrate. We still hope that it will take the opportunity to do so this year. The IAEA has made reference to the possible military dimension of that programme.

27 Feb 2013 : Column 130WH

On Syria, the hon. Gentleman again went too far. It is not true that the United Kingdom is supplying al-Qaeda with either money or weapons. I do not believe that to characterise what is happening in Syria as an attack on the Christian minority is accurate. There are jihadists involved. It is the wish of the United Kingdom and our partners to ensure that they are not supplied with weapons. That is why we are so determined to see the success of the Syrian national opposition coalition, so that it has legitimacy and an opportunity to represent the future of Syria in its political transition. We are more than well aware of the danger of jihadists becoming involved in what was originally a clear expression of reform and opinion against the Assad regime. That has turned into something different, because of the length of time that the situation has been unresolved, which is not through lack of effort by the United Kingdom with the United Nations. We are extremely concerned for the Christian minority and for others, which is why there must be an effective rule of law, but it must cover all.

Mr Leigh: Can the Minister give me a categorical assurance that no British taxpayer’s money is finding its way to jihadists through indirect means? Money is being given, but not arms, and it may find its way to them. Will he give me that categorical assurance?

Alistair Burt: I can give a categorical assurance that it is not the intention of the United Kingdom, in any efforts being made to support the Syrian people, that any money goes to al-Qaeda or any of its acolytes. It would be logically ridiculous of the United Kingdom to do that, which is why we give our support in the way that we do. No one can be absolutely certain about my hon. Friend’s suggestion, but it is absolutely clear that the United Kingdom has no interest in doing that. It is totally contrary to our interests and is not what we are doing. For him to say that that is clearly what we are doing is simply wrong.

I have to finish, because we are running out of time. It is a complex issue with a complex set of relationships. It is essential that we are able to deal with this issue in a way that examines the facts, and polemics sometimes get in the way. The hon. Member for Bradford West and I share a sense of justice for what must happen in the region. The policy objectives that we have set out are not always simple to achieve, but they are clear. I hope that we can continue to debate in a manner that allows the truth to be got to, even though opinion may vary.

27 Feb 2013 : Column 131WH

Environment Agency

4.30 pm

Mr Ian Liddell-Grainger (Bridgwater and West Somerset) (Con): I am delighted to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Brooke. It is so good to see you.

First, I pay tribute to the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon), who I know has just returned from a stunning victory in Europe over fish. I know that he is slightly tired, so I am even more grateful to see him here in Westminster Hall today, fresh from his victory. Today we will try to add a little more triumphalism to his record of achievements.

I also thank my hon. Friend the Minister, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, for this chance to debate the future of the Environment Agency. I certainly applaud their review of the agency and I know that a lot of colleagues are taking it very seriously. As my hon. Friends said at the time, the review is a chance to take a fresh look at how the agency does things. In that open spirit, I want to focus today not so much on what the agency does but on what it fails to do.

Hon. Members may know that the Environment Agency is just 16 years old; in many ways, it is a juvenile. Many of my constituents who are still mopping up after the recent floods regard the agency’s lack of action as—dare I say it?—almost juvenility in itself. There is not the time today to highlight every single human tragedy that has happened or the appalling damage that has been done; I cannot do that. It is also not possible today to give a completely accurate account of the total cost of floods on the levels. However, it is plainly ridiculous to put what has happened down to a quirk of nature, or to an overdose of the “wrong type of rain”, as Lord Smith of Finsbury, the agency’s chairman, informed us all. I am sorry, but I was really rather offended by that.

Much of the overflow of water was manageable, if not preventable. Dare I say that floods are not unusual in Somerset? Flood prevention has been a priority of ours since Roman times, although I was not the MP at the time. Even in the middle ages, a period of history better known for the black death than for engineering excellence, people managed to drain a large part of the moor by building elaborate embankments and causeways. Parliament became heavily involved from 1791, when it needed to pass an Act to dig King’s Sedgemoor drain in order to let excess water flow out into the Bristol channel.

For hundreds of years, we have been fighting battles with floods and holding our own against the old enemy. And for hundreds of years, whatever Lord Smith may think, we have had this stuff called “convective rain”. I hate to disillusion his lordship, who no doubt is a very sensitive soul, with a neatly-furled umbrella and a dislike of getting his feet wet—as we have discovered—but he is no expert on the weather. Convective rain has been gushing down Somerset rivers for centuries. If he examined the historical records, he would find that the floods of 1607 were caused by the very same type of rain.

I noticed that Lord Smith was awarded an academic doctorate for his excellent dissertation on the poetry of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. If Coleridge was alive today,

27 Feb 2013 : Column 132WH

he would be my constituent. The great man was inspired to write his greatest and longest poem while overlooking the harbour in the very beautiful village of Watchet. However, Lord Smith needs to take what Coleridge said in one of his poems more seriously:

“Water, water, every where,

And all the boards did shrink;

Water, water, every where,

Nor any drop to drink.”

Down the A39 at Williton, which is near to where those words were written, the highway turned into an impassable river. Out at Blue Anchor, in my constituency, there was havoc in caravan parks and on Exmoor itself there was very serious flooding in Dulverton. Many Members here today will know that the ancient clapper bridge at Tarr Steps was completely wrecked in the floods, although it has now been rebuilt. Tarr Steps is also known as “the devil’s sunbathing spot”, but, as I say, it was swept away by the floods. This cannot continue.

Rivers overflow, and down on the levels the consequences of what happened in the floods can still be seen today. I obviously do not blame the Environment Agency for the rain, but I wonder what it failed to do before the cloudbursts started. It is surely an essential task of a body such as this one to keep the waterways running freely. Rivers have a nasty habit of silting up—that is why we dredge them. However, the Environment Agency no longer dredges rivers such as the Tone and the Parrett, both of which flow through my constituency and that of the Minister of State, Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Mr Browne), because it says that it cannot afford to. This is something that requires urgent forensic scrutiny by my hon. Friend the Minister’s Department.

If we are seriously in the business of protecting the environment, the cost of regular dredging should never be regarded as a capital expense, because dredging has to be done; it is not an option but a necessity. Moreover, dredging is not even expensive, given the reality of what we are looking at. The Environment Agency itself calculates that the cost of desilting the risky bits of both the River Tone and the River Parrett every year for the next 20 years is less than £5 million. In my view, that is chickenfeed. The Environment Agency’s own calculation of the cost of emergency pumping and road closures during this year’s flooding alone was £4 million, and that was just in my area. The agency has done its homework. The price of flooding over 20 years in Somerset—in Somerton and Frome, in Taunton Deane and in my constituency of Bridgwater and West Somerset—has been worked out at £15 million. It is an absolute no-brainer to dredge, but the agency keeps telling us that it has not got the money to do so. I must say that not only this Government but former Governments have been reluctant to offer additional relief to sort out this problem. I am sorry, but that cannot go on.

I am also slightly worried about the way that the views of my hon. Friend the Minister on this matter have been reported. A recent BBC news report implied—it is the BBC—that he had told them that it was not worth dredging the Tone and the Parrett because they will simply silt up again. Yes, of course that is true; we accept that. However, it is also precisely why we should regularly dredge rivers.

27 Feb 2013 : Column 133WH

Duncan Hames (Chippenham) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. I regret to tell him that a similar point of view was communicated in a letter in response to an inquiry from one of my constituents. Where would we be if the fact that rivers will just silt up again after dredging was a good enough reason not to dredge in the first place? What if MPs took the same attitude to their own personal hygiene?

Mr Liddell-Grainger: I will leave the last part of my hon. Friend’s intervention to himself, but he is absolutely right otherwise. I know that he is doing a sterling job for his constituents and this is a joint effort, because unless we come up with a proper, forward-looking policy on dredging that the Environment Agency must lead—or the Government must order the agency to lead it—we will continue to have this problem and I am afraid that, as Members, we will see it happening again.

John Glen (Salisbury) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the significant challenges is the Environment Agency’s lack of authority? In my conversations in connection with the flooding in Britford, which is on the River Avon just south of Salisbury, there seemed to be a lot of confusion about exactly what powers the Environment Agency has and about the conflicting motivations of different landowners in their engagement with Natural England and the Environment Agency—to different degrees—meaning that, at the end of the day, there is a complete lack of ownership of the problem and a lack of clarity about how the problem will be resolved in the future.

Mr Liddell-Grainger: I totally agree with my hon. Friend. I must say, first, that one of the issues that I have not touched on today is the role of Natural England; as he knows, there is a review going on. Secondly, this agency that we are discussing is quite simply an “Environment Agency”. One of the debates that we need to have in the future is whether or not it should still be called an “Environment Agency”. Should the “environment” part be split off, and should the “agency” part be reinvented? However, that debate is not for today and I know that my hon. Friend the Minister is aware of my concerns in that regard.

I am ashamed to say that, for 20 years, there has been no dredging of the Tone or the Parrett; silt has piled up on silt. In real terms, almost half the capacity of the River Tone to carry floodwater through Taunton down to Bridgwater has been lost. However, I am glad to say that it has not been lost for ever. The problem can be solved, even though it has been ignored. It is a miracle of nature that floods such as the recent ones have not occurred on a regular basis. I am afraid to say that, at this stage, the name of the game is negligence.

In the proud old days of the Somerset Rivers Catchment Board—similar boards existed elsewhere—local people could pretty well tell the time of the year by the dredging. The board hired a fearsomely efficient engineer called Louis Kelting, who made sure that all the necessary work was done. Mr Kelting even brought in Dutch experts, and the Dutch know a thing or two about water. I am indebted to 83-year-old Bob Heard, one of my senior constituents in Bridgwater, for bringing Mr Kelting to my attention. Mr Kelting was awarded the OBE for his efforts, so he must have been right. The

27 Feb 2013 : Column 134WH

innovations that he introduced probably saved many lives and protected the levels from many disasters. Many of his drainage schemes are still in operation today, but not the dredging schemes.

When the rain fell so hard and fast last year, and at the start of this year, I am afraid that the Government were not of any great help. “We were very concerned”, and that is not my conclusion but that of the National Farmers Union. The NFU points out that the farmers on the moors and the levels lose £900 for every hectare of grassland that is put under water, and that applies to anywhere in the country. Having met a lot of my local farmers, I know that that is true. They are really upset at finding that a lifetime of work is now under water for more and more of the year.

I pay tribute to two villages, Moorland and Fordgate, which have put up with more than any village should have to, in any constituency. They have been stunning. They feel forgotten, in some ways ignored and in other ways expendable. I have heard them use the word “negligence” too, and say some quite rude things about the agency.

The agency is, like all such organisations, perhaps a victim of its own peculiar changed responsibilities. In the days of the Somerset River Catchment Board, everything was so much simpler. It was about water management, land drainage, flood prevention, food production and protecting the communities, which we represent. From 1930 to the 1970s, the people who looked after water management operated under more or less the same strong management structures. They raised money locally through the drainage boards and other organisations and were accountable to local councillors and local people, including Members of Parliament. The efficiency of their operations was consistently improved. To put it crudely, it worked.

Then in 1973 came the creation of the Wessex Water Authority and the culture changed. The WWA was accountable directly to Government and it also had to toe the line, as the Minister will know rather to his cost, to Brussels in the background. Britain became part of Europe. The WWA suddenly found itself having to raise standards for clean drinking water as well as looking after the wildlife habitats of an increasing number of protected species.

The Environment Agency inherited a dog’s breakfast of a portfolio and deserves some sympathy for that, but it seems to have become immune to some of its own illogical behaviour. For example, Steart, near the Hinkley Point nuclear power station, is a small, flat place at the mouth of the river Parrett, where the river trickles into the Bristol channel. We are talking about 1,000 hectares of land, much of which is below high-water level at spring tide. In the 1700s, the Steart peninsula was cut off from the mainland altogether. Even today, the Parrett’s low-water channel regularly shifts. Steart’s defences now rely on what was built back in the 1950s. The system creaks a bit, but it works.

The Environment Agency now wants to spend £31 million of taxpayers’ money on a scheme that will not protect Steart from the sea. It wants to sink the peninsula for habitat creation, saying:

“There is a significant need for additional intertidal habitat on the Severn Estuary to meet the Environment Agency’s international obligations and offset losses due to coastal squeeze.”

27 Feb 2013 : Column 135WH

This is because Bristol port, which is not that close to me, wants to reclaim some marshland 40 miles away to build a new container port. So Bristol’s birds are to be offered a new nesting place in Steart. We have tried to tell them to come down. The whole process is nonsense. The cost of flooding Steart would pay for dredging the Rivers Parrett and Tone for 30 years. But in an agency with 11,500 people on the payroll and an annual budget of £1 billion, it is probably no wonder that everyone fails to sing from the same hymn sheet.

Criticism of the agency is nothing new. The Public Accounts Committee produced a damning report about its activities some years ago. Even the most moderate body, the Angling Trust, which represents people who go fishing, is currently getting very angry with the agency for not taking proper account of fisheries when it issues licences for hydroelectric power. So the agency is being got at by Europe, bird lovers, fish fanciers and a few politicians like me into the bargain. More pain than gain, perhaps. Or as Lord Smith might put it, the wrong sort of pain.

On the river at Avon, which of course is outside Bristol, is an old mill by a weir at Avoncliff, which was bought for restoration in 2009. The new owners wanted to rebuild it and make it work, producing power from the water wheel. Fabulous. Of course, they had to apply for a licence to extract the water and they paid the fee to the Environment Agency, filled in the forms and waited. Weeks turned into months; no licence came. Then the Environment Agency awarded a water extraction licence to another applicant and told the owners of the mill that there was “no water available”. The owners went to judicial review, went to court, won the case, proved that the Environment Agency had deliberately withheld information and the judges made the agency pay all the costs—our money. A happy ending hon. Members may think, but not quite. It is almost a full year since the judges ruled against the agency and ordered it to issue a water extraction licence, but it still has not done so. This story does not inspire my confidence in an organisation that has become top heavy with responsibilities and seems to be run by people far too light on real substance in the subjects they are meant to cover.

My constituents, and many others throughout the country, have suffered badly in recent floods and they have lost faith in the agency. I ask the Secretary of State, through my hon. Friend the Minister, to visit Bridgwater and West Somerset—he said he would—meet some of those who have had problems and see the situation for himself. While we await the outcome of his important review, this is the only way that any confidence can be restored in what people feel is a failed system. I look forward to my hon. Friend the Minister’s replying and, perhaps, giving us some reassurance and some answers.

4.45 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Richard Benyon): I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset (Mr Liddell-Grainger) for securing this debate on such an important issue. He made his position clear, even to me in my sleep-deprived state. I hope that I can answer some of the points that he made.

The discussion is taking place in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in the context of the current triennial review of the Environment Agency

27 Feb 2013 : Column 136WH

and Natural England. It is clear that the priorities that the Environment Agency deals with are important to society. It is critical that we have a strong, resilient delivery arrangement in place to achieve our ambitions. This review, which is expected to reach conclusions in the spring, is a unique opportunity to look at the work of both bodies and to consider how we can deliver my Department’s priorities effectively and efficiently.

My hon. Friend raised critical issues regarding the agency’s role in relation to flooding, and I shall respond to some specific concerns. First, I should like to emphasise and get on the record how much I sympathise with the distress caused to communities across Somerset by the past year’s extreme weather. I visited the county and met many people when they visited me in DEFRA, as well. I particularly appreciate the hardships experienced by the farming community, as it struggles to cope with exceptionally prolonged periods of heavy rain last year.

The Environment Agency has been active throughout this period, and I pay tribute to its staff for their tireless work and professionalism through difficult times. I visited staff in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (John Glen) at the time of the floods, around Christmas, and saw people who had not had a Christmas and had been working night and day—people taken from all the agency’s departments to try to assist with that difficult job. I appreciate what they did.

The agency has spent more than £1.9 million since last April on maintenance and operational activities specifically to address the impact of flooding on the Somerset moors and levels. I am pleased that Somerset county council has recently announced that it is setting aside £200,000 to help local landowners and residents to tackle the flooding by clearing roadside gullies and ditches.

Agency staff have been out on the ground, meeting local people, keeping them informed and seeking to address their concerns. They are working with local drainage boards and others to assess the costs and benefits of various options to improve the future management of floodwater in the area, including dredging the rivers Tone and Parrett. I understand that the results of this work will be presented to the regional flood and coastal committee in April.

I recognise that there are real concerns in Somerset and elsewhere about dredging and channel maintenance and whether the Environment Agency is doing enough. My hon. Friend and I live in a world where perceptions are reality. I understand his point. The perception in his constituency and neighbouring ones is that more could be done. I want to deal with that point, but I also live in the reality of the financial climate in which we live, and I have to ensure that every penny that we spend on flood defences and flood protection is spent as professionally and with as much value for money as possible, because it is not his money or mine; it is our constituents’ money.

Dredging is one of the options routinely considered by the agency when deciding how best to manage flood risk. However, each area is different and the agency needs to focus its investment on activities that will contribute most to reducing potential flood damage. In some areas, that will mean dredging. In other areas, different options such as maintaining flood barriers or pumping stations will be a more effective use of taxpayers’

27 Feb 2013 : Column 137WH

money. As my hon. Friend rightly says, we need to look forensically and objectively at the contribution that dredging would make to managing flood risk on the moors and levels compared with other options, and we need to reach conclusions in that light.

The agency is working in partnership with the National Farmers Union to consider what more can be done to help farmers undertake maintenance, gain access to information and advice, and manage their flood risk. The agency is also seeking to gain value for money by delivering multiple objectives.

My hon. Friend mentioned the scheme at Steart, and my information is that the cost is not £30 million but £20 million, which is perhaps a case for another debate— I hope not, because we have already debated it, but I could perhaps discuss it with him in the margins of a vote one night. The scheme at Steart is an example of seeking to gain value for money. I understand that the defences around the peninsula were in poor condition and coming to the end of their effective life. Improving those defences on the old alignment was neither economically viable nor sustainable, and to have done so would have cost some £1 million per property protected. I have to consider people in places such as Morpeth, Sandwich, Exeter and many other parts of the country who have suffered prolonged flooding. We want to ensure that every single penny of the £2.3 billion that we are spending on flood defences in this financial period is spent properly.

The need to create habitat somewhere in the Severn to meet our obligations under the habitats directive presented an opportunity. By realigning the defences on the peninsula, the agency has been able to continue protecting the village and its access from flooding, while meeting our biodiversity objectives, which is a win-win that enables the village to be protected and agricultural use to continue over much of the site.

I am aware of the complex Avoncliff case, and the agency is working actively with the applicants to resolve it as soon as possible.

I understand the concerns of my hon. Friend’s constituents and of many hon. Members who have taken part in this debate. Members on both sides of the House are committed to representing their constituents at times such as those that we experienced last year, which is truly impressive, and I, as the Minister with responsibility for flooding, appreciate that. In conveying those concerns to me, they are conveying the enormous amount of misery and unhappiness that people are experiencing.

A great deal of work is going on to protect local communities from flooding and to improve our environment, and I want to ensure that that continues. The agency plays an important role in that work and constantly monitors its own performance to learn lessons to help to improve how it operates both locally and nationally. The current triennial review of the Environment Agency and Natural England is considering the roles of both agencies, including on flooding, and the wide range of other services that they provide. In a tough fiscal climate, we must strive for better, more efficient outcomes from our delivery bodies, while being conscious of the Environment Agency’s impact on people’s daily lives.

27 Feb 2013 : Column 138WH

Jonathan Lord (Woking) (Con): I commiserate with the constituents of my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset (Mr Liddell-Grainger), who have suffered so badly from flooding.

In my constituency of Woking, we are looking forward to the Minister visiting the Hoe valley scheme in April. There is terrific joint working between the Environment Agency, the council and other stakeholders to take several hundred houses out of the floodplain. In some of my smaller villages, such as Pirbright and Normandy, the Environment Agency has helped me to set up flood forums to explore the problems and potential solutions, for which I should like to express my thanks.

Richard Benyon: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that point. I see such examples of good working across the country.

Sir Michael Pitt, in his excellent review following the floods of 2007, said that floods cannot be addressed from my desk in Whitehall or even by some quasi-regional government imposed by previous Governments. Floods must be addressed locally, and the best people to do so are in the lead local flood authorities, which work with the Environment Agency, emergency services and organisations such as the NFU and others that represent key stakeholders. That is the best way to deliver a solution on the ground, close to communities. My hon. Friend points out that involving local communities through flood forums is important because they can give communities superb resilience. I look forward to visiting his constituency and seeing a scheme that I have read about with interest.

My hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury raised an important point about who has the power and responsibility for certain waterways. That is a concern, and I am the first to admit that we have not nailed it yet. My constituency flooded badly in 2007, and in a short distance of about 200 metres, four public bodies, including Network Rail, three landowners and the local parish council were responsible for different bits of land through which waterways ran, as well as water that we wanted to get to a river and out of people’s homes. That is an example of the complexity that we face.

If we need to find a different legislative tool to identify responsibilities more clearly, we must do so. That is not really the case on the Somerset moors, where there is a fair degree of clarity about who is responsible for which watercourses and we just want to get the water away. I have looked at that landscape in recent weeks and seen an inland sea. People have not been able to harvest their crops, feed their stock or drill crops for future years. We have a responsibility to protect people, and we are doing so. We protected 180,000 acres of agricultural land last year, by giving people extra flood protection through flood schemes. We take our responsibilities to farming seriously, and we will work with organisations such as the NFU.

Internal drainage boards are key players, and there is a good internal drainage board in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset; I have met the chairman and other members. I want to ensure that we continue to work with such proven organisations, which have incredible skills and understanding: not just macro-engineering skills but local understanding of which culvert must be opened at a particular time and what flooding can be alleviated as a result.

27 Feb 2013 : Column 139WH

My hon. Friend mentioned a quote that I apparently made on a BBC programme. The quote was attributed to me, but it may have been taken out of context. I think de-silting rivers may well make a difference; it is just a question of whether we can make that stack up against all the other responsibilities that we and the agency have across the country. I am not an engineer or a hydrologist. There are plenty of people in the agency who are and who do it extremely well, and I will take whatever advice they give me.

The current review provides a unique opportunity to consider how best and most effectively to support and encourage reforms to the organisations involved. I am impressed by how the agency is led. Lord Smith might not come from the same political direction as my

27 Feb 2013 : Column 140WH

hon. Friend and me, but he leads the agency well. We are openly considering how the organisations are run, and it is a transparent exercise. The triennial review is important for the future of the Environment Agency and Natural England, particularly for the outcomes that they deliver, whether flood defences, environmental protection, the improvement of biodiversity or all their other responsibilities.

I will continue to discuss the issue with my hon. Friend and with any hon. Member from whichever party to ensure that we get it right for their constituents.

Question put and agreed to.

4.59 pm

Sitting adjourned.